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Our Time Will Come
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by Jay Seaver

"Bland at the center, interesting on the edges."
3 stars

Ann Hui On-wah has, like most Hong Kong-based filmmakers, been making films with an eye toward the Mainland audience in recent years, though they have by and large still felt like Hong Kong movies as opposed to Mainland ones, and what makes "Our Time Will Come" something of a disappointment relative to her other recent films like "A Simple Life" and "The Golden Era" is that this feels like something one would make for the Mainland audience, a war picture full of noble heroism and struggle with a ton of guest stars playing real-life figures. It's made well but it lacks the personal life of her other work.

It is still a Hong Kong movie, taking place in the occupied Crown Colony in 1942, as the group captain for the Dongguan Resistance charges Brother Tsang and his subordinate Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) with organizing an evacuation route for a group of intellectuals that the Japanese wish to keep a close eye on. Two of them, Mr. and Mrs. Shen (Guo Tao & Jiang Wen-li) are hiding out in an apartment owned by curious landlady Mrs. Fong (Deannie Yip Tak-han), but when the Japanese arrive early, it is up to Mrs. Fong's daughter Lan (Zhou Xun) - a quiet elementary-school teacher who wouldn't even let her mother cook the rabbit they've been fattening up - to help them escape. This success stirs something in her, and soon Blackie aims to recruit her as part of the Urban Unit - while her former fiancee Lee Gau-wing (Wallace Huo Chien-hua) takes a position at the Japanese headquarters.

It's a potent-enough setup for a thriller, and if Hui and writer Ho Kei-ping were inclined to fictionalize and sensationalize it a bit more, they might have a cracker of a spy movie, with a potentially entertaining love triangle at the center. That is not the sort of myth-making they choose to engage in, though, instead focusing on the everyman heroism that happens in times of war, with the previously-cautious mother deciding to follow her daughter's example during an act break and collaborators being so rare that even the gangsters seem to decide to join in on their patriotic duty fairly quickly. It's a perfectly valid take, probably more realistic than the more stylized adventures that often come out of the war, but it can feel like a dry history lesson at times, especially when a "what happened later" screen comes up in the middle of the movie and there are regular cut-aways to faux-documentary footage of Tony Leung Ka-fai as an elderly version of "Little Ben" (Julian Chan), the pre-teen messenger who shows up in the second half of the movie.

Dry as that can potentially be, Hui is too good a filmmaker to make something that doesn't have fascinating life in the details. It is, I suspect, a note-perfect evocation of life during wartime, opening with a Hong Kong that looks almost familiar from other period pieces, normal given that frame of reference, only to have the streets look just a little too empty before a unit of Japanese soldiers walks through or some other reminder of the shortages and dangers. Even after the movie is otherwise well and truly settled-in, there's an exceptional scene along those lines as Mrs. Fong sees the field hospital hidden in the back room of the herbal medicine shop; not a revelation, but a reminder of how the fight for freedom goes on in the shadows while the invaders try to make things seem normal.

Hui handles the more conventional bits of action well, though it often seems hard to find the right tone. She seldom seems to be setting out to make a gunfight cool - there's always the sense that when people start shooting, it's because the attempts to do something covertly have failed - and there's usually some sort of bloody indignity afterward for the dead, to make sure that the ugliness of it stays in one's head. Still, these bits are exciting - Hui manages to keep things close in without ever having characters stumble over each other, making a virtue of speed and efficiency. Though not primarily an action movie - indeed, the finale is in some ways built on repudiating that genre's assumptions - it's capable enough that the audience buys into the positions Lan and Blackie are said to occupy.

And the cast is pretty good at slipping into those roles, too. Zhou Xun is particularly strong at making the audience feel like Lan is evolving as the film goes on, and while some of it is just how she's presented visually (Hui has clearly instructed the hair/makeup/costume departments to make sure she undergoes a metamorphosis), it's also there in her body language and how confidently she interacts with the rest of the cast. Deannie Yip is the most notable member of that group, with Hui's A Simple Life star doing a fine job of playing with all the standard old-landlady pieces - Mrs. Fong is nosy where she can be, fearful when she can't, and stubborn most of the time - that she becomes the most interesting character when the last act mostly focuses on her, too eager and unprepared rather than the more typical heroes Lan and Blackie have become. She communicates a foolish bravery that impresses even as it may make the viewer a bit uncomfortable (and, for what it's worth, seemed to do so despite what looked like some less-than-great dubbing into Mandarin). The guys never quite manage to be in Zhou's and Yip's lead - Eddie Peng gives a performance that would slide nicely into a more action-oriented version of the movie and is at least passable here, though Wallace Huo makes Kam-wing too bland for the audience to particularly care whether he is a spy or collaborator in the moments where there's a question - it feels like his scenes with Nagase Masatoshi as a Japanese bureaucrat with an interest in Chinese poetry should be a lot more interesting than they are.

That's the case with much of the movie - there's a good story and cast of characters here, capably put through their paces, but a seeming reluctance to let them be more complicated than noble heroes or martyrs. It's the safe and patriotic way for a Chinese filmmaker to look back at the Sino-Japanese War, but that is seldom the most interesting version of the story.

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originally posted: 07/11/17 02:43:30
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Directed by
  Ann Hui

Written by
  Kei-ping Ho

  Xun Zhou
  Eddie Peng
  Wallace Huo
  Deannie Yip
  Tony Leung Ka-Fai

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