Previously I gave the rundown on one of the most influential films in the history of Hong Kong cinema, one that set the standard that virtually all movies involving cops and criminals would follow (City on Fire). Then I detailed a movie that typifies the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, which the first movie helped to pave (Full Alert).

What’s next? An example of the genre as it stands today, basically what the machine churns out today, that which constitutes the norm, mainstream entertainment in Hong Kong. As well as something that represents the other end of the spectrum. Not only in terms of audience but production values…

Cold War

Cold War in many ways is prime representative of Hong Kong’s cinematic landscape as it stands today. K, it’s a couple years old, but not by much; the original release date was 2012. Basically, things are a bit different since Full Alert hit the scene in 1997. Back in the day, HK filmmakers sought to create Hollywood-caliber thrills at the fraction of the cost, which it turn led to the need for ingenuity, along with tapping into one’s cultural ethos for added flavor. With the end result being motion pictures that overshot their targets and were in many ways superior to what was being imitated. Whereas nowadays increased budgets and resources have led to, not surprisingly, a certain degree of creative stagnation. The end results are films that could be mistaken for stuff hailing from the States, and that’s not a good thing. A more specific example: it’s hard to argue that Cold War is nothing more than yet the latest attempt at another Infernal Affairs, ten years after the fact. Make no mistake; City on Fire had tons of copycats also, but it wasn’t long before new takes to the formula were developed. Hence why once Full Alert arrived, also ten years later, standards had changed dramatically.

Though movies made in Hong Kong aren’t the only things that have changed; the location itself, as depicted through the lens of its filmmakers, feels like an entirely different place as well. And not just due to shift from film stock to digital, which has given a once raw and dirty looking metropolis a safe and shiny coat of paint (not a fan of that either, btw). So what used to be depicted as the playground for nefarious characters is now deemed “Asia’s Safest City”, at least on the walls of police HQ, where much of Cold War takes place. While the person most responsible for upholding such a decree, aka the police commissioner, is overseas on official business, a van filled with five officers plus a ton of gear all go missing. Which immediately leads to the various leads in the movie (which there are loads of; Cold War is very much the star studded affair) to bark at each other (plus scowl a whole lot). Anyhow, acting commissioner MB Lee, portrayed by Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, best known for co-starring in John Woo’s Hard Boiled and a number of Wong Kar-wai flicks) decides to go after the suspects with guns a blazin’, use waterboarding to get answers, and break even more rules to cover his ass among members of the press. This causes the by the books deputy commissioner Sean Lau, portrayed by Aaron Kwok, to demand Lee step aside. Especially when it’s discovered that the main reason for such hotheadedness is due to the fact that Lee’s son is one of the snatched patrolmen. Lau even manages to get Albert Kwong, aka Lee’s right hand man, portrayed by Gordon Lam (who as far as I’m concerned is the real star of the show) to begrudgingly agree and have the deputy’s back.

Well, the coup d’état works, prompting Lau to employ cutting edge technology as his means of nabbing the bad guys; he guesstimates how much money the kidnappers will want and goes about procuring that exact amount. But they end up asking for considerably less, and the drop off results in a chase scene that is both predictable and spectacular. But it was all a distraction, as the remainder of the ransom money gets nicked as it was being taken back to the bank. Also, Lau’s right hand man bites it, and that sucks too. At least the kidnapped law enforcers are recovered and Lee shows up expressing no hard feelings towards Lau, which is kinda cool of him. Though there’s still the matter of the missing money, along with how it would appear that perhaps Lau purposefully made certain decisions (like asking for such a large sum of money for the kidnappers in the first place) in order to cash in himself, according to police corruption investigator Billy Cheung, played by Cold War‘s token pop singer turned actor Aarif Rahman (described as the hottest actor in HK at the moment; the first thing I found when Googling him was the headline: Aarif Rahman takes a break from playing a Chinese emperor to show off his hot abs, so there ya go). Anyhow, this is the part of the movie in which all the analogies linking the internal turmoil within the police force with the identity crisis that the citizens of Hong Kong are still going through, post the handover to China, are driven way too hard and heavy. More dramatic showdowns between the principles occur, and we all learn that the jerks are not bad guys after all, yet the good guys aren’t so great sometimes either.

