Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Montana Story

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

In just a short time, Haley Lu Richardson has become one of the most dynamic actresses in American cinema. She has an ability to adapt into whatever locale she is placed in, whether it is suburban California in Edge of Seventeen, a Hooters-esque restaurant in central Florida in Support the Girls, or even in the rough and tumble farms of Montana in Montana Story. Richardson’s naturalistic acting style brings so much life and authenticity beneath the surface of all the characters she plays.

Montana Story feels like it will become a minor work in Richardson’s promising career, but it certainly continues to be a showcase for her immense talent. She plays Erin, a 25-year-old who returns to her family farm in Montana to see her estranged comatose father. Also, there is her estranged brother Cal (Owen Teague), who has been handling the burden of their father alone.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The childhood ranch is a lot like the fractured relationships of this family: rundown, hollow, with no farm animals but a few chickens and an old stallion. A deep rift fissured the family when Erin revealed to the newspaper that her father was covering up a toxic chemical spill at a local mine leading to their father beating Erin half to death, while Cal stood there frozen.

Large landscapes like Montana have always been used as a backdrop to intimate emotions. Half of the best westerns ever made were built on that. However, despite great performances from Richardson and Teague, who are able to create quiet intimacy, the script by writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, often falls to the rote cliché side. This could be fine if the directors had taken the movie in a more melodramatic space like a Douglas Sirk western melodrama, but to stay quietly intimate hurts the film.

The movie also hints at other more interesting aspects of the inhabited surroundings that go strangely unexplored. The Keystone Pipeline protests, and controversy is mentioned on the radio, indigenous characters and actors populate the periphery, and a sweet Kenyan nurse (Gilbert Owuor) taking care of the leads’ father hints at an interesting backstory but never goes beyond. To populate the background with BIPOC characters certainly gives the world more depth but they never go beyond that function. What does it mean to them that Cal and Erin’s father is a man that would cover up environmental crimes? Whatever the case is, Montana Story is an engrossing drama on the effects of abusive parents. None of it is new or surprising, but we continue to see great work from Haley Lu Richardson. Owen Teague holds his own as well. And honestly, sometimes just setting a movie against the beautiful vast landscape of Montana is enough to make a movie worthwhile.

Montana Story was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Neptune Frost

Written by Patrick Hao

60/100

Science fiction narratives have always been more a reflection of the present than about the future. Multi-media musician Saul Williams and Rwandan director Anisia Uzeyman use the genre in their collaboration, Neptune Frost, to make an Afro-futurist musical attempting to navigate the state of present-day Rwanda through the exploitation of First World capitalism in the age of modern technology. If that sounds like mouthful, that’s because Neptune Frost is filled with ambition and provocation but sometimes feels burdened by its capital “T” themes.

The film is set in a dystopic Rwandan village in which the population is being exploited by villagers to mine coltan for tech products. One of the miners, Malatusa (Kaya Free), rebels against the harsh treatment of the laborers and attempts a revolution. In this process, Malatusa forms a romantic bond through a cosmic internet-adjacent connection with the intersex leader of a hacker collective, Neptune (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja). The two actors playing Neptune are used as a physical manifestation of intersexuality and is one of the many manifestations of abstract concepts throughout the film.

The ideas in the film are rich and ripe for exploration. It makes sense that Williams and Uzeyman chose to tell the story in the form of a musical, in which the music allows its songs to bluntly state the themes. The musical scenes are didactic, but in a film that is swirling with ideas and abstraction, audiences may appreciate the directness.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The way the interconnectivity of the internet is portrayed in the film seems especially astute. The chants of the protesting miners start a revolution through its reach. The internet is manifested as a world of metal wires and neon hues and serves as a possible utopia for those under global oppression. The world created is akin to an Electric Zoo festival buoyed by the electric synth soundtrack. But, just as soon as the internet is a tool for freedom, it becomes a tool of oppression as well.

The real asset of the film is the retrofuturist costume and set design that grounds the horror of this modern-day dystopia. The ruins of “future tech” are everywhere in the impoverished village and are designed in a way that grounds it to the modern age. This effectively creates a tangibility to this premonition the same way George Miller did in the original Mad Max. The design also speaks to the cyclic nature of the exploitation of the resource rich continent.

There is a palpable anger and frustration felt by the filmmakers that these cycles are still occurring to this day. But this is not necessarily a cynical movie. Rather the vitality of the music and of the performers point to the pride in perseverance of African laborers. Neptune Frost, however, is somewhere in the middle of being too abstract for a mainstream audience but too narrative driven to truly relish in its abstraction. The film does not always hold together, but its complications and richness points to the complexity of the problems it chooses to highlight. It’s hard to condense thousands of years of anger towards the global exploitation of a country into a 100-minute film.

Neptune Frost Trailer

Neptune Frost was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: As In Heaven (Du som er i himlen)

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

As In Heaven is probably the most unconventional horror film of the year. The scares don’t come from any ghouls, ghosts, or monsters. But rather the oppressive societal and religious norms set upon women.

A veteran director of Danish television, Tea Lindeburg is making her feature film debut with assured style. Based on a 1912 Danish novel, A Night of Death, As in Heaven follows a day in the life of a 19th century teenager, Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl). Her home is a pastoral farm filled with boisterous children and austere adults. Lise is days away from leaving to go to school, a position not many women in the community have.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Linderburg is able to shrewdly capture a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood. She is still young enough to be full of play, but old enough to become desirous. The camera places us into Lise’s perspective, weaving in and out of corridors and fields alongside the children.

Throughout an overwhelming red cloud is cast upon Lise, a very on the nose metaphor of impending doom – the doom being the natural angst created from the tension of strictures of religion and curiosity. This comes to a head as Lise’s pregnant mother begins to have a difficult birth that could end her life.

While the metaphors and themes are on the nose, Lindeburg explores them deftly. She never leaves the POV of Lise as she processes the potential outcomes of her mother’s predicaments. The way Lise views the older adults around her is how we come to view them. From there, the horror develops as the slow realizations of her fate begin to take hold.The 86-minute runtime might be the only thing holding As In Heaven back from being a really great film. Tea Lindeburg packs a lot of ideas into the film, and not all of them get ample amount of time to develop satisfyingly. But, with everything in the news from the vaccination requirement debate to the prevalence of opposition to pro choice rights in Texas, As in Heaven might be one of the most understatedly urgent films at TIFF.

As In Heaven was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

New York Asian Film Festival Review: My Missing Valentine

Written by Patrick Hao

75/100

Hollywood studios used to make romantic comedies – romantic comedies that would be delightful and stirring, and borderline problematic. But they’ve largely ceased making those except for the occasional films that go straight to streaming services and independent features. While Hollywood stopped churning out romantic comedies in favor of action blockbusters (supposedly aimed at international audiences), international cinema has been filling the void. My Missing Valentine, directed by Chen Yu-hsun, is exactly the film that Hollywood should be making and is simply not anymore.

My Missing Valentine, the Best Feature winner of Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars) is a whimsical magical realist romance. The film is split into two segments: “The Missing Person” and “The Missing Story.” The first segment is about Yang Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee), a 30-year-old postal worker who is quite literally one step faster than everyone else. She wakes up right before her alarm rings, arrives to work early, and is always too fast for any rhythmic activity. She is a loner who on the day before Valentine’s Day is beginning to be wooed by a fitness instructor (Duncan Chou). They agree to a date on Valentine’s Day, but Yang Hsiao-Chi wakes up the morning after with a sunburn, her date disappearing, and no memory of the day ever happening. She tries to piece together the mystery from there.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Patty Lee imbues Hsiao-Chi with loads of charm. She and the world around her might be off-beat, but she is firmly rooted in humanity – something other “quirky” movies seem to forget to do. Chen directs the movie with tactile-ness that keeps the magical realism grounded as well. Every flight of fancy is seemingly done with in-camera tricks and simple but effective practical effects. Director Chen buoys all that with a gentle humor that mixes wordplay with slapstick.    

The second segment shifts away from Yang Hsiao-Chi’s perspective to another character, A Tai (Liu Kuan-ting), a bus driver who is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Yang Hsiao-Chi. He is always one step too slow. To tell you more about A Tai’s arc is to give away some of the magic that unfolds in the film.

While more serious in tone, this segment does not relent on the whimsy. For many detractors, the second half of My Missing Valentine presents a problematic pedestaling of Hsiao-Chi, with a bit of incel behavior. But the fanciful nature and eastern spirituality at the undercurrent of the film assuages any sense of creepiness. It helps that the internal logic of the film stays so consistent within itself so that it all seams together coherently. This film is a souffle, in which one minor screw-up in the ingredients would deflate the whole thing. However, My Missing Valentine is a skillful blending of fantasy, romance, and comedy which create a delicate romantic comedy. One that Hollywood simply doesn’t make anymore.

My Missing Valentine Trailer

My Missing Valentine was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021.

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The Gateway

Written by Patrick Hao

28/100

Shea Whigham has the type of face that is able to give the whole backstory of his character. That’s why he has been a stalwart character actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Wolf of Wall Street, and Take Shelter. It’s a wonder why it took so long for Whigham to lead an indie crime film – hell, John Hawkes has led several at this point. The Gateway finally gives Whigham a chance to lead a film, although it does not match the sturdiness of Whigham’s performance.

The film, the second feature from commercial and music video director Michele Civetta, is stuck between a gritty sociopolitical character study and a pulp neo-noir destined to be a spontaneous movie choice by “that” uncle during the holidays. The Gateway, unfortunately, does neither especially well. On the character end, Whigham plays Parker Jode, an ex-fighter turn social worker, who takes an interest in helping a young girl, Ashley (Taegen Burns), and her troubled mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) way beyond his duties as a social bureaucrat. Parker Jode is the classic reserved tough guy – one who feels more than he says. Civetta uses all of Whigham’s weathered wrinkles to his advantage in that regard.

On the crime end, Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He is a triple whammy of a drunk, cheat, and abuser who continues to commit robberies at the behest of local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). When an armed robbery turns violent, Mike decides to stash heroin into his unwitting daughter’s bag, setting the movie into action. Oh yeah, strong supporting characters playing their typecasts appear throughout from Taryn Manning (as a barfly of course), Mark Boone Junior (as a drug-dealing bartender of course), Keith David (as a Keith David type of course), and Bruce Dern (as a doddering cursing Vietnam vet, trying to atone for his sins as the father of Parker Jode of course).

The Gateway is exactly the type of movie you expect from the title, the poster, and the cast. None of it is especially convincing except for Wigham who is trying his darndest to make his world-weary character enough to carry the film. Civetta is not devoid of style. His influences are clear. The film starts out with neon hues like a second-rate Michael Mann and quickly devolves into straight to Redbox over lit tones.

It would have been better if the film decided to lean into its pulpier proclivities. Rather, Civetta and his screenplay written with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas leans into the hard times social message clichés. None of it is particularly convincing or inspiring. It doesn’t help that Olivia Munn and Zach Avery give stilted performances. It’s the chicken or the egg situation – was it the performances or the script that is wooden. The answer is probably a bit of both. Its hard to be too hard on a film like The Gateway. Its aspirations seem minimal, with its only ambitions being a calling card to whomever gets a break from this small film. It does not help the case of Shea Whigham, “Leading Man,” because even as the lead, the film is straining to focus on someone else.

The Gateway Trailer

The Gateway is available in select theaters and on VOD. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021 Review: All U Need Is Love

Written by Patrick Hao

25/100

All U Need is Love is not a real movie. Well that is to say that All U Need is Love is about as real as a movie as The Father of the Bride Part 3 (ish) or the Love Actually Red Nose Day special are real movies. All U Need is Love is a charity special from the Hong Kong Performing Artistes Guild and the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers in association with the ten major Hong Kong film studios. Made during last summer, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this film’s box office was to benefit local film industry workers. That, in and of itself, is admirable. The final results, not so much.

Shot during the height of the pandemic, this star-studded affair centers on a hotel that sees an outbreak of a virus, leading it to go into lockdown to quarantine for 14 days. From there the various guests of the hotel go into various wacky antics and hijinks. There’s the hotel staff trying to get the hotel in order, a couple who were going to get married, two horndogs looking for an affair, two rival triad leaders stuck in the same place, all in the while the ever-present Epidemic Prevention Task Force is looming large around the hotel.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Invariably, it’s a pleasure to see which celebrity is going to show up. Stars would appear in various degrees of importance like Louis Koo, Big Tony Leung, Jackie Chan, Eric Tsang, Michael Hui, Gordon Lam, and even Yuen Qiu as her famous landlady character in Kung Fu Hustle, playing up their various personas. As someone who is familiar but not intimate with many of these personalities, the constant in-jokes just went over my head, even having some actors reprising their roles from previous movies. In that way, this movie seems reminiscent of the charity war bond movies Hollywood used to do in the 1940s like The Hollywood Canteen.

The movie, wrangled together by consummate pro Vincent Kok, has a mixture of genres from action, slapstick, and romance, none of it working very well. As a whole All U Need is Love is like a sampler appetizer platter of what mainstream Hong Kong movies are today. And like most sampler platters, none of it will fill you or be particularly appetizing. The comedy in particular feels dated, tinged with homophobia like it is a National Lampoon movie. The over-the-top reactions of the government to the virus outbreak also feels strangely out of touch especially from the time they filmed it and now, as the world faces rising numbers with the delta strain.

But it is hard to have any strong negative feelings towards a mindless entertainment that is not even really a movie. It is probably more effective than the slew of zoom reunions Hollywood pumped out last year. The aims are admirable and at least it serves as a curiosity piece in the landscape of Covid media. 

All U Need Is Love Trailer

All U Need Is Love was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival and is available to watch virtually through their streaming platform until August 22nd.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Space Jam: A New Legacy

Written by Patrick Hao

25/100

Last month AT&T announced that they were unloading Warner Media to Discovery for $43 billion after less than three years of merging with Warner Media. This also comes after a lengthy battle with the U.S. Court of Appeals for antitrust claims and a bungled roll out of HBO Max. With the merger with Warner, Discovery is looking to combine their newly released streaming efforts, Discovery+, with HBO Max. I say all this as a precursor to discuss what Space Jam: A New Legacy is. It is a cynical piece of work emblematic of the larger problem within the media industry, art being constructed as content and pre-existing IP as the only cache.

This is not to say that the original Space Jam was not a cynical piece of art when it was released. The film was constructed from a popular Nike commercial that paired Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny. The results were an exercise in branding building for both entities – Michael as the most popular athlete on the planet and returning to basketball and the Looney Tunes with their resurgence in popularity with reruns filling up time slots on the newly created Cartoon Network.

It was a surprise then when the online reactions to the trailers of Space Jam: A New Legacy acted as if the film was an affront or a mockery of the legacy of the original. If anything, the new film is the perfect 2021 follow-up: a bloated film that prioritizes corporate synergy and brands over anything of artistic merit. Lebron James, who has been dogged by comparisons to Michael Jordan throughout his NBA career, is also the perfect successor to Jordan, not only because of his basketball prowess. Jordan was the first athlete that truly capitalized on licensing his name and image as a marketing tool. James, taking a cue from Jordan, has become a mogul of far greater magnitude. His empire includes endorsements, sport franchises, production companies, and restaurants.

There really is not much to say about Space Jam: A New Legacy. As a movie it is nothing. It is bad in what it represents and competent but uninteresting in everything else. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself who hopes his son (Cedric Jones) would follow in his footsteps in basketball, despite his son’s proclivity towards video game design. Meanwhile, a sentient Warner Bros. AI named Al-G Rhythm (Get it: Algorithm), played by a game Don Cheadle, wants to use Lebron James’ fame to lure the public into his virtual reality. To do so, Al-G uses Dom’s resentment towards his father and a basketball game in order to trap Lebron. Lebron must team up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Merry Melodies gang to beat him.

As one can imagine, the plot is really a serving dish to the antics that could be drummed up from Lebron James interacting with Bugs Bunny. The result is nothing interesting. But it is curious as to the consistent meta-narratives that these giant corporations drum up for these films. As James is being sucked into the virtual reality, he zooms past planets designated as IP worlds – DC, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and inexplicably Casablanca. It is a real testament to how Warner Bros. views the property that they own. And to have the main villain be a sentient soulless algorithm underscores a self-critique that goes unexplored.

Instead, the film tries to root itself in a hollow message about family – whether it is the Looney Tunes or Lebron and his son. The Looney Tunes themselves have never felt so rudderless. In a movie that should’ve been a celebration of them during a period when their cultural influence is at its lowest, they seem like an afterthought for more important IP’s. At one point a character is involved in a parody of The Matrix that seems out of 2001, until I remember that Matrix 4 is due to be released in Q4 of this year.

Is there a good movie to be made here? Possibly, but Warner Bros. was never going to let that happen. Originally, the film was announced to be written and directed by idiosyncratic filmmaker Terence Nance. Maybe he could have produced something interesting and self-critical. However, while he still has writing and producing credit on the film, Nance was replaced by director Malcolm D. Lee, a safe choice whose career is defined by his workmanlike mediocrity. Lee directs the movie as such. There is no personality, no soul.

Ultimately, this is not a Space Jam: A New Legacy problem. This is the corporate world of movie studios. As more studios create their individualized streaming platforms, movies become an advertisement for subscriptions. Space Jam started out as an ad for sneakers. And now A New Legacy is an ad for HBO Max. What a fitting full circle.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Trailer

Space Jam: A New Legacy is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Fantasia & New York Asian Film Festival Review: Junk Head

Written by Patrick Hao

64/100

If filmmaking is a labor of love, then animation is the 12 Labors of Hercules. It’s a long, lugubrious, and isolating process. For director Takahide Hori, the stop motion animated film Junk Head is one such labor of love.

In a way, the story of the making of Junk Head is much more interesting than the actual film itself. In 2009. Hori, an interior decorator by trade, decided to convert his factory into a movie studio. Like the pioneers of cinema, Hori never intended to make a stop motion film. He discovered that the easiest way for him to make a movie was to simulate movement by taking photos and moving them like a flipbook. The original Junk Head I was finished in October 2013, a 30-minute short film released on YouTube. Encouraged by the positive reception, including from director Guillermo Del Toro, Hori decided to expand on his short film resulting, seven years later, in the 99-minute epic that is Junk Head.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Its incredible to see the results of this one-man production. The credits, which shows some time lapse footage of the over 140,000 photographs it took to make the film, just lists Hori’s name repeatedly. Junk Head is without a doubt the singular vision of one artist, which explains the oddness of the final project. The film has the visual panache of the Quay Brothers with the humor of an Aardman film.

The sci-fi epic takes place in a dystopian future in which humans have discovered immortality through genetic engineering, losing the ability to reproduce in the process. They also created clones to serve as a workforce these clones rebelled and descended into the catacombs of the earth, creating a subterranean society. To discover reproductivity, the above ground society sends down a volunteer to the subterranean world. In the process, the volunteer loses all memory and body. The subterranean race receives this new invader warmly, calling him God, and placing his head onto a body. From there, the film takes us on a journey through the monsters, robots, and world of the underground.

This is not the type of movie where the plot matters very much. It is all about characters and designs. The mole men are styled like steampunk mine workers. They speak in an indecipherable language – a mix of phlegm and gibberish. The monsters are these weird clay creatures that are reminiscent of H.R. Giger with the heads of the Alien form Alien, long bodies, and phallic tails.

To say that the Hori wears his influences on his sleeve is an understatement. Each set piece radiates love and passion for anime and movies. Little tributes to The Matrix, Brazil, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and many other pieces are evident throughout.

In order to reach the 99-minute mark, the Junk Head does tend to repeat itself. The film almost has a video game structure in which God finds himself in a new location and must escape the monster of that setting – rinse, repeat. But the visuals are so striking it is hard not to just be engaged with the mastery of the art. In a way the film may be better suited as an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art than it does for the movie theater.

But, in a film landscape in which movies feel more and more like it is being molded from a pre-formed template, we need more movies like Junk Head. Hori took his boundless creativity, passion, and love to create a singular piece that could have only come from him. The work is onscreen, and that should be celebrated.

Junk Head Trailer

You can purchase a ticket to see Junk Head in Canada from Fantasia Film Festival and in the United States of America at New York Asian Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Fantasia 2021 Film Festival Review: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

Written by Patrick Hao

73/100

Not to be Christopher Nolan, but movies can function as a magic trick. Sure, you can start poking around any logical fallacies or explanations, but to truly enjoy the experience is to allow yourself to be immersed in the hands of a capable director or magician. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes might be one of the best movies as a magic trick in recent memory.

The feature debut of Junto Yamaguchi, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes takes place entirely in a café and apartment upstairs. Shot in a faux one-take style in the vein of 1917 or Birdman, the film follows Kato (Kazunori Tosa) a café owner who notices that the café television set is broadcasting the future to his computer screen. The kicker is that the computer screen can only see two minutes into the future and is limited by what the television set sees.

This leads to a rambunctious series of events and time loops as Kato’s employee, Megumi (Aki Asakura), and a cast of café regulars (Riko Fujitani, Gota Ishida, Suwa Masashi) discovers the “Time TV.” Due to the limitations, the characters run up and down between the apartment and the café to learn about the future and give the future to their past selves. It’s amazing that watching the winsome group of characters perform the same routine repeatedly never gets tiresome.

Shot on a meager $50,000 budget, Yamaguchi’s film follows the sketch comedy logic of “if this is true then what else must be true.” The one take nature of the film’s editing makes the film feel like live theater in that the actors had a  sense of play in their performances. Yamaguchi allows his characters to tease out, experiment, and discover the natural limitations the situation presents them – an aspect that always seems to be absent in other time travel movies. This is also the perfect way to seamlessly ingrain the exposition of the rules into the film. Soon the characters begin thinking of ways to exploit this power that is comically not too powerful. There is only so much you can learn in two minutes. 

Despite the two simultaneous gimmicks – the time travel and one-shot aspect – the film is never engulfed by it. Yamaguchi keeps a lighthearted tone throughout but does not shy away from more heady themes of predestination.  It is interesting the way the characters make the decisions of their future selves to not disrupt time. And at less than 70 minutes, the film is the perfect length: brisk and never wearing out its welcome.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is the perfect kind of festival discovery. The film embraced the limitations of its budget and sets to make something creative and fun. By the end, I was so in awe of the film’s precision that I never once questioned the film’s premise and just embraced the experience. That is true magic.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes Trailer

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is screening as part of the Fantasia 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

New York Asian Film Festival Review: New Dragon Gate Inn

Written by Patrick Hao

66/100

One of the most exciting features to be shown at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is the free retrospective screening of New Dragon Gate Inn. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, a fitting location as New York’s hot summer August weather will match the sweeping desert setting of New Dragon Gate Inn.

You can get your FREE Tickets to see New Dragon Gate Inn here

Although directed by Raymond Lee, New Dragon Gate Inn is writer/producer Tsui Hark’s project through and through. His sensibilities radiate off the screen from the frantic swordplay to its bizarre sense of humor and silliness. Hark’s modus operandi at the time was hopping between classic Chinese genres from Peking opera in Peking Opera Blues to fantasy wu xia in Zu Warriors to a straightforward nationalist historical epic in Once Upon a Time in China.

Therefore, it makes sense in Hark’s prodigious oeuvre to have a film like New Dragon Gate Inn, a remake of the influential 1967 King Hu classic wu xia film, Dragon Inn. The set up is essentially the same: During the Ming Dynasty, a tyrannical eunuch (played Donnie Yen whose performance is delightfully swimming in a river of ham) and his group has begun ruling over the desert region of China. In order to quell resistance groups, the eunuch concocts a plan to draw out the resisting faction by taking the children of a rebellious minister to the desert. From there, Hark’s sensibilities begin to deviate from the original film. Like many of Hu’s wu xia classics, the original Dragon Inn is a classical film that is about chivalric heroism and relies on slow build suspense as the warring factions and warriors meet. Hark’s film is more tongue-in-cheek subversive. And to say Hark’s film goes at a breakneck pace would be an understatement.

The rebels are led by Chow Wai-on (played by Tony Leung or “Big” Tony to differentiate from Little Tony Leung who will be in Shang-Chi later this year) who saves the children from the Eunuch’s forces, and he takes them to safe harbor at the Dragon Gate Inn, ran by Jade (Maggie Cheung). In a macabre twist, Jade runs her inn by seducing and then killing her guests and using their meat as bun filling, making her the Sweeney Todd of the East. As the warring factions meet at the inn, Jade’s best interest is to keep the peace, which is made harder as she begins falling for Chow Wai-on. This is made more difficult with the arrival of rebel warrior, Yau Mo-Yun (Bridgitte Lin) who is Chow’s lover.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

The tangled intrigue of the plot allows for a lot of fun screwball silliness. Maggie Cheung is radiant, proving that she is one of the greatest movie stars to ever grace the screen. A more western audience knows her from Wong Kar-Wai movies (In fact the trio of Leung, Cheung and Lin stars in Wong’s esoteric wu xia epic Ashes of Time just a few years later) or her work with Olivier Assayas. But she had her start working in comedies like Police Story and she gets to exercise her full magnetic star power. She had the comedic sexiness of classic old Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck or Ginger Rogers, which made me wish that Preston Sturges could have utilized her gifts. The seduction scene between Cheung and Leung is a great example of Hark’s mix of legitimate sexiness and slapstick comedy – qualities that are not often associated together. This is not to take away from Bridgitte Lin and Tony Leung, who are both stars in their own right, but Cheung is given the room to flex all the things that made her great as a movie star.

But this is a wu xia film; how is the action? New Dragon Inn is a Tsui Hark production which means the action comes often and comes fast. The action choreography is staged by frequent Hark collaborator Ching Siu-tung who has a controlled chaos to his action. Most of the action is set in the small space of the Dragon Inn which increases how visceral the chaos is. This all leads up to the climatic four-way fight between the three rebel sympathizers and the Donnie Yen, which might be up there in the great scenes in Chinese cinema.

The New Dragon Inn may not have the heft or substance of the original, but it is a hell of a good time. What better way to watch it than with a rowdy hot crowd as part of NYAFF? 

New Dragon Gate Inn Trailer

New Dragon Gate Inn is screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival for free. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.