Review: ‘The Grandmaster of Kung Fu,’ starring Dennis To

March 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dennis To in “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu”

Directed by Cheng Si-Yu

Mandarin and Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tianjin, China, in 1894 or 1895, the action film “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: As Japan begins to take over parts of China, the martial arts city of Tianjin resists this invasion, and a Chinese porter becomes an unlikely kung fu hero against the Japanese invaders. 

Culture Audience: “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Dennis To and no-frills kung-fu movies.

A scene from “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” does nothing groundbreaking, but it delivers what it’s supposed to deliver: an action-filled, uncomplicated story with interesting characters. Kung fu fans should at least be moderately entertained by this briskly paced movie. “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” has a total running time of 74minutes, which is just the right amount of time, because the plot didn’t need to be stretched out to an overly long run time.

Directed by Cheng Si-Yu, “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” takes place in Tianjin, China, in 1894 or 1895, when Japan invaded China. Tianjin is considered one of the top martial-arts cities in China. The movie begins by showing a martial-arts contest where the winner will be named the leader of the Wushu Association, which oversees the martial-arts activities in Tianjin.

The elderly Master Yu (played by Zhou Pengcheng) is retiring as the leader of the Wushu Association. The arrogant Master Zhao (played by Yin Jian) is expected to be easily named as Master Yu’s successor. But an unlikely contender steps forward to enter this contest: a humble porter named Huo Yuanjian (played by Dennis To, also known as Dennis To Yu-hang), who is laughed at by many people in the crowd, because Yuanjian is much smaller than Master Zhao.

Master Zhao doesn’t take Yuanjian seriously as an opponent. However, a colleague named Master Feng (played by Yin Zhiwei) taunts Master Zhao, by saying: “Are you afraid to fight a porter? He’s challenging you right now. Don’t be a coward!”

Yuanjian says he is from Mi Zong Chinese boxing, but this experience doesn’t help him in his fight against Master Zhao, who quickly defeats him. Yuanjian is embarrassed, but he graciously accepts the defeat. Yuanjian doesn’t know it yet, but he and Master Zhao will cross paths again

The Japanese want to open their own martial-arts school called Hong Hua in Tianjin, but the residents of Tianjin are suspicious of this idea. The Japanese officials who have arrived in Tianjin—including an imperious military leader named Yoshida Masaichi and the would-be Hong Hua school leader Mr. Takeda—try to make the school sound like a friendly cultural exchange of Japanese and Chinese cultures. However, the presence of Japanese in this area represents acceptance of Western culture that the Chinese think will denigrate Chinese culture.

The Japanese have a champion martial artist named Anbei, who wants to do things the Japanese way. Anbei is very prejudiced against the Chinese way of martial arts, because he thinks it’s inferior to the Japanese way. (Curiously, the actors who portray the Japanese actors are not listed in the movie’s end credits.) Anbei is obviously presented as the villain of the story, especially since he has a bullying personality. It’s already revealed in the trailer for “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” that Yuanjian will get involved in some kind of showdown with Anbei to defend the honor of the Chinese people.

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” has some supporting characters who don’t add much depth to the story, but are worth mentioning. Chen Zhen (played by Deng Wei), a handyman for the Wushu Association, asks Yuanjian to mentor him. Yuanjian has a wife (played by Gao Xuemei) and and son named Dongge, who’s about 6 or 7 years. Yuanjian’s wife doesn’t have much to do in the movie, except to play a stereotypical “worried wife at home” role.

Of course, part of the story is about Yuanjian overcoming his self-doubt and people’s perceptions of him, in order to become a hero on his own terms. Alliances shift, as national pride take precedence over individual grudges. You know how this movie is going to end. Lo (who is best known for the “Ip Man” movie series) lives up to his reputation for doing some memorable fight scenes. Ultimately, “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” is like a quicky and tasty snack for people who have an appetite for kung fu movies.

Hi-YAH! premiered “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” on November 4, 2022. Well Go USA released the movie on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on January 31, 2023.

Review: ‘The Wandering Earth II,’ starring Andy Lau, Wu Jing, Li Xuejian, Sha Yi, Ning Li, Wang Zhi and Zhu Yanmanzi

March 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Wu Jing and Wang Zhi in “The Wandering Earth II” (Photo courtesy of China Film Group Corporation and Well Go USA)

“The Wandering Earth II”

Directed by Frant Gwo

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and in outer space, from 2044 to 2058, the sci-fi action film “The Wandering Earth II” (a prequel to 2019’s “The Wandering Earth,” features a cast of predominantly Asian characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Scientists, engineers and other people frantically try to prevent the moon from crashing into Earth, and there are disagreements on the best way to do it. 

Culture Audience: “The Wandering Earth II” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, “The Wandering Earth,” and epic sci-fi disaster movies.

Andy Lau in “The Wandering Earth II” (Photo courtesy of China Film Group Corporation and Well Go USA)

In the sci-fi action movie “The Wandering Earth II,” the novelty has worn off a little bit from the movie’s predecessor, 2019’s “The Wandering Earth.” After all, how many times can there be a “Wandering Earth” movie about another planet being on a collision course toward Earth? “The Wandering Earth II,” which is a prequel to “The Wandering Earth,” repeats this concept with generally entertaining but long-winded results: “The Wandering Earth II” is nearly three hours long.

Frant Gwo, who directed “The Wandering Earth,” returns to helm “The Wandering Earth II,” which he co-wrote with Gong Ge’er. “The Wandering Earth II” is an over-the-top sci-fi spectacle that doesn’t lose sight of the human stories in this saga about trying to avert an outer-space disaster. In other words, the movie delivers exactly what viewers can expect from “The Wandering Earth” franchise.

“The Wandering Earth II,” which takes place from 2044 to 2058, is about scientists, engineers and other people trying to prevent the moon from crashing into Earth. In “The Wandering Earth,” which takes place from 2058 to 2078, is about scientists, engineers and other people trying to prevent Jupiter from crashing into Earth.

All of this is happening because the sun is expanding and could destroy Earth in the 22nd century if Earth doesn’t get out of the way and move to a safer part of the universe. However, changing Earth’s location can cause problems if could cause other planets to crash into Earth. These problems are at the crux of “The Wandering Earth” movies, which are based on Liu Cixin’s 2000 short story of the same name.

It’s not necessary to see “The Wandering Earth” before seeing “The Wandering Earth II,” since “The Wandering Earth II” is a prequel. However, since “The Wandering Earth” before seeing “The Wandering Earth II” gives better context to some of the motivations of the characters.

In “The Wandering Earth II,” the United Nations has been renamed the United Earth Government (UEG) and is backing the Moving Mountain Project, which will use gigantic ion engines to move Earth out of the current solar system into a safer part of the universe. UEG has shut down a radical opposition group called Digital Life Project (DLP), which believes that the future of human survival is by making humans into digital form and uploading everything using the advance mind technology.

In China, a former DLP computer scientist named Tu Hengyu (played by Andy Lau) agrees to work on the Moving Mountain Project, but he secretly continues his research into the digital mind upload technology that he thinks is still the better way for humans to survive any interplanetary disaster. Hengyu has a personal reason for wanting to make humans immortal in digital form: His wife and daughter died in a car crash, when his daughter Yaya was about 4 or 5 years old. Hengyu keeps looking at a digital simulation of Yaya that can only lasts two minutes at a time. Hengyu wants the technology to be developed so that people can bring back and preserved their deceased loved ones in digital form.

Meanwhile, from 2044 to 2058, UEG has developed enough ion engines to stop Earth’s rotation, a necessary first step in getting it out of the current solar system. The Moving Mountain Project has now been renamed the Wandering Earth Project. But something goes terribly wrong when Hengyu uploads the digital memories of Yaya into the 550W supercomputer that Hengyu helped invent. It leads to the moon going on a collision course toward Earth.

Several people who work for UEG are involved in this disaster prevention mission. Liu Peiqiang (played by Wu Jing) is a UEG astronaut who represents the “everyday” man in the story who finds his inner hero when he is called on to save lives. Someone who was a trainee in the astronaut program is Han Duoduo (played by Wang Zhi), who has confidence and intelligence that Peiqiang immediately finds attractive.

