Hong Kong films 1997

Capsule reviews


It's end-of-year round-up time, so here's a set of brief reviews and comments on this year's Hong Kong films. 

I've taken title information from the Hong Kong Cinema Database.[now (2000) defunct: I'll fix the links soon... -- ed.] Click on the film titles to go to their [English] entries in the Database. 

For Chinese information, click on [zhongwen] to go to the Chinese Cinema Database entry for that title (Big 5 or GB decoding software required).


capsule index...

Ah Fai the Dumb
Cause We Are So Young
Destination 9th Heaven
Downtown Torpedoes
Eighteen Springs
Final Justice
First Love Unlimited
Full Alert
Happy Together
He Comes From Planet K
The Intimates
Island of Greed
Killing Me Tenderly
The Legend of Mad Phoenix
Love is Not a Game, But a Joke
My Dad Is A Jerk
The Odd One Dies
The Soong Sisters
Task Force
Theft Under the Sun
Too Many Ways to Be No. 1
Walk In
We're No Bad Guys

Ah Fai the Dumb [zhongwen] 
director: Derek Chiu Sung-kei 
Cantonese: Tin Choi Yue Baak Chi 
Mandarin: Tian1 cai2 yu3 bai2 chi1 
Cast: Eric Kot Man-fai, Andy Hui Chi-on, Athena Chu Yun, Ada Choi Siu-fun 

An ambitious movie, that has the feel of a UFO production (good acting, fine production values, thoughtful script, "adult" target audience). A softer, nostalgic version of Heaven Can't Wait. But, despite the brilliant production values (cinematographer Tony Cheung shot and lit the film as if it were a Ching Siu-tung action/fantasy: all attention-grabbing tracking shots, breathtaking pans and zooms, hyper-active colour schemes), and a Raymond To script that seemed sharper, less cloyingly cliched than usual, I wasn't convinced. Eric Kot didn't establish enough of a character -- a sense of a personality behind his sweet "idiot's" mannerisms -- in the first section of the film, so his transformation into hard-hearted clarivoyant genius failed make enough of an impact. And the yo-yo-ing plot veered precipitously towards hokey, towards the end. An uneven film, with just enough to admire that it left me disappointed, wanting more. 

Cause We Are So Young [zhongwen] 
director: Vincent Kok Tak-chiu 
Cantonese: Kau Luen Kei 
Mandarin: Qiu2 lian4 qi1 
Cast: Leo Koo Kui-kei, Mark Lui Chung-tak, So Chi-Wai, Gigi Lai Chi, Nicola Cheung Sun-tu, Amy Cheung Yuen-mei, Kathy Chow Hoi-Mei 

Vincent Kok jumps into one of HK's late 90's movie trends: the youth culture romance genre. But gives it a different spin. Cause We Are So Young feels a bit like a product of the Stephen Chiau film factory (with which it shares many crew and cameos). So we have a somewhat silly script with some brilliant parody bits, some inspired goofiness, some parts that fall flat (like an abrupt non-ending). Major plusses: amusing details (all the bizarre toy products a grown-up boy could buy in HK); relaxed, confident performances (from Leo Ku, Gigi Lai, and especially [newcomer?] Nicola Cheung). We're especially grateful for an overriding intelligence that avoids the usual sentimental ending associated with the genre. And a critical sensibilty that takes aim at the commodity-fetishism enshrined in youth films like Feel 100%, Feel 100%... Once More, and Love Amoeba Style, exposing them for the product-placement cartoons that they are. 

Destination 9th Heaven [zhongwen] 
director: Wong Chun-man 
Cantonese: Chung Seung Gau Chung Tin 
Mandarin: Chong1 shang4 jiu3 chong2 tian1 
Cast: Tony Leung Ka-fai, Winston Chao Wen-hsuan, Gigi Lai Chi 

In your worst nightmare, this is what HK films will become: a stiff, dull, limply acted propaganda-fest. A mainland Chinese rocket-launching hero (Tony Leung) attracts the attention of spoiled "physics major" Gigi Lai, whose father Winston Chao invests in rockets and encounters his former lover (Christine Ng). All of which is a mere pretext for repeated, mind-numbing lectures on why HK money can be patriotically invested in the Motherland's various industries. Unbelievable. See at your own risk. 

