Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Current Cinema - John Snadden reports on two new Chinese action films PROJECT GUTENBERG (Felix Chong) and SHADOW (Zhang Yimou)

Two recent Asian cinema releases showing around Australia are well worth making an effort to see. They're very different genre movies but which share similar ideas. They are also two of the most visually arresting films I've seen in the cinema this year.But be quick! They won't be around for long!
PROJECT GUTENBERG (2018) is a classy, big budget production featuring some of Hong Kong's best movie-making talent. And it stars Canto screen icon, Chow Yun-Fat (GOD OF GAMBLERS, CITY ON FIRE). In this pic, he's known only as "Painter", a wealthy art dealer and business owner, which is a front for a thriving trade in art forgery and international counterfeiting. In New York, he finds Lee Man (Aaron Kwok0, a failed artist, who under Painter's influence becomes a world class forger.
Both need each other to create the ultimate counterfeit note: a "Superdollar", an American $100- bank bill which is a perfect copy in every detail. Director-writer Felix Chong (co-director of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS movies) shows us the nuts and bolts of the international counterfeiting business.
It's the relationship between Painter and his protégé which is the basis of the movie. The story unfolds in a particularly non-linear fashion and it's here where we begin to see the blending of the characters' lives and personas. 
Project Gutenberg
Chow Yun-Fat looks to have hardly aged a day since THE KILLER in 1989. A gun battle deep in the Golden Triangle is the action highlight of the film, but for long-time HK fans this sequence will be memorable as we watch Chow, a machine gun in each hand, mowing down the criminal minions before him. And thankfully not a dove in sight!
Jason Kwan's cinematography (CHASING THE DRAGON, 29+1) is first class and a joy to experience. Mainland star Zhang Jingchu (AFTERSHOCK, SKY ON FIRE) is believable as a talented artist who hits the big time. Regular screen heavy Jack Kao (FULL ALERT, WILD CITY) is good value as a Thai drug lord.
Project Gutenberg
The film's biggest problem is the final 30 minutes which are overly complicated and just too cute by half. The growing duality between Painter and Lee Man becomes lost in the rush of very dodgy and contrived plotting. Even so, for most of its running time PROJECT GUTENBERG is a pretty good film and worth seeing just for Chow Yun-Fat's performance.

SHADOW (2018) I liked Zhang Yimou's new film and found it to be on par with his 2006 martial-arts drama, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, and streets ahead of his 2016 China/Hollywood creature feature THE GREAT WALL. For this new pic Zhang has adapted one of the many narratives from the Chinese historical tome, THE ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS.
The Shadow is a person chosen to impersonate a famous figure in times of danger. For years a peasant has assumed the character and life of the celebrated warrior, Commander Yu. The latter stricken by disease refuses to let the public see the real person. At the same time, he is using this anonymity to plot the overthrow of his sworn enemy, the King of Pei.
Unlike the baroque and gaudy CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, SHADOW has been all-but drained of color. But it works, especially in the outdoor sequences. The kingdom is shrouded in cloud and mist, which only partly clears with the seemingly never ending torrential rainfall. Much of this exposes the stark, brutal landscape. As the river rises, so do the personal and political stakes of this desperate life and death struggle.
Beijing born actor Deng Chao definitely earnt his fee in this film as he takes the roles of Commander Yu and Jing, his doppelganger. He is well supported by Sun Li as his mostly loyal wife. Betty Sun Li is one of China's great acting talents (watch her stunning performance in Ronny Yu's FEARLESS) and it's a pity she doesn't make more films, instead she seems to work most in Chinese TV. Hu Jen (RED CLIFF, THE BODYGUARD) is the go-to actor when looking for a world weary warrior - a part which he plays convincingly.
The film's action choreographer is Ku Huen Chiu (BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, THE WARLORDS) who learnt his craft from the master, Yuen Wo Ping (THE MATRIX, THE GRANDMASTER). The combat sequences are raw and brutal. But we do get to see the best use of an umbrella since Jet Li in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA movies. Director Zhang and Ku have some fun with these lethal parasols and, at times, creating homages to or piss takes of SINGING IN THE RAIN.
The violence and bloodshed of the final hour gives way to a beautifully framed and acted final shot, which has one of the survivors seeking a glimpse of what the future might hold. But he only sees the past. It's a great scene in a very good film.
With a much simpler story-line and an emphasis on action footage, I'm wondering if SHADOW might have been initially aimed at a larger Western audience. This thought is supported by the fact that Village Roadshow was one of the movie's main backers. The sad reality is SHADOW seems to have been dumped in Australian theatres.

Editor's Note: Shadow has also been noted in an earlier post by Peter Hourigan. Click
here to find the review 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.