IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

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THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

Chinese fantasy romance has a bit of a complicated story as it presents it’s tale of Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan) who is a witch, known to the people in her surrounding kingdom as Jade Rakshasa, a Robin Hood like outlaw who protects the poor. She lives in a mountaintop fortress called Fort Luna and has shunned love until she meets handsome Zhou Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). Yihang is a Wudang priest who has recently become his sect’s leader and is treating the royal prince for an illness. When the prince is poisoned by an ambitious advisor, Yihang is blamed. When Nishang is defending some of her people, she is also framed for the murder of the local governor, who is Yihang’s grandfather…see, told you it would get complicated. Thrown together by fate, the priest and witch fall in love. But their romance is doomed to be a tragic one as murder, betrayal, treachery, witchcraft and an invading army stand in the way of true love.

The Chinese cinema has been churning movies out like this for decades, yet they still have yet to recapture the charm of the great Hong Kong revival of the 80s and early 90s. This flick is based on  Liang Yusheng’s Baifa Monü Zhuan, a novel which also served as the basis for the 1993 Hong Kong cinema classic The Bride With White Hair. This adaptation is directed by Jacob Cheung and credited to five writers, not that it’s a surprise considering how overloaded the story is. But Cheung still makes this a fairly entertaining flick with plenty of martial arts action and actually giving the romance between Yihang and Nishang some dramatic weight. The story may be overcomplicated, which is not rare with these types of films, but it still works to a good degree and Cheung and his army of writers do blend the melodrama, action and fantasy elements well enough that it doesn’t sink under the weight of all the plot details. Like most of these types of films, the action is staged well and the costumes and sets are quite extravagant. There are also some bloody moments as well and Ardy Lam does photograph the proceedings and settings quite sumptuously. Modern Hong Kong films have a tendency to overdo it with the CGI, but here it is used effectively and without relying too much on it as to make it overpowering. Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark serves as a consultant, which may be how the film does manage to juggle all it’s elements so well, as that was Hark’s forte as a filmmaker. Despite an overloaded story, White Haired Witch is still a fun movie, that may not be as charming as something like the classic, and far simpler, A Chinese Ghost Story, but certainly does still entertain.

The cast are all good and our leads, in particular help make this work. Bingbing Fan, who is known to American audiences for her appearance as Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is beautiful and enchanting as Lian Nishang. She is graceful in her action scenes and can project both a strength and a sensitivity whether she is defending her people or romancing Huang Xiaoming’s Wudan priest. As Zhuo Yihang, Huang Xiaoming is handsome, brave, noble and romantic. He makes a suitable suitor for Nishang and a suitable hero for our story. During a brief plot point of having to appear like he is betraying Nishing, the actor portrays well the pain in his eyes as he does so. The two actors have good chemistry together and it makes the romantic scenes warm and endearing and their relationship seems believable even with all the fantasy elements.

Overall, the film overcomes a very overcomplicated plot to still entertain. It has some beautiful fantasy imagery, some fun action sequences and a good cast to make the characters likable…or not, if in reference to our villains. Film would have benefited from a more streamlined storyline that could allow the centerpiece romance to have a bit more focus. It also could have left out some of the politics and a few extra and unnecessary characters, such as a solider and his little girl who don’t seem to serve a purpose. If you like the Hong Kong cinema or simply Asian martial arts period pieces, this is still worth your time and is never boring, though could have been something more special if not so cluttered.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 swords
white-witch-rating

 

