Wet Season (热带雨) review

For F*** Magazine

WET SEASON (热带雨)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast : Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: M18

2013’s Ilo Ilo was hailed as one of the best Singaporean films in recent memory, winning awards at international film festivals including Cannes and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Critics and filmgoers were keenly watching the film’s young writer-director Anthony Chen to see what he would do next. After executive-producing and co-writing the anthology film Distance, Chen has returned to the director’s chair with Wet Season. This film has already been making the festival rounds, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival and receiving six nominations for the Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann.

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) is a Malaysian-born Chinese language teacher at a secondary school in Singapore. She has been trying for a baby with her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) for years. Andrew works in finance and is too busy at work or entertaining clients to spend much time with Ling. Ling is also responsible for caring for Andrew’s ailing father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), a stroke patient. When Ling holds a remedial class in school, only one student, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), shows up. Wei Lun appears to have been neglected by his parents, and Ling gradually takes a liking to Wei Lun, sending him home from school in her car. She also shows up to support Wei Lun at an wushu competition where he is representing the school. Ling and Wei Lun find solace in each other, but they soon become inappropriately close.

Wet Season takes what could easily have been a trashy, sensational premise and approaches it from a very sensitive, thoughtful point of view. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances surrounding its two main characters, never seeming like it’s racing to a big, dramatic plot point. Malaysian Yeo Yann Yann has repeatedly proven herself as a remarkable, subtle actor, and her performance here is as affecting as ever. Ling’s deep sadness manifests in every gesture, every glance – one can tell that great care was taking in developing the character both by Yeo and writer/director Chen.

Koh Jia Ler’s playfulness and youthful energy serve as a great foil for Yeo’s more subdued performances. Chen does a great job of juxtaposing Wei Lun’s immaturity against Ling’s maturity. Both are different characters, and while Ling is better developed, it doesn’t feel like Wei Lun is just a caricature either.

Veteran Chinese theatre actor Yang Shi Bin is remarkably convincing as Ling’s disabled father-in-law. Chen told the press that overseas film journalists thought that he had cast an actual stroke patient in the role.

The more cynical among us might view Wet Season as calibrated to play well at overseas film festivals. Its combination of controversial subject matter with the specificity of the Singapore setting means that to a European or American journalist, it might feel like a textbook critically acclaimed foreign film. That’s not to take anything away from the immense work that Chen and his cast and crew have sunk into this, but the thought was at the very back of this reviewer’s mind.

Ling’s husband Andrew is meant to be an unlikable character, but Christopher Lee’s performance lacks the nuance that his co-stars bring to the table. It sometimes seems like Andrew has wandered out of a Chinese-language drama aired on Channel 8.

The film features beautiful cinematography by Sam Care that enhances the contemplative nature of the movie and emphasises stillness, but it’s the sound design and mixing that stands out even more than the visuals. The film’s sound department includes sound designer/supervising sound editor Zhe Wu and production sound mixer/supervising sound editor Li Chi Kuo. As the title suggests, Wet Season is set during a period of high rainfall. The film features no non-diegetic music, such that the rainfall serves as the movie’s soundtrack and as a kind of inner monologue for Ling. It’s a creative decision that serves the story well, enveloping the audience in atmosphere and drawing them into the story.

The challenges faced by the characters in the film are easy for many around the world to relate to, but the setting is deliberately very Singaporean. One of the themes in the film is how students have an aversion to learning Chinese, and how schools place the language as a lower priority than subjects like Mathematics or English. The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is also touched on, and a subplot involves caring for an elderly relative, a responsibility many Singaporeans undertake. The movie never comes off as preachy, weaving all the issues it addresses into its narrative fabric.

One technique that Chen uses to increase verisimilitude is showing characters on the toilet. This is carried from Ilo Ilo. One wouldn’t usually see a character on the toilet in a movie, so this makes the movie feel more like real life. There is also a scene in which Ling’s father-in-law soils himself; the camera never shying away from the mess.

Wet Season’s premise, coupled with the fact that its protagonists have previously played mother and son, might set tongues wagging, but Chen approaches the subject matter with enough careful nuance. It’s a sad, moving film that rarely goes straight for the tear ducts, and by the time we get to a big, dramatic emotional beat, it is well earned.

Summary: Anthony Chen’s portrait of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student is layered with heart and a sprinkling of humour. The film feels thoroughly authentic and is anchored by its excellent leads, Yeo Yann Yann delivering a powerhouse performance without doing anything overwrought.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Knives Out review

For F*** Magazine

KNIVES OUT

Director: Rian Johnson
Cast : Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, K Callan, Noah Segan, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz
Genre : Mystery/Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 27 November 2019
Rating: PG13

Writer-director Rian Johnson has recently become known for helming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and is working on forthcoming Star Wars spin-off films. He had intended to make an Agatha Christie-inspired film after finishing Looper, but made The Last Jedi first, now returning to that idea.

On the night of his 85th birthday party, renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies of an apparent suicide in his study. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called upon to investigate alongside Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). The detectives interview Harlan’s family, including his children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon) and their respective spouses Richard (Don Johnson) and Donna (Riki Lindhome). Also present are Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and his grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell). The one person who might hold the key to the mystery is Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who became the author’s friend and confidant in his last days.

As startling revelations are made and the web of intrigue expands, the truth seems ever more elusive.

Knives Out is deliciously funny, dark and crafted with the utmost care. Johnson brings both a forensic eye to detail and a razor-sharp wit to the proceedings, assembling an intricate mystery. The movie functions both as an affectionate parody of classic whodunits and as an excellent example of a whodunit. Knives Out is filled with plants and payoffs, feints and misdirects, all executed with a master’s touch. Johnson achieves a tonal balance such that the winks and nods largely do not detract from the absorbing, ever-deepening mystery at the story’s core. Early on, one character comments that Harlan practically “lived in a Clue board,” which sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Johnson works with his usual editor Bob Ducsay and usual cinematographer Steve Yedlin to make a film that is not only narratively clever, but visually clever too. Much of the film consists of closeups of the actors’ face, inviting audiences to read said faces for clues. As with any good whodunit, it’s not just the “who” that audiences will care about, but the “why” and the “how”.

