Friday, October 5, 2012


In Frank Chin's 1972 play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, the protagonist -- Tam Lum -- takes a trip to Pittsburgh, PA to gather information for a documentary he's making about Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a former light  heavyweight champion of the world. In a seedy porn theater, he finds the owner-operator of the place: Charley Popcorn, Ovaltine's former trainer and father. But as Tam soon finds out, what Ovaltine claimed about his alleged "father" may not be the real story at all.

Like most writers, Frank Chin borrowed from his own life in crafting his plays, novels, and short stories. During the late 1960s, he worked for four years at KING-TV and King Screen Productions, writing TV documentaries and other films. One project that emerged from his tenure at King Screen Productions was ...And Still Champion! The Story of Archie Moore (1967). As one might expect, this documentary traced the career of boxer Archie Moore from childhood to the mid-1960s. Moore, who still holds the record for the most knockouts (131) and even played Jim in Michael Curtiz's 1960 adaptation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, makes for a fascinating interview subject, as the narration -- written by Frank Chin -- suggests, but doesn't say outright that some of Moore's childhood memories may be self-invented . While Chin served as writer and associate producer, ...And Still Champion! was directed by Loy Norrix, with narratation by Jack Palance (Shane, City Slickers), with a special appearance by Moore's Huckleberry Finn co-star, Tony Randall (The Odd Couple).

Thanks to Youtube user Carbon Titanium (aka Frank's son, Sam Chin), the documentary is now widely available for everyone to see.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

A SIMPLE LIFE (HK 2011) -- A+

Andy Lau and Deanie Ip in A Simple Life

Director: Ann Hui. Screenplay: Susan Chan, Roger Lee. Producers: Roger Lee, Ann Hui, Chan Pui-Wah. Cast: Andy Lau, Deanie Ip, Qin Hailu, Wang Fuli, Elena Kong, Paul Chun Pui, Chapman To, Eman Lam, Hui So, Tsui Hark (cameo), Sammo Hung (cameo), Ning Hao (cameo).


At the 31st Hong Kong Film Awards, Ann Hui's quiet drama, A Simple Life earned an award for Best Picture, besting its more bombastic competition, which included Let The Bullets Fly, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Life Without Principle, and Overheard 2. In fact, the multiple-nominated film made a clean sweep of all the major categories -- with cast and crew taking home trophies for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress,  and Best Screenplay. While I normally lean towards the argument that there's no such thing as a "best film," I think an equally valid argument could be made that A Simple Life simply outclassed its competition on nearly every level. While Hong Kong cinema may have made its mark internationally with martial arts and action cinema, the comparatively subdued drama, A Simple Life, demonstrates Hong Kong cinema at its finest.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Director: Derek Yee. Screenplay: Chun Tin-nam, Lau Ho-leung, Derek Yee. Original Novel: Zhang Haifan. Producers: Albert Yeung, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan. Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Lau Ching-Wan, Zhou Xun, Wu Gang, Yan Ni, Paul Chun, Kenya Sawada, Lam Suet, Wang Ziwen, Alex Fong, Wang Ziyi, Daniel Wu, and Tsui Hark.


There's a reason for the term "movie magic," as magicians and filmmakers actually have a lot in common. Manipulation, misdirection, sleight of hand -- these elements remain crucial to each of their respective trades. But while both magicians and filmmakers can certainly dazzle audiences with eye-popping special effects, there's also something to be said for other important qualities like presentation, stage presence, and even charm. While Derek Yee's The Great Magician definitely explores the connections between movies and magic, the illusion it presents isn't exactly the cinematic equivalent of making the Statue of Liberty disappear a la David Copperfield, but it is an entertaining diversion nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Director: Ian Jacobs, Cast: Garneta Haruni, Monique Henry, Dion Wiyoko, Vikri Rahmat , Ismi Melinda


"INDONESIAN HORROR AT ITS BEST!!!" screamed the cover blurb for Kuntilanak Beranak, a 2009 Indonesian film marketed under the English title Birth of the Vampire -- albeit by a U.S. distributor whose legal claim to the film is questionable at best. Nevertheless, if Kuntilanak Beranak is truly the best horror film that Indonesia has to offer, I'd hate to see the worst.

While I'll spending the next few paragraphs engaging in an extensive critique of the film, I have to admit up front that despite all the snark that might follow, I don't enjoy slagging off on a no-budget horror film. In fact, I really wanted it to be good. But the truth is there's hardly anything in this film that I can truly recommend.  Although the film's budget certainly impacted what they could do visually, I know there are plenty of low and micro budget films out there that transcend their limitations to deliver an entertaining or compelling experience. Unfortunately, Kuntilanak Beranak isn't one of them. Without a clever script, an impressive visual style, or a strong cast, the whole production seems amateurish, especially when compared to other horror films from Southeast Asia.

Friday, June 29, 2012

LOVE IN A PUFF (HK 2010) -- B-

 Smoke 'em if ya got 'em.

