Monday, September 19, 2011

HK Cinema at SFFS: City Under Siege

Prepare to watch the themes and motifs of the Marvel superhero universe get put through a HK action blender. As the Marvel editors used to say in the 1980’s: ‘nuff said. Produced before his recent epic Shaolin as well as the 3-D blockbuster Captain America (that it parallels in unlikely ways), Benny Chan’s clobbering City Under Siege (down-to-business trailer here), screens this Saturday as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema series.

In a secret bunker in Malaysia, the Imperial Japanese military was perfecting their super-soldier formula. The results were not pretty to look at, but undeniably effective. Fortunately, an allied bombing raid halted the program in its tracks. In more or less present day, Twin-Dagger Sunny is a terrible circus performer, stuck playing the sad clown because nobody trusts him throwing knives. A bit Gumpish, Sunny is forced to help some of his less savory circus colleagues looking to plunder gold from the secret Japanese bunker. Of course, the knuckleheads accidentally let loose a major dose of the mutant soldier formula.

Yet, for reasons never coherently explained, the chemical compounds do not affect Sunny in the same manner as the others. Washing up on the Hong Kong shore (through a set of circumstances borrowing heavily from Dracula), Twin-Dagger finds himself in the Klump fat suit, but once he dries out he resumes his normal skin-and-bones body weight. Somewhat relieved, he happily stumbles across Angel Chan, the gorgeous newscaster who captures his improvised super-heroics on film.

Suffering from the criminal mayhem of Sunny’s freaky-looking fellow mutants, Hong Kong needs a hero. Seizing the opportunity, Chan becomes his agent, putting the affable Sunny on a full media tour (Steve Rogers, can you relate?). They also have the dubious protection of permanently engaged Men-in-Black, Sun “Old Man” Hao and Cheng “Tai” Xiuhua, who are using him as bait to draw in the marauding mutants. Right, good plan.

It is important to understand Aaron Kwok is a huge pop star in Hong Kong, because his underwhelming screen presence does not help Siege anymore than it did Christina Yao’s otherwise striking Empire of Silver. Still, Siege’s all-star ensemble and Benny Chan’s razzle dazzle largely compensate for the weak protagonist.

Frankly, martial arts up-and-comer Wu Jing almost usurps Kwok’s Twin-Dagger, capably carrying the film as Agent “Old Man,” while the charismatic Jingchu Zhang holds her own kicking butt as his intended. Their weaponized acupuncture is also a cool twist, neatly choreographed by action directors Ma Yuk-sing and Li Chung-chi. With Shu Qi looking radiant enough to convincingly inspire the monstrous chief mutant’s beauty-and-the-beast affections and enough pyrotechnics to level a mid-sized city, Siege pretty much hits all the bases.

Sure, Siege can be a touch melodramatic and over-the-top. It is a HK genre film. Viewers have to check their film snobbery and the door and get down with the chaos. There is definitely a lot of the latter, rendered with appropriate adrenaline. It also suggests the action pairing of Wu Jing and Jingchu Zhang is worth repeating in future films. Highly entertaining for fanboys, Siege screens Saturday afternoon (9/24) and Sunday evening (9/25) at the New Peoples Cinema as part of SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema showcase.