Knives Out is intended as a throwback but is also set in present day. While the political context to the story makes sense and does add dimensions to it, some pop culture references seem a bit out of place. The Hamilton one works, but the Baby Driver reference less so. Sometimes, the movie winks just a bit too hard, like when a character is literally watching Murder, She Wrote on TV. It is also easy to miss a lot of the film’s subtlety because of how broadly comedic it appears on the surface.

Johnson has gathered a fantastic ensemble cast. It would take far too long to talk about just how good each actor is in their roles, so we’ll mention a few highlights.

Just like in Logan Lucky, Daniel Craig sports a Southern accent that is deep fried and slathered in cream gravy. It is unconvincing but amusing and Craig, much funnier than most give him credit for, is clearly enjoying every second of this. Benoit Blanc is a pastiche of the “gentleman sleuth” archetype and seems to be mainly patterned after Hercule Poirot. Benoit is prone to colourful figures of speech and especially flowery turns of phrase – Craig delivers one monologue about donuts and donut holes with impeccable comic timing.

Ana de Armas will share the screen with Craig again in next year’s Bond film No Time to Die. Her Marta is probably the most fleshed-out character in the film. She’s a hard-working immigrant who is unwittingly drawn into the devious machinations of a wealthy family clamouring for a piece of the inheritance. De Armas is easy to root for, but there’s also just enough room to suspect her.

After being the embodiment of decency as Captain America, Chris Evans gets to kick back as an arrogant, flippant trust fund playboy, in a performance that will remind audiences a bit of his turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are all very watchable, as expected, and add to the texture of the story even if there isn’t a great deal to their parts. Lakeith Stanfield is the ideal straight man to react to this absurdity. Christopher Plummer ties everything together with a knowing manner and a twinkle of his eye – at 89, the thespian hasn’t missed a step.

Each actor contributes something special to Knives Out, and part of Johnson’s talent is in identifying what that contribution is and magnifying it.

Summary: Writer-director Rian Johnson turns genre conventions on their head while staying true to the spirit of the classic murder mystery, crafting an utterly delightful whodunit that reels one in. A talented ensemble cast brings the ceaselessly clever screenplay to wicked life. Equal parts twisty murder mystery and a humorous deconstruction of that genre, Knives Out is a hoot.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Last Christmas review

For F*** Magazine

LAST CHRISTMAS

Director: Paul Feig
Cast : Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Patti LuPone
Genre : Drama, Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: NC16

Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is an infectiously inescapable ditty during the Holiday Season. This comedy directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy fame and co-written by Emma Thompson is inspired by the song. What plot can be mined from the lyrics of this beloved Christmas song/breakup anthem?

Kate (Emilia Clarke) has been plagued by a string of bad luck. She works in a shop selling Christmas decorations and is constantly berated by her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). She has had several one-night stands end disastrously, unsuccessfully auditioned for various shows on the West End and is a burden on all her friends. Kate doesn’t have the best relationship with her family who immigrated to the UK from former Yugoslavia and is always being nagged at by her mother Adelia (Emma Thompson). Kate’s luck seems to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a cheerful young man who is always telling her to “look up”. However, she can’t quite figure Tom out or pin him down. Tom guides Kate on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to put her life back together.

Last Christmas is sometimes charming thanks to a role that fits Emilia Clarke well and because of its Christmastime London setting. Londoners will be the first to tell you that it isn’t the most romantic city in the world, but when dressed up in fairy lights and shot by John Schwartzman, it is very pretty. The Yuletide store where Kate works is in Covent Garden, and Last Christmas depicts London in full-on fairy tale winter wonderland mode.

In addition to Clarke, the cast is good. Michelle Yeoh has a knack for playing characters who are outwardly stern but ultimately good-hearted, as her “Santa” character is here. Henry Golding is every inch the dashing, sweet and confident rom-com leading man. Emma Thompson’s role is largely comedic, but there’s also some sadness and unarticulated frustration there that she plays well.

Musical theatre fans will also enjoy the random cameo by Broadway superstar Patti LuPone, which she likely filmed while doing Company on the West End in 2018.

Last Christmas utterly overdoses on twee. It is trying to be reminiscent of Love Actually, but the story is all over the place and the movie seems to think it is much cleverer than it really is.

Clarke may be trying her best and she may suit the part well, but Kate as a character often borders on annoying. The by-now tired “manic pixie dream girl” archetype seems to apply to both Kate and Tom here. Kate is klutzy and dysfunctional, while Tom opens her eyes to the magic that is all around her and that she’s just never noticed. Sharing the cliché between two characters doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

If you go back to look at the comments sections for this film’s early trailers, you can see people call the big reveal even back then. The movie’s twist has been done before and been done much better, such that when we’re told what has really been happening, it’s more likely to induce eye-rolls than gasps.

The screenplay was written by Thompson and Bryrony Kimmings, with Thompson and her husband Greg Wise receiving screen story credit. There are several ideas in the script that barely get explored, including that of the immigrant experience in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as well as how the homeless and less fortunate spend their holidays. Kimmings is an artist known for her socially conscious work and one can tell that there is an attempt to make Last Christmas more meaningful than your average romantic comedy, but none of this really gels together.

In addition to “Last Christmas”, various other George Michael songs appear in the movie. The Kate character is a huge George Michael fan, and the film begins with a young Kate singing “Heal the Pain” with a church choir. The film also includes a previously unreleased track, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)”. While the filmmakers’ affection for Michael’s music is palpable, it isn’t integrated into the storytelling that well. A key plot point is inspired by a horrifyingly literal reading of one George Michael lyric which is far more morbid than sweet.

If you love George Michael and have romantic fantasies about Covent Garden in the winter, maybe you’ll get something out of this, but otherwise this is an incredibly muddled romantic comedy that is a strange and discordant mishmash.

