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Seeding of a Ghost (1983) December 29, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Supernatural, 1980s films , 7 comments

Director: Richard Yeung  Cast: Phillip Ko; Norman Chu; Maria Yuen; Tin Mat  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Chow (Phillip Ko) is a taxi driver whose wife Irene (Maria Yuen) is having an affair with a casino gambler named Fong (Norman Chu).  When Irene is raped by a pair of youths and dies in an attempt to escape, Chow summons her spirit with the aid of a mono-brow Black Magic priest to exact revenge on all guilty parties.  But the ultimate revenge is hinted at by a prophesy of a son carrying out the final justice, and as no one involved has offspring, the warning is not heeded.  But they had reckoned without the seeding of a ghost…

Reported to be the third and final film in the Black Magic series (although it shares no cast and has a different director, leading me to think it might be a spurious claim), it cannot be denied that Seeding of a Ghost is a pile of utter trash.  But it can also be an entertaining pile of utter trash. 

The film starts out hinting at trouble ahead when Chow knocks over a priest in his taxi, only to find the old guy is safe and well in his back seat and eager for a ride home.  We then forget all about that and the focus shifts to soft-core pornography for a while.  Quite a while, in fact.  Irene gets her kit off at the drop of a hat in some of the most gratuitous nude scenes I’ve ever seen.  For example, she’s shown playing about with Norman Chu on the beach (I think it was him and not Phillip Ko, but to be honest I wasn’t paying too much attention) when her top gets ripped off and she playfully runs after him in slow motion.  And just so you get the message, we zoom in on her bouncing breasts for a few seconds.  Now that scene could possibly be defended (except for the boob-zoom shot) as showing the blossoming of her illicit relationship with Fong but a little while later we see her starkers in the shower.  Accompanied by sleazy sax muzak, we watch her wash and zoom in yet again on her boobs and…well, there’s a fair bit of full-frontal nudity in the film.  This kind of thing elicits many reactions in people, but to be honest I thought it was just funny.  Not the actual nudity itself, but the way in which it is so desperately and cynically used – a hallmark of late-era Shaw Brothers productions, sadly.

One of the film's better effects - I really can't work out how it was done!

With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the rape scene that follows is not as exploitative as it could have been.  True, her assailants do smack her around considerably (and would probably prevent the film getting an uncut release in the UK, I suspect) but this is not in the same ballpark as Sammo Hung’s Iron Fisted Monk, whose rape scene was purely meant to titillate viewers.  This sets up the revenge plot for the second half of the movie when Chow seeks out the priest he knocked over at the start of the film to get revenge on the killers.

All manner of nastiness follows, such as people vomiting worms and unwittingly eating brains and drinking blood.  Fong’s wife becomes possessed and needs the help of a Taoist priest (while she’s naked, obviously).  The effects are obviously low budget, but as with most things of this nature, there are one or two cool effects in with all the cheap make-up and puppetry.  The “creature” effects (inspired, no doubt, by John Carpenter’s The Thing) are particularly poor and I suspect that the DVD age hasn’t helped matters very much by showing all the limitations so clearly.  The animation sequence for the “seeding” is quite good, however, and is similar to the effects in Wu Ma’s Dead and the Deadly from the same year.

There's something you don't see every day! 

From all the buzz surrounding the DVD release of Seeding of a Ghost, it is evidently a much-loved piece of eighties Asian horror.  I have no doubt at all that in its day it would held its own with many other similar films from the lower end of the genre, and it is certainly still watchable if you can turn a blind eye to its faults.  One final note: I would recommend watching this film with the Cantonese audio track, as the Mandarin track seemed dull and lifeless.

Police Story 2 (1988) December 26, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1980s films , 8 comments

Director: Jackie Chan  Cast: Jackie Chan; Maggie Cheung; Bill Tung; Benny Lai  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest; Golden Way

Following the events of Police Story, Chan Ka-Kui (Jackie Chan) is demoted and hauled over the coals by his superiors.  The crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen) has been released due to failing health and is once again making Ka-Kui’s life a misery by getting his lackeys to constantly harass his long-standing (and long-suffering) girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung).  However, Ka-Kui faces a new threat in the form of a gang of blackmailers intent on blowing up most of Hong Kong.

