Review: ‘Ride On,’ starring Jackie Chan, Liu Haocun and Guo Qilin

April 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jackie Chan in “Ride On” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA and Shanghai Pictures)

“Ride On”

Directed by Larry Yang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities in China, the comedy/drama film “Devil’s Peak” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A has-been stunt man gets his beloved stunt horse taken away from him as part of a debt collection, and he fights to get the horse back with the help of his formerly estranged daughter and her attorney boyfriend. 

Culture Audience: “Ride On” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jackie Chan and movies about close relationships between intelligent pet horses and their devoted owners.

Liu Haocun in “Ride On” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA and Shanghai Pictures)

“Ride On” is unapologetically sentimental, but it’s mushy in all the right places. This comedy/drama could have used better film editing, but people who like movies about lovable horses should find something to like about “Ride On.” Yes, it’s one of those movies where visual effects, animal tricks and strategic film editing make the horse act more “human” than a horse would in real life, but the horse in the movie is so charming, it’s easy to go along with this fairy-tale-like story.

Written and directed by Larry Yang, “Ride On” begins by showing that divorced, middle-aged Lao Luo Zilong (played by Jackie Chan), also known as Luo, is a longtime stunt performer who has recently fallen on hard times. Luo and his longtime stunt horse Red Hare aren’t working as much as they used to because many filmmakers are using digital visual effects, instead of practical effects, for their movie stunts. Luo has an “old school” mentality and stubbornly refuses to accept these changes in moviemaking. To make money, he tres to get tourists to pose for photos with him an Red Hare at the movie studio where he and he horse did a lot of stunt work.

Luo is heavily in debt for a few reasons other than not working as much as he used to work. Those other reasons are explained later in the movie. As a result of his debt, Luo has been living in a ramshackle barn with Red Hare. Luo has been in a dispute with a corporation called DY Capital that has won a lawsuit to seize Luo’s assets. One day, debt collectors arrive and take away Red Hare, despite Luo’s vigorous attempts to prevent them from removing his beloved horse.

Luo’s estranged daughter Xiao Bao (played by Liu Haocun), who is a law student her 20s, happens to see Luo on day in a pathetic situation where he is practically begging people to pose for photos with him and Red Hare. Bao has a lot of bitterness toward her father, who has been mostly out of her life since Bao’s parents split up when she was a child. Bao’s deceased mother passed away from an unnamed terminal illness. Flashbacks show that Luo was mostly an absentee dad because of his busy work schedule and because he was unreliable when it came to spending quality time with his mother.

Bao and her mother eventually didn’t really want him around because of Luo’s pattern of not keeping his promises. Luo’s visitations with Luo became filled with more tension and became less frequent as their estrangement grew. Luo has been so out of touch with what’s going on in Bao’s recent life, he’s surprised when she tells him that she’s has a boyfriend.

Bao’s boyfriend, who’s about the same age as he is, happens to be a fairly new attorney. His name is Lu Naihua, also known as Mickey (played by Guo Qilin), who is sweet and very nerdy. As a stunt man, Luo is athletic and not afraid of taking physical risks. Mickey is almost the opposite, so there are a few comical scenes of Luo teaching a fumbling Mickey how to do things such as martial arts and horse riding.

When Luo confides in Bao about his financial problems and how he wants to get Red Hare back, at first Bao wants nothing do with helping Luo. But then, she changes her mind and says that she and Mickey will help Lao. A video of Luo and Red Hare resisting the debt collectors goes viral on the Internet, and most of the public sides with Luo. DY Capital still fights to keep Red Hare, so the dispute ends up in court. All of this information is already revealed in the trailer for “Ride On.”

Even though Luo is broke, he has two loyal apprentices who become part of the shenanigans that ensue: goofy Yuanjie (played by Wu Jing) and his no-nonsense wife Yingzi (played by Joey Yung). The two spouses helped take care of Red Hare, so they care very attached to the horse too. The movie’s “villain” is He Xin (played by Yu Rongguang), the wealthy CEO of DY Capital.