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

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YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame was a fun martial arts mystery and it’s success has inspired Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark to have another go around and this time he goes back to the character’s beginnings and create a prequel which portrays Dee’s first case as a member of the Da Lisi, the law enforcement agency of the city of Luoyang. He also has chosen to add a lot more fantasy elements this time as Dee’s first case involves a sea monster, a merman, a vile plot to poison Luoyang’s public officials, including the emperor, and a beautiful courtesan (Angelababy… which is the real stage name for actress/singer/model Angela Yeung). The movie opens as Dee (now Mark Chao) enters the city of Luoyang to begin work as an officer of the law but, right away he is thrust into a case involving the attempted kidnapping of courtesan Yin Ruijii (Angelababy) which becomes complicated when a mysterious ‘merman’ becomes involved. The case is also somehow linked to a massive sea monster that destroyed Luoyang’s war fleet and is being investigated by Dee’s rival Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) who thinks Dee is not to be trusted and would rather see him behind bars. The plot thickens as the city’s officials have been poisoned and somehow Dee mush earn his rival’s trust and find out how all these elements tie together before it’s too late. Dee prequel is not without it’s entertainment there is definitely some fun here but, it is also a lot more far-fetched then it’s predecessor and a lot longer as it is very plot-heavy despite the lighter nature of that plot. Hark seems to really go overboard with the sillier elements of the movie and equally so with the CGI effects and the film tends to be a bit overblown at times like his 2001 The Legend Of Zu which was in CGI effects overload. The previous Dee had fantasy elements but, they were grounded and restrained, here Hark really cuts loose and we get a film that is a lot lighter and a lot more cartoonish then the last movie. Aside from creatures and gravity defying foes, Dee also seems to have an ability that resembles ‘Spider Sense” as he can deduce complicated and detailed conclusions just by looking at objects and this ‘skill’ is vividly illustrated with CGI fueled sequences which make him appear borderline clairvoyant. It’s silly. The FX this time are mixed with some CGI being weak and some, like the film’s really cool sea monster, are excellently rendered. The film was obviously made in 3D and we get a lot of stuff flying at us and it is really distracting in 2D and the martial arts sequences are really over the top this time and don’t even try to seem somewhat grounded in reality. It just seems Hark went really overboard and at 133 minutes, he also stretches things out far too long and despite all the action and fantasy, the film seems very long-winded at times. The cast all perform well and while Mark Chao gives it his all as young Dee, he just doesn’t quite have the screen presence of veteran Andy Lau though, his Dee is likable if not a touch smug. The first Detective Dee was an entertaining movie and as a fan of this stuff, I did find much to entertain me here but, it is still an overindulgent, far-fetched and sillier step down from the first movie which, in itself wasn’t perfect and and would have been better served by a little restraint. Worth a look for Hong Kong film fans but, it’s a bit of a disappointment and just barely avoids being an overblown mess. Also stars Carina Lau reprising her role as Empress Wu from the the original Detective Dee, the only original cast member to return.

2 and 1/2 swords.

Dee 2 rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

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DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

As a sequel has been made to this 2010 Hong Kong fantasy film and I am going to attempt to catch up to it real soon, I decided to post a review of the original Detective Dee adventure from renown Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark…

Legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark returns to the director’s chair and brings along his trademark sumptuous photography and martial arts action (directed by another legend, Sammo Hung) in a martial arts mystery that evokes the Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s… although never quite equalling it. Phantom Flame tells the story of imprisoned Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a Sherlock Holmes-like crime solver based on a character from Chinese literature, Judge Dee… who is based on a real-life person from Chinese history, Di Renjie. Dee, a former royal detective imprisoned for trying to start a rebellion, is freed from jail to solve a mystery involving the spontaneous combustion of some gov’t officials on the eve of the appointing of a new empress (Carina Lau). And what Dee finds is a devious conspiracy where people and things are not what they appear and his very life may be in danger for uncovering it. Can he expose the nefarious plot or will this become his last case? Hong Kong flick is certainly entertaining and there is enough action and intrigue to keep one involved and interested. Tsui Hark brings his patented mix of martial arts and fantasy to the screen with some beautiful visuals and impressive SPFX but, he never quite gives the film the energy that made his past classics like Once upon a Time in China and the Chinese Ghost Story series so special. This isn’t to say the film is not well made, it is. The production is quite lavish and every shot of the film looks beautiful. And it’s not to say the action isn’t fast paced and fun, it is as well. Some of the action scenes are quite fun. It just seems to be missing something that would elevate it and really make it a special treat. Maybe it just doesn’t quite have the magic of the master director’s earlier classics. The cast under Hark’s guidance certainly do a good job, especially Hong Kong star Andy Lau as the formidable Dee and stunt coordinator Sammo Hung keeps things moving when directing the action but, the film never reaches the intensity or livliness that made Hark a household name among Hong Kong film fans when the new wave Hong Kong cinema hit in the 80s and Hark was at the top of the wave. It’s still a good flick. It is certainly entertaining. It’s just not quite as special as we’d like it to be, considering who’s behind the lens and what he’s accomplished in the past. I still recommend it for Hong Kong cinema fans as even when Hark isn’t at his best, his films are still entertaining and Dee is entertaining. Also stars renown Chinese actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and the beautiful Li Bingbing as Dee’s assistant, a woman skilled in martial arts and possibly with her own agenda.

3 battle axes.

13th warrior rating

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Once again director John Carpenter was ahead of his time with this spin on the type of SPFX filled supernatural/martial arts flicks that were being made as part of the revisionist Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s like Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983). Unfortunately, like his masterpiece The Thing, Big Trouble failed at the box office and would only years later be recognized and loved for the classic it is. As an avid fan of Carpenter, I was there opening night in 1986 and my friends and I loved it and immediately started quoting characters and making references, years before it got the attention it deserved. I’m proud to have championed this flick from the beginning. I had yet to see Zu, but heard enough and saw enough from the film, to know what Carpenter was doing. The Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t catch on here in the US till the early 90s and sadly it was only then when movie fans realized that Carpenter nailed the spirit and frantic fun of those movies perfectly with this deliriously entertaining flick.