Much of the earlier part of “The Wandering Earth II” chronicles a shy and awkward Peiqiang trying to court Duoduo, who rebuffs his advances but the warms up to him. It’s not spoiler information (since it’s already in “The Wandering Earth”) that Peiqiang and Duoduo eventually fall in love with each other, get married, and start a family together.

Another important person in Peiqiang’s life is Zhang Peng (played by Sha Yi), a senior-level UEG fighter pilot who becomes Peiqiang’s mentor. Other supporting characters in the story are Zhou Zhezhi (played by Li Xuejian), who is China’s ambassador to UEG; Hao Xiaoxi (played by Zhu Yanmanzi), who is Zhezhi’s personal assistant; Ma Zhao (played by Ning Li), who works with Hengyu as a quantum computing researcher; and Mike (played by Andy Friend), the U.S. ambassdor to UEG; and Andre Graschnov (played by Vitalli Makarychev), a Russian senior-level UEG fighter pilot. There’s also a cute computer robot named Benben.

“The Wandering Earth” packs in a lot of action and suspense, which are expected. However, the movie also skillfully weaves together the parallel stories of Hengyu and Peiqiang. Hengyu is working outside the UEG system with his secretive, behind-the-scenes computer research. Peiqiang is working inside the UEG system and is on the front lines of the battles to save lives. Peiqiang has a mentor. Hengyu does not. Both men experience grief related to a death in the family.

Beyond the explosions and races against time, “The Wandering Earth” explores issues related to hope and faith in humanity. It’s also an emotionally moving story about what personal sacrifices can mean if they are for a cause that’s bigger than one person’s needs. No one is going to win any major acting awards for “The Wandering Earth II,” but the cast members are believable in their roles. It doesn’t matter if viewers understand all the sci-fi jargon in the movie, because the greater message of “The Wandering Earth” is about the lengths that people will go to for their survival and the survival of future generations.

China Film Group Corporation and Well Go USA released “The Wandering Earth II” in U.S. cinemas on January 22, 2023, the same date the the movie was released in China and several other countries.

Review: ‘Ping Pong: The Triumph,’ starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Liang Chao and Wu Jing

February 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Deng Chao in “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Ping Pong: The Triumph”

Directed by Deng Chao and Yu Baimei

Mandarin with some language in Italian and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Asia and Europe from 1989 to 1995, the dramatic film “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (based on true events) features a cast of Asian and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former professional tennis table player reluctantly becomes a coach of China’s national men’s tennis table team, which he turns around from a losing streak to becoming world champions. 

Culture Audience: “Ping Pong: The Triumph” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of table tennis/ping pong and true stories about sports victories against the odds.

A scene from “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

Even if people who watch “Ping Pong: The Triumph” don’t know before seeing the movie that it’s based on a true story, the movie’s title and marketing materials already reveal that the team at the center of the story is going to win a championship. It’s a very formulaic and predictable “underdog” sports story, but there are enough riveting scenes of table tennis/ping pong competitions to keep viewers interested. These action scenes are well-filmed, even though the screenplay is somewhat bland.

Directed by Deng Chao and Yu Baimei, “Ping Pong: The Triumph” is a dramatic retelling of China’s national men’s table tennis team going from a losing streak in 1990 and 1991, to becoming world champions in 1995. The movie takes place in various parts of Asia and Europe. Six people are credited with writing the screenplay: Li Feng, Liu Pei, Meng Hui, Yu Baimei, Zhang Yan and Zhong Wei. That’s a lot of people for a screenplay that is competent but not very innovative.

The movie begins in 1989, in Italy, where table tennis coach Minjia Dai (played by Deng Chao) has been mugged on a street by a boy and his adult accomplice. (The Minjia Dai character is based on the real-life coach Cai Zhenhua.) It’s one more stress in Dai’s life at the time. His wife Ying Wang (played by Sun Li) is eight months pregnant at home in China, and he’s anxious about being away from her.

Dai has recently renewed contract to work for $50,000 a year as a table tennis coach in Italy. He’s been offered a chance to return to China to coach table tennis for the national men’s team, but he declines. Dai has some painful memories of playing table tennis in China. He used to be a professional table tennis player in China, but he retired from playing at the age of 24, after he narrowly missed out on a chance to be in the Olympics.

China’s team won the gold medal for the World Tennis Table Championships in 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1987. China has won more gold medals at the World Tennis Table Championships than any other country. In 1989, the team won the silver medal. However, by 1990, the team was on an alarming losing streak with little hope of winning a gold medal. China wants a coach who can turn things around and bring back China’s status as gold-medal world champions for this team.

One of the other reasons for Dai’s reluctance is that China’s national men’s team for table tennis has been on a downard spiral, and he doesn’t want to take on the responsibilty of coaching a losing team. Of course, Dai changes his mind and begins coaching the team in 1991. Dai tells his wife that if he fails, he can go back to coaching table tennis in Italy.

“Ping Pong: The Triumph” then shows the expected up-and-down experiences and challenges that Coach Dai goes through in coaching this formerly victorious and now underdog team. “Ping Pong: The Triumph” includes competition scenes that take place in China, South Korea, Germany and Sweden. The most exciting scenes depict the World Tennis Table Championships in 1993 and 1995.

The movie’s supporting characters are mostly generic, but a few stand out for having memorable personalities. Coach Xiaodong Ni (played by Liang Chao), who previously coached the team, is kind of a stereotypical sidekick that is in the movie for comic relief. Coach Ni has stayed on the team as an assistant coach to help Coach Dai. Coach Li Da (played by Wu Jing) is their somewhat stern supervisor. Even though all three coaches have an influence on the team, Coach Dai is the one who becomes the team’s greatest motivator and strategist.

The journey for him isn’t easy. At first, Dai doesn’t handle the media scrunity very well. One day, he sees a photographer taking pictures of him on a street. Dai gets unnerved by the attention, takes the photographer’s camera, and rips the film out of the camera. Dai and the team also experience racism and xenophobia from some white Europeans who underestimate them.

Dai gets defensive and insecure when anyone asks him why he quit being a professional tennis table player. The “what ifs” still cause him to sometimes doubt his decision, especially when people imply he didn’t live up to his potential as a tennis table player. Of course, it’s easy to predict that Dai’s coaching of these young teammates helps him come to terms with his decision to leave professional table tennis when he was 24.

Dai’s coaching job requires him to travel a lot, so the movie briefly shows how all this traveling has meant sacrificing aspects of his personal life. There’s a scene where Dai is far from home because of his job, and he is on the phone with his wife Wang. She tells him that their son has talked for the first time, and she puts the toddler on the phone so Dai can hear him. Dai is overcome with emotion at knowing he can’t be there in person, and he breaks down in tears. These personal moments are brief, because the movie is mostly about the team’s training and tennis table competitions.

One of the biggest flaws of “Ping Pong: The Triumph” is that the character development is somewhat lacking. A little too much time is spent focusing on Dai, and the movie doesn’t really give much personality to the players on the team. One of the players who stands out is Gong Feng (played by Cai Yida), because he is the oldest member of the team and treated like an odd man out, but there’s nothing that he and the other team members say that’s particularly memorable. Likewise, the players and coaches on the opposing teams are completely devoid of any charisma.

“Ping Pong: The Triumph” is more than about winning games. There’s also an obvious message in the movie about national pride for China. All aspects of the movie (including the writing, direction and acting) are not terrible, but neither are they outstanding. For people who want the sports-movie equivalent of comfort food, “Ping Pong: The Triumph” has enough to satisfy, as long as people don’t expect anything extraordinary about this film.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Ping Pong: The Triumph” in select U.S. cinemas and in China on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘New Gods: Yang Jian,’ a fantasy adventure about a mythic figure from China

January 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Yang Jian in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“New Gods: Yang Jian”

Directed by Zhao Ji

Available in the original Mandarin version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties), the animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian,” a sequel to 2021’s “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A formerly powerful god, who is now a poor bounty hunter, competes with his long-lost nephew and other rivals to find the treasure of a magical lotus lantern. 

Culture Audience: “New Gods: Yang Jian” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” and any fantasy film involving a hunt for hidden treasure, no matter how substandard the storytelling is.