Summary: Last Christmas attempts to turn the romcom formula on its head, but by introducing various other elements into the mix, we end up with a Christmas pudding that leaves an odd aftertaste.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Frozen 2 review

For F*** Magazine

FROZEN 2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast : Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Animation, Musical
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG

In 2013, Disney’s Frozen, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, became a worldwide phenomenon. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing animated film (until this year’s remake of The Lion King, if one defines that as ‘animated’). “Let It Go” became all but inescapable, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It seems like making a sequel would be a no-brainer, but the filmmakers took some time before committing to making Frozen 2, beginning work in earnest in early 2015.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is settling into her role as the queen of Arendelle, but a mysterious voice that only she can hear beckons her to journey beyond the castle. Elsa initially resists, but when she realises that this voice reminds her of a lullaby her mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) used to sing, she is compelled to venture forth. Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven join Elsa on her journey. They travel to the enchanted forest of Northuldra, which has for years been shut off from the outside world by a thick veil of mist. Revelations come to light as Elsa reckons with the secret origin of her cryokinetic powers, and the sisters learn truths both beautiful and hard to face about their family history.

One can see why directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were initially hesitant to make a sequel to Frozen, because it has become difficult to separate the phenomenon from the movie itself. Frozen’s immense popularity brought about backlash and cries that it was overrated, and it’s easy to forget how good the movie was. Frozen 2 does not merely do everything the same is about something.

It is a spoiler to say what exactly some of Frozen 2’s themes are, but it does address the ideas of growth, change and maturity. After everything the characters have been through in the previous film, there is a sense that they’ve arrived, but the events of Frozen 2 push them further along in their character arcs. The sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna remains the beating heart of the film and there are genuinely emotional moments between them, especially when Anna feels that Elsa is still not trusting her fully.

The animation is superb, and the movie features multiple set-pieces in which the animators get to flex their prowess. Water and hair, elements that are notoriously difficult to realise with computer-generated imagery, are rendered beautifully in the film. The forces of nature feature heavily in the narrative, with wind, water, earth and flame all imbued with a dynamism and a consciousness. Also, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous – Elsa is given several show-stopping outfits that look like the world’s classiest figure skating dresses.

There is also a very cute salamander named Bruni, who is like a smaller, happier distant cousin of Tangled’s Pascal. He is very Pokémon-esque and we want one.

While it is commendable that Frozen 2 tackles heavy themes, the movie sometimes strains under the weight of this and is not fully able to support the exploration of those ideas, which requires nuance and time. There is a conversation about the movie’s themes of how history is framed to be had between parents and kids, and not every parent will be up to the task of explaining what Frozen 2 is really about in a kid-friendly way.

While Frozen 2 tries new things and is not a straight re-tread of the first film, there are times when it seems like it’s obligated to deliver what audiences love about the first. We’ll talk more about the songs next, but there are a few that feel like analogues of songs from the first movie and can as such come off as derivative.

Frozen 2 puts great emphasis on the characters from the first film and gives Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf more to do. However, this is sometimes at the expense of the newer characters, such as the likes of Northuldrans Yelana (Martha Plimpton), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) and Arendellian Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) feel somewhat perfunctory.

If you weren’t a fan of Olaf in the first one, Josh Gad is ever so slightly more annoying here, but there are several moments involving the character that work.

Music is arguably an even bigger part of Frozen 2 than the first one. Songwriting team Kristen and Robert Anderson-Lopez return from the first film, alongside composer Christophe Beck. The songs are a mixed bag: some are good and others feel somewhat derivative. The big number “Into the Unknown”, which is pitched as this movie’s “Let It Go”, can’t help but feel like inherently less than “Let It Go”. Thematically, it is the ‘refusal of the call’ stage of the archetypical Hero’s Journey in song form. It does feature a good use of countermelody, with Norwegian singer Aurora giving voice to the mysterious entity that calls out to Elsa.

The filmmakers seem to have realised how woefully underused Broadway star Jonathan Groff’s singing voice was in the first film, and as such have given Kristoff more songs. He gets what is arguably the film’s best number, “Lost in the Woods”, a playful riff on 80s-90s boyband ballads that is reminiscent of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “You’re the Inspiration”.

The haunting lullaby “All is Found”, performed by Evan Rachel Wood, is analogous to “Frozen Heart” from the first film. It conveys a sense of foreboding but is also an emotional anchor to the piece.

The end credits feature pop versions of the film’s big songs: Panic! At the Disco sings “Into the Unknown”, Kacey Musgraves sings “All is Found” and Weezer sings “Lost in the Woods”. Brendon Urie’s famous four-octave rage gets showcased nicely in “Lost in the Woods”.

There’s an authenticity to Frozen 2, which is respectful of the Nordic culture that is its inspiration. The filmmakers were unable to take the customary research trips for the first film, but made it a point to visit Iceland, Finland and Norway during pre-production on Frozen 2. One of the most interesting elements of Frozen 2 is itself an elemental, an entity called the Nokk that takes the form of a horse and with which Elsa has a dramatic encounter. The contrast between the fairytale-like Norway and the ancient, mythic Iceland is meant to represent the difference between Anna and Elsa.

Part of what’s interesting about Frozen 2 is the battle between being its own thing and being the sequel to Frozen, and the filmmakers have mostly struck a good balance here. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

Frozen 2 has a lot to live up to and delivers both breath-taking animation and a substantial story. While the strain of the weighty themes can sometimes be felt and some of the songs feel like also-rans versions of songs from the first film, Frozen 2 is mostly a lively and engaging experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wira review

For F*** Magazine

WIRA

Director: Adrian Teh
Cast : Hairul Azreen, Fify Azmi, Ismi Melinda, Dato Hilal Azman, Dain Iskandar Said, Henley Hii, Yayan Ruhian, Josiah Hogan
Genre : Action
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG13

PASKAL: The Movie, released in 2018, was one of the most successful Malaysian action films ever released. That film’s director Adrian Teh and star Hairul Azreen have followed that up with Wira, an action film of a different stripe. Where Paskal was a military movie, Wira has a heavy focus on martial arts, featuring MMA and silat.