Downtown Torpedoes [zhongwen] 
director: Teddy Chan Tak-sum 
Cantonese: San Tau Dip Ying 
Mandarin: Shen2 tou1 die2 ying3 
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jordan Chan Siu-chun, Charlie Yeung Choi-nei, Theresa Lee Yi-Hung 

Quite an enjoyable film, actually. It's not just a fabulous idol-celebration, though Charlie Yeung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Jordan Chan are among the most stylish and popular young east Asian celebrities du jour. But we get more than an exercise in star worship exploitation. This techno-thriller is loaded with fast, quickly breaking plot twists; imaginatively cartoonish technological goodies (like a Bond film, but without the heaviness and camp). Best of all, it sports a collection of breathtakingly inventive, supercharged stunt-work. The action sequences (built on the usual gunplay and vehicle chase motifs) are among the most original and energetic that I've seen in Hong Kong cinema this year: Stephen Tung Wai, who devised them, d.p. Cheung Man-po, along with crack editing team Kwong Chi-leung and Cheung Ka-fai should receive co-star billing. What's missing? Well, not much time was left over (the film is too short, at just 90 minutes) for character development. Jordan Chan has so much screen presence that he can do it on his own, but Takeshi and Charlie's roles are underdeveloped. And Theresa Lee, with buckets of energy and charm, has far too little to do: what a waste! Nevertheless, it's a pleasure to see how youthful energy can breath a little life back into the apparently somnolent HK action film world. 

Eighteen Springs [zhongwen] 
director: Ann Hui On-wah 
Cantonese: Boon Sang Yuen 
Mandarin: Ban4 sheng1 yuan2 
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Wu Chien-lien, Anita Mui Yim-fong, Ge You, Annie Wu 

Eighteen Springs continues Ann Hui's project of reconstructing film genres. It is based on an Eileen Chang novel, a story of romance and fate set in the Shanghai of the 1930s. Manjing (Wu Chien-lien), a young woman from a once-well-off family, works in a Shanghai factory, where she meets Shujun (Leon Lai), the son of wealthy Nanjing merchants. Despite Shujun's reservations about Manjing's family (her sister, Manlu (Anita Mui) works as a nightclub "hostess"), they manage, in stages, to fall in love. The expected progress through engagement to marriage is interrupted, first by Manjing's ambivalence about taking this step, then by Shujun's rejection of her family, and finally by that family's baroquely conceived abuse and enslavement of Shujun. In style, Eighteen Springs is designed to recreate the film world of 1930s and 40s Shanghai. The structure of Eighteen Springs also serves to reshape the melodramatic impulse at its heart. The core of the story is in fact Manjing: the construction of a particular woman's identity, her attempts to maintain control, to shape her destiny, and the extent to which that destiny seems to shape her. But this shape seems to be distorted, the story's strength deflated, the narrative focus muddied, by the way the film elevates Shujun's perspective to a status at least equal to that of Manjing's. One has to wonder to what extent casting decisions, and their attendant commercial calculations, are responsible for this. A decision to exaggerate the prominence of Leon Lai's character, at the expense of Wu Chien-lien's, makes sense in the current troubled commercial state of Hong Kong cinema. But the damage done to the film's narrative coherence is substantial. This focus on Leon Lai should not obscure the achievement of Wu Chien-lien in the film's leading role. Against the expectations imposed by the melodrama genre, she builds a character out of small, lightly sketched, delicately nuanced moments. Each in itself only hints at a full emotional world that lies beneath. But as they accumulate, as Wu's character slowly builds, the parts add up to a rich and very moving whole. If this isn't a career defining performance, yet, it is only because the rest of the film doesn't give Wu Chien-lien as much support as she could use. The rest of the cast is finely chosen. Anita Mui is brilliantly cast as Wu's older sister (both their resemblance and their contrasts are quite striking); Ge You does more than should be possible with the villain's role of Zhu Hongcai. Leon Lai fills space handsomely, but in his scenes with her, he is negative energy: you can almost see how hard Wu is working, how much energy she has to put out to make the scenes work (and they do). A mixed achievement then, whose strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. A mature, delicately drawn film, that ranks near Ann Hui's best. Eighteen Springs adopts the structure of melodrama, only to subvert it; inflecting it with a specific sense of time passing, one which acknowledges loss, but forestalls nostalgia. A re-constructed melodrama for a post-1997 Hong Kong. 

