A Tale of Three Cities (2015)

A Tale of Three Cities [三城記] (2015)

Starring Lau Ching-Wan, Tang Wei, Qin Hai-Lu, Boran Jing Bo-Ran, Huang Jue, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Li Jian-Yi, Jiao Gang, Phillip Chan Yan-Kin, Wang Zhi-Xuan, He Ya-Fei, Xiong Ao-Yu, Yuan Wei-Xuan

Directed by Mabel Cheung

Expectations: Moderate. I’m curious to see the story dramatized.


After watching Mabel Cheung’s 2003 documentary, Traces of a Dragon, about Jackie Chan’s parents and their wartime struggles before arriving in Hong Kong, I was immediately intrigued to see A Tale of Three Cities, Cheung’s 2015 feature film version of the story. Like everything with me, though, “immediately” turned into 16 months later, so the true story of the documentary wasn’t quite so fresh in mind. This probably worked out for the best, allowing A Tale of Three Cities to exist a bit on its own, although I was also surprised just how many events in the movie I do remember from stories in the documentary. The question of which one better tells its tale is one I’m not entirely sure I can answer, although for me I’d lean towards the documentary. Regardless, it is quite the incredible story that you’re not likely to forget however you take in its specifics.

Our story begins during the Second Sino-Japanese War, with a series of events showing us the food chain of war. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the world generally exists on the principle that everyone is out for themselves, and only the strong survive. The context of war adds a huge amount of chaos to the mix, changing circumstances in a moment, for both good and bad. This is communicated expertly by Cheung in these opening moments, and in terms of the film’s plot it eventually introduces us to Chen Yuerong (Tang Wei), a mother of two young girls who has just become a widow. Cheung chooses to introduce the male lead, Fang Daolong (Lau Ching-Wan), many years later, in the early 1950s when he is working in the kitchen of the US consulate in Hong Kong. We don’t know of his struggles to get there, but the depth of his experience is easy to spot in his eyes and the way he carries himself.

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Gorgeous (1999)

gorgeous_1Gorgeous [玻璃樽] (1999)
AKA Under Control, High Risk

Starring Jackie Chan, Shu Qi, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Emil Chow Wah-Kin, Bradley James Allan, Richie Ren Xian-Qi, Chan Chung-Yung, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Tats Lau Yi-Tat

Directed by Vincent Kok

Expectations: Hopeful, but it doesn’t look great.

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When it comes to Jackie Chan, the late ’90s were the height of my obsessive period. I rarely watched anything else, and my friends and I would scour the budding Internet for info on old film and news of upcoming films. So imagine my surprise when I was putting together the chronological list for this Jackie Chan series and I discovered a Hong Kong movie called Gorgeous that was released just five months after Rush Hour. I had been under the impression that once Jackie came to Hollywood, he was basically just over here making movies, but no! He actually jumped around quite a bit between continents, continuing to make Hong Kong films while his American career flourished. I guess my excuse was that Star Wars: Episode I was dropping about that same time, so my attention was sufficiently diverted.

In any case, Gorgeous is a very different type of movie for Jackie Chan, trading in the typical action movie plot for romantic comedy. There’s still has a good amount of action, though it does feel more shoehorned in than it would in a more distinct good vs. bad storyline. But that’s a fairly good problem to have, as problems go; the end result is that the audience is treated to some really stellar examples of Jackie Chan action! But I do think it’s important to know before jumping into this one that it’s not really an action movie, and that even the romantic element is somewhat underdeveloped.

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The Virgin Mart (1974)

virginmart_1bThe Virgin Mart [販賣人口] (1974)
AKA When the Kung Fu Hero Strikes

Starring Wong Yuen-San, Betty Ting Pei, Sek Kin, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Eddy Ko Hung, Woo Gam

Directed by Kao Pao-Shu

Expectations: Pretty high, based on my previous love of Kao Pao-Shu’s Lady with a Sword.

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I had one recurring thought throughout The Virgin Mart: “What a weird movie.” Hong Kong filmmakers love to mix genres and tones, and that’s something I love about the country’s films, but it just didn’t work for me in The Virgin Mart. The film blasts off with searing rock ‘n’ roll and a montage of neon lights and pretty girls. This emotional wave of fun night life imagery is quickly challenged by the introduction of Lin Ying (Woo Gam) and Mao Song (Eddy Ko Hung), a prostitute and her pimp, still within the opening montage. As we make our way into the film proper, it becomes apparent that this is also going to be an over-the-top comedy at times. Huh. OK. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but when they strap an unwilling woman onto a Qing dynasty metal sex chair called “The Joy Rider,” and play it for laughs, I just can’t go along with it.

The Virgin Mart is also largely without a distinct plotline. After the intro montage we meet a bunch of new characters, including a few that are actually important and integral to the film and its world, such as the big boss Qiang Han (Sek Kin), another prostitute Mei Ji (Betty Ting Pei), and the film’s hero Kang Tai (Wong Yuen-San). We see how the prostitution operation lures unsuspecting young girls to Hong Kong, we see the pimps battling a rival group’s men, but there’s hardly any narrative to hold these disparate bits together. Kang Tai is the man they target as a fall guy for their organization, but after he’s introduced early — stating that all he wants to do is “Just fight” — he’s absent from the film for quite a while.

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