Tag Archives: Hong Kong Action Cinema

Cinema-Maniac: The Brink (2017)

Jin Zhang, or Max Zhang as he’s sometime is credited shares career similarities with director Jonathan Li. Both of these men before The Brink have worked their way up in the Hong Kong film industry. Jonathan Li starting out behind the camera as a third assistant director on Infernal Affairs 3 (2003), and Max Zhang starting out as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Over a decade later of work both managed to garner some level of recognition. Max Zhang is easily more prolific with supporting roles in The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man 3 (2015), and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015). Garnering Max Zhang a well earned fanbase for not just his incredible athleticism in his fight sequences, but his on screen presence displaying good acting abilities. Surprisingly, The Brink doesn’t just mark Max Zhang first time headlining a major movie as the lead star, and also marks the first time Jonathan Li take the helm as a director after over a decade working mostly as a assistant director. Both have something to prove in this film that is steps away from greatness, but accomplish the feat of proving they can handle bigger roles.

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A snippet of Max Zhang impressive skills in his fight sequences

On the story front The Brink is above average. Telling the classic story of a reckless Hong Kong officer, in this case being Sai Gau (Max Zhang), attempting to put an end on a criminal gold smuggling scheme. Anyone with experience in Hong Kong cinema will know what to expect from the story, minus the goods this time not being drugs. Some of the characters are also what you would expect them to be; best friend Zhi-Di (Wu Yue) so close to retiring getting pulled back into action, the chief coming down Sai Gau neck for operations gone wrong, a low ranked criminal villain in Jiang (Shawn Yue) with big ambitions, the daughter of a criminal reminding Sai Gau of his sense of duty, Jiang boss who plans to give his business to his son seeks to get rid of him, and that basically covers it. There are other minor characters, but they don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things. It’s lacking in creativity, but when it comes execution writer Li Chun Fai knows how to play around with these familiar characters, and plot point in a successful way.

For starter, the pacing of the film is just right never lingering too much on unnecessary details, and evolving the main storyline in a organic way. Being able to escalate stakes within a reasonable scope. It has a certain number of main characters, and knows their influence with those around them. Hardly going overboard in favors of anyone to show more, or less an even playing field. Another positive in the writing is the whole cat, and mouse writing it takes for it central conflict. Both Sai Gau, and Jiang come face to face several times throughout the  movie. With Jiang just barely being able to get the advantage over Sai Gau in his attempts to arrest him. Further adding to the intrigue is Jiang seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him making proceeding events for him more difficult to come out on top. Seeing the many ways Jiang gets out of his situations is quite fun to witness.

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Prison changed me man. I’m a blonde now. Don’t ask.

Other area of the writing comes with mixed results. Characters are simplistic, and clear cut in their motivations. In its effort to be more than a good cop capturing evil doer it leaves many aspects half baked. The most prominent one being a insignificant plot point on Zhi-Di owing an off screen gang money. This clumsily justifies Zhi-Di motives in the later half of the movie, but with it being the only mention it just goes nowhere. While the writing attempts to make things different shades of grey it ultimately just boils down to good guy versus bad guy. Characters are defined, but they switch motivation, or personality at a moment notice to serve the writers needs since Li Chun Fai couldn’t figure out how its character would get from point a to point b with how they were established. If Li Chun Fai didn’t rewrite established characters consistently he would have been able to create more complex characters in favor of the film.

Where the writing falter plenty is with the character of Ke-Yan (Cecilia So) whose name I don’t believe is actually ever said in the movie itself. The only way I was able to find out her name was looking for it in the closing credits. If that alone doesn’t get across how this character is just put into the movie for no narrative reason than maybe the fact she contributes nothing in the overarching story will. Her scenes amount to nothing, but just providing a little characterization for Sai Gau, and even less for Ke-Yan. Her subplot of being a daughter tied to a criminal Sai Gau accidentally killed isn’t explored. It’s brushed aside quickly, and feels like Ke-Yan is only here to provide a pro-life message that is shoehorned in. If Ke-Yan was going to be in the last shot of the movie than you know, doing something significant storywise with her would have made it more impactful. Lastly, why does Sai Gau go into prison for a couple a months with dark hair, but then when released has blonde hair. Not that it’s of any importance, but it’s a noticeable change that comes out of nowhere.

