Friday, December 6, 2013

2013 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2013 Chinese American Film Festival returned to 4 Star from November 13 to 19.  It coincided with the dates of New Italian Cinema at the Clay.  I probably would have gone to more films at both festivals if they didn't overlap but frankly I was kind fatigued by films and life at that point so maybe I would stayed home.

Fallen City starring Huang Jue, Yongdai Ding & Ruby Lin; directed by Huang Hong; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
Lethal Hostage starring Songlei Sun; directed by Cheng Er; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
Unbeatable starring Nick Cheung; directed by Dante Lam; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2013)
Love Deposit starring Xia Yu & Jessie Zhou; directed by Qu Jiangtao; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Shanghai Calling starring Daniel Henney & Eliza Coupe; directed by Daniel Hsia; Mandarin, Shanghainese & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website

In the past, I have gone to at least one screening per year where English subtitles were not available.  I'm glad to report that all the screenings I attended this year had English subtitles.  My only complaint in that regard is the opening credits of Love Deposit which set up the premise were not subtitled.  More on that later.

Fallen City - a cop in a small Chinese town recognizes the bank robber who eluded him a few years ago.  He chases him down and finally catches him but at that moment, an earthquake strikes and incapacitates the cop.  The robber puts on the cops uniform and heads out in the flattened town to find his daughter who is the reason for his return.  Dressed as a cop, he is constantly asked to help the victims of the earthquake.

I found the CGI effects amateurish and the acting was only marginally better.  Fallen City had a contrived plot and overacting interspersed amongst wooden acting,and characters.  It was the first film I saw and I was worried that the rest of the films in the series would be of this quality.

Lethal Hostage - starred Honglei Sun whom I saw in Johnnie To's Drug War.  The plot was a little difficult to follow but Honglei Sun plays a Chinese drug dealer who years ago kidnapped a dentist's daughter during a firefight with the police.  He used her as a hostage to cross the border back to his homebase of Burma (or Myanmar).  Years pass and the girl, no an adult, marries her kidnapper - Stockholm Syndrome in Burma among Ethnic Chinese.  There is also a cop tracking Sun whose sister lives next to another drug dealer.

The characters aren't given names (like my synopses sometimes) so the audience is kept detached from the characters.  The violence is ratcheted up a notch for a mainland Chinese film.  The scenes move back in forth in time which makes it difficult to understand the plot.  I'd like to see Lethal Hostage a second time.  Nicely photographed and chillingly disturbing at times, director Cheng Er and Lethal Hostage merit future attention.

Unbeatable was the most crowd pleasing of the films I saw.  Nick Cheung plays Scumbag Fai, a 1980s boxing champion in HK who threw some matches and has been living in disgrace ever since.  Chased out of HK due to gambling debts, he ends up in Macau working at a friend's MMA studio.  Siqi (Eddie Peng) is the son of a rich man whose father has lost his fortune.  To prove himself to his father, Siqi decides to enter an MMA tournament.

After the obligatory resistance, Fai agrees to train Siqi.  Siqi needs the cash prize to help his father, Fai needs redemption which he only partially achieves by training Siqi.  In a subplot, Fai rents a room in the apartment of Gwen (Mei Ting) and her precocious daughter.  The three form a makeshift family unit since the Gwen's husband has abandoned wife & daughter.  Gwen also has a screw loose due to being drunk when her son died.

Anyway, Unbeatable takes a slight detour from utterly predictable when Siqi is injured in one of his MMA matches.  Stepping into the breach is Fai, a 40something ex-boxer who was barely qualified to coach a MMA fighter much less participate in the biggest MMA tournament in Asia.  Fai ends up facing the fighter (Andy On) who injured Siqi.  Barely avoiding a broken neck, Fai just his ass kicked until the end when he uses his trick shoulder (a la Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon) to escape a submission move and deliver a knockout blow.

Unbeatable was directed by Dante Lam who made the brassy The Beast Stalker with Cheung.  Lam and Cheung find the right formula again.  If you went to Unbeatable looking for fight scenes, you were disappointed because the fighting didn't start until the final third of the film.  In the meantime, you get Cheung and the little girl playing dress up or Cheung and Peng in training montages which would put Sylvester Stallone to shame.  There is quite a bit of humor in Unbeatable until Siqi is paralyzed after getting his neck broken during a fight and Gwen goes crazy and is institutionalized.

Cheung shows quite a bit of range; especially taking into account his turn The Beast Stalker.  Andy Om also makes the most of his brief screen time which occurs solely within the confines of the octagon.

Love Deposit sounds like the title of a porno film.  Instead it has a clever plot conceit at the center of the story.  He Muyang (Xia Yu) runs a cafe called Love Bank.  As a promotional device, he offers "love deposit."  Couples record their true thoughts on video.  Each video is saved to a memory stick.  They pay a deposit.  If the couple is still together after a year, they can have their deposit and memory sticks back.  If they are broken up, He keep both.  The contract specifies he cannot turn over the memory stick to either partner if they have broken up within a year.  This causes angry confrontations with customers who want to know what their ex said about them.  He is keeps his commitments and always refuses.

Yu Xiaoyu (Jessie Zhou) has broken up with her boyfriend.  She attempts to extort, threaten, wheedle and buy access to the memory stick.  He, in need of employees, agrees to view the message and tell Yu one sentence per day if she works at the cafe.

Love Deposit loses some momentum after setting up the premise.  You know He & Yu have to get together but it's a matter of how to get them together in the funniest way possible.  At this point, we get the backstory of the Love Bank and it involves an embarrassing refusal of He's marriage proposal.  In order to save face, He invites Yu as his date for a college reunion.  He is still hung up on his college girlfriend 10 years later.  He even stalks her.  It's only when learns about the Love Bank and announces that she will be moving to Europe that He finally give Yu a chance - classic rebound relationship!  What's more romantic than that?

So maybe Love Deposit has nonsufficient funds but its a fun ride for the first hour or so of its 93 minutes.

Shanghai Calling put the American in the Chinese American Film Festival.  Daniel Henney is Sam, a thoroughly Americanized ABC lawyer in New York.  After winning a big case, he expects to be made partner at his law firm but instead he is transferred to the Shanghai office.  He reluctantly takes the assignment immediately regrets it.  He gets off on the wrong foot with his relocation consultant Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a Caucasian who can speak better Mandarin than him.  His first case results in patent infringement and furious client (Alan Ruck).  Unwilling to accept the advice of various expats to hire Chinese troubleshoot extraordinaire Awesome Wang (Geng Le), he digs himself a bigger hole as a Chinese company continues to pump out cellphones with tactile screens contrary to the exclusive marketing agreement Sam negotiated.  The only bright spot is that he and Amanda are getting quite cozy.  Sam had to move to Shanghai to get a white girlfriend.

Laughs are fast and frequent in this comedy about a fish out of water, when in Rome, stranger in a strange land, etc.  It seems a little derivative but Shanghai Calling is well crafted and populated with solid actors throughout.  Henney and Coupe get most of the screen time but Ruck, Le and even Bill Paxton shows up in smaller roles which give the film a break from the less than enthralling romance between Sam & Amanda.

A twist at the end surprised me and was the salvation for Sam whose moment of triumph involves laying off a factory full of Chinese worker who probably make 5% of his salary.

The real star of Shanghai Calling is Shanghai which looks incredible in the film.  Shanghai always looks great in films

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