This martial arts/action/fantasy/comedy starts out with obnoxious but lovable truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) visiting his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) the owner of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When going to the airport with Wang to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Burton meets spunky lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and witnesses the abduction of Miao Yin by a ruthless Chinese street gang. Now the macho, but out of his element, Burton is pulled into a world of sorcery, martial arts and monsters as he vows to help Wang retrieve his fiancé from evil 2000 year old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) whose marriage to the green-eyed Chinese girl will render him corporeal once more and unleash him upon our world. Armed with his bravado, Wang, Gracie and good sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack enters an underground world filled with supernatural warriors and lethal creatures and faces the fight of his life but…”It’s all in the reflexes” for this wannabe hero!

Simply put, Big Trouble In Little China is an absolute blast of a good time with Carpenter at the top of his game delivering an action packed and FX filled adventure that is a delight from start to finish. He populates the film with some of the liveliest and most colorful characters in a Carpenter film and proves that the master of horror and suspense could also master comedy and fantasy too. Not to mention an exhilarating martial arts flick as well, as the movie is loaded with intense and thrilling action scenes to go along with the monsters and magic. And like the Hong Kong films that the script…by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adapted by W.D. Richter…pays homage to, the movie perfectly mixes the hand to hand combat with the supernatural elements to provide top notch entertainment. Carpenter once again scores the film…and sings the film’s theme song with his band The Coup De Ville’s…and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Dean Cundey returns to give a sumptuously colorful look to the incredible ancient China themed production design and the perfectly framed shots by the master director. It’s a true Asian fantasy world they create beneath modern day Chinatown to match the ancient China setting that the films this is inspired by generally have. It may be Carpenter’s most elaborately staged movie up to this point with it’s spectacular sets, grandiose fight scenes, make-up and SPFX even with all the big action sequences and FX of his previous film, the sci-fi/romance Starman.  Carpenter gives it all a lightening fast pace and energetic intensity…as well as, a generous dose of wacky humor.

And as for the cast, Kurt Russell is obviously having an over-the-top good time with one of his greatest characters, the lovable lug Jack Burton. He’s an obnoxious legend in his own mind, but Russell makes him once of his most endearing portrayals and certainly one of his most quotable characters aside from Snake Plissken. The rest of the cast including Dennis Dun as the noble and love-struck Wang, Cattral as the adorable yet feisty Gracie, Wong as tour bus driver and sorcerer Egg Shen and Hong as the eccentric and powerful Lo Pan are all having the time of their lives with their comic book style characters and it really helps solidify the live action Chinese fantasy world in which the film is set.

Sadly under-appreciated at the time of it’s release, this film is now getting the love and respect it deserves and has a large and faithful following that will drop a quote from one of it’s many delightfully hilarious lines at any given time. It’s a funny, action-packed fantasy and simply one of John Carpenter’s best films in a versatile filmography. A real blast and one of my favorite movies. Also stars Donald Li as Wang’s bud Eddie and Kate Burton as naive reporter Margo Litzenberger. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Jack Burton T-shirt images (out of 4)!

big trouble rating

BONUS REVIEW

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ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)

While I have not read a direct quote myself, it is said that Carpenter has stated that this film is the film that inspired the making of Big Trouble In Little China. It is certainly the most famous and closest in content and tone of the Hong Kong films around that time, so it’s easy to believe. Chinese Ghost Story wouldn’t be released until 1987 which would then be followed by an avalanche of Chinese fantasy/martial arts epics that continues even today, so Zu is a strong bet to be the film that writers Goldman and Weinstein and director Carpenter were trying to catch the spirit of. As I am looking back at Carpenter’s martial arts classic, I thought I would take a look back, as well, at one of the first of the new wave Hong Kong cinema to catch the attention of the West and bring legendary Hong Kong director/producer Tsui Hark and his sumptuous visual style to the film world’s attention.

Like the gangs in Carpenter’s classic, the ancient China set Zu features warring factions…designated by the colors they wear…all trying to take control of the Zu mountains. When fate separates soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) from his troop, like Jack Burton, the over his head grunt becomes involved in a battle of good vs evil involving supernaturally powered warriors, both male and female, monsters, magic and powerful sorcerers representing both sides.

