A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment
China has always had a sort of weird, parallel ecosystem for its movie industry, and I’m not certain how aware American film goers are of it. Oh China, as a market is getting more and more important for American films, to the point that the entire 3rd act of the latest Transformers movie takes place in China, complete with hyping up the Chinese military and what appeared to be Chinese product placement. But China has its own film market, one which exists almost entirely outside American influences. To wit: Andy Lau the lead actor of this movie is, in Hong Kong, a monstrously famous actor and singer who has appeared in over 150 movies, but unless you’ve seen House of Flying Daggers or Infernal Affairs you’ve probably never seen him.
If that opening paragraph seems a bit more rambly than usual, it’s because I’m sort of at a loss of how to approach this movie, because all of my issues with it appear to be conventions of Chinese cinema. Oh, crossovers exist: the aforementioned Infernal Affairs is rightly considered a classic, and if you haven’t seen Kung-Fu Hustle I recommend you fix that as soon as possible. But right now I feel I don’t have enough cultural context to really judge whether this film succeeds for its intended audience. So all I can tell you is whether it succeeded for me.
The plot is the first place where the movie starts to lose me because throughout I was never 100 percent sure what’s going on. Wikipedia informs me that the plot is concerned with a mysterious business magnate stealing the famous Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountain painting and Special Agent Jihan (Lau) being sent to retrieve it, but honestly that’s not a huge part of the movie as far as I could tell. There’s the fact that Jihan’s wife is also a Secret Agent on more or less the same assignment but neither of them know that. And there’s a Japanese guy who’s trying to steal the painting or maybe already stole the painting and there’s also this old lady who’s working with the Japanese guy or maybe isn’t and there’s this Japanese lady who IS working the Japanese guy but also is in love with Jihan. And like half an hour in Jihan dies but then it turns out his death is faked Skyfall style to protect his family except it’s because he got a bunch of people killed and by that point I was COMPLETELY lost.
So yeah, not a very firm grasp on what’s going on.
The issue with this movie is the pacing more than anything else. The movie doesn’t so much flow as it does hop from one scene to the next, devoid of any connective tissue. A good example is in the 3rd act, when the lead characters are having a shootout at a skyscraper. The scene ends, they drive away and then, BAM, they’re in a desert, without any explanation of where they are or how they got there from the skyscraper. They have a car chase in the desert, it ends and once again, BAM, they’re in a hospital. This might seem like a minor quibble, but it means winds up feeling way too fast and I end up getting lost.
The whole movie feels like that, as though I’ve missed something important. The movie expects us to instantly accept that Jihan is a well established secret agent, living a double life without ever really properly establishing that. About 20 minutes in, I wound up pausing the movie to Google it, to see if it was the latest in a long running series, as I honestly got a later-James Bond movie feeling from it, and was very surprised to find out, no, it’s an original movie. I mean, I’d still be irritated that they didn’t bother to establish anything, but if it was a sequel, I could at least cut them a little slack.
Which is a shame, because there are elements of the movie I liked. It’s got good, or at least inventive action scenes, even while it feels a little bit too much like an attempt to make a Chinese James Bond… not that I’m necessarily opposed to that. I like Andy Lau a lot (seriously, Infernal Affairs and House of Flying Daggers are both really awesome) and it’s nice to see an action movie with a more Eastern point of view and style than the usual Western one we tend to see in action flicks.
Of course with the alternate point of view comes…well alternate sensibilities, and that’s where things get awkward. Oh most of it’s stuff I either like (such as a completely different understanding of how action heroes should act) or can overlook (all of the spoken English in the film feels…off, like it was written by someone without a particularly firm grasp of the language). But then there are things that make me feel uncomfortable, like the way the movie treats all of its Japanese characters or some truly odd gender politics. Not even necessarily sexist, just…odd.
As I’ve alluded to at various points in this review, this is a movie made by Chinese people, for Chinese people. And as a result, I’m kind of at a loss for what to say about it, because it’s not for me. If the Chinese film industry wants to make a movie for it’s own market, I dunno what I’m going to add by bitching that it doesn’t appeal to me. But as I said I am obligated by what passes for professional obligation to give this movie a simple pass fail based on how well I liked it (or thought it succeeded at it’s goals). And with that in mind…
Yeah it’s okay. I’m not gonna suggest that you beat down the doors of your local DVD import store, but if you’re into Chinese cinema, well I guess you could do worse. That’s it. No, really, that’s all I got, I’m done. Stop reading and go see Snowpiercer.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to give a shout out to Mr. Vampire too, because that movie is also pretty damned awesome.
– good action
– unique style and setting
– I’m totally serious, Andy Lau is awesome
– moves very quickly and becomes confusing
– not very outsider friendly
– inconsistent tone