Film Review: Elite Force: Operation Mekong

Director: Dante Lam
Screenplay: Kang Kei Chu, Dante Lam, Siu Kwan Lau, Eric Lin, Wai Ching Tam
Starring: Eddie Peng, Hanyu Zhang, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Jonathan Wu, Pawarith Monkolpisit
Country: China, Hong Kong
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15

Only yesterday, in my review of Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, I wrote about my love it or hate it relationship with war or true life stories on film, and what do you know, another one that touches on both comes along a day later.

Elite Force: Operation Mekong (a.k.a. Operation Mekong or to use its original Chinese title, Mei Gong he xing dong), is not a war story as such, but it sees an elite task force battle against a drug baron with so much force it feels like one. It’s based on the actual ‘Mekong River massacre’, which happened in 2011, and the ensuing anti-drug operation that followed. In the tragic event, two merchant ships were attacked on the Mekong River on the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, in the Golden Triangle area (a place synonymous with the drugs trade), and the 13 Chinese crew members were murdered. In the film, the crew members are initially suspected of being involved in drug smuggling after 900,000 meth pills are found on the scene. However, an informer tells them otherwise and when the merchants’ bodies are found and they look to have been executed, a special Chinese task force is deployed to investigate and arrest the drug baron suspected of ordering the massacre, Naw Khar (Pawarith Monkolpisit).

This is one of those cases I discussed yesterday when it very much feels like the grim reality of the actual events have been amped up and glossed over to make an exciting piece of entertainment, rather than a sensitive or intelligent examination of them. However, I was fully prepared for this after reading a few reviews and knowing the film was being marketed as a balls to the wall action film. As such, I tried to ignore any issues of authenticity or sensitivity and sat down to enjoy some explosive violence, the likes of which Hollywood rarely delivers anymore but Asia has been dishing out for decades.

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Blu-Ray Review: Brotherhood of Blades

Director: Yang Lu
Screenplay: Yang Lu, Chen Shu
Starring: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, Dong-xue Li, Shi Shi Liu, Yuan Nie, Qianyuan Wang
Country: China
Running Time: 112 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 15

Decent new martial arts films from China or Hong Kong have been getting thin on the ground of late after the boom they enjoyed in the early 2000’s. That’s why I got very excited when the recent Call of Heroes ended up meeting my high expectations. Hot on its heels (in terms of a UK release date at least) is Brotherhood of Blades. Directed by Yang Lu, a newcomer to action movies, and featuring none of the big martial arts stars, I was nonetheless excited to check it out, as word of mouth was good and the marketing made it look impressive.

Brotherhood of Blades is set in late Ming Dynasty China and follows three friends, Shen Lian (Chen Chang), Lu Jianxing (Qianyuan Wang) and Jin Yichuan (Dong-xue Li), who are skilled members of the Imperial Assassins. All three of them are struggling with personal problems which could be solved with a large amount of money. Well, luckily for Shen Lian, when the three assassins are assigned with the mission of killing Wei Zhongxian (Shih-Chieh Chin), Shen is offered the chance of taking bags full of gold away with him in return for faking Wei’s death. When he takes up the offer however, he makes life incredibly difficult and dangerous for himself and his two friends as their honesty is put into question and they realise they’re being used as pawns in a much larger game.

This film didn’t impress me quite as much as Call of Heroes did unfortunately, but it’s still a solid entry to the wuxia genre. It’s handsomely presented – lit and shot beautifully with some lavish period production design.

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Blu-Ray Review: Dragon Inn

Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Starring: Lingfeng Shangguan, Chun Shih, Ying Bai
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 12

Releases like this are like manna from heaven to me. I’m an ardent follower of the Masters of Cinema series as my reviews will attest, as well as classic cinema in general. However, I’m also a huge martial arts movie fan, so when a film crosses the usually distinct boundaries between esteemed classic and action movie, I jump for joy. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to review King Hu’s wuxia classic Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) as soon as it was offered.

King Hu was responsible for a handful of the most influential and revered martial arts films of all time. After the hugely popular Come Drink With Me, made for the famous Shaw Brothers studios, he helped set up a new studio in Taiwan called Union Film Company. His first film under this banner was Dragon Inn and this was followed up a couple of years later with A Touch of Zen. These three titles helped define martial arts movies in the East for decades to come. Hu’s influence can still clearly be seen in modern examples of the genre, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, so it was no surprise to me to discover that 1967’s Dragon Inn still holds up very well today.

Dragon Inn opens with some narration explaining that the tyrannical first eunuch of the Emperor of China has framed and condemned the Minister of Defence (an opponent to his rule) to death and sent his family into exile. Fearing a vengeful attack, the eunuch sends his secret police to assassinate the banished family members on their way out of the country. The ambush is to take place at the titular Dragon Inn, which lies close to the border. However, as they wait, a couple more parties join them at the inn and the waters get ever more murky, leading to much treachery and numerous fight scenes.