Final Justice [zhongwen] 
director: Derek Chiu Sung-kei 
Cantonese: Jui Hau Poon Kuet 
Mandarin: Zui4 hou4 pan4 jue2 
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Carman Lee Yeuk-tung 

Style and content are way out of step: a beautifully filmed movie, with a visual intelligence and freshness of invention that matches the director's previous film, the brilliant The Log. But the heavy, misogynistic plot weighs down an otherwise mature script, and prevents a fine cast from sinking their teeth into anything worth acting. A shame. Perhaps the problem was producer-driven. 

First Love Unlimited [zhongwen] 
director: Joe Ma Wai-ho 
Cantonese: Choh Luen Mo Haan "Touch" 
Mandarin: Chu1 lian4 wu2 xian4 "Touch" 
Cast: Daniel Chan Hiu-tung, Gigi Leung Wing-kay, Ricky Hui Koon-ting, Tina Lau Tin-lan 

A fluffy, insubstantial teen-romance idol-based film. This feels like strictly a commercial calculation: the same team who made the rather more interesting Feel 100% movies here churn out pap for commercial success. And it apparently worked: First Love not only attracted large audiences (Daniel Chan and Gigi Leung fans, I would imagine), but somehow managed to convince the Hong Kong Film Critics Society into thinking they were watching a good movie. Fooled me, though: all I saw was strictly genre-mired Rich-Girl meets Poor-Boy romance, RG loses PB, RG finds PB at end, after both undergo maudlin, cliched lessons in maturity. The adult leads, Tina Lau and Ricky Hui, provide some relief: their performances have a freshness and subtlety that eludes the rest of the movie. Wyman Wong delivers another zany performance in the Jordan Chan mold. Sappy songs by Chang and Leung decorate the proceedings. 

Full Alert [zhongwen] 
director: Ringo Lam 
Cantonese: Go Do Gaai Bei 
Mandarin: Gao1 du4 jie4 bei4 
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Amanda Lee Wai-Man 

Among the best of 1997. In form, it's a seemingly routine cop and robber psycho-thriller, but Full Alert is so intelligently written, so brilliantly acted, so smoothly produced that it transcends the genre. Lau Ching-wan (the cop) and Francis Ng (the robber) set up a pair of compelling twins/opposites, driven to battle each other -- and increasingly to resemble each other -- towards a conclusion that's both eerily unsettling and unbelievably sad. Stick with the film: it builds subtly and gradually from a low key opening and middle (though with one of the most viscerally exciting car chases that I've seen on film) to a shattering conclusion. And watch the details: the finely etched characterizations of each member of Lau's police team; the timing of the action, just after the handover to China; the subtly modulated musical score; the poetry of the final montage. One of Ringo Lam's finest movies: not to be missed. 

Happy Together [zhongwen] 
director: Wong Kar-wai 
Cantonese: Chun Gwong Ja Sit 
Mandarin: Chun1 guang1 zha4 xie4 
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Chang Chen 

Pure screen poetry from Wong Kar-wai. Here, every element is under complete control, serving a simple story, moving the viewer. It's as if all the spectacularly, gorgeously innovative techniques on display in Wong's previous films were distilled, poured into one sweep of emotion, one flare of visual beauty. Wong inspires best-of-career performances from Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. They grab you right from the film's stunning opening sequence, and don't let go until its breathtaking, colour-smeared finale. A range from giant-scale epically mounted shots (of Iguazu Falls) to the smallest, most delicate moments of remembered intimacy (Tony and Leslie's yellow-fogged solitary tango). See Happy Together and you might just celebrate an exciting new plateau for Wong Kar-wai and for Hong Kong Cinema. 

