Reviews written by Kevin Kennedy
Oyster Girl (1963) (DVD) (Taiwan Version)August 3, 2021 Romance among the oyster beds
'Oyster Girl' is standard romantic melodrama made interesting, in the film's first half, by its setting: A small village whose primary enterprise is the harvesting of oysters. The film's story of romance and rivalry is told amidst images of the village women tending to the bamboo stakes upon which oysters cling and grow. We see what seems to be the entire village engaged in the harvesting efforts, and it makes for truly colorful and engaging viewing.
Unfortunately, the film's second half turns into a stereotypical 'girl in trouble' scenario in which the central character, played by lovely Wang Mo Chou, must leave the village to live with her aunt in order to escape the gossip and criticism of the villagers. By removing the story from the physical context which gave 'Oyster Girl' its interest, the film's second half becomes a pedestrian slog.
Goldenward Series Of Chinese Movies - Beautiful Duckling
Goldenward Series Of Chinese Movies - Beautiful Duckling DVD Region All(1)Our Price: US$7.99August 2, 2021 A rustic gem
They don't make movies like 'Beautiful Duckling' anymore, and that's a shame. It's a melodrama with a strong message. It provides an unsophisticated form of story-telling, and it's all the better for its naivete.
Tang Bao Yun stars as Hsiao Yue, a beautiful young woman who raises ducks with her 'father'. Tsai Tien (Ge Xiang Ting), the man she knows as her father, actually is no relation to her, although he has raised her since she was an infant.
Hsiao Yue's beauty draws the attention of men, including Chao Fu (Au Wei), a man she doesn't know who hopes to build an itinerant Chinese opera troupe around her. What Hsiao Yue doesn't know (but her 'father' does) is that the money-hungry Chao Fu actually is her brother. Tsai Tien pays him to go away and to keep secret the truth about Hsiao Yue's real relations, but Chao Fu keeps turning up, and he is becoming increasingly desperate. Keeping Hsiao Yue away from the evil influence of his brother could cost the saintly Tsai Tien everything.
It took me a while to adjust to director Li Xing's old-fashioned film-making style, but once I adjusted my expectations, I found 'Beautiful Duckling' to be richly enjoyable.
Meeting Dr. Sun (2014) (DVD) (English Subtitled) (Hong Kong Version)August 2, 2021 I suspect that Dr. Sun would love this film!
Anyone who ever has been a teenaged boy will relate to the hilarity, madness, camaraderie, enmity, and desperation of 'Meeting Dr. Sun', the ingenious film from director-screenwriter Yee Chih Yen.
As the school year nears its end, high school student Lefty (Zhan Huai Yun) is badgered by his teacher to pay his school fees. He has no means of doing so, nor do his friends. Lefty concocts a hare-brained scheme to steal a large statue of Sun Yat Sen which is tucked away in a storeroom and to sell it for scrap metal, generating more than enough cash to pay those pesky school fees. Preparations for carrying out this scheme proceed apace until Lefty discovers a notebook from an unknown student which clearly reveals that this other student has the same half-baked idea.
The complications which ensue are both heartbreaking and very funny. Director Yee has a deft knack for capturing the way teenaged boys think and act. The Golden Horse Award for best original screenplay Yee received was well-deserved. 'Meeting Dr. Sun' is a big-hearted, honest film that I will enjoy watching again and again.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (DVD) (US Version)August 2, 2021 Tsui Hark has another winner
No, I'm sorry to tell fans of '90s era Cantopop, 'Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings' has nothing to do with Messrs. Cheung, Lau, Lai, and Kwok. Like its predecessors in this eye-popping series, it's about lots of action and spectacular special effects. And, unexpectedy, this one in the end turns into a 'King Kong with Chinese characteristics' movie.
Director Tsui Hark is said to have labored long and hard over the script for this film. He wanted to ensure that it told a story about the powerful darkness which lies within the human heart. And we do hear quite a bit about the need for repentance, forgiveness, and the expiation of hatred from the heart. Is this message lost amid the sound and fury of the film's relentless action and jaw-dropping CGI? You'll have to judge for yourself.
