Soi Cheang Capsule Reviews

Soi Cheang Capsule Reviews

New Blood (2002) — July 21, 2020

Extremely spooky low-budget ghost story about one half of a double suicide haunting the three people who donated blood and thus saved the life of the other half. Like an extremely fucked up remix of Rouge.

Aside from the obvious craft, this may be most interesting as a kind of dark foreshadowing of director Soi Cheang’s SPL 2, both revolving around donation (blood, organs) as a literal connective tissue between otherwise isolated and lonely people, disrupted and twisted into evil by a lack of consent on the part of the donator (SPL 2) or the donee (New Blood).

The Death Curse (2003) — October 24, 2014

For the most part a rather underwhelming haunted house film (father invites his seven (eight? I forget) estranged children to visit him, then dies, mysterious things ensue) almost totally redeemed by an intricately constructed finale that points the way forward to the ingenious devices director Soi Cheang would later employ in Accident.

Love Battlefield (2004) — October 19, 2014

A man and a woman meet and fall in love on vacation. We see their life together unfold in quick edits and voiceovers, not always in an immediately intelligible order. One day, several years later, they’re about to go on vacation to Europe. When they discover their minivan has been stolen, the ensuing fight breaks them up instead. Director Soi Cheang freezes the frame ever so slightly at this moment: what had been the story of a relationship on fast-forward is about to become something else entirely. It seems their car was stolen by a gang of criminals, and when the man (professionally an ER nurse) randomly encounters them, he’s taken hostage and dragged through the city as they attempt to make their murderous way to safety. The desolation of a breakup, and the desperate drive to get back together after realizing your mistake, is externalized as a bloody Hong Kong crime saga.

It’s not as slickly composed as Cheang’s Milkyway films (Accident and Motorway), and it’s much more hectic in pace (both those later films are very much about trying to slow down the chaos of Hong Kong’s criminal life, or at least its crime genre films). Cheang piles flashbacks and side characters one on top of the other but always returns us to those first idyllic moments in the Chinese countryside. It’s most reminiscent of some other attempts at fusing Hong Kong crime and romantic melodrama, like As Tears Go By or The Odd Ones Dies, but it isn’t as cool as the first nor as gloriously weird as the latter.

Eason Chan plays the lead, and Niki Chow is his girlfriend. One of their friends is a cop, played by Carl Ng, son of comedian and 80s icon Richard Ng. Another is Raymond Wong Ho-yin, who is not the producer/writer/actor Raymond Wong who starred in three of Johnnie To’s early films, that’s Raymond Wong Pak-ming, nor is it the Raymond Wong who’s composed many a Johnnie To and Stephen Chow score, among dozens of other Hong Kong films, that’s Raymond Wong Ying-wah. This Raymond Wong is much younger, seen mostly in smaller roles in Milkyway films. He’s pretty great here though.

Motorway (2012) — April 25, 2014

I suspect this is the Milkyway Image version of the Fast and the Furious movies, but I haven’t actually seen any of those yet so I can’t be sure (edit: I've since seen most of them, they really aren't similar at all).⁠ It is a movie with Anthony Wong playing the veteran cop a few days from retirement trying to corral his hotheaded young partner as they track down a notorious getaway driver. With lots of screeching rubber and engine revs, though with a neat twist that the car chases aren’t about speed and crashes so much as stealth and maneuverability, raising the suspense level while keeping the budget down.

Wong playing the old cop here, like Simon Yam in a similar role in Milkyway’s Eye in the Sky, makes me feel ancient.

The Monkey King (2014) — November 18, 2014

An effects-spectacular miles removed from director Soi Cheang’s early films, or even his glossier work for Milkyway Image. Taking a cue from Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors films, Cheang completely eschews realism in an attempt to capture the lunatic logic of mythology. Donnie Yen plays the hero, buried by makeup and CGI in a fidgety performance that looks something like what would happen if Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover touched a brain-switching idol at the same time. The elements of the Monkey King legend are all there, manifested in an ultra-bright world of floating mountains and palaces, hidden waterfall glades and buried hells and even an undersea kingdom that looks like someone pirated a hard drive from The Phantom Menace. Some of the fighting is pretty neat, with Chow Yun-fat (as the Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven) and Aaron Kwok (as the Bull Demon, ruler of the demons) flying more convincingly than did Tsui’s Zu Warriors. The story of the Monkey King remains potent, an anarchic figure that struggles against the strict obedience dictated by rule-giving gods, striving towards freedom and immortality, but Cheang leaves most of it latent, hitting the high points melodramatically and quickly moving on to the next crazy image. Kwok and Chow are basically left to personal charm as a substitute for characterization, which works fine for Chow, because he’s the best.

The effects aren’t state of the art, at least in terms of what the Hollywood machine is able to put out. And compared to the visions in some of the wilder comic books out there, or even a random Ghibli film, they aren’t tremendously innovative, but they do look pretty good, with plenty of things I’ve never seen before. It’s brightly lit and spatially coherent, which is more than you can say for any Marvel movie, at least. Stephen Chow’s Monkey King movie from last year, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, is much more heartfelt and more engaging, and just as compelling to look at.

