Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Two years after the caper in Bangkok, young Qin Feng is reunited with his uncle in New York. The two have been summoned, along with the rest of the world’s greatest detectives, to solve a series of Feng Shui themed murders that have been taking place in Chinatown. If they find the killer, they win $5 million, and will be listed as the Earth’s greatest sleuths on the International Detective App. (Because that’s a thing, apparently). So, with the stakes in place, the genius/dumb-ass duo set out to solve the murders, make some cash, and, hopefully, find love along the way.

Detective Chinatown 2 is not a movie I was planning on seeing. I never watched the first film, and the trailers didn’t really pique my interest. But my girlfriend, who liked the original, suggested we watch it, and I decided, “hey, why not?” So I saw it, and, well…

I’m just gonna say it, this movie’s not for everyone. It’s an over-the-top, highly cartoonish comedy, whose plot doesn’t really make sense. In terms of style and tone, it’s very similar to the works of Stephen Chow and Baz Luhrmann. Nothing about it is even remotely realistic, and, to be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of that sort of thing. I do, however, recognize that there are people who like exaggerated humor, and that, regardless of what I say, this movie will make a lot of money. Even so, I didn’t care for it. Like, at all. The acting is terrible–Wang Baoqiang, who plays the Uncle, seems to think that if you say every line as loud and high-pitched as possible, the funnier it will be–there are scenes that go absolutely nowhere, and for a film marketed as a family-friendly comedy, there’s a lot of shockingly dark stuff in it. A dude slits his throat open with a switch blade, a woman gets her heart removed, and there are more than a few racist gags that truly made me uncomfortable. In one scene, for instance, a guy is teaching Chinese to a classroom full of black people, and then, when someone comes in and starts giving him shit, they all pull out guns. Seriously. The portrayal of non-Chinese in this film is kind of disturbing. Granted, I don’t suppose it’s any worse than how Americans have traditionally shown the Chinese in our cinema, but, still. It made me feel weird.

Now I don’t want to give you the impression that I hated this film. I didn’t.  There were some bits where I legitimately laughed. In one scene, for instance, a dude gets kicked in the balls while “Billie Jean” is playing in the background, and the way he hops around looks like Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. That got a genuine chuckle out of me. And even though I didn’t like Wang Baoqiang, Michael Pitt, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, or any of the other actors’, work in this film, I did enjoy seeing them onscreen. It made me want to go back and watch their other flicks, particularly Wang’s A World Without Thieves, an action movie that I would highly recommend to you all. As for this film, though, it’s not my cup of tea. If you liked the first Detective Chinatown, or are a fan of ridiculous, cartoonish comedies, maybe you’ll enjoy it. If not, maybe try to avoid this. It’s up to you.

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Hero (2002)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

In a period of Civil War, a ruthless king is poised to take over all of China. All that stands in his way are three assassins–Long Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. For 10 years, they have thwarted his efforts, and personally tormented him, to the point where he can neither sleep, nor remove his armor. Now, though, after more than a decade, a Nameless Warrior claims to have slain them all. To see if this is true, the King summons the swordsman to his palace, and ask to hear how he achieved such an impossible feat. As the Nameless Warrior talks, however, the King starts to suspect that he may not be who he says he is, and that he might have ulterior motives for being there.

Hero is colorful, melodramatic, beautifully-choreographed, and surprisingly philosophical. It is a film that I loved when it first came out, and that I can appreciate even more, now that I know about all the effort that goes into movie-making. From a purely technical perspective, it’s perfect. The shot composition, use of color in costumes and sets, editing, music and fight choreography are all flawless. It holds up after 15 years, and for good reason. Every single earthshaking,gravity defying moment was done by actual stuntmen, with practical effects. Yes, it’s all very heightened, but it all looks real. Because it is real. And that makes it so much better. The movie is also surprisingly thought-provoking. Most people go into martial arts films expecting pretty visuals, but not much else. Hero, however, takes a more grounded approach to its storytelling and characterization, and actually has some pretty interesting things to say. At its core is the question of what is more important, the greater good, or personal loyalty, and I, for one, think it handles that topic with both care and insight. All of this can be found in the relationship between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, played by my all-time favorite screen couple, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. They are lovers torn apart by that central question; what’s more important to me, loyalty or good? By the movie’s end, both are left (literally) heartbroken, because of their inability to compromise. Their downfall is both a joy and a torment to watch. And, as always, they’re chemistry is effortless.

Now, with all that said, I’m not above admitting that this film has problems. Some are simple matters of personal taste. Others are larger, and story-related. The biggest, for me, is the fact that you don’t know the characters too well. This is due, in large part, to the fact that we see the same story unfold multiple times, from different perspectives, like in Rashoman. In each version of events, the character’s personalities and goals are changed to fit the views of the teller. In one version, for instance, Broken Sword and Flying Snow are petty, jealous and violent. That’s because the narrator wants us to think they are. In another version, however, they are shown as loving, loyal, and willing to do anything to keep the other safe. That’s because the new narrator views them that way. As such, you don’t get to know the characters very well. Or, at least, not until the end. The dialogue is also very on the nose and melodramatic, with no one sounding like an actual human. Yes, that’s to be expected for a martial arts period piece, but still. The third flaw, and the one that matters most to me, personally,  is the way the film treats Zhang Ziyi’s character. She plays Broken Sword’s assistant, Moon. In one version of events, she is his lover.  Or, rather, in that version, Broken Sword is angry at Flying Snow, and so he more or less rapes Moon to make Snow jealous. Yes, the film implies that Moon has feelings for him, and I suppose that’s meant to make his assault of her slightly less awful. But he does still grab her without warning, throw her to the ground, rip her clothes off, have his way with her, and then kick her out. And the movie does show Moon crying after this, so I’m not sure how to feel. When I first saw this film back in 2004, I was only about 9 years old. I didn’t know what sex, let alone rape, was. And yet, even then, when I watched this scene, I got upset. Something about it felt wrong to me, and it still does, all these years later. It’s my least favorite aspect of an otherwise awesome movie, and if you do watch the film, maybe fast forward through that part.

But, all in all, Hero’s visual brilliance, strong performances, epic score and gripping narrative more than make up for its flaws. And they certainly make the picture, as a whole, worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Li Mu Bai has long led a warrior’s life. But now, after years of bloodshed, he’s determined to turn over a new leaf. So, to prove to everyone that he’s done killing, he gives his sword, the legendary Green Destiny, to Yu Shu Lien, a fellow warrior, and unrequited love interest. But when the Green Destiny is stolen, and Yu and Li’s investigation brings them to the home of a government official, they realize that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie I have loved literally my entire life. Not only was it the first film I ever saw, but it was also the movie that made me want to make movies. Seriously. As soon as I watched this back in 2000, I got a camera, and made my own kung fu movie, Crouching Lion, Hidden Eagle. Any picture that can get a six year old who doesn’t even know what a camera is to want to make movies is doing something right. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. To date, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest grossing foreign-language film in American history, as well as the most critically-acclaimed martial arts movie of all time; with a record four Academy Awards to its name, and ten nominations, including Best Picture. But why was it so beloved? Why do people still remember it after so many years? What, to put it bluntly, makes this movie so good?

Well, several things, actually. The first is it’s script. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very well-written movie, with it actually getting nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for good reason. Every single character is given depth, personality, and pain. The film is almost three hours long, and it contains many quiet scenes where characters just sit and talk to each other about their dreams and desires. As such, the protagonists of this film are considerably more well-rounded than those in other martial arts movies. The second thing that makes this movie awesome is the camerawork. Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon is beautifully shot, with every single frame dripping with life and color. Peter Pau, the cinematographer, won an Oscar for lensing this film, and I can totally see why. Every time I watch it, I feel like I’ve been transported to another world, and it’s all thanks to the images onscreen. The third thing that makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon incredible is the acting. Everyone gives a subtle, restrained performance, not at all what you’d expect from a film like this, and, indeed, many members of the cast were nominated for BAFTA and Hong Kong Film Awards for their work. The standout, easily, is Zhang Ziyi, who steals the Green Destiny, and the whole damn show. She is magnetic on screen. She’s bold and fiery, and yet, vulnerable and sweet. By this point in her career, She’d already made somewhat of a name for herself back in China, but it was her work in Crouching Tiger that catapulted her into the stratosphere of stardom, not just in the East, but in the West as well. For the next five years, she was everywhere, appearing in big films like Hero, Rush Hour 2, Memoirs Of A Geisha, and House Of Flying Daggers. It is extremely rare for an Asian actress to become big in Hollywood, but Zhang Ziyi did, and it’s all thanks to her incredible performance in this movie. The fourth, and biggest, reason why Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is awesome is the action.  It is SUPERB. It’s exciting, well-shot, beautifully-choreographed, and inventive. The fight sequences in this movie hold up after 17 years, and for good reason. They’re real. Every single moment was done in camera, by real stuntmen. And you can tell. In the film’s most famous fight scene, where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi duke it out in a courtyard, you hear the actresses panting, and see the sweat dripping down their faces. You really believe that this is a hard, brutal fight, and that it’s taking a serious toll on both their bodies. And whenever a film can convince you that a staged action sequence is real, it’s done something right.

Now, as much as I adore Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, trust me, I could gush about it for ages, there are some aspects of it that I don’t enjoy as much, all these years later. The biggest, by far, is the flashback sequence, wherein we see Zhang Ziyi’s backstory. Yes, it’s necessary, and it helps you understand her character. But it’s also very long, and very, very slow. It goes on for about 40 minutes, and when you watch it, you just feel like you’re in a different movie. The whole thing really hurts the pace, and I honestly tend to fast-forward through it whenever I re-watch the film. Which brings me to another point, the fact that the movie’s plot is kind of scatter-brained. It starts out as a drama about a warrior trying to abandon his bloody past. Then it becomes a mystery, where they have to find the Green Destiny. Then it turns into a romantic drama, wherein Zhang Ziyi wants to escape her arranged marriage and go live in the desert. And then, in the last 30 minutes, it becomes a kind of road movie, where Zhang Ziyi is just roaming the land, taking what she wants and fighting whomever she pleases. Yes, everyone has an arc, and all the subplots do pay off. But, upon re-watch, it does feel like some of those subplots could have been omitted, and the movie, as a whole, would have become more focused.

But those are really the only negative things I have to say about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a well-shot, well-acted, emotionally-devastating character piece, with some amazing fight sequences and action. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie after all this time, go out and rent it RIGHT NOW!  You will love it.

Blade Of The Immortal (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

When her parents are slaughtered by a ruthless group of swordsmen, teenaged Rin seeks out a ronin named Manji, who, rumor has it, cannot be killed. This gossip turns out to be true, as we see Manji being able to recover from what should be fatal injuries, including several instances where he re-attaches severed limbs to his body. Manji is reluctant to help her at first, knowing, all too well, what the price of vengeance is, but eventually agrees, seeing in Rin a shot at redemption. So the two set out in search of the wicked swordsmen, and what follows is 151 minutes of spraying blood and flashing steel.

Anyone who’s read my blog knows that I’m a huge fan of Takashi Miike, a highly prolific and controversial Japanese filmmaker. For while he’s sickened many people, including myself, with perverse and bizarre films like Ichi The Killer, I’ve always been a fan of his ability to switch between genres, and his uncanny knack for churning out relatively high quality flicks in a very short amount of time. Between 2001 and 2002 alone, he directed no less than 15 features. And this movie, Blade Of The Immortal, is his 100th motion picture. I was honestly astonished when I saw this in the movie’s tagline, and I knew, right away, that I just had to see it. And lucky for me, a theater close by where I live just happened to be playing it. So, hey. I had no choice.

But how, you ask, is the flick itself? Well, as far as simple filmmaking is concerned–acting, cinematography, costumes, music–I have no complaints. This is a gorgeous looking, and sounding, movie. And everyone in the film, even people who are only in one or two scenes, give good performances. Something Miike is known for is cramming his films with tons of A-list actors and pop stars, none of whom usually get enough screen time, and this flick is no exception. Another thing I liked about this movie were the battle sequences. Every character has a very distinct look and fighting style, and when you see them tearing into each other, it’s a ton of fun. If you’re a fan of Miike, samurai cinema, or are just looking for a break from the bland Hollywood fare that comes out around this time of year, give this flick a look. You won’t be disappointed. But if you’re the sort of person who can’t stand a ton of violence, or prefers your films to have well-written scripts, this might not be for you. Blade Of The Immortal is extremely bloody, and highly episodic in structure, with most of the film being Rin and Manji finding one of the swordsman, fighting him, and then moving on. And while the action is cool, every battle is so big and frenetic that, after a certain point,  they all start to feel the same. Still, the movie is well-made, and refreshingly off-kilter when compared to all the other films I’ve seen over the past two months. So, for that reason, I think you all should go see it. Treat yourself to something different.

The Age Of Shadows (2016)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When the Japanese learn that a resistance group is smuggling explosives into Seoul, they send Officer Lee Jung-Chool to stop them. An ethnic Korean with a history of selling out his countrymen, Lee is initially eager to bring the rebels down. But when one of the insurgents he has a hand in killing turns out to be his old classmate, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole affair.

The Age Of Shadows is a brilliantly-shot, beautifully-acted, solidly entertaining spy film. It’s got period-accurate sets, gorgeous costumes, and a nice-sounding score. And unlike Lust, Caution, which is set during the same era, and deals with similar themes of espionage, Age Of Shadows doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s got some great chases, and some spectacular scenes of suspense. Two sequences in particular, one in the beginning where a group of police officers are chasing a man across some rooftops, and one on a train where the Japanese are trying to find rebels, really stick out. They help elevate this film beyond a predictable, patriotic thriller, to something more exciting, and more universally appealing.

That said, I have no desire to watch this movie again. The biggest reason is the runtime. This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and there are points where the pacing really does drag. Granted, those moments are quickly replaced with exciting sequences, like the ones I just mentioned, but, still, those slow bits definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, as good as the acting in this movie is, there is little to no characterization. You get to know Officer Lee and the chief rebel a bit, since they’re given the most screen time, and have the most to say. But everything we know about everyone else is told to us in voice over, and we’re never really shown who these people are. We’re never given a scene where they all sit down, talk, and act like regular people. And that was a little disappointing.

Still, at the end of the day, I don’t regret having watched this movie, and would even recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of spy films, Korean movies, or the director, Kim Jee-Woon, give this flick a look. You’ll probably wind up enjoying yourself.

Mother (2009)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The name, And Views Are My Game.

When a young girl winds up dead, and a golf ball with a disabled man’s name written on it is discovered at the crime scene, the police think they’ve solved the case. But the suspect’s mother, a herb shop owner whose name we never learn, is unconvinced. Her boy couldn’t possibly have done it. So she tries to prove his innocence; by hiring a lawyer, handing out pamphlets, and, when those things inevitably fail to work, investigating on her own. In so doing, she uncovers a great many things; about the police, the victim, her son, and even herself. Specifically, the lengths she’ll go to to get him home.

Mother is an off-beat, idiosyncratic, always entertaining mystery. The film that Bong Joon-Ho made between The Host and Snowpiercer, it benefits from his dark sense of humor, keen attention to detail, and pension for telling stories with ambiguous endings. That, and some extraordinary performances by Kim Hye-Ja, whom plays the titular character, and Won Bin, whom plays her mentally-challenged son. Miss Kim, especially, deserves praise, since the film really rests on her shoulders. You see her go through so many emotional states, and you feel all the anxiety, frustration, fear and sorrow that she does. The editing of this picture is also something to behold. There’s one scene towards the beginning where she’s watching her son while cutting herbs, and it keeps moving back and forth between her face, her son, and the knife, and everything about it–the shot progression, the sound design, the acting– is perfect. For these reasons alone, along with the fact that it has some genuinely unexpected twists, I would recommend you all watch it. It is the best mystery I’ve seen in years.

That said, this is not my favorite Bong Joon-Ho film. Which is weird, because, even though I think it’s a better-crafted picture than Okja, overall, I like Okja more. Part of this has to do with some of the odder, sex-related content. For instance, Mother features some very disturbing implications about the titular character and her son, particularly about how they sleep in the same bed together, and it will definitely make some viewers uncomfortable. There’s also a sex scene between a 30-year-old man and his teenage girlfriend about halfway through that made me feel funny. No, he didn’t rape her. The dialogue makes it clear this was a consensual encounter. And no, the actress in the scene wasn’t underage. I checked, and found that she was 22 at the time the movie was shot. Still, she looks really young, her character is supposed to be 15, and the guy she’s having sex with looks a lot older than her. All this makes it kind of hard to watch. But by far the biggest problem I had with the movie is the way it portrays mental disability. As a person who is legally blind, and whose best friend is on the autism spectrum, I’m always somewhat skeptical of onscreen portrayals of disability. Even when the writers and actors go in with good intentions, and a fair amount of research, their portrayals tend to be very over-the-top and caricatured, usually relying on tired cliches. One of those cliches is that mentally challenged people are dangerous, and don’t know when they’re hurting others. This is a trope that dates back to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and that is featured prominently in Mother, with the son character being violent, and oftentimes being unaware that he’s doing anything wrong. This trope is not only tired, it’s dangerous. It leads to discrimination against mentally disabled people. And it ignores the fact that, in the real world, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. I was frankly disappointed to see a talented filmmaker like Bong Joon-Ho use these kinds of stereotypes in his work. I thought he was better than that. But, ah well.

Nevertheless, Mother’s strong performances, interesting story, and stellar editing make it an all-around engrossing mystery. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I do think it’s worth watching.

Three (2016)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When a gang leader is cornered, he injures himself so as to force the cops to take him to the hospital. There, he refuses to be treated, citing his right to die. The cop who brought him in, however, urges the doctors to go ahead with the operation, believing that this “right to die” nonsense is nothing more than a stalling tactic. This confuses the attending physician, who finds herself caught between the law on one side, and her duties as a doctor on the other. And with the gangsters closing in, she has to make a decision quick. Otherwise, she, and everyone in the hospital, could wind up dead.

Three is a film with superb acting, gorgeous cinematography, and distinct characters. And I absolutely hate it. It’s one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. It takes a basic premise that’s worked in the past–people in one location, waiting for something bad to happen–and sucks all the life and energy out of it. There’s no tension. There’s no urgency. Even the climatic final shoot out, which you have to wait over an hour and twenty minutes to get to, is a bore, with it all being done in slow motion, and the music accompanying it being so soft and gentle that it puts you to sleep.

As I said before, this film is well-acted, well-written, and well-shot. But dialogue and cinematography are only part of a film. How you put those things together–what music you decide to use, which order you place the clips in–can drastically alter the tone and meaning of the content. There are tons of videos on youtube where people take shots from horror films, and re-edit them with jaunty music so that they’re no longer scary. The same principle holds true with Three. What you essentially have is a suspense story, with characters being trapped in one location, waiting for a monster to finally show itself. As such, you should edit the film in a manner that conveys how anxious the characters are feeling. You could have a clock ticking loudly in the background, or maybe have certain scenes feature an ominous, slowly building score. Instead, what we are given is a dull, subdued film, with restrained performances, long-lasting shots of people just sitting and talking, almost no background music, and a cool, blue color palette. These things sap all the energy out of what should be a tense situation, and leave us feeling bored and frustrated. If certain shots had been cut off sooner, or a bit of ominous music had been added to emphasize the importance of particular moments, I might have enjoyed Three more. As it stands, though, I was left seriously disappointed, and can’t recommend this picture to you all.