Herman Yau Capsule Reviews
Don’t Fool Me (1991) — June 14, 2019
Herman Yau’s second directorial credit is a Cinema City-esque light comedy made significantly better than it should be by Andy Lau and Tony Leung at their most adorable. Teresa Mo and Fenny Yuen aren’t bad either, and Yau keeps things moving with an interesting flash of technique here or there among all the madcap farce. But the most important thing about the film is Anthony Wong’s magnificent perm.
The Untold Story (1993) — June 29, 2019
Absolutely brutal filmmaking from Herman Yau. The first half setting up a typical, if ultra-gory story about a serial killer and the goofy, lazy, casually misogynist cops who are hunting him down. Then halfway through they catch him and, rather than gather evidence or anything, spend the second half of the movie trying to torture a confession out of him, with the approval of both the legal and medical institutions of Macau. Then, when he finally does confess, Yau gives us the full extent of his crime in flashback, in all its bloody, child-murdering horror. Just how evil does a guy have to be before we OK the police torturing him?
A successor to Dangerous Encounters-First Kind and the On Fire films in its omnidirectional indictments of society, but pitched more explicitly to the grindhouse crowd while at the same time implicating them (us) in our culture of casual cruelty and violence.
Taxi Hunter (1993) — June 19, 2019
Herman Yau Falling Down knockoff with Anthony Wong as an insurance agent who starts stalking Hong Kong’s terrible cab drivers after one of them wrecks his car and extorts money from him, and then another one drags his in-labor wife to death.
The wild mix of tones, Ringo Lam’s bloody streets at night plus Wong Jing style antics in the form of Ng Man-tat’s absurdist cop, is Anthony Wong and Yau in a nutshell. Political anger rendered with gleeful gore and deep silliness.
Ebola Syndrome (1996) — April 14, 2016
The cinema is Anthony Wong engulfed in flames running through the streets of Hong Kong yelling “Ebola! Ebola!”
Walk In (1997) – April 28, 2023
Weird, not especially funny body-switch comedy from Herman Yau with Danny Lee and Dayo Wong. When Jacklyn Wu is the funniest person in your comedy, you’ve probably got a problem. Some good action though, including a very destructive car chase between two double-decker buses.
Troublesome Night 3 (1998) — June 26, 2019
Such an unusual mix of moods. What seems like it should just be an anthology of horror stories set around the workers at a mortuary, the first one a nifty little Twilight Zone episode about celebrity obsession, the second an extended bit of slapstick horror about respecting the dead, turns in its final third into something deeper and sadder than it has any right to be. There’s a twist to this final story about the suicide of a friend, a requisite bit of horror revenge, but Yau doesn’t seem to really believe in it. What he lingers on instead is the sadness, the sense of loss and failure of the survivors, especially Louis Koo, younger than I’ve ever seen him, though he was already 28 when this was released. It’s impossible not to read this in the context of the Handover, the recognition that the good, silly times have come to an end and a whole world has died.
The Untold Story III (1999) — June 30, 2019
On its surface, an oddly slight movie. There isn’t much of a mystery, and all the police work basically consists of listening to the killers explain what they did and why. But it's unsettling in its normalcy in a way the more garish 1993 films (Taxi Hunter, the first Untold Story) are not. It goes without saying it’s also very darkly funny.
There’s something of an allegory for Hong Kong or China or capitalism about four youths pushing a friend into becoming a loan shark, borrowing a bunch of money from him, living it up on the borrowed cash while it lasts, and then incompetently killing him when they can’t pay it back, dooming themselves to a long life of guilty misery for transient, short-term pleasure.
From the Queen to the Chief Executive (2001) — July 1, 2019
The Untold Story exploited true crime for all its gory details, both on the part of the criminal and the institutions prosecuting him. The Untold Story III found the true horror (and dark, dark humor) in the crime, both in what it does psychologically to the killers and in the inability of the police to build a case against them. From the Queen to the Chief Executive dispenses with the prosecutorial part of a horrific crime and asks instead what we do with the perpetrators decades after their actions. If, as we recognize, young criminals, teenagers, are a product of subhuman conditions, abuse by family members, hellish living environments, then what do they need to do before they can be allowed to reenter society?
