Monday, February 18, 2019

A Lifetime Treasure fails to sufficiently showcase its talents (Film review)

Don't they look like they're having a good time?

A Lifetime Treasure (Hong Kong, 2019)
- Andrew Lam Man Cheung, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Louis Cheung, Bob Lam, Ivana Wong, Andrew Lam, Richard Ng, Lam Suet, Teddy Robin Kwan, Tien Niu, Sammo Hung, Bruce Leung

Last week, the Hong Kong Film Awards nominations list for this year was announced.  Among its best director nominees were -- deservedly to my mind -- two first-time directors who also were nominated in the best scriptwriter as well as best new director categories.  That same week, I viewed a Chinese New Year movie helmed by a debutant helmer.  But if A Lifetime Treasure's Andrew Lam follows in the footsteps of Still Human's Oliver Chan Siu Kuen and Men on the Dragon's Sunny Chan and gets nominated next year in even one of those awards categories, it'll be a sign that 2019 would have been a thoroughly terrible year for Hong Kong cinema!

Put another way: After viewing this mess of a movie, I would be perfectly happy if Andrew Lam never were to script or direct another film again.  And whatever enjoyment I got from viewing this cinematic work whose apparently sincere message about it being good to care for, and not under-value the contributions of, the elderly got inadvertently sabotaged by its muddled execution I'll largely credit to its capable but often mis-used cast, a number of whom are respected veteran industry doyens who really deserved better (along with this effort's audience).

When you look at A Lifetime Treasure's poster, the fact of Sammo Hung (who, more than incidentally, is scheduled to be this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival's filmmaker in focus), Richard Ng, Tien Niu, Teddy Robin Kwan and Bruce Leung being in its foreground would make you think that theirs would be the key characters in this Chinese New Year comedy.  As it turned out though, this quintet who play the sole residents of a nursing home for the elderly actually have less screentime and chances to shine than the five other individuals standing behind them.

With the exception of Andrew Lam (who appears on screen as the caring but eccentric owner of the nursing home), that younger quintet actually manage to do good work -- and get a few laughs -- with the material they were given.  Ivana Wong is perkily lovable as the facility's sole nurse.  Louis Cheung and Bob Lam manage to inject humanity into their characters: that of two low-level lackeys sent by a kooky gangster (portrayed by Lam Suet) to sabotage things there to the point where control of it will be lost to him.  And Lam Suet chews the scene with obvious relish in a bigger role accorded to him than he usually gets to play in Milkyway Image productions, be they crime dramas or romantic comedies.

The problem lies though in the film being filled with childish attempts at humor that were old even by the 1990s, if not the 1980s, and seeming conceived for people with low IQs (and very possibly by people whose EQ and IQs are both not at all that high a level).  Alternatively put: A Lifetime Treasure is the kind of movie whose high point may well be the scenes involving several of its main characters taking part in the filming of a cheap movie featuring a scantily-clad starlet and extras told to pretend to be zombies who go attack her enmasse when she's bathing out in the open in an expensive bathtub.  As for its low points: well, there are too many to list; and there's the rub!

Suffice to state that, among other things, I really didn't appreciate seeing Sammo Hung playing an idiot for much of the movie (and yes, I know he's done it in other films -- but that makes this even worse!) and Bruce Leung play a mute for an even greater portion of A Lifetime Treasure; and in fact, I found it downright unbecoming and stupidly wasteful of these two Hong Kong cinema legends' talents.  I also didn't like that there are cheap attempts at visual gags involving people wearing uniforms clearly ripped off from Star Trek for no reason other than they're recognizable pop culture items and icky ones where people throwing up or losing control of their bodily functions thrown in to try to increase the laughter quotient.

So, while it was nice to see screen legends -- including a couple who haven't appeared on a big screen for several years -- gracing a cinematic offering again, I really wish that it had been in a better movie.  Similarly, while the likes of Louis Cheung, Bob Lam and Lam Suet may lack movie star looks, I think they actually did show in A Lifetime Treasure that they too are talents deserving of better platforms -- and maybe to be treasured too!    

My rating for this film: 5.0

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dancing lion encounters over the Chinese New Year period :)

Lions above the crowds at Fortress Hill!
 
Bestowing blessings on the crowd
 
View from the crowded front
 
On several occasions now this Chinese New Year, I've heard the drum beats that get me expecting to catch sight of a dancing lion or similar festival-loving mythical creature.  But while I did get to see a dancing unicorn paying a visit to a temple on the first day of this Chinese New Year of the pig, it wasn't under the eighth day of this fifteen day festive period that I made my first dancing lion spotting of 2019!
 
As unlikely as it may seem to those who don't live in places where Chinese New Year is celebrated in a major way, this dancing lion encounter took place in a shopping mall where I had gone to watch a Chinese New Year movie.  While walking through it, I noticed that bunches of vegetables were hanging from the top of entrance ways to several stores (including branches of the likes of H&M and Sasa as well as local chain establishments like Giordano and Watson's) and got to realizing that they were expecting an impending visit by a dancing lion.
 
Soon afterwards, I heard the banging of cymbals and drums and realized that a dancing lion was nearby.  With a few minutes to spare before the screening would begin of the movie I had elected to check out that day, I decided to wait a bit for the mythical creature's approach and was rewarded by glimpses of it through a large as well as excited crowd of people similarly attracted by the sounds that accompanied the dancing creature.
 
As it so happened, the next day, I ended up catching sight of a couple more dancing lions -- this time while I was on my way to have lunch with a couple of friends.  Performing in front of a tall office building in my neighborhood, these two dancing lions were actually more interesting looking -- seeing as one was perched atop a pole and another on similarly elevated equipment!  And this time, I actually managed to get some good photos of the spectacle; what with the area in which the dancing lions were performing having roped off to make sure that they and other members of their troupe had space to navigate and move.  

As is probably to be expected of a neighborhood that's home to a couple of hotels, there were obvious tourists among the crowd for this event, some of whom looked quite bemused even while others look to be enjoying the spectacle.  By and large though, the people assembled were local folks who appear to never ever get bored by the sight of dancing lions -- and I think I can counted among this group! ;b

Friday, February 15, 2019

A memorable meal at the Hong Kong outpost of Sushi Saito

It looks like a mound of rice but it's actually composed
of tiny shrimp along with kernels of rice!
 
If only I could have had more than one piece of that 
beautiful looking -- and great tasting -- mackerel roll...
 
Heaven for lovers of uni (sea urchin)
 
Close to a year ago now, the first overseas outpost of Sushi Saito opened for business at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong.  Upon hearing and reading raves from sushi aficionados who dined there (and especially after getting the sense that I probably will never get to eat at the super-hard-to-get-into original branch of Sushi Saito in Tokyo), I wanted to give the place a try -- but hung back for a time for a couple of reasons, including the high price of a meal there.  
 
To put things into context, dinner there costs more than twice the price of the same at Uehara, a sushi-ya I really like, and which a two Michelin star chef I met there told me he believes deserves two Michelin stars too!  But after learning a few months ago that lunch at Sushi Saito is (relatively) less taxing on the wallet even while involving some 75% of what's on offer at dinner, I resolved to give it a try -- and went ahead and did so earlier today with the help of a friend who's dined there at least five times now (and made our lunch booking around one month in advance!).
 
Warned to not get there late for our 12noon date, I arrived at Sushi Saito ten minutes ahead of schedule and every other customer who filled the eight-seater dining space overseen by Takashi Saito's hand-picked helmer of the now two Michelin star Hong Kong outpost, Ikuya Koyabashi.  Despite having read that his modus operandi is to only begin after all of that session's guests were seated at the table, our first course (consisting of deliciously cooked horsehair crab) appeared soon after my friend arrived at the restaurant -- and before the majority of the other customers at lunch did so.
 
After all the hype and waiting, I must admit to expecting something truly wondrous.  So I felt kind of underwhelmed when the next few courses of the omakase lunch (which included shirako with ponzu and slices of hirame (flounder) and kinmedai (alfonsino)) were merely good to very good -- and also a bit shocked when a rice kernel or two would actually fall off after I picked a piece of sushi up (a sign that the sushi rice wasn't sticking together as well as should be the case).  And while I did like the kohada (gizzard shad) sushi served at the lunch, I do feel that I've tasted better and also seen pieces of this fish that were more beautifully cut and presented (including at Fukuoka's Tenjaku a little more than a year ago).

But then came the maguro (tuna) and things did start to feel really special.  Aged to perfection, both the akami (red meat tuna) and otoro (fatty tuna) were seriously melt in your mouth as well as super flavorful.  Also pretty sublime were the pieces of shiro ebi (white shrimp) and ika (squid) sushi -- both of which, along with such as the hirame and akami, were enhanced by dabs of soy sauce that I suspect has been enhanced by an infusion of something along the lines of a truffly-type mushroom or konbu that gives it an unexpectedly earthy taste element.
 
Later in the meal came two pieces of sushi I can't recall ever having before.  The first was topped by what Koyabashi-san said in English was sand clam, onto which he applied the sweet sauce I'm more used to tasting on pieces of eel (be it unagi or anago) sushi. The second was a piece of saba (chub mackerel) prepared in the Kyoto -- as opposed to edo-mae (Tokyo) or Osaka -- style, with far pinker meat than I'm used to see with saba sushi.
 
And then came the uni (sea urchin).  Until today's lunch, the best uni I ever had was at a humble Tin Hau-area sushi-ya whose sudden closure around Chinese New Year several years ago I've lamented from time to time.  Perhaps the most amazing thing about my meal at Sushi Saito today is that I was given not just one but two different pieces of uni sushi -- both consisting of uni from Hokkaido but different types, including the redder and more umami-tasting bafun and either murasaki or kita-murasaki, which was super big in size and also unbelievably sweet -- and that I actually can't decide which one I prefer!
 
Considering that I almost thought that I was going to burst into tears with happiness after eating the uni, I figured that it'd all be downhill from there.  But then came a delicate piece of anago sushi (without any sauce on it, the better to appreciate the actual taste of the saltwater eel) and a mega piece of maki that included more uni and anago along with ebi (prawn), kampyo (dried shavings of calabash), tamago (Japanese omelette) and kappa (cucumber) followed by what amounted to a two course dessert by way of a couple of pieces of a custardy tamago and a super juicy slice of melon. 
 
With a bowl of earthy miso soup also having been thrown in for good measure, you'd think that this multi-course omakase meal would have left me feeling stuffed.  Strangely enough, though, I actually  didn't feel completely satiated and satisfied after I left the restaurant -- and ended up getting a slice of chocolate cake to eat upon returning to my apartment!
 
Looking back, I think that the problem was that Koyabashi-san's pieces of sushi were on the small as well as delicate side.  So, while Sushi Saito (Hong Kong)'s refined sushi suited me to a 'T' taste-wise, I must admit to wishing their size of the individual pieces would be less "refined" and, well, more generous.  Fix that and, well, everything would be damn near perfect; and, as it is, I really wouldn't be averse to returning to dine at this highly lauded sushi-ya again! 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Integrity is too twisty for its own good (film review)

Shau Kei Wan-bound tram advertising Integrity ;)

Integrity (Hong Kong, 2019)
- Alan Mak, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Nick Cheung, Karena Lam
 
When talking about Hong Kong cinema with film fans, one often will hear talk about how the movies aren't what they used to be.  If one were to use this Alan Mak film as an example, one could point out that it's nothing like what one used to be able to expect of local cinematic offerings released at this time of the year in that it's far from being a Chinese New Year comedy in subject and tone.  In addition, while it possesses leads who are reputable stars, its reported HK$100 million budget far exceeds the Hong Kong movies of yore.  
 
In view of the filmmakers having that large amount of money to play with, it's only to be expected that Integrity will have pretty good production values.  And like Alan Mak's frequent collaborator, Felix Chong's recent Project Guttenberg, this ambitious 2019 crime procedural does indeed look pretty slick and have a story and characters -- and, one suspects that it's hoped, a viewership -- that goes far beyond Hong Kong (or, for that matter, the Asian continent). 
 
At its heart though, there's little doubt that this is a Hong Kong movie (not least in terms of many of its local details ringing true but less so its foreign ones, such as the inexplicably saddling of its native English-speaking characters with accents from the wrong English-speaking country).  And with many local cinemagoers no longer being inclined to respect or be all that sympathetic to members of the police force in the wake of their conduct during the Umbrella Movement and in the years since, Integrity has ended up with couple of Hong Kong Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) officers and a whistle-blowing accountant for its protagonists.
 
Integrity begins with ICAC chief investigator Chan King Cheung (Lau Ching Wan) visiting accountant Jack Hui (Nick Cheung) in the hotel room he's been placed in prior to his testifying in a case involving the head of the trading company he worked for standing accused of engaging in black market cigarette sales with the help of a senior customs official (Anita Yuen).  Before he's called to court though, the clearly skittish Jack absconds and flies to Australia (where he is a citizen and maintains a pretty nice looking home).  
 
After all concerned get to the courthouse, it is discovered too that Jack's erstwhile boss also has disappeared.  At an emergency meeting back at the ICAC headquarters, King (as Chan King Cheung gets referred to in the English subtitles) is ordered by his boss (Alex Fong Chung Sun) to track down the trading company head while Shirley (Karena Lam), another ICAC investigator and trained negotiator who also happens to be King's estranged wife, is tasked with heading over to Australia to talk Jack in returning to Hong Kong to testify.       
 
A multi-stranded procedural, Integrity's proceedings can be hard to follow, especially by those of us not all that familiar with the world of business (and the kind of things accountants are able to do to ensure that the books are balanced) as well as that of major white collar crime involving millions of dollars.  For the most part though, I decided to just go with the flow and in doing so, found the main story intriguing enough to hold my attention.  In addition, I found all three of the main characters to be interesting and even entertaining -- though this might well have to do more to their being portrayed by able performers who exhibited good chemistry with one another and less with the way they were written. 
 
Unfortunately, in trying to be too clever by coming up with a series of twists in the tale to tie together a whole bunch of characters and stories in the last few minutes of the movie, Alan Mak ended up trying my patience and stretching my tolerance too far.  Like with my experiences viewing many a South Korean movie, I came out of the film screening feeling more disappointed than I would have if this offering had drawn to a close at an earlier stage and wishing that Integrity had been more like many an older Hong Kong crime drama in having a filmmaker far more adept at knowing to quit when he was ahead.      
 
My rating for the film: 7.5

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Intriguing sights in a by-now familiar part of Tai Tam Country Park (Photo-essay)

Since I last went hiking on the Sai Kung Peninsula on the first day of the Chinese New Year of the Pig, I've watched five movies on a big screen -- four of them Hong Kong productions!  I've already reviewed two of them (see here and here) and plan to review the two others over the next few days.  But I'd also like to "work" a bit on my hiking photo backlog.  

So here's going back in time to a hot and super humid summer's day that saw me sweating buckets while getting quite the stair master-style workout in Tai Tam Country Park and putting up a photo-essay to remind me that, in addition to vistas involving multiple steps leading up Siu Ma Shan and Mount Butler, I also did come across other interesting sights while enjoying hiking that day with a couple of friends in tow... :)
 
 Among the more intriguing "finds" of that day's hike was what 
appeared to be a private shrine in a corner of the country park...

Actually more unexpected was the sight of water bubbling up from cracks 
in the rocks by the section of the Wilson Trail leading up Siu Ma Shan!
 
View from green Siu Ma Shan of the city down below
and across Victoria Harbour :) 
 
The view to the south is so much greener and idyllic...
 
Looking eastwards from the summit of Mount Butler
over across to Mount Parker and beyond
 
A tree with unexpectedly bare branches caught my eye 
on our way down Mount Parker Road
 
Damselfly delicatedly balanced on a tree's bare branch
 
 I hope it didn't suffer the fate of this dragonfly in the hands of this  
Golden Orb Weaver (which was large but still not the biggest I've seen)! :O

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Home with a View deserves better -- as does Hong Kong (film review)

Poster for a movie that deserves a larger audience
than film distributors seem to think

A Home with a View (Hong Kong, 2019)
- Herman Yau, director
- Starring: Francis Ng, Anita Yuen, Louis Koo, Cheung Tat Ming, Ng Siu Hin, Jocelyn Choi 

What is going on with Hong Kong cinema and local film distributors?!  Starting off with something positive: for the first time in a long time -- maybe even since I moved to Hong Kong close to 12 years ago now -- there are six Hong Kong movies (if you include a Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production directed by local comedy darling Stephen Chow) currently playing in local multiplexes.  

Now for the negative: the best by quite a long chalk of the three Hong Kong movies I've most recently viewed is the one that's been given the least publicity and fewest cinema screens to appear on.  With the kind of theme (housing woes) and tone (dark, even sad) that hardly screams out "Chinese New Year movie", A Home with a View also appears to have been dumped into cinemas -- after being completed a year ago and then seeing its original summer 2018 release date come and go -- and made to fight for scraps against the odds in a crowded festive field. 

Adapted from a play by Cheung Tat Ming (who also scripted the film as well as co-stars in and co-produced it), A Home with a View is a black comedy-drama about a family struggling to make ends meet as a result of being saddled with a hefty, multi-year mortgage for a not particularly physically impressive home that does have one major asset: its unimpeded harbor view.  However, they find that which gives them great psychological comfort suddenly taken away one day by a rooftop home owner whose money-making plans involve putting up illegal as well as large billboard structures atop highrise buildings.  

Already living in conditions that are far from ideal (due to such as five very different personalities living together in uncomfortably close proximity and being saddled with neighbors whose habits are annoying when faced with day after day for some years), this latest frustration threatens their very sanity.  Unwilling to take this latest obstacle to their collective happiness lying down, they come up with various schemes to get rid of the annoying structure that get increasingly desperate but also imaginative.

As someone who's also had to deal with some of the annoyances faced by the Lo family over the course of my time in Hong Kong, I really can relate to a number of the situations shown in the movie. And since I sincerely doubt that our cases are that rare, my sense is that there are many people out there would have some sympathy for, and fellow feeling with, at least one or more of its members: be it the patriarch trying to hold everything together even while feeling crushed by his circumstances (Francis Ng), his unhappy see lai wife (Anita Yuen), his infirm father too aware of his being burden on the family (Cheung Tat Ming), his jobless graduate son (Ng Siu Hin) and his secondary student daughter in search of peace and quiet when studying (Jocelyn Choi).    

Francis Ng and Co also make it easy to feel their frustrations and identify with their situation because they also are a sterling bunch of thespians (who include, lest it forget, a two time Hong Kong Film Awards best actress winner in Anita Yuen).  So even while their histrionics do seem on the theatrical as well as hysterical side at times, particularly when appearing alongside someone as emotionally stunted as Louis Koo's loner businessman character, they still can seem understandable and even called for.   

Also possessing a theatrical feel are the sets in A Home with a View.  Rather than chalk it off to the film's theatre origins though, I'm inclined to ascribe it to the restricted budget that its makers probably had to work with.  Especially in view of this offering not having received as much financial and other support as it deserved, I think Herman Yau and the others who worked on it deserve major credit for making the movie not only very watchable but also delivering so well the kind of salient messages that Hong Kong's goverment and bureaucrats really should hear and take heed of if they really care about Hong Kong (but, from past experience, I'm not going to hold their breath that they will, and do). 

My rating for this film: 8.5

Friday, February 8, 2019

Missbehavior gets a Chinese New Year discount (film review)

Bus stop advertisement for Pang Ho Cheung's latest cinematic offering
 
Missbehavior (Hong Kong, 2019)
- Pang Ho Cheung, director, scriptwriter and co-producer (with Leong Kai Yun)
- Starring: Isabel Chan, Gigi Leung, Dada Chan, Hanjin Tan, Chui Tien You, Yanki Din, June Lam, etc.

Back in 2001, in the same month that Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai co-helmed a movie adaptation of his novel, Full-Time Killer, Pang Ho Cheung made his directorial debut with You Shoot, I Shoot.  While the former film had the bigger stars, I enjoyed the latter work far more.  Consequently, I resolved to follow the writer turned filmmaker's cinematic career pretty closely and actually have viewed every single movie that he's helmed to date.

Over the years, there have been some Pang Ho Cheung films that really hit the mark as far as I'm concerned (e.g., Men Suddenly in Black, Aberdeen and Women Who Flirt) but also ones which didn't quite do it for me (e.g., Love Off the Cuff).  To sum it up in one word: I think his output can be uneven.  And uneven also is one of those words that can be used to describe Missbehavior, his star-studded ensemble comedy released in time to be viewed during this Chinese New Year of the pig that nonetheless isn't really a bona fide Chinese New Year movie in that it's friend- rather than family-centric and features such as a bondage scene (albeit one played for laughs) and copious amounts of boob jokes.

Missbehavior's plot can be summed up as follows: A group of "bitches" (the individuals have a tendency to refer to others in the group as baat por (Cantonese for bitch)) band together to help one of their own after she mistakes her boss' breast milk for low fat milk (yes, really), uses it to make a valued company client a cup of "flat white with low fat" and needs to replace the milk she took from the company fridge before her boss leaves work that day.  And a good measure of the film's star power can be seen by the "bitches" including ones played by Gigi Leung and Dada Chan, the boss in question being essayed by Isabella Leong and the valued client being portrayed by Patrick Tse.

To his credit, Pang Ho Cheung really does make the most of the many celebrity cameos, all of them effective and, particularly in the cases of Miriam Yeung and Lam Suet's, highly amusing.  He also appears to have elicited good acting performances from those actresses and actors with more significant amounts of time on the screen, with Dada Chan having put in a particularly eye-catching appearance in Missbehavior

But while Pang Ho Cheung the director appears to have done a generally good job (at least with the film's cast, which includes him in a role as the ex-boyfriend of two of the "bitches"), my sense is that Pang Ho Cheung the writer was inclined to be over lazy, often resorting to puerile jokes and scatological humor to milk (pun intended!) some cheap laughs from the offering's audience.  In particular, there's one example of toilet humor that literally is shit and not only isn't all that funny but also was actually so disgusting I found myself being super thankful that I had not bought anything from the cinema's concessions stand to eat while viewing the movie!

Still, Missbehavior's script does have some good bits that don't require the viewer to be in a super indulgent or majorly childish mood to appreciate.  Among the best jokes in the film are those which are topical, be they about Hong Kong's ridiculously high property prices or involve three characters dressing up as the Hong Kong Fire Service's "Anyone" mascot.  In addition, it was nice to see friendships involving a diverse group of individuals and gay love being portrayed in a mainstream movie in a way that was ultimately sympathetic rather than just for laughs.        

A friend of mine talks about how movies he views over the Chinese New Year period get given a "Chinese New Year discount".  Like him, I am inclined to view Chinese New Year releases in a more generous light than usual.  So, while Missbehavior is not one of Pang Ho Cheung's best movies, I won't say that I wasn't entertained by it.  Nonetheless, I do wish I had been entertained more consistently throughout the 90 minutes or so I spent viewing it, and hope that its undeniably talented filmmaker will do more and better with his next cinematic effort(s).
 
My rating for the film: 6.5