In short, deep in China's past members of a mystery cult with the power to generate illusions migrated from India to China. There they were severely persecuted. The survivors have nursed their hatred resulting from this persecution for generations, and now they seek revenge by attempting to topple the imperial court and seize power. To that end, they have gained control over the mind of Empress Wu (Carina Lau) and are using her to banish Detective Dee (Mark Chao) and gain control of the ultimate weapon, the Dragon-Taming Mace.
This story provides a solid foundation for generating lots of tension, wu xia action, and amazing special effects. Carina Lau does a terrific job of acting the part of the possessed empress, while Mark Chao and William Feng are very effective as the twin towers of rectitude. Ma Sichun as the illusion-spinning Moon Water gives a particularly strong performance. 'The Four Heavenly Kings' provides two hours of solid entertainment.
Mcdull, Me And My Mum (2014) (DVD) (Hong Kong Version)August 1, 2021 McDull is McBrilliant!
A locked room murder has occurred and the local police are stumped in their efforts to figure out who did it. World famous master detective Bobby Mac is called in to solve the mystery. Bobby quickly diagnoses the situation, dazzling the police with his insights, then goes to meet his adoring public.
Through the questions he is asked, we learn his life story, including the tortuous route Bobby Mac has taken to becoming the great man he is. It turns out that behind the great man's success lies a great mom!
'McDull, Me and My Mum' manages to be hilarious, wildly imaginative, and heartwarming in equal measures. If you have enjoyed any of the films in the superb McDull franchise, or if you are looking for a good entry point to the series, then do not miss this funny and touching treat.
Double Fixation (1987) (DVD) (Digitally Remastered) (Hong Kong Version)August 1, 2021 It's all about Cherie
'Double Fixation' is a watchable mess of a movie. It wants desperately to resemble an Alfred Hitchcock film, but its storytelling is too chaotic and illogical for any such comparison.
Wealthy businessman Mr. Cheung (Paul Chun) has purchased a strange crystal ball which glows in the dark. But a mysterious woman (Jeanette Lin Tsui, who also produced the film) wants the orb for herself, and is willing to have anyone killed who stands in her way. Mr. Cheung hires photographer Jacky Chang (Jacky Cheung) take pictures of the glowing ball. After Jacky departs from Cheung's home, Cheung is threatened by the mysterious woman's hired killer (Pauline Wong) in an attempt to regain the orb. But things go terribly wrong; Mr. Cheung ends up dead, the orb ends up smashed (and the broken pieces then, without explanation, simply vanish into thin air), and mysterious Jeanette Lin now becomes murderously determined to acquire the photos Jacky took of the orb.
Hooo!!! All that explanation, and yet we haven't even come to the movie's star attraction, Cherie Chung. Cherie plays another mysterious woman named (you guessed it) Cherie, who keeps popping up in Jacky's life. With bad guys chasing Jacky for the photos, Cherie opens the doors of her home to him as a safe haven. But what exactly are Cherie's motives? Is she really trying to help Jacky or does she have more nefarious plans?
Frankly, it's all an excuse for Cherie Chung to wear lots of lovely outfits and look absolutely fabulous, which she does with aplomb. Indeed, Jacky Cheung's character is supposed to be head over heels in love with Cherie, but Jacky more closely resembles a starstruck teenager around her. Which suggests one of the film's problems -- Jacky was early in his film career and didn't yet have the acting chops for this role. Another problem is the bizarre comic character who wants to be a model (Julian Lee) and keeps popping up in places which make no sense; wiser heads should have eliminated this distracting annoyance from the movie. And why does anyone care about those photos? Such a major plot point shouldn't go unexplained.
With all of these big problems (and I'm just scratching the surface of the film's flaws), I still found 'Double Fixation' to be quite watchable, owing to the larger than life charm of Cherie Chung. When she's on the screen, you simply can't take your eyes off her.
Wheat (DVD) (Taiwan Version)August 1, 2021 'Wheat' provides a rich harvest
'Wheat' is a superb historical drama which helps us understand the horrors of China's Warring States period by presenting them on a scale to which we all can relate.
The wheat has ripened in the fields, and elite Qin warrior Xia (Huang Jie) goes AWOL from the war against Zhou in order to return home and harvest his crops. Unfortunately for him, he can't shake halfwit fellow warrior Zhe (Du Jiayi), who realizes his own best chance of escaping the war is to stay close to Xia. Zhe's bumbling presence tips off a Qin squad which is slaying soldiers fleeing the conflict. A chase ensues, which ends in Xia and Zhe forced to leap off a cliff into the river far below (director He Ping's hat tip to 'Butch Cassidy').
