Sunday, September 15, 2013

RED Quickie: Wu Dang

Hong Kong movies haven't had their share of the limelight in recent years, but it's nice to know they are still making them.

I'm sure many of us with a passing familiarity with China's long history of martial arts are familiar with the legendary Wu Dang (or Wu Tang) mountains. Here in these legendary mountains, many have trained and created their own forms of martial arts. Also there's a rapper group named after it. In this fantasy/martial arts film, set in the early 1900's, there are magical treasures, robbers, old timey gangsters, sleep kung fu, a martial arts contest and plenty of great action sequences. The good news is that it doesn't get too convoluted. The bad news is... well, there isn't any.

All of the protagonists have their share of the limelight. There's one subplot with Tang Ning (played by the adorable Xu Jiao) and Shui Heyi (Louis Fan) that kinda feels weird or creepy at the start but develops into this cute little thing later on. Vincent Zhao and Mimi Yang's characters have this great chemistry, and Mimi Yang's character, a kickass martial artist, steals the show.

The action is fun and fluid, thanks to the action direction of Corey Yuen, known for his work with Jet Li in the Fong Sai Yuk series.

It's an enjoyable watch and those 98 minutes just flash by. If you're in the mood for some chop socky action, look no further.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

On The Job

It's hard to take a shit in the street. Just kidding.
I'd heard the buzz surrounding this film during its run in Cannes and I was immediately intrigued. After seeing the film, I'm glad to say the words of praise were well deserved: On The Job is one of the most remarkable Filipino films of recent times.

Joel Torre is Tatang, an inmate who is tasked to perform assassinations outside of prison thanks to a network of corruption. Accompanying him is Daniel (Gerald Anderson), his fellow inmate, assistant and protege. In between missions, they live double lives, with Tatang going home to his cheating wife (Angel Aquino) and his law student daughter (Empress Schuck).

Meanwhile, NBI agent Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual) takes over the case relating to the recent string of assassinations committed by these two men. The policeman in charge of the case, straight and narrow SPO1 Acosta (Joey Marquez) doesn't want to let go of the case quite yet, so he joins the investigator in revealing the case. But as Francis realizes as he unravels the complex web of corruption, he may be involved in that web more closely than he thinks.

On The Job takes several noir themes and blends them together to create something that works really well in the Philippine setting. There is no black and white here, only shades of gray. The contract killers do their job to provide for their families; the policemen are supported by a rotting system that erodes their morality. An overwhelming sense of nihilism pervades the film, where the choice to do right stands against the weight of how the world works - while the four main characters try to do the right thing, the path to righteousness involves wading through deep shit.

Visually, the film uses dark tones and the claustrophobic alleys of urban poor Manila to create tension. The soundtrack, pulsing and beating, really fits the film well.

The cast is really good, and most of the acting kudos has to go to Joel Torre, who is The Man. From start to finish he completely envelops himself in the role, a world weary man who has done all that he can, even sacrifice his very soul to survive. Now faced with a chance to be free, he faces a choice between his life of killing and an uncertain, but (presumably) morally straight future. Gerald Anderson, being the matinee idol kind of actor, is cast against type and doesn't look the part, but he does the best he can with the role, and kudos to him for the effort.

Piolo Pascual came off as unlikeable at the start, but I warmed up to his character as the movie went on. As for Joey Marquez, had his role been played straight and serious, this movie would have been really dark. Whether that's a good thing or not is a subjective matter.

The local theatrical edition of this movie includes a number of sex scenes, but they come off as a bit unnecessary and they ultimately seem like a ploy to get more viewers in. Either way, the scenes did not add to or detract from my overall experience watching the film. If you're itching for a really good crime thriller, I heartily recommend On the Job.

Let's Go! (where exactly?)

Wong Ching Po's action offering, Let's Go! is a weird creature. If you watch the trailers (I didn't) then it would seem like this movie is a pastiche of old school Japanese anime, presumably the ones that were shown in Hong Kong in the eighties. If you went ahead and watched the film, you'd see that that isn't the case at all; it feels more like a gangster movie than anything else, with only a few references to the aforementioned anime. And then in the last 20 or so minutes, the film transforms into something like a superhero origin story that comes completely out of the blue that it seems ridiculous in hindsight.

The main character of the story, Siu Sheng, is this guy who has a talent for fighting. He was a fan of the old Japanese anime Space Emperor God Sigma, which actually aired in Hong Kong in the eighties. However, a personal tragedy made him rethink his life. One day he is recruited to the Matsumoto group, a now legit organization with shady origins. He is made into the personal bodyguard of the boss' daughter Annie. All is well until Shing, the guy who recruited him, decides to perform a hostile takeover of the company.

The movie builds up for an hour and wanders around with Siu Sheng not really doing much, riding around with his girlfriend boss' daughter and getting drunk. When shit hits the fan, we see characters that suddenly come out of nowhere and act as if they were part of the story from the start. There's this mysterious guy who helps Siu Sheng in his time of need, who is actually the son of the cop that failed to save Siu Sheng's father, whose backstory and motivations are only revealed 10 minutes after we see him, and the old guys living in the shopping street where Siu Sheng lives, who conveniently know martial arts well enough to take on gun toting gangsters.

Let's Go ends up being a movie that doesn't know what the hell it is. It builds up characters at the wrong times, while severely underdeveloping others. When the climax comes along, you wonder how it got to this point. It could have focused more on the neighborhood watch group and let that build up, but it didn't. It could have been made into this gangster movie with throwbacks to that anime, but it did not. It ended up being a mishmash of ideas that don't glue together, like ketchup and chocolate.