Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4,’ starring the voices of Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell; co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine

Culture Representation: Taking place in a mythical version of China, the animated film “Kung Fu Panda 4” features a cast of characters portraying various talking animals.

Culture Clash: Grandmaster Warrior/kung fu fighter Po (a panda) and a rebellious fox named Zhen go on a quest to defeat an evil, shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon. 

Culture Audience: “Kung Fu Panda 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and predictable but entertaining animation films that blend comedy and adventure.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), center, in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4” sticks to a certain formula that’s made entertaining, thanks to a talented voice cast, light comedy and dazzling visuals. The absence of the Furious Five in this story will disappoint some viewers, but the adventure doesn’t get boring. “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the type of sequel that exists to set up a continuation of this franchise with perspectives that were different from previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is part of the franchise series that began with 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and continued with 2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” In the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, the title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) had adventures with a group of kung fu masters called the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angela Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Crane (voiced by David Cross) and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Po evolves from being an awkward panda to being a full-fledged kung fu warrior, under the guidance of an elderly mentor named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who also trained the Furious Five.

It’s mentioned at the beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” (which takes place ina fantasy version of China, just like the previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies) that the Furious Five are off doing separate heroic deeds. (In other words, the “Kung Fu Panda 4” filmmakers couldn’t or didn’t want to pay the money it would take to bring the original Furious Five voice actors back as principal characters for this sequel.) Po is now a famous Dragon Warrior who loves to fight and almost always wins his battles against criminals where he lives in the Valley of Peace.

And that’s why Po is surprised when Shifu tells Po that Po is being “promoted” to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, as a replacement for the retiring Master Oogway, an elderly Galápagos tortoise. Po doesn’t think of himself as having enough knowledge about spirtuality to be qualified for this position. He only wants to do what he knows he’s good at doing: “Kicking butt and taking names,” Po says. Shifu gives reluctant Po the task of choosing Po’s successor as the next Dragon Warrior, but Po doesn’t think he’s qualified to do that task either.

Because he is the reigning Dragon Warrior, Po has been given possession of a magical staff that can open different realms. The staff only works if it is in the possession of someone who has been given the staff, not someone who steals or buys the staff. It should come as no surprise that this staff becomes the sought-after object in this story of good versus evil.

Po soon meets a female Corsac fox named Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina), a wily and sarcastic thief from Juniper City, a place that is bustling with high energy but also danger. It’s the type of place where innocent-looking kids can turn into mean little terrors within a split second. Zhen soon gets caught during a robbery and is tossed in jail.

Zhen tells Po that there’s an evil shapeshifting sorceress named The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), who has super-strength powers and an army of Komodo dragons. The Chameleon who wants the staff, in order to have world domination. The Chameleon is already wreaking havoc by having several crime lords under her control in the surrounding areas. She forces these nefarious bosses to give her at least half of their bounty. The crime lords hang out at a place called the Den of Thieves, where they are led by Han (voiced by Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin who can change himself into a ball the size of a boulder.

Po naturally wants to stop The Chameleon. Zhen tells Po that she knows how to find The Chameleon. Po makes a deal with Zhen: He will get Zhen out of jail and get her jail sentence reduced if she can bring him to the place where The Chameleon is. Po figures that if he will soon have to gve up the title of Dragon Warrior, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. The majority of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is about Zhen and Po’s quest to find The Chameleon and encountering several obstacles and challenges along the way.

It’s a secretive trip that Po doesn’t disclose to his family. Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) and Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston)—whose rivalry was resolved after they met in “Kung Fu Panda 3″—join forces in “Kung Fu Panda 4” to find Po when he goes missing. Mr. Ping is a nervous goose, while Li has a lot of masculine bravado, so these two opposite personalities (who occasionally argue) are fodder of a lot the comedic rapport between these two fathers.

During the time and Zhen and Po spend time together and get to know each other better, they find out that they both spent most of their childhoods as orphans. Zhen says she was taken in and raised by someone who taught street smarts to Zhen. It’s at this point in the story where it might be very easy for some viewers to figure out what’s going to happen.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” voice cast members Black and Awkwafina have done several animated films where they are larger-than-life, comedic characters. It’s a skill set that not all performers have, but Black and Awkwafina excel at it, even if some viewers might think Awkwafina’s voice is irritating. As for the Chameleon character, Davis gives a very divalicious performance as a villain who is both glamorous and menacing.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” also marks the return of snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), who was the chief villain in the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. Other supporting characters in “Kung Fu Panda 4” are Captain Fish (voiced by Ronny Chieng), a green arowana living in a pelican’s mouth; Granny Boar (voiced by Lori Tan Chinn), who uses her tusks and weapons; and PandaPig (voiced by MrBeast), a pig with certain panda characteristics, who is at the Dragon Warrior Tournament. One of the best-looking fight sequences in “Kung Fu Panda 4” involves Po and some of the other characters in shadows.

Sometimes, when there’s a long gap between movies in a franchise, the movie that closes that gap can be a very stale cash grab that seems outdated. However, the throughline between “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” manages to keep the story and characters fresh enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing film. “Kung Fu Panda” is not going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose to be pleasant diversion that people of many generations can enjoy.

Universal Pictures will release “Kung Fu Panda 4” in U.S. cinemas on Mach 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Pegasus 2,’ starring Shen Teng, Fan Chengcheng, Yin Zheng, Zhang Benyu and Sun Yizhou

March 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Shen Teng in “Pegasus 2” (Photo courtesy of Niu Vision Media)

“Pegasus 2”

Directed by Han Han

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the action comedy film “Pegasus 2” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a long hiatus out of the public eye, a former race car champion tries to make a comeback at the same rally where he experienced a horrific car accident. 

Culture Audience: “Pegasus 2” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the 2019 “Pegasus” movie and crowd-pleasing films about car racing.

Zhang Benyu, Shen Teng and Yin Zheng in “Pegasus 2” (Photo courtesy of Niu Vision Media)

“Pegasus 2” is utterly predictable, but this action comedy about a race car driver making a comeback is still a fun thrill ride to watch. The cast members’ amusing performances and winning chemistry with each other elevate the movie. This sequel also provides satisfying closure to 2019’s “Pegasus” movie, which ended on a cliffhanger that was open to interpretation.

