2011 Reviews

Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links

Burke and Hare (2010)
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry
Director: John Landis
Plot: In Edinburgh, Scotland of the 1820's, two ex-grave robbers find a lucrative business providing cadavers to a medical school, resorting to killing local citizens to keep business going.
Review: The notorious grave-robbing and murder spree that shook Scotland in the early 19th century - and the two men behind them - has had previous film versions, all adapted to enhance the macabre aspects of the tale. The latest take, Burke and Hare, retells it as screwball comedy with a considerable budget, superb location recreation and an impressive European cast - too bad the staid narrative and failed comic timing make it all just a missed opportunity. Director Landis has had a long cinematic career, with such popular comic hits as Animal House and the cult horror classic An American Werewolf in London, the latter having admittedly one of the best man-to-beast transformations ever put to screen. Putting his experience of the two together should have provided for a raunchy, entertaining black comedy, but in this, his first film in a decade, he tackles the morbid tale in rather pedestrian manner, and the gallows humor based on the real-life facts is pretty much flat and uninspired. It doesn't help that the film feels the need to throw in a vapid romance, some shenanigans regarding an all-female troupe staging Macbeth, and the uncommon lack of strong British humor or wit. Worse, the slapstick and gross-out jokes just aren't funny, and it's a waste of such talents as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry (as antagonistic head surgeons) among others. As the leads, Pegg and Sirkis do commendable, if broad, turns as the titular murderers and, despite their characters' dastardly misdeeds, it's hard not to sympathize. The film goes down easy enough, in truth, but it's too bad they're stuck in a film that isn't up to them.
Entertainment: 4/10

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (Hong Kong - 2010)
Starring: Andy Lau, Chao Deng, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai
Director: Hark Tsui
Plot: A court detective, imprisoned for treason years before, is called back to duty by the Empress when a series of mysterious deaths involving spontaneous combustion threaten her inauguration.
Review: Hong Kong productions aren't always at their best when mashing up genres, but Detective Dee is a wild-eyed exception. Slick, fast, fun and done in inimitable HK style, it's a martial arts heavy mystery thriller that serves up some romance, screwball comedy and palace intrigue without missing a beat. Loosely based on a real-life Tang Dynasty official whose adventures were popularized by Asian pulp novels, Dee (as portrayed with verve and charisma by the go-to Asian male super-star Lau) is a sort of Chinese Sherlock Holmes who happens to use his wits as well as his kung fu skills to get his man. The many action set pieces, with loads of impressive-looking wirework fights choreographed by Sammo Hung, are great to look at. Even more enjoyable are the steps taken to uncover the method of assassination and the murderers, a battle between superstition and science, or what passes for such in this historical fantasy setting. The latter unfortunately fizzles out mid-way through as the secrets are revealed, but there are enough thrills and spills to make up for it. It's a nice return to fast-paced action / fantasy form for director Hark, the man behind some of the defining films to come out of the HK territory in the 80's and 90's (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China) but whose forays ever since have been somewhat of a hit (Time and Tide, Legend of Zu) or (mostly) miss. With solid production values, impressive pageantry, frenetic pacing and a more balanced use of CG than Hark's latest efforts, it easily wins audiences over. Detective Dee may not set the genre world on fire, nor does it have the panache of Hark's older films, but considering the dirth of good old fashioned HK action flicks, this is a welcome, entertaining concoction.
Entertainment: 7/10

