China/Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 89 mins.
Director: Li Ming 黎明 [Leon Lai].
Handsome but silly crime comedy, set in France, is a vanity exercise by star Li Ming [Leon Lai].
Liaoning province, northeast China, the present day. After being out of touch for a while, Zhang Shui (Zhang Hanyu) calls his old childhood friend Wei Li (Li Ming) in France and says he needs his help in bidding at the auction of a priceless bottle of 1855 wine. The two grew up together in an orphanage in northeast China but in 1990 Wei Li was adopted by a Frenchman and taken to live in France, where he’s now a respected, wealthy wine expert. Zhang Shui says he’s been asked by the Chinese government to acquire the bottle of red wine, which was made from a secret recipe that a wine-maker in the Mongol Yuan dynasty smuggled out of China to Italy in Marco Polo’s caravan and finally ended up in France. Zhang Shui arrives in Paris two days later and drives to Wei Li’s country mansion, where Wei Li keeps him waiting outside all afternoon while he parties. When they finally get together, Zhang Shui says he’s now working for the police and has brought €5 million to bid for the bottle, which is owned by LK (Nan Fulong), eldest son of the Khans, a family with Mongol-Chinese roots whose wealth was badly hit by the European debt crisis and who has been relying on his younger half-sister Li Fang (Du Juan) selling off some of the family’s wine assets. Li Fang is organising the auction and potential buyers will be auditioned via a wine-tasting at Chateau Khan. Zhang Shui says he will pose as Wei Li’s bodyguard. Two other Chinese buyers will be attending: Lu Fei (Huang Shanghe) and Taiwan businessman Fang Changfang (Wang Yaoqing). In fact, the Khan family’s ruse is to attract back to the chateau Li Ao, brother of LK and Li Fang, who disappeared years ago after a double family murder but is the only one who knows the wine bottle’s secret. LK and Li Fang suspect Li Ao is either Lu Fei or Fang Changfang after plastic surgery. At the wine tasting, Zhang Shui and Wei Li find themselves caught up in a crazy situation. And Zhang Shui hasn’t yet told Wei Li that he’s actually been working for seven years for Fang Changfang – as his driver.
Judging by the amount of wine and cigars consumed, everyone had such a great time making Wine War 抢红 that no one noticed the ship was sinking with all hands. A wannabe sophisticated crime comedy, set in rural France, it’s beautifully shot, has a devil-may-care lead performance by Mainland actor Zhang Hanyu 张涵予, and not much else. This second directorial outing by Mainland-born, Hong Kong-based actor-singer Li Ming 黎明 [Leon Lai] – or the first if you don’t count the glorified musicvideo A Melody Looking 缘邀知音 (2006), set in New York – wants to be an offbeat comedy in Old Europe but ends up as a silly vanity project (Li again directs, co-writes and acts) that still keeps going even after it’s jumped the tracks. On Mainland release it made a feeble RMB16 million.
On a technical level there’s little to fault: the saturated photography by Iranian Canadian d.p. Saba Mazloum, who shot the partly French-set Night Peacock 夜孔雀 (2015) in which Li co-starred, atmospherically captures oldstyle chic France (around the Saumur region and Saint-Tropez), the editing just about gets the story to the 80-minute mark (with the rest of the short running time padded out with NGs and end titles) and styling by Hong Kong’s Ma Tianyou 马天佑, who did the slick Bride Wars 新娘大作战 (2015) and Fall in Love Like a Star 怦然星动 (2015), gives the whole film a classy veneer. Music by Li’s regular composer Lei Songde 雷颂德 [Mark Lui] is okay, though the soundtrack has a disconcerting habit of introducing songs at the most unlikely moments.
The main culprit is the script – credited to the pseudonymous Xiong Shanjun 熊山君 [Nathan Cheung], Bi Chenggong 毕成功 (who worked on the enjoyable 2015 rom-com The Honey Enemy 情敌蜜月) and Li himself, from his own original story. The opening, complete with a lavish VFX sequence, promises a crazy buddy caper, as penniless Zhang Shui (Zhang Hanyu) calls his old orphanage friend Wei Li (Li) in France to ask his help in buying at auction a rare bottle of red wine on behalf of the Chinese government, as its secret recipe was actually invented in Yuan-dynasty China. (Li has said the film was inspired by his discovery that top Chinese wine-makers travelled to Europe centuries ago, so maybe played a role in the drink’s development.) When Zhang Shui, who hasn’t exactly been straight with Wei Li, arrives in France, both of them discover the auction masks a completely different reason for the bottle going on sale.
The film was marketed as an action movie, but almost all the bang-bang stuff is in the final half-hour, in a chaotic sequence set in a deserted train station that’s virtually a separate movie. The rest aims at a kind of sophisticated black comedy with gangster types in upscale settings; but there’s no sense of visual style beyond the obvious, no idea of pacing, little plot cohesion, and no natural sense of humour. The most fun is had from parachuting the rugged Zhang Hanyu (The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D 智取威虎山, 2014; Operation Mekong 湄公河行动, 2016), as a down-to-earth northerner, into the snobby wine set; but with Li a blank presence as his childhood friend, and Taiwan actor-comedian Wang Yaoqing 王耀庆 doing his own thing as a comedy crook, Zhang struggles to carry the film when called upon mostly to sit around drinking wine and smoking cigars. In what’s basically a story of male brotherhood, Mainland actress-model Du Juan 杜鹃 (American Dreams in China 中国合伙人, 2013; New York New York 纽约纽约, 2016) is just female window dressing, albeit classy.
Presented by Beijing Happypictures Culture Communications (CN), Paciwood Picture (HK), Media Asia Film Production (HK), Media Asia Film Distribution (Beijing) (CN). Produced by Beijing Happypictures Culture Communications (CN), Paciwood Picture (HK).
Script: Xiong Shanjun, Bi Chenggong, Li Ming [Leon Lai]. Original story: Li Ming [Leon Lai]. Photography: Saba Mazloum, Zhang Wenhua. Editing: Zhou Junwen, Zheng Lvnan. Music: Lei Songde [Mark Lui], Zhou Junwen, Zhao Chongxi. Styling: Ma Tianyou. Sound: Cao Huijun, Li Zhixong. Action: Ling Zhihua. Visual effects: Qin Wei (Base FX).
Cast: Zhang Hanyu (Zhang Shui), Du Juan (Li Fang/Yvonne), Li Ming [Leon Lai] (Wei Li), Wang Yaoqing (Fang Changfang), Huang Shanghe (Lu Fei), Nan Fulong (LK), Liu Zhuoting (Mr. L), Zhao Weilin (DG), Ji Li (Meili, Wei Li’s housekeeper), Yang Yang (Zhang Shui’s ex-wife), Xuan Yuanze (Wan Baolu/Marlboro), Song Botao (young Li Ao), Wang Xinyu (Li Ao’s mother), Yin Bing (Li Ao’s father), Joël Lefrançois (Olivier, French chef), Wang Tianli (young Lu Fei), Kang Shengwen (young Zhang Shui), Bian Cheng (young Wei Li), Feng Siyi (young Li Fang), Bernard Lorrain (Mr. Andrew, Wei Li’s adoptive father).
Release: China, 19 May 2017; Hong Kong, tba.