Written and directed by Han Han (who also wrote and directed “Pegasus”), “Pegasus 2” takes place in unnamed cities in China. In “Pegasus” (mild spoiler alert), champion race-car driver Zhang Chi (played by Shen Teng) won the Bayanbulak Rally, but his car malfunctioned and fell off of a cliff. His fate was unknown by the end of the movie.

The beginning of “Pegasus 2” describes in a caption what happened to Chi: He survived the cliff fall, but his car did not, because it became a total wreck. Chi’s victory that was shown at the end of the first “Pegasus” movie was deemed invalid. Chi has “retired” from racing and has opened a driving school with his two closest friends: outspoken Sun Yuqiang (played by Yin Zheng) and mild-mannered Ji Xing (played by Zhang Benyu), who were both Chi’s racing colleagues in his glory days.

The three pals are trying to find a new work space for their company when someone who is a huge fan of Chi contacts Chi with an offer to do something different. Xin Di (played by Jia Bing) is the owner and manager of Laotoule Automobile Factory. Di wants Chi to make a racing comeback and says that Bayanbulak Rally will be Chi’s sponsor. This is the last year that Bayanbulak Rally will take place. Di is confident that Chi can win the race. (“Pegasus 2” is a very male-centric movie, since there are no women in the principal cast.)

There are some obstacles, of course. First, Chi is very reluctant to go back to being a professional racer. Second, Chi says that if took this offer, he would need about ¥6 million (which is about $833,449 in U.S. dollars in 2024), but Di says he only has ¥4 million, which is about $555,633 in U.S. dollars in 2024. Third, the corporate sponsor Lighttime has won the Bayanbulak Rally for the past two years and can easily outspend Laotoule Automobile Factory in getting the best resources and driver training.

Di asks Chi to reconsider Chi’s decision to not race in the Bayanbulak Rally. In the meantime, a star driver has emerged at Chi’s driving school. He is a young man named Li Xiaohai (played by Fan Chengcheng), who works as a test driver at the school. Xiaohai has never been a professional racer. Di’s nerdy son Liu Xiande (played by Sun Yizhou, also known as Sean Sun) has been paying Chi’s school to be a driver apprentice.

The driving school is about to evicted from its work space due to non-payment of rent. It should come as no surprise that Chi changes his mind about entering the Bayanbulak Rally. He makes the decision to temporarily close the driving school, in order to train for the race. Yuqiang is his co-driver. As a backup duo for the Bayanbulak Rally, Xiaohai will be the lead driver, and Xiande will be a co-driver for another car sponsored by Laotoule Automobile Factory. These drivers have only 100 days to train for the Bayanbulak Rally.

You know where all of this is going, of course. The are more obstacles and challenges in ths journey, including the hero team running out of money, experiencing car malfunctions, and driving during a snowstorm during the race. The racing scenes have adrenaline-packed energy and are filmed from some eye-catching angles. And even if some of the stunt moves are obvious visual effects, “Pegasus 2” makes everything entertaining to watch.

On and off the racing circuit, the characters of “Pegasus 2” are engaging, with every co-star showing good comedic timing. Because “Pegasus 2” doesn’t take itself too seriously, some of the ridiculousness in the movie is easer to take because of the movie’s comedy. “Pegasus 2” shows what can be expected in a story about someone who has to overcome self-doubt in order to make a comeback. It’s the type of inspirational movie that is a familiar as comfort food and is just as enjoyable.

Niu Vision Media released “Pegasus 2” in select U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in China on February 10, 2024.

Review: ‘The Storm’ (2024), an animated adventure from China about a wayward man and boy affected by a mysterious black ship

February 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daguzi/Biggie and Manou/Bun in “The Storm” (Image courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Storm” (2024)

Directed by Yang Zhigang (also known as Busifan)

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unspecified ancient time in China, the animated film “The Storm” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wayward man becomes a father figure to a boy he found floating in a river, and the two of them experience danger on a mysterious black ship.

Culture Audience: “The Storm” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching adventurous and visually captivating anime with several emotional moments.

A scene from “The Storm” (Image courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The animated adventure film “The Storm” gets a little repetitive, but the visuals are well-done, and the story takes an unexpected turn. The ending is a bold risk that not every viewer will like, but it stands out from other movies of this genre. “The Storm” might get some comparisons to filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning 2001 film “Spirited Away.” There are a few similarities, but each movie stands on its own as an original story.

Written and directed by Yang Zhigang (also known as Busifan), “The Storm” (which takes place in an unspecified ancient time in China) tells the story of a poor and wayward man named Daguzi, who finds a boy named Mantou, who’s about 8 or 9 years old, when he sees Mantou floating down a river stream. Mantou doesn’t seem to have any family members, so Daguzi decides to take care of Mantou and becomes a father figure to him.

Daguzi and Mantou have nicknames for each other. Mantou has given Daguzi the nickname Biggie. Daguz has given Mantou the nickname Bun. They become very close and develop an emotional bond that is like a father and a son.

Out of financial desperation, Daguzi/Biggie does something illegal to get money. He becomes a fugtive of the law and takes Mantou/Bun with him to go into hiding. Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun end up in Great Dragon Bay.

On the bay is a mysterious black ship that has a sinister reputation: People who go on the ship often disappear. Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun go on the ship and find out that there are white jellyfish-like creatures named jellieels that can turn people into jellieelsters after a certain period of time.

As already revealed in the trailer for “The Storm,” Daguzi/Biggie gets bitten by a jellieel. A distraught Mantou/Bun then goes through a race against time to find a turquoise magic mushroom to prevent Daguzi/Biggie from turning into a jellieelster. Along the way, he enlists the help of an army leader named Commander Liu (also known as Miss) and her relative called Uncle Big Hat.

One of the best things about “The Storm” is how it creates a fantastical world that is often stunning to look at and which offers both beauty and danger. The movie’s plot gets a little clunky when it shows the military preoccupations of Commander Liu and her troops. However, the story excels when it’s about the relationship between Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun. The movie requires a viewer’s full attention in order to appreciate it, because some of the plot zips around, as the two main characters don’t stay in one place for very long.

