Friday, November 12, 2010

Raging Phoenix -- Does it Rise to the Occassion?

Martial Arts films are continually attempting to push boundaries. Sometimes, especially in Wuxia films, the boundaries they are pushing are visually and narratively artistic. Typically, the boundaries being pushed relate to the sophistication of the choreography and the danger (perceived or otherwise) of the stunts being performed by the martial artists and stunt men and women working on the production.

A quick look at the final battle sequence in Five Deadly Venoms versus the end fight in Flash Point provides a nice demonstration of just how far martial arts films have pushed their performers to provide exciting viewing experiences. Five Deadly Venoms may be the more coherent and entertaining film overall, but the final fight scene in Flash Point is more than worth the price of admission.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Hong Kong was the place to look for exciting and adventurous action. When some of the HK talent migrated into Hollywood, there were those who argued that HK had lost some of its edge and looked for new markets to find the next big thing in action and excitement. These cinephiles didn't have to look very far. Thailand has been producing entertaining action fare for decade, but the charismatic personalities of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin have attracted an audience of loyal fans. Both Jaa and Jeeja have demonstrated a strong work ethic and a willingness to follow in the tradition of boundary pushing action. I would argue that Donnie Yen's past few films, with their breakneck pace