Fantasia 2018: In Big Brother, Donnie Yen plays the teacher we wish we had in high school

Donnie Yen plays teacher Henry Chen Xia in the film Big Brother.

Dedicated teacher tries to get rebellious high-school students to smarten up and take school seriously. This is a familiar plot, but the teacher in Big Brother is played by martial-arts superstar Donnie Yen, so that’s a big plus.

Even though Yen’s character, first-time teacher Henry Chen Xia, is smart, funny and caring, we know he won’t be accepted right away, he has to win the students over. Watching him do it is part of the fun.

Each student has at least one problem on the home front that has contributed to their seeming indifference to school; Chen tries his best to solve all those problems.

The future of the entire school is in Chen’s hands, since the Hong Kong education department will close it if the dismal pass rate doesn’t improve. On top of that, gangsters are waiting to pounce on the school site so they can build luxury condos on it.

But, but. . .what about the fights? It wouldn’t be a Donnie Yen film without them, but by Yen’s own choice, Big Brother is more about education than anything. It isn’t wall-to-wall fighting that’s barely held together with a paper-thin plot.

Donnie Yen as Henry Chen Xia, ready to defend his school.

 

Chen’s search for a missing student leads him to a locker room just before a (crooked) mixed-martial arts tournament. This gives Yen a chance to mix it up with burly, scary looking guys played by Kang Yu, Lockhart Ogilvie, Jess Liaudin, Brahim Achabbakhe, Tom Caserto, and Semiquaver Iafeta. “Look, guys, I’m not looking for any trouble,” he tells them in English. Ha, ha! Fans know what to expect next!

Conveniently enough, Kang Yu’s character is also involved in the development scheme, so he and assorted minions will battle Chen again in the schoolyard and inside the school, shattering glass, throwing desks and breaking many things while they’re at it.

A long-ago fight, with Lin Quinan playing the young Henry Chen, is quite impressive, too. This young man has star potential! In fact, he was in a 2016 film called Long quan xiao zi (Kungfu Boys).

in Donnie Yen’s film Big Brother, Lin Quinan (left) plays Henry Chen Xia in his student days. Kang Yu (right) plays the main villain. 

From my description, the film might seem terribly corny but it did not feel that way while I was watching it. There are some “I see what you did there!” moments, and I was fine with them, too.

I appreciated that Yen’s character is not just a fighting machine, he’s a caring human being. Teacher Chen has had his share of problems, and seen many horrific things, but he survived to tell the tale. He doesn’t want his students to give up on themselves while they’re still in their teens. And if life is unfair, why not fight to make it better? Just as important, he doesn’t want the education authorities to give up on the “difficult” students, either. Does closing an underperforming school really solve anything? Why not work to improve them?

Donnie Yen put his money and his star power behind this film, which is obviously dear to his heart. If Big Brother encourages some students to stay in school and leads school administrators to rethink their methods, Yen will have accomplished a lot. And more power to him!

I’ll include other details about Big Brother in a post about Kam Ka-Wai, the film’s director. Kam participated in a Q&A session after the film and granted me an interview as well.

BTW: I saw the World Premiere of Big Brother with lots of Donnie Yen fans at a sold-out screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal – the very best of circumstances! Donnie Yen even sent us a video greeting! He wanted to present the film in Montreal himself but logistics didn’t allow it. (He’s shooting a film in Japan and cannot be away from the set for long.)

Big Brother will open In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore on August 16, 2018, and in China and Taiwan on August 24. No word about a North American or European release yet, so maybe Donnie Yen fans should get going on social media and ask for it.

BIG BROTHER
Hong Kong, China (2018)
101 minutes, In Cantonese with English and Chinese Subtitles
Director: Kam Ka-Wai
Writer: Chan Tai Lee
Cast: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Yu Kang, Lou Mingji
Contact: Mega Vision

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Fantasia 2016 Review: Three by Johnnie To

Wallace Chung, left, Vicki Zhao Wei and Louis Koo in the Johnnie To film Three. Everything that happens in the film is a prelude to the madness depicted here.
Wallace Chung, left, Vicki Zhao Wei and Louis Koo in the Johnnie To film Three. Everything that happens in the film is a prelude to the madness depicted here.