Police Story 2 is probably my least favourite of Jackie Chan’s starring features from the eighties.  The tone always seemed too dark for a Jackie Chan film and it had a tendency to be overly dramatic and not a little melodramatic.  Certain scenes always bugged me – such as the scene in a shopping mall under threat from a bomb attack, which I’ve always thought seemed heavy-handed and the people’s reactions unrealistic (and that attempt at tension with the bouncing ball is horrible passé).  What I’ve always liked in Jackie’s films is the lightness and good-natured humour as well as all the physical stuff, which is why I’ve given it a miss for a few years.  Watching it again reveals that the film does have some great comedy moments which I’d completely forgotten about, and I was surprises how much I enjoyed it.

Like the first film, a lot of the comedy is provided by Maggie Cheung in the role of May, and she still bears the scars of Police Story 2 to this day thanks to a gag with some toppling metal frames going wrong.  It’s hard to imagine her taking such a role now, either from a comedic or physical angle, but she did have quite a flair and watching something like this does remind you of the fact.  You’ve got to love the scene where she furiously shouts at Ka-Kui into the showers at the Police Station following their aborted holiday to Bali.  She is oblivious to the embarrassed nakedness of the cops (and Bill Tung having a private moment in the toilet stalls) to rip into Ka-Kui, and then has another unfortunate incident with her scooter outside.  Other comic moments involve Jackie going undercover wearing a fake moustache and glasses to get a lead on the explosives and the usual misunderstandings with his superiors Raymond (Lam Gwok-Hung) and the fantastic Bill Tung.  Sadly, Mars, though present, has a much reduced role in this, which is a shame as he always had good comic scenes when sharing the screen with Jackie.

That huge fake nose fools no one.  Oh, wait...

Regular member of Jackie’s stunt-team, Benny Lai comes out of the shadows to play the role of a deaf-mute explosives expert.  Although he took one of the pirate roles in Project A Part II, he was usually only a background player in Jackie’s films and usually heavily in disguise.  In this he really gets a chance to shine and his physical feats are great.  He also apparently spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for the role and consulted a specialist to learn to use sign language, and I have to admit I thought he was for real until I saw him in other roles.

Police Story II does have a tendency towards incoherence and lack of direction, but no more than other films from the era.  For example, the return of veteran director Chor Yuen in the role of Chu Tao turns out to be more a red herring than a genuine plot point.  It’s as if the filmmakers originally intended to have him being the main bad guy again but changed their minds about a third of the way through.  More of a presence is Charlie Cho as Chu Tao’s sleazy PA, John Koo.  If you remember, at the end of the first film Ka-Kui punches him in the face and breaks his glasses.  This gag obviously proved popular, as in every scene in which he appears in this sequel results in the same result.  As a running joke, I suppose it works but on repeated viewings it gets a little tiresome.

However, nothing leaves such a bad taste in the mouth as the disgraceful product placement that goes on.  You can’t go ten minutes without some blatant plug for Canon, Citizen and (inevitably) Mitsubishi.  The worst offence occurs when a shopping mall is destroyed by an explosion – a Mitsubishi 4X4 (which I’m sure, if memory serves correctly, has adverts for Citizen emblazoned on its side therefore killing two birds with one stone) rolls away from the devastation without the aid of a driver and stops safely outside having smashed a plate glass window in its escape.  I’m not sure what they were trying to say – that Mitsubishi cars are sentient?  That they can smash windows without losing tyre pressure?  It may even be a sly reference to some jokey TV advert at the time or something that I’m not aware of, but otherwise it’s terribly distracting and ruins the illusion of the movie.

Blowing shit up long before Chris Tucker got on the scene. 