The unconscious bodies of Xia and Zhe wash ashore downstream near the Zhou town of Yuli, where local women bring them into their town. The two Qin warriors wake to find themselves the only men in a Zhou town in which all of its male citizens went off to do battle with the Qin. The two men are brought before Lady Li (Fan Bing Bing), newlywed to the town's lord who led the local men into battle, and the town's female shaman (Wang Ji). To save their own skins, Xia and Zhe concoct a story in which they claim to be Zhou warriors returning from winning the war against the Qin.
This fiction creates rapturous celebrations among the Yuli women, but soon cracks in the story begin to appear. Can the women place their trust in the men? He Ping spins his story in an imaginative and occasionally humorous manner. Fan Bing Bing gives a standout performance, bringing a doomed nobility to her role. The film is beautifully lensed by cinematographer Zhao Xiao Shi. 'Wheat' is powerful, moving and very human. Very highly recommended.
The Story of Woo Viet (1981) (DVD) (2019 Reprint) (Hong Kong Version)July 31, 2021 Of historical interest
Director Ann Hui's 'The Story of Woo Viet' tells the tale of the title character, played by Chow Yun Fat, a refugee from Vietnam who escapes by boat to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover of his family's adopted home country (Woo Viet is of Chinese descent). Upon his arrival in HK, Woo meets Lap Quan (Cora Miao), with whom he has corresponded from his childhood. The film never bothers to explain why or how these two became penpals, but it quickly becomes clear that Lap Quan, through their missives, has developed romantic feelings for Woo Viet. Those feelings are not reciprocated, as Woo meets and immediately falls in love with fellow refugee Shum Ching (Cherie Chung, in her first significant film role).
Lap Quan wishes to assist Woo in settling into life in HK, but Woo dreams of establishing himself in a Chinatown in America together with Shum Ching. He's not one to let someone else create a life for him; he wants to carve out his own future.
That future abruptly takes him and Shum Ching to Manila, where they find themselves under the thumb of Chinatown crime boss Chung Yee (Gam Biu). Chung puts Woo to work as a hit man, where his legendary killing skills developed in the South Vietnamese army are put to regular use. Shum Ching's good looks appear to have her headed toward employment in the flesh trade. Woo wants desperately to save Shum Ching from this fate and to flee to America together with her. He'll have to take on powers much bigger than himself to achieve this end.
The story of 'The Story of Woo Viet' is crudely constructed. The film is crudely filmed. The acting, for the most part, is rudimentary. Don't expect nuance; don't expect the characters to have much depth. Chow Yun Fat does bring a galvanizing energy to his role, and Lo Lieh, as Woo Viet's literal partner in crime in Manila, breathes life into his world-weary character. Cherie Chung has little to work with; her character basically is a cartoon-cutout damsel in distress. When the story shifts to the Philippines, the film becomes more compelling, but 'The Story of Woo Viet' never really ignites because its characters are so underdeveloped.
Starry Starry Night (2011) (DVD) (2-Disc Deluxe Edition) (Taiwan Version)July 31, 2021 Special special film
'Starry Starry Night' tells of 13 year old Mei (Xu Jiao), an introspective girl who finds her world falling apart. Her beloved grandfather (Kenneth Tsang) has become seriously ill and her parents' marriage is on the brink of collapse. To cope, she makes stumbling child-like efforts to keep her parents (Rene Liu and Harlem Yu) together, escapes into a colorful fantasy life, and makes a new friend (Eric Lin) who wrestles with the consequences of his own broken family.
This premise might sound like it would make for a turgid movie, but director Tom Lin has fashioned a heartwarming and visually beautiful tale, which explores the hopes and heartbreaks of childhood honestly. Much of the brilliant success of this film is owed to the splendid performance of young Xu Jiao, who seems never to strike a false note. I was moved to smiles and tears, yet never felt manipulated by this fine, fine movie. Very highly recommended.