He Comes from Planet K [zhongwen] 
director: Joe Ma Wai-ho 
Cantonese: Gung Sing Sin Sang 
Mandarin: Gang4 xing1 xian1 sheng1 
Cast:  Eric Kot Man-Fai, Anita Yuen Wing-Yee, Stephen Fung Tak-Lun, Nicole Cheung Sam-Yuet 

I liked it more than most did. Planet K is a sweet little movie: the feel-good I've-been-impregnated-by-aliens film of the year. A well designed musical score and overgenerously gorgeous cinematography by Jingle Ma punch up this comedy farce, and made it well worth my time. The key: Eric Kot's character doesn't speak Cantonese (or any terrestrial language): he's kept firmly in check (he has maybe 15 lines in the film), and so he's genuinely funny as the gentle naif, on a temporary visit from outer space. Dangerous only to cockroaches, with a feebly animated set of antennae (deemed "palps" by the subtitles), Kot nevertheless manages to sweep you up in his quest for his mommy and daddy. There's a priceless spoof of the classic Gordon Chan paramilitary-cops-attack scene: I'll never be able to watch one in quite the same way again. Nicola Cheung is a standout as the reluctant impregnee. She makes a convincing play for gorgeously spunky actress-of-the-moment, and even shows up veteran spunker Anita Yuen. Don't expect much here; then you'll have a good time. Not for the cute-averse. 

The Intimates [zhongwen] 
director: Jacob Cheung Chi-leung 
Cantonese: Ji Soh
Mandarin: Zi4 shu1
Cast:   Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Theresa Lee Yi-Hung, Gua Ah-Leh

The "Self-Combed Women" of the Chinese title  actually existed in 19th century Canton (there are still some today). They formed a society of women who chose a life of strict celibacy, to live apart from men. Jacob Cheung's film version should have been so much better: maybe it's because I had available only the truncated commercial release, not the full "director's cut". Beautiful production values support this story of two women's intimate friendship set in 19th century Canton and contemporary Hong Kong. The female stars, especially Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung, and Gua Ah-leh do some of their finest work here. But something is lacking: any sort of narrative power. The film is awkwardly constructed around an uninteresting contemporary story: the best part is told through repeatedly interrupted flashbacks. Still, it's gorgeous to watch, occasionally quite moving, and admirable in its ambition. 

Island of Greed [zhongwen] 
director: Michael Mak Tong-kit 
Cantonese: Hak Gam 
Mandarin: Hei1 jin1 
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-wah, Tony Leung Kar-fai 

Can a series of loosely linked, extravagantly conceived, expensively staged action set-pieces constitute, on their own, an entire film? Island of Greed would say yes. Don't look for a coherent script, for any sort of narrative line, or even a sense of dramatic shape or pacing. Substitute for these an exhaustive (and exhausting) display of stunts, gun-battles, helicopter-chases, underwater-harpoon-escapes, massed canine attacks, highway and night-market bloodbaths, and voila, you have the Mak brothers' (director Michael Mak and producer Johnny Mak) newest film. It's impressive on its own terms: the dog-and-chicken tea plantation attack, and the taxi-driver massacre scenes, in particular, were relentlessly, viscerally exciting, although they way they relied on a thrillingly detailed, almost lovingly-drawn spectacle of brutality verged uncomfortably close to the pornographic. The pretext for this wide-screen extravaganza is an expose of underworld involvement in Taiwanese politics. Andy Lau Tak-wah is some sort of "government inspector" (what kind, it's never made clear), who, because he can't abide corruption, pits himself against Tony Leung Kar-fai, ex-con gangster, glamorous underworld mastermind, and would-be politician. The film follows Leung's rise and fall, over the course of an election campaign in Taipei. Lau is deployed like a prop, a special effect: he pops up every now and then, sporting an aura of one-dimensional righteousness and invulnerability, heroically to attack Leung or his henchmen. Leung has the meatier role, with ample opportunity to exude cunning malevolence. And something more: in the film's unexpectedly original, moving final scene, Leung pulls out all the stops. On his own, he breathes a bit of life into Leung, kindling an ember of humanity in what was up until then an essentially one-note character. One has to wonder how convincing a film can be which rails against institutional and underworld violence, when it seems to display, with an excess of voyeuristic abandon, a circus of that very same violence for our enjoyment? (go to the full version of this review). 