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Shawn Yue (left) has the look of a trustworthy person.

Max Zhang for the first time in his career carries the mantle of a leading man, and he does quite well for himself. He doesn’t attempt to oversell his character through his acting, but rather tries to keep his portrayal restraint when not fighting. Providing more subtle delivery in some of his sentimental scenes preventing them from being sappy. There are glimmer of range within him that the film sadly doesn’t utilize more frequently. Of course, when it comes to Max Zhang in the fight sequences he’s still just as impressive, and quick as he ever been.

Opposite of Max Zhang is Shawn Yue playing the cold hearted villain. Nailing the portrayal of his character personality, but unable to overcome the occasional stoic delivery of dialogue. Sounding disinterested half the time, and the other half sounding detached like he should. Yue acting won’t impress, but one where he’s meant to mourn over a lost is handle well by Yue without him breaking character. Wu Yue whenever on screen typically takes the spotlight from Zhang. Giving life to a archetype character being capable to generate sympathy for his character in spite of the above average writing. When it comes to his fight sequences he’s just as impressive as Max Zhang. There’s some noteworthy name in the supporting cast like Janice Man, Derek Tsang, Gordon Lam, and Tai Po, but the supporting cast tends to be one note. Eventually being indistinguishable from one another performances.

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My favorite fight in The Brink.

First time director Jonathan Li with the helps of cinematographer Kenny Tse captures a aquatic, moody feel to the film. Showing a more grimy side of Hong Kong through his usage of location. If it’s related to the ocean he’ll use from a crowded indoor fish market, to a fishing trawler in the middle of a storm, gloomy ports, and even going underwater to film a action sequence which in spite of being performed slowly is still entertaining to witness. His directing of action sequences stands out more than his narrative storytelling. Mostly because when it comes to action he allows for long takes, and if needed will get inventive with his shots to make his fight scenes pop out. Being able to avoid the pitfall of showing background actors doing nothing in his fight sequences. With tight editing, and great composition his eye for action sequences raises the film quality whenever onscreen. Heck, he’s able to make an action sequence underwater feel eventful. There might be only a handful of them spread throughout, but they are worth waiting for. His music choices are mixed. Some of it works like during the action sequences to add excitement, but sometime it comes off overblown like towards the end of the movie using choir like music.

Action choreography is handle by Chung Chi Li, and much like his action choreography in Extraordinary Mission (2017), Li goes for a more grounded approach. Having very limited usage of wires, most of which are sprinkle in the climax. Chi Li emphasizes Max Zhang speed in the only one versus many brawl that has Max Zhang fighting in a alley. Alongside Wu Yue who also participate in the one versus many brawl on his own, Max Zhang is able to make it look convincing he’s able to beat up a dozen men rapid swings of his flashlights. However, my personal favorite fight in a parking lot with Max Zhang going one on one with a masked assailant. Creatively using the parked cars environment to have its actors use to avoid hits from the other fighter. Both men are able to keep up with each other performing their moves quickly resulting in some impressive long takes in the fight. Lastly, the climax which involve Max Zhang fighting against Wu Yue, and Shawn Yue on a fishing ship during a storm is the centerpiece action sequence. It’s an exciting climatic fight with plenty happening in the background as it shakes throwing all participants off. The choreography here in particular takes into account the rocking ship putting the advantage of the fight to whoever it wants. It’s quite a sight to witness, and what’s also vastly enjoyable to witness is how epicly presented the final punch between Max Zhang, and Wu Yue is filmed.