The Assassin (2015) (DVD) (Hong Kong Version)July 30, 2021 Art house brilliance
The marketers of director Hou Hsiao Hsien's 'The Assassin' pitched it to the public as a wu xia epic. Many viewers expected that they were going to see something like 'Crouching Tiger'. What they got isn't remotely like 'Crouching Tiger'. While it has a few brief scenes of martial arts action, 'The Assassin' is a deliberately paced tale of political intrigue.
In the fading years of the Tang dynasty, the imperial government was concerned by the threat of foreign invasion. In response to the threat, vast armies were sent to the border regions, where their generals eventually asserted local rule free of imperial control. Now the imperial court seeks to regain control of these border regions. But the state of Weibo, under the rule of Lord Tian (Chang Chen) had become too powerful for the imperial government to invade. Consequently, the assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is dispatched to terminate Tian's life.
Yinniang has personal reasons for seeking revenge against Lord Tian. As a child, she had been pledged to become his wife, but in pursuit of power he chose another bride and sent Yinniang to a nunnery. The stage, therefore, is set for high intrigue as Yinniang is welcomed back to Weibo.
Director Hou unfolds the story in his trademark painstakingly slow style. I think of it as a 'sedimentary' style; as sedimentary rocks are formed by the slow deposit of sediments over vast periods of time, Hou's films are created by slowly building up gorgeous imagery. Patient viewers paying careful attention will be richly rewarded for their efforts.
Fancy Dance (VCD) (Hong Kong Version)July 29, 2021 Humor balanced by authenticity
My expectations were low for 'Fancy Dance' after I read a description of the film's premise: A young rocker can inherit a Buddhist temple and its grounds if (and only if) he enters the temple and trains to be a monk for one full year. This notion seemed too far-fetched to me, but I should have trusted the instincts of writer-director Suo Masayuki. The man who has brought us 'Sumo Do, Sumo Don't', 'Shall We Dance?', and 'I Just Didn't Do It' knows how to tell a story.
Motoki Masahiro plays Yohei, the rocker (his band resembles Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra) turned monk-in-training. One key to the success of this film is the slow evolution of Yohei's character. We see him enter the monastery as immature, self-centered youth, then we see a growing earnestness as he comes to accept the spiritual and physical disciplines of monastic life. Another key to the film's merit is the unsparing, clear-eyed look it takes at those disciplines. One comes away from the film with an appreciation for the hardships endured by novice monks and the purposes which lie behind those hardships.
Of course, 'Fancy Dance' is a comedy, so the presentation of these rigors is leavened with lots of good humor (and several gags about flatulence and bird droppings); senior monks and monastic life in general are frequent targets of the humor. Takenaka Naoto, as the monk tasked with disciplining the novices (while he wrestles with his own fleshly urges), gives a stand-out performance. Highly recommended.
Midnight Diner 2 (2016) (DVD) (English Subtitled) (Hong Kong Version)July 29, 2021 Another visit to our favorite diner
'Midnight Diner 2', like the earlier movie and like the TV series of the same name, is video comfort food. As always, the stories told are thoughtfully conceived and written and lovingly performed by a brilliant cast. All the regulars are here again, and the newcomers around which this film's primary stories revolve all are welcome additions.
This second film in the series seems darker in tone than the first; most of its tales involve death and loss. But it never becomes morose and it concludes in a wonderfully heartwarming fashion, which seems natural and honest. Odagiri Joe fans will be happy to see that their favorite police officer has a bigger role in this film. Kudos to the writers: May they serve up many more of these tasty dishes. My appetite for them is boundless!
Mermaid (2016) (DVD) (Hong Kong Version)July 28, 2021 Perhaps Chow's most ambitious film
The reviews tell us that, with 'Mermaid', director Stephen Chow has created another zany laugh riot, another madcap adventure through Chow's inspired brand of humor. All that is true. But Stephen Chow actually is after a bigger kettle of fish in this film, for Chow has salted 'Mermaid' with a fierce environmental message.
Mega-rich developer Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) has plans to reclaim the bay at Green Gulf and turn it into a Disney-like theme park. In order to get environmental approval for his project, he secretly deploys a sonar system which wreaks havoc on the local sea creatures, chasing the survivors away from the bay. Unbeknownst to Liu, the remnant of one species of sea creature -- mermaids and mermen -- finds haven in the wreck of a giant tanker ship within the bay. These merpeople plan to send out innocent mermaid Shan (Jelly Lin) to assassinate the greedy developer.