Oh, and things culminate in a showdown at a fireworks factory, in which roman candles are used to blow cops to bits to a comical degree. And that’s the thing, no matter how good Hong Kong has gotten at emulating Hollywood, there’s one department where they always fall short, and it’s CGI; it’s especially bad here. In the end, it’s hard to really recommend Cold War, and is only really worthwhile if you’re serious about getting the full spectrum of contemporary HK cinema (alas, it plays before City on Fire and Full Alert). It’s just perplexing how super successful it ended up being, both at the box office and among critics alike (even those on this side outside of HK have been positive). Enough to [SPOILERS, MAYBE] to warrant a possible sequel or follow-up, hence another reason to maybe watch what might be part 1. If you’re interested, Cold War plays Saturday, June 27, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

I’m really not into romantic comedies, but decided to give It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong a shot anyway, for two reasons. First, I needed something to get the taste of three hard-boiled action thrillers, seen all in a row, out of my mouth. Though aside from the 180 in tone, there’s also the 180 in terms of production; while I’m not 100% certain, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong definitely feels like an independent effort, quite the stark contrast to the zillions of dollars behind the previous movie. As for the second reason; I caught the numerous comparisons to Before Sunrise (never seen it, but know what it’s about, and It’s Already Tomorrow is definitely in the same mold), though the one that grabbed me the most were the comparison to Lost in Translation. Aside from Tokyo, which I’ve thankfully been to, the next city on my bucket list is Hong Kong (can you tell?). So I figured, even if I’m bored to tears, I’ll get an intimate portrayal of a city I’ve long been fascinated with (just like Sofia Coppola, the director of It’s Already Tomorrow also drew from her experiences living in HK).

The plot is paper thin, which after Cold War was actually welcomed: Josh (Bryan Greenberg; appeared in One Tree Hill, which I’ve also never seen) is a white dude, an expat businessman to be exact, having a smoke outside a bar when he encounters Ruby (Jamie Chung; am familiar with her role as Go Go Tomago in Big Hero 6 at least), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, one who’s way into her hometown of LA and is only in HK for a brief visit. Because Ruby has no idea where the bar her friends are at is located, and because Josh’s directions are somewhat complicated (thanks to GPS, all our senses of direction are official crap, which ain’t working on her phone, fyi), he ends up escorting her. Along the way they learn about each other, via small talk, like how Ruby’s occupation is toy design. Let’s just say that whoever came up with that has zero familiarity with the profession. In fact, it solely exists as the punch line for a gag an hour later, which is fairly lame. Anyway, Josh does his best to educate Ruby in all the wondrous sights and sounds they encounter, that which makes Hong Kong such a special and amazing place, as I had hoped for. And thus we have my primary beef with the movie: the camerawork simply isn’t up to snuff and we basically have to take Josh’s word on in many cases. Maybe certain shots were not possible? Though, for the most part, much of what we see just feels like a TLC special; I don’t expect every film shot in Hong Kong to look as if it was helmed by Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer of choice), but I expect something along those lines, given It’s Already Tomorrow’s intent.

Anyhow, by the time they reach Ruby’s destination, she’s way more interested in having a drink with Josh. Too bad he already has a girlfriend, so they say their good byes awkwardly. One year later, Josh happens to run into Ruby a second time, who we discover has been living there for a little while now. Again, Ruby needs to go somewhere and again Josh offers to tag along, though this time she makes it clear upfront that she now has a boyfriend. Once more, they spend the whole night walking the streets of Hong Kong, and the second stroll is admittedly a tad bit more interesting than the first. Mostly due to the fact that Ruby’s questions and comments are not for the perspective of a total outsider; apparently Mexican food is just as bad in Hong Kong as it is in Tokyo! Yet it’s still filled with the sam inane chit-chat you hear from couples on their first date, if you happen to find yourself sitting next to at the bar or a restaurant, the kind that makes your quietly gag. Inevitably Josh and Ruby ask themselves if they’re with the right people after all; again, despite having relatively zero familiarity with the genre, the ending certainly feels to me like the finale to almost every romantic comedy out there. Hence why it’s hard for me to say much else, since It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was clearly not made for me. Though I will say that the age-old truism appears to remain fact: when on vacation, often it’s not where you go but who you are with. Still, if It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong does seem like up your alley, check it out on Sunday, June 28, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

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Summer is officially here, which means New York City is going to get painfully hot and humid (and smelly) real quick. But your best bet to beat the heat (unless you feel like holing yourself in your apartment with AC cranked up; have fun dealing with that big ass Con Ed bill in a few weeks) is also here. I’m talking about the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival of course!

