2010 Reviews

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Accident (Hong Kong - 2009)
Starring: Louis Koo, Richie Ren, Lam Suet
Director: Soi Cheang
Plot: The leader of a band of hitmen who stage assassinations to look like accidents becomes convinced an unknown competitor is out to get them in the same way.
Review: Another slick production from Johnnie To's Milkyway team, Accident has all the makings of a tightly-wounded action-mystery. The elaborately planned assassinations are interesting and clever, the characters quickly drawn but believable, and the ensuing mystery engaging. Director Soi Cheang somewhat redeems himself from the mess that was Shamo and does well enough with the plot's limited premise, offering up a spare, intimate affair that's capably shot and paced. While the film has some flashes of psychological drama - the protagonist is still bereaved over his wife's deadly car accident (or was it?) - there's also suspense and paranoia in spades, and the script is smart enough to keep us guessing. The cast is also quite capable, with leading-man Koo proving once again he can be more than just a pretty face, giving a fine central performance as the brilliant but paranoid hit man. The movie eventually loses steam at about the two-thirds mark, completely unraveling in a deus ex machina climax that provides a clever but unfulfilling twist ending. Still, Accident is a a well crafted, if ultimately unmemorable thriller that makes a nice double-feature with Koo's more manically paced Connected.
Entertainment: 6/10

Black Lightning (Russia - 2009)
Starring: Grigoriy Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy
Director: Alexandr Voytinskiy & Dmitriy Kiselev
Plot: Soon realizing that the old car he was given as a birthday gift is actually part of a lost Soviet-era experiment to make a car that can fly, a university student to fight crime as the city's defender.
Review: A box office smash in its native Russia, Black Lightning has the look and feel of a slick Hollywood production with the sensitivity and brashness of its Motherland roots. The title is the name of the car, not the super-hero, though you could be excused for the mix-up; this is pretty much a super-hero movie through-and-through, a Russian riff on the Hollywood adaptations of Transformers, Iron Man and - most especially - Spider Man. In fact, the story elements, structure, use of effective melodrama and most of the actual plot seem to strangely parallel Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man film, from the themes of teenage angst and "with great power comes great responsibility" (including a similar tragic turning point). But don't worry - it's all good. Knowing this is from producer Timur Bekmambetov (who did the fantastic Nightwatch and Wanted) is good enough to know we're in good hands, and his directors clearly follow his lead in setting up effective characters, pacing and some thrilling action sequences, most of which involve our hero improbably zooming through the skies to deliver flowers (at first) and then to catch the city's criminals. Add to this some excellent art direction and production values, decent special effects, an involving story and a quite capable cast and you've got a movie that feels like it's got more guts and pep than most of this summer's tent-pole movies. For sure, none of this can be taken too seriously, and the finale has all the makings of cartoon excess, but it's made with enough verve and smarts that audiences ready for a load of mainstream entertainment will relish the trip. It's a giddy, enjoyable popcorn-friendly experience that you won't feel guilty recommending.
Note: Apart from getting actors who are more familiar to American audiences, there's really little need for a US remake, but that's what's in the works, with Bekmambetov directing no less. He'll probably do a great job of it, but for the real deal, see the original Russian version on DVD. 
Entertainment: 7/10

First Squad: The Moment of Truth (Russia / Japan - 2009)
Voices (Russian): Sergei Aisman, Elena Chebaturkina
Director: Yoshiharu Ashino
Plot: At the height of World War II, a young Russian girl with supernatural abilities attempts to enlist her now-dead comrades to oppose a secret Nazi cult from raising their 12th century ancestors to fight for the German cause on the Eastern Front.
Review: Loosely based on characters from a popular series of Soviet-era propaganda comics, First Squad is the first Russian-produced anime, and the mix of cultures proves to be an interesting experimental tale. The filmmakers know their audience, and have ensured that all their bases were covered: mixing in the popular Japanese animation style and storytelling to the Soviet experience, it's an interesting mix of history, over-the-top fiction, the occult and general mayhem. The animation from the studio that brought us The Animatrix and Tekkon Kinkreet is actually pretty well done, with decent character designs and some interesting visuals. In other words, there's something for everyone. But this ain't for kids; there's a lot of gore, bloody stylized combats and more mature themes. The stories of the Russian-German campaigns is already horrifying, to which the film adds a fictional tale of supernatural involvement and confrontation. The story is fantastic speculation (ok, pure hokum), of course, but it's easy to believe the battles are factual (they are) and surprisingly enough, so are the German Ahnenerbe and Russian 6th Division secret societies. Inserting mock, live interviews with a series of "experts" in between the cartoon action helps not only put the action in historical perspective but helps build the alternate universe. Indeed, the story looks like it could actually spawn more sequels and more adventures especially since WWII is rife with potential stories. It may not be completely memorable but First Squad has enough action, interesting elements (both in the techno-occult stuff and its presentation of war-era Russia) and a cool style in its short 70 minute run-time to make for an entertaining outing. 
Entertainment: 6/10