Chenxiang in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian” is just a mess of fantasy adventure clichés about a hero looking for a hidden treasure, and spells that must be broken. Eye-catching visuals can’t disguise the erratic storytelling and stupid dialogue. The movie’s world building is inadequately explained. The choppy editing seems intended for viewers with short attention spans, yet it still makes the story very dull.

Directed by Zhao Ji and written by Mu Chuan, “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a sequel to the 2021 animated film “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” also directed by Zhao and written by Mu. Both movies are loosely connected to each other in having the same concept of reincarnation/reinvention for their respective protagonist heroes, but both movies have completely self-contained plots. In other words, it’s not necessary to know anything about “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” before seeing “New Gods: Yang Jian.”

“New Gods: Yang Jian” takes place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties), but most of the story really takes place within a year in a place called the Immortal Realm. The movie has numerous flashbacks that jump around from different decades, thereby further muddling the already poorly constructed plot. A story about finding a hidden treasure should be fairly uncomplicated, but “New Gods: Yang Jian” gets sidetracked with many detours and convoluted explanations that are get quite irritating after a while, in this 126-minute movie that becomes a chore to watch.

In “New Gods: Yang Jian,” Erlang Shen, also known as Erlang Mu, is a poor bounty hunter who used to be a powerful god named Yang Jian. Thirteen years ago, when he was Yang Jian, he trapped his sister Yang Chan beneath a mountain, and Yang Jian was stripped of his powers. (It’s explained why in the last third of the movie.) Yang Jian’s sister has a 13-year-old son named Chenxiang. In the beginning of the movie, Yang Jian has not seen Chenxiang since Chenxiang was a baby.

One day, Erlang/Yang Jian is visited by a mysterious woman named Wanluo, who hires him to find her sister, who disappeared 12 years ago. Wanluo says that the Lamp of Universal Contentment, also known as a magical lotus lamp, was stolen from her sister, and she wants Erlang/Yang Jian to find this magical lamp too. Guess who else is looking for the lamp? Chenxiang, because he thinks getting the lamp will free his mother from the cave.

Other rivals want the lamp too. Erlang/Yang Jian’s adversaries include a hulking duo called the Mo Brothers and a powerful but drunken military general named Shen Gongbao, who used to be a mentor to Chenxiang. Shen Gongbao also has a grudge against Yang Jian. Some other characters appear along the way. One of them is Master Yuding, an elderly and wise teacher of Gold Sunset Cave. Yang Jian used to be a student of Master Yuding.

A major problem with “New Gods: Yang Jian” is that it zips around from one elaborately created location to the next in the Immortal Realm—sometimes with editing that’s so fidgety, a location is shown for less than three minutes before it’s on to the next location. Viewers will feel like visitors who are being rushed through a tour without getting enough time or enough explanation to learn more about each location in the Immortal Realm. These locations include Penglai Fairy Island, Square Pot, Yingzhou and Smuggler’s Point.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” has some unnecessary characters that have no real bearing on the main plot. For example, the beginning of the movie shows bounty hunter Erlang on Penglai Fairy Island, where he narrowly escapes death when a monster named Boss Hai comes after him with an axe. Erlang captures a teenage boy, who is called a “snake oil peddler” and listed as Medicine Boy in the movie’s end credits. Erlang puts Medicine Boy in jail on a ship. None of this action ultimately has any revelance to the outcome of the story. “New Gods: Yang Jian” shows this jailed teenager enough times, it looks he will play an important role in the movie, but he doesn’t.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” also has very unimpressive and sexist portrayals of the movie’s few women and girls, who are either depicted as femme fatales or subservient airheads. Another very unnecessary character is a teenage girl named Xiaotian, who is infatuated with Erlang/Yang Jian. Xiaotian worships him so much, she crawls on all fours when she’s around him, as if she’s a pet animal. The male characters treat her like a pathetic “fangirl” or “groupie.” This Xiaotian character is ultimately not needed at all in the movie, and neither is the misogyny that went into creating this degrading female character.

The hunt for the Lamp of Universal Contentment doesn’t feel like a treasure hunt in the movie but more like plot objective that gets shunted to the side when the movie has more rambling expositions and flashback scenes that clutter up the story. A huge chunk of the movie takes place on a ship (probably the least interesting location), when more time could have been spent in more fascinating-looking places, such as the Fairy Palace or the Square Pot Casino. All of the movie’s fight scenes, except for the final showdown, are very forgettable. As for the characters’ personalities, they are filled with stereotypes and have simple-minded conversations. There isn’t enough comic relief to make watching this shambling movie any easier.

The voices of the “New Gods: Yang Jian” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “New Gods: Yang Jian.” The original Chinese version (with English subtitles) has Wang Kai as Yang Jian, Li Lanling as Chenxiang, Ji Gwanling as Wanluo, Li Lihong as Master Yuding and Zhao Yi as Shen Gongbao. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Nicholas Andrew Louie as Yang Jian, Luke Naphat Sath as Chenxiang, Christine Lin as Wanluo, Parry Shen as Master Yuding and James Sie as Shen Gongbao.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” is the type of animated film that was made to appeal to a wide range of age groups. However, this movie is not going to be very enjoyable to most children under the age of 10, who will easily get restless or bored by a jumbled plot that requires comprehension usually found in people older than the age of 10. Even people who are old enough to understand the plot will get annoyed about how “New Gods: Yang Jian” takes a little over two hours to tell a story that could have been told in a movie that’s 45 minutes or less. “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a treasure-hunt movie that is ultimately not work seeking out by viewers who want to watch a thrilling animated adventure that tells a story in a cohesive and clever way.

GKIDS released “New Gods: Yang Jian” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022, and re-released the movie in U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023. “New Gods: Yang Jian” was released in China on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Give Me Five’ (2022), starring Chang Yuan, Ma Li and Wei Xiang

December 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Wei Xiang, Chang Yuan and Ma Li in “Give Me Five” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Give Me Five” (2022)

Directed by Zhang Luan

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in 2021, the 1980s and 1991, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Give Me Five” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After his 60-year-old father ends up in a hospital and is experiencing memory loss, a 30-year-old man unexpectedly finds out that he can travel back in time to the 1980s, where he meets his parents before they got married.

Culture Audience: “Give Me Five” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching amusing and occasionally poignant stories about time travel and family relationships.

Jia Bing and Chang Yuan in “Give Me Five” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Give Me Five” is a convoluted but overall entertaining comedy/drama that will get inevitable comparisons to “Back to the Future,” because of the plot about time travel that could affect the courtship of a man’s parents. The movie is good, but not great. The main difference between the two movies’ plots is that the protagonist in “Back to the Future” is aided by an eccentric scientist, whereas there is no such scientist character in “Give Me Five.”

Directed by Zhang Luan and written by Dong Tianyi, “Give Me Five” begins in 2021, with the introduction of the movie’s protoganst: Wu Xiao, also known as Xioawu (played by Chang Yuan), is a 30-year-old business entrepreneur in an unnamed city in China. After graduating from college, Xiao founded an e-sports training company that is struggling to be a financial success. Xiao has a volatile relationship with his widowed father Wu Hongqi (played by Wei Xiang), who is 60 years old and a retired engineer. Hongqi calls Xiao “useless” for hanging out at Internet cafes all day.

Xiao’s mother died in childbirth. Hongqi, who is a retired engineer, raised Xiao (who is an only child) and never remarried. Xiao says in a voiceover early in the movie: “He might have brought me up, but he’s never liked me. It’s as though we are arch-enemies.” Making things more complicated, Hongqi has been experiencing short-term memory loss, and he sometimes calls Xiao his “brother.”

Early in the movie, there’s another example of how Hongqi is forgetful. On Xiao’s birthday, Honqi asks Xiao to make a wish when Xiao blows out candles on his birthday cake. Xiao asks Honqi for ¥5,000 because Xiao wants to propose to his girlfriend Huahua, and he needs the money for the wedding. Honqi gives Xiao the money but then immediately forgets why. Xiao gets angry and yells at Honqi that if he and Huahua get married, they will be burdened with taking care of Honqi.

Tragedy strikes when Honqi accidentally falls into a river and ends up in a coma, in a hospital. Xiao is worried about his father. But because of their strained relationship, Xiao also complains to his comatose father that they can’t afford the hospital bill.