Killing Me Tenderly [zhongwen] 
director: Lee Lik-chi 
Cantonese: Oi Nei Oi Do Saat Sei Nei 
Mandarin: Ai4 nin2 ai4 dao4 sha1 si3 nin2 
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Sammi Cheng Sau-man, Wyman Wong Wai-man 

Hong Kong takes another whack at Hollywood's The Bodyguard, but with much more satisfying results than the 1994 Jet Li vehicle. Leon Lai Ming, village chief and bored rural cop, lands his first urban assignment. He thinks he'll be protecting Tung Chee-Hwa, but in fact he must go undercover, as bodyguard for up-and-coming HK Cantopop sensation Cinderella (Sammi Cheng Sau-man). The twist: he has to pretend to be gay, to fit into Sammi's all-gay male entourage. Sammi must deal with the rigours of the HK entertainment world (here spoofed in a goofily satirical vein), complete with a hostile rival singer and a psychotic fan. Around the standard plot elements of Leon and Sammi's awkwardly blossoming love affair, and the crazed fan's increasingly threatening behaviour, director and writer Lee Lik-chi has built a surprisingly fresh, disarming, and funny film. He patiently, wickedly deconstructs every element of the genre. Leon Lai manages almost completely to overcome the burden of his pop-idol persona. His acting captures a certain naturalism and relaxed confidence that he only sporadically managed to achieve in Comrades Almost a Love Story. Cheng is the real star of this film. With this sensational performance, she realizes the promise that she hinted at in her two Feel 100% movies. Without any visible acting "technique", she harnesses a magnetic energy (though more under control than Anita Yuen's) and loads it with fascinating character detail and a seemingly spontaneous line delivery that stands up under relatively long takes. In the world of new HK female screen stars, she's a dynamic "hot" to Carman Lee's elegant "cool", jazzy effortlessness to Karen Mok's prodigious technique, offhand glamour to Gigi Leung's plastic cuteness. 

The Legend of Mad Phoenix [zhongwen] 
director: Clifton Ko Chi-sum 
Cantonese: Naam Hoi Sap Saam Long 
Mandarin: Nan2 Hai3 Shi2 San1 Lang2 
Cast: Tse Kwan-Ho, Poon Chan-Leung, So Yuk-Wah, Ng Yi-Lei 

A story teller sings and recites the tale of Nam Hoi Sup Sam Long (Tse Kwan-ho), a Cantonese opera playwright, whose rapid success and pathetic decline stretch from the 1930's to the 80's. I'm not a real Clifton Ko/Raymond To fan: their films tend to feel condescending, written "down" to a sentimental, bourgeois level that an imaginary complacent general audience might accept (but I Have a Date with Spring was a huge hit in 1994, so what do I know). Mad Phoenix has better performances than most, and is full of winning detail, especially in its Cantonese opera scenes. Tse Kwan-ho, who won a Taiwan Golden Horse best actor award for this performance, is effective as the hero, although his later scenes, following the writer's descent into madness, are merely sentimental. Two brilliant set pieces: Tse and his student reciting an opera scene as they create it, playing all the characters and imitating the orchestra with their voices; and a stunning, somehow touching montage, at the end, of contemporary Hong Kong street people, viewed by the story teller as he walks home. Nice period settings, and fine music: both the original score, by Richard Yuen, and the many opera excerpts which happily decorate the proceedings. 

Lifeline [zhongwen] 
director: Johnny To Kei-fung 
Cantonese: Sap Maan Foh Gap 
Mandarin: Shi2 wan4 huo3 ji2 
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Alex Fong Chung-sun, Carman Lee Yeuk-tung 

Lifeline is a film with multiple-personality disorder: the first two-thirds feel like TV-soap opera, but the last half hour is pure poetry. Stick with it: it's worth sitting through an hour of lives and loves of Hong Kong firefighters to get to the final 30 minutes of glorious spectacle. After a seemingly endless hour of labourious setup, the climax: an extended action-escape sequence. The real business of Lifeline is firefighters-in-fire photography, and Johnny To and his team (director of photography Cheng Siu-Keung, editor Wong Wing-ming, action director Yuen Bun) let their artistry rip. I have never been seen such intoxicatingly beautiful images of pure energy like this in film. The fire has a visceral, animated presence that is as alluring, as charismatic and as terrifying as even the most vividly characterized film villain. Within this nightmare vision, To injects close, murky, claustrophobic shots of the firefighters in action. The smoke, the tightness of the space, the sense of being trapped, in terror, in an isolated and imminently explosive space are so immediately palpable that I wasn't even aware of having taken a breath until the film reached its final (overly corny) scenes of triumph. And I wasn't aware, until late in the film, of how this pure nightmare of claustrophobia resonates with what it must be like today, in early 1997, on the ground, in Hong Kong, for those who have reason to fear the coming transition to Chinese rule. 