The Land Before Time (1988)
Voices: Pat Hingle, Gabriel Damon, Judith Barsi
Director: Don Bluth
Plot: After a terrible earthquake, a young dinosaur gets separated from his family and is joined by other youngsters in search of the way to a legendary valley.
Review: A time-proven, popular family animation executive-produced by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, The Land Before Time is an at-times lyrical, well-made effort that entertains. And what kid doesn't love dinosaurs? If the plot itself is rife with clichés, the concept is original enough and - once the two main characters introduced - there's lots of adventure and peril to be had and avoided (an earthquake, volcanoes, a hungry T-Rex and - just as important - starvation), all woven into the themes of friendship and cooperation that's at the heart of the story. With its brief running time there's little opportunity to get bored even if the first 20 minutes or so are actually quite relaxed. Director Bluth, a long-time Disney animator, went his own way a while back and his production house, a rare independent in a then-Disney world, also made the then-popular An American Tail. It's no surprise, then, that shades of Bambi are obvious in these opening scenes, as is a general early-Disney influence to the rest of the film. The animation is for the most part quite warm and rich; if not too detailed, it's quite serviceable for the story, even on the big screen. If not fully developed, the dinosaur characters are endearing enough and kids will empathize with their too-human emotions and actions. Note that even if this is meant for younger audiences, the tone and look of the film is actually pretty dark and solemn, some might even say depressing, as the dinosaurs search (quite literally) for greener pastures in a land turned to rocky desert. Younger kids may also be frightened by the chases with the T-Rex and will probably question the singular tragedy in the movie. The film eventually spawned a dozen, kid-and-parent-friendly, mostly direct-to-DVD sequels and a TV show, but none of which capture the spirit and care of this original. One of the better family flicks available, it's easy to recommend to parents.
Family Entertainment: 7/10

Ip Man 2 (Hong Kong - 2010)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Lynn Hung
Director: Wilson Yip
Plot: After migrating to Hong Kong with his family in the early 1950's, a martial arts instructor has some difficulty gaining acceptance with the local clans and the local British occupiers after opening up a training center to propagate his discipline of Wing Chun.
Review: Following the critical and box office success of Ip Man, was there ever any doubt a sequel would be close behind? Less though out than its predecessor, the film is just as slick and ably produced, with lots of opportunities for martial arts action, but it feels redundant and derivative. Though it relates to being the continuing story of Ip Man, the martial arts teacher who became famous for training Bruce Lee, there's little of any true biography here and even less of a story. While Ip Man (the original movie) gained a lot for being expansive and showing the duality of life between the years before and during the Japanese occupation, and the hardships therein, the sequel really doesn't have as much emotional pull, no matter how despicable the English occupiers are portrayed to be. At least the first half offers up some solid fighting and inventive choreography, and the addition of Hong Kong action vet Sammo Hung is always welcome; a battle of skills on top of a precariously balanced tabletop is a highlight, proving that he's still got the moves even after all these years. Here returning director Yip offers up the same kinetic energy as the first go-around and leading-man Yen effortlessly goes through the required paces, both in the minimal required acting and the outrageous action sequences. Not so interesting is the second half of the film, which focuses on a British-staged boxing match pitting East and West, against a Dolph Lundgren-like Caucasian killing machine. Both Hung and Yen get what feels like half an hour to bring him down, and the movie enters the realm of Rocky IV, or at least that of just about a dozen similarly-themed HK efforts of the last 30 years without bringing anything new to the table. Sure, there's lots of jingoistic fervor - some quite unpleasant - but it doesn't feel nearly as tense or important as the climax of its predecessor. Still, half an entertaining movie is better than none, and for that at least it's worth a half-hearted recommendation for Donnie Yen fans.
Entertainment: 6/10 