“The Storm” has overt as well as underlying messages about facing fears and what it means for children to make big decisions without parental guidance. The movie also shows how family members—whether they are biological or chosen—can inspire loyalty and love like no other type of relationships. It’s not a perfect animated film, but there’s a lot to like about it.

There’s plenty of action and suspense, but “The Storm” really succeeds in making viewers care about the characters, especially vulnerable but brave and determined Mantou/Bun. Most viewers will not be prepared for the movie’s ending. Stick around for the movie’s epilogue, which adds to the poignancy of this film’s conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Storm” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024. The movie was released in China on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Johnny Keep Walking!,’ starring Dong Chengpeng, White-K and Zhuang Dafei

January 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dong Chengpeng and White-K in “Johnny Keep Walking!” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“Johnny Keep Walking!”

Directed by Dong Runnian

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, mostly in 2017, the comedy film “Johnny Keep Walking!” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Due to an identity mixup, a factory worker for a large corporation accidentally gets promoted into an executive manager position, while the staff relations manager who made this mistake tries to cover it up.

Culture Audience: “Johnny Keep Walking!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching workplace satires that try to do too much with a flimsy and thin plot.

Zhuang Dafei, Dong Chengpeng and White-K in “Johnny Keep Walking!” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“Johnny Keep Walking!” starts off looking like a screwball satire of how corporate managers have such little regard for employees, they treat employees as interchangeable and disposable. But then, the movie bizarrely turns into a somewhat preachy comedy lecture about how corporate workers can find gratitude and happiness on the job if they find a way to charm their irresponsible or callous managers. The intended sharp parody of corporate incompetence is weakened by too much sentimental corniness, especially near the end of the movie. It’s overstuffed with too many unnecessary characters. It’s a one-joke film stretched to irritating limits.

Directed by Dong Runnian (who co-wrote the “Johnny Keep Walking!” screemplay with with Luojia Ying), “Johnny Keep Walking!” begins in 1998. A China-based corporation called Zonghe Group (which makes equipment parts, such as bolts and studs) is having its annual gala, which includes a talent show for employees. One of the company’s main production facilities is the Zonghe Standard Component Factory, which is in a different city from Zonghe’s corporate headquarters. The movie doesn’t mention the names of the cities where the factory and corporate headquarters are located.

At this company gala in 1998, a factory employee named Hu Jianlin (played by as Chengpeng Dong also known as Da Peng) is shown swinging from a wire, as if he’s some kind of comedic acrobat. The performance is well-received, until it ends disastrously when Jianlin crashes to the ground. Viewers soon find out that despite this mishap, Jianlin loves to perform at the company gala’s talent show every year. He has a happy-go-lucky personality that can sometimes be considered clownish. Zonghe Group is led by a typical ruthless mogul named Chairman Hu (played by Ouyang Fenqiang), who cares more about profits than people.

The movie then fast-forwards to 2017. Jianlin, a bachelor with no children, is still working in an assembly-line job at Zonghe Standard Component Factory. His title is senior fitter. He is looking forward to performing as a singer at the annual company gala. In order to do so, he has to put in an application every year. Not everyone will be chosen to perform, but Jianlin has been chosen every year, so he’s not worried. Performing at the company gala has become a tradition for him that he expects to continue.

One day, Jianlin gets some shocking news: He’s been promoted to become a mid-level manager at Zonghe’s corporate headquarters, even though he has no managerial experience and no business education. This promotion means that he will have to leave all of his factory co-worker friends behind, but Jianlin is excited and curious about this new job opportunity. His co-worker friends at the factory seem to be happy for him, but they are confused over why Jianlin was given this promotion, since he previously showed no interest in being a corporate manager.

Meanwhile, someone who is not happy about this promotion is middle-aged Zhuang Zhengzhi (played by Wang Xun), a supply manager at Zonghe Standard Component Factory. Zhengzhi had applied for this promotion not just because he wants an elevated title and a higher income but also because he wants to move to the city where Zonghe is headquartered so his children can go to a better school. Zhengzhi is enraged that an unqualified Jianlin got the promotion instead

There’s a big reason why Zhengzhi was expecting this job promotion: Zhengzhi did unethical things for a middle man named Hou Chengsi (played by Yang Lei), who promised that in return for these illegal business practices, Zhengzhi would get the job promotion. When Zhenghzi tries to call Chengsi, he is dismayed to find out that Chengsi can’t be reached on his phone. Zhenghzi interprets Chengsi’s sudden inaccessibility as Chengsi deliberately avoiding him. However, later, Zhengzhi gets a strange phone call from Zonghe headquarters where someone asks him to sing over the phone as an audition.

At Zonghe’s corporate headquarters, an awestruck Jianlin is given an office tour. He is amazed that corporate managers have their own spa and don’t do as much work as he thought. During his first few days on the job, Jianlin meets several executives. They include director of human resoures Thomas (played by Mu Da), deputy director of human resources Peter (played by Sun Yizhou, also known as Sean Sun; deputy director of human resources Jeffrey; and deputy head of staff relations/company culture Ma Jie (played by White-K, also known as Bai Ke), who goes by the name Magic.

Magic has a one-on-one meeting with Jianlin and tells him that Jianlin’s income in his new job can be up to ¥360,000 a year, which is more than $50,000 in U.S. dollars. Jianlin has never made that much income before, and he doesn’t quite believe it. He asks Magic if he can record a video on Jianlin’s phone of Magic stating this salary for Jianlin, so he can have it has evidence. It’s one of many examples that the movie has to show how Jianlin is ignorant about corporate customs.

Magic also tells Jianlin that because Zonghe is an international company, all of the executives must choose an English-language first name to make it easier to communicate with English-speaking business collegaues. After some back-and-forth dialogue, they decide that Jianlin’s English-language name will be John, nicknamed Johnny.

Shortly after this meetng, Magic finds out he had made a huge mistake: He mixed up Jianlin’s talent show application with Zhengzhi’s promotion application. He decides to himself that he can cover up this mistake, as long as he prevents Jianlin/John from doing anything important. Most of the movie is a series of repetitive and wacky predicaments of Magic trying to keep his mistake a secret while Jianlin/John naïvely works his way up Zonghe’s corporate ladder and Zhengzhi plots his revenge.

