Monday, 3 February 2014

The Monkey King 3D [Review]

Opinion: B-

By Jason Lin

Arguably the highest anticipated Asian films this lunar new year, The Monkey King squanders what appears to be a relatively good screenplay adapted from one of the most popular Chinese literature and folklore with an over-saturation of visual effects in almost every sequence. This results in a major 120 minutes eyesore and an unfortunate distraction from an otherwise valuable characterisation and narrative development.

After the Battle of Gods and Demons, Nu Wa (Goddess of Works) used 36,500 magic boulders to repair Heaven and one of it fell accidentally onto Earth and sat on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits on an island across the Eastern Sea. Bathed for thousands of years in the energies of Heaven and Earth as well as the light of Sun and Moon, a godly creature was nurtured inside the stone-egg and finally it cracked open to release a full-grown monkey.

Only the second Chinese production to be shot on the giant format, having The Monkey King in IMAX 3D is a gratification for fans on paper. With a range of classic characters, heavenly entities and vast potential for a contemporary adaptation, Soi Cheang gives it a heavy visual treatment possibly to empower imaginations running wild. For this, the film employs the help of Hollywood talents like David Ebner (Alice in Wonderland) and Shaun Smith (300, I Am Legend) for blockbuster technical assurance.

Despite the meticulous approach engaged by the filmmakers and studio executives, the end result culminates in technical mediocrity under this opinion. A few VFX sequences having jarring frame rates aside (it literally looks like a system with an incompetent graphics card rendering the visuals), there are also a couple of CG elements appearing to be pixelated (particularly blatant when this opinion viewed it upfront in 3D). When almost every sequence is designed with visual effects in mind, it frustratingly causes a significant distraction from other merits that the film may have.

The Monkey King begins with the birth and origins of Sun Wukong (Donnie Yen), whose commencing life journey is of interest to watch. As a third party, one gets to understand Sun's good nature that is eventually convoluted by external influences of both good and evil. Sun is born with vast potential of greatness, which is acknowledged and subsequently exploited by many. This serves as a classic case example of the impacts of exploiting talent and power for good and wicked intentions.

One is also able to comprehend the devastating effects of uncontrollable anger and rage that may be triggered by even the purest and kindest source of goodwill cultivated within us. For this instance, it is the very example of the exploitation of good to wreck havoc when Sun is tricked into unleashing hell upon heaven (literally).

The second half of The Monkey King takes time to brew and simmer Sun's innate potential amidst perplexing factors that shroud his perception before it explodes in an exciting action finale that should satisfy genre fans. While it is relatively well managed and developed for Sun's character, it cannot be said the same for the other supporting characters.

With the exception of the magnetic screen presence of Chow Yun-Fat as the Jade Emperor, most characters tread in and out of Sun's story as mere plot devices - mechanisms to progress the film. This also includes its lead antagonist Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) with an intriguing side romance story with Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), both key characters in the classic novel, that didn't materialise in any manner. Even the romance plot tread between Sun and his childhood love interest Silver Nine-Tailed Fox (Xia Zitong) sizzles out in exchange to emphasise the primary plot.

The Monkey King will not have been a watchable film and protagonist if not for the lively performance of Donnie Yen as Sun, which entails the various behavioural traits of the legendary Monkey King. Make-up in this case has indeed surpassed expectations as few will have recognised the stature of Yen (since many symbolises him as an action star) under Sun's quirky physique and personality.

Uncertain if a sequel will follow particularly when the film stems off with a visual motif hint at a key character from the popular Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Monkey King will have been a greater film if not for lost opportunities in better supporting character development and the irritable visual spectacle that constitutes an expensive film budget blunder.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Nightingale [Review]

Opinion: B+

By Jason Lin

Zhigen, an old Chinese farmer, has lived alone in Beijing for over 20 years after moving to the city to allow his son Chongyi to attend university. He decides to make the long journey from Beijing to Yangshuo to honour the promise he made to his wife to bring back the bird that has been his only companion in the city. His daughter-in-law Qianing, a beautiful rich career woman, asks him to take along his granddaughter Renxing, an only child brought up in the lap of luxury. While grandfather and granddaughter set out on their journey – one travelling back in time, the other discovering her roots – Chongyi and Qianing, ponder the meaning of the life they have led in the sole pursuit of success and money.

Being the second formal French-Chinese film production, it is amazing how its French Director and Screenwriter Philippe Muyl (Le Papillon) delivers The Nightingale with such cultural aptness given that it’s a film set in China in full Mandarin dialogue among Chinese characters.

The Nightingale is loosely based and inspired by Muyl’s previous film Le Papillon, which also discusses the dynamics of the relationship between an elder man and a young girl. Labelling The Nightingale purely as an adaption however, doesn’t do it justice as it exudes qualities that are unique to the film.

Viewers are introduced to a young middle age couple living the urbanistic hustle and bustle in Beijing, which can easily be replicated within any of China’s major first-tier cities like Shanghai. This is one of the few other socialpolitical elements reflected in the film, including China’s One-Child Policy and the trend of parents overdoting on their precious offsprings in contemporary times.

A leading jetsetting architect, Chong Yi (Qin Hao), is full of negative vibes due to some unknown frustration that seems to find its roots a long way back in history as hints of a bad relationship with his father Zhi Gen (Li Baotian) is discussed between Zhi Gen and Chong Yi’s trendy businesswoman spouse played by Li Xiaoran (Peter Chan’s Wu Xia). The couple’s only child Ren Xing (Yang Xin Yi) is about to coop herself up within the confines of their modern apartment with the latest iPad in hand and oblivious to the society.

