Tag Archives: Donnie Yen

Fantasia Festival Review: Raging Fire

Year: 2021
Runtime:  126 minutes
Director: Benny Chan
Writer: Benny Chan, Ryan Ling, Tong Yiu-ling
Cast: Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Qin Lan, Ray Lui, Ben Yuen, Ben Lam, Ken Lo, Carlos Chan, Patrick Tam, Jeana Ho, Kenny Wong, Deep Ng, Simon Yam

By Harris Dang

Set-in modern-day Hong Kong, “Raging Fire” (2021) tells the story of police detective Bong (Donnie Yen), a resilient man who is renowned in the police force for his incorruptible mind and his steadfast attitude towards police justice, almost to the detriment of his colleagues. But not all of his success was achieved through smooth sailing when his past comes back to haunt him when a police raid goes wrong, leaving many cops dead and heavily injured.

Enter Ngo (Nicholas Tse), a hardened, unruly and tortured criminal who leads a crew in becoming hired mercenaries. The crew were all formerly cops and Ngo was Bong’s partner. But 3 years ago, a choice was made that changed their relationship and their lives forever, leading the two to a fiery showdown filled with vengeance, corruption and of course, plenty of explosions and fisticuffs.

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“Raging Fire” is the last film from acclaimed Hong Kong director Benny Chan, who recently passed away during the film’s post-production due to nasopharyngeal cancer. His most known film is the 1989 romantic crime drama A Moment of Romance(1990) which wowed critics and audiences with its passionate direction for and from all involved so that it has long since been in popular culture and still resonates today. He is also known for his contributions to creating stellar bouts of action and his equally explosive drama, including his numerous collaborations with Jackie Chan and his many “cops and robbers” flicks.

After his box office and critical flop “Meow” (2016) (which was meant to be a respite away from action blockbusters), he is now back in form with “Raging Fire”, an action-packed experience that displays his talents as well as some positives in his direction that are quite surprising. With a lot of his work, Chan’s handling of the drama in his storytelling tends to veer into farce as he does not know when to stop leading to unintentionally hilarious moments evident in films like “The White Storm” (2013), “New Police Story” (2004) and “Divergence” (2005).

Yet surprisingly, Chan has a stronger handling here, knowing when to end the scene when the drama hits its peak. One scene involves Bong fighting a crime boss in a sewer and it culminates into a bout of rage that would have veered into comedy . There still numerous amounts of scenes where cops declare that they are cops to other cops – yes, it is as silly as it sounds – but considering Chan’s film output, it is a noticeable improvement for Chan and it really should be commended.

Chan also gets a better handling out of his actors. With numerous supporting actors (many of them being collaborators of Chan) that all add credibility to their roles regardless of screen time (including Qin Lan, Simon Yam, Ben Yuen, Ray Lui, Jeana Ho, Deep Ng, Kenny Wong, Patrick Tam and more). Yen does the tough maverick cop role in the part of Bong in his sleep but it is his understated moments that truly stand out, particularly in a scene in the third act that involves a contemplative reflection that could have been amusingly cheesy.

Tse is compellingly explosive in the role of Ngo. Over the years, Tse has played several villains (including the boisterously campy role in Chen Kaige’s fantasy epic “The Promise” (2005)) but in “Raging Fire”, he is able to combine convincing rage (similar to his role in Dante Lam‘s crime film “Beast Stalker” (2008)) and an element of unpredictability to create a memorable foil for Yen.

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But what readers are really looking forward to reading about is the action. How does it fare? With Li Chung-chi handling the car stunts, Yen being the action director and Kenji Tanigaki, Ku Huen-Chiu and Chris Collins behind the action, you can expect the best. The set pieces are grounded considering the genre framework but they pack a punch both physically and creatively. In a small yet inspired moment in the choreography, Bong is battling numerous goons in a shack as they try to enter in the vicinity. Noticing that the goons have knives, Bong takes off his bulletproof vest and wraps it around his arm to avoid being cut.

Another inspired moment is when Yen stages a fistfight between himself and Tse while he is driving a car and Tse is riding a motorcycle with the two vehicles entangled in a position that makes the melee feel refreshing and exciting. It also helps that the fight scenes are populated with actual martial artists including former Jackie Chan stunt team members Ken Lo and Ben Lam and Donnie Yen stunt team members Yu Kang and Kenji Tanigaki, and even Nicholas Tse.

It feels satisfying to see Yen and Tse go head-to-head and not just because they are hero and adversary. Tse has collaborated with Yen before in the 2006’s martial arts comic book adaptation “Dragon Tiger Gate. With Yen at the helm of action direction, he has trained Tse before so to see the two go from master and student to equals felt strangely empowering. The two engage in fisticuffs that range from brutal use of weaponry (including knives, batons and sledgehammers), the use of MMA in the choreography (showcasing grappling and jiujitsu) and utilizing the environment for their own means (being set in a church that is yet to be completely constructed, the use of pianos, windows, scaffolding) to maximum impact and it exhilarates.

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As for the film’s flaws, Chan was never really into giving his female cast members anything to do (although Jeana Ho is almost unrecognizable as one of Bong’s crew) and Qin Lan (who is credited in the main cast) has bafflingly little to do here but worry for her husband and wait to be rescued. There are some unintentionally amusing moments that are due to China’s film censorship including the fact that the villains are from Vietnam (hilariously called the Viet Gang) because the Chinese would never cause major crimes(!), only outside foreigners do. Other flaws are that some of the stunts are noticeably CGI and lastly (which is almost inevitable) is that some of the English subtitles are riddled with errors. At one point, Yen is berating his colleagues and the subtitle actually says, “Are you farting with me?”

Overall, “Raging Fire” is a fitting swan song from Benny Chan that showcases all of his skills in conjuring the best of action spectacle and providing top-notch blockbuster entertainment.