All of that would be enough for one movie, but “Johnny Keep Walking!” crams in suplots about corporate downsizing and exploitation of temporary workers. Zonghe has about 60,000 employees and plans to lay off a great deal of them. Most of the employees who are let go are lower-level workers, while the high-ranking executives not only get to keep their own jobs, they often get bonuses or raises. When the layoffs start to happen, the remaining employees become unsettled and paranoid that they will be the next to lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, Jianlin/John gets to know a cynical Zonghe employee named Pan Yiran, also known as Penny (played by Zhuang Dafei, also known as Sabrina Zhuang), who works as some type of administrative assistant. She is part of the company’s outsourced group of workers who are considered temporary workers. Penny has been working for Zonghe for the past six years.

Penny has been promised a permanent job at Zonghe, but this permanent job hasn’t happened for her yet. She has become very bitter and impatient about this unfulfilled promise. Like many temporary workers, Penny can’t afford to quit. But she’s disgruntled and is rude to her supervisor, so she often gets reprimanded for her attitude.

“Johnny Keep Walking!” has a brisk, madcap tone to it for most of the movie, but then everything starts turning into hokey mush toward the end of the film. The subplot about the scheming of Zhengzhi and Chengsi is a muddled and far-fetched mess. The annual Zonghe talent show is another subplot that is an awkward part of the story. “Johnny Keep Walking!” fares best when it focuses on lampooning how high-ranking corporate executives are frequently insincere, out-of-touch, and ill-equipped to do their jobs, but all the subplots become distractions and flaws for the movie.

Unfortunately, with too many characters and jumbled subplots, “Johnny Keep Walking!” trips over its own ambition. It’s not a completely terrible film, and some parts succeed in being amusing. The cast members do adequate jobs in their performances. But the movie’s tonal shift at the end is ridiculously hokey. Instead of consistently poking fun at corporate culture, “Johnny Keep Walking” ends up praising corporate culture with a simple-minded conclusion.

Tiger Pictures Entertainment released “Johnny Keep Walking!” in select U.S. cinemas on January 18, 2024. The movie was released in China on December 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Shining for One Thing’ (2023), starring Qu Chu Xiao and Zhang Jianing

January 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Qu Chu Xiao and Zhang Jianing in “Shining for One Thing” (Photo courtesy of Golden Village Pictures)

“Shining for One Thing” (2023)

Directed by Chen Xiaoming and Zhang Pan

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in China, in 2010, the sci-fi drama film “Shining for One Thing” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage aspiring astronaut hopes to win over a teenage girl whom he has been pining over for years, but she acts aloof and unavailable.

Culture Audience: “Shining for One Thing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic dramas wth sci-fi elements.

Zhang Jianing and Qu Chu Xiao in “Shining for One Thing” (Photo courtesy of Golden Village Pictures)

“Shining for One Thing” blends sci-fi and romance in this appealing drama about a teenage aspiring astronaut, who pines for a seemingly unattainable girl. Some of the movie’s plot developments are awkward, but it’s a sweet and interesting love story.

Directed by Chen Xiao Ming and Zhang Pan, “Shining for One Thing” is based on the TV series of the same name, which debuted in China in 2022. Duan Yu Le and Wang Chen wrote the movie’s screenplay, which is a stand-alone film. People who know about the “Shining for One Thing” series won’t be surprised by the movie’s plot twist, which won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see the movie don’t know about the TV series.

“Shining for One Thing” opens with a scene of a male astronaut and a female astronaut on the moon. They are standing across from each other and looking at each other. How they got there is explained in the movie.

The movie then goes to an unnamed city in China on August 8, 2010. A high school student named Zhang Wansen (played by Qu Chu Xiao), who’s about 17 years old, goes to a ticket booth and asks for tickets for a concert, but the ticket seller (played by Wang Zhaoqing) says she just sold the last two tickets to a teenage girl, who is standing nearby. The ticket seller advises Wansen to ask the girl if she will sell him either or both of the tickets.

The teenager who bought the last two tickets is Lin Beixing (played by Zhang Jianing, also known as Karlina Zhang), who’s about the same age as Wansen. She refuses Wansen’s offer to buy the tickets. Wansen sees Beixing again on a school bus, and he’s bashful about approaching her. She mostly acts aloof and unapproachable during most of their interactions.

The concert that Wansen wants to go to is a Moon Shot concert, taking place at a stadium. It will be send-off for an astronaut mission to the moon. Ever since he was a child, Wansen has dreamed about going to the moon. He takes science classes with this aim in mind.

Wansen wants to be part of the Moon Shot concert any way that he can. He volunteers to be a worker helping with production set-up duties at the stadium. Wansen then finds out that Beixing is one of the many other young people who are also volunteers.

Wansen also finds out that Beixing works at a bookstore that’s owned by a kind, elderly man named Xie (played by Tian Zhuangzhuang), so Wansen starts hanging out at the bookstore too. Beixing is very aware that Wansen is attracted to her. Wansen and Beixing get to know each other better, but she still keeps an emotional distance from him.

What Beixing doesn’t seem to remember is that she and Wansen met years earlier, when when they were about 5 or 6 years old and lived near each other. Wansen was a lonely child, and Beixing was the only person who was nice to him. (In these childhood scenes, Eric Zhang portrays Wansen. Yu Qian Qian portrays Beixing.) Just as it seemed like Wansen and Beixing were becoming friends, she told him that she was moving away with her family.

“Shining for One Thing” then shows what happens to Wansen and Beixing as teenagers and as young adults. Other people in their orbit include Wansen’s friend Lin Mai Zi (played by Jiang Yun), who has a crush on an artsy student named Gao Ge (played by Fu Jing, also known as Jinna Fu), who doesn’t seem interested in Lin Mai Zi. There is also some drama involving a local thug named Wu Ren (played by Niu Chao), who’s the leader of a gang of other criminal troublemakers. This movie is competently acted and is best appreciated by viewers who like stories about the personal sacrifices that people make for unconditional love.

