City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Chen Sicheng, 2015)

detective chinatown posterCrime exists everywhere, but so do detectives. When one young man fails his police exams because of an unfortunate impediment, he seeks refuge abroad only to find himself on a busman’s holiday when the relative he’s been sent to stay with turns out to be not quite so much of a big shot as he claimed and then gets himself named prime suspect in a murder. Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Tángrénj Tàn Àn) is one among many diaspora movies which find themselves shifting between a Chinese community existing to one side of mainland culture, and a mainland mentality. This time the setting is Bangkok but second time director Chen Sicheng is careful not to surrender to stereotype whilst also taking a subtle dig at men like uncle Tang Ren who can unironically refer to Thailand as a paradise while indulging in many of the aspects which might leave other residents with much more ambivalent emotions.

Qin (Liu Haoran), a young man with a fierce love of detective fiction, has his dreams shattered when his interview to get into the police academy is derailed by his stammer and an unwise tendency towards reckless honesty. His doting grandma who raised him suggests Qin take a holiday to take his mind off things by going to stay with his uncle who is, apparently, a hot shot detective in Bangkok – Qin might even get some valuable experience whilst thinking about a plan B. Sadly, uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) has been sending big fish stories back home for years and though he claims to be the best PI in Chinatown, he’s really a petty marketplace fixer with a bad mahjong habit and a side hustle in “finding” lost dogs. When Tang Ren accepts an errand to transport a statue from a workshop, he accidentally finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of the sculptor who is himself the prime suspect in a heist of some now very missing gold. Qin, tainted by association, vows to use his awesome detective skills to find the real killer (and the gold) to clear his uncle’s name whilst generally serving justice and protecting the innocent.

Despite the fact his secret is clearly about to be exposed, Tang Ran greets his long lost relative with immense enthusiasm (which is, as it turns out, how he does everything). Wang Baoqiang commits absolutely to Tang Ren’s cynical good humour attacking his larger than life personality with gusto though one has to wonder why Qin’s poor unsuspecting grandma thought Tang Ren would be a good guardian for her teenage grandson, especially as his first act is to take him to a strip club and spike what might actually be the first real drink of his life. Qin, quiet (that stammer) and introspective, is not a good fit for the loud and brassy world of insincerity his uncle inhabits, but forced into some very challenging situations, the two men eventually manage to combine their respective strengths into a (hilariously) efficient crime fighting team.

Meanwhile, Qin and Tang Ren are also contending with some serious political shenanigans in the local police department. Two Chinese cops are currently vying for a promotion and the job has been promised to whichever of them manages to identify the murderer and locate the missing gold. Luckily or unluckily, cop 1 – Kuntai (Xiao Yang), is a good friend of Tang Ren’s and doesn’t want to believe he is secretly some kind of criminal genius (but could well believe he killed a guy by mistake). Cop 2 (Chen He) is a hard-nosed (!) type who, for some reason, dresses like a cowboy and has a crush on Tang Ren’s landlady (Tong Liya) with whom Tang Ren is also in love. What this all amounts to is that everyone is stuck running circles around each other, trapped inside the wheel of farce, while the gold and the killer remain ever elusive.

Qin, finally beginning to overcome his stammer, puts some of his hard won detective nouse to the test and eventually figures out what’s going on but, by that point, he’s also warmed to his uncle enough to let him do the big drawing room speech. Filled with slapstick and absurd humour as it is, Detective Chinatown is also a finely constructed mystery with an internally consistent solution that offers both poignancy and a degree of unexpected darkness when the final revelations roll around. It is, however, the odd couple partnership between the sullen Qin (secretly embittered) and larger than life Tang Ren (secretly melancholy) that gives the film its winning charm, ensuring there will surely be more overseas adventures for these Chinatown detectives in years in to come…


Currently available to stream in the UK & US via Amazon Prime Video.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wong Jing, 2016)

mission-milanoDespite its title, Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wángpái Dòu Wángpái) spends relatively little time in the Northern Italian city and otherwise bounces back and forth over several worldwide locations as bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung (Andy Lau) chases down a gang of international crooks trying to harness a new, potentially world changing technology. Inspired by the classic spy parodies of old, Wong Jing’s latest effort proves another tiresome attempt at the comedy caper as its nonsensical plot and overplayed broad humour resolutely fail to capture attention.

The film opens with its strongest scene as Andy Lau’s bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung escapes from a Parisian hotel room after being attacked by a machine-gun wielding, cross-dressing French maid. Like much of the rest of the film this sequence is not particularly connected to the subsequent goings on, but on his return to China Hung begins investigating reports that a top technology firm run by the descendants of a famous Robin Hood inspired criminal is about to unveil a new bio product known as Seed of God. During the meeting, the Swedish professor presenting the research is kidnapped by a Japanese vigilante group known as Crescent which Hung believes is working for the evil worldwide organisation KMAX. Teaming up with the tech firm’s CEO Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), Luo’s sister (Nana Ouyang), and sidekick (Wong Cho-lam), Hung sets out to retrieve the technology before it falls into the wrong hands.

Seed of God is a bioengineered crop which can flower even if thrown on stony ground. All it needs is water and away you go – instant mango tree wherever and whenever you want. This discovery could end world hunger, but it would also be very bad news for anyone involved in traditional agriculture. Hung and Luo recognise the danger and neither want to see this new technology end up with KMAX who would not be particularly interested in applying it ethically.

Originally reluctant teammates, Hung and Luo build up a buddy buddy relationship through competitive games before eventually agreeing to work together. Luo does most of the hardline fighting while Lau’s Hung backs him up with splapstick-style comic relief. Though often mildly exciting, the action sequences have a comedy vibe dominated by Hung getting thrown into ladies’ bathrooms or knocked back on his behind by a skilled lady assassin while Luo keeps losing his glasses to a particularly mean opponent. Unfortunately, Wong relies heavily on CGI for many of the action set pieces beginning with the obvious rooftops of Paris backdrop, right up to the sports car meets heavy duty lorry incident in the middle and aeroplane based finale.

The humour itself has a heavily retro feel filled with sexist jokes such as Hung crashing into hotel bedroom containing a confused topless woman in the opening sequence and a seduction section in the middle in which a key asset is wooed using her teenage love of Alain Delon and supposed desperation for male attention. Hung is clearly modelled on Bond and even has the agent number 119 though in truth he’s more like Maxwell Smart meets Inspector Gadget with his clean cut nerdiness and ubiquitous trench coat. He even has a Q-style tech specialist (named Bing Bing so we have the “classic” Li vs Fan joke) who’s made him a killer phone with every kind of spy feature conceivable including lightsaber, but can’t actually make a phone call. Add in genre tropes of unusual weaponry and laser filled corridors, and Mission Milano is looking very uninspired.

Despite its Italian destination, Mission Milano employs a frequent musical motif that it is distinctly Spanish – another clue to how all at sea the film is in terms of coherence. A minimal stab at romance between Luo and a friendly agent on the other side, and Hung’s ongoing pining for his ex-wife who left him because his world saving habit was just too stressful, attempt to add some character drama to the piece which remains lukewarm in approach to its cast. Lau turns in an uncharacteristically large performance, grinning and gurning his way through the lacklustre script,  but not even his presence can heal the many problems plaguing the film. Never as funny as it desperately wants to be Mission Milano is a trying experience which, although intermittently amusing, (thankfully) proves instantly forgettable.


Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)