“Ride On” could have taken any number of different narratives to get to the inevitable ending. The movie doesn’t show a lot of preparation for the courtroom battle over Red Hare. Instead, “Ride On” shows a lot of flashbacks of how the relationship developed over the years between Luo and Red Hare at almost the same time that Luo’s relationship with Bao was falling apart.

There’s a very poignant scene where Luo first saw Red Hare, who was born with a lung problems and a leg deformity and was expected to undergo euthanasia until Luo intervened. The bond between Luo and Red Hare was immediate. Luo personally helped Red Hare get physically rehabilitated and then trained as a stunt performer.

The movie has more impactful scenes of a younger Bao experiencing heartache over her strained relationship with her father, while Luo feels guilt and shame for not being able to be the father that he knows he should be. Bao and Luo’s relationship continues to go through ups and downs during the course of the movie, since they have a lot of issues that don’t go away after they’ve reconciled.

As adorable as many of the horse scenes are, “Ride On” stumbles when it comes to the flashback stunt scenes, which look very fake. (A lot of obvious visual effects were used for gravity-defying stunts.) The movie should have stuck more to realism in these stunt scenes, instead of making Red Hare look like some kind of superhero horse. It’s ironic that Ride On” relies so much on these stunt visual effects, which is the same kind of filmmaking that has put stunt performers such as Luo and Red Hare out of work. Shi Yanneng has a supporting role in “Ride On” as Dawei, a former protégé of Luo’s who tries to help Luo find stunt work in a new movie.

Because of the sometimes choppy film editing, the flashbacks don’t flow as smoothly as it could for the movie’s overall narrative. At a certain point, “Ride On” becomes too caught up in the flashbacks, and viewers will be wondering when the movie is going to get to the dispute between Luo and DY Capital over who will get to keep Red Hare. Some of Luo’s flashbacks are actually clips from Chan’s real-life past movies, which can be unnecessary distractions that take viewers out of this fictional story.

Despite its flaws, “Ride On” keeps a brisk pace and has balanced mix of comedy and drama. The cast members’ performances are good but not outstanding. It’s a mostly enjoyable film for people who want to see a positive story where a domesticated pet is treated like a member of a human family, and human family members find a new way to connect with each other.

Well Go USA released “Ride On” in select U.S. cinemas, and Shanghai Pictures released the movie in China on April 7, 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. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 9, 2023.

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: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin II,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jing Wu, Zhu Yawen and Jackson Yee in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea, China, Japan and the United States, in December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

Steven John Venn in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” should have the more accurate title of “The Battle at Lake Changjin: The Deleted Scenes.” That’s because this cash-grab war movie isn’t a true sequel but just a series of scenes that could’ve been in the first movie. And the first movie wasn’t even that great in the first place. And even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (which is nearly three hours long) and its sequel “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which has a total running time of about two-and-half-hours) are both over-indulgent messes, just because “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a shorter time length doesn’t make it better than its predecessor. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is worse.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a nearly identical storyline as its predecessor, because the movie has the same production team as 2021’s “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam directed both movies, while both screenplays were written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin. In both movies, the Chinese military group People’s Liberation Army fights against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle at the Chosin Reservoir.

The Army’s 7th Company is led by a courageous and respected commander Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing), who has a 19-year-old brother named Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) in the company. Wanli enlisted in the Army against Qianli’s wishes. Also returning from the original “Battle at Lake Changjin” movie are the 7th Company’s political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han). Because this is a war movie, not everyone makes it out alive.

And once again, the chief villains of the story are U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird). “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” adds some more American leaders who weren’t in the “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” U.S. president Harry Truman (played by Ben Z Orenstein) appears briefly in a few scenes. Truman, who is depicted as someone who tried to reign in MacArthur, utters this line in one of the scenes: “MacArthur needs to be reminded that no man is bigger than this war.” Lieutenant Colonial Wilber Colbert (played by Steven John Venn) is a stereotype of a ruthless American military leader who thinks Americans are better than anyone else.