Golden Village Pictures released “Shining for One Thing” in China on December 30, 2023. The movie was released in select U.S. cinemas on January 5, 2024.

Review: ‘The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan,’ starring Han Geng, Ryan Zheng, Zeng Mengxue and Kelly Yu

October 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ryan Zheng and Han Geng in “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The X-Files 4: Marriage Plans”

Directed by Tian Yusheng

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Beijing, China, the comedy film sequel “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plans” has an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two male best friends—one who’s divorced, and one who’s in a live-in relationship with a woman—navigate society’s pressures to settle down and get married.

Culture Audience: “The Ex-Files Marriage” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and romantic comedies that don’t do anything original or clever.

Ryan Zheng and Kelly Yu in “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” is the very definition of an unnecessary sequel. There’s not much to this story except people whining about how they have relationship problems. Viewers of the movie don’t have to know anything about the previous three “Ex-Files” movies, although it helps to have some context about the returning characters and what types of relationships they had in the previous “Ex-Files” movies.

Directed by Tian Yusheng, “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plans” (which takes place in Beijing, China) continues the story of best friends Meng Yun (played by Han Geng) and Yu Fe (played by Zheng Kai, also known as Ryan Zheng) and shows what happens in their love lives. The previous “Ex-Files” movies are 2014’s “The Ex-Files,” 2015’s “Ex-Files 2” and 2017’s “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes.”

In “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plans,” Yun is divorced and still looking for love. He’s skeptical but hopeful that he will find his soul mate. Yun has a somewhat tense relationship with his ex-wife Lin Jia (played by Kelly Yu), since they had a bitter divorce. who has a son with her current boyfriend. Soon after Yun and Jia make peace with each other, she tells him that she’s getting married to the father of her child. Yun has mixed emotions and feels a little envious that his ex-wife has found a new spouse.

Fe is living with his girlfriend Ding Dian (played by Zeng Mengxue), who is pressuring him to marry her. Dian has owns a coffee shop that is struggling financially. Dian asks Fe for advice on what to do about the coffee shop, but he tells her it’s her decision. Dian and Fe also have to decide whether or not to split their financial obligations equally. Dian thinks Fe should be more emotionally invested in their relationship and more willing to commit to marriage. Predictably, Fe and Dian have many arguments about their relationship.

Meanwhile, a large portion of “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” is about Yun getting back into the dating scene. He ends up casually dating two women around the same time: opinionated divorce attorney Huang Yue (played by Zhu Yan Man Zi) and perky Liu Liu (played by Cya Liu), who both find out that they are dating Yun. The movie shows if Yun chooses one woman over the other. A female bartender named Xiao Ai (played by Zhang Tian Ai) at Yun’s favorite restaurant/bar (where he romances Yue and Liu) observes all of these shenanigans and is a friendly listener whenever Yun tells sob stories about his love life.

“The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” has adequate acting performances, which are hampered by a fairly dull screenplay. The problem is that the movie doesn’t go beyond the usual romantic comedy stereotypes about unmarried people and problems in their love lives. There are breakups, makeups, jealousies and misunderstandings. It all adds up to a very lukewarm story for a sequel that didn’t need to exist.

CMC Pictures released “The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan” in select U.S. cinemas on September 29, 2023, and in China on September 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Raid on the Lethal Zone,’ starring Ou Hao, Jason Gu, Alan Aruna, Yu Hao Ming and Huong Yao

September 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Raid on te Lethal Zone”(Photo courtesy of China Lion)

“Raid on the Lethal Zone”

Directed by Herman Yao

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1998, in Yunnan, China, the action film “Raid on the Lethal Zone” has an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a raid, an anti-narcotics unit of law enforcement takes on drug dealers during a flood.

Culture Audience: “Raid on the Lethal Zone” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of action-packed movies about good versus evil.

A scene from “Raid on te Lethal Zone”(Photo courtesy of China Lion)

“Raid on the Lethal Zone” is an effective combination of a crime drama, action movie, and disaster flick taking place during a flood. The visual effects are convincing. And although there are some formulaic elements, not everything is predictable.

Directed by Herman Yao and written by Pang Xiao,” (which takes place in Yunnan, China), Raid on the Lethal Zone” jumps right into the action of showing the story’s main conflict: a battalion called 8007 has been tasked with taking down drug dealers who recently blew up an anti-narcotics truck in Meng City. This law enforcement squad is part of the Border Defense Force. The squad leader is Wang Jin Hou (played by Ou Hao), who reports to Captain Zhang Li (played by Zhao Xuan) and who has to lead his team during this flood, which includes avalanches of cascading water.

Meanwhile, Hou is dealing with issues in his personal life. He is still pining over his ex-girlfriend Yao Yao (played by Huang Yao), who is a police officer. Another soldier named Luo Qui (played by Liu Jun Qi) has mental health issues. Also on the squad are Commander Sun Ji (played by Yu Hao Ming) and soldiers Liu Chun Sheng (played by Shi Peng Yuan and Kong Zhu Guo(played by Martin Wang), also known as Da Zhu.

The homicidal leader of the drug-dealing thugs has the nickname Dragon (played by Alan Aruna), who is as ruthless as you would expect him to be. “Raid on the Lethal Zone” doesn’t delve too much into the characters’ backstories. About 95% of the movie is about the crisis during the flood. Therefore, all the action that happens won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that there so much life-and-death tension in “Raid on the Lethal Zone,” which has very good cinematography, after the movie is over, you might feel exhausted from watching a movie that has all this non-stop action.

China Lion released “Raid on the Lethal Zone” in select U.S. cinemas on September 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Born to Fly’ (2023), starring Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Zhou Dongyu

September 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wang Yibo in “Born to Fly” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Born to Fly” (2023)

Directed by Liu Xiaoshi

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, in 2008,, the action film “Born to Fly” has an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hotshot pilot for the Chinese military experiences triumph and tragedy as part of an elite fighter squad.

Culture Audience: “Born to Fly” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movie’s headliners and films that are inspired by the “Top Gun” movies.

