Long Day's Journey Into Night (2019)

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Direction: Bi Gan
Country: China / France

This particular Day’s Journey Into Night has absolutely nothing to do with the famous Eugene O’Neill's play turned into a classic drama film by Sidney Lumet in 1962. Instead, it is an art house effort that marks the second directorial feature film by Bi Gan, a Chinese filmmaker, poet and photographer born in Kaili, Guizhou province.

The follow-up to Kaili Blues (2015) is stylishly rich in influences, carries a good-look charm and an intriguing noir mood that lingers. Like its predecessor, it has the director’s hometown as a point of departure for a dreamy, sort of out-of-the-body experience where false and true memories blur a labyrinthine reality. The director got credit for changing to 3D at some point, after which he shot a nearly one-hour take.

The secluded Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) talks in his vivid dreams. He calls himself a detective as he searches for Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the girl in his dreams, the one who marked his life in such a way that it's impossible to forget her. He doesn’t know what happened to her since he left Kaili 12 years before. However, his father’s death forces his return to that city, an opportunity to investigate more about his mysterious former lover.

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This man is willing to undertake wacky trips where several encounters with strange people occur under intriguing ambiances. There’s an abandoned old house transformed into a shallow pool by a leaking ceiling, a rusty wall clock with valuable info inside, a green book with an inspiring love story, a decrepit porn theater with a passageway to a secret basement from where it’s difficult to find a way out, a dark place for gaming where he gets locked up with a girl from his hometown… all these elements push us to walk through a gauntlet of sensory, obfuscatory mystery. If the cinematography is great, the score led by Jia Zhangke’s first choice, Lim Giong, is no less essential.

The film occasionally strains to connect in all its languor and wistfulness, but when it does, it can be fascinating. This is a minimal story structured with deliberate entanglement; therefore, don’t expect things to be served easily. It’s puzzling like Tarkovsky, romantic like Wong Kar Wai, and painful like Tsai Ming Liang.

Bi Gan presents us impasses and ambiguities along the way that by no means are resolved. I take my hat off to him in terms of filmmaking, yet the experience would have been better if the script had a less blurred nitty-gritty and more bite.

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Ash Is Purest White (2019)

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Direction: Jia Zhangke
Country: China

Ash is Purest White is the latest art-house period drama of gifted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It’s also a tart love story that spans 18 years and overflows with precious details and a lot of references to the auteur’s previous films and themes.

Structured in three parts, the story begins in 2001 in Datong and follows small-time mobster Guo Bin (Liao Fan) and his loyal, quick-witted girlfriend Zhao Qiao (director’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). They spend time among friends, playing mahjong at the bar he owns and taking a good care of the illicit business that allows them to live comfortably. As members of the Jianghu, a word referring to the Chinese underworld, which also means trust, they act and react according to that lifestyle. “For people like us, it’s always to kill or to be killed”- he says. However, the Jianghu is not like in the old days anymore. Times are changing at a hasty pace. Whilst he enjoys living in the margins of the society, she opens up about wanting a stable life, in an attempt to coax him into the idea of family.

This dream becomes totally impracticable for Qiao after she was forced to shoot a gun to save Bin’s life from a violent ambush. While she is sentenced to five years, he does only one, after which he never visits her in prison. Immediately after her release, the disappointed Qiao heads to Fengjie, where Bin is now working. She obviously suspects of betrayal, but, self-reliant as she is, she just can’t let the hope dies and forget the case. Moreover, if something happened, she wants to hear it from him, not from anyone else. Is she prepared for the cruel truth?

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The misadventure includes a frustrating boat trip through the Three Ganges Dam and a lot of artfulness to survive. The repeated locations and comparable characters make us think of a combination between the social disenchantment of Unknown Pleasures and the austere transformations of modern China depicted in Still Life. In the same manner, a strong female character is at the center of the story, just like it happened in the director’s previous effort, Mountains May Depart. Still, Zhao Tao elevates Qiao as the most active and resolute of the characters, delivering a thoroughly engaging performance.