These are soon to be changed with Zhi Gen offering to take Ren Xing back to his rural home town in Yangshuo. The dynamics of the two’s relationship begin to take centrestage and develop over most of the film’s running time. The outcome is the transformation of a Ren Xing who thinks she’s above all else around her and not able to survive without her tablet to a Ren Xing who appreciates the joys induced by elements of nature and the goodness of the people around her.

Not just the young girl, her grandfather begins to confront his shortcomings more openly although his character begins already as an accommodating and understanding paternal figure to his granddaughter. This in turn sets further good things in motion, which can generally be described as a domestic feelgood recouncilation that warms the hearts of the audience.

One begins to understand the need to maintain an open channel of communication between and among people around. Conversations break barriers and pull the hearts of people closer in understanding. Muyl almost seems to imply that nature has a hand in achieving this, especially when people are freed from urban social distractions such as hectic work schedules and digital online/social media.

Perhaps Sun Ming’s luscious photography has a hand in this as well, with a rich colour treatment bringing the comfortable sense of scenic green and sunshine so much more vividly to viewers. This is also accentuated by Armand Armar’s delicate soundtrack that seems to always find itself in a chirpy mood, much in line with the film’s title and motif – The Nightingale (the one thing that created the family woes and also the one that reunited the family).

With a lively performance by its cast ensemble, particularly Li Baotian and Yang Xin Yi, The Nightingale sings a song that is soothing to one’s senses and inspires the finer details and values in life that Muyl is hoping his viewers (particularly those leading an urban life) will reconnect with.

(Preview courtesy of and part of the 3rd Rendezvous with French Cinema Singapore.)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Rigor Mortis [Review]

Opinion: B

By Jason Lin

Reviving one of the well-loved classics may well be as dangerous as reviving a corpse. Often is the case where contemporary remakes and adaptations take a toll and destroy any goodwill established. While half-expecting the first feature filmmaker Juno Mak to be all style without substance, his attempts at the 1985 Mr Vampire series do however provide some amount of pleasant surprises (including the chilling arrangement of the series’ iconic theme “Ghost Bride” in the opening scene).

In this eerie and chilling, contemporary, action/special effects laden homage to the classic Chinese vampire movies of the 1980's, writer-director-producer Juno Mak makes his feature directorial debut. Co-produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON), and reuniting some of the original cast members of the classic MR VAMPIRE series, RIGOR MORTIS is set in a creepy and moody Hong Kong public housing tower whose occupants we soon discover, run the gamut from the living to the dead, to the undead, along with ghosts, vampires and zombies.

Produced by contemporary Japanese horror maestro Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) and Mak himself, it is perhaps no surprise that the visual treatment adopts a dark and grim palette to void the production of any whimpering signs of life. This is also accompanied by Ng Man-Ching’s (Infernal Affairs 2, Initial D) fine photography in low light.

A film based on a classic series is never easy to maintain its relevance and intrigue. Mak, who co-scripts and directs, opts to remove its signature comedy and replaces with occult elements and reference. The most enjoyable moments are those on the detailing of various ritual practices and process, such as feeding a corpse with only black crow blood and collecting corpse oil essence with a flame under its chin.

As part of its genre obligations to instill production value, Rigor Mortis features quite a number of visual effects and high framerate sequences to accentuate Mak’s stylised approach. At times resembling a snapshot from a dark music video, viewers may observe the film as a melting pot of several influnces that prominently screams out the filmmakers’ creativity and impressionable art direction.

Mak takes a good amount of screen time for its lead protagonist (whose name is never revealed or discussed until the very last sequence of the film) Chin Siu-Ho, a washed-up actor of Mr Vampire (his past glory is referred to by an aged photo of him with Maggie Cheung) by the tides of time, who has retreated to an old public housing block to waste the rest of his life in depression although the actual rationale behind is relatively unknown.

Affairs turn to the dark when Chin hangs himself in his newly rented apartment on the very first day of moving in. This is also the pivotal scene where the film invests more time to adequately introduce and develop the supporting characters (Chin’s new neighbours).

With quite a handful of interesting personalities in the neighbourhood, Rigor Mortis suffers from a loosely-managed main plot as it tends to branch off into side plot threads briefly from its main story arc. These side agendas are often seen to be opportunities for the filmmakers to fit in and experiment with different horror elements, including those from Shimizu himself. The good news is that most of these sub-plots do connect with one another, such as the twin vengeful female spirits (that feels like they have been borrowed right out of a Shimizu’s film) and the strange litle white-haired boy who roams the housing block.

Despite its heavy-handed approach to graphically stylise the production, Mak and his team thankfully serves a much-welcomed emotional depth that draws the audience so much closer to the characters. This is particularly observed in Paw Hee-Ching’s character as she gets a dedicated minute or two’s worth of solo emotional monologue with her husband under an unearthly situation.

Aside from the poorly mastered Mandarin-dubbed dialogue tracks that has hindered with one’s enjoyment of the film, Rigor Mortis serves not just contemporary stylised horror elements and an emotional dimension, but also a mind-bending plot twist at the end to instill a certain message:
Life is sometimes more ridiculous than movies.

(Preview courtesy of InCinemas. Also published on InCinemas.)