Sunday, July 23, 2006

Review of "Lola" (HK, 2005)

Curse of Lola

Film review by Lee Alon

Beware the underdog is imperative when looking at Curse of Lola, for despite having received almost no play or promotion in its home markets nor internationally, thus leading to unfortunate anonymity, it is actually a very well-conceived film. Comprising superb visuals and moody atmospherics, Lola defeats the specter of an otherwise unassuming, almost generic plot, en route defying a spoiler ending of gargantuan proportions.

At its core, Curse of Lola is a whodunit, although thanks to having a distinct charm and feel, one has little compulsion to focus on such a trite premise, instead relishing every morsel of production design, a feat flying in the face of the project’s low profile and, likely, miniscule budget. Courtesy of Li Hong and Gordon Chan’s inventive filmmaking, the picture surmounts challenges stemming from a traditional tale, and although it doesn’t put much inventive spin on the issue, its tense, perfectly calculated discourse makes a world of difference.

Nominally a horror genre cadre, Lola gets its creepiness not from wannabe ghouls but rather clever photography (with close-cropped imagery eluding disclosure of location, hence the lack of establishing shots), coolly-distanced acting from its principal cast and a chilling soundtrack. The latter does sometimes border on the over-dramatic, but gladly this cannot be said of other elements on hand, such as the stark color palette, a vital ingredient usually ignored in the mediocre thriller output we’ve come to expect.

Consequently, we have before us a highly workable piece of suspense cinema, packing the odd red herring to boot. It can’t honestly be said that Lola’s a masterpiece of boundless intellect, but neither is it devoid of trickery. Keeping in mind the short runtime, it becomes apparent production stuck to their capable guns throughout.

Often quirky Francis Ng (in a role reminiscent of his appearance in Shiver) does us proud again as Zhen Yu, a lighting director for an upcoming experimental dance show Lola (listed as Ruola in several posters). He again displays mildly suspect tendencies but never transgresses into open mania, a balancing act for which Ng’s most well-respected. Zhen Yu’s girlfriend, Tian Yuan (seen before in Butterfly, and here apparently playing herself), is an aspiring dancer whose claim to fame remains denied since more darkly attractive Xiao Mei (Sui Junbo) holds on to the eponymous role. That is, until just after the premiere, when she exits life’s ubiquitous stage left under rather gory circumstances.

Police get involved, contributing little to the movie save for a stereotypical chain-smoking inspector, with several suspects considered, including of course Tian Yuan, who usurps the deceased performer. Zhen Yu’s also interrogated by the cops as a possible culprit, but audiences may want to additionally ponder other, less focal characters, such as the troupe’s manager (Wu Yufang) and her gradually-unveiled troubled past.

Much more than this perfunctorily simple setup does Curse of Lola rely on, employing quite intricate symbolism, like a clock observed in several instances, showing times that can be construed as meaningful when iterated in Chinese. There are other occurrences of this, and definitely Curse of Lola would do well in the trivia section everybody loves about IMDB.

It also possesses ample atmosphere, taking place entirely within claustrophobic locales that, even when supposedly outdoors, feel cramped and menacing. This thread is helped along by ominous sound effects and music, but of course buttressed even further via the efficient and memorable acting purveyed by all main characters.

One thing definitely spoils the broth, though. Curse of Lola finishes on a sour note, thanks to a brief, tell-all ending obviously added as a last resort to help appease intelligence-restrained viewers for whom the competent before-last scene (presumably the final shot as intended) is just too much to mulch.

Aside from that one gaffe, Curse of Lola should be enjoyed and appreciated as a viable work of cinematic art, strong on visual, aural and thespian impact more than sheer story.
It’s short, suspenseful and meticulously detailed, indicative of the effort that has gone into its making. Even the titular dance show bears the refinements of a real gig, suspending disbelief beyond what’s usual in many other movies, where such a mere plot device may get treated with disrespect and half-assed amateurism.

Tragically, it has fallen victim to curse of the indie circuit, leaving us guessing as to why there’s such injustice equally as how the hell they got the dressing room scene to look so good on such scant funding.

Do the right thing and watch this one. It has almost nothing to do with the cheapened onslaught of knock-off “horror” flicks emanating from East Asia over the last half-decade or so, and stands miles above their insipid nonsense content. Challenge yourself.

Rating: 8/10

Directed by Li Hong
Starring Francis Ng, Tian Yuan, Sui Junbo, Wu Yufang
2005, Mandarin, 90 minutes

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bought this movie solely because Francis Ng is the star. I've been a fan of his acting "style" for a while, and while I didn't enjoy him in this as much as I did in Crazy N The City, I have to say that this movie was a pleasant surprise. No one does "quirky" quite like my boy Francis. I don't watch many Mandarin movies because I find the language jarring in comparison to Cantonese, but still an under-rated and under-appreciated little movie which more people should strive to see.