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DVD Review: Wolf Warrior

Director: Wu Jing (as Jacky Wu)
Starring: Wu Jing, Scott Adkins, Nan Yu
Year: 2015
Country: China
Duration: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 15

I watched this military action movie with the guys during our latest Weekend of Trash as we’re all Scott Adkins fans as well as fans of the genre. I’d been sent a screener for it to review though, so rather than including my brief thoughts as part of my Weekend of Trash write-up I’m giving it a proper review. Plus it was better than expected so deserves more time spent over it too.

Wolf Warrior opens with an intense military face off against a drug cartel. One of the chief bad guys takes a hostage, leading to a stand off, so rogue sniper Leng Feng (Wu Jing) takes it upon himself to use a risky tactic to bring the man down. In doing so, he gets in a bit of trouble with his superiors who damn his actions, but see his talents and enrol him in the Wolf Warrior squad – the special forces of the special forces. However, the drug cartel are less generous to Feng. You see, the man he killed was the brother of their head honcho, so the villain hires a crack team of mercenaries led by Tom Cat (Scott Adkins) to get revenge. Their strike comes during a military exercise, leaving Feng and his squad surrounded by the enemy out in the wilderness.

All three of us really enjoyed this. Action packed from start to finish and gleefully over the top, it had the feel of an 80’s action movie. Within the opening 10-15 minutes you’re treated to the tense sniper standoff mentioned earlier, then a ridiculously violent attack on the troops sent to arrest the drug baron at his home. It was this sequence that really got us on board and set the tone for the film. Bringing out uzi’s and rocket launchers to take out a handful of soldiers, the bullets cloud the screen and a mixture of live and CGI squibs splatter paint it red, regularly joined by unnecessary explosions in the cars and houses around them.

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Mondays Suck Less in the Third Row

Check out these links:
Barack Obama’s Spotify playalists for DAY and NIGHT
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Mark Hamill’s awesome autographs
Creative Star Wars posters
129 Of The Most Beautiful Shots In Movie History
Kurt Halfyard told me to post this
Tianjin Chemical Explosion Visible From Space
Furniture and clothing made to look like human flesh and guts

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Run Run Shaw was 106.

Co-founder of the magnificent and prolific Shaw Brothers Studios, Run Run Shaw passed away yesterday at exceptional age of 106 (his brother, Runme, passed away in 1985 at 84). Putting out every kind of genre film in China, but specializing in big costume studio wuxia films, he was one of the last great world-class cinema moguls along the lines of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner or Darryl F. Zanuck. Only lesser tigers like Harvey Weinstein now remain. More here.

(Fun Fact: Run Run Shaw was one of the principle financiers for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.)

TIFF Review: A Touch of Sin

I reviewed a box set of Jia Zhangke’s films earlier in the year and although I appreciated elements of them, I found the three films included to be a bit of a chore at times. Another film of his I managed to see back in Cannes a few years ago was 24 City and that was one of the most tedious films I have ever had to sit through. So of course, despite some strong reviews, I was a little dubious about what to expect from A Touch of Sin.

The film is split into four stories, each following a different character as they suffer hardships or frustrations leading up to a death (or deaths) of some kind. The first for instance is the story of a man who feels short changed and cheated by his town chief and the boss of the large corporation he works for. Getting beaten up after trying to voice his concerns is the last straw and he decides to take matters into his own hands, going on a murderous rampage akin to Falling Down. The other stories aren’t quite as violent, but still follow a similar kind of descent.

I shouldn’t have been too worried about this, as it turned out to be my favourite of the four films from the director that I have seen. In splitting the story into four individual segments it becomes less slow and ponderous as some of his previous work, even if it retains his naturalistic style. Of course, adding some action/thriller elements helps keep the energy up too although it couldn’t be called ‘fast paced’. The fact that you knew each story was leading to some kind of tragedy helped keep me engaged too.

As is common with Zhangke’s films there is a large amount of social commentary too. Each story concerns slightly different social issues in China today, from the working class being taken advantage of by the rich business owners reveling in the financial success of the country to the aimless youth that now can get what they want without too much work, so don’t know what to do with themselves.

It’s this social commentary that made the film interesting for me and, in occasionally mixing it with Hong Kong action tropes, creates a unique and surprisingly entertaining dissection of China today.