Shan proves to be entirely inept at her mission, but her guileless and unselfish purity captures Liu's heart. However, before Liu can terminate his development project, his femme fatale business partner Li Ruolan (Kitty Zhang) learns of the presence of the merpeople and sends overwhelming forces to wipe them out. Can the merpeople survive or will the evil development company wipe them out?
Stephen Chow mixes both wild and gentle humor, an affecting romance, and graphic action scenes in a winning film which never loses its hold over the audience. WARNING: The graphic action sequences do turn shockingly bloody and violent. (Chow used these scenes to drive home his environmental message.) In the United States, the violence earned the film an 'R' rating; children 17 and under were not permitted to view the film unless accompanied by a parent or other adult guardian.
Dancing Without You (DVD) (English Subtitled) (Taiwan Version)(1)Our Price: US$14.49July 28, 2021 Yes, a movie can be too quirky
'Dancing Without You' is a movie at war with itself. It wants to deliver a whimsical yet heartfelt love story, yet its incessant quirkiness undercuts and distracts from the romance. Its eccentricity undercuts the charm of the performances of Tony Yang and lovely Vivian Hsu.
Cafe Lumiere (2003) (DVD) (English Subtitled) (Taiwan Version)July 28, 2021 Hou Hsiao Hsieh works his unique magic
A word of advice: Ignore the 'YesAsia Editorial Description' of director Hou Hsiao Hsien's 'Cafe Lumiere'. Whoever wrote it clearly didn't watch this film.
The young writer Inoue Yuko (Hitoto Yo) has just returned to Japan from a trip to Taiwan, where she had been researching a book she is writing on the Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen Ye, who had spent much of his early life studying and working in Japan. (After Japan's surrender in 1945, Jiang lost his Japanese citizenship, was cut off from returning there, and became largely forgotten in Japan. Yuko, through her research, essentially was trying to resurrect for the Japanese audience the memory of a once-popular musical artist.)
Yuko spends her first night back in Japan at her parents' home, where, reluctantly, she tells her mother of some life-changing news: She is pregnant by a Taiwanese friend she has no intention of marrying, and plans to raise her baby on her own. Yuko seems remarkably unmoved by this circumstance, yet obliquely the film hints that she is disturbed about her ability to cope with this new responsibility -- she is suffering through a series of 'strange dreams', including one about goblins stealing a baby. Those dreams may be rooted in the fact that she and her father had been abandoned by her birth mother when she was a small child.
She shares her dreams and much else with her friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), a bookstore clerk, who also is an artist and has the peculiar hobby of recording the ambient sounds of Japan's railways. Speaking of ambient, much of the film consists of seemingly aimlessly following the ambient life of Yuko, as she meets with Hajime or her parents, or travels to research the people and places composer Jiang knew during his time in Japan.
Of course, none of these scenes truly are aimless. Typical of director Hou's movies, they slowly, painstakingly paint portraits of the film's characters and their milieu, and set the stage for the resolution of Yuko's plight, which resolution is merely suggested by the film's touching final scene. The pace of 'Cafe Lumiere' is very slow and, apart from the situation surrounding Yuko's pregnancy, there is little here which can be called a plot. But this is a film which richly rewards patient viewers.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998) (DVD) (Taiwan Version)July 26, 2021 Poisonous hothouse flowers
In creating 'Flowers of Shanghai', director Hou Hsiao Hsien made several interesting decisions. For example, the entire film consists of interior scenes, showing nothing but life within a 19th century Shanghai bordello. The cinematography shuns close-ups; every scene is shot in the middle-distance. Each scene is filmed in a subdued yellow light, the effect of which is to wash out vibrant colors.
All of these directorial choices create a claustrophobic closed-in world in which a stratified culture of madams, courtesans (the 'flowers'), flower proteges, and servants all live dependent upon the income which can be gleaned from their patrons. In such a world, gossip, cattiness, jealousies, and emotional wounds are inevitable, and loyalty and honesty become tradable commodities. One of the great strengths of director Hou's film is the manner in which it details this tawdry milieu.