The Brink doesn’t break any grounds in any area of filmmaking, but is overall a success thanks to it crew overcoming several weaknesses. In particular, the wonderfully done action sequences elevating above everything else to be the one area it shines the best. Jonathan Li proves he can handle his own in the forefront as a director thanks largely to his strong direction which is felt throughout the movie. Of course, Max Zhang himself continues to prove why his raise to fame isn’t a fluke. Being just capable in his acting as he is in his fight scenes will eventually garner him more leading roles in his career. Regardless of your familiarity with anyone in the film, or Hong Kong action cinema The Brink is a good way to spend your time.

Rating 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: China White (1989)

I’ve seen many films, and been disappointed plenty of times even with reasonable expectations. Once you’ve seen the many noteworthy films in the action genre the more obscure titles you’ll have to take a gamble on. Granted, I haven’t written anything about a good portion of those noteworthy action movies, but sometimes the prospect of tackling something not widely discussed intrigues me more over something that is well praised, and regarded. Having a huge respect for action cinema than probably your average blogger/reviewer who writes about action cinema. Movies like China White further hammer in the point why action cinema is frequently criticize for their bad stories, and bad acting.

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In 10 seconds, Russell Wong avoids getting killed three times

China White follow brothers Bobby Chow (Russell Wong) and Danny Chow (Steven Vincent Leigh) want control of Amsterdam’s Chinatown for their drug trade in the midst of an escalating between the Italian, and Chinese mafia. Now, that sounds like a blast of an Hong Kong style action in a U.K. setting you might be thinking. The final product falls significantly short of its somewhat interesting setup due to its inability to focus on a single point. For starter, the character of Bobby Chow, and Danny Chow are developed decently in the story. However, the film isn’t interested in showing these two blood brother bond, and the struggles they must overcome in the violent criminal world they are a part of. Bobby, and Danny spend around half of the movie together, and then the other half both are separated from each other with the viewer only seeing Bobby side of events. When it wants to show some kind of drift between Bobby, and Danny it’s quickly brushed aside. Considering the movie spends a good chunk of the first half developing these two characters it’s misdirection in how it uses them effects the impact it desires to have.

While not required it does have a romantic subplot which yes litters action cinema in drove, even if the film could be stronger without such a thing. In the case of China White it got it partially correct. Bobby first interactions with Anne (Lisa Schrage) aren’t ones filled with romantic intentions. Starting off on the right foot in getting them to start out as friends. However (again), once Anne gets rescue in the film the relationship between Bobby, and Anne quickly takes a more romantic turn, and it’s unconvincing because it’s rushed. After Anne gets rescued there’s no recovery phase for her to get over her near death experience. It’s just brushed over like the development of Anne, and Bobby relationship. It practically goes from Bobby, and Anne having sex to the next important scene they are planning a trip to Paris before something tears them apart.

Another part of its grand story is the initial storyline of Bobby Chow, Danny Chow, and their comrades taking vengeance on the criminal boss who took out their father figure. This part of the story is pretty thin in actual value, but simply having them be themselves makes a thin idea work well. It easily gets across these people respect their father figure, and establishing a good sense of gratitude towards him. It’s unfortunate that after a flashback sequence which yes brings the movie to a halt that it is unable to expand on the idea. This is to blame on the romantic subplot, and also the subplot of the police officers trying to capture our main criminal characters. It’s unable to juggle all of it pieces into a coherent narrative easily  making things get lost in the shuffle. Meaning you have aspects of the story that start out initially working well, but deteriorate in quality as they go on.

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No one in the background looks suspicious at all

Lastly, the biggest downfall of the film’s story is the uneven pacing. The film’s act is paced well setting up the characters, and small bits of an overarching story in good fashion. Sure some of the dialogue is unnatural, though it has little hiccups in actually telling a story. Act one only big drawback is a flashback that’s bring the movie to a halt to provide some backstory. It’s well intended, but since the film is all over the place the flashback unintentionally harms the overall quality in the long run. There’s a lack of raising action due to the fact Bobby, and the gang easily obtain resources to launch their big plan for vengeance which skips plenty of steps. The final act is where the film suffers the most from rush pacing. Whereas the first hour of the film did somewhat well in holding itself together. It’s the remainder forty minutes where it all comes crashing down.

