Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
Extraordinary Mission (2017) Written by Felix Chong; Directed by Alan Mak & Anthony Pun.
Distributed by Crimson Forest Films, Opens in the US April 7, 2017 (Cinemas here)
Some Chinese films show up in US theaters and don’t even stick around long enough for us to publish a review. But Extraordinary Mission will be showing up as a VOD title soon, and it is such a first-rate action film that we wanted to call your attention to it and encourage you to see it at the first available opportunity.
For those lucky enough to catch it in a cinema, Extraordinary Mission is an extraordinarily lush feat of production, presenting an acutely visualized widescreen world, its scenes occurring across a multitude of appealingly rundown locations, vast, nearly abandoned industrial and manufacturing spaces of great width and depth, populated by a small cluster of figures transacting yet one more crime in the chain of crimes necessary to get Golden Triangle heroin into central China.
Xuan Huang plays undercover cop Lin Kai, a former junkie, who infiltrates the Twin Eagle drug cartel run by Thai ringleader, Eagle (Duan Yihong). Lin Kai’s handler, Li Jianguo (Zu Feng) also has history with Eagle. Even when the script by Hong Kong screenwriter Felix Chong (Infernal Affairs) adds another complication, the individual scenes simmer and then detonate in rich settings, whether a jungle shack with rain pinging its roof, tumbledown factories, or sheds and depots, all rusticated cathedrals to how money was made when Hong Kong was a colony. And of course there are hillside roads for extended edge-of-your-seat car chases, tumbling down the wet hillside into a dark, wooded ravine.
As a tapestry of inner workings, scams, formulas and inevitable paybacks of the drug trade Extraordinary Mission resembles last year’s megahit, Operation Mekong—it’s a genre that’s lately become more viable in China as a result of its alignment with Xi Jingping’s anti-corruption agenda. The title also overtly references Mission: Impossible, invoking the genre of challenge-rich, location-frenzied procedural action films. But co-directors Alan Mak (Infernal Affairs) & Anthony Pun’s artful compositions and consistently rich physical environments are like a Mission: Impossible installment whose makers had gotten high on highbrow art, like Edward Burtynsky’s despoiled landscapes or the industrial clockwork shown off in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. Yet the directors’ studious craft and eye for detail is always in service of setting the scene, with the urgent velocity of a film that its makers feel has to cram in every last bit. In our current fallen world of big-screen action, it’s a syllabus for possibilities that remain.
The film’s settings resonate in another way, almost as if the directors (Pun also serves as the film’s cinematographer) are eulogizing the residue of Asian industrial manufacturing and shipping from the twentieth century, and by extension, in the remains of the 1990s Hong Kong film industry, where criminals, drug lords, and undercover policemen are left to scuttle among the ruins, disturbed occasionally by gunfire or explosions.
“What era are you living in! We do everything for money! Go find a scapegoat now,” Lin Kai is urged as everything around him races out of control.
It’s an object lesson in muscular, unpretentious action filmmaking, working with practical explosions and car chases and a motorcycle flying from rooftop to rooftop, as much as with painted-in CGI. The profligately inventive motorcycle chase that climaxes the film knocks the stuffing out of the laborious simulated single-take that opens the last Bond film.
Extraordinary Mission also shames the indiscriminate hodgepodge of city streets and back alleys of Ghost in the Shell, capturing everything from bustling public markets to abandoned factories to diverse jungle outposts. In The Fate of the Furious, every scene winds up spiraling out of spatial comprehensibility, but the studious framing and cutting of Mak & Pun, and action director Nicky Li Chung never allows this to happen.
The last twenty minutes are a rush, Mak & Pun’s elaboration-exaggeration on Heat’s classic, epic takedown, when Huang is let loose after a sustained chase scene through a Thai town that follows an attenuated rooftop gunfight between figures that have held grudges for over ten years, including one policeman who has been shackled in filth in a basement cell beneath a Buddhist temple. He’s all super-cop now, barreling and bumping a motorcycle up stairways, across roofs, gunning through one apartment and across a street to another across the way, with Buster Keaton/Jackie Chan accuracy and practical effects that thrill, rather than concoctions from inside an effects house’s underpowered rendering farm.
“The world is a huge place, you can run in any direction.” Every which way but out: bloody justice ends the day.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)