A procedural about the efforts to have the sentences of 23 men, sentenced as juveniles to indefinite detention (at “Her Majesty’s pleasure”), made determinate in the months before the Handover, wherein they’d be lost in a legal limbo. Yau focuses on three people: the legislator who tirelessly advocates for the men (his big debate in the LegCo is one of the most harrowingly infuriating of Yau’s career, despite being the exact opposite of exploitation filmmaking); a young man who, as a 16 year old, participated in a brutal gang rape and murder of a couple in a public park (Yau doesn’t linger on the murder, but gives us it in brief, disconnected flashes, a nightmare made real); and a young woman who befriends the convict who had herself attempted to murder her aunt 12 years earlier, but got away with it (legally at least).
It’s a bit like In the Name of the Father (though there’s no doubt about the guilt of the perpetrators), a bit like Spotlight (in its procedurality). There are many anti-death penalty movies, but I don’t know of any movies about sentencing, that ask us to consider what the difference is between a 15 year sentence or a 40 year sentence or a life sentence. Yau is clearly on the side of the young people here, but mostly he’s against the government that makes its decisions not based on beliefs about justice, but on political and personal expedience.
Cocktail (2006) — October 26, 2014
A low-rent Wong Kar-wai circa My Blueberry Nights vibe, as directors Herman Yau and Long Ching (Yau is a veteran, this is Long’s first and only credit as far as I can tell) tell a few stories about life in a snazzy Hong Kong bar. Mostly we get the story of a quiet new hire (Paul, played by Endy Chow) with a penchant for creating colorful drinks and a haunting memory of his alcoholic father, but also the story of a businessman who’s mistreated by his boss, the mysterious past of the bar’s sad and generous owner Candy (played by Candy Lo), and some romantic complication between Paul and the adorable bartendress who shows him the ropes (Stella, played by Race Wong). The colors are blue and neon, the motion often slow, and the mood late night melancholy.
The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010) — April 1, 2019
It’s at least three different movies, only one of which is any good — the one that one has a bunch of really cool fighting in it. The rest is either undercooked (the romance with Lam Suet’s daughter) or just bizarre (Japanese sleeper agents infiltrating Chinese martial arts clubs for reasons I guess).
I like Dennis To, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to do anything interesting since. Apparently he was in the Jeffrey Lau movie that came out last year that I haven’t seen yet.
Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) — April 3, 2019
Anthony Wong gives the second best performance in any Ip Man movie, after Zhang Ziyi in The Grandmaster.
I know how genes work, but it still weirds me out how much Timmy (Son of Sammo) Hung looks like a skinnier version of his dad.
Better than the first Herman Yau Ip Man movie mostly because of Wong but also because the ridiculous third act action sequence (in this case an all-out brawl in the middle of a typhoon in the Kowloon Walled City) is slightly less ridiculous. And also the whole Eric Tsang sequence is pretty fun. The fighting is much better in the first one though.
The Mobfathers (2016) — June 11, 2016
Stars Chapman To and Anthony Wong have made themselves personae non grata on the Mainland due to their outspoken support of 2014’s Umbrella protests, and The Mobfathers is a thinly veiled political allegory in the guise of a zany and gory Triad comedy. To carries the film with one of his most gleefully amoral performances (a far cry from his ugly and unpalatable Black Comedy, but not as actorly as his fine work in Pang Ho-cheung’s 2006 film Isabella). Anthony Wong dusts off his Ebola Syndrome voice to play the vampiric godfather at the center of the film, manipulating the local Triad election to his desired end (which is, of course, keeping all the power for himself) regardless of any standard of morality or tradition, while To attempts to lead a democratic insurgency: a call for universal Triad suffrage. Where a movie like Ten Years is so self-serious in its political critique that it moves past floundering bluntness into a kind of virtuous purity, director Herman Yau and To keep things light with a liberal amount of sex and blood, until the crushing ending, when dreams of a democratic future are quashed in an orgy of state-sanctioned violence. As To said during the post-screening Q&A at the Seattle Film Festival when asked if democracy was possible in China (or Hong Kong), “Don’t think too much, this is just a movie. Don’t be too serious; go home and get drunk.”