Three did not do it for me. I’ve enjoyed many Johnnie To films over the years, thanks to the Fantasia International Film Festival, but I found Three both disappointing and annoying. The film asks us to throw common sense to the wind. I do that all the time, and not just at the movies, either, but I just couldn’t do it for Three.

(However, it’s only fair to point out that both Fantasia screenings were sold out, albeit in the smaller De Sève cinema, and that one of my friends, an esteemed film prof, watched it twice.

My problems with it, in no particular order: a dumb script with many unlikely events, unnecessary carnage, wooden acting.

To elaborate further: Shun (Wallace Chung), the leader of a criminal gang, is shot in the head by a cop (we don’t see it happen) and he’s taken to a hospital. Not only is he still alive, it seems that the bullet hasn’t done any damage – he’s quipping away about philosophy, taunting his police guards, etc. Even so, the doctors say that he needs surgery as soon as possible. Shun refuses that surgery because he wants to be conscious when his gang comes to rescue him. But then what? He’ll still have a bullet in his head, and it’s not like your average mob doc is prepared to deal with that.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the surgery now, and then have the gang rescue him while he’s being taken to prison? Hijack the prison van – should be a piece of cake, right?

If his henchmen are so scary (and we’re led to believe that they are) and he’s in such medical danger you’d think that he’d be held in a private room with many guards, but no, he’s in a ward with several other patients.

Vicki Zhao Wei plays a neurosurgeon and Louis Koo plays a police detective in Three, a film from Hong Kong director Johnnie To. Koo wears that same stone-faced look in 98 per-cent of the film.
Vicki Zhao Wei plays a neurosurgeon and Louis Koo plays a police detective in Three, a film from Hong Kong director Johnnie To. Koo wears that same stone-faced look in 98 per-cent of the film. He doesn’t take that jacket off, either.

Lotsa cops, led by Ken Chan (Louis Koo) are waiting for the gang to arrive so that they can arrest them. Or kill them. It’s a tense waiting game! Never mind that this plan puts all the patients, doctors, nurses, other hospital workers and visitors in extreme danger. The sensible thing to do would be to restrict access to the hospital, as was done in many countries during the SARS outbreak, and to catch those bad guys at some other time, in some other place. But no, Chan is determined to nab them today.

Because this is a Johnnie To film, we know that there will be an over-the-top-shoot out, and, um. . . (SPOILER ALERT!) other kinds of mayhem, as well. The only question is when. But even in the land of make believe, I object to doctors and patients being blown away for such contrived reasons.

Which brings us to the wooden acting. Most of the time Louis Koo looks grim, stoic, stubborn, angry, or determined, which is pretty much the same thing on his face. He barks, snaps and scowls at everybody. Neurosurgeon Dr. Tong (Vicki Zhao Wei), who is having a very bad week, looks glum and exhausted, sometimes on the verge of tears. Not a lot of nuance happening here. Well-cushioned Lam Suet, one of  Johnnie To’s regular actors, plays the guy sent to get lunches, of course. His character can barely speak in sentences.

A patient named “Uncle Chung” provides some comic relief, though he isn’t that funny. Two other patients offer what you might call tragic distraction. There’s a cliffhanger scene, or more precisely a-bedsheet-and-firehose scene, that is just left. . .hanging. Literally. We don’t see how it wraps up. There’s another scene that might remind you of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. And why not? Toss it all in!

Every time I look at Louis Koo in his quilted blue jacket I wonder – just how heavy is the air-conditioning supposed to be in this hospital?

For the squeamish: Action-film fans are used to shootouts, but are they used to gruesome surgery? Be warned that even though Shun refuses his operation, many other patients do get theirs. There are scalpels, drills, copious amounts of blood and exposed brains in Three.