Haunters (South Korea - 2010) 
Starring: Choi Deok-Moon, Jeong Eun-Chae, Dong-won Kang
Director: Min-suk Kim
Plot: Having made a comfortable life for himself, a malicious, brooding loner with the power to control people who fall under his gaze comes into conflict with a small-time pawn shop manager who can resist him.
Review: A sci-fi thriller with horror and comic-book sensibilities, Haunters bravely mixes different genres to provide an antidote to the colorful, over-the-top blockbusters and comes out a winner. At first glance there appears to be shades of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable here, with its hero / villain premise grounded in gritty reality, but playing with the Korean horror aesthetic as much as with the super-hero genre, writer / director Min-suk Kim's first effort works wonders at being its own thing. The suspense is palpable; the proceedings at times breathlessly entertaining, violent and downright scary, especially as the bodies pile up to almost ridiculous extremes, yet keeping within the realm of its reality. Yet the script has as much to say about friendship and hope as it has to bringing about its supernatural terror. The villain is a petulant, spoiled teen with the powers of a god and the social development of a child. He's also a brilliant creation, and his "origin" story as a child facing a fearful mother and brutal father - as depicted in the film's opening scenes - are understandably psychologically scarring. By contrast, the hero is outgoing, friendly, and cares deeply for the people around him; his only power is that he has an incredible amount of resilience. Once the two antagonists meet, it rarely lets up. The ensuing confrontation may seem to be one-sided - especially as the extent of the villain's psychic abilities and disregard for human life become evident - but it works, quickly escalating in stakes and viciousness. Throwing in the occasional visual gag and keeping the dramatic elements firmly in place, Haunters is a finely-tuned mainstream action / horror flick that plays with the genres and proves there are still engaging, original tales to be told.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (Hong Kong - 2010)
Starring: Yu-Hang To, Siu-Wong Fan, Yuen Biao
Director: Herman Yau
Plot: A young kung fu disciple is torn between the teachings of two very different Wing Chun masters, but this quickly takes back seat when he discovers a traitor working for the Japanese is trying to take over the school and the local economy.
Review: Hot on the heels of the successful martial arts entries Ip Man and Ip Man 2 comes The Legend is Born, a bland prequel made quickly if not on the cheap to capitalize on the series' previous box-office success. The film is meant to dramatize the beginnings and early adulthood of the legend surrounding the man whose greatest claim to fame may be having trained Bruce Lee himself. The man's life may well have been interesting fodder for multiple films, but as brought to the screen by exploitation director Yau (Untold Story, Ebola Syndrome) it's pretty bland stuff, all done in a very pedestrian style. There are some nice sets and lots of cameos by local acting legends pepper the narrative, but for a film that markets itself as an action-fest, there's strangely little but soap-opera-friendly melodrama until the past the one hour plus mark. The final reel does have a fast, kinetic battle against Japanese ninja look-alikes, and the brother-against-brother fight is a good example of sterling HK choreography (minus some unnecessary wire work), but even with a surprise plot twist the film is utterly forgettable. Taking over from Donnie Yen, real-life Wing Chun expert Dennis To takes on the role of the young Ip Man; he's certainly a capable martial artist, but he's no catch in the acting or charisma department - Donnie, you are missed. Perhaps the only redeeming quality is the chance to see Yuen Biao - one of Jackie Chan's peers and cinematic companions of the 1980's - fighting again on screen after too long an absence, and easily the best scene of the film is a sparring demonstration of the style's quick punches and kicks against another legendary star, Sammo Hung. Alas, there's little else. The Legend Is Born is not a bad movie, it just isn't one that's worth having been made or worth wasting time on.
Entertainment: 4/10

Ocean Heaven (Hong Kong - 2010)
Starring: Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Guey Lun-Mei
Director: Xue Xiaolu 
Plot: Having raised an autistic child alone for 20 years but finding himself terminally ill, a mechanic working at the local aquarium must find an institution that will take his son in.
Review: A socially conscious, low-key drama, Ocean Heaven one-ups its Hollywood peers as a mainstream tearjerker, one that will leave no parent - or child - unaffected. The opening sequence, on its own, is memorable and poignant. For sure, the film has its heart on its sleeve and it doesn't hide its sentimental side. As China is facing an incredible economic boom, so is it facing growing social challenges, and the filmmakers have created something akin to a well-wishing fairy-tale, a world that may be a little too sweet and wholesome for some, where the government is inept, but all the people are supportive and wonderful. The impeccable cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle and the wonderful aquarium scenes, sure helps set the required mood. Yet writer / director Xue Xiaolu keeps things deliberate and restrained, never giving in to the overt manipulation that characterizes most weepies, allowing the daily tasks, small joys and hardships to build in significance. A lot of credit goes to the two leads: the legendary Jet Li, the kung fu master known and loved for such classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Fearless, makes a rather effective acting career switch to drama as the patient, loving single father. The expressive Wang, as the autistic young man, also really impresses with his cheerful innocence and entrenched habits; he's completely credible in the role. Ocean Heaven seemed destined to awards consideration, but if it does or not, the strong story-telling, endearing characters and message of hope are sure to please.
Drama: 7/10