At the center of the film lies the story of patron Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) shifting his attentions from his longtime flower Crimson (Michiko Hata) to Jasmin (Vicky Wei), and the crisis this causes within the house. But this is an ensemble film, so this central theme simply brings the tensions underlying the film's several subplots to a head.
I should note one other directorial choice: Hou chose to focus on elements other than the essential commodity of life in these brothels; you will see no nudity, scantily clad women, or sex scenes in 'Flowers of Shanghai'. Hou provides nothing to titillate the audience, which keeps the focus on the true horrors of the wasted lives of these flowers and their patrons. Highly recommended for a mature audience.
All You Need Is Love (2015) (DVD) (Hong Kong Version)July 26, 2021 Lovely to look at
Beautiful people in a gorgeous setting. What could go wrong with 'All You Need Is Love'? Shu Qi and Richie Jen have charisma to burn and, as if that isn't enough, Ti Lung is along for the ride! Alas, the crudely constructed story first throws arbitrary events one after another, then turns manipulative in all the most obvious ways. If I ever choose to watch this film a second time, I'll turn the sound off and just enjoy the lovely scenery.
Twa Tiu Tiann (DVD) (English Subtitled) (Taiwan Version)July 25, 2021 Inept execution of illogical story
There is star power galore in 'Twa Tiu Tiann'. Sonia Sui and Chien Man Shu command the screen and hunky Chris Wang is sure to keep the ladies interested. But the film's direction is ham-handed and its improbable story keeps going off the rails. Perhaps a more skilled director could have salvaged something from this film's premise, but Yeh Tien Lun clearly was not the right choice.
Together (2012) (DVD) (Thailand Version)July 24, 2021 Terrific performances in slice-of-life film
From the opening minutes of 'Together', it appears that the film will be about a group of bratty teens. But director Hsu Chao Jen, who also cowrote the script, has something more interesting in mind. The film doesn't have a conventional plot; it reveals its loose-limbed narrative through a series of vignettes which, as the film progresses, cohere to reveal a compelling story about different phases of love -- people looking for love, or falling out of love, or misplacing affections, or finding new love.
A family of four lies at the center of the film. Husband Bin (Kenny Bee) runs a print shop and seems like he has lost direction in his life. Wife Min Min (Li Lieh) owns a juice stall and appears to have let her heart turn cold. Daughter Hsiao Lan (Gina Lee) dates bad boys and suffers the consequences, while teen son Hsiao Yang (Huang Shao Yang), whose perspective lies at the film's heart, desperately hopes to find a girlfriend, tries to defend his sister, and seeks to hold the family together. Lovely Hsiao Li (Sonia Sui) returns to the neighborhood to announce her impending marriage, while Hsiang (Umin Boya), who operates the stall next to that of Min Min, tries to bring a smile to her face.
These latter two characters prove to be the catalysts for the film's resolution. I don't want to give the ending away, but it struck me as the film's only false note. Suffice it to say that, in real life, this resolution of the story wouldn't have gone nearly as smoothly as it does in the film. Nevertheless, I can highly recommend this engrossing film for its unpretentious honesty right up until its closing moments.
Ilo Ilo (2013) (DVD) (Hong Kong Version)July 23, 2021 Finding beauty amidst crisis
Set during the Asian financial crash of 1997, 'Ilo Ilo' shows the stresses of Singaporean middle class life when economic stability gets torn away. At the same time, the film illustrates the plight of Filipina single mom Terry (Angeli Bayani), who comes to Singapore to work as a domestic helper only to find that she has surrendered her freedom and yet still must take a second job to pay the bills back home.
At the center of its story 'Ilo Ilo' places Jia Le (Koh Jia Ler), a troubled young boy who reacts to the strains of his family's life by acting out both at school and at home. Terry takes the brunt of the boy's anger, while his pregnant mom (Yeo Yann Yann) and hapless father (Chen Tian Wen) try to hold the family together in the wake of job loss and failed investments.
One of the the film's great strengths is that it is not nearly as dark as this story synopsis might suggest. These characters are authentic, and their simple human decency creates a bond between film and viewer which never seems manipulative, treacly, or melodramatic. The ensemble cast is excellent, and the film well deserved the awards it received. Very highly recommended.