Yet in this reviewer’s eyes, we have lost one of the greats in Hong Kong cinema. His handling of both drama and action in the extreme may not have been the best but his work was always engaging in a way that made the audience feel emotionally involved. Considering the tedium in action cinema today, it is a wonderful thing.

You will be missed.

4-stars

“Raging Fire” will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.

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Review: Mulan

Year: 2020
Runtime: 115 Minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Stars: Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

By Valerie Kalfrin

“Mulan,” Disney’s latest live-action update of an animated film, is a disappointment. Part of that is beyond the film’s control. Streaming exclusively on Disney+ because of the global COVID-19 pandemic (and costing an additional $30 fee), “Mulan” is a grand-scale adventure with sumptuous costumes and set design, sweeping vistas, and elaborately choreographed action and martial arts clearly meant to be seen on a big screen.

Yet it also falls short in terms of story and character development, particularly for its protagonist, the first and only East Asian member of the Disney Princess franchise. It’s hard to imagine fans of the 1998 animated “Mulan” not feeling that this version shortchanges Mulan’s best qualities, in spite of the efforts of Yifei Liu (“The Assassins”) as the lead and the rest of the venerable Asian cast. Even those unfamiliar with the animated film’s endearingly down-to-earth warrior may find difficulty connecting with her emotionally this time around.

“Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” gives its heroine superpowers through chi, or “boundless energy of life itself.” She can easily vault over any hurdles in her way.”

Both films are based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a young woman who during the Han dynasty dresses as a man to take her aging father’s place when he’s ordered to serve in the army. This decision at the time was considered deceitful and courted death. But because of her bravery, integrity, and skills on the battlefield, Mulan wins over her male colleagues and gains the confidence to embrace who she is. She’s an unusual woman, but to paraphrase the animated film’s song “Reflection,” she doesn’t have to wonder anymore whether the face she shows to the world reflects who she is inside.

Director Niki Caro (2002’s “Whale Rider,” 2017’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) is a good fit for such a story about self-acceptance, and she handles the action and pageantry well. Production designer Grant Major gives Mulan’s village and the royal palace splendor, and the score by Harry Gregson-Williams weaves in melodies from the animated film’s songs.

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Prepping for battle in “Mulan” (©Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDB.com)

But the smaller moments and Mulan’s inner journey feel lacking, even with four screenwriters on board: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (both of “Jurassic World”), and relative newcomers Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek.

This version changes several points from the animated film, such as making the invaders the Rouran instead of the Huns. But most significantly – and discomforting – it gives Mulan superpowers.

They’re not called as such – her father (Tzi Ma) in a voiceover explains that she has strong chi, or “boundless energy of life itself.” But this setup makes it tough to feel that Mulan is ever in any danger, or to see her character grow.

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Mulan with her battalion (©Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDB.com)

As a young girl (an impishly playful Crystal Rao), Mulan flips onto a third-story roof, slides down the tiles, catches herself with a staff, and lands expertly on the ground, an acrobatic feat worthy of Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, or Jet Li (here, playing China’s emperor). She can easily vault over any hurdles in her way.

Ma (“The Farewell”) is a warm presence who clearly doesn’t have the heart to tell Mulan that “chi is for warriors, not daughters,” but the plot requires him to say heavy-handed phrases like “hide your gift,” “silence your voice,” and “know your place.” His wife (Rosalind Chao, “The Joy Luck Club”) emphasizes that Mulan’s only way to bring honor is to marry well, just as in the animated film. But because of Mulan’s added chi, she’s also concerned that their daughter will be outcast as a witch.

Mom is right to worry because the invading army has a sorceress on its side: Xianniang, a shape-shifter played by Li Gong (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). She transforms into a hawk – her costumes alone by Bina Daigeler are to die for – acting as a scout for leader Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee of TV’s “Hawaii Five-0,” who relishes playing the villain).

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Li Gong in “Mulan” (©Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDB.com)

Xianniang also has trained the Rourans in wuxia-style combat where they run up walls and catch arrows in midair. (Think 2002’s “Hero” or 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”) Mulan keeps pace with them feat for feat, dodging arrows with backbends and kicking spears out of people’s hands behind her back.

“Introducing magic does give Mulan an intriguing relationship with Xianniang, who knows what it’s like to be a powerful woman who is feared and misunderstood. Yet their scenes together feel rushed, as does Mulan’s overall conflict.”

Liu’s physicality is impressive; she reportedly did the majority of her stunts. She also has amiable chemistry with Honghui (Yoson An, “The Luminaries”), a fellow soldier replacing the animated film’s captain Li Shang as her love interest. A scene where the two spar during training is an amusing bit of flirty one-upmanship.

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Jet Li in “Mulan” (©Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDB.com)

Introducing magic does give Mulan an intriguing relationship with Xianniang, who knows what it’s like to be a powerful woman who is feared and misunderstood. Yet their scenes together feel rushed, as does Mulan’s overall conflict. Once Mulan reveals her identity, it’s not long before her colleagues accept her, including the stern and traditional Commander Tung (Donnie Yen, the warrior monk of “Rogue One”).

Incidentally, this “Mulan” has no tiny dragon guardian, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, or a cute cricket sidekick. But it does give Mulan a guiding phoenix and a fellow soldier named Cricket, played by Jun Yu of TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” And Ming-Na Wen (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), who voiced the animated Mulan, appears in a splendid cameo.

In Disney’s hands, Mulan’s story always did lend itself to spectacle. The animated film includes set pieces such as an avalanche that Mulan triggers to bury the enemy’s forces. But she remained a relatable character who was thrilling to watch because of her doubts, strength, empathy, and wits. It’s a shame that someone decided she needed a sprinkling of pixie dust.

stars