A scene from “Born to Fly” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Born to Fly” goes down a very simplistic and generic path in this often-trite story about fighter pilots. Some of the aerial scenes look good, but when the story is on the ground, much of the dialogue and acting performances are a little cringeworthy. The plot for “Born to Fly” borrows heavily from 1986’s “Top Gun.”

Directed by Liu Xiaoshi and written by Gui Gan, “Born to Fly” (which takes place in 2008) has a main character named Lei Yu (played by Wang Yibo) who is handsome, heroic, and a risk taker in the Chinese military. Some might consider Yu to be a little reckless. Yu is part of an elite squad of young fighter pilots

Early in the movie, Yu is found to be at fault for a speeding mishap when he sought to defend airspace from mischief-making American fighter pilots. His speeding caused his plane to malfunction and forced Yu to make an emergency landing. Yu is reprimanded but he is soon introduced to someone who will become his mentor: commanding officer Zhang Ting (played by Hu Jun), who will be working with this squad to develop the Chengdu J-20 fighter plane at the Flight Test Bureau. Commander Zhang will also be training the squad on how to fly this plane. He makes the recruits repeat: “The last battle is the first battle.”

The other members of the squad are Gao Yingjun (played by Bu Yu); muscular Xia Pengfei (played by Zhai Yujia); Li Xioahang (played by Edwin Liu), who is Pengfei’s wingman; Tong Gan (played by Wang Zichen); friendly Jia Shengli (played by Jeremy Qu); and arrogant Deng Feng (played by Yu Shi). All of them get along with Yu, except for Fang, who is very competitive and wants to be the star of the program. Fang sees Yu, who is new to the program, as Feng’s biggest threat.

In this training program, the pilots are Golden Helmets and Golden Darts as rewards for excelling in certain challenges. In the beginning of the movie, Pengfei has one Golden Helmet and one Golden Dart. Gan has a Golden Dart. Fang has three Golden Helmets. There’s a certain stretch of the movie where Fang and Yu compete to see who can get the most Golden Helmets.

Since “Born to Fly” uses a lot of the same ideas that were in “Top Gun,” it should come as no surprise that one person on this team will die in a plane crash. Fang and Yu, the two rivals, have to learn to put their differences aside to complete a mission in honor of their fallen team member. It’s all so predictable.

And just like in “Top Gun,” a woman who looks very glamorous for the military is part of the story, although she doesn’t get to the biggest scenes with the fighter planes, because she’s a military doctor. Her name is Shen Tianran (played by Zhou Dongyu), and she’s treated like a “token woman” in the movie because her main purpose in “Born to Fly” is to be the potential love interest of the “hero.”

Yu, who has a background in engineering, has a tense relationship with his father (played by Yao Lu) who is very hard to please. (Yu’s parents don’t have names in the movie.) There’s an early scene in the movie where Yu is talking to his mother (played by Jiang Hong Bo) on the phone, and he asks to speak to his father. His father is home but doesn’t want to talk to Yu and tells his wife to lie and tell Yu that he’s not home. Yu’s parents want him to be in the military, but they worry about the deadly risks in his job, and they don’t want him to do anything that would embarrass their family.

That’s why Yu sees Commander Zhang as more than just a mentor. Commander Zhang becomes almost like a father figure to Yu. Commander Zhang invites Yu over to Commander Zhang’s house to meet his wife and children. Yu is welcomed into the home and treated almost like a family member.

Because “Born to Fly” is so formulaic and derivative, there’s hardly any suspense in the movie, although the aerial scenes have a lot of adrenaline-like energy and are filmed from some eye-catching angles. The cast members’ acting isn’t bad but it isn’t great either. Main character Yu is quite generic though and doesn’t do much to stand out from the long list of movies about heroic military fighters

Well Go USA released “Born to Fly” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023, the same date that it was released in China. UPDATE: “Born to Fly” will be released on digital and Blu-ray on March 26, 2024.

Review: ‘One and Only’ (2023), starring Huang Bo and Wang Yibo

August 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wang Yibo in “One and Only” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“One and Only” (2023)

Directed by Da Peng

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Hangzhou, China, in 2022, in comedy/drama film “One and Only” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A talented street dancer is recruited as a stand-in on a high-ranking street dancing team that will be competing for a national championship, but he and the team’s coach have obstacles along the way, including a jealous and wealthy rival who threatens the team’s existence.

Culture Audience: “One and Only” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching modern dance movies that have great choreography and well-acted stories.

Huang Bo in “One and Only” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“One and Only” is one of the best dance films of the year. The choreography and cinematography are dazzling. This comedy/drama about an underdog street dancer and his conflicted coach also has a compelling and heartfelt story told with skillful acting. The story’s overall plot is entirely predictable, but viewers are taken on a thoroughly entertaining ride along the way.

Directed by Da Peng (who co-wrote the “One and Only” screenplay with Siu Bao), “One and Only takes place primarily in Hangzhou, China, in 2022. Hangzhou is the hometown of Chen Shuo (played by Wang Yibo), a talented street dancer in his late teens or early 20s. Shuo is juggling three different jobs to help pay the bills for his family, which includes his widowed mother Du Li Sha (played by Liu Min Tao) and his mother’s brother (played by Yue Yunpeng), who all live in the same household. (The movie doesn’t say how Shuo’s father died. Shuo’s maternal uncle doesn’t have a first name in the movie and is only identified as Uncle Du in the end credits.)

Shuo works in the small, casual restaurant owned by his mother, who used to be a professional singer. He also has a job at a car wash. And in his spare time, Shuo does dance jobs on the street or at parties. For his dancing gigs, Shuo works with his uncle Xie (played by Xiaoshenyang), who is the brother of Shuo’s deceased father. Xie, who is very supportive of Shuo, also acts as a quasi-manager/agent to Shuo.

Shuo’s dream is to become a professional street dancer, just like Shuo’s father was. Shuo is in awe of E-Mark, the hottest street dance team in Hangzhou, and he goes to as many of E-Mark’s performances as possible. An early scene in the movie shows Shuo rushing from completing a street dancing gig that pays him ¥300 (which is about $41 in U.S. dollars in 2022) so that he can watch E-Mark compete in the finals of the Zhejiang Street Dance Competition. The winner will have a chance to go on to the National Street Dance Competition.

