The White Storm: Heaven or Hell
Directed by Herman Yau
Runtime 125 Mins
The latest in the loosely connected Hong Kong action franchise The White Storm, a series whose continuity is stitched together only by explosions, gunfights and a disparate theme of brotherhood between police detectives and gangsters fighting the perpetual war, is decidedly more of the same. Much like previous entry, Drug Lords, Heaven or Hell contains yet another intricate web of loyalties reflected against the forged bonds of the criminal underworld, where two undercover police detectives (Aaron Kwok & Louis Koo) integrate themselves into the fold of a ruthless drug kingpin (Sean Lau). Herman Yau’s second turn as director for this lucrative franchise sees the director digest a plethora of stale Hong Kong action cinema clichés and regurgitate name over a poor retread of Infernal Affairs-style undercover intrigue. With its bloated pastiche, which amounts to nothing more than a cribbing of tired tropes, Heaven or Hell is unable to stand out among a saturated field of Hong Kong’s often bombastic and stylish action cinema. The real tragedy of the latest White Storm film is the illegible and flustered manner in which Yau films his numerous action scenes, sequences with plenty of impressive stunt work and choreography that are likely dulled due to Yau’s poor blocking, sound mixing and editing. As mediocre, indistinguishable, non-specific action films go, there are better options out there, where the apparent filmmaking craft underlining the spectacle can make amends for much of the shortcomings in story and character.
Directed by Mary Dauterman
Runtime 78 Mins
After the sudden death of her best friend and roommate, Anna (Grace Glowicki) begins coughing up hairballs, knocking glasses off of countertops, eating tins of cat food, and growing hair out of a bite wound left by her runaway cat, Booger. Needless to say, she is not going through the usual five stages of grief. Booger, Mary Dauterman’s debut feature, is a masterfully transformative exploration of the mourning process in which sharply cringe comedic touches, gross-out eccentricities, and powerfully lucid depictions of dealing with loss are all wrapped up in a charmingly sincere and surreal package. Predominantly anchored by Glowicki’s performance and Dauterman’s affective filmmaking, which firmly situates the viewer in Anna’s transmogrifying point of view, the film also astutely captures that ephemeral yet relatable mood of feeling rudderless in your 30s. Impressively, even as the film spreads itself between the disparate genres of melodrama, cringe comedy, and body horror, Booger still manages to be heartfelt in its character study. Glowicki offers a bold yet nuanced portrayal of Anna that oscillates between animalistic embodiment and subtle betrayals of inner turmoil not yet put to words. Plus, Dauterman has cracked the code on how to use the notorious meme song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” as a thematically genuine and narratively integral needle drop.
Directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping
Runtime 99 Mins
Taut and intense, Sam Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s Femme functions as a revealing revenge thriller crossed with a bristly queer romance — one where the filmmakers have perfected a formula for how to keep the audience on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Involving a rapidly escalating revenge plot over a hate crime that intimately explores the relationship between a drag artist, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and their stereotypically boorish attacker, Preston (George McKay), the film deftly uses its tight runtime and thrifty sense of pacing to embroil you completely in this nerve-racking and uncomfortable descent into the perils of performing identities. Femme excels in economic storytelling and situating you fully into the thorny complexities of the central relationship. But the cleanliness in which it touches on the social performance for one’s masculinity and sexuality while remaining silent or uninterested in exploring a racial dimension to the conflict remains a curious omission. Even so, when the directors hook you in with their visceral yet grounded direction, their unrelenting ability to ratchet up the tension, and their psychological twists to the revenge plot, it’s near impossible not to see the film through to the end.
Baby Assassins 2 Babies
Directed Yugo Sakamoto
Runtime 103 Mins
Returning to the surprise hit that was his John Wick-esque, hyper-stylized action satire about laboring under the idleness of the gig economy, Yugo Sakamoto has returned to the Baby Assassins franchise with the same layer of social commentary but in a much less stylish and thrilling package. Now, fresh out of high school and thrust into the professional world of hired killers, layabouts Mahiro and Chisato (Ayaori Izawa and Akari Takaishi) have found themselves suspended from the assassin’s guild due to failing to pay off membership dues and have re-entered the workforce of menial, part-time labor once more.
Parallel to their descent, an up-and-coming duo of wannabe assassins on the rise pulling jobs outside of the guild’s jurisdiction (Tatsuomi Hamada and Joey Iwanaga) are on a mission to take them out in order to take their spot in the pecking order. The elements are present for an excitable angle of these new rivals challenging our heroines at their lowest moment, but Baby Assassins 2 meanders through its runtime with loquacious gags and delightfully frenetic action scenes that are few and far between.
There is a palpable lack of tension throughout what barely registers as the film’s plot and the challenging rival assassins are only reoriented to the forefront after a string of running gags that stifle the humor through repetition. Rather than a true sequel to a film that represented a fresh, kawaii take on the burgeoning, stylish action cinema of the late 2010s, Baby Assassins 2 comes off feeling like a side mission or as downloadable content, an attachment to the first that cannot stand alone on its own merits.