Love is Not a Game, But a Joke [zhongwen] 
director: Riley Ip Kam-hung 
Cantonese: Fei Yat Boon Oi Ching Siu Suet 
Mandarin: Fei1 yi1 ban1 ai4 qing2 xiao3 shuo1 
Cast: Hsu Chi, Theresa Lee Yi-hung, Christine Ng Wing-mei, Andy Hui Chi-on, Jan Lamb Hoi-fung, Wallace Chung Hon-leung 

One of 1997's most interesting films. The opening credits, a beautiful, subtly designed play of digital underwater effects, promise that something unusual will follow. And it does. Director/screenwriter Riley Ip offers a rough scaffold of a story: 3 young men arrive in Hong Kong from Canada, bent on competing to find "Karen", the woman they think they all are in love with. But each finds someone else, unexpectedly. The new objects of their desire are Hsu Chi (a police woman with an addiction to philosophy, food, and dangerous characters), Christine Ng (a daredevil bus driver adrift in domestic unfulfillment), and Theresa Lee (a homeless woman with a manic disposition and gift for kleptomania). All three give excellent performances as characters who turn out to be far more interesting than the men looking for them. Jan Lamb, who plays a fragrance-sensitive soul of few words, is the standout among the men: his nicely restrained and nuanced performance finally convinced me that he is a gifted comic actor. Gorgeous cinematography by Jingle Ma: the film's fluidly mobile camera, translucent blues and greens, and luminous night scenes make it one of the best-looking movies of the year. Ip acknowledges his debt to Wong Kar-wai: references to the latter's films are sprinkled playfully throughout. It reminded me of last year's intelligently scripted Love among the Ruins, but it is far more fully realized. Love is not a Game is a witty film, but one that's also full of feeling. 


My Dad is a Jerk [zhongwen] 
director: Joe Cheung Tung-cho 
Cantonese: Dui Bat Hei, Doh Je Nei 
Mandarin: Dui4 bu4 qi3, duo1 xie4 ni3 
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Lam Bo-Lun, Hsu Chi, Cecilia Yip Tung 

Hard to sit through this child-star comedy, with its tedious, sentimental script from Raymond To. Even a solid cast can't rescue this film from its own absolute lack of dramatic shape or pacing. Lau Ching-wan, Hsu Chi, and a bucketful of cameos are all outclassed by the fabulously poised Cecilia Yip, who steals the few scenes she's in. Perhaps it's the film's naivete that spoils it from the outset: trace out the political allegory mired in this summer 1997 release and you'll find a young, self-possessed Hong Kong kid, caught a custody dispute between the Anglicized mother and the proud Chinese father. The kid, now forced to live with the father he's never known, will have a civilizing effect on uncouth dad (watch us patronize the mainland), and dad will sacrifice himself (almost) for the sake of the kid (in a wild final sequence the literalness of whose medical metaphors is just unbelievable). Wishful thinking, stillborn, posing as entertainment. 

The Odd One Dies [zhongwen] 
director: Patrick Yau Tat-chi 
Cantonese: Leung Goh Ji Nang Woot Yat Goh 
Mandarin: Liang3 ge4 zhi3 neng2 huo2 yi1 ge4 
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Carman Lee Yeuk-tung 