Winning the National Street Dance Competition has been an elusive goal for E-Mark and for E-Mark’s coach/team owner: the scruffy and dance-obsessed Ding Lei (played by Huang Bo), who is a former professional street dancer in his late 40s. It has always bothered Lei that he has never won a national championship as a solo dancer or as part of a group. During his heyday as a dancer, Lei had the unflattering nickname Eternal Runner-up. Lei wants to live out his dream of getting a national championship through E-Mark.

Shuo is thrilled to see E-Mark win the Zhejiang Street Dance Competition, against tough competition from another talented group called Dancing Machine. E-Mark’s star dancer is Kevin (played by Casper), who is rich and arrogant. Lei is in a difficult situation because Kevin has been paying the rent on E-Mark’s rehearsal space.

Kevin holds this financial power over Lei as an excuse for Kevin to act as if Lei needs Kevin, in order for E-Mark to survive At the Zhejiang Street Dance Competition, Kevin shows up very late and almost misses the time to dance with his team. Later, when Lei confronts Kevin about his tardiness, Kevin dismisses it and says that the team couldn’t have won without him. Kevin’s bad attitude is starting to really annoy Lei. Kevin and Lei get into arguments.

And to make matters worse, Lei finds out that Kevin has not paid the rent for the rehearsal space for the last three months. Lei is now stuck with this overdue bill that he has to pay in 30 days. After another argument, Kevin (or people he hired) remove all of E-Mark’s trophies out of the rehearsal space without asking permission. Kevin has a “yes man” business manager named Liu Hongliang (played by Zhang Zixian), who has a small role in the movie but it’s a comic relief role.

Viewers soon find out what Lei plans to do about the problems that Kevin has caused. One day, Shuo is doing a job where he is dressed up as a Power Ranger who breakdances at a children’s party. At the party, Xie and Shuo are approached by Lei, who somehow found out about Shuo’s talents. Lei asks Shuo if he is interested in being a stand-in for Kevin.

It’s essentally an internship, but it’s a paid internship: Lei says that Shuo will be paid ¥5,000 a month, which is about $686 a month in U.S. dollars in 2022. Shuo is ecstatic and eagerly accepts the job, even though Lei tells Shuo that there’s no guarantee that this internship will lead to Shuo getting a permanent place on the E-Mark team. This “internship” is really Lei’s way of seeing if Shuo can eventually replace Kevin.

“One and Only” isn’t just a “hey kids, let’s put on a dance show” movie. The story does a very good job of showing who the main characters are when they’re not immersed in dance rehearsals or dance competitions. Lei is a divorced bachelor with no children. His entire life revolves around E-Mark, but he’s going through financial struggles to keep the team afloat. He treats the members of E-Mark (except for the difficult Kevin) as if they were his own children.

Lei’s ex-wife Dan Dan (played by Qi Xi) occasionally appears to give “One and Only” viewers some glimpses into what Lei’s past life is like. Dan Dan dresses like a successful business person (although the movie never says what she does for a living), and she has not remarried. In a scene where Lei happens to see Dan Dan, he jokes about how he’s going to convince her that they will get back together again. Even though the movie never says why Lei and Dan Dan got divorced, this scene has some good acting that shows there was a lot of heartache in that relationship.

As for Shuo’s personal life, he’s a shy loner who is socially awkward when it comes to dating. He’s a dutiful and obedient son to his mother, who adores him, although she’s somewhat fearful of all the rejections that Shuo will experience as an entertainer. Her restaurant is quirky: It features celebrity wax statues made by Shuo’s maternal uncle. (The celebrity wax statues include Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Chan, Albert Einstein and Michael Jackson.)

There’s a scene in “One and Only” where Xie tells Shuo some family history that Shuo didn’t know about: Uncle Du dropped out of art school when he was younger to take care of his ailing father. After the father died, Uncle Du had a nervous breakdown. When Shuo finds out this information, Shuo feel compassion for Uncle Du, whom Shuo used to think of as just a weird uncle who was a failed artist. These are the types of details in “One and Only” that give meaningful character development to the story.

Shuo has a love interest: Li Mingzhu (played by Song Zu Er), who is a journalist intern at a local newspaper. Mingzhu and Shuo, who are about the same age, know each other casually because they were classmates in high school. Shuo has had a crush on her a while, but he’s very insecure about asking her out on a date. Mingzhu drops major hints that she wants Shuo to ask her out on a date, but he’s so inexperienced in dating, he doesn’t pick up on these clues right away.

When Shuo arrives at the E-Mark rehearsal space, he is welcomed immediately by an adorable girl named Tang Tang (played by Molly Han), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Tang Tang is the daughter of E-Mark’s only female dancer: Chilli (played by Fei, no last name), who is a single mother dating another E-Mark dancer named Dragon (played by George, no last name), who has an apt nickname because of Dragon’s fiery personality. Dragon has very strong opinions and doesn’t like the idea of E-Mark being a “sell-out” dance group that will do embarrassing things for money.

The other members of E-Mark have distinctive looks and memorable names, but not much is done in the movie to make their personalities stand out from each other. The actors portraying these E-Mark members are real-life street dancers playing versions of themselves with the same or similar names that they have for their characters in the movie. They are Patrick (played by Patrick), Luffy (played by Luffy Liao, also known as Liao Bo), Jr. Taco (played by Jr. Taco), Snakeman (played by Snakeman), Forest (played by Forest), Wukong (played by David Ye), Prohecy (played by Big Ason) and Sniper (played by Sniper).

Lei becomes desperate for money to pay off his debts. And he gets an offer from a dorky young businessman named Dong Er Lang (played by Jiang Long), who used to be a street dancer but who now sells a product line of “smart” trash cans called Daxi. Lang can best be described as an E-Mark fanatic/groupie. When Lang finds out that Lei needs money fast, Lang makes a sponsorship offer that becomes the first major turning point in Shuo’s affiliation with E-Mark.