On a lighter note, Jackie’s action sequences are as phenomenal as ever from the eighties.  He takes on the bad guys single-handedly and comes away a winner as is demanded from the audience.  I’ll always remember the first time I watched the stunt with the refuse chute exploding with Jackie still inside it.  I literally gasped in shocked surprise, and how many times can you say that about a scene in a movie?  I’d say it’s one of his most underrated of stunts and deserves to be seen by all.  Also noteworthy are the film’s explosion effects.  A shopping mall gets a spectacular bang and a fireworks factory gets blown to smithereens.  There was obviously a higher budget following the success of the original film and it looks like it all went on the pyrotechnics.

So while Police Story II does have some major flaws it is still a film very much from his golden age and has much to recommend it.

Osaka Wrestling Restaurant (2004) December 14, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Romance, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Tommy Law  Cast: Timmy Hung; Wayne Lai; Ueno Miku  Territory: Hong Kong/Japan Production Companies: Same Way Production Ltd; Yes Visions Co

Failed chef Ricky (Timmy Hung) is reunited with his brother Mike (Wayne Lai) upon the death of their father.  Mike has “escaped” to Japan, and when Ricky caches up with him, he insists upon using their father’s inheritance to open a new style of restaurant – one when the diners can watch authentic Japanese wrestling while they eat!  Helping them to make the restaurant a success is a Japanese reporter stranded in Hong Kong (Ueno Miku) and an unlikely bunch of would-be wrestlers with more enthusiasm than talent.

Funny how these things work out – a couple of weeks ago I’m doing a review on a film with Jackie Chan’s son (the rather topper Invisible Target), and now I find myself, quite by accident, reviewing a film with Sammo Hung’s son Timmy.  Which raises an interesting question – does Yuen Biao have a son?  Hmm.  I’ll get my secretary to do some research immediately, and see if we can get a reunion of the three brothers’ sons as I think this is the only way we’ll get those genes together on screen again.  Anyway, I digress – and it’s only the second paragraph…

Osaka Wrestling Restaurant starts off in a pretty naff way with some truly awful acting with Timmy Hung looking like he can’t keep a straight face despite the comedy being aimed at no higher than infant school level.  This is zero-budget Hong Kong fare at its worst, I feared.  Not even the inclusion of frequent Stephen Chow collaborator Law Kar-Ying as Ricky’s insane and comically evil ex-boss raises the level appreciably.

However, things definitely take a turn for the better when Wayne Lai enters the film.  I’ve written about this guy before, so I won’t repeat myself, but he definitely seems to raise everybody’s game in this film - which seems like a wild claim but I urge anyone doubting it to see for yourself.  He also has the film’s only dramatic moments when he tries to reconcile with the wife and son he left when he moved to Japan, claiming to be a changed man.

The first smiles are raised, inevitably, when the “Wrestling Restaurant” starts auditioning for performers and we get the usual gathering of oddballs, nutters and misfits.  You’d be right to think that from here on in, the comedy pretty much writes itself, but this is not necessarily a bad thing considering the lameness of the early scenes.  I’m guessing that the Japanese wrestlers shown or spoofed here (or at least the guy called “Super Delfin”) are “real” Japanese wrestlers, but I have to plead ignorance on the subject.  The production does seem to be a Japanese/Hong Kong collaboration and the term “Osaka Wrestling” is used so often that I suspect it’s got to have some basis in fact (and is used to plug the sport I expect).  The wrestling action is primarily played for laughs, but if you’re more aware of the subject than me, there may well be some in-jokes in there that went over my head.

Be afraid...

We get some romantic comedy thrown in as well for no extra cost, and the inclusion of Japanese Ueno Miku as Kyoko provides some eye-candy for the male viewers.  While the story is strictly by the numbers (boy meets girl, boy drops girl in a river for no readily apparent reason, boy courts girl while wearing wrestling mask to avoid girl finding out he was the one who dropped her in a river, girl finds out boy’s identity and dumps him, boy and girl get together again) this kind of thing is never too taxing and everyone can at least relate to it. 