Plot points that were meant to resonate fall flat from glossing over character building rendering significant characters death lackluster. Raising action is absent spending an uneven amount of time between the main conflict, and the conflicts in its subplots which aren’t granted enough time to be properly fleshed out. Leading to resolutions to storylines that will make you feel nothing in the journey. There’s also the ending text crawl saying this movie was based around true events, even though it has cheesy elements ripe in the action genre like going oversea (half the time it’s Thailand) to expands drug trade, main villain having evil henchman doing their every bidding, villains & heroes being able to kill people in public (sometime in broad daylight) without long term repercussion, the protagonist love interest getting pregnant, and the police letting a criminal get away with a murder once against someone they hate to name a few.

I wrote earlier before the film’s does a somewhat decent job developing its leading characters, but its actors are plain wooden. Our lead is Russell Wong, and he is incapable being charming, and showing many range of emotions. His biggest issue is he’s mostly stoic in his facial expression, and there’s hardly a change in his tone of voice when delivery dialogue. When’s he meant to be tough he doesn’t come across as tough. If Wong is meant to be charming his wooden delivery, and stoic expression will make you question how he manage to get a woman with a lack of personality. The only time he’s somewhat convincing is during his action sequences because he has no lines to speak, and even those get ruined by some awkward choices. Also, he sounds really unnatural when speaking English dialogue. Almost robotic in delivery simple sentences. Russell Wong other co-stars fare about the same also sharing Russell Wong lack of range. Steven Vincent Leigh doesn’t come across much of a gangster, but since he’s given as much wide ranging material he fares better. He’s typically has to look upset, or tough in his scene. The only one in the supporting cast was Victor Hon as One Hand, and that was because he was at least trying to do his best in his limited role. The Chinese actors are largely speaking in their native language are fine, but sadly the stars speak English in a unconvincing manner making the bad performances stand out more.

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Even in bad movies, I do appreciate stunt work

Surprisingly, the film has superstar Andy Lau, Alex Man, and a surprise appearance by Fui-On Shing who just keeps popping up in a number of obscure Kong Hong movies I keep checking out. Despite appearing only in the ten minute flashback sequence Andy Lau doesn’t fare much better. He simply looks like he wants to exit the production. Allegedly, Andy Lau, and Alex Man were abducted by force by the triads to be in the film. I say allegedly because apparently a lot of sources claim this is real, but I’m unable to find the blog post by Manfred Wong who confirms this on the internet. As for Fui-On Shing he’s the typical baddie, and that what he so well at playing. He’s a highlight in the movie, along with a lackluster Andy Lau who is still more engaging to see than his other prominent co-stars.

The western cast of the film fare slightly better. Out of the entire cast Billy Drago comes out the best as the film’s villain. He’s one note in his performance, but it’s that one note he’s able to nail by hamming it up. Instead of portraying his character in a realistic manner Billy Drago simply revel in his evil nature. Lisa Schrage does okay with her haphazard material. She isn’t allowed any opportunity to transition from one aspect of her character into another. However, she’s able to pull off her none-serious scenes well. Frank Sheppard plays a cop name Rasta (I’m not kidding), and it’s a stereotype performance. Providing a Jamaican accent while throwing the occasional “I told ya man” whenever on screen. It’s passable at best. Saskia van Rijswijk plays the classic silent henchwoman who doesn’t appear much in the movie, and aside from one fight sequence she doesn’t get any scene to stand out.

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When mixed together, Chinese, and Italian gangsters are very explosive

Ronny Yu direction is one without confidence. He’s unable to make an assure experience being just as lost in juggling the film story just as much as the script. He’s also unable to overcome his actors weaknesses having long takes of his actors giving one bad performance after another. Where he partially does well is during the action sequences. The choreography in them is nothing special, but liven them up a bit. They would be exciting if it wasn’t for two things; Ronny Yu unnecessary use of slow motion, and his inability to show a connection between the camera & action choreography. For example, there’s a small skirmish between two criminals, and one of them pulls the pin of a grenade. The grenade isn’t seen with the only indication of a grenade pin being pulled being a sound effect. That’s not good action design. What’s also not good action design is some of the sloppy timing in the editing. There are a few instances where someone is shot, and takes seconds before the actor is shown reacting to getting shot. Sometime in slow motion!

When it infrequently comes together there’s nothing impressive about the action sequences. Gunfights are strictly of the cover, and shoot variety with little to visually make them interesting. Suffering from the cinematography not establishing the location, and what’s where. Not even the huge amount of sparks when bullets make impact liven things up. The brief instances of a choreograph fight are as good as it get because Ronny Yu tries to show them in a interesting way. Further hurting the movie is the film doesn’t know how to space out scenes evenly. The first half is evenly spaced out, but the second half saves it’s nearly absent until getting closer to the credits. When it gets to the climax, the action sequence is not worth the wait.

China White offers what you expect from a bad action movie from the rush writing in places, and the general bad acting from its cast. Feeling like the filmmakers weren’t yet ready to tackle a story with such big ambitions, and it shows throughout in the final product. Even action junkies won’t find much to enjoy in this mess of a movie.

Rating: 3/10

Cinema-Maniac: First Shot (1993)

I always disagreed with the notion that there’s a set number of ways to write stories. However, there are times where it does feel like that is the case. Not just in movies, but in general media that I consume. It also doesn’t help in the little time I did spend in college taking classes on writing further expanded my knowledge on fictional writing. One thing I didn’t need to learn in my classes is that execution is key. No matter how many type of stories you write, or experience understanding how to make those elements work together can lead to making a good product. Hence, today’s movie while overly familiar for viewers who’ve seen The Untouchables execute the same general story into a decent film.

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Alright, time for another full body checkup from the entire force.

First Shot is set during a time of widespread police corruption, Wong Yat-chung (Ti Lung) is a stubborn cop who takes on both the mob and the political establishment. In terms of story, it’s lifts from heavily from Brain De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). If you’ve seen that film than you more, or less will know what to expect from First Shot. However, if you haven’t seen The Untouchable, here’s a couple of lifted plot points. In both, you have a good guy cop against the corrupt police system, the main character recruiting at a academy to ensure the officer they recruit aren’t corrupted, the struggle to maintain a key witness safe from the film’s villain, a scene with the main character departs from his family to put them in police protection, a vocal confrontation between the film’s hero & villain surrounded by the press after a ally of the protagonist gets killed, and both leading character getting betrayed by other high ranking officers. Also, both movies are based around true events. To call the writing of First Shot uninspired would be an understatement.

Now that the similarities have been brought up, the area they stand apart in are easy. First Shot is significantly less subtle with its portrayal of factual events. For starter, all the corrupt police officers have no qualm about showing how corrupt they are in public. Dialogue goes of it way to reinforce this fact in several scenes. There’s the slimy villain whom typically who to do something evil whenever he’s onscreen. Making the preceding events in the story a basic good guys versus bad guy story. It keeps the viewer engage in its predictable story by fleshing out its heroes, and going through fulfilling character arcs. Just like in The Untouchable, no one in this film safe from death, and it’s uncertain who is exactly next up on the chopping floor. The cast of First Shot aren’t fleshed out enough to ensure you’ll care about them, but you will see beyond them cannon fodder.

Another advantage to the film is the chase itself to lock up the villain. Seeing the heroes coming inches close to lock away their man is an engaging part of the film. Same with the deviation whenever it goes away from it source of inspiration. Alleviating the serious with some comedic scenes which generally tend to be less over the top than films typically produce in Hong Kong around this time. Resulting in a dynamic cast of heroes who makes the film somewhat worthwhile when action is absent.