“One and Only” doesn’t have any big surprises, but it’s interesting to see how the character dynamics play out in the movie. Kevin predictably becomes jealous of Shuo. Lei becomes torn between choosing to stick with Kevin for Kevin’s money and talent (even if Kevin’s huge, problematic ego is part of the package), or to take a bif risk on unknown, super-talented dancer Shuo, who is humble and likable but who doesn’t guarantee financial security for E-Mark.

In between these dilemmas, “One and Only” has a lot of great footage of dancing that incorporates many acrobatic and gymnastic elements. Through it all, Huang as Lei and Wang as Shuo give very convincing performances as two men from different generations who bond over dancing. It’s lovely to see how Huang helps build Shuo’s self-confidence, while Shuo inspires Lei to remember the enthusiastic energy that Lei used to have as a young man before financial concerns made Lei very jaded about the business. “One and Only” isn’t just a celebration of dance. It’s also a celebration of appreciating loyal family and friendships.

CMC Pictures released “One and Only” in select U.S. cinemas and in China on August 11, 2023.

Review: ‘Never Say Never’ (2023), starring Wang Baoqiang, Chen Yong Sheng and Shi Peng Yuan

August 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wang Baoqiang in “Never Say Never” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Distribution)

“Never Say Never” (2023)

Directed by Wang Baoqiang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from approximately 2001 to 2017, in unnamed cities in China, the dramatic film “Never Say Never” (inspired by real events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former boxing champ trains orphaned boys between the ages of 7 and 11 to be mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters, but he gets arrested for child abuse after a filmed video of one of the cage fights goes viral.

Culture Audience: “Never Say Never” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching sports dramas based on true stories and don’t mind if the movie looks a one-sided and often-unrealistic showcase for questionable actions.

Wang Baoqiang (standing in the center) in “Never Say Never” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Distribution)

“Never Say Never” is an off-kilter drama that clumsily tries to mix grit with sentimentality. The movie never does a credible job of justifying exploitation of childen who are forced to train as MMA fighters. The movie is based on true events but often looks very phony.

Directed by Wang Baoqiang (who stars in the movie and who co-wrote the “Never Say Never” screenplay with Qi Qi), “Never Say Never” (also known as “Octagonal”) takes place from approximately 2001 to 2017, with a lot of jumping around in the timeline. The movie opens by showing a video of two boys, who are about 7 or 8 years old, who are doing MMA fighting in public in a cage. Someone has filmed this disturbing fight, and the video has gone viral.

The next scene shows that in 2011, an adult has been arrested for being responsible for this fight, and he is being held in an interrogation room for questioning. His name is Xiang Tenghui (played by Wang), and he is a 43-year-old former boxing champ. Tenghui is very defensive about this viral video that has gotten him in trouble. He wants to know who filmed the video. He also defensively says that the video is “old” and was taken many years ago.

The movie then flashes back to 2001. Tenghui is going through rough times. He operates a small business and hasn’t been able to pay his workers for the past six months. Tenghui has been so financially desperate, he sold all of his boxing medals to a local businessman named Wang Feng (played by Wang Xun), who also loaned money to Tenghui and wants the loan repaid.

One day, Tenghui is attacked by a group of boys who rob him and a colleague. The attack leaves both men with head injuries, but the injuries aren’t serious enough for them to need professional medical treatment. Tenghui tracks down some of these boys and finds out that they’re homeless orphans. Feng is the one who actually gives Tenghui the idea to take these boys and train them to become MMA fighters, as a way for Tenghui to make money off of them.

It isn’t long before Tenghui has assembled a group of seven or eight boys to be in his “fight club.” Tenghui gives them shelter and food (there’s a scene showing how hungry the children are by how fast they eat the food), but he also puts them through rigorous and cruel physical training (including making them wear chains) in a remote country area. The movie tries to make it look like Tenghi is building the boys’ characters and physical strength, but it’s really a form of child abuse.

There is no good reason to train children in this age group (7 to 11 years old) to get the types of bloody, bone-breaking injuries that are common in MMA fighting. Tenghui has a reason though: greed. “Never Say Never” constantly tries to make Tenghui look like a “rescuer” for taking these boys off of the streets and giving them a “purpose” in life. But surely, he could have taught them other skills that would be more productive for their lives, not MMA fighting that is appropriate for teenagers and adults.

Another reason why this type of “training” is abusive is that these kids really had no choice. The only person who was giving them shelter and regular meals was the same person forcing them to go through this “training” that is the very definition of child endangerment. Children this young cannot legally consent, which is why Tenghui chose vulnerable orphans.

“Never Say Never” makes all of these orphans fairly generic except for three. Wang Jingfu (played by Xiao Yang as a teenager and adult) is the tallest and is the most problematic, right from the start, because of his bad attitude. It comes as no surprise that he eventually ends up in jail as a teenager.

The other two orphan characters who stand out are brothers Su Mu (played by Shi Peng Yuan as a teenager and young adult) and Ma Hu (played by Chen Yong Sheng as a teenager and young adult), who are stereotypical opposites. Mu is the “obedient” brother. Hu is the “rebellious” brother. They have a sister (played by Zhang Yi Tong) who’s about 10 years than Ma and Hu. She knew about their MMA training when Mu and Hu were children. She approved of it because she was a single mother who couldn’t afford to take care of Mu and Hu at the time.

The movie has back-and-forth repetition in showing the awful training that the boys were forced to endure and showing which ones pursued careers in professional MMA fighting as adults. It’s very off-putting how “Never Say Never” relentlessly pushes an agenda that Tenghui was a “hero” who showed “tough love” to these kids. The child abuse shown in the movie is bad enough, which means in real life, the abuse was probably worse.

“Never Say Never” also tries to gloss over the fact that Tenghui kept the money that he made off of these kids when they were under his guardianship. There is no mention of a trust fund that he set aside for any of them. The acting in “Never Say Never” is very mediocre, while the movie’s direction is horrifically unfocused. There’s a big MMA match that serves as the movie’s dramatic climax, but it all looks like a fake spectacle and a pathetic attempt to get viewers to forget the child abuse that was shown in the movie and can’t be unseen.

China Lion Distribution released “Never Say Never” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023. The movie was released in China on July 27, 2023, with a wider expansion in China on August 3, 2023.

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