Preserving a detailed, intimate, and observant style, so reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Zhangke provides us a culturally intense, consistently-told story with a noir sense of punishment, bitterness, and disillusion. This powerful look at an ever-transitioning Chinese society comes with plausible twists that indicate new times, new realities, and new postures.

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An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

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Direction: Hu Bo
Country: China

Shrouded in gloominess, disappointment, and anguished regret, An Elephant Sitting Still is a moody undertaking on human existence. Despite running for nearly four hours, this incisive realistic drama set in suburban China was never fatiguing as a result of an efficient narrative filled with uncertainty and surprises. Its bleakness hits you even harder when you think that its director, the novelist Hu Bo, committed suicide right after finishing the film. He was 29, and this work became his first and last film.

You can sense the sadness, fear, and emptiness coming from all directions, witnessing the loveless environments that engulf miserable characters looking desperately for a way out. The pale grayish canvases capturing an outside world so big and so limiting at the same time, reinforce this crushing feeling of hopelessness.

Flowing at a steady pace, the film is structured to accommodate four narrative threads that unfold in the same Chinese neighborhood during one single day. The central characters of each story end up connecting with one another at some point.

16-year-old Bu Wei (Peng Yuchang) lives in a constant tension at home, especially after his unscrupulous father has been fired for taking bribes. Courageous, he’s not afraid to confront the bullies that mess with his friend at school. However, after an incident that takes the leader of the bullies to the hospital, he is chased down by the latter’s older brother, Cheng Yu (Zhang Yu), a dangerous and heartless criminal who lives with the guilt of being directly implicated in the suicide of his childhood friend.

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Living in the same building of Bu is Mr. Wang (Li Congxi), an aging man on the verge of losing his own apartment and being sent to a nursing home by his insensitive son. Bu’s classmate, Ling Huang (Wang Uvin), is also in a dead end, unable to find love in her coldhearted single mother. She lets herself being dragged to forbidden encounters with her school’s vice dean (Xiang Ring Dong), an obscure man.

Feeling an urgent need for change, the two youngsters and the old man resolve to search for hope in China’s busiest port of entry, Manzhouli, where the rumors say there is a mythical circus elephant that sits still all day long, doing nothing and ignoring everything around it.

Economic struggle, crime, intimidation in a variety of forms, and, above all, the lack of affection and joie de vivre, are factors strongly influencing the course of the story. Hu Bo, who could have been a true artist of the cinema, put his spellbinding camerawork at the service of a brutal social exposition with plenty of anger and frustration. The effect is intimidating and very real.

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Shadow (2018)

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Directed by Zhang Yimou
Country: China / Hong Kong

Shadow signals the powerful return of Chinese director Zhang Yimou to the wuxia epics, whose fanciful conception he dominates from top to bottom. The veteran filmmaker, whose extensive filmography includes masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994), collaborated with Wei Li in the script of this fabulous tale set during the Three Kingdom era.

The selfish, presumptuous, and short-tempered King of Pei (Zheng Kai) is worried about the advancements of General Yang (Hu Jun), an unbeatable warrior who already took the neighbor city of Jingzhou. For his defense, the king relies on the high-ranked Commander Yu (Deng Chao), a quick-witted spearman whose true identity is Jing. Essentially, the plebeian Jing is the ‘shadow’ of the real Yu, meaning that he has been trained in an intensive way to become his double since he was rescued from the streets 20 years before.

Jing is confident that he can beat General Yang in a duel. However, the gutless King opts for a different strategy, offering his sister (Guan Xiaotong) in marriage. The future husband would be Yang’s insolent son, Ping (Leo Wu), who insults the princess by proposing an alternative solution: to take her as a concubine.

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Jing is demoted of his duties for disobeying the king’s orders, and still, he doesn’t give up the idea of duelling Yang. Yu keeps on training him and fortuitously finds the pathway to victory through a smart tactic suggested by his wife, Madam (Sun Li).

Entailing dramatic tension, especially with the forbidden love between Jing and Madam, the film then segues into spectacular battles, complemented by terrific musical moments and a broad sense of uncertainty.

