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Disparate men in desperate situations are the very loose link that ties together the three independent stories in the ironically titled Three Charmed Lives. Toggling between utter nonsense and assured storytelling, the film is glaring proof that great actors don’t necessarily make great filmmakers. The themes of urban isolation and disconnection, as well as desperation that connect the trio are familiar territory that aren’t really explored in any fresh detail here and none is particularly notable for its aesthetics. But Three Charmed Lives will find a place in regional film festivals given the considerable star power behind the camera, which may also carry it to some events overseas. Other than that the film’s shelf life is limited.
One of Hong Kong’s finest actors, Francis Ng (The Bride with White Hair, The Mission), kicks off the wildly uneven affair with “The Tangerine,” which sees a criminal on the run from the law (Cheng Taishen, All Apologies) in an anonymous Chinese city compelled to stop and rethink his life on the run by two random acts of kindness, the first by a homeless man that shares his meager meal and the second by a fruit vendor (Zhang Xinyuan, a woman that spends a lot of time arranging fruit). By far the weakest entry, “The Tangerine” is overloaded with needless camera flourishes, sloppy subtitling and a poor sound mix. However it’s most guilty of being paper-thin in its imagery (we get it, egregious wealth and poverty sit side by side in modern China) and oddly disjointed in its narrative. Ng is one of Asia’s all time greats, but he may want to consider staying in front of the camera.
Next up is the strongest entry: Korean heartthrob Jung Woo-sung’s “The Killer Behind, The Old Man.” The suitably stoic Andy Choi plays an ultra-methodical hitman who’s reluctant to carry out a contract against a lonely elderly man despite the client—the man’s son—doubling the fee. The killer spends his days painstakingly mapping out what the old man does, but never takes the step toward carrying out the assassination. Jung has starred in his share of thrillers (Daisy, Cold Eyes) and here he manages to blur the line between who’s the subject and who’s the object. Is the killer watching or being watched? Is the old man ready to die anyway? The stolidly unfussy camera work belies some real tension and “The Killer Behind” really only wavers near its overly artistic closing shots.
The film wraps up with Taiwanese actor Chang Chen’s (The Grandmaster) “Inchworm,” the one film among the three that is mostly resolutely middling. An average salaryman, Jung-chang (Stone) loses his job and then falls into a videogame-fueled depression and withdraws from the world. Jung-chang is, for the most part, an irritating character that’s hard to like, and his spiral into life as a game is less resonant than it should be. The emotions, lies and shame that drive him—both into his shell and ultimately pull him out of it—are universal enough but there so little substance to the character it’s hard to care. Jung-chang seems less in need of understanding as of a spanking. “Inchworm” finishes strong, with an understated sequence revolving around Jung-chang’s daughter shaking him out of his melancholy, but by then it’s too little too late.
Director: Francis Ng, Jung Woo-sung, Chang Chen
Cast: Cheng Taishen, Zhang Xinyuan, Andy Choi, Woo Sang-jeon, Stone (Shih Chin-hang), Wang Hsin-yuan
Screenwriter: Han Zhi, Lee Yoon-jung
International Sales: HKIFF
No rating, 89 minutes
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