Hassan (Hairul Azreen) is a commando who has taken an early retirement to return to his hometown, where his sister, MMA fighter Zain (Fify Azmi), is in trouble. She is indebted to local kingpin Raja (Dain Iskandar Said), a tyrant who outwardly appears to be a legitimate businessman. Hassan reunites with his father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) and his childhood best friend Boon (Henley Hii), now a police inspector. Hassan must get in the ring alongside his sister, battling Raja’s equally cruel children Vee (Ismi Melinda) and Rayyan (Josiah Hogan). The battles Hassan must fight are not only in the ring, as he eventually faces off with Raja’s lethal head of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian).

Wira is undeniably an achievement for Malaysian action cinema. Director Teh set out to make a film featuring a high standard of action choreography and design, and the fight scenes in Wira are largely spectacular. In addition to playing Ifrit, Yayan Ruhian of The Raid and John Wick: Chapter 3 fame choreographed the fights. The fight between Hassan and Ifrit is an absolute showstopper, while a brawl in a moving bus is another standout sequence. Some of the fights even have the energy of the famous hallway sequence in Oldboy. Hairul Azreen moves with speed and precision and clearly knows what he’s doing. Fify Azmi’s performance is especially impressive considering this is her acting debut.

In addition to the action, there’s an old-fashioned sincerity to Wira that is quite charming. The story is straightforward to a fault, but the brother-sister bond between Hassan and Zain is a credible one. Dato Hilal Azman is a warm and steadfast presence as their father Munas. There is enough to the characters that we can care for them, and the scope is much more focused here than in Paskal, which had to distribute its attention across the various members of a Navy strike force.

The plot of Wira is basically that of Walking Tall: our hero returns from military service to his sleepy hometown to find that it has become overrun with thugs in service of a ruthless businessman, and now he must fight for his people and for the place he grew up in. It’s an utterly predictable story and audiences might find themselves twiddling their thumbs in between the fight scenes. The first half of the film, which involves lots of set-up, is slower than the second half.

Respected director Dain Iskandar Said is clearly having fun playing the cigar-chomping big bad of the piece, but the Raja character can sometimes come off as too cartoony. He also has a penchant for almost arbitrarily switching between English and Malay when he talks, speaking mostly English but then saying a few words or phrases in Malay for emphasis. It is somewhat distracting.

Some of the film’s attempts at humour are likely to be a hit with the crowds who will watch this in Malaysian cinemas, but otherwise feel jarring juxtaposed against the intensity of the rest of the proceedings. Comedians Zizan Razak and Jack Lim show up as two thugs and basically do a lot of mugging for the camera that gets quite annoying. Thankfully, there is not too much of them.

Star Hairul sustained three tears to the ligaments of his ankle while filming a scene that required him to fall from the second storey to the first, because he landed on his feet rather than on his back during one take. Fify Azmi was also hospitalised and has said in an interview that some days were so physically taxing she would immerse herself in an ice bath at her mother’s house.

The film has hidden a connection to Paskal at the very end of the film, and intends to create a cinematic universe of Malaysian action heroes. We wonder how they will explain Hairul Azreen playing two separate characters in Paskal and Wira.

Summary: Wira is slickly produced and pushes the art form of the Southeast Asian action film forward. The story is nothing to write home about and the villains are generic, but it has enough explosive energy to warrant a watch from action movie junkies.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wira the Champions: Interview with Wira director Adrian Teh and stars Hairul Azreen and Yayan Ruhian

For F*** Magazine

WIRA THE CHAMPIONS

The stars and director of Wira talk making the Malaysian action movie

By Jedd Jong

From left: Yayan Ruhian, Adrian Teh and Hairul Azreen

One of the biggest films to come out of Malaysia in recent years is PASKAL: The Movie, an action film about an elite Malaysian Navy strike team who take on a gang of Somali pirates on the high seas. Director Adrian Teh, who has directed comedies like The Wedding Diary and its sequel and King of Mahjong, is now synonymous with the action film genre. He has followed up Paskal with Wira, which means “Hero” in Malay.

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Wira tells the story of Hassan (Hairul Azreen), a young commando who retires early to return to the village where he grew after learning that his father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) and his sister Zain (Fify Azmi) are in danger. Zain has followed in her brother’s footsteps to become an MMA fighter, taking on increasingly dangerous fights. The fights are organised by local kingpin Raja (Dain Iskandar Said), who under the guise of being a legitimate businessman and developer, keeps the residents of the village firmly under his thumb as he runs a massive drug and gambling operation. Hassan gets back into the ring and faces off against Raja’s goons, including his mysterious and formidable chief of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian).

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Hairul Azreen, who in addition to being an actor is a martial artist and a former stuntman, starred in Paskal and is also known for his performances in Police Evo 2 and Operasi X.

Yayan Ruhian in Wira

Yayan Ruhian, an Indonesian silat instructor, has become an action star after starring in Merantau, The Raid and The Raid 2. Yayan can also be seen in Hollywood films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Beyond Skyline and John Wick: Chapter 3. In addition to playing Ifrit, he serves as the action choreographer on Wira.

Adrian Teh on the set of Wira

Director Teh and actors Hairul and Yayan were in Singapore to promote Wira and spoke to F*** at the Grand Park City Hall hotel. Teh spoke to us in English, with Hairul and Yayan speaking in some English and in translated Malay and Indonesian, with Teh and an interpreter assisting. They discussed how Wira marks a milestone for Malaysian action movies, revealed a particularly painful injury Hairul sustained making the movie, the process of designing the action sequences and working with Dain Iskandar Said, himself a renowned director.

F*** MAGAZINE: Adrian, this is your follow-up to Paskal. What made you want to make Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I’ve always wanted to do this kind of action film, which is [realistic] fighting scenes. In Malaysia, before Wira, I think the level of action choreography has been the same. The level has been stagnant for a while – when people want to do action films in Malaysia, it always will be “like that, like that, like that”. I wanted to do Wira because I wanted to have a breakthrough in the level of choreography and fighting scenes in a local action film. I’ve wanted to do that for a while. The success of Paskal proved to my investors that there is a market for action films Malaysia. After Paskal, they are more convinced to give me the budget for Wira.

Bus set

Adrian, there is one shot in this movie I really love – during the fight on the bus, the camera leaves the window, goes outside the bus, then comes back in the back window, all in one move. How did you film this sequence?

