This weekend is Chinese Lunar New Year, a cultural landmark that even some of my Chinese friends needed to be reminded is almost upon us. One way you can tell that the holiday is impending is to look for Chinese films at your local movie theater. In the same way that a crop of big budget Bollywood premieres are perennially released in time for autumn’s Diwali festivities, so too are a number of studio-produced would-be Chinese blockbusters released in time for the new year. But blink and you'll miss ‘em: there are only two Chinese films being released at AMC theater chains.
But hey, that's more than you knew were being released last year, right?
China Lion, a relatively new company dedicated to releasing mostly mainland Chinese (and some Hong Kong) films to American multiplexes, will release All's Well, Ends Well 2012 (unrelated to the Shakespeare play, though it is the seventh film in the romantic comedy series that began in 1992 with a film starring the likes of Stephen Chow and the lamentably deceased Leslie Cheung) next Friday and The Viral Factor this Friday. That may not sound like a three-car pile-up but considering that China Lion has heretofore staggered their releases over a matter of weeks (sometimes even a couple months), it's a sign that the Lunar New Year is here.
More importantly, it's a good time to take stock and see what China Lion has released over the last year. Sadly, while the idea behind the new company is great—introducing both established and new fans of popular Chinese/H.K. films to the latest pop cinema—the results have been mostly underwhelming. Don't expect China Lion to bring you prime-grade films from Wilson Yip, a guy that went from making films with titles like Bio Zombie and Daze Raper to Ip Man and Dragon Tiger Gate. Don't get me wrong, Ip Man and Dragon Tiger Gate are both enjoyable in their own ways, but Magic to Win, Yip's latest and most flavorless film in a while, is totally underwhelming.
If last year's worth of releases is any indication, China Lion films are, at best, immediately likable but largely disposable melodramas. My vote for their most, ahem, outstanding title would be 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, a funky little softcore comedy that was a hit in Hong Kong last year thanks to its endearingly unsound use of 3D technology.
Sadly, more often than not, China Lion puts out movies like The Viral Factor, a frenetic but totally shallow and mostly inert action movie starring milquetoast stars Nicolas Tse and Jay Chou. Directed by Dante Lam (Fire of Conscience, Beast Stalker), The Viral Factor is a cop drama high on bathos and lackluster action scenes; Lam and co-writers Candy Leung and Wai Lun Ng haven’t met a cliché that they didn’t like. Two estranged brothers, one an amoral thief (Tse) and one a righteous cop (Chou), reunite in order to fight an evil cartel of corrupt policemen-cum-terrorists. Tse and Chou run around and struggle to remind each other of their similarities.
Between lame plot points, Lam delivers typically frenetic but unpolished action scenes that are distinguished largely by their hints of preposterousness. Early on, Chou’s cop gets shot in the brain, and the bullet is still lodged there throughout the film. Still, he persists in running around and fighting bad guys—with an actual bullet lodged in his brainpan. This is impressive even when you compare it to the scene where Tse stumbles out of a hospital after jumping several stories and landing gracelessly on a car below him. If there were more crazy stuff like this throughout The Viral Factor, it’d be worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, such insanity only serves as garnish for Lam’s otherwise flavorless film.
Thankfully, China Lion hasn’t just released disappointing piffle like The Viral Factor. They’ve also released charming piffle like Love in Space, a romantic comedy about three self-centered sisters that struggle to fall in love, and Aftershock, an epic family drama about two siblings that were separated during the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.
Aftershock is probably the more durable of the two aforementioned titles. Its pseudo-progressive depiction of Chinese history is fairly compelling, if only for the light touch that director Xiaogang Feng (The Banquet, If You Are the One) brings to his film’s series of minor domestic crises. Love in Space does have one of the most charismatic ensemble casts of any of China Lion’s films to date, but, like The Viral Factor, it’s mostly worthwhile for its quirks. (Love in Space is just as cliché-ridden as The Viral Factor, but it’s mostly amiably cheesy.) Aftershock is at least compelling, if sappy, for its core story, which is taken from a novel by Ling Zhang.
So if you want to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a new Chinese flick, fire up your Netflix account and check out Aftershock, now available on Instant Streaming. It’s not a must-see film, but it is as good of a representative of the China Lion brand as you can currently get. Unless, that is, titillating comedies about libidinal enhancement (i.e., donkey penises) are more your thing, in which case you’ll probably want to check out 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. Either way, come for the shrill melodrama, stay for the sincere cheese.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice< andTime Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comic Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut. Simon reviewed 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy here for Press Play.