Sticking with Osaka Wrestling Restaurant does yield rewards, and by the end I was well into it.  There are a few really good laughs (such as Tats Lau’s costume after he comes back from an unexpected trip) and the occasional moment of (light) drama.  I suspect it is the kind of film that one can enjoy best with zero expectations and a hankering for some of the less demanding fare coming from Hong Kong.  Although initially I was extremely sceptical of the merits of the film, I was eventually won over by two faults and a submission.

Breaking News (2004) December 10, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: Johnnie To  Cast: Kelly Chen; Nick Cheung; Richie Ren; Hui Siu-Hung; Lam Suet  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd

With Breaking News, we’re back in familiar Milkyway “police-procedure movie” territory.  This time, it’s the media in the spotlight, and the film looks at the way news is produced, used and exploited.  The film follows a group of outlaws on the run from the cops after a lethal shootout.  When one of their comrades is killed in action, they rashly decide to do a heist that quicky goes badly wrong.  The robbers then go into hiding in an apartment block and a siege begins, with every moment being recorded for posterity by the Hong Kong news crews.

The use of the media as a weapon comes into play when a camera crew who happen to be filming nearby capture some of the initial gunfight, including a shot of a police officer surrendering and kow-towing to the robbers.  Humiliated, the police set about putting their own “spin” on things, and it’s here that Rebecca (Kelly Chen) enters as a police media relations expert.  She sets up a command post outside the tower block where the robbers are holed up and gets more than she bargained for when one of the robbers, Chan Yat-Yuen (Richie Ren), makes contact with her.

The opening scene of Breaking News is simply outstanding – a long and ferocious gun battle takes place on the streets of Hong Kong with the camera moving smoothly without a single cutaway.  This single shot seems to go on forever and is so impressive and dramatic it really gets the blood pumping.  At the risk of sounding like one of those bite-sized blurbs used on the front of an Entertainment In Video DVD, it out-Woos Woo.  From an opening like that you just know the only direction the film can go is down, and sure enough, it does.

What lets Breaking News down is the almost total lack of characterisation.  No one is given much background (we don’t even know what the bandits did prior to their shootout at the start of the film) and this leads to an understandable dip in viewer interest.  If we don’t care about the characters, there’s nothing to interest us aside from all the admittedly impressive visuals.  A case in point is aging police officer Hoi (Hui Siu-Hung) whose uncontrollable flatulence is neither a plot point nor a source of comic relief.  It’s one of the many things that are there in the film but don’t really serve any purpose.  There are a couple of stifled attempts to bring in some of the old brotherhood and loyalty themes among the thieves, but it fizzles out without going anywhere. 

Kelly Chen 

The performances are similarly mediocre, with Nick Cheung and Richie Ren going through the motions and being largely forgettable.  The presence of singing star Kelly Chen is played up, but to be honest she doesn’t really do a lot apart from sitting in the Command Centre looking good.  She’s the kind of woman that makes you want to get down on your knees and thank God you’re a man, but she cannot carry a film and at times her performance is a little creaky.  A saving grace is the presence of (you guessed it!) Lam Suet as the father caught up in the siege with his two young children.  His interaction with the robbers is excellent and provides the only real tension that doesn’t seem forced.  

Without going into details that would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, the ending does pick up and once again it’s down to some great camera work and direction.  So what you have, in essence, is a fantastic opening, a good ending, and a whole lot of gawping at Kelly Chen in between.  It doesn’t seem so bad when I think of it in those terms, and at a shade under 90 minutes it’s the kind of film you probably wouldn’t mind slipping into the DVD player on a whim on a rainy afternoon.

Lam Suet-o-meter: Medium.  Although not a big part, he has one of the more demanding roles and actually adds a lot to the film. 

The Storm Riders (1998) December 6, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Wuxia, 1990s films , 12 comments

Director: Andrew Lau  Cast: Ekin Cheng; Aaron Kwok, Sonny Chiba, Wayne Lai, Kristy Yeung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

Rarely, if ever, will you find a Hong Kong movie that divides opinion as much as Andrew Lau’s 1998 adaptation of Ma Wing-Sing’s comic book of the same name.  It was the first Hong Kong CGI bonanza, and it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if you have a beef with any aspect of modern day movie making in Hong Kong, you can trace it back to this movie.

The film’s detractors cite many faults with the film, but one universal gripe is the plot - or the lack of one.  What it boils down to is a pair of orphans (Ekin Cheng as Wind and Aaron Kwok as Cloud) who are “groomed” by Conqueror (Japanese legend Sonny Chiba) because the soothsayer Mud Buddha (Wayne Lai) decrees that with these two disciples will bring him great power for a full decade.  The kids fall in love with the same woman and it all ends badly (for all concerned) and Conqueror finally challenges Sword Saint (Anthony Wong) from the unchallenged City to a duel.  Mud Buddha then drops a bombshell about the other half of the prophesy about Wind and Cloud.

Wind - looking moody 

Which is a workable, if basic, plot.  But then the film’s origin starts to get in the way.  I’ve never read the comic book – I bought loads of issues to help with my Chinese reading and eventually discovered I was way out of my depth (I bought a couple of the far inferior US translations and discovered, to my surprise, that they were no easier!) so mainly just looked at the fantastic pictures.  But I’m guessing that there are a lot of characters and events here from the comic book that get crammed in just to satisfy fans.  What then happens is the film becomes episodic and confusing, with minor characters popping up, doing something (presumably) important and then disappearing forever.

One thing that is sure to date a movie is making it so bang-up-to-date as possible, and Storm Riders suffers from this more than you’d think.  Although less than a decade old, it looks too much like a product of its time, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening title sequence, which now looks like a graphical cut scene from a PlayStation One game.  All of the CGI tends to be a little ropey, which is a major problem as the production relies so heavily on it.

Cloud - looking moody 

However, Storm Riders tries damn hard to be entertaining, and was a necessary step in the evolution of Hong Kong movies, which had been suffering from dwindling cinema audiences for years prior to this film.  Although the film looks dated now, it certainly did the trick in getting people back watching local fare over the latest glossy Hollywood blockbusters.  

I remember seeing this for the first time and thinking it was just totally incomprehensible, and this seems to be a common reaction.  What this film insists upon is a second (and maybe a third) viewing, and things definitely make a hell of a lot more sense.  There is an interesting relationship between the two main characters and their beloved Charity (an early appearance by Kristy Yeung) and the two are evidently intended to be two sides of the same coin with the emotional, romantic Wind and the sensual, lustful Cloud.

Wind and Cloud dualling - moodily. 

Over at the Hong Kong Movie Database, which is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Hong Kong films, there are many reviews for this film but one review sums up the depth of feeling that this film can engender.  It was written by a user called MilesC, and he gives the film a very poor review before appending this:

 Post-script: It’s been six months since I wrote the above review, and well over a year since I saw the film. It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I can’t sleep because I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT HOW MUCH I HATE THIS MOVIE. The fact that a 130 minute movie could contain so little plot, action, or character development and ACTUALLY BE FINANCIALLY SUCCESSFUL makes me want to destroy the entire planet. I HATE THIS MOVIE! Andrew Lau, one day I’ll come for you. 

I’m guessing he steered well clear of the film after writing that, but I can’t help wondering if he watched it again whether he’d feel quite so strongly about it.  Likewise, I’m guessing a lot of people who loved it upon release now find Storm Riders a little creaky and rough around the edges.  I’d say I’ve grown to love it over the years, but there are plenty of better examples of this type of film nowadays.

Invisible Target (2007) December 1, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , 8 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Cast: Nicholas Tse; Shawn Yu; Jaycee Chan; Wu Jing  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Sil Metropole Organisation Ltd

Chan Chun (Nicholas Tse) is a cop who lost his fiancée when a jewellery shop gets blown up as a result of a hit on an armoured car.  Carson Fong (Shawn Yu) is another cop who is beaten and humiliated by a criminal gang.  Wai King-Ho is yet another cop, this time one who has lost his brother.  All three join up to bring down the Tien gang headed by Tien Yeng-Seng (Wu Jing), the gang responsible for all three officers’ circumstances.

Invisible Target starts out with a bang not unlike a Hollywood blockbuster.  It serves as a plot point in that Chan Chun’s fiancée gets killed (no great loss – she doesn’t have her own voice.  I don’t think I could ever love a woman who was badly dubbed) and sends him on a path of revenge.  It easily brings to mind films like Die Hard and you start to worry that this is going to be yet another Hong Kong film aping Hollywood and failing miserably.  While this is true to a small degree regarding the CGI, let me put your fears at rest and tell you categorically that Invisible Target is a darn good romp.

L-R: Jaycee Chan, Shawn Yu, Nicholas Tse 

Nicholas Tse gets a lot of stick for his film work (I admit I’ve never heard a note of his music and am quite happy to keep it that way) but fair’s fair, he puts on a good show as the haunted young cop out for revenge.  I must admit that Shawn Yu has previously slipped under my radar, but he also impresses as Tse’s partner by circumstance.  Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) is so earnest and serious as Wai King-Ho that his character seems to verge on parody at times, and is the least believable of the trio.  In one early scene, we see him giving CPR to a foul-smelling vagrant without showing any signs of discomfort while those around him are blowing their lunch.  He then modestly goes home to his grandma.  He strikes you as the kind of person who wouldn’t think twice about risking his life to save a bunch of young children on a bomb-laden bus, an opinion that is reinforced later in the film where he risks his life to save a bunch of young children on a bomb-laden bus, oddly enough.  Nevertheless, Wai King-Ho is the glue for the partnership of the three disparate cops.  He is searching for his brother, who may or may not have gone undercover in the Tien gang.  Seeing Jaycee Chan in action is an uncomfortable sensation – seeing someone who is clearly the son of Jackie Chan doing fight scenes brings a weird feeling of deja vu and brings up the inevitability of the passage of time.  It sure made me feel old, anyway.

Watch it, or I'll set my dad on to you! 

Wu Jing will be familiar to all who have seen the somewhat over-rated SPL, and many will agree he was the best thing about that movie.  One great compliment to this film is that Wu Jing is still great, but he’s no longer the best (or at least the only good) thing about the project.  Whereas most Hong Kong action films fail these days to entertain (for me at least) due to a number of reasons, Invisible Target succeeds, and a lot of that goes down to a more back-to-basics approach to the stuntwork and action choreography.  It still goes over the top occasionally, and some of the wirework doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but the good far outweighs the bad.  In fact, after a couple of action scenes I could have sworn they were accompanied by the same tinny, lo-fi synth music that went with all those great 80’s action scenes.  Upon rewinding, I found this was not the case, but it’s an interesting association.

The film – at ten minutes over two hours – is slightly too long, but paradoxically doesn’t feel bloated with extraneous material.  There are some nice plot turns and interesting characters to root for and hiss at, and a couple of really standout moments.  The scene where the gangster explains to Wai King-Ho, without malice or bravado, what happened to his brother and how he felt about it is one such outstanding moment.

So despite being too long and having a corny character or two, Invisible Target is still very much worth a watch, and I’m looking forward to a second viewing already.

If you’ve been reading my stuff on the more contemporary Hong Kong films both here and elsewhere, you have probably noticed that I’ve been mentioning a certain guy quite a lot.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Lam Suet:

Hee hee!  I'm coming for you, Cal!

The reason I’ve been mentioning him is because I’m starting to feel like the man is stalking me via DVD.  He’s appeared in absolutely everything I’ve watched in the past couple of months that has been made in or after 2002.  Has this guy got some kind of global domination thing going or has he got a really good (or bad) agent that blags him a role in every Hong Kong film made?  Sure enough, I stick Invisible Target on and bang!, less than ten minutes pass and he’s there on screen.  He seems to favour playing villains, although is at home playing both henchmen and criminal masterminds.  Other than appearing in all these films, I know next to nothing about him, and neither does anyone else I ask.  Is there anyone who can shed some light on this extraordinarily prolific actor?

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