The Message (China - 2009)
Starring: Zhou Xun, Li Bingbing, Zhang Hanyu
Directors: Kuo-fu Chen, Qunshu Gao
Plot: Following the assassination of a high-ranking Japanese in 1942 Nanjing, five Chinese officers from the code-breaking department are rounded up in a remote castle for questioning and interrogation to route out the mole among them.
Review: The Message is further proof that Chinese cinema has all the mainstream panache of any state-side production. Set at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, what starts off as a war-time spy thriller akin to the '50's Hollywood Nazi-vs.-Allied flicks of old evolves into a very Agatha Christie-like whodunit with clues, a devious charade and plenty of red herrings. To keep things dynamic, and perhaps audiences awake, directors Kuo-fu Chen and Qunshu Gao add visual flourishes and elaborate CGI-enhanced camera swirls and lunges, as well as some unpleasant scenes of interrogations and torture. None of this, however, is necessary; the well-shot gothic castle interiors, dark and ominous atmosphere, opulent production values and strong (albeit theatrical) performances from the star cast highlight an engaging, suspenseful script. Indeed, the film's real selling point is the intense game of cat and mouse played out over the course of a few days, as the Japanese play mind games to route out the impostor, and the unknown Chinese mole seeks to send out a warning to the resistance. As the suspects get eliminated one by one, their captors also feel the toll of their actions until the true deception is revealed. The ending is unfortunately marred by unnecessary jingoistic fervor, no doubt because this was made under the auspices of a propaganda piece in honoring Chinese national spirit and sacrifice for the PRC’s 60th anniversary. Despite this, The Message is an entertaining, commercial thriller that's smart, often gripping and easily digestible for any audience.
Entertainment: 7/10

Overheard (Hong Kong - 2009)
Starring: Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, Daniel Wu
Director: Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Plot: A trio of decent cops specializing in wire-tapping and industrial crimes find themselves tempted by profit after overhearing a conversation on insider trading, leading to a succession of crimes and an inevitable reckoning.
Review: A different kind of cop thriller than the action and crime drama extravaganzas that we're used to seeing from Hong Kong, Overheard is a slickly produced, morally ambiguous tale has enough twists and turns - some predictable, some not so much - to keep things interesting. The taut pace and (sometimes exaggerated) risks taken by the wire-tapping team adds some spice to a sub-genre that hasn't been this exciting since The Conversation; as displayed here, surveillance is a game of cat and mouse, where the most paranoid, the most patient and the most cunning wins in the long run. Just like the writing / directing duo's Infernal Affairs, the film is more concerned about character drama (as they wrestle with their conscience), the tension between its players (as they try to hide their deeds from their fellow officers) and the suspense of the unfolding situations (things take a nasty turn when the corporate villains take notice) than on violence or action - though there's some of that, too. The stellar cast, headlined by Lau Ching-Wan, showcases three of the most sought-after male Asian stars - none of them really stretch their acting abilities here, but it's great to watch them at work. Though much of it devolves into melodrama, the three are given different backgrounds and reasons to be tempted by an "innocent" crime, which helps them (and us) put some perspective to their characters. Half-expectedly, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, with a denouement that lacks finesse, but for the most part Overheard is a capable, note-worthy crime thriller.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Secret Reunion (South Korea - 2010)
Starring: Song Kang-Ho, Kang Dong-Won, Yun Hee-Seok
Director: Hun Jang
Plot: Six years after leading a bloody, botched attempt to capture a North Korean spy ring, a discharged South Korean counter-intelligence officer stumbles upon one of the North Korean agents, himself abandoned by his country. Neither giving away the fact they know each other, they agree to work together catching runaway Vietnamese wives, biding their time to cross the other and so redeem themselves.
Review: Comparisons with Shiri may be unavoidable when first watching The Secret Reunion, but one quickly realizes that the movie offers up much more than simple thriller clichés. The film starts with a well executed sequence, a violent assassination in an apartment complex and a failed chase across city streets. Don't be fooled, though - this is not an action film. Though two capable action scenes bookend the film (these are as good as any you'll find in a Hollywood picture) what starts out as a typical North versus South Korea thriller actually turns into an endearing melodrama and a comedy-of-errors before twisting to its inevitable violent climax. Think of it as an espionage buddy-comedy flick, where both parties are working for the other side, playing a game of "how much does he know that I know", angling to use their relationship to double-cross the other and gain the upper hand. Director Hun Jang sophomore effort proves he can balance all the various elements to good effect, creating a film as well crafted as his debut Rough Cut; it's not fancy, but it steams along nicely. To be sure, this would not have been nearly as successful if it weren't for the two leads, who show a great camaraderie built on distrust. It makes for an interesting dynamic; as amusing it is on the surface, there's a building tension in the knowledge that there's bound to be a reckoning. The affable Song Kang-Ho, deservedly acclaimed as Korea's best actor, is the spy catcher and cooler-than-cool pretty-boy Kang Dong-Won is the spy; both of them are flawed, broken men, whose respective countries has left them far behind. In the end, the film does take the easy route to a resolution, but rare is the mainstream thriller where is humor, pathos, and a definite sense of suspense intermingle so well. With an assured direction, solid production values, great pacing and wit, The Secret Reunion is for now the most fun thriller of the year.
Entertainment: 8/10

Other reviewed films that played at the FantAsia 2010 Festival:

Fish Story Merantau Oblivion Island Summer Wars Written By

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