Added February 13, 2018:
Even more cartoonish than I remembered. Not just the CGI, of which the film is almost entirely made and which looked cheap at the time and even cheaper now, but in Donnie Yen’s hyper-twitchy performance as the Handsome Monkey King. Donnie has a lot of strengths as an actor, but broad physical comedy is not one of them, especially when covered head to toe in elaborate make-up. So much of the film is phony, from the animation to the animal-human hybrid costumes, that one thinks Soi Cheang must have been going for some kind of Flash Gordon-esque campiness.

But the construction of the narrative doesn’t fit with that tone at all. This is the Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven narrative, the prologue to the Journey to the West. But the simple narrative of a headstrong and arrogant consciousness refusing to follow the rules of divine order, Soi Cheang and his writers contrive new motives for the Monkey King’s rebellion. He’s being manipulated by the Bull Demon King, who finds himself in the role of Milton’s Satan, cast out of Heaven for his own rebellion. But even that isn’t enough: both rebellions have to be sourced in romance. The Bull Demon is in love with Princess Iron Fan and she abandons heaven to live with him among the demons (she’s pregnant the whole movie, but there’s never any sign of their son, the Red Boy). And the Monkey King is in love with a fox spirit, which Bull Demon uses to manipulate him into rebelling against the Jade Emperor.

This is all trash Hollywood screenwriting book nonsense: characters aren’t allowed to be motivated by ideals, only by romantic passion. The incongruity between the narrative and the visual and performative tone of the film, between elementary psychological realism and flamboyant artifice, is simply too great and the film just falls apart. Only Chow Yun-fat can square that circle, and while his performance as the Jade Emperor is the best thing in the film, it’s not enough to save it. It’s just not fun.

SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015) — October 14, 2015

One aspect of 2010s Hong Kong cinema that I’m particularly enjoying is the repeated and obsessive destruction and piecemeal deconstruction of Louis Koo’s body. That side of him as a performer was always there (see for example Love for All Seasons or Throw Down), but the Overheard series really kicked his disintegration into high gear. Here, his lifelong organic failures drive the demented scheme of the plot, drawing together the various characters in a web of (meta-)physical connections.

Also, why did it take so long to get Tony Jaa in a Hong Kong film? He has more lines here than in all the Thai films I’ve seen him in put together. He can actually act, more or less.

Added April 26, 2016:
The two most physically-gifted martial arts actors of their generation (Wu Jing and Tony Jaa) vs. Zhang Jin, who was Zhang Ziyi’s stunt double in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Also: Soi Cheang getting metaphysical, Simon Yam being old and tenacious, and Louis Koo physically disintegrating, again. One of the top three or so martial arts films of the decade thus far.

The Monkey King 2 (2016) — February 4, 2016

An improvement on the first film, I guess, but Soi Cheang still seems lost in the cheap swirl of Chinese CGI. Not fanciful enough to be truly weird, not felt enough to be really deep. Can’t wait for Tsui Hark’s sequel to Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West movie. The first one was better than Cheang’s films in every possible way, can’t imagine how great one could be with Tsui in charge (edit: it ended up being merely OK).⁠

Added February 13, 2018:
Unlike the first film in the series, I liked this one a lot more the second time around, which may have something to do with the fact that the first time I saw it was via a poor screener on my laptop. Not only is the CGI much more competent, it’s vastly more inventive. Basically everything with Gong Li’s White-Bone Demon is terrific, her performance, the effects surrounding her (love her her demonic essence keeps getting knocked out of bodies, realizing the spiritual conflict within her visually, something that only the Tang monk understands), and even the climactic fight scene, which builds on Harryhausen’s animated skeletons into the overblown chaos of the 21st century digital blockbuster, while still retaining some humor, scale, and coherence.

Aaron Kwok I think is much better as the Monkey King. Less twitchy than Donnie Yen, his anger and frustrations are more believable coming out of his essential stillness. It’s a more restrained, less-experimental performance, but it serves this much more serious film a lot better. William Feng is a lot better as Xuanzang (the Tang monk) than Kris Wu is in Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West movie. Glad to see he’ll be back for the third one, along with the next Detective Dee movie and the upcoming adaptation of The Three-Body Problem. But Wen Zhang in Conquering the Demons is I think still the best of the recent Tripitakas.

I think this compares favorably to the Tsui Hark movie in pretty much every respect. It’s just as exciting to look at, but more focused and less bogged down by rehashes of material from the first film. Which makes sense, since the first Monkey King isn’t very good, while the first Journey to the West (Stephen Chow’s) is great. I wonder what would happen if you just swapped them, and considered this to be the sequel to the Chow and the Tsui to be the sequel to the first Monkey King. I kinda think all four would play better that way.