Honqi’s former co-worker named Qin Shiyu (played by Huang Yuntong), who is a female friend of his, visits Honqi in the hospital. She tells Xiao that when Honqi was younger, he liked Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, which Shiyu reads to Honqi in the hospital. This admiration for Rabindranath Tagore poetry becomes a key point in the movie’s plot.

Back at his family home, Xiao finds a ring, his mother’s diary and a bank account book showing a balance of ¥5,000. He opens the diary to find an entry dated May 30, 1986. And when Xiao, he finds himself transported back to that date. He ends up meeting his parents before they got married.

The rest of the movie shows Xiao traveling back and forth in time from the 1980s to 1991. He can control when he goes back in time, but he doesn’t know when he will be pulled back to the present day. During his time traveling, Xiao finds out that Honqi and Shiyu used to date each other when they were factory co-workers in the 1980s. At the time, Xiao’s mother Lau Chunli (played by Ma Li), also known as Daliu, was a technician at the same factory.

Because his parents don’t know that Xiao is their future son, Xiao presents himself as a new employee. Xiao ends up befriending Honqi, who is nerdy and very insecure about his relationship with Shiyu, who is ambitious and glamorous. Honqi thinks that Shiyu is out of his league and is afraid that she will break up with him.

Daliu is socially awkward and a little bit of a misfit at the factory. She has a crush on Honqi, but he’s so caught up in his relationship with Shiyu that he doesn’t immediately notice how Daliu feels about him. Meanwhile, a former co-worker named Qiang (played by Jia Bing), who was fired from the factory for stealing coal, reappears as a shady businessman with enough money to buy the factory. Qiang wants to make this purchase, but he if he buys the factory, then 2,000 employees will be laid off.

Once the time traveling part of “Give Me Five” happens, most of the movie is about how Xiao handles the love triangle between Honqi, Daliu and Shiyu. Should he interfere? And if he does, could it possibly prevent himself from being born? This time-travel experience also makes Xiao see his father in a different way. Xiao discovers that his father was a lot less confident in his 20s, compared to how Xiao perceived his father to be more self-assured when Honqi was that age.

“Give Me Five” has some deliberately goofy scenarios, and the film derives a lot of comedy from hairstyles, fashion and music from the 1980s. Some of the jokes are a little repetitive but nothing in this movie is so substandard that it’s a turnoff. The performances are engaging enough, with Chang showing talent in carrying most of the movie with his skills in comedy and drama. Even if people who’ve seen these types of movies can easily predict what will happen at the end, “Give Me Five” is sentimental without being too mawkish in its message about appreciating loved ones while they’re still alive and not misjudging them.

Well Go USA released “Give Me Five” in select U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Home Coming’ (2022), starring Zhang Yi, Wang Junkai and Yin Tao

November 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zhang Yi in “Home Coming” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Home Coming” (2022)

Directed by Rao Xiaozhi

Mandarin and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from February to March 2015, in China and the fictional Middle Eastern country of Numia, the action film “Home Coming” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Chinese diplomat and his colleagues desperately try to save about 125 Chinese citizens who are trapped in war-torn Numia.

Culture Audience: “Home Coming” will appeal primarily to fans of war movies that tell compelling stories where humanity is not lost amid all the brutal action.

Wang Junkai in “Home Coming” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Home Coming” piles on some plot twists that look overly manufactured for a movie. However, this action thriller succeeds in delivering heartfelt performances and gripping suspense from beginning to end. Some viewers might automatically dislike the movie if they think it’s nothing more than patriotic propaganda. However, there really isn’t any political preaching in the movie, which has a story that could apply to any nation with the resources and privileges to have diplomats who go on rescue missions.

Directed by Rao Xiaozhi, “Home Coming,” which takes place from February to March 2015, is essentially the story about how a group of Chinese diplomats try to rescue about 125 Chinese citizens who are trapped in a fictional, war-torn Middle Eastern country named Numia. Qin Haiyan, Shi Ce, Lei Zhilong and Bu Jingwei co-wrote the “Home Coming” screenplay. “Home Coming” is being marketed as “based on a true story,” although “Home Coming” doesn’t name any specific real-life people whose story is the basis of this movie. Certainly, the intent of the movie is to make viewers think about all the real-life innocent people who’ve been caught in the middle of warfare.

In the beginning of “Home Coming,” it’s the Chinese New Year in February 2015. Numia is in the midst of a civil war, with rebels fighting to take over the established government, which is led by a president that the rebels think is a dictator. The Chinese government has ordered all Chinese citizens to evacuate Numia. However, the plane flight carrying these evacuees is full. As a result, a group of Chinese diplomats had to stay behind in the Numia capital city of Laptis.

Chaos is everywhere in Numia, where deadly violence (such as bombs, arsons, shootings and stabbings) can happen to anyone at any time. In a car on its way to the Chinese embassy in Laptis are four Chinese diplomats who work for the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Consulate Protection Center. All four diplomats are among those who were left behind because of the full plane flight that carried other Chinese citizens out of Numia.

Zong Dawei (played by Zhang Yi), who is in his 40s and driving the car, is the hardest-working of these four diplomats. He has a stoic demeanor that gets tested as the situation becomes increasingly tense and dangerous. Dawei lives in Shanghai, where his wife Chen Yue (played by Wan Qian), also known as Yueer, is due to give birth in a few weeks. The baby will be the couple’s first child together.

Cheng Lang (played by Wang Junkai) is a 25-year-old “rookie” diplomat, who is the youngest of the four stranded diplomats. Lang is eager to impress his colleagues, but Dawei later questions Lang’s abilities to be a skilled negotiator in Numia because Lang doesn’t know how to speak Arabic. “Home Coming” has a somewhat predictable storyline with Lang and Dawei: The younger and less-experienced colleague tries to earn the respect of the older, jaded colleague.

Yan Xingzhou (played by Taishen Cheng) is an attorney who is in his 50s and is the oldest of the four men. Xingzhou is authoritative but he can be very impatient. In the car, he doesn’t like that it’s taking so long to get to the embassy, because of all the checkpoints, and he says he would rather just rent a car and drive to the destination himself. It’s a rather illogical plan because it would take too long to find a rental car in this chaos, and having a rental car doesn’t magically make the checkpoints disappear.

Zhang Ning (played by Zixian Zhang) is a secretary of state who is the fourth diplomat in this quartet of diplomats. Ning, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, is calm and even-tempered. He doesn’t get involved in the conflicts between Lang and Dawei. Ning has very mixed feelings about leaving Numia, because he has a daughter named Fatima (played by Elain Ahmed Lotf Rageh Algahefi), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Fatima was born in Numia, which is also the birthplace of Fatima’s mother.

Before Numia’s civil war, Ning assumed that Fatima would be raised in Numia. And now, he’s frantically trying to find Fatima, who has disappeared. Fatima’s mother has also gone missing. However, because Fatima is a citizen of Numia, not China, there’s a big question over whether or not she will be eligible to go with the Chinese evacuees.

Dawai, Lang and Ning have a harrowing experience on the way to the Chinese embassy in Lapsis: In the car, Lang was using a video camera to record some of the rebel soldier activity outside. However, some soldier see that they are being filmed, so they stop the car, confiscate Lang’s videocamera, and detain the diplomats, who are told they won’t be released until they pay a hefty fine.

But more hell breaks loose when the building where they’re being detained is explodes from a bomb. The three diplomats escape in a daze, as they see death and destruction around them. Somehow, they make it to the Chinese embassy, where they have an emergency meeting to plan what to do next. The embassy building has been locked down, but that doesn’t mean that the building is completely safe and secure.

Dawai, Lang and Ning find out that about 1,000 Chinese citizens have been detained at the border of Numia and Talisia, a fictional country that can provide temporary asylum to these refugees. Most of these detainees don’t have their passports, which were lost or left behind in the chaos of their emergency evacuations. The rest of “Home Coming” involves the efforts to save a specific group of 125 Chinese evacuees who have been hiding in an abandoned open-air marketplace. And, of course, not everyone makes it out alive.