It’s the 14th year for the NYAFF, and once again, I’ll be your tour guide. This time I’ll be offering alternative ways to blow $15 instead of Terminator 5. Now, admittedly, the idea of a T-800 being Sarah Connor’s dad is a kinda cool, but … you can catch that later on, via Netflix. Whereas most movies at the NYAFF will not be easy to come by after the fact. Along with how a good percentage will also legit blow your mind. So what’s up first?

City On Fire

Easily the biggest name to grace this year’s NYAFF, and perhaps one of the biggest the festival has ever received period, is Ringo Lam. Alongside John Woo and Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam is responsible for revitalizing Hong Kong cinema circa the 80s; the three established what has been coined the heroic bloodshed genre (Jackie Chan played a major part as well, though by being the first bonafide martial arts superstar since Bruce Lee). Also, much like Woo and Hark, Lam would eventually migrate to Hollywood and make shi*tty Van Damme vehicles. Anyway, Lam’s Lifetime Achievement Award presentation will accompany the screening of the one flick he’s most famous for. Not because it helped to usher in the aforementioned boom, alongside A Better Tomorrow. No, you’ve probably heard of City on Fire as the movie that Quentin Tarantino’s drew a inspiration from when crafting his breakthrough feature, Reservoir Dogs, by shamelessly ripping it off…

Admittedly I’m as big a Tarantino fanboy/defender as they come: he’s a legit inspiration to me, with Reservoir Dogs being my all time fave from the man. Yet I’m a hopeless Asian cinephile as well, the kind who refuses to believe that The Departed could in any way be as good as Infernal Affairs. Another example, one more relevant to the discussion at hand; I also simply cannot view The Matrix as being anything more than just a bunch of ideas cherry-picked from assorted HK movies, and in the laziest manner possible. Yet I’m confident that those most vocal about Reservoir Dogs ripping off City on Fire have never actually seen the latter. Granted, one mirrors the other to a considerably degree, but there is no blatant copycatting going on. Tarantino’s film distinguishes itself with a non-linear narrative, whereas Lam’s legit wrote the book on how to make a movie on undercover cops who become lost in their work that’s taught in Hong Kong film schools.

Reservoir Dogs’s Mr. Orange, portrayed by Tim Roth, is based upon City on Fire’s Chow, portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat (his character’s name is the same as it is real life, which is common for leads in HK flicks, and yes it’s super silly). Though here we’re privy to a far more in-depth look at the price one must pay to be an undercover, hence why Chow’s retired at the onset. Enter Uncle Kung, a police inspector desperate to take down a gang of brutally violent jewel robbers. Alas, his experience means little to those rising up the ranks, who have zero respect for their elders, hence the need for a new inside man (to replace the last undercover, who was just sniffed out and snuffed). Chow initially wants nothing to do with the case; aside from the hardship that simply comes with leading a double life, along with constantly being hunted down by cops (even though he’s on their side), Chow became super close with his last assignment. Despite justice being ultimately served by the death of public enemy number one, it’s still the loss of a close pal, one that haunts Chow well afterward.

But upon seeing what a mess Uncle Kung is becoming, Chow reluctantly gives in and eventually becomes acquainted with head jewel robber Fu, portrayed by Danny Lee. It’s worth noting that both the star and co-star of City on Fire would eventually headline John Woo’s The Killer, with the roles of so “good guy” and “bad guy” reversed. It’s also worth noting that the vetting Chow must go through, to prove he’s legit, is decidedly more nerve racking than the Mr. Orange’s commode story. Yet that makes the bond that forms between Chow and Fu all the closer. Again, per conventions of the genre that this film helped to cement, Chow’s biggest headache is the law, who are to largely blame for him being unsuccessful in reconciling with his estranged gal pal, which was his primary focus at the start of the film (and perhaps the reason why he quit the force in the first place). The fact that Fu has had Chow’s back the most makes the eventual betrayal so impactful, since the relationship between the two is way more defined than the one between Mr. Orange and Mr. White. Does that make City on Fire the better movie then? Not exactly, but once more, they’re two entirely different animals.