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung, Screenwriters: Pang Ho-Cheung, Heiward Mak, Producer: Subi Liang, Cast: Miriam Yeung, Shawn Yue, Cheung Tat-Ming, Miao Felin, Vincent Kok, Jo Koo


I don't smoke, but I live with a smoker, so I understand all the little rituals that go along with the habit. Sure, there's that sinking feeling of being ostracized from the rest of society, but with that aspect can come a real sense of community amongst fellow smokers. Also, an addiction to cigarettes requires taking habitual smoke breaks with a friend or even a group of friends -- and it's in these stolen little moments where people can gossip, share secrets, or just talk with someone privately.

If anything, this is the aspect of smoking that Pang Ho-Cheung captures beautifully in Love in a Puff. Billed as a romantic comedy, this 2010 film spotlights the plight of smokers in Hong Kong, while focusing its attention on two would-be lovers played by Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue. The film takes place in February 2009 -- a crucial time period just after the Hong Kong Health Authority enforced a ban on smoking in any inside area but just before cigarette prices went up astronomically. Within this narrative frame, Love in a Puff amounts to a sometimes funny, sometimes tedious week-long journey into a burgeoning relationship between two smokers. While following these two characters, we're plunged headlong into the world of several hip (and not-so hip) urbanites as they try to find love in a pool of alcohol and a fog of smoke.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

STOOL PIGEON (HK 2010) -- B-

Kwai Lun-Mei and Nicholas Tse on the run in The Stool Pigeon.

Director: Dante Lam, Screenwriter: Jack Ng, Producers: Candy Leung, Zhang Dajun, Ren Yue, Stephen Lam, Cast: Nick Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Kwai Lun-Mei, Liu Kai-Chi, Miao Pu, Li Yi


After 2008's well-received Beast Stalker, Dante Lam brought us 2010's Fire of Conscience, which was, in my estimation anyway, a major letdown in comparison to its immediate predecessor. For 2011's The Stool Pigeon, Lam reunites his two leads from Beast Stalker -- Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse -- and adds the luminous Kwai Lun-Mei to the mix, but the resultant film is a depressing, melodrama-heavy crime thriller that feels more like a lateral career move for Lam after Fire of Conscience.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


 Barbie Hsu breaking a sweat in Hot Summer Days.

Directors: Tony Chan and Wing Shya, Screenwriters: Tony Chan and Lucretia Ho, Producers: Fruit Chan and Paul Cheng, Cast: Nicholas Tse, Jacky Cheung, Daniel Wu, Vivian Hsu, Barbie Hsu, Rene Liu, Duan Yihong, Angelababy, William Chan, Jing Bo Ran, Michelle Wai, Gordon Liu, Charlene Choi, Shawn Yu, Fruit Chan, Kate Yeung, Jan Lamb, Joey Wong, and Maggie Cheung


Hot Summer Days marks the first Chinese-language film produced by 20th Century Fox in its then seventy-five-year history. Packed with stars hailing from Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Taiwan, it's the kind of middle-of-the-road ensemble romantic comedy that American audiences have been eating up for decades. However, this Chinese take on the genre possesses just enough redeeming qualities to elevate it -- albeit slightly -- above the pack of formulaic rom coms churned out by studios around the world. Gorgeously shot with several fine performances, Hot Summer Days is a date movie of epic proportions, as we're treated to a whole stable of good-looking actors -- often glistening with sweat -- as they try to find love in the sweltering heat of summer.

In Hong Kong, we meet Wai (Nicholas Tse), whose air conditioning repair shop is seeing a much-needed boom in business during the blistering heat wave. While coping with the heat, he ends up falling for a black eyeliner-wearing, tough-as-nails biker chick named -- of all things -- Ding Dong (Barbie Hsu). The pair make an attractive couple, and the actors possess wonderful chemistry, but it would've been refreshing if the film hasn't relied so strongly on manufactured melodrama to close out this segment. For a tearjerker to work, you've got to be emotionally invested in the characters, and the film doesn't take its time to explore their relationship in a truly satisfying way. Further, the film's treatment of the much more serious content that arises from Ding Dong's personal story is cursory at best.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

FISH STORY (JPN 2009) -- A+

An album that changes lives.

Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura, Screenwriter: Tamio Hayashi, Producer: Hitoshi Endo, Cast: Atsushi Ito, Kora Kengo, Mikako Tabe, Dakaku Hama, Mirai Moriyama, Kenjiro Ishimaru, and Nao Omori 


I think it's rather appropriate that the very first review for the revitalized Ronin on Empty is Yoshihiro Nakamura's revelatory Fish Story. This plucky, underdog of a movie offers viewers an uplifting, altogether funny commentary about the power of art to enact real change in people's lives. In a lot of ways, I think Fish Story has had a similar effect on me, as the film, among others things, did much to renew my interest in Asian cinema after leaving last year in the wake of my father's passing.

Delivering a proper review of Fish Story, however, puts me in a fairly tricky situation as a writer. Aside from hearing good things about the movie, I went into my first viewing of Fish Story knowing absolutely nothing about its premise. Having seen it twice now, I strongly feel that "going in blind" is the ideal way to experience the story. Of course, a film review requires at least a cursory treatment of the storyline, so I will have to tread carefully about plot details in the following paragraphs, lest I spoil the experience for potential viewers.