This inferior sequel does a few things differently with the characters in the movie, compared to “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” A wounded 7th Company battalion commander named Yang Wenjang (played by Geng Le) gets a little bit of a backstory. Wenjang has a flashback to his life before he was in the war, when he’s seen with his girlfriend. But that barely counts as character development, which is mostly non-existent in this movie.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (also titled “Water Gate Bridge”) has even more over-the-top battle scenes than in “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Some of the Chinese soldiers almost seem to have superhuman powers, based on the way they can do eye-popping leaps and kicks in the air, where they look like action stuntmen, not realistic soldiers. And sometimes, they’re literally on fire doing it, as there’s more than one sequence where soldiers who are burning up in flames still get things done.

Even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which were both filmed during the same time period) are among the most expensively produced movies in China’s history, many of the visual effects look cheap and tacky, and the stunts often look sloppy. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is even more incoherent than its predecessor.

It isn’t until the last 15 minutes of this three-hour schlockfest that “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” tries to bring some grief-stricken humanity to the story, to show the realistic emotional traumas of war. But by then, it’s too little, too late. The last scene in the movie is overly sentimental and looks very forced, because the sappy tone is very off-balance from the rest of the callous violence film. This final scene looks like it belongs in a completely different movie but was dropped in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” as a manipulative attempt to get viewers to cry.

The directors of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies have said that it’s possible that a six-hour directors’ cut could be released. Two to three hours of watching one of these films is more than enough time wasted. If you just want to turn your brain off and watch shootouts and explosions with mindless dialogue and forgettable characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies are for you. If you care about watching more meaningful and authentic movies about real-life wars, your time is better spent on any number of higher-quality choices.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022. The movie was released in China on February 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jackson Yee and Jing Wu in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea and briefly in China from June to December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

James Filbird in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a very bloated war movie filled with simplistic dialogue, poorly written characters and tedious fight scenes. This repetitive depiction of a crucial battle in the Korean War does not earn its nearly three-hour running time. The film portrays China’s military group the People’s Liberation Army fighting against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Because it’s a scripted movie with some fictional characters, don’t expect it to be entirely accurate to real history.

If you only want to see war movies that have a certain agenda and care more about expensive-looking battle scenes than crafting a well-made war story, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. If you prefer to watch a war movie that places more importance on showing repetitive explosions and violent deaths than placing importance on audiences getting to know the main characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. For everyone else, it’s a mind-numbing slog that just looks like a video game with a big movie budget.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” (directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam) is reportedly one of the most expensively made Chinese movies of all time, with a production budget of $200 million. Most of that money looks like it went into the bombastic battle scenes that pull out every visual-effects trick in the book to make the explosions, battlefield shootouts and killings look very over-the-top. Unfortunately, hardly any of the movie’s budget seems to have been invested in quality screenwriting or acting. The movie’s screenplay (written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin) is simply abysmal, while the acting is mediocre at best.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” attempts to have some meaningful family drama, by having the movie’s two central characters as brothers who often disagree with each other. Older brother Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing) is commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s 7th Company, where is considered a a respected war hero. However, Qianli bears the burden and guilt over the war death of his older brother Wu Baili, who was killed in combat.

Qianli’s 19-year-old brother Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) admires his older brother Qianli. However, the two brothers clash because Wanli wants to join the People’s Liberation Army, but Qianli doesn’t want that to happen, mainly out of fear that he doesn’t want to lose another family member in war combat. Wanli doesn’t see it that way, because he thinks that Qianli views him as inferior and not brave enough to fight in a war. Therefore, Wanli feels insulted.

Not surprisingly, Wanli ends up secretly joining the Army, much to Qianli’s disapproval. Qianli tells Wanli that he won’t get any special treatment, just because they are brothers. In fact, Qianli goes out of his way to not give Wanli any help or advice, even when other members of the Army bully and tease Wanli because they think Wanli will get nepotism perks. A lot of people in this army doubt that babyfaced Wanli has what it takes to be a tough soldier.

Wanli remains steadfast in his commitment to the Army. And slowsly but surely, he starts to gain respect from his Army peers and Wanli. These supporting characters in the 7th Company aren’t given enough depth in their personalities or development in their story arcs. They include political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han).

Wanli’s first friend in the 7th Company is a fellow teen soldier named Zhang Xiaoshan (played by Shi Pengyuan) young soldier of the 7th Company who befriends Wanli. There’s also a sublot about how one of the People’s Liberation Army also includes Mao Anying (played by Huang Xuan), the eldest son of then-Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (played by Tang Guoqiang), also known as Chairman Mao, who allowed Anying to join the war with some reluctance. People who know Chinese history already know what Anying’s fate was.

Military officials in this movie are depicted as broad caricatures with hollow personalities that just recite forgettable lines. One of these side characters is Peng Dehuai (played by Zhou Xiaobin), People’s Volunteer Army commander and People’s Revolutionary Military vice chairman. The movie gives the worst jingoistic dialogue to American military officials such as U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird), who’s depicted as a robotic warmonger, who’s often wearing sunglasses and chomping on a pipe.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” gives very amateurish re-enactments of what behind-the-scenes war strategies might have been. The filmmakers seem to think that throwing in a lot of explosions and gunfire, in addition to showing men constantly shouting at each other, are enough to make a compelling war movie. It’s not. “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is an onslaught of very staged and very loud scenes of destruction that turn into a mishmash of mayhem until its very predictable conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lang Changjin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘My Country, My Parents,’ starring Wu Jing, Leo Wu, Zhang Ziyi, Yuan Jinhui, Xu Zheng, Han Haolin, Shen Teng and Hong Lie

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hong Lie and Shen Teng (center) in “My Country, My Parents” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“My Country, My Parents”

Directed by Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Xu Zheng and Shen Teng

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in 1942 to 1945; 1969; 1978; and the 21st century, the dramatic four-part anthology film “My Country, My Parents” (also titled “My Country, My Family”) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells four separate stories of struggles and conflicts over parental issues.

Culture Audience: “My Country, My Parents” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about Chinese culture and about universal issues over parents or guardians who try to do the best they can for their children.

Zhang Ziyi and Yuan Jinhui in “My Country, My Parents” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The dramatic anthology film “My Country, My Parents” is an uneven but still-interesting film with enough entertaining and emotionally moving moments that outweigh the moments when the movie falters with dull predictability. It’s a movie that is told in four parts (or four short films strung together), each from a different director who stars in each of the four stories. The four stories are “Windriders,” “Poem,” “Ad Man” and “Go Youth.” “My Country, My Parents” (which is also titled “My Country, My Family”) is the follow-up to 2019’s seven-part anthology film “My People, My Country” and 2020’s five-part anthology film “My People, My Homeland.” All of these films were created to put an emphasis on Chinese patriotism through the lens of stories about humanity and personal relationships.

“Windriders” (directed by Wu Jing)

“Windriders” is the first story in “My Country, My Parents.” Taking place from 1942 to 1945, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it’s exactly what you might expect from a war movie. Wu Jing stars as Ma Renxing, a widower and a commander of the Jizhong Cavalry Regiment. He often clashes with his impulsive and equally stubborn son Ma Chengfeng (played by Leo Wu), who argues with his father, especially about who will get to ride a stallion called Big Boss.

Battle scenes on horseback get a lot of screen time. Although this story throws in some tragedy and sentimentality, “Windriders” puts more priority on the war action. Most viewers won’t find much to emotionally connect with or relate to in this story, unless you’ve had the experience of going into war combat with a parent or child. The filmmaking for this story isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately forgettable.

“Poem” (directed by Zhang Ziyi)

“Poem” takes almost the opposite approach of “Windriders,” by pouring on so many emotions and so much angst, it almost becomes a mini-melodrama. Zhang Ziyi stars as Yu Kaiying, a gunpowder sculptor in 1969. She has gone through two major tragedies within a 10-year period: The biological father of her two children died while serving in the military. He passed away when the kids were too young to remember him. (Du Jiang plays the father in a flashback.) And now, the children’s stepfather Shi Ruhong (played by Huang Xuan), the only father the kids have ever known, has died, also while serving in the military.

In 1969, her two children are a son nicknamed Four Eyes (played by Yuan Jinhui), who is about 7 or 8 years old, and an unnamed daughter (played by Ren Sinuo), who’s about 4 or 5 years old. Yu Kaiying is so devastated by Shi Ruhong’s death that she doesn’t know how to tell her kids, And so, she lies to them by saying that Shi Ruhong is still away from home because of military duties.

However, Four Eyes knows something is wrong because several other children in the neighborhood have missing fathers who disappered during military duty and are presumed dead. He begins to suspect that the only father he’s ever known has met the same fate, and he starts to ask questions. This leads to Yu Kaiying reminiscing about her courtship with Shi Ruhong, who liked to write poems to her.

Everything in “Poem” is bathed in warm-tinted cinematography (in dark gold and tawny), as if to give the movie a romantic glow. However, there are some harsh realities in the story that might be hard for some people to watch. Yu Kaiying is far from being an ideal parent. One day, Four Eyes has a tantrum and yells at her that she’s not a real father because his father used to spank him. She loses her temper and starts spanking Four Eyes until he’s in a sobbing heap. His younger sister witnesses this abuse and starts crying too.

Yu Kaiying shows remorse to her children for losing control of her emotions in such a negative way. The kids forgive her, but some viewers might lose any sympathy for Yu Kaiying during this domestic violence scene. It’s a jarring contrast to all the lovey-dovey courtship scenes in “Poem.” The story concludes by showing Yu Kaiying’s children as adults and what they ended up doing with their lives.

“Ad Man” (directed by Xu Zheng)

“Ad Man,” which takes place in 1978, is a welcome relief from the death and destruction of the previous two stories. The movie is a lighthearted story starring Xu Zheng as Zhao Pingyang, a struggling entrepreneur who decides to film his first TV commercial for his business of selling medicinal wine. He has bought so much wine, that it’s cluttered up his modest home that he shares with his wife Han Jingya (played by Song Jia) and their son Zhao Xiaodong (played by Han Haolin), who’s about 10 or 11 years old.

Zhao Xiaodong is so embarrassed by his father that he lies about what his father does for a living. The movie opens with Zhao Xiaodong giving a presentation in front of other students in a classroom where they have to talk about their fathers’ jobs. Zhao Xiaodong says with false pride that his father has been an architect, furniture maker, and he became the top sales manager at a pharmaceutical company. He also brags that his father predicted that phones without cords would be invented.

In the middle of this presentation, a boy stands up in class and says that Zhao Xiaodong is lying about everything. The boy announces that Zhao Pingyang is really a financially broke “loser” who’s heavily in debt and who used to sell duck eggs in front of the school. Zhao Xiaodong is so angry by what this boy says that he throws a book at him and gets in trouble for it. However, it’s true that Zhao Pingyang has serious financial problems and that he used to sell duck eggs in front of the school.

Zhao Pingyang’s wife Han Jingya is so upset with him for putting the family in a financial mess that she’s on the verge of divorcing him. Zhao Xiaodong makes it clear to his father that he’s also ashamed of him. Partially out of desperation and partially out of inspiration, Zhao Pingyang decides the best way to jumpstart his failing business is to film a TV commercial, which was still rare for small businesses in China in 1978.

Because he’s new to TV advertising, many mistakes are made, resulting in some comedic scenes. Zhao Pingyang ends up hiring a film crew of eccentric people. And eventually, he decides to star in the commercial himself. Is the commercial a success? Does he eventually get the respect of his wife and son? This is a feel-good story, so you can predict the rest.

“Go Youth” (directed by Shen Teng)

The best story in the movie is saved for last. “Go Youth” is a dramedy set in 2020, when a talking male robot (played by Shen Teng) from outer space has been sent to Earth and crash-lands in a field. He gets dismembered in the fall, but he puts himself back together. The robot eventually finds its way to the home of a boy named Xiao Xiao (played by Hong Lie), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Xiao Xiao is the only child of his widow mother Ma Daiyu (played by Ma Li), who spends a lot of time away from home, presumably because she has to work.

Xiao Xiao finds that he can control the robot by telling it what to do. The robot is named Xing Yihao, and he tells Xiao Xiao that he’s from the year 2050. “I’m fresh from the production line,” the robot says to Xiao Xiao. “They brought me here.” (Who are “they”? That question is answered at the end of the film in a delightful plot twist.)

The robot couldn’t have come at a better time in Xiao Xiao’s life. Xiao Xiao is a lonely child who’s being bullied at school by other kids. He can’t really talk about it with his mother, whom Xiao Xiao describes as “a nag.” Because Xing Yihao looks and acts like a real human being, Xiao Xiao pretends that the robot is his new father.

Xiao Xiao’s deceased father was a scientist/researcher whose specialty was artificial intelligence. Xiao Xiao also has an interest in computer-based science, so he easily bonds with the robot. At first, he treats Xing Yihao like a toy, but then he grows fond of the robot and starts treating it like a father figure/friend. A poignant moment happens when Xiao Xiao teaches the robot how to smile.

Xiao Xiao’s mother Ma Daiyu seems to give Xiao Xiao a lot of freedom to do things without adult supervision. She’s not around to see a lot of the shenanigans that Xiao Xiao gets up to with his new companion. Xiao Xiao and Xing Yihao spend a lot of time outdoors, where Xiao Xiao teaches Xing Yihao some things about how to live on Earth.

The robot also happens to have superhuman strength, which comes in handy when Xiao Xiao wants to fend off the school bullies, or to make a big impression in an upcoming athletic competition where fathers and sons pair up in teams. It’s during this athletic competition where Xiao Xiao sees that he and Xing Yih o,make a great team. It gives Xiao Xiao a lot of self-confidence, as well as respect from many of his classmates.

Xiao Xiao gets so emotionally attached to the robot, there’s a cute scene where Xiao Xiao introduces Xing Yihao to his mother as a blind date for her when she’s startled to see the robot for the first time. Xing Yihao is dressed in a spacesuit outfit when Ma Daiyu first sees the robot, so she thinks he’s a man who’s into cosplaying. No romance happens between the mother and the robot, but Xiao Xiao attempting to get his mother to like the robot is a sign that he wants Xing Yihao in his life for the long haul.

However, things don’t go as smoothly as Xiao Xiao would like. The robot keeps talking about having to go back to its place of origin. This kind of talk makes Xiao Xiao sad and confused, so he tries to ignore this robot’s wish to go back to its original home. Eventually, this issue can no longer be ignored, but how everything is resolved is not what a lot of viewers might expect.

“Go Youth” is the best story in this anthology because of how it’s heartwarming without being overly sentimental. It has the right blend of drama and comedy. And most of all, the dynamics between Shen Teng and Hong Lie are very entertaining to watch. Hong Lie is by far the most talented child actor in this anthology. He’s believable in every single scene. And although Shen Teng plays a robot, he brings glimmers of human empathy in the robot to make it an engaging character.

If there’s any noticeable flaw in all of this movie’s anthology stories, it’s in the sexist way that children who are girls are sidelined and not given much to do or say. In every story of this anthology, a male child is the only or main focus of a parent’s attention. Considering that Chinese culture is very patriarchal, it’s not too much of a surprise that male children are given more importance than female children in these stories. However, it’s commendable that a female director got to tell her story in this anthology. It might be gender tokenism to have only one female director out of four directors, but being part of the storytelling is better than being completely excluded.

CMC Pictures released “My Country, My Parents” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

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