Each and every serious Quentin Tarantino fan reading this needs to absolutely see City on Fire, which plays Saturday, June 27, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here); don’t forget Ringo Lam will be in attendance that night as well! It’s again a must see for anyone who wants to see such an influential piece of work in the annals of Hong Kong cinema as well. While you’re at it, you may also want to check out…

Full Alert

Ringo Lam’s output, post City on Fire, is somewhat a mixed bag. Prison on Fire came next, followed by several other movies with on Fire in the title; none were related, yet all were fairly successful. Lam also collaborated with various HK film luminaries, including Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, though he’d mostly stick with Chow Yun-fat as his go-to leading man. Still, by the mid 90s, Lam found difficulty connecting with critics and the general public alike (that’s not to say his movies were not very good, btw, just not what some were hoping for), hence why he’d try his luck elsewhere and eventually ended up in Hollywood. As previous noted, that resulted in a Jean-Claude Van Damme production, as was the case with pretty much every HK auteur. In 1997 Lam returned to Hong Kong, ten years after making his most famous movie (it’s also an important year for reason I’ll get into later, though anyone who knows HK history knows why already). And whereas City on Fire firmly established the ground rules for all cop vs robbers melodrama and action for other directors to follow, Full Alert sees Lam taking a page out of the new and updated playbook, written by those he inspired, while also offering a few pointers to boot.

Lau Ching-Wan gets top billing here as police officer Pao (and is the perfect choice, given how he was the only actor to truly fill Chow Yun-fat’s shoes across the annals of HK cinema). Though it could be argued that the real star of the show is Francis Ng as Mak Kwan, whose muted intensity is perfectly suited as a bitter ex-architect who knows a thing or two about explosives (the dude is simply the best when it comes to quiet but deadly). Pao’s men initially apprehend Mak Kwan for murder, but they quickly realize something else is afoot when materials for making a bomb and blueprints to a vault are stumbled upon. Unable to get anything out of Mak Kwan, the police let his girlfriend go in hopes of her leading them to her man’s partners in crime. Eventually the cops discover a plan to spring Mak Kwan out, and while ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting his associates, another officer is killed in the line of duty, and thus we get the slow but steady unraveling of the captain of the ship. At work the already temperamental officer barks at his colleagues for no good reason and at home he tells his wife that maybe he’s not cut to be a cop anymore. Yeah, fairly by the numbers stuff, on paper at least; it’s all in the execution, and the reason why Lau Ching-Wan is such a celebrated actor is he can take a character that’s seemingly two-dimensional and breath real life into him. Even the stuff that’s designed to make a two-dimensional character seem three-dimensional, yet only serves to make the audience roll their eyes, totally works here (though Lam deserves equal credit as well).

City on Fire established the super popular trope in HK cinema of blurring the lines between good guys and bad, by having the criminal display just as much honor and nobility as those who uphold the law, often resulting in the cop identifying with (and sometimes aiding) the criminal he’s supposed to be taking down. By the time Full Alert is made, a brand new trope had been firmly established, in which we see the cop and criminal as possible kindred spirits, but in the end is the grim reminder that right is right and wrong is wrong. In this instance, Mak Kwan eventually flees prison and gets in a scuffle with Pao in the middle of downtown; Pao takes a desperate shot at Mak Kwan and accidentally hits a bystander. Afterward Mak Kwan calls Pao to make sure the innocent person is okay, which makes one go “you know, maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all!” We also get the requisite commentary from Mak Kwan that, perhaps in a different world, he and Pao would be besties. And then does something stupid, like terrorize Pao’s wife and kid. The film culminates with Mak Kwan and his lone remaining associate’s attempt at cracking the vault at a race track, hence the incendiary device and schematics from before. In the midst of it all we witness Pao exhibit a personality quirk (which I’m not going to give away) so teeny-tiny and ultimately inconsequential, yet it adds so much character to the proceedings. To the degree that it’ll hit you on the head why Lau Ching-Wan is such a phenomenal actor, as well as make you wonder why Ringo Lam’s name isn’t spoken more often when Hong Kong’s cinematic giants are discussed.