ADRIAN TEH: This is the reason why I hoped to have a breakthrough in terms of Malaysian action films. This is one of the shots I achieved in Wira. The whole bus fight scene took a lot time to plan, to prep and to think how it can be achieved. It combines two sets of filming: one is on [location], plus a studio shoot. We spent a lot of time studying how to get the best out of that scene, and how we can combine the studio scene with the [on-location] scene. Not only that shot, there are a few shots in the movie where we really thought of it and really gave a lot of hard work and preparation to it. The most important element to it is the fighting, is the choreography, the details to each fighting scene. I’m kind of happy with the end product.

Bus fight on location

Hairul, which fight scenes did you find the most challenging?

HAIRUL AZREEN: For me, it’s the one shot, one take – I needed to jump from the second level to the ground floor. I tore three [ligaments] in my ankle. We continued the next day. That was very hard for me, but we did it.

Fall from second storey

ADRIAN TEH: To compare the shot you mentioned just now and that shot, that one is actually technically even more challenging for us to shoot.

Ismi Melinda and Yayan Ruhian on the set of Wira

Abang Yayan, we have seen how Hollywood is influenced by the action cinema of Asia, be it Hong Kong movies, Thai movies and Indonesian movies. From your experience Hollywood, what do you feel the stuntmen there learned from you, and was there anything you learned from them?

YAYAN RUHIAN: I have made movies in Indonesia, in Hollywood and now in Malaysia. They are practically all the same, but the same feeling that I had filming The Raid and in Hollywood is what I felt filming Wira. I believe this movie will be a milestone for Malaysian film like we’ve never seen before, and this might be the next big action film. This is at an international level, like The Raid and like John Wick. The Raid and Wira show that filmmakers in Southeast Asia can create something as good as Hollywood.

Fify Azmi and Hairul Azreen in Wira

The movie is also about family. How did you come up with the story for Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I started out by wanting to work on an action film like that, then I started looking for a story. Paskal is about a group of Navy personnel who sacrifice their lives and their time with their family to serve their country, that’s the big theme of Paskal. As a creative person, I tried to do something completely [different] with Wira. This time around, it’s about a commando who decides to retire early to go back to his kampung and rescue his family. In Paskal we talked about country and in Wira we talk about family.

Hairul, one of the important elements of the movie is the bond between Hassan and Zain, the audience must believe that they can fight back-to-back as a unit. what was it like working with Fify Azmi, and how did you develop the brother-sister bond between the two of you as actors?

HAIRUL AZREEN: Fify is a newcomer, first time acting. I needed to be comfortable with her on set and in training. The bonding that I tried to develop with Fify had to take place off the set so we could both feel comfortable when we act. We had to train together for three months.

Adrian Teh and Hairul Azreen rehearsing a scene in Wira

Adrian and Hairul, what was the transition like from Paskal to Wira?

HAIRUL AZREEN: It’s different: with Paskal, [the focus was on] tactical armed combat. My characters Arman and Hassan are also different. Arman is a straightforward guy. Hassan must save his family, his sister, so I think they are very different.

ADRIAN TEH: It’s more taxing for him to be in Wira than Paskal, physically and in terms of screentime. In Paskal, we had a team, an ensemble. For Wira, it really depends on him. For me, working on Paskal and working on Wira [presented] two different sets of challenges, but I enjoyed working with Hairul again.

Yayan and Ruhian in Wira

Abang Yayan and Hairul, the whole movie is building up the fight between the both of you, which takes place simultaneously with the fight between Fify Azmi and Ismi Melinda. Did you feel the pressure because there would be so much anticipation to see this scene?

YAYAN RUHIAN: No, because we enjoyed doing the fighting. We prepared for a long time.

ADRIAN TEH: I think because of the bootcamp, because of the training, they enjoyed the sequence. It’s not like they are not familiar with [it] and had to force themselves to memorise it; they can do it with their eyes closed. They’re very familiar, very comfortable with the action.

Yayan Ruhian and Hairul Azreen filming the fight scene in Wira

HAIRUL AZREEN: Acting with Abang Yayan is awesome because I feel like I’ve touched Hollywood. It’s such a thrill. Abang Yayan is a legend, but he is so humble and down-to-earth. For a legend like that to sit next to me and hang out with me is incredible.

It can get so intense on a film set, so it’s important to have a good temperament.

ADRIAN TEH: That’s very important, I agree. Abang Yayan has a very good temperament. He is very firm, but very tolerant of others.

Dain Iskandar Said in Wira

Adrian, Dain Iskandar Said is a director himself. What was it like working with him, and did he offer any advice or did he say to you “you are the director, I am the actor, you tell me what you want in this movie”?

ADRIAN TEH: This is the question I get the most frequently from the media. He is a legend[ary] director in Malaysia, everybody knows his work. You’d be surprised, he’s actually a very good actor. He’s very professional on set, he will never try to overstep his role. He will give me different options in his performance for me to choose [from]. When we wanted to cast him, he did not believe me. He said “come on, you just want me to make a cameo, right?” I said “no, I want you to be the main villain of the movie.” He was like “Are you sure?” and I said “I’m very sure”. He insisted that I ask him three times before he accepted the offer. I had already wanted him, I was dead sure I would cast him in the role, but he asked me to audition him three times. Only then, he said “Okay, now I can act.”

Adrian Teh on the set of Wira

What did you learn making Paskal that you brought to Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I think I am more thorough with Wira. I paid more attention to detail with Wira. Technically and the time I had with my actors. In Wira, I had a relatively smaller group of actors than in Paskal, so I get to work with my actors in Wira better. Riding on the back of Paskal, there definitely was pressure, so I spent more time on Wira.

Yayan Ruhian and Hairul Azreen in Wira

Abang Yayan, there’s something so mesmerising about watching you fight, the way you do silat. I think there is a difference between what looks on camera and what would actually be effective in a real fight, and the way you fight has the best of both worlds: it looks so cinematic, but also looks like it would really hurt somebody. How do you attain that balance in your fighting?

