After his over-fanciful misfire "Lavender," Hong Kong helmer Riley Ip ("Metade Fumaca") bounces back with "Just One Look," an utterly charming retro romancer set against a background of '70s movie going. Full of lovely touches and well-etched performances, and flawed only by a bland male lead, this should get more than one look by events looking for buff-oriented Asian fare.

After his over-fanciful misfire “Lavender,” Hong Kong helmer Riley Ip (“Metade Fumaca”) bounces back with “Just One Look,” an utterly charming retro romancer set against a background of ’70s movie going. Full of lovely touches and well-etched performances, and flawed only by a bland male lead, this should get more than one look by events looking for buff-oriented Asian fare.

For East Asian auds, however, pic is simply the latest to star the region’s singing sensation, Twins, following their highly respectable debut together in Joe Ma’s youth meller, “Summer Breeze of Love,” in June. Super-cute lollipopsters — they’re not twins, nor even sisters — has screen appeal to spare, with Gillian Chung just edging past partner Charlene Choi in celluloid charisma.

Though Twins is the biggest thing to hit Canto-pop in ages, the girls’ success as a double act hasn’t translated yet to massive B.O., perhaps because they’ve so far essayed romances rather than the more popular genre of comedy. “Breeze” brought in a fragrant HK$10 million ($1.5 million) locally, but “Look” — in which they’re more part of an ensemble than the lead stars — took less than half that amount on release in September.

Set on the island of Cheung Chau, pic actually starts in the early ’60s, with an indebted cop (Sam Lee, in a wordless cameo) shooting himself in a cinema’s restroom while his son, Fan, watches a movie. Fan grows up believing his dad was actually murdered by Crazy (Anthony Wong), the neighborhood heavy, and vows to get even one day.

Dissolve to 1972 and Fan is a 17-year-old (Shawn Yu) selling sugarcane sticks outside the same cinema with his buddy, Fishball Ming (Wong You-nam). It’s the age of Bruce Lee mania, and every young guy wants to be a hero. Fan and Ming both fall for Nam (Choi), daughter of a kung-fu teacher (Erik Kot); but Fan soon finds himself drawn to a mystery girl, Yew (Chung), who lives in a remote convent.

Aside from the emotional merry-go-round — Ming likes Nam who likes Fan who likes Yew — the main plot driver is Fan getting up the courage to take on Crazy, and in the process face the truth about his father’s death. In fact, this becomes less important as the film progresses through a series of vignettes and comic-romantic interludes in which a whole more innocent era is beautifully drawn. As in “Metade Fumaca,” helmer Ip is especially good at the small details that evoke time and place, plus the way in which memory can take on a life of its own.

Character actors Wong and Kot are reined in here, but still rise to their substantial parts: the former as a ‘hood bully who becomes a devoted father, the latter as a martial artist who hates the vogue for fake chopsocky pictures (“And Chang Cheh won a best director prize for it!” he fulminates, in one of the film’s several in-jokes). Among a host of smaller parts, Jo Koo’s role as Crazy’s trashy wife has unfortunately been almost shredded.

In his first leading role, Yu makes a weak impression, and is largely eclipsed by Wong as his characterful, curly-haired pal. Though it’s not a major problem, casting of the Twins would have been better the other way round: the more dynamic Chung seems held back as Yew, while Choi looks uncomfortable with the more physical role of the young martial artist.

Pic will also test the knowledge of any aficionado of ’60s and ’70s offshore Chinese cinema. As well as using movie billboards to denote the passage of time, and a montage of cheesy ’70s mellers for Twins’ sweet rendition of the Bee Gees’ “Melody Fair,” a couple of fantasy sequences also evoke classic movies in the style of Shaw Bros. and King Hu. Pic’s original title means “One Stick of Sugar Cane.”

Just One Look

Hong Kong

Production

An Emperor Multimedia Group release and presentation of a Kams' Creation Workshop production. (International sales: EMG, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Yeung. Executive producer, Carl Chang. Directed, written by Riley Ip.

Crew

Camera (color), Chan Chi-ying; editor, Maurice Li; music, Henry Lai; production designer, Yee Chung-man; art director, Wong Bing-yiu; costume designer, Dora Ng; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; martial arts director, Tung Wai. Reviewed on videodisc, London, Dec. 15, 2002. Running time: 104 min.

With

With: Gillian Chung, Charlene Choi, Shawn Yu, Wong You-nam, Anthony Wong, Eric Kot, Li Fung, Jo Koo, Sam Lee, Andrea Choi, Vincent Kuk, Joe Cheung, Lam Suet, Chapman To, Shu Qi.
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