Part of a pair, with Too Many Ways To Be Number One. The two films share much of the same crew, style, and attitude. The Odd One Dies is superb. A similar visual scheme (dazzling distortions of colour and point of view) supports a more conventional story: Takeshi Kaneshiro and Carman Lee (again) are ultra-scrungy hit-people (one imagines that their respective record company image consultants must have been a bit alarmed) who in the course of several comical and terrifying adventures, in and out of HK hotel rooms, gambling dens, and seedy bars, move towards something like romance. Think of Fallen Angels, leavened with Lost and Found, with a dash of Haruki Murakami. But these are just starting points: Wai Ka-fai and Patrick Yau have concocted a completely original entertainment/work of art that has my vote for best film of '97 (so far...but now that I've seen Happy Together, it's a toss-up). Over-the-top humour (there are at least three finger-slicing episodes!!!), urban action (see TK do his own stunt-leaping through HK traffic), explosions of violence, some relatively grown-up sex (for a HK film)... Takeshi Kaneshiro and Carman Lee are exceptional, in roles that should have been really tough to bring off. Their characters are given very few actual lines; but they manage to communicate a world of feelings mostly through their gestures, postures, and expressions. Wong Ying-wah's score is another star: action scenes set to ironic cha-cha's; a nod to Leslie Cheung's tropical music from Days of Being Wild; the sweet lyricism of the 'paradise' theme. Odd One Dies plays with dreams, how one survives by taking wild chances, escaping from (memory) traps; finding one's own paradise. 

The Soong Sisters [zhongwen] 
director: Cheung Yuen-ting 
Cantonese: Sung Ga Wong Chiu 
Mandarin: Song4 Jia1 huang2 chao2 
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Vivian Wu, Wu Hsing-kuo, Winston Chao, Jiang Wen 

The terrible censorship struggles that Cheung Yuen-ting and Alex Law Kai-yui confronted to make the Soong Sisters in the PRC only partially explain the complex failure of this film. It is possible to have various reactions to it at the same time: as spectacle, the film is splendid. Sumptuous period recreations give the film a consistently polished surface. And several key scenes (Chiang Kai-shek's encounter with student protestors; the night-time airplane landing) draw their power precisely from how they look, how they are shot. But the screenplay, and consequentally the performances, seems bogged down: by the weight of its historical significance? by the burden of morally uplifting storytelling that Cheung and Law seem to be labouring under? Too often, the film works through its duty to register China's complex, ambiguous history via the lives of its glamorous principal characters. So the Soong Sisters veers towards cliche; its characters are distilled into embodiments of various principles, causes and options for the Nation. We end up discovering precious little about the sisters, as individuals, and what we learn of the Nation seems generalized, text-book-shaped. Stand out performances, though, by Wu Hsing-kuo, as a mesmerizingly charismatic Chiang Kai-shek, Jiang Wen, as an ebullient Charlie Soong, and Maggie Cheung, who almost manages to bring Soong Ching-ling to life. 

Task Force [zhongwen] 
director: Patrick Leung Pak-kin 
Cantonese: Yit Huet Jui Keung 
Mandarin: Re4 Xue4 Zui4 Qiang2 
Cast:  Leo Koo Kui-Kei, Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Karen Mok Man-Wai 

A chocolate treasure-box of a movie: full of unexpected, varied, delightful treats. It's like watching 5 or 6 movies, artfully compressed and assembled into one brilliant package. Leo Koo, low-level cop, meets Charlie Yeung, low-level call girl. And what starts off as apparently light police comedy picks up steam, gathering speed and weight and emotional impact as it rolls through melodrama, swordplay, wacky farce, gun-ballet, domestic comedy, and heroic action. Director Patrick Leung's usual flair for visual poetry and off-beat rhythm are there, but so is a new care for his actors (a generosity that gives them space, room to stretch), a screenplay rich with opportunity, and a freedom for formal experimentation. His film outflanks cliches, defies genres: it's a rare movie that becomes less and less predictable the closer it gets to its end. A fine ensemble cast: Leo Koo's range is impressive as a sensitive introvert who has lost his bearings. Charlie Yeung's gung-ho electric performance is fun to watch, and at the same time quite touching, as she suggests the hurt and loneliness lying beneath her compulsively dishonest persona. Fine supporting work by So Chi-wai (who creates an intense portrait of a minor triad figure), Allan Moo Chi, Karen Mok (photogenic, as usual, but under-utilized, dramatically), and a typically hammy Eric Tsang. 

Theft Under the Sun [zhongwen] 
director: Cha Chuen-yee 
Cantonese: Ho Ching Koi Tin 
Mandarin: Hao2 qing2 gai4 tian1 
Cast: Julian Cheung Chi-lam, Michael Wong Man-tak, Gigi Lai Chi, Francis Ng Chun-yu 

Undercover cop (and pretty-boy) Julian Cheung (as Ha-Ko) follows international arms dealer (and pretty-boy) Michael Wong ("Dan"), from Hong Kong to Mongolia and back, in this thriller / comedy / road movie by Cha Chuen-yee. Both are on the run: Wong has missiles to sell, and Cheung flees the HK police, who think he's betrayed them. After Cha Chuen-yee's stunningly good pair of twisted gangster comedies from 1996 (Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 1 & 2), I had high expectations. A promising beginning, but the film sags into genre-mired mechanism: one tediously 'Speed'-derived truck chase leads to another. The psychological complexity hinted at in the first half hour fails to pan out. But all Theft can deliver is a faint, hesitant echo (hommage? copy?) of John Woo and Ringo Lam's essays on the same blurred-boundary theme: how to sketch out, subliminally, a parallel homoerotic space in a so-called "male-bonding" film. Top notch photography and editing: it's good to see that the industry still takes for granted this techical standard. The score, by Johnny Njo, is better than it needs to be, and helps focus the film's energy now and then. Under-financed special effects don't quite make up the difference, although we are given the substantial pleasure of watching a rather large flaming container truck plunge into the sea, then go boom, several times. 

Too Many Ways to Be Number One [zhongwen] 
director: Wai Ka-fai 
Cantonese: Yat Goh Ji Tau Dik Daan Sang 
Mandarin: Yi1 ge4 zi4 tou2 de dan4 sheng1 
cast: Lau Ching-wan, Francis Ng Chun-yu, Carman Lee Yeuk-tung, Cheung Tat-ming 

A gangster film, brilliantly written and photographed. The narrative line starts up, swoops back, replays certain scenes in different versions; it's provocative and amusing at the same time (and manages to make the 'experimentation' of Pulp Fiction look like child's play). Amazing camera work (hyper-actively circling, inverted and distorted, with a daringly warped colour scheme). The category III rating might come from the male bathhouse scene, which is actually pretty tame. The tone flips constantly: expect something hilariously violent/satirical/absurdist. Otherwise, it's an exhilarating ride through HK and mainland gangster-land, which puts into play the sort of choices that might be available to Hong Kongers on the eve of the 1997 hand over. I can't recommend it highly enough: take a chance and see it, if you want something both entertaining and a bit challenging. 

Walk In [zhongwen] 
director: Herman Yau Lai-to 
Cantonese: Duet Se 
Mandarin: Duo2 she4 
Cast: Danny Lee Sau-yin, Wu Chien-Lien (Ng Sin-Lin), Yu Li, Dayo Wong Chi-wah, Ada Choi Siu-fun 

Does HK cinema really need another film featuring someone singing Tell Laura I Love Her? Some fine acting let down by a messy script. A spooky beginning, featuring spectral body-switching, eventually resolves into a farce. There are nice scenes of Danny Lee, "inhabited" by Dayo Wong's character; Wu Chien-lien is underutilized, again. There might be some connection between its new age theme of bodies suddenly possessed by alien souls, and HK's own experience with re-possession. But the film is scattershot: headed in too many different directions, it cancels itself out in the end. 

We're No Bad Guys [zhongwen] 
director: Wong Jing 
Cantonese: Oi Seung 100% Ying Hung 
Mandarin: Ai4 shang4 100% ying1 xiong2 
Cast: Dior Cheng Yee-Kin, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun, Gigi Leung Wing-Kay, Alex Fong Chung-Sun 

Beyond cheezy. Yet another HK Mission Impossible wannabe. But: funny parts barely funny, romantic parts lame and limp, action parts not suspenseful, bloody parts very very bloody. Yuck. Watch Dior's long hair flow in romantic slo-mo. Watch Gigi Leung masterfully portray *two* cute, inexpressive, out-of-their depth young women. Watch Lau Kar-ying rewarm flat routines that didn't make it into old Stephen Chiau Bond spoofs. Better yet, watch something else. 


Thanks to two of my favourite internet resources: 

from where much of the above information comes, and to where most of the above links lead. 

Above is by no means a complete list: I'm still expecting to see The Intimates and Made in Hong Kong, to name just the three most promising... 

    Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome: 


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Shelly Kraicer 
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