YAYAN RUHIAN: It’s different, because in front of the camera, it’s not just the killing technique, but the beauty technique, that’s the difference. To kill someone, I think it’s very easy. Beauty fighting is very important in front of the camera. In front of the camera, we need to make the fighting look like real fighting.

Adrian, that’s something you were aiming for right, something that felt authentic?

ADRIAN TEH: Yes. That’s the level of choreography and the level of action we are trying to present to the audience.

Adrian Teh and Yayan Ruhian on the set of Wira

Adrian, there are many ways that filmmakers plan out and prepare fight scenes, including storyboards, animatics and stunt-viz, filming the stunt performers in the gym performing a version of the fight that is shot and edited to be a template for the actual scene in the movie. How were the fight scenes in Wira designed and planned?

ADRIAN TEH: We had seven fight scenes in Wira, three major ones and four relatively smaller ones. That was the first thing I discussed with Abang Yayan when he first got to KL. I put different elements in every fight scene so audiences wouldn’t get bored. There are five fight scenes for Hassan. I discussed it with Abang Yayan, the different intentions Hassan had in each fight scene.

So there’s a character arc for Hassan in the fight scenes.

Hairul Azreen and Fify Azmi in Wira

ADRIAN TEH: Yes – not just a character arc, but in each fighting scene, I have different points to sell. Abang Yayan is very good at that, he knows how to tell a story in a fighting scene, using the design, choreographed movement to tell you the arc of the fighting: who’s winning, who’s losing, and who turned the tide. He’s very good at that.

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Hairul, one of the things I love about your character is that even though he is a fighter and he can beat people up, he is innately decent. I love the part when he is reluctant to punch his friend Boon in the face and Boon is asking him to do it. How do you balance those sides of the character, the decent side and the violent side?

HAIRUL AZREEN: I watched two movies for reference: Ip Man and John Wick. After [a dramatic incident in the film], I’m John Wick. Before that, I’m Ip Man. It’s that simple.

ADRIAN TEH: He’s both Donnie Yen and Keanu Reeves.

Wira opens in Singapore on 21 November 2019 

The Good Liar review

For F*** Magazine

THE GOOD LIAR

Director: Bill Condon
Cast : Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Laurie Davidson
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : NC16

Weirdly enough, respected English thespians Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren have never made a movie together, even though they have shared the Broadway stage in 2003. This thriller, based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, rectifies this decades-long oversight, giving both stars roles they easily make a meal of.

Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a wealthy woman in her 70s who is hoping to make a romantic connection with someone again and gives online dating a try. She meets and quickly falls for Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a man in his 80s. Roy, a lifelong con artist, has seemingly found the perfect mark and plots to rob Betty of her millions as Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) smells a rat and tries to save his grandmother from Roy’s devious clutches. Both Betty and Roy are forced to confront long-hidden secrets as their relationship grows increasingly complex.

With decades of experience on the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are both aware of the kind of movie they’re making and finely calibrate their performances to fit the material. The Good Liar starts out seeming quite silly and predictable, and perhaps it does remain a bit silly, but director Bill Condon knows that his stars will do everything to invest the story with emotion and drama. It is so satisfying to watch McKellen and Mirren play off each other that we get drawn further and further into the plot, no matter how outlandish it becomes.

It seems that smaller-scale thrillers, especially ones with older audiences in mind, are an increasing rarity at the cinema. This is a movie that doesn’t have explosions and shootouts, but one that is still thrilling and exciting. Condon pulls no punches and the movie can be surprisingly brutal at times. The score by Carter Burwell with its undulating strings heightens how delightfully melodramatic this all is. It’s as if someone turned the frantic whisper of “there’s a conspiracy afoot” into music. While a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief is required of audiences, the screenplay by veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher is brought to largely convincing life by the film’s leads.

The movie begins feeling like a version of those Lifetime Channel movies – the ones about Craiglist serial killers and psychotic stepdaughters – for the retiree set. As such, even with two distinguished actors front and centre, it can be hard to take things seriously. As the story gets progressively darker and the shocking revelations pile up, it becomes slightly harder to enjoy the movie as a deliberately arch, mannered confection. It is nowhere near as sophisticated as it would like to be, but is directed and acted well enough to make up for this. Despite the film’s best efforts, not everything about the plot lines up in retrospect, but it is enjoyable despite this.

The movie is set in 2009, which seems like an insignificant detail at first. Roy and Betty go on a movie date to watch a certain Quentin Tarantino-directed movie, and while it would have been fine if that were the only reason to set the story in 2009, it isn’t. The film is the most interesting when it explores both Roy and Betty’s personal histories, but in those sequences, it also means we are spending time away from McKellen and Mirren, which is a trade-off director Condon had to make.

This is a modest thriller fronted by two ever-watchable, extremely skilful actors that differs enough from many entries in this genre partially because it is about two older characters, their age being a key element to the story and not an extraneous detail.

Summary: Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a game of cat and mouse that is sometimes far-fetched, sometimes devastating and always enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Charlie’s Angels (2019) review

For F*** Magazine

CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019)

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cast : Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Djimon Hounsou, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 14 November 2019
Rating : PG13

In 1976, the television series Charlie’s Angels starring Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith premiered. The series ran for five years and underwent several cast changes, and the brand has remained a pop culture staple since then. The Angels landed on the big screen in a 2000 film starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore, which received a 2003 sequel. Following a short-lived 2011 TV revival, the Angels are back in cinemas with this new movie, which is couched as a continuation of the original TV series and the 2000s movies.

Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) is a brilliant systems engineer working at Brok Industries on a project called Calisto. The alternative energy source can be repurposed as a weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska), operatives of a private intelligence outfit called the Townsend Agency, must protect Elena when she blows the whistle on Brok Industries. These agents are known as ‘Angels’ – their handler Susan Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) was formerly an Angel herself. The original Bosley (Patrick Stewart) is retiring after 40 years of recruiting and training Angels. Charlie (Robert Clotworthy), The unseen boss of the Townsend Agency, communicates through speakerphone. Elena decides she wants to join the Angels, and their mission to secure Calisto takes them from Germany to Turkey.