The Sleep Curse (2017) — November 13, 2017
Herman Yau >> Michael Haneke and all his children put together.
Anthony Wong as a mad sleep scientist. A movie shouldn’t need any more selling than that.
Collective guilt passed down through the generations makes cannibal zombies of us all.
77 Heartbreaks (2017) — November 14, 2017
One of four movies Herman Yau released this year and I’m pretty sure it’s better than the Andy Lau action movie (Shock Wave) or the Anthony Wong horror film (The Sleep Curse), both of which are pretty good in their own right (I haven’t yet seen Always Be with You). A neat premise: a woman buys a notebook which is designed to track how many times her boyfriend breaks her heart, the theory being that 77 times is enough and she should move on. The story starts with the breakup and parallel timelines track the relationship to its endpoint (via the reading of the notebook) and what the two principals do with themselves post-breakup. It’s extremely similar to Pang Ho-cheung’s Love Off the Cuff, but the two films take very different, but equally satisfying, approaches to the Grand Reconciliation Gesture finale. Pakho Chau makes a very good heel as the boyfriend, while Charlene Choi is excellent as the girlfriend, and Michelle Wai, Kara Hui, Anthony Wong, Gillian Chung, and Francis Ng are a great supporting cast. The bright, popping colors and weird POV shots keep things lively.
The Leakers (2018) — December 17, 2018
Herman Yau’s old-fashioned thriller The Leakers is a conspiratorial procedural set amidst the medical/pharmaceutical industry that has been ripe terrain of late for aged Hong Kong auteurs (see also John Woo’s Manhunt, Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire, and Johnnie To’s Three). Given Yau’s political outspokenness, it’s no surprise that his film is the most explicitly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist of the bunch, tracing the corrupt ties between a major drug-maker and the governments with whom they operate. In this case, the company unleashes a variation it has created of the Zika virus, and then sells the cure to desperate sick people at enormous profit. Attempting to uncover the conspiracy are a mysterious group of whistleblowers (the Leakers) and a pair of cops, one a strait-laced type from Malaysia (Julian Chung), the other a slob from Hong Kong (Francis Ng). While the odd couple pairing is cliché, Ng underplays it compared to, say Corey Yuen in Yes, Madam or Anthony Wong in Beast Cops, somewhat surprising given that Ng is one of Hong Kong’s most reliably weird actors. Instead, most of the arguments between Ng and Chung are over food, namely Ng’s constant consumption of it and Chung’s refusal to even try any of it. Those little character beats and a handful of solid suspense sequences and car chases are enough to make for a solid thriller, though The Leakers pales in comparison to the three films Yau made in 2017: the romance 77 Heartbreaks, the horror film The Sleep Curse, and the similarly old school thriller Shock Wave.
A Home with a View (2019) — June 28, 2019
I used to live in a pretty crummy area of Federal Way and commute 30 miles along I-5 into Seattle for work. There was one section of the commute where there was a gap between run down shops and car lots where I could peek out at the blue water of Puget Sound. Every day I took my eyes off the road to catch a brief glimpse of it, even though it probably wasn’t the safest thing to be doing. So what I’m saying is, I understand how the loss of even a small slice of nature in an urban hellscape could drive a family completely insane.
The middle section of this is also a really twisted allegory of the Chinese censorship process. Louis Koo in this scenario, a guy who erects a garish billboard (advertising something at moustachebeer.com) on his rooftop apartment and calls it art, would be the heroic Hong Kong filmmaker, brazenly conflating art and commerce (at one point he cites Andy Warhol to prove there’s no difference between the two) and subverting the bureaucratic remedies of his neighbors (an apparently loving collective ultimately revealed to be lunatics).