The physical confrontations take the shape of balletic dances, meticulously choreographed with whirlingly lethal umbrellas in the mix. Visually, it never ceases to dazzle our eyes, either through the quasi-monochromatic canvases displaying misty Chinese landscapes or the ingenious costume design. Shadow is a sumptuous sensory feast filled with spectacle, surprise, and madness.

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Soul On a String (2016)

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Directed by Zhang Yang
Country: China

I’ve always admired the way that Beijing-born filmmaker Zhang Yang handles a story. The gentle “Shower”, his first and major hit, saw the daylight in 1999, but other compelling dramas succeeded, brimming with sufficient points of interest to deserve approval, namely, “Sunflower” and “Getting Home”.

His epic and subliminal revenge tale, “Soul On a String”, adapted from two novels by Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa, may feel excessively contemplative in some passages but it’s also smartly written, marvelously photographed, and sagaciously detailed.
Rooted in ancient tradition, the storyline revolves around Tabei (Kimba), a sinful man who was entrusted with a special mission after finding a precious Tibetan stone in the mouth of a deer. Blessed by a sapient monk, Tabei sets off to the Buddha’s sacred Palm Print Mountain, where the stone has to be returned. The arduous journey works also as an opportunity for a soul cleanse, as well as to bring his life to a right path.

After a one-night stand with the solitary and obstinate Chung (Quni Ciren), the traveler will have her company for the trip, even if he doesn't want to. Later, a homeless dumb kid, whom they name Pu (Yizi Danzeng), joins them on the adventure. In truth, he becomes extremely useful with his psychic powers and keen sense of orientation. Chung is the one to be happy with his presence since she's more adept of children than swords.

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Crossing amazing landscapes to avoid the insecure main roads, the confident Tabei and his friends head north, aware that a few mysterious men keep following them. 
One of these men is Gedan (Siano Dudiom Zahi), a shadowy cowboy and writer who searches for answers himself, while the other two, Guori (Zerong Dages) and Kodi (Lei Chen), are two brothers who want to avenge the death of their dad, killed by Tabei’s late father in a duel. The younger brother is so enraged that, for the last ten years, he has been killing every man named Tabei that crossed his path.

The camera, peeking from any possible direction, captures stunning sceneries whose combination of color and light would make a great impressionistic painting. The splendid, ultra-polished widescreen cinematography belongs to Guo Daming, who was also preponderant last year in Yang’s “Paths of the Soul”.

The director, privileging tense generational predicaments over bloodsheds, also infuses a prickly, spot-on humor into his storytelling.

The engaging “Soul On a String” is an unparalleled Buddhist-Western odyssey that effectively earned my attention during its nearly two and a half hours.

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The Mermaid (2016)

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Directed by Stephen Chow
Country: China

Stephen Chow’s zany extravaganza, “The Mermaid”, a massive success in China, presents magical powers that have two possible and distinct effects on a viewer. Due to a clownish temper, this screwball fairy tale with a strong ecological message might irritate those who have no patience for fantasies, dreams, or absurdities. On the other hand, it might work as a buoyant amusement for the ones who, more flexible, don’t mind being pelted with an outlandish storyline, ludicrous jokes, and a general sense of cheesiness that quickly spreads over the pores of your skin.

Shan (Yun Lin) is a beautiful mermaid who, secretly and for many years, lives with her people in the Green Gulf, a formerly protected wildlife area, bought by the womanizer tycoon, Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), who, like Bruce Lee, let himself go with the flow. The invincible and yet lonely, Xuan, who holds a sea reclamation permit, uses powerful sonar technology that drove away all the dolphins and keeps provoking ruinous sickness in the mermaids that inhabit the place in fear of being hunted down by the humans, as always had happened. Trapped and hurt, they manage to find a safe yet small place in an abandoned shipwreck where, together with a hybrid Octopus warrior (Show Luo), the last of his kind, they start planning a revenge. The strategy consists in sending the alluring Shan, who learned to hide her fins and walk in shoes, to seduce the untouchable Xuan, a man of fake mustache and attitudes. The latter openly admits he cannot resist an attractive woman, despite maintaining a deceptive relationship with the manipulative Ruolan (Yuqi Zhang), who sees him as a lowlife and whose only interests are power and money.