Though fairly low budget, Hark provides some spectacular FX filled battles, some very atmospheric and beautifully designed sets and settings, with some sumptuous and atmospheric cinematography by Bill Wong. The same kind of elements that Big Trouble in Little China is filled with. The production design is quite lavish with it’s massive temples and cavernous mountain passes and Hark also fills his movie with demons and monsters to go along with our heroes and villains and there are mystical battles and demonic possessions involving creature and warrior alike. The action is quite exciting as are the fantasy set pieces it is featured in and this is the first film to really put to use the rapid fire editing that would become a trademark of the Hong Kong cinema of this era and is imitated by so many of today’s filmmakers. The SPFX are well orchestrated for a low budget film and even employed Western FX masters Robert Blalack and Peter Kuran in creating some of visual artistry. The sets are also quite extravagant and really add to the film’s fantasy atmosphere which at times resembles an Asian themed Disney fairy tale with a dark edge. As with Carpenter’s film, Zu also has it’s share of laughs and comic moments to mix with the more chilling and thrilling sequences the film presents and let’s not forget it’s share of beautiful ladies such as legendary Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin whose gorgeous yet lethal Ice Queen, can charm a man or literally freeze him solid.

Sure, all these years later this charming Hong Kong classic may seem cheesy to some and does get silly at times, but to me it’s a nostalgic and really fun martial arts fantasy that inspired many a filmmaker and one of John Carpenter’s most entertaining flicks…not to mention getting the Hong Kong cinema back on the film geek map after the prolific martial arts films of the 70s ran their course. Also stars Hong Kong movie legend Sammo Hung and has fight choreography by another Hong Kong cinema legend, actor and choreographer Corey Yeun. A really fun movie.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 mystic swords (out of 4)…of course this film has a few of those, why wouldn’t it? zu rating

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: A CHINESE GHOST STORY I & II

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A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987)

One of my all time favorite films since first seeing it at The Film Forum in NYC at The Hong Kong Film Festival in September of 1991. This Hong Kong classic is an enchanting supernatural romance/action/ fantasy, a fairy tale-like story of a meek tax collector, Ning Tsei-Shen (the late Leslie Cheung) in ancient China, who encounters and falls in love with a beautiful ghost, Nieh Hsiao-Tsing (the gorgeous Joey Wang). But this enchanting specter who has stolen his heart is betrothed to the devil himself by her master, the soul sucking Tree Demon (Lau Siu-Ming). The mild mannered Ning Tsei-Shen teams up with a powerful Taoist monk (the scene stealing Wu Ma) and vows to save his supernatural love from her eternally damning fate.

A Chinese Ghost Story is simply a great movie directed by legendary Hong Kong director Ching Siu-Tung and produced by the equally legendary Tsui Hark, that delivers everything from sumptuous cinematography, charming romance, thrilling martial arts action, spooky scares and some very effective old-school SPFX. The film has the wonderful ability to charm us, entertain us, give us the chills and make us laugh out loud. The cast is perfect with leads Cheung and Wang making an enchanting couple, Wu Ma a cantankerous mix of Bruce Lee, Gandalf and Yoda and Lau Siu-Ming is creepy and formidable as the weirdly androgynous Tree Demon. A simply wonderful and wildly entertaining film!

4 supernatural sirens!

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A CHINESE GHOST STORY II (1990)

Chinese Ghost Story 2 is a cinematic rarity, a sequel that’s an equal. Tax collector Ning Tsei-Shen (Leslie Cheung) returns and is once again drawn into a battle with evil supernatural forces over a woman. This time, she’s a flesh and blood woman, Windy (Joey Wang) who is the spitting image of his ghostly love from the previous installment. As Ning is mistaken for a rebel leader, he is more then happy to perpetuate this error in order to get close to the beautiful rebel, Windy. But the rebels are up against a demon in disguise and once again Ling is forced to battle an assortment of supernatural foes.

Chinese Ghost Story 2 is a bit bigger with more action, but, the human element is not lost thanks to another fine performance by Leslie Cheung as he tax collector and Wang as his paramour, Windy. There are some delightful new characters such as cocky Taoist monk, Autumn (Jacky Cheung), Windy’s spunky sister, Moon (Michelle Reis) and heroic swordsman, Fu (Waise Lee). There is also a surprise cameo from a character from part 1 that I won’t spoil, but the audience at The Hong Kong Film Festival at the Film Forum in NYC erupted in thunderous cheers when they appear. While less of a romance and more of a supernatural adventure this time, CGS2 nonetheless has some great action, some nice chills, some hysterically funny scenes, (one involving two characters, a giant demon and a freezing spell might be among my favorite slapstick comedy scenes.) and some charming old fashion FX that might be cheesy elsewhere, but bring a smile to one’s face here. Again Ching Siu-tung skillfully directs and beautifully shoots this great follow-up and Tsui Hark again produces. Another Hong Kong classic.

4 supernatural sirens!

chineseGhostStory rating

There is a Chinese Ghost Story 3 (1991) also directed by Ching Siu-Tung and while it is entertaining, it takes place 100 years later and is almost a reboot, so it doesn’t quite fit in with the first film and it’s direct sequel…unless you want to include it for a complete trilogy viewing. Joey Wang stars again, this time as a Ghost named Lotus and Lau Siu-Ming returns as the tree demon.

-MonsterZero NJ

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