Meh. I suggest watching something else by Johnnie To.

THREE
Director: Johnnie To
Writers: Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, Mak Tin-shu
Cast: Louis Koo, Wallace Chung, Vicki Zhao Wei, Lam Suet
Run Time: 87 minutes.
In Cantonese with subtitles in English and Traditional Chinese
Seen at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal

See two classic Hong Kong gangster films Saturday night!

Tony Leung Chiu Wai, left, and Lau Ching Wan are the stars of the Hong Kong film The Longest Nite.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai, left, and Lau Ching Wan are the stars of the Hong Kong film The Longest Nite.

Lucky Montrealers can see a double bill of classic Hong Kong gangster films for a mere $10 tonight, Saturday, April 30, 2016, at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. That’s two for the price of one. (And these are indeed 35 mm films, not DVD projections.)

Too Many Ways To Be No. 1, from 1997, and The Longest Nite, from 1998, were shown in Montreal in the early days of the Fantasia International Film Festival, so tonight’s screenings will have an added nostalgia value for people who saw the films back then.

The very black comedy Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 is set in the months before Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Tense times! Petty criminal Kau, 32, hasn’t got very far in life and he’s contemplating his future. He’s wondering – should he accept a job taking stolen cars to the Chinese mainland, or not?

The film shows what would happen if he did; then shows a scenario in Taiwan that could only happen if he refused the mainland job. These crooks are not the cool, suave, well-dressed types one sees in many gangsters films – they’re loud, clumsy and clueless. Camera work is unusual, with one scene shot upside down and another that takes place in total darkness apart from the flashes coming from guns.
Rob Larsen at drunkenfist.com says: “Far-removed from the slick, attractive style that is the stereotype of a Triad picture, Too Many Ways feels like it was shot by the love child of Samuel Beckett and Ringo Lam with a script provided by David Lynch.”

Shelly Kraicer says: “A gangster film, brilliantly written and photographed. . . it’s provocative and amusing at the same time (and manages to make the ‘experimentation’ of Pulp Fiction look like child’s play). Amazing camera work (hyper-actively circling, inverted and distorted, with a daringly warped colour scheme). . . The tone flips constantly: expect something hilariously violent/satirical/absurdist. . . I can’t recommend it highly enough: take a chance and see it, if you want something both entertaining and a bit challenging.”

Kau is played by Lau Ching Wan, other actors include Francis Ng, Cheung Tat Ming, Carman Lee, Elvis Tsui and Matt Chow.

Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 is from Johnnie To’s Milky Way Image Company and directed by Wai Ka-fai. It’s 90 minutes long, with Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue and English subtitles.

I might also point out that Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 seems to be out of print, so this is a rare chance to see it. In fact, people are asking for $2,143. to $3,062 for a DVD via amazon.ca. Ha! As if!

A person would have to be a VERY big fan to pay more than $2,000 for a DVD.
A person would have to be a VERY big fan to pay more than $2,000 for a DVD, don’t you think?

Lau Ching Wan is also in The Longest Nite, along with Tony Leung Chiu Wai. The film is set in Macao; Tony Leung plays a very crooked, very violent policeman who works for gangsters and Lau plays a burly, mysterious stranger whose shaved head makes him look extra scary. Unlike Too Many Ways To Be No. 1, there’s nothing funny about The Longest Nite.
James Mudge of Beyond Hollywood says: “This is a bleak, nihilistic and brutal thriller which pulls no punches and whose complex plot shows an intelligence that is both ruthless and vicious. . . With its myriad twists and turns, the plot of “The Longest Nite” rivals “The Usual Suspects” in terms of intricacy. . .two rival gangs are attempting to negotiate a truce and join forces before the impending return of another, legendary gang boss. . . one of the gang leaders, Lung, learns that a contract has been taken out on his life, supposedly by Brother K, the other boss. Brother K denies this, and sends Sam (Tony Leung), a dirty cop who works for him, to investigate. . . it appears that there may be even more to the assassination plot than the simple killing of Lung.”

“The plot twists are quite unpredictable, and the tension gradually builds as the viewer is given often misleading hints as to where the story is going, rather than being force fed details via needless exposition. . . “The Longest Nite” is a classic Hong Kong thriller. . .A cunning film that is as cerebral as it is exciting and violent, this is a film all fans of Asian cinema should see.”

The Longest Nite is directed by Patrick Yau and Johnnie To, it’s 81 minutes long, in Cantonese with English subtitles.

Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 and The Longest Nite, 7 p.m., Saturday, April 30, 2016, at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E., Montreal, Quebec H2X 1K1, across from the Berri-UQAM metro. Visit the Facebook page for more info.

Fantasia 2015: Review of Hong Kong badminton film Full Strike

Badminton training in the Hong Kong sports comedy Full Strike, one of the films being shown at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Badminton training in the Hong Kong sports comedy Full Strike, one of the films being shown at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Full Strike is a Hong Kong badminton comedy. There are many laughs in it, but for the first 30 minutes or so, the colour palette is a dark and depressing blue-green, here are some miserable moments and lots of yelling. Don’t be discouraged, things do get brighter!

Josie Ho plays Ng Kau Sau, also known as “Beast Ng” a former badminton champion who lost her status because of her bad temper. Now she’s miserable and constantly being criticized by her family members, who call her lazy and useless.

One dark and stormy night she sees a meteor (or something) shaped like a badminton birdie. An alien (or possibly a homeless man dressed in plastic bags) chases her onto an abandoned badminton court. There are some scary guys lurking in the shadows, too.

She phones her brother for help. Next thing you know, we’re at the police station. Turns out the building she was in belongs to her brother and uncle and they’ve rented it to three vicious criminals, who have just finished 10-year sentences for robbing a jewelry store. They will open the One Spirit Badminton Club. Their leader is Lau Dan (Ekin Cheng).

The criminals swear they are turning over a new leaf. Beast’s cousin, Suck Nipple Ng, who also plays badminton, and has returned to Hong Kong after 30 years in North America, thinks that’s just a story and that they plan to steal antiques from his nearby home. He wants Ng to sign up for lessons at the club so she can spy on them. This puts her in an awkward spot. She wants to take up the sport again, because the birdie meteor and the alien feel like a message from above that she should do so. But are those crooks still dangerous, or are they sincere about reforming? There’s no doubt that her cousin and his badminton-team minions are totally obnoxious people. Whose side should she be on?

Saying too much more about the plot would be going into spoiler territory, but you can expect slow-mo walking, training montages that include using knives, cleavers and meat, besides the usual racquets, to increase strength and achieve good form, philosophical speeches about “ebb and flow,” the declaration that “if you’re not good at something, the more people laugh at you the more you have to do it,” AND prodigious projectile vomiting from the drunken-master Champion Chik.

All that training has a purpose – to win the Fantastic 5-Asia Badminton Tournament, to prove to everyone (including themselves) that the former crooks have now become athletes.

Anyone who watched Robbery and Kung Fu Killer at Fantasia might recognize a face and a place in Full Strike. Eric Kwok, who played the Big Boss in Robbery, is Suck Nipple Ng’s badminton coach. Suck Nipple Ng has a garden full of large, antique statues. (I think some of the statues represent the animals of the Chinese zodiac.) That same garden appears as a meeting place in Kung Fu Killer.

FULL STRIKE
Hong Kong, 2015, 108 min., DCP, Cantonese, with English and Chinese subtitles
Director: Derek Kwok, Henri Wong
Screenplay: Derek Kwok, Story Joe Chien, Yim Ka-Yee, Yan Pak-Wing
Cast: Josie Ho, Ekin Cheng, Ronald Cheng, Andew Lam, Susan Shaw
Company: Distribution Workshop

Friday, July 24, 2015, 6:20 p.m.
Concordia Hall Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.

 

The Fantasia International Film Festival runs from July 14-Aug. 4, 2015. Read more about the festival at fantasiafestival.com