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Man, looks at that face on the left

What garner mix results are some of the subplots. While characters are generally fleshed out, minus the villains, some of the subplots come out of nowhere. In the middle of the film’s climactic action sequence, one of the character reveals he’ll take revenge against the man who killed his father. This plot point was never brought up beforehand making it a convoluted way to add tension in the climax. There’s also the romantic subplot which isn’t as bad, though doesn’t come across as tragic as the film expected it to be. Would have probably helped if it didn’t immediately switch gear into a climatic action sequence over lingering on the fact an important character just died. There’s also the unexpected gay bar scene where the heroes have to undercover to gather intel, and it’s um, something odd to place into the movie to get a quick laugh. I’ll leave it at that.

What it lacks in writing quality it makes up for it in star power. For starter, the usually great Ti Lung delivers in being a good leading man. While nowhere near his best work, Ti Lung in First Shot becomes the embodiment of his character making the typical good cop feel more human. Unlike the writing, Ti Lung imbues more emotion into scenes than what would have been required of him. For example, when he’s confront Simon Yam in alley it would have been enough if Ti Lung just come across as a bitter man. However, Ti Lung comes across as more understanding, and disappointment from how he deliver his dialogue. Of course, Ti Lung partakes in some action sequences, but there’s not much of them here in terms of gunplay. What there is in fight sequences are also brief, though well put together to make up for the lack of action. I wasn’t expecting Ti Lung to partake in a choreograph fight sequence against Waise Lee in the climax, but I welcome that.

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Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do yah?

Simon Yam delivers the best performance in the cast as Sam Mok. Portraying a police officer who seeks redemption for his misgivings. He comes across the most humane out of his co-stars. While other actors also do a good job, they do feel samey since the script doesn’t offer much differentiation between them. Yam is the exception convincingly turning around a character whose fearful for his life as a officer, and seamlessly transform it into an officer looking to do right. Portraying the film’s closest thing to a complex character in a natural progression despite having to share the screen with several other actors. All the while never losing his charming side to him that makes him likable.

Maggie Cheung in the film doesn’t offer much in her role. He does well, but unfortunately unlike her male co-star she only gets one moment to portray any sadness for her character. She given much of the exposition to deliver, although she does make the most of what she can in a thankless role. Then there’s Canti Lau, and Andy Hui playing the young cadets who are best friends. While the script never capitalizes on the potential of these characters the actor sure do. It’s unlikely you’ll be shedding tears whenever one of these two bites the dust, but you’ll care to some degree. Canti Lau does pretty well in his fight scenes.

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Diner scenes, typically the most dangerous for criminals

Waise Lee plays the film villain, and chews the scenery in all his scenes. He holds nothing back in comically playing his playing role as serious as possible. He lacks much in the way of facial expressions aside from looking angry in every scene he’s in. Same thing applies to Batt Leung-Gam who plays a silence henchman. He lacks the menacing presence for his type of character, but makes up for his appearances with his fighting abilities in his action sequences. Director David Lam does a competent job helming the movie, but nothing to elevate the movie unlike his cast of actors. Finally, Lowell Lo composed the music for the film. While the only piece of music in the film that stands out is the one that plays the movie out during the ending credit it’s all around serviceable. It’s hardly noticeable, but does the job fine.

First Shot is a solid crime action flick in its own right. It doesn’t come close to matching it’s source of inspiration, The Untouchable, on any level. What it does do is execute a similar story into a straight forward action movie with mild success.

Rating: 7/10

 

Poor Subtitles Quality

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My favorite badly sub line of the movie

In the off chance you somehow manage to find a viewable copy of this by any means the hardsubs are very poor. Several times throughout my viewing of the film would there be grammatical, and spelling errors. Other points portions of the subtitles would be cut off making it easy to lose vital information. Considering at the time of this posting I’ve yet to find any other official release of First Shot. The poor subtitles will be a drawback for anyone with a passing interesting to view it, or unintentionally fun by how bad it is. Either way, take that in account you plan on viewing First Shot at any point.