Banks set out to make a movie about women at work and this new take on Charlie’s Angels benefits from being a lot less male gaze driven and exploitative. Yes, the main characters are still stylish and sexy, but it’s clear that this is no longer for the primary benefit of the slavering men in the audience.

There are moments when each lead gets to shine, but it’s clear that Kristen Stewart is holding it all together. She’s never looked more at ease in a mainstream tentpole movie and has a lot of fun playing the resident wild child. Ella Balinska is statuesque and certainly looks like she could handle herself in a fight, while Naomi Scott’s Elena has an endearing fangirl quality to her while also being intelligent and capable.

One of the film’s best moments is a sequence in which the three Angels dress in identical disguises, confusing security guards at Brok Industries headquarters as they carry out a heist. Some design elements, especially the costumes by Kym Barrett, work quite well.

Unfortunately, Charlie’s Angels just doesn’t feel like the big event it should be. A big screen revival of the franchise should be a brassy, celebratory affair, and this movie just feels too low-key. Much of the action comes off feeling like it belongs on TV – which isn’t quite fair to many TV shows that feature more elaborate action sequences. The hand-to-hand combat sequences are shot and edited too frenetically, while the big chases and shootouts feel perfunctory at best.

Some of the film’s attempts at humour fall flat. Stewart is saddled with several unfunny asides and one-liners that she makes work through sheer force of will. Instead of the standard tech guy or armourer, the Angels have the Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), a wellness guru who makes them kombucha and herbal compresses. It’s one joke that is drawn out a bit too long.

This is an unabashedly feminist take on the material, and while this franchise certainly could do with a woman’s perspective behind the camera, there are times when it all feels too clumsy. This is most notable during the opening credits, which look like stock footage of girls from various parts of the world going about their day. Yes, the message is that women can do anything, but what they’re depicted doing in the movie is rarely impressive enough to be really inspiring, at least when compared against the typical action blockbuster. There clearly is an appetite for action, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and other genre movies that depict a woman’s point of view, and one hopes Charlie’s Angels paves the way for more to follow, but the film isn’t entertaining enough to support its messaging.

While Stewart is great and both Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska do have a degree of charisma, the trio just doesn’t have the same palpable chemistry that Diaz, Liu and Barrymore shared in the 2000s films.

The spy stuff in the plot is all very standard issue: there’s a MacGuffin which our heroes must prevent from falling into the wrong hands. Banks’ desire to keep things light and breezy means that there isn’t much in the way of real stakes. When the movie goes darker, like in a scene in which one of the leads is being physically tortured, it comes off as a bit jarring. Not every spy movie needs to have the stunts and spectacle of the Mission: Impossible films, but there’s also no reason that Charlie’s Angels shouldn’t aim for a similar level of thrills.

We see what Banks is trying to do with the franchise and some of it is promising, but it all adds up to something that doesn’t quite make one want to punch the air and yell “the Angels are back!” Stay through the end credits for additional scenes that include a series of cameos.

Summary: Writer-director Elizabeth Banks brings several interesting ideas to the table, but this revival of Charlie’s Angels comes up short on thrills and spectacle, resulting in something that’s resoundingly underwhelming.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ford v Ferrari review

For F*** Magazine

FORD V FERRARI

Director: James Mangold
Cast : Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Jirone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild
Genre : Drama/Biography/Action
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 14 November 2019
Rating : PG13

The story of Ford’s battle to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans is the stuff of auto racing legend and has all the makings of a compelling Hollywood movie: clashing egos, a period setting, boardroom machinations and of course very fast cars. Director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) chronicles the ingenuity, adversity, triumph and heartbreak that figured in the historical event.

After Enzo Ferrari (Remo Jirone) flatly rejects a buyout of Ferrari by the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) resolves not to take this lying down. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), the vice-president of Ford, goes to famed car designer and former racer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) with an audacious proposal: build a car for Ford to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.

Shelby is convinced that only one man, English race car driver and former WWII tank commander Ken Miles (Christian Bale), can help him and Ford achieve this goal. Miles is a genius behind the wheel with unrivalled intuition, but he is notoriously ornery and earns the ire of Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Beebe tries to block Miles from joining the Ford team, but Shelby knows they don’t stand a chance against Ferrari without Miles. Together, Shelby and Miles come up with the Ford GT40, a high-performance endurance racing car to take on Ferrari at Le Mans.

Ford v Ferrari is a robust film, an old-fashioned historical drama that will make some smile, sigh and say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” However, it is never stodgy the way some films that try to emulate the movies of a bygone era are, and director Mangold infuses the proceedings with dynamism to spare.

Damon and Bale are superb in the lead roles and act as excellent foils for each other. Damon essays Southern charm as the Texan Shelby while also conveying the frustration of a man who knows what he’s doing but is thwarted by suits who think they know better at every turn.

Bale is intense as the fiery Miles, prone to yelling “bloody ‘ell!” and throwing wrenches at people. As is typical for the actor, Bale underwent a drastic physical transformation, shedding the 31 kg he had gained to play Dick Cheney in Vice. At first, it seems like the movie will excuse Miles’ behaviour by saying that he’s so brilliant that it doesn’t matter how he treats anyone, but the film gives him plenty of layers.

Some of the best moments in the film are the interactions between Miles and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his racing enthusiast son Peter (Noah Jupe). There aren’t many women in the film at all, as can be expected for a movie about auto racing in the 1960s, but Balfe makes an impression as Mollie and there is an effort to make her more than just “the wife”.

There are three main components to the plot of Ford v Ferrari: the racing, the boardroom goings-on at Ford and Ken Miles’ home life. Besides stars Bale and Damon, the racing scenes are what everyone’s here for. As mentioned above, the scenes featuring Miles’ wife and son add a much-needed humanity to the proceedings. It’s the boardroom stuff that makes the movie drag. Yes, it’s important context and we do need to see events like Iacocca’s failed trip to Italy to convince Enzo Ferrari to sell part of the company to Ford, but it can get tedious after a while. There are long stretches of the movie that are edge of your seat material, but it feels like we need to trudge through.

This is at its heart a sports movie with all the hallmarks of one, chief of which being the maverick who’s “the only man for the job” and the one other guy who is convinced of his genius and does everything to keep him on the team. Ford v Ferrari is formulaic, but it is formulaic in a satisfying way, with quite a lot added to the formula to make it more than just that.

The racing scenes are some of the best ever committed to film. They all feel tactile and the visual effects work is seamless. A large team of talented stunt drivers worked on the film: stunt coordinator Robert Nagle’s credits also include Baby Driver, John Wick: Chapter 2, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and several Fast and Furious films. The racing scenes are thrilling and cinematic in a way that makes the spectacle more resonant than that of many big visual effects-driven blockbuster movies. The attention to period detail is also worth noting – in order to recreate the Le Mans Circuit as it was in the 1960s, the crew shot in five different locations that were stitched together using visual effects. Yes, there are several inaccuracies that will be glaring to auto racing devotees (Enzo Ferrari was not personally in attendance at Le Mans 1966, for example), but the layperson will find this all quite convincing, especially by Hollywood standards.

A movie about the 1966 Le Mans race has been in development for a while: in 2011, it was announced that director Michael Mann would sign on to make the movie, then titled Go Like Hell. In 2013, both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were circling the project, with Cruise set to play Shelby alongside Pitt as Miles.

Auto racing enthusiasts will enjoy the meticulous (if never 100% accurate) recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race and the events leading up to that, while the excellent lead performances and action scenes that are exciting no matter how much you like cars ensure everyone else in the audience isn’t left out.

Summary: Matt Damon and Christian Bale deliver entertaining performances in a movie that brings a true story to pulse-pounding life. Audiences will be rewarded for sitting through the background information that serves as set-up with spectacular racing scenes and credible human drama.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Abominable review

For F*** Magazine

ABOMINABLE

Director: Jill Culton
Cast : Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong
Genre : Animation, Comedy, Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 37 mins
Opens : 7 November 2019
Rating : PG

We’re not quite sure why, but lately there have been a slew of animated movies revolving around yetis and sasquatches, including Smallfoot, The Son of Bigfoot and Missing Link. DreamWorks animation presents the tale of an especially fluffy Yeti with Abominable, which has been in development at the studio since 2010.

Yi (Chloe Bennet) is an adventurous girl living with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tasi Chin) in Shanghai. Yi hasn’t quite processed the death of her father, who taught her how to play the violin. The violin he has left behind is a treasured possession of Yi’s. One night, she comes across a Yeti hiding on the roof of her apartment. The wealthy industrialist Burnish (Eddie Izzard) has sent a team led by zoologist Dr Zara (Sarah Paulson) to catch a Yeti, but the creature has escaped their clutches. Together with her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and Peng’s vain cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), Yi embarks on an odyssey to help the Yeti, dubbed ‘Everest’, return to his home in the Himalayas.

Abominable is charming and sincere, with an especially loveable creature at its centre. Everest feels a bit like the beloved Studio Ghibli creation Totoro, with a heaping dose of puppy dog enthusiasm and a roly-poly form covered in soft shaggy fur. He’s made to sell stuffed toys, but we’re not complaining (and we do actively want a stuffed toy of Everest now). The film’s story is straightforward, but it often manages to be genuinely moving and quite delightful. Several action sequences, including an aerial chase set against the mountains of Huangshan, possess the thrilling momentum we’ve seen in earlier DreamWorks animated movies.

The voice cast, led by Chloe Bennet of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fame, is lively and engaging. It’s also worth noting that the lead characters are all voiced by actors of Asian descent, unlike in films like Kubo and the Two Strings. Interesting, Tenzing Norgay Trainor is the grandson of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The animation is often beautiful – more on the scenery later.

Writer-director Jill Culton includes almost every device from the “a kid and their X” playbook in this film, such that the movie seems overly familiar at times. The movie’s magic is diminished ever so slightly by the recognisable elements it borrows from other films. The Yeti’s power to manipulate nature, which helps Yi and company escape the mercenaries pursuing them, is reminiscent of E.T. lifting Elliott and his friends’ bikes off the ground in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The villains are generic and one-dimensional, even with a reveal thrown in around midway through the movie.

Some of the gags seem a bit more juvenile than others, but thankfully Abominable largely steers clear of grating, over-the-top cartoon antics. Abominable also suffers slightly for being released in the same year as How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. When it comes to ‘a kid and their x’ movies made by DreamWorks, the How to Train Your Dragon films are a tough act to follow. Abominable’s main poster art seems deliberately like that of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie. The animation is largely excellent, but the scenes set in Shanghai seem to lack the detail that would really make the city feel alive onscreen.

Music is an important and emotional element of the film. Yi’s violin is of sentimental significance to her, and playing the violin is her way of remembering her father. Everest’s powers over the natural environment are activated by music, specifically his melodious humming – Everest’s humming is provided by the film’s composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. The use of Coldplay’s “Fix You” is a bit cheesy, but for the most part, the movie’s use of music is lyrical and moving.

Abominable is set in China and like Kung Fu Panda 3 before it, is co-produced by Pearl Studios. Pearl Studios was formerly known as Oriental DreamWorks and is now wholly owned by China Media Capital. While we’ve seen some clumsy and unsuccessful attempts by Hollywood to pander to Chinese audiences, Abominable feels just authentic enough. Sure, the characters mostly behave like American kids (and everyone wears shoes in the house, a big no-no in most Asian households), but there’s enough of a cultural context to justify the movie’s setting in China. This is a road trip movie of sorts, and audiences get to take in some beautiful, breath-taking scenery inspired by real locations in China.

There has been considerable brouhaha about a map of China depicted in the film, which shows disputed territories as belonging to China. This has led Abominable to be banned in Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. It’s a shame that this agenda had to be forced into a movie which is otherwise uncontroversial.

Abominable might not reach the sublime heights that we’ve seen from other animated movies and from other ‘a kid and their x’ movies, but it compensates for its well-worn story beats with plenty of heart and several truly magical moments.

Summary: Older audiences might be able to recognise where Abominable borrows many of its plot points from, but between the sweet, goofy Yeti and the superb use of music, this movie’s charm is difficult to resist.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong