South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN), alleged to be Asia’s largest genre-specific film fest, celebrated its twentieth go-round this year from July 21-31 with more than 300 feature-length and short films from around the world. These offerings included a wide variety of horror, science fiction, fantasy, dark comedy, and action movies. In this article, I will provide brief reviews about four Asian action films that I saw at BIFAN.
The most entertaining of the lot for me was director Ham Tran’s Bitcoin Heist (AKA Bitcoins Heist, Vietnam, 2016), a fun, big-hearted effort loaded with verve and charm. Some twists and turns work while others miss their mark, but this effort always unabashedly reaches for the brass ring of being a crowd pleaser.
Special Agent DaDa (Kate Nhung) assembles a team of criminals — think Suicide Squad but with a bunch of lovable everyman rogues instead of super villains — to apprehend The Ghost, a hacker wanted by Interpol. The ragtag team includes pickpocket-turned-magician Jack Magique (Petey Majik Nguyen), who happened to have once had something romantic going on with DaDa; an accountant for The Ghost (Teo Yoo) who seeks police protection for his assistance in finding the criminal; a father-and-daughter grifter duo (Jayvee Mai The Hiep and Lam Thanh My); and a computer game champion who just happens to also be a highly skilled hacker (Vietnamese rapper Suboi).
As astute potential viewers might guess, there is little honor among thieves once things get rolling, providing both gags and tension. Things get a bit overblown at times, but Bitcoin Heist revels in its excess with a stunning color palette, intriguing set design, exciting action sequences, and dynamite cinematography. I highly recommend this film for viewers seeking some action fare that will make them smile.
Another feel-good — or in this case, feel-good-eventually — offering is the entertaining if unoriginal Chongqing Hot Pot (China, 2016), from director Yang Qing. If you have been out of the loop regarding Asian action films recently, this movie is a fun way to catch up, serving as a kind of crash course or greatest hits approach to the genre’s output of the past few years.
Three friends want to unload their struggling hot pot restaurant. To make it more attractive to potential buyers, they do some illegal renovation construction in an effort to expand the space. The trio accidentally digs its way into a bank vault, which naturally could either help dreams come true or turn lives into nightmares. Two different criminal gangs are involved with subplots: one attempts a bank robbery while the other hassles one of the restaurant co-owners for overdue gambling debts. Naturally paths cross on the road to a funny, suspenseful climax that, alas, doesn’t hold any real surprises.
Cast members give it their all despite rather cliched characters, including a no-goodnik gambling addict with a soft side [Chen Kun] and a middle-school friend [Bai Baihe] who has hidden her secret feelings from him until now. Fight sequences are well choreographed and action-packed. Chongqing Hot Pot has enough spirit to overlook its bringing little new to the table.
Whereas the first two films I discussed are big on energy and action, Sammo Hung’s first directorial effort since 1997, The Bodyguard (AKA My Beloved Bodyguard; China, 2016), is heavier on pathos. Hung, a long-time favorite action star of mine, also stars as Ding, a retired Central Security Bureau officer who is dealing with the early stages of dementia. A young neighbor girl named Cherry (Jacqueline Chan) and a flirtatious landlady (Li Qinqin) do their best to perk him up, but Ding mostly spends his days regretting the fact that his granddaughter went missing while under his care many years earlier.
When Cherry’s father (Andy Lau) attempts to cheat a deadly criminal gang, the bad guys come after the girl. Thankfully, Ding still has his old martial arts skills — or at least a few of them. Hung’s action sequences consist mostly of blocking opponents’ hand strikes with his own arms and hands, and his offense is also limited to the upper body — save for one brilliant professional wrestling move that is done with a rather obvious stunt double. Other characters pick up the action slack a little more, but the styles are rather generic and the fights seem far too few.
The main crux of the film is the drama behind Ding possibly making peace with his troubled past before his dementia worsens. The drama can get heavy-handed at times, but I must admit that the ending was rather effective and I found The Bodyguard touching.
I have never seen the original 1981 Sailor Suit and Machine Gun film, so I cannot compare it with what is being billed as its new “spiritual sequel,” Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation (Japan, 2016). Graduation looks amazing and boasts good performances, outstanding sets, and first-rate cinematography, but it lacks in sizzle. A film centered around a teenage schoolgirl who heads up a yakuza gang should have a certain zing to it, and after all, the movie promises a machine gun in its title. Unfortunately, little is delivered in the way of excitement.
J-pop singer Kanna Hashimoto charmingly plays Izumi Hoshi, a high school student who assumed leadership of the Medaka gang after her uncle was assassinated; she has since given up her criminal ways for a more modest lifestyle. Her former underlings now help her run a small cafe. The Medakas’ peace pact with former rivals the Hamaguchi gang is threatened when the latter group is apparently recruiting some of Izumi’s classmates as escorts and also selling a new form of drug to her fellow high school students. Yasui (Masonobo Ando in an “Aren’t I dastardly?” scenery-chewing performance), a gang boss who hides behind seemingly legitimate corporate fronts, arrives in town, adding to the chaos. Izumi makes an alliance with a Hamaguchi member (Hiroki Hasegawa) and restarts the Medaka gang, breaking the peace pact.
Graduation tries to balance coming-of-age story, social commentary drama (particularly regarding aging populations in Japan), and crime film elements, but director Koji Maeda’s effort falls flat in trying to have something for everybody. The film never finds its own singular voice. Graduation feels like it is always on the edge of cutting loose and getting bonkers, which would elevate it to the level that many fans of Japanese crime films would expect, but alas, that never happens. Instead, the film feebly settles for being an attempted feel-good entry in the yakuza film subgenre.