DVD Review: The Assassins

Director: Linshan Zhao
Screenplay: Bin Wang
Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Yifei Liu, Hiroshi Tamaki, Alec Su
Producer: Lou Yi
Country: China
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 2012
BBFC Certificate: 15

There looks to be a minor resurgence of glossy Chinese martial arts movies of late, at least amongst the companies I receive screeners from. Reign of Assassins kicked things off at the end of February and I quite enjoyed that, then I reviewed Dragon a couple of weeks ago and liked that even more. On Monday 9th September, Universal Pictures are releasing two more similar titles with The Four and The Assassins, the latter of which I got sent over to review recently. With my love of the wuxia genre ever strong, the great Chow Yun Fat taking a starring role and coming from a script by the man behind Hero and House of Flying Daggers, I was sure to be in reliable hands.

The Assassins is set in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, focussing on the legendary warlord and Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) and the various plots against his rumoured move to become emperor. Gong Ling Ju (Yifei Liu) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) were kidnapped as children and forced to train to be the ultimate assassins when they were of age. Their mission once released was to kill Cao Cao. Gong Ling Ju manages to get inside his estate, working as a handmaiden, but as she gets closer to achieving her goal she has second thoughts about it. Could there be more to the man and his seemingly ruthless tactics than his reputation suggests? She must decide soon though as a number of further plots against him are unveiled, concerning men close to Cao Cao as well as the current emperor. Added to this, the love between the two assassins which has simmered since childhood is threatened as Ling Ju begins to fall for the warlord.

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Third Trailer for WKW’s The Grandmaster

Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man biopic is so late to the party that there have been 4, yes count them, 4 other Ip Man pictures released since the start of pre-production for his The Grandmaster. If you are going to be last, then you have to be the absolute best. Will this be the case? The images and slow motion CGI do not feel as fresh as when Zhang Yimou was doing this a decade earlier in Hero (notably with much of the same cast: Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.) But I might just chalk up crappy Weinstein Company produced trailers that trade on the American heritage rather than the Chinese heritage when making their pitch.

Says Wikipedia:

The film concentrates more on the end of an era in Chinese martial arts history as the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. It was created in an almost biographical style, highlighting parts of history. In contrast with the other Ip Man-related projects, The Grandmaster is a more reflective film, focusing more on the musings and philosophies between martial arts and life, as well as Yip Man’s journey through the early 1930s to the early 1950s.

The Grandmaster opens in select theatres on August 20th.

The Jia Zhang-Ke Collection

Artificial Eye have been releasing a few box sets in the latter part of this year that focus on the work of critically-acclaimed art-house directors. Andy over at Blueprint: Review gave his thoughts on their recent Alexander Sokurov Collection and you can expect a Dardennes Brothers Collection write-up from me in the next few weeks. The first I got my hands on though was this collection of three of Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke’s early films – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. I’d only seen two of his films before, Pickpocket and 24 City. I can remember quite liking the former (and still do – see below) but didn’t think much to 24 City, finding it easily the most tedious two hours I spent in Cannes 2008. I’d heard great things about Platform though and I was willing to give the director another try. Here’s how the collection fared in my eyes:

Pickpocket (a.k.a. Xiao Wu)

Director: Zhang Ke Jia
Screenplay: Zhang Ke Jia
Starring: Hongwei Wang, Hao Hongjian, Zuo Baitao
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1998
Country: China, Hong Kong
BBFC Certificate: 15

The late 80’s saw a boom in Western appreciated art-house films from China. The group of directors that brought forth this wave of festival favourites were known as the ‘fifth generation’, the first to graduate after the cultural revolution, and included greats such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Coming largely from the Beijing Film Academy, the directors produced films that avoided the social-realism that came before, instead using unconventional ways of making political statements. They made distinctly cinematic films which often used bold colours and carefully composed long takes. Films such as Farewell My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern wowed audiences around the world with their beauty and political undertones.

The students that came out of Beijing a few years later though wanted their own voice. China’s ‘sixth generation’ of filmmakers stripped things right back, making low budget rough and raw films (largely due to funding cuts) that looked at more contemporary issues and urban decay. Jia Zhang-Ke was one of the key directors in this movement and Pickpocket (a.k.a. Xiao Wu) was his first ‘proper’ feature (he’d made the 1-hour Xiaoshan huijia student production previously). It sets the tone for the rest of the films in the set, which form a sort of trilogy examining various aspects of the changes China had undertaken over 30 years prior to the turn of the century. Pickpocket is set in a small provincial town in 1997 around the time of the handover of Hong Kong back to China. It follows Xiao Wu, a pickpocket that is being left behind as China moves towards more capitalist ideals. His friends that were once pickpockets like him are all getting married or setting up legitimate businesses. At first stubborn to make any changes to his life, Wu tries to modernise and falls for a call girl Mei Mei (Hao Hongjian), who starts to turn his life around, but his past comes back to haunt him.

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