Some of the people who are part of this harrowing experience include two friendly Numian drivers who help the Chinese diplomats: Hassan (played by Yves Finkel) and his trusted right-hand man Kamal (played by Ahmed Mohammed Jaber Alkalthoom). The diplomats are also helped by a local Numian named Vadir, an elderly man who says he’s politically neutral. The leader of the Chinese evacuees hidden in the marketing place is a no-nonsense woman named Bai Hua (played by Yin Tao), who has a compassionate female sidekick named Zhong Ranran (played by Amy Haoyu Chen), a Red Cross volunteer.

Although “Home Coming” is mostly about what happens in Numia, the movie reveals some of the personal problems that are part of Dawai’s and Lang’s lives in China. Dawai has spent nearly all of his career as a diplomat in war-torn countries. But now that he’s about to become a father, his wife Yue has been pressuring him to take a less-dangerous job. It’s caused tension in their marriage because Dawai doesn’t want to quit his job.

Meanwhile, Ranran and Lang, who are about the same age, become closer and seem to have a mutual attraction to each other. During one of their conversations, Lang opens up about have a strict father in the army “who cares more about medals than he cares about me.” Lang having “daddy issues” partially explains why he is insecure and almost desperate to get the approval of his older male colleagues, especially Dawai.

“Home Coming” gets very graphic in depicting the horrors of war. There are scenes of dismembered bodies strewn out on the street, people burning up in flames from bomb fires, children being separated from their families, and people being hunted down and shot like animals. The military leader of the rebels is a ruthless sadist named Muftah (played by Ivan Ponomarenko), who isn’t just brutally violent. Muftah also likes to play cruel mind games with his captives.

In a movie like “Home Coming,” it’s only a matter of time before there’s a showdown between the “heroes” and the “villains.” The movie has a few moments where it looks like a situation has been resolved, but then more terror happens. “Home Coming” definitely keeps viewers on edge, to immerse audiences in the feeling that being in a war-torn country often means living in a constant state of fear and dread.

The movie’s cinematography, production design and visual effects are well-done, with all of it looking realistic but also taking on surreal qualities to depict the shock that innocent people caught in this war zone must feel. “Home Coming” also succeeds in making viewers care about the film’s main and supporting characters, who are depicted in authentic-looking ways by the talented cast members. This is not a war movie that looks like a soulless video game.

However, sensitive viewers should be warned: “Home Coming” can get very violent and disturbing in showing some of the worst things that can happen in a war-torn country. The violence isn’t gratutitous but is meant to show in realistic ways that oftenimes, no amount of diplomatic work or political neutrality can protect people who are trapped in a war-torn country. The movie specifically portrays to what the Chinese government is capable of doing to evacuate its citizens in these situations, but “Home Coming” never lets audiences forget that not everyone trapped in a war zone will have diplomats working to save them.

CMC Pictures released “Home Coming” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Table for Six’ (2022), starring Dayo Wong, Louis Cheung, Chan Charm Man, Stephy Tang, Ivana Wong and Lin Min-Chen

November 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dayo Wong and Lin Min-Chen in “Table for Six” (Photo courtesy of GSC Movies)

“Table for Six” (2022)

Directed by Sunny Chan

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hong Kong, the comedy/drama film “Table for Six” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A photographer has a very awkward dinner with his two younger brothers and their girlfriends when he finds out that his middle brother’s new girlfriend is a woman he used to date, and he hasn’t completely gotten over their breakup.

Culture Audience: “Table for Six” will appeal primarily to fans of romantic comedy/dramas that look like they could be stage plays, but the movie tends to try too hard with its slapstick comedy and mushy dramatics.

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Stephy Tang, Louis Cheung, Ivana Wong and Chan Charm Man in “Table for Six” (Photo courtesy of GSC Movies)

“Table for Six” awkwardly mixes slapstick comedy and sentimental drama with uneven acting. It’s a trite movie where people get angry and uncomfortable about romantic relationships. The movie’s central conflict eventually becomes very stale and tiresome in a film that did not need to drag out for nearly two hours.

Written and directed by Sunny Chan, “Table for Six” (which takes place in Hong Kong) starts out as a jumbled mess as it introduces the six characters who are at the center of the story.

  • Steve Chan (played by Dayo Wong), a middle-aged photographer who used to be famous, is the eldest of three bachelor brothers. He lives in an apartment that used to be a barbeque pork factory, which he inherited from his deceased parents.
  • Bernard Chan (played by Louis Cheung, also known as Louis Cheong Kai Chung) is Steve’s stepbrother, who is in his early 40s. Bernard’s biological mother was married to Steve’s biological father.
  • Lung Chan (played by Chan Charm Man, also known as Peter Chan Charm Man), an aspiring e-sports star in his 30s, is the younger half-brother of Steve and Bernard. Lung and Steve have the same biological father. Lung and Bernard have the same biological mother.
  • Monica (played by Stephy Tang), a marketing executive, is Steve’s ex-girlfriend and is now Bernard’s girlfriend.
  • Josephine (played by Ivana Wong), an aspiring chef, is Lung’s girlfriend of 12 years, and she has grown frustrated that he hasn’t proposed marriage to her yet.
  • Meow Ah (played by Lin Min-Chen), originally from Taiwan, is a model who is a cat enthusiast (she likes to dress in cat-decorated clothes and costumes), who is hired by Lung to be a mascot, and she becomes Steve’s casual girlfriend.

With a few exceptions, “Table for Six” takes place mostly in Steve’s apartment, where he has a home photography studio. Steve prides himself on being an excellent cook who likes to prepare the meals when he has dinner parties. The main conflict in the movie happens at one of these dinner parties.

Before that fateful dinner party happens, “Table for Six” has a flurry of activity that is scrambled together with a lot of sniping back and forth between Lung and Josephine. Lung wants to get rich from e-sports, but so far, he’s basically unemployed and nearly financially broke. “My e-sports team is headed for glory,” he tells Steve. “All we need is funding.”

Josephine is upset because Lung doesn’t have a steady income, which means they can’t really afford to get married. She nags him about it and keeps hinting that she’ll break up with him if he doesn’t find a steady job and propose marriage to her. Lung gets angry because he thinks Josephine doesn’t have enough faith and patience.

Meanwhile, Lung sees that Meow is a popular influencer on social media, so he comes up with the idea to hire her to be the mascot for his e-sports team. He asks Meow to come to Steve’s place for a photo shoot. During this photo shoot, where Meow poses with a kitchen container (which doesn’t make sense if she’s supposed to be an e-sports mascot), she flirts with Steve because she’s had a crush on him since she was a child.

Steve then remembers fan mail that Meow wrote to him years ago, when she signed the letters as Kitty Cat. It’s obvious that Meow wants to date Steve, but he tells her up front that he’s not ready to be in a relationship. That’s because Steve is still heartbroken over the end of his relationship with Monica, whom he considers to be the love of his life. One of the few scenes that takes place outside the apartment shows that Monica is a hard-driving employee who yells at her co-workers if things aren’t up to her standards.

One evening, Steve has a small dinner party with Bernard, Lung and Josephine as guests. But an uninvited guest shows up: Monica. And she drops some bombshell news. She is Bernard’s girlfriend. Monica and Bernard have been dating each other for an unspecified period of time. It’s the first time that Steve finds out about this relationship.

Naturally, Steve is upset, but then he pretends that’s he’s okay with Monica and Bernard dating each other. (Deep down, Steve really isn’t okay with it.) Bernard tells Steve that he’s sorry that he didn’t tell Steve earlier about being in a relationship with Monica. Steve appears to forgive Bernard, but during the course of the movie, Steve’s lingering romantic feelings for Monica, as well as Steve’s resentment toward Bernard, eventually come to the surface.

Because of Lung’s financial problems, Steve generously lets Lung and Josephine move in with him, on the condition that they work for Steve as his assistants. He’s in for a shock when he finds out that Josephine is a huge collector of Hong Kong decorations and trinkets, which she brings with her when she and Lung move into the already cramped apartment. Steve’s surprise about Josephine’s collection is supposed to be a funny sight gag in the movie, but the joke just falls flat.

Most of “Table for Six” is about the love triangle between Steve, Monica and Bernard. Steve has been pining for Monica, and he wants to win her back. Monica seems to show hints that she’s interested in Bernard and Steve. Up until a certain point, Monica keeps people guessing about which brother she will choose. Meanwhile, Lung and Josephine continue to bicker about where their own relationship is headed. As for Meow, she shows up once in a while like a fangirl who wants any type of attention from Steve, even though she eventually finds out that he’s still got feelings for Monica.

All of these love entanglements could have been made into a well-written comedy/drama with clever dialogue, but the movie’s scenes are either very mediocre or they try too hard to have over-the-top physical comedy. There’s a very unrealistic sequence where, during a very petty argument, everyone in the room suddenly starts smashing things. It only seems to be in the movie for some slapstick comedy that looks very ill-placed.

Another problem with this movie is that the chemistry isn’t very believable or appealing between the cast members portraying the couples, who are all mismatched characters. Monica seems to be too selfish and flaky for Bernard and Steve. Meow (who’s about 25 to 30 years younger than Steve) is infatuated with Steve, based more on fan worship than a real romance. Lung and Josephine are the type of argumentative couple who probably shouldn’t get married because they just aren’t very compatible with each other.

What makes “Table for Six” grating is that it becomes repetitive very quickly. It doesn’t help that the conversations are witless and forgettable. None of the acting by the cast is special. The entire movie might have been better as a short film.

After trying to overstuff the plot with the back-and-forth contrivances and friction over the story’s love triangle, “Table for Six” then takes complicated issues and turns them into over-simplified resolutions and schmaltz. It leaves the movie with a tone that’s very off-balance. Some viewers might enjoy this disjointed movie, but others who are looking for a more compelling story, interesting conversations and engaging characters will not be as impressed with “Table for Six.”

GSC Movies released “Table for Six” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie was released in China, Hong Kong and Singapore on September 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Moon Man’ (2022), starring Shen Teng and Ma Li

September 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

King Kong Roo and Shen Teng in “Moon Man” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“Moon Man” (2022)

Directed by Zhang Chiyu

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 2033, and briefly in 2043, on the moon and on Earth, the sci-fi/comedy/drama film “Moon Man” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A maintenance worker, who’s part of an astronaut crew on the moon, accidentally gets left behind on the moon in an emergency departure, and he becomes a symbol of hope after Earth experiences an apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “Moon Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of sci-fi movies and movies about human survival that blend goofy comedy with poignant drama.

Ma Li in “Moon Man” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

Although the comedy in “Moon Man” sometimes gets a little too silly and repetitive for its own good, this sci-fi flick has enough memorable characters, intriguing plot developments, and heartfelt dramatic moments to be entertaining and emotionally stirring. “Moon Man” is not the type of movie that will win major awards for technical achievements or acting. It’s a crowd-pleasing film that takes some familiar elements of “stranded survivor” stories and delivers a unique spin that people of many different generations can enjoy.

Written and directed by Zhang Chiyu, “Moon Man” is based on South Korean illustrator Cho Seok’s comic book series “Moon You.” The movie alternates between showing what happens on the moon and what happens on Earth. “Moon Man” begins in 2033, by showing an astronaut team from China that’s stationed on the moon for an exploration project called UNMS Project.

There are 300 people on this team. Their mission is to explore the moon and look into possibilities that the moon could be inhabited by human beings, in case there’s an apocalypse on Earth. A massive meteorite has been detected in the universe, and scientist believe that this meteorite is headed in Earth’s direction. The team’s temporary moon home is named UNMS Base.

One of the people on the team is Dugu Yue (played by Shen Teng), who is considered to be one of the lowest-ranking team members because he’s a maintenance worker. Dugu Yue is a “regular guy” who is often ignored by the higher-ranked members of the team. He has a secret crush on the team’s no-nonsense leader, Ma Lanxing (played by Ma Li), a female astronaut who doesn’t think much of Dugu Yue in the beginning of the story.

One day, all of the UNMS Project spaceships are summoned to return to Earth for an emergency: the detected meteorite is heading to Earth much earlier than expected. In the chaos that ensues, Dugu Yue is out driving in his moon buggy, when all the spaceships leave, and he is accidentally left behind on the now-abandoned UNMS Base. Dugu Yue feels hurt and rejected. He tries to communicate with the command station on Earth, but the communication equipment doesn’t work. (He finds out why, later in the movie.)

Dugu Yue can see Earth from where he is on the moon. His hope of being rescued gets crushed when sees that shortly after his colleagues have landed on Earth, the meteorite has hit Earth, and large portions of Earth have exploded. Dugu Yue has no idea how many people survived, but it’s obvious that Earth is now experiencing an apocalypse.

It turns out that most of Dugu Yue’s colleagues did survive. They are holed up in an astronaut compound, where they can see and hear Dugu Yue on video monitors, but he can’t see and hear them. Ma Lanxing is one of the survivors.

Dugu Yue has plenty of food and water to last for several months, but he has to find a way to survive on his own until he can go back to Earth. It’s later revealed in the movie that when he was living on Earth, Dugu Yue was a loner who had no friends, loved ones or other family members for most of his childhood into his adulthood. His lonely life explains why no one except his colleagues are the only ones who know or care that he’s stranded on the moon.

Left to his own devices, Dugu Yue initially tries to have as much fun by himself. He does some moon-crater “surfing” on a snowboard, but he takes more than a few tumbles. He tries to hack into his colleagues’ computer equipment that was left behind. And he creates a life-sized cardboard replica of a human body and places a photo of Ma Lanxing’s face on this replica.

This makeshift replica of Ma Lanxing becomes Dugu Yue’s “companion.” He eats meals with it propped up in a nearby chair, and he talks to it like as if it were really Ma Lanxing. During one of these meals, Ma Lanxing confessions to the replica that he’s had a longtime crush on Ma Lanxing. And then he takes some ketchup, puts it on Ma Lanxing’s replica face, and licks the ketchup off of her face.

Meanwhile, Ma Lanxing and her colleagues in the video monitor room are watching these private moments, unbeknownst to Dugu Yue. Most of the colleagues are amused, but Ma Lanxing is not. She’s mortified and embarrassed.

During this apocalypse, many of Earth’s survivors are experiencing despair and depression. Ma Lanxing comes up with an idea that she thinks can bring hope to Earth’s remaining people: She wants to use Dugu Yue as an example of someone who is a hero survivor on the moon.

Ma Lanxing wants to livestream Dugu Yue’s activities to the people on Earth. She also concocts the idea to have a voice actor(played by Huang Zitao) play the role of Dugu Yue, in order to fabricate things that she wants people to think Dugu Yue is saying. It’s a plan that’s so absurd, it works best in an intentional comedy film such as “Moon Man.”

Ma Lanxing reports to Sun Guangyang (played by Li Chengru), the U.N. Shield Contact chairman, who goes along with the idea, with some hesitation and concern that this hoax might backfire. Another colleague who’s on board for this plan is mild-mannered and compassionate Wei Lasi (played by Lamu Yangzi, also known as Jackie Li) and her brash and disrespectful co-worker Zhu Pite (played by Yuan Chang), who is one of the first people to laugh when Dugu Yue does something to embarrass himself.

Meanwhile, Dugu Yue finds out that he’s not alone on UNMS Base. A very special kangaroo has been left behind. This kangaroo is highly intelligent and has very human-like mannerisms. (Fortunately, “Moon Man” does not make the kangaroo an animal that can talk in a human language. We have more than enough movies about talking animals.) Predictably, Dugu Yue and this feisty kangaroo, which he calls King Kong Roo, end up clashing with each other in many comedic moments.

“Moon Man” has several scenes involving slapstick comedy between Dugu Yue and King Kong Roo. The movie’s visual effects look convincing for the space exploration parts of the movie. The visual effects for the King Kong Roo aren’t entirely convincing all the time and can be distracting.

The movie goes in some directions that are more amusing that others. The relationship between Dugu Yue and King Kong Rue takes up a lot of the “Moon Man” story, but viewers will also notice how this “odd couple” also affects the people who are watching on Earth. Ma Lanxing starts off thinking that Dugu Yue is a buffoon, but over time, she begins to respect Dugu Yue.

Shen Teng anchors “Moon Man” with a performance showing his impressive skills at physical comedy, as well as emotional gravitas. The rest of the cast members also do well in their roles. However, Shen’s versatile performance as Dugu Yue will get the biggest reactions from viewers. His lead performance is also the most memorable thing about “Moon Man.”

Doing a comedy/drama movie about an apocalypse is a tricky balance that most films cannot achieve. “Moon Man” has some cringeworthy flaws, but the movie mostly succeeds in mixing comedy/drama tones without making the story too ridiculous or too serious. It’s ultimately a movie that has as much to say about the pitfalls of elevating false idols as it does about how people can find true heroes within themselves.

Tiger Pictures Entertainment released “Moon Man” in select U.S. cinemas on August 2, 2022. The movie was released in China on July 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Almost Love’ (2022), starring Li Wenhan and Xu Ruohan

September 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Xu Ruohan and Li Wenhan in “Almost Love” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Almost Love” (2022)

Directed by Luo Luo 

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in China’s Shanghai area, from 2009 to 2017, the dramatic film “Almost Love” has an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young man and woman have an on-again/off-again love affair, beginning when they were teenagers, and their romance is hindered by various outside influences.

Culture Audience: “Almost Love” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic dramas that take place over several years and have good acting.

Li Wenhan and Xu Ruohan in “Almost Love” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Almost Love” has some moments that veer from bland to overly sappy, but this drama overall has realistic portrayals of an on-again/off-again romance. It’s an emotionally poignant story about a young couple whose love affair is affected by outside influences, such as career pressures and parental disapproval. “Almost Love” retreads a lot of familiar territory and tropes that are in several movies about young lovers who break up, make up, and aren’t sure if their relationship will last. If not for the engaging acting from the movie’s cast members, “Almost Love” would be a lot duller than it needed to be.

Directed by Luo Luo (who co-wrote the “Almost Love” screenplay with Zhai Pei), “Almost Love” takes place mostly in China’s Shanghai area, from 2009 to 2017. In 2009, Yu Jiaoyang (played by Xu Ruohan) is in her last year of high school, where she is a social outcast. Yu Jiaoyang has the unflattering nickname Ash-bin because she comes from a poor family.

Yu Jiaoyang has a crush on a classmate named Zhou Can (played by Li Wenhan), who is a handsome, affluent and talented aspiring artist. To her surprise, Zhou Can is attracted to Yu Jiaoyang too, and they begin dating each other. Zhou Can defends Yu Jiaoyang when she is bullied or teased at school. But when two people from very different social classes have a romance, you know what that means: At least one person in the couple’s inner circles will disapprove of the relationship.

In the case of Zhou Can, the disapproval mostly comes from his domineering mother (played by Qing Wei), who unfairly judges Yu Jiaoyang as a trashy gold digger without even taking the time to get to know Yu Jiaoyang. His mother, who insults Yu Jiaoyang to her face, also thinks that Yu Jiaoyang is a “bad influence” on Zhou Can, even though Yu Jiaoyang is actually a polite and friendly person who doesn’t get into trouble. Zhou Can’s mother constantly berates him for dating Yu Jiaoyang, until he reaches a point where he tries to hide his dating activities from his mother.

Yu Jiaoyang has her own family issues: Her parents are dead. Yu Jiaoyang’s grandmother, who’s been her guardian, is ailing. Yu Jiaoyang tries to put forth a cheerful image to the world. However, her grandmother’s health problems have caused Yu Jiaoyang a lot of stress that she tries to hide from people. Zhou Can becomes Yu Jiaoyang’s closest confidant, and she opens up to him about a lot of things in her life, including her fear about losing her grandmother.

One of the other personal issues that Yu Jiaoyang tells Zhou Can about is the true story of what really happened in a notorious incident that Yu Jiaoyang was involved in at her previous high school. In this incident, Yu Jiaoyang had an outburst in class during an exam and ripped up the exam papers of a fellow student. Yu Jiaoyang got into trouble and was branded as emotionally unstable, which is a reputation that followed her to her current school that she attends with Zhou Can.

Yu Jiaoyang tells Zhou Can the secret that’s the real reason why she destroyed a fellow student’s exam papers. This secret is shown in a flashback but won’t be revealed in this review. When Zhou Can finds out this secret, it makes him admire Yu Jiaoyang even more, because it involves a sacrifice that Yu Jiaoyang made for a friend, at the risk of Yu Jiaoyang’s academic status and personal reputation.

Because “Almost Love” is a romantic drama, the movie has some scenes that are corny but can be endearing to viewers. For example, early on in their romance, Zhou Can enters the Shanghai Arts Exhibition Competition. To cheer him along, Yu Jiaoyang surprises him by showing up at the building where the competition is taking place. It’s raining outside, and to protect herself from getting wet, Yu Jiaoyang wears a trash bin with an opening for her eyes and nose.

From inside the building, Zhou Can sees Yu Jiaoyang running in the rain and calling out his name and winning him good luck in the competition. He eventually joins her outside by wearing the same type of trash bin, and they hold hands as they run in the rain together. There’s no explanation for where these unusual trash bins came from and why Zhou Can sees Yu Jiaoyang couldn’t just use umbrellas. Viewers will just have to go along with it as a cute romantic gesture that Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang demonstrate to each other,

“Almost Love” spends lot of time on the angst that Zhou Can goes through to pursue is dream of becoming a visual artist whose specialty is painted illustrations. His parents disapprove of this career choice because they think it’s unstable and doesn’t pay enough money. Yu Jiaoyang is fully supportive of Zhou Can, but his insecurities often get in the way of their relationship being taken to the level that Yu Jiaoyang wants.

Yu Jiaoyang often has fantasies of getting engaged to and married to Zhou Can. Whether or not those dreams come true is eventually shown in the movie. After Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can graduate from high school, he struggles with his career choice and often withholds his feelings from Yu Jiaoyang, who wants Zhou Can to open up to her more than he does. Yu Jiaoyang feels insulted by Zhou Can’s emotional aloofness when she thinks they should become closer as a couple, so it leads to arguments and the couple’s first major breakup.

Zhou Can and Yu Jiaoyang eventually reconcile with each other. Yu Jiaoyang gets a well-paying office job, while Zhou Can’s career as an artist is floundering. And just like in a real life, when one partner makes a lot more money than another partner in a love couple, it can lead to problems and a power imbalance.

Zhou Can’s parents have cut him off financially, and he feels insecure about Yu Jiaoyang making money than he does. Zhou Can doesn’t want to marry Yu Jiaoyang unless he’s the main breadwinner in the household. Meanwhile, Yu Jiaoyang feels like she’s ready to marry Zhou Can, who puts off talk about marriage with her as much as possible. Zhou Can’s avoidance of discussing marriage to Yu Jiaoyang leads to more arguments, and you can easily predict the rest.

Even though Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can clearly love each other, one of the best things about “Almost Love” is showing that real love might not always be happen at the right time and with the right person to make the relationship last. The love story of Yu Jiaoyang and Zhou Can has its ups and downs that are portrayed by Xu Ruohan and Li Wenhan in ways that look natural, not over-acted. The best scenes in the movie are in the last 20 minutes. The writing and directing of “Almost Love” are perfectly adequate, but viewers will be emotionally touched the most by the lead cast members’ performances, which impressively show how people’s views of love and heartbreak can change with age and emotional maturity.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Almost Love” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022. The movie was released in China on August 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Lighting Up the Stars,’ starring Zhu Yilong, Yang Enyou, Wang Ge and Luo Jingmin

August 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zhu Yilong and Yang Enyou in “Lighting Up the Stars” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Lighting Up the Stars”

Directed by Liu Jiangjiang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019, in Wuhan, China, the comedy/drama film “Lighting Up the Stars” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor ex-convict, who has taken over his family’s mortuary/funeral business, has his life turned upside down when he ends up taking care of an orphaned girl. 

Culture Audience: “Lighting Up the Stars” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies that skillfully blend drama and comedy in telling stories about families and unexpected changes in life.

Zhu Yilong and Luo Jingmin in “Lighting Up the Stars” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Lighting Up the Stars” is a charming comedy/drama about the complications of love, getting second chances in life, and coping with loss. This gem of a movie presents a memorable story about an ex-con who becomes a father figure to an orphaned girl. It’s the type of subject matter that could have easily been mishandled by being too melodramatic or by being a silly slapstick comedy. However, “Lighting Up the Stars” depicts life’s ups and downs with a realistic balance, while the movie’s talented cast members bring emotional authenticity that’s highly commendable.

Written and directed by Liu Jiangjiang, “Lighting Up the Stars” takes place in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, at the beginning of the COVID-19 virus infections, when the city had not yet been placed under the lockdown that occurred in January 2020. Two very different strangers will soon find themselves in each other’s lives and will never be the same again. These two people are the movie’s central characters.

The movie’s first central character is an ex-convict named Mo Sanmei (played by Zhu Yilong), nicknamed San, a never-married bachelor in his 30s. San has recently gotten out of prison for assaulting the lover of his ex-girlfriend, who cheated on San with this lover. San’s widowed father (played by Luo Jingmin), who goes by the name Old Mo in the movie, thinks San is a disappointment to the family, which also includes San’s younger sister Mo Dajie (played by Zheng Weili). However, Old Mo is about to retire from owning and operating a mortuary/funeral business, and he wants San to take over this small business, which is literally a funeral home, since it’s where San lives after he gets out of prison.

The movie’s second central character is a precocious 4-year-old girl named Wu Xiaowen (played by Yang Enyou), who has been raised by her grandmother. Xiaowen doesn’t know if her biological parents are dead or alive. All she knows is that her parents are not in her life, and her grandmother is the only parental figure whom Xiaowen has had so far. In the beginning of the movie, Xiaowen tragically finds her grandmother deceased in the grandmother’s bed.

San and Xiaowen cross paths at the funeral for Xiaowen’s grandmother because the Mo family morturary/funeral business has been hired for the grandmother’s cremation and funeral. Xiaowen’s uncle (played by Chen Chuang) and his wife have taken temporary custody of Xiaowen. However, these spouses don’t really want permanent custody because they’ve been having marital problems, and they’re not prepared to take care of any children.

Shortly after the funeral, Xiaowen’s uncle and aunt stop by the Mo family’s funeral home and quickly tell San that they need him to look after Xiaowen for a few days. San says he’s not operating an orphanage (something he will say multiple times in the movie), but Xiaowen’s aunt and uncle don’t give him any time to turn down their request. The spouses leave Xiawoen, hand over some cash to San, and then exit in a hurry.

During the first day and night that San has to take care of Xiaowen, she meets his two employees, who are also San’s closest friends: cheerful and kind Wang Jianren (played by Wang Ge) and his practical-minded girlfriend Yin Baixue (played by Liu Lu), whose romantic relationship becomes more serious as the story continues. Jianren also lives at the funeral home. While the four of them are spending time together, San finds out that Xiaowen loves to play Mahjong, has a talent for drawing art, and that Xiaowen had a very close and loving relationship with her protective grandmother.

But the first night for Xiaowen at this funeral home gets awkward. In the cramped bedroom, there’s a bunk bed where San is sleeping on the bottom, while Xiaowen is sleeping on the top. He’s woken up by something dripping on his face. It’s Xiaowen urinating in her bed. San is immediately irritated because he thinks that this kid isn’t potty-trained. It turns out that Xiaowen is potty-trained, but she explains that she was afraid to use the toilet in the nearby bathroom because she thinks a statue placed in front of the bathroom is scary-looking.

Xiaowen’s bodily functions are used in another comedic scene, but these bodily function scenes are not exploitative. The scenes are a little crude, but the purpose is to poke fun at the adult characters who are not very prepared to care of a very young child. The only viewers who might be offended by these bodily function scenes are people who don’t want movies to ever acknowledge that human bodily functions exist for urination and defecation.

Xiaowen has not been given a proper explanation about her grandmother’s death. She thinks San is holding her grandmother captive in a funeral casket. And so, for a good deal of the movie, Xiaowen demands that San give her grandmother back to her. San has no patience or experience in taking care of children, so he gets annoyed and frustrated with Xiaowen, whom he sometimes calls a “little devil” who was sent to torture him.

Eventually, San abruptly tells Xiaowen the truth about her grandmother’s death after he gets tired of her accusing him of kidnapping the grandmother. (This conversation is already shown in one of the trailers for “Lighting Up the Stars.”) San and Xiaowen are outside, and he shows her the chimney of the Mo family crematorium. He then angrily tells Xiaowen that her grandmother was burned up, her body turned into “ash and smoke, drifted up into the sky, and disappeared.”

Xiaowen is understandably devastated by the news, especially since San told her in such a harsh way. But it’s a turning point in the relationship, because Xiaowen doesn’t want to live with her quarelling aunt and uncle. Xiaowen is given the choice to live with her aunt and uncle, or to live with San. She chooses to stay with San, whom she eventually begins to think of as a father figure. None of this is spoiler information, because these plot developments are already revealed in the trailers for “Lighting Up the Stars.”

The movie gets a tad predictable in showing how San eventually grows emotionally attached to Xiaowen. However, what’s less predictable and more realistic about “Lighting Up the Stars” is that the presence of an innocent child like Xiaowen doesn’t automatically erase San’s personal demons. He’s a very troubled person with a violent temper and a lot of emotional baggage.

For example, near the beginning of the movie, one of the first things that San does when he gets out of prison is make an unannounced and uninvited visit to his ex-girlfriend Hai Fei (played by Li Chun’ai), who was in the love triangle that resulted in San assaulting her lover, whose name is Laoliu. San is still very angry and bitter over the breakup with Fei, and he gets aggressive with her (he yells at her and pushes her) when he goes to her home.

Fei is still in a relationship with the Laoliu, who is in the home and sees San assaulting Fei. Laoliu and San then get into a physical fight, which results in Laoliu beating up San, who then leaves the home in humiliated defeat. Fei and Laoliu decide not to have San arrested. They just want him out of their lives. San still struggles with his heartbreak over losing Fei, and this grief comes out when he verbally lashes out at the people who are closest to him.

San also has a love/hate relationship with his father Old Mo. When San was a child, he had an older brother who died tragically. (The details of this death are revealed in the movie.) San feels as if Old Mo still loves the deceased brother more than Old Mo loves San. The movie hints that San’s inferiority complex partially explains why San became a troublemaker later in life, because he felt that he was going to be a disappointment to his family anyway.

San also has mixed feelings about taking over the family’s mortuary/funeral business. In the beginning of the movie, San plans to immediately sell the business. But because San is kind of a screw-up, something happens to the deed paperwork, so San reluctantly stays on to operate the business. Xiaowen ends up affecting San and the business in ways that he does not expect.

One of the best things about “Lighting Up the Stars” is that there isn’t a single scene that looks like a useless “throwaway” scene that was put in the movie just to fill up time. San and Xiaowen go on an emotional journey that is realistically fraught with discomfort, grief and irritation. But there’s also a tenderness to how their family relationship develops, as they both begin to understand that they are emotionally wounded people going through different kinds of emotional pain.

Zhu (as San) and Yang (as Xiaowen) absolutely shine in these roles, which are the heart and soul of “Lighting Up the Stars.” Zhu gives an admirable performance of a hardened ex-con who evolves into someone who finds out that he’s capable of having the type of parental love that he didn’t think he was capable of having. There’s also a subplot with San and his father that is very well-written and acted in a poignant way.

Yang, who is very talented at facial expressions, is an utter delight to watch, since she is the very definition of a “scene stealer.” Only people with the hardest of hearts won’t be charmed by her performance. Xiaowen can sometimes be bratty, but she’s also very smart, loving, and emotionally intelligent. And it’s not in an “only in a movie” way, but in a way where the Xiaowen character is convincing as someone with a fully formed personality.

“Lighting Up the Stars” has several twists and turns (some more unexpected than others) that will hold viewers’ interest for the entire story. The movie also has character details that are noticeable, but the movie doesn’t hit viewers over the head to notice these details. For example, when San and his father sit down, they both have a habit of bending one of their legs to prop up on the seat where they’re sitting. It’s a quirk that Xiaowen notices too, and it’s shown in a touching way at the end of the movie.

Overall, “Lighting Up the Stars” is a rare movie that is a well-made, live-action family film that can appeal to people from a wide variety of age groups and cultures—without being corny, preachy or unrealistic. The tearjerking scenes and the comedic scenes look natural, not manipulative. And the stellar performances by the cast members (especially Zhu and Yang) give “Lighting Up the Stars” an impressive resonance that will stay with viewers long after the movie ends.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Lighting Up the Stars” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie was released in China on June 24, 2022.

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