Am pretty sure I’ve done a piss poor job selling Full Alert, but it’s another absolute must see, from a director who may not be as flashy or bombastic as John Woo, yet knows how to tell a story in a rock solid, no f*cking around manner. It’ll also an excellent reminder of how God awful most movies hailing from Hollywood are these days, which is the job of the NYAFF as a whole. Then again… tinsel town didn’t always suck; back in the 70s and 80s, some genuinely amazing motion pictures were being produced. The same could be said about the Hong Kong movie-making machine in the 80s and 90s. Things kinda changed in 1997, thanks to the UK handing HK over to China. Things didn’t completely crash and burn, like some predicted, but things did change. And some… myself included, to a certain extent… are not particularly fond of what’s hailing from HK these days. But I’ll get into all that at another time. Tomorrow to be exact. Till then, be sure to catch Full Alert this Sunday, June 28, at the Walter Reade Theatre (get your tickets here).

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Was originally going to press the start button on my overdue rundown of 2014 New York Comic Con today, but am gonna hold off for just a tad bit more. Why? Because it happens to be the 26th birthday of the Mega Drive, better known as the Sega Genesis, aka my fave console of all time!

And to mark the occasion, here’s a birthday cake, courtesy of the official Sega Hard Gals Twitter account!

So you might be asking: Sega Hard Gals? Yup. Sega Hard Gals. Remember way back in early 2013, when it was announced that Sega consoles in the form of animu babes were set to appear in some free to play Vita game? Well, those same girls are starring in a brand new animated series that’s recently made its debut on Japanese television, called Hi-sCool! Seha Girls.

The official homepage is where you can find all the info you need… provided you understand Japanese. There are 17 girls in total (all the ones from the aforementioned DLC, along with a few extra) who collectively represent a wide range of Sega hardware.

Naturally there’s ones based upon consoles we all know and love, along with those that never made it Stateside. Yet you also have one based upon the super obscure Mega Drive/PC combo, the Tera Drive, another that’s the personification of the Dreamcast VMU, plus something that seemingly has nothing to do with video games but instead shoots baseballs, I guess for kids wanting to practice their baseball swing.

Though at the moment, there are only three principles: the Mega Drive, Saturn, and Dreamcast. The premise goes something like this: all three are brand new students at Sehagaga (not be confused with Segagaga) Academy. Their instructor is some mystery (and pixelated) bunny who teaches the girls lessons by sending them into various Sega games.

As one might expect, before stepping inside whatever Mega Drive/Saturn/Dreamcast title, the three are super deformed looking. And as they enter the other side, there’s a transformation similar to Sailor Moon, meaning they’re naked before becoming “normal” sized girls. The characters designs, btw, is by the same person responsible for Hatsune Miku’s look, Kei Garou.

Also as expected, the shows bursting at the seams with Sega references. Heck, less than three minutes into the first episode, one of the girls busts out a Sega Aiwa, which was a combination Mega Drive/radio cassette player. Not long after is a discuss as to identity of the driver from OutRun (the original arcade version; the dude’s face is clearly visible in OutRun 2 as you all know).

The first lesson has them in the original Virtua Fighter, and each girl has access to only one move; they have to work together to rack up 100 K.O.s by defeating the entire VF roster plus a host of special guests, including Alex Kidd, the Werebear from Altered Beast, Bruno Delinger from Dynamite Cop (aka Bruce Willis from Die Hard Arcade, a bunch of color palette swapped dudes from Golden Axe, and even Sakura Shinguji from Sakura Wars.

There are three episodes thus far, and Crunchyroll has them all. And… it’s okay I guess? Am only watching it for the Sega references, hence why I found episode three to be boring, since the bulk of it is character development, which is not only needless but also poorly executed. The formula appears to be: spend an episode to set up a dilemma or personality quirk, then dive into a game in the following installment to see if said problem/quirk can be overcome. So in episode four, let’s see if Mega Drive-tan can learn how to dance.

In the end, Sega Hard Gals/em>Hi-sCool! Seha Girls is what it is: a love letter to Sega, for their most dedicated fans, one that celebrates both the company’s successes and failures (it’s definitely not afraid to make fun of the Sega legacy when appropriate). At the same time, the show itself is both hits the mark and also misses it, something Sega has become the experts at. It’s also an excuse to sell figures, and I mostly definitely want one of Sega Saturn-tan…

… You can see more here. BTW, back to the Sega Hard Gals Twitter; it also posts other bits of Sega randomness. Like this guy…

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