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland / Norway - 2010)
Starring: Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi and Onni Tommila
Director: Jalmari Helander
Plot: When an American businessman unearths the original Santa Claus from a remote mountain in Finland, but when reindeer are found gutted and children start disappearing it's up to a level-headed boy and his unbelieving dad to put things right.
Review: An odd ode to Christmas, Rare Exports is a rare affair indeed: a mischievous Finnish horror comedy that re-invents - or takes back - the more pagan origins of Santa Claus as a boogey-man who flayed naughty young children (and adults). But unlike other, more bloody, straight horror yarns, this one exudes an irreverent humor and strong character appeal that make the short running time (at barely 80 minutes) pass swiftly. Inspired by his own shorts, writer / director Helander's first feature keeps a fine balance between being a tender love-letter to the spirit of Christmas and a dark exploration of childhood fears. The movie does take some time to get going, meaning that some of the scary bits, clever ideas and situations get short-changed, but with its grab-bag of inventions, flair for the genre, solid local cast - especially the demure young boy who finally takes charge, cocks a shotgun, snarls a challenge to Santa and decides to turn the tables on his fears - and explosive finale it's an engaging boy's adventure story. Not a Christmas classic, perhaps, but Rare Exports is an entertaining genre flick, especially for those who snicker at Christmas traditions.
Entertainment: 7/10

Stake Land (2010)
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
Director: Jim Mickle
Plot: In a world where America has been overrun by a vampiric plague, a rough slayer takes a young man under his wing as they travel across the country in an attempt to reach the promise of safe haven in Canada.
Review: More an answer to UK's 28 Days Later than the current slew of Resident Evil videogames-turned-movie adaptations, Stake Land is a good old fashioned horror thriller that's vastly more grounded and gritty. A post-apocalyptic Vampire flick that resembles more the classic dumb-zombie genre than what you'd expect. For one, the night creatures are fast but dumb; the real enemy, as usual in the best of the genre, are the survivors, in this case the religious fanatics who see the disaster as an excuse to take on more power. Yes, religion gets thrown in the ringer, but this is less a social critique than a coming-of-age survival tale, albeit with all the expected End of the World clichés, gore and brutal (and quite visceral) monster slayings. Director Mickle (Mulberry Street) discards the reasons behind the disaster or how society deals with it, keeping his focus intimate and immediate on the normal folk looking at nothing but escaping. But the real plus of the film are the strong characterizations, people you actually care for, making the terror and tragedies all the more potent. Paolo sheds his squeaky-clean Glee image as the recently-orphaned, innocent teen who takes on life lessons and killing skills from an experienced, gruff mentor (well played by co-writer Damici), and McGillis is almost unrecognizable as a nun rescued by the duo. A tough, gritty action / horror flick, Stake Land proves that a solid script and some invention can make up for a lot, and can give Hollywood-level production a run for their money. A welcome addition to the genre.
Entertainment: 7/10

True Legend (Hong Kong - 2010)
Starring: Vincent Zhao, Andy On
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Plot: Left for dead and his son kidnapped, a retired Qing dynasty general seeks kung fu mastery from mystical entities to exact revenge over his vengeful adopted brother.
Review: An imaginative, action-packed adaptation to the popular Chinese tale re: the King of Beggars, True Legend is a welcome addition to the Hong Kong action genre. Famous in the West for his superb martial arts choreography in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and legendary for his Hong Kong cinema work like Iron Monkey and In the Line of Duty 4 (among many others) director Yuen Woo Ping is back behind the camera after a long absence, and what a pleasure it is to find him in full form. The tale of Beggar Su has been fodder for HK action and comedy films for decades, but it's never has it been so slick and entertaining as in the hands of Yuen Woo Ping: his clashes with his terrifying brother-in-law (a man grafted with armor who endures all kinds of supernatural torture to keep his evil Venom powers) are bone-crunching and filled with superb wire-fu; and his descent into madness in pursuit of kung fu mastery that takes place in a dreamscape fantasy with the mythical God of Wushu. Grand fun. Unfortunately, the two strong acts are followed by a weak, and rather unnecessary, final one where our downtrodden, drunken hero gets another chance at redemption by showing off his new-found Drunken Boxing skills in a way-too-familiar, way-too-jingoistic setting used in films like Ip Man 2 and Fearless: an arena fight against a team of vile European fighters. The fights are well executed and have visceral impact, Yuen Woo Ping wouldn't have it any other way, but it feels tacked on to a movie that didn't need it. The talented Vincent Zhao and Andy On make terrific nemesis, especially when battling it out, but why Michelle Yeoh gets top billing for less than a minute of screen time isn't clear. Also watch for David Carradine as the Western team's villainous coach, one of his last film appearances. It may not top the director's best, but True Legend is an exciting entertaining martial arts epic that packs a punch.
Entertainment: 7/10

Other reviewed films that played at the FantAsia 2011 Festival:

13 Assassins Battle Royale Captain America (1990) Shivers
Troll Hunter


Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links