The plan goes pretty well at first, but the inevitable happens. After spending a wonderful time together, having a relaxed conversation and eating innumerable roasted chickens, the couple falls in love. He unexpectedly gets sentimental about the chicken, which reminds him his late father, and becomes almost incredulous when she demonstrates not to be interested in his money, throwing a one million dollar check into the fire. In turn, she realizes he’s not so bad as she had thought and starts to understand that his actions are a reflex of a tiresome loneliness and permanent dissatisfaction with his life. As you can imagine, after this enchanting encounter, everything becomes pretty dramatic.
There are a few spectacular chases where Shan sees her life threatened by the troops commanded by the glamorous villain, Ruolan, and the avid Westerner mermaid-hunter, George (Ivan Kotik), who after all shows considerably more decency than she does. On the most memorable scene, the fearless Octopus sacrifices his own tentacles, which become gourmet food for the impassive Xuan, who becomes more conscious about the environment as his heart beats faster for his dear mermaid.

Mr. Chow, who has been conquering both local and foreign audiences with his facetious adventures (“Journey to the West”, “Kung Fu Hustle”), worked with other seven screenwriters on the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, which served as a disengaged inspiration. 
He builds a visually intense fantasy composed of vivid settings and edgy special effects. It can be described as half hilarious, half goofy. 
To be honest, “The Mermaid” is a pretty forgettable movie, but I must admit I was fairly entertained for large periods of its loony time.

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Mountains May Depart (2015) - Movie Review

Directed by Jia Zhangke
Country: China / others

The story behind “Mountain May Depart”, the well-structured drama from the celebrated Chinese filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, is divided into three interconnected parts representing the past, present, and future. 
Whoever isn’t familiar with the director’s previous works may be misled by the inaugural joyful tones of the film, which almost forces us to think of the word comedy. Yes, the film successfully extracts some laughs either, but is the dramatic side, together with a critical look at the society, that better characterize Mr. Zhangke’s films. 

The first segment, set in 1999 Fenyang, starts at the sound of ‘Go West’ by The Pet Shop Boys. A bunch of people is having fun in the course of a rhythmic choreography, and among them, we spot the main character, Tao (Tao Zhao), who often hangs out with her two best friends and suitors, Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang). While the former is a modest local coal miner who lacks ambition and leads an honest life, the latter is a boastful new rich who's among those who thrived due to the capitalism expansion in China. The two competitors have a few squabbles over Tao, who ends up choosing Jinsheng, not without difficulty and carrying a sense of loss in her heart. While the fresh couple makes all the arrangements for the marriage, Liangzi resolves to leave Fenyang city for good. 

The story then shifts to 2014, and we see Liangzi, now a married man and father, returning to his hometown with lung cancer, a consequence of many years breathing the coal mines' pestilent air. On the other hand, Tao is divorced and grieves the death of her father, whose funeral triggers the visit of her estranged 7-year-old son, now called Dollar (an obvious homage to capitalism), who arrives from Shanghai to pay his respects to granddad. 

The last segment, not so strong as the first two, transports us to 2025 Australia, where the aimless Dollar simply can’t communicate (a language gap) with his whimsical, messy father, and embarks in a relationship with his much older Chinese teacher who tries to regain some balance after a distressing divorce. Both feel misplaced and want to get in touch with their roots, a step that is manifestly more complicated than it seems. 

Seamlessly alternating between ironic and cerebral, the film doesn’t match its predecessor, “A Touch of Sin”, in terms of immediacy, but Zhangke’s hand is still clearly perceptible – desolated landscapes, complex feelings, and a sense of emotional void. Like in the beginning, the film ends with Tao dancing ‘Go West’, but this time, the circumstances are entirely different.

Coming Home (2014)

Coming Home (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Country: China

Movie Review: 28 years have passed since the first collaboration between the awarded Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, and the renowned actress, Gong Li. That first movie was “Red Sorghum” - not really one of my favorites - and their successful association would become stronger in subsequent essential dramas, all of them from the 90’s, cases of “Ju Dou”, “Raise the Red Lantern”, “The Story of Qiu Ju”, “To Live”, and “Shanghai Triad”. Now, they reunite one more time in “Coming Home”, eight years after “The Curse of the Golden Flower”, an adventurous action epic from 2007. Gong Li plays Yu Feng, a wife and former teacher whose husband, Lu Yanshi (Daoming Chen), also a professor, was arrested for political reasons and sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Their teenage daughter, Dandan (Huiwen Zhang), an extremely skillful ballerina, was refused the leading role in the famous ballet ‘Red Detachment of Women’ because her father was considered an outlaw. She grew up resentful with this setback, choosing to denounce her father when he attempts to approach Yu after managing to escape the camp where he was confined. A few years later, the Cultural Revolution is over and Lu is finally released. However, he realizes that everything has changed during all those years. Dandan currently lives in the dormitory of the old textile factory where she’s working and is now regretful about her actions. In turn, Yu reacts in a distant way and doesn't seem to care anymore, not because she has stopped loving him, but because she’s unable to recognize him due to suffering from a traumatic amnesia. Not so striking as other dramatic voyages of Mr. Yimou, the relentlessly grievous “Coming Home” still is a copious improvement when compared with the contrived “The Flowers of War”, a reenactment of a Japan’s Nanking incident, in which starred Christian Bale and Ni Ni. Despite the tenacious melodramatic tones, a beneficial aspect is that the script, adapted by Jingzhi Zou from the novel ‘The Criminal Lu Yanshi’ by Geling Yan, doesn’t take us to the most obvious places. A magnetic photography, painted with rich colors, together with the solid production values, do the rest.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014)

The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Country: China

Movie Review: Vietnamese-born director, Tsui Hark, is already a reference when it comes to spectacular Asian flicks that combine adventure, fantasy, and action. In his latest, the 3D “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”, he based himself on Qu Bo’s novel ‘Tracks in the Snowy Forest’, focusing on a particular episode of the communist Chinese revolution, and bringing in, both real and fictional characters. Thoroughly mounted and sharply shot, the film is another colorful adventure, but this time lacking the fantasy, splendor and mystery of “Detective Dee”. And how I missed these aspects! On the one hand we can call it minimally entertaining, taking into account some curious characters that include soldiers, spies, bandits, and assassins; on the other hand, its violent scenes are too detailed and set up with a clangorous ostentation (a tiger attack was the most ridiculous of them), gradually becoming more tiresome than substantial. Another aspect that deserves a bit more attention from Mr.Hark is the duration of his movies – almost two hours and a half for a movie with this visual intensity is too much, and only works for masterpieces such as the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sentimentality also dwells here, designed by the presence of Knoti, a scared, famished little boy who thought to have lost his mother. With all its faults, I have to admit that one of the most freakish villains of the contemporary Chinese cinema can be found here. Actually, Lord Hawk, terrifically impersonated by Tony Leung Ka-fai, was a spectacle for the eyes, coming instantly to my mind when I try to figure out something positive. “The Taking of Tiger Mountain” is a razzle-dazzle that probably would give a good comic book. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Black Coal Thin Ice (2014)

Black Coal Thin Ice (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Diao Yinan
Country: China

Movie Review: The third feature-film from writer/director Diao Yinan, “Black Coal Thin Ice” mixes drama and mystery, in a neo-noir cop thriller set in Northern China, and occasionally becomes hard to follow. An alcoholic ex-cop and his former partner decide to investigate several connected murders occurred in the region, where parts of the victims’ bodies are dumped in different places via coal stacks shipments. These crimes were similar to other cases occurred five years ago. The clues take, the now private investigator, Zhang (Fan Liao), to Wu Zhizen (Lun Mei Gwei), an elusive laundry clerk woman, widow of one of the victims, who will become the key to the mystery, since every man who got close to her ended up dead. The film title alludes to the distinct atmospheres lived in the suffocating interior of coalmines and the bitter cold of the exterior, where the snow often erases crucial traces. The two main characters also live in different realities, only converging once after investigator and investigated start an unpassioned affair that can put them at risk. Yinan’s filmmaking style brings Tsai Ming Liang to our mind, especially in the nocturnal scenes and strongly accentuated colors, aspect that matched very well the dark tones of the story. “Black Coal Thin Ice” is almost phantasmagoric in its shadows and presences, but in spite of the inspired visuals and framing, there were scenes that I felt a bit out of context, in addition to a finale that was everything but unexpected. The film won the Golden Bear in Berlin, where Fan Liao was also considered best actor.

Personal Tailor (2013)

Personal Tailor (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Xiaogang Feng
Country: China

Movie Review: Abandoning for now commercial big productions (“Aftershock”, “Back to 1942”), Chinese helmer Xiaogang Feng embarks in a modest, yet witty comedy that makes diverse social-political considerations about the actual Chinese regime, its big leaders, art and artists, wealthy aristocrats, and environmental issues. Written by Shuo Wang, who already had collaborated with Feng in “If You Are the One 2”, the story is centered in a company called ‘Personal Tailor’, dedicated to selling impossible dreams to their eccentric clients. Presented with farcical tones and counting with poignant, half-true-half-parody jokes, the episodic adventures start hilariously when the company enacts the capture and torture of a woman by the Nazi regime, moving afterwards to an incorruptible chauffer who eagerly whishes to be one of the big leaders of China (what a great laugh he puts!), but occasionally suffering crisis every time he becomes aware of reality. We can also follow a tasteless filmmaker struggling to create something art-house but eventually becoming victim of high-culture shock, and a money-fanatic woman whose bigger pleasure consists in pay exorbitant prices for whatever. This satire ends with a nostalgic touch, apologizing to nature and everyone else for the damages done in our planet. “Personal Tailor” exhibits a few good thoughts within the addressed topics, biting more through its cynical posture rather than its fluctuating execution.

A Touch of Sin (2013)

A Touch of Sin (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Country: China

Movie Review: Being an admirer of Jia Zhangke’s past works, I must say that “A Touch of Sin” was beyond my expectations. It was less contemplative comparing to the rest of his movies, bringing action scenes to the screen with determination and vigor, to denounce political and social injustices in modern-day China, always with industrial landscapes in the background and a phantasmagoric desolation that remains in our memory. The film is divided in four acts, along different Chinese regions, each of them being a story of despair, loneliness, and revenge (made explicitly violent). The first story follows Dahai who was the only one to defy the atmosphere of fear lived in the mine where he was working in, when he decided to accuse his former schoolmate, and now rich mine owner, of fraud. The second act follows a motorcyclist who briefly appears in the first story, returning home to his wife and son but unable to comply with the rules of society, becoming another renegade, condemned to be an eternal traveler and fugitive. The third act tells the story of a woman struggling to have a stable life with the married man she loves, refusing to act as a prostitute in the spa where she works. The last story showcases family exploitation and the end of a love dream for a young worker of a textile factory. Zhangke’s cinematic rigor, narrative sense, and firmness, allied to the amazing performances and plot’s significance, make “A touch of sin” an unmissable eye-opening drama that deserves a good reflection.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013)

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Country: China

Movie Review: Tsui Hark’s new film, featuring detective Dee Renjie and his first mystery case, is another magnanimous production that revealed to be a major disappointment when compared to the engrossing “Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, both in visuals and screenwriting. Obviously I was expecting something colorful, sensationalist, and cartoonish, but this time Hark’s overconfidence ruined everything by leaving substance behind, in what we can call a gaudy fantasy stuffed with digital manipulations, overdone fight choreography, and supernatural enigmas. Probably Korean “The Host” served as inspiration for its boring scenes, since the shrewd detective, performed by Mark Chao, involves himself in a battle against a gigantic sea dragon in order to solve a mysterious conspiracy against Imperial kingdom. Sadly, there’s nothing new or smart in this plot and the beautiful, enchanting atmosphere noticeable in the mentioned sequel from 2010, vanished completely here. I got bored even before its first half, so I don’t have to explain how interminable the film seemed to me. “Young Detective Dee” was too overcooked and action-packed in a fastidious way, becoming instantly forgettable. I guess it will only be suitable for those who are not demanding with what they chose to watch as entertainment, or are looking for some impact through its bumbling images.

Mystery (2012)

Mystery (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: Lou Ye
Country: China / France

Movie Review: “Mystery” is a Chinese dramatic thriller directed by Lou Ye whose past work is synonym of undeniable quality (“Suzhou River” and “Summer Palace”). Lately, he seems a bit lost in secondary dramas such were the cases of “Love and Bruises” and now this messy “Mystery”, where a dark love triangle ends up in murder. The film starts with a woman being run over by a car when she was already in a deplorable state. This woman was seen getting out of a hotel with Yongzhao, a married man and attentive father who, in parallel, supports a second family composed by his mistress and son. If the story started with some potential and nerve, it lost quickly its initial strength with unbalanced scenes and an overcooked plot that also involves the policeman who is in charge of the case and the ex-boyfriend of the deceased girl. In some moments, the shaky camera was adequate, giving a sensation of disorientation, but in others, its use was completely unnecessary and even annoying. An acceptable balance was never achieved and I can point some scenes that made my interest collapse along the way - a violent rape as punishment ends up in an overemotional situation, just like the raging murder of a homeless beggar. Moreover, every time an intense rain and threatening sky were present, was a sign that a crime would be committed. Erratic and unsatisfying, “Mystery” can be skipped without regrets.

Blind Detective (2013)

Blind Detective (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Johnnie To
Country: Hong Kong / China

Movie Review: If some weeks ago I have said that “Drug War” was one of the best films by Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, now I have to say that “Blind Detective” is one of his worst. With a proven track in the action-crime genre, Johnnie To tries to add some humor into this distasteful plot and the result becomes too childish to impress. The film stars Andy Lau as the blind detective, Johnston, and Sammi Cheng as Ho Ka Tung, an attractive female inspector who becomes his partner in a special investigation case. Both actors had worked together for several times, including other rom-coms from this same director. During its overlong and mind-numbing 129 minutes, the film failed to be eccentric or funny, and the screenplay by the long-time collaborator Wai Kai-Fai (“Drug War”, “Mad Detective”) left much to be desired. The unintelligent humor never caught me, the dialogues were tiresome and almost unbearable, the attempts to create tension were never exciting enough, and finally as romance the film fell in the ridicule of stereotyped moves. I would be much happier if Johnnie To remained faithful to the underworld crime thrillers, which are what he knows to do best, instead of wasting time with these hollow experiences. “Blind Detective” became the biggest disappointment of the year so far.

Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013)

Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Herman Yau
Country: Hong Kong / China

Movie Review: Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man was the subject of several films since 2008, going from illustrious unknown to appreciated martial-artist. His later life was depicted once again by the hand of Herman Yau, who already has directed “The Legend Is Born” in 2010, and the results are not so stylish and sumptuous as in Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster”, or entertaining as Wilson Yip’s “Ip Man”. Similar to those traditional martial-arts flicks in which multiple fights happen in the streets at the same time, “Ip Man: The Final Fight” seemed to have been prepared to look nice in its vivid colors but forgetting to tell this man’s story in a more captivating way. I was looking for something more vibrant and not so dramatic, a tendency that threw away any possibility of success. The cinematography was capable, while the soundtrack by Mark Chun-hung, alternating between sentimental and rambunctious, just intensifies everything that appears on the screen. The best aspect in the film is undoubtedly Anthony Wong’s performance, which despite not so charismatic as Tony Leung’s in “The Grandmaster”, was convincing and powerful. Some historical aspects concerning the political situation of Hong Kong at that time were not even mentioned, and as the title suggests, the most exciting moments were reserved for the final fight. In the end I had the impression that this wobbling portrait could have been done differently, for better, both in accuracy and spectacularity.

Drug War (2012)

Drug War (2012)
Directed by: Johnnie To
Country: China / Hong Kong

Review: Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To, returns in great shape to his favorite action-crime-thriller genre, putting in confrontation astute drug dealers and relentless cops. This ride to the underworld of narcotics supply and distribution is often hilarious and suspenseful, covering a mega operation carried out by Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and his anti-drug police squad, to dismantle a huge network that operates across Asia. The key for their success will be a drug lord named Timmy (Louis Koo) who decided to cooperate to avoid death sentence, after has been arrested. Well structured, the story flows coherently and is characterized for a dynamic pace, punctuated by one or two sporadic slowdowns that didn’t change my interest in the story. In addition to its fierce shootings and car maneuvers, which will put the action genre fans in ecstasy, there were some moments of good humor that helped turning “Drug War” in an easy-watching movie. Its major strengths were the simplicity and effectiveness of processes, without trying to stand out through unrealistic action scenes. To’s long time collaborator and partner in his Milky Way Production Company, Wai Ka-fai, co-produced and co-wrote, contributing to create a fruitful action flick. It simply became Johnnie To's most interesting film in years.

The Grandmaster (2013)

The Grandmaster (2013)
Directed by: Wong Kar-Wai
Country: China / Hong Kong / France

Review: Cult filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai is back, bringing with him Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang as stars. We cannot find many movies with the elegance and passion of “In The Mood For Love”, but “The Grandmaster” brings to our mind some of its best moments, adopting the same poetic approach to depict another impossible love. The novelty here is the addition of some action through martial arts, since the story was inspired in Yip Man’s life, the kung-fu master who would come to teach the legendary Bruce Lee. The film covers three different periods: 1930’s Foshan in China where he was recognized as a master, the difficult life in Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion, and finally from 1952 till his death in 1972. We also get to know the sad fate of Gong Er, a master's daughter who became secretly in love with Yip Man after a challenging fight. Kar-Wai’s camera work remains very strong where the richness of the plans and aesthetical care were crucial to catch our eye. To tell the truth, the visual aspect was much stronger than the story itself, which despite being interesting didn’t reveal the mystique of previous adventures. “The Grandmaster”, not being a masterpiece, is a sumptuous accomplishment that puts together a dissimulated love, revenge, sacrifice, and martial arts in the form of floating dances (preferably in the rain).

Back To 1942 (2012)

Back To 1942 (2012)
Directed: Xiaogang Feng
Country: China

Review: On the winter of 1942, when China was being invaded by Japan, a drought hit the province of Henan leading the people to starvation. A sensible question then arises: who should be fed in the first place, the soldiers or the people? The film partially succeeds in its purpose of revealing the drama of the refugees, as well as the impassivity and disregard of the Chiang Kai-shek government. Corruption was a constant, while religion is present in a small dose, with the converting attempts and faith dilemmas becoming the weakest moments of the plot. Adrien Brody plays a small part, hardly memorable, as a journalist from Times Magazine. Photography stood out, in a 145-minute high-budget production that would have gained with some trimming. Even flawed, Feng’s new historical film was far more interesting than “The Flowers of War” or “The Children of Huang Shi”.

Vulgaria (2012)

Vulgaria (2012)
Directed by: Pang Ho-Cheung
Country: Hong Kong

Review: 2012 wasn’t a year of much inspiration for Taiwanese filmmaker Pang Ho-Cheung. After a sloppy “Love in The Buff”, “Vulgaria” was another missed shot on comedy. The first moments had some interest, with a controversial interview given by an experienced film producer in front of students. But suddenly, the movie changed to imbecilic jokes about masturbation techniques, popping candy blow-jobs or sex with animals, all with a cynical silliness that got me bored very quickly. Family problems and Mafia connections were also introduced as mere pretexts to deflect our attention from the uninteresting sexual adventures of producer To Wai-Cheung. “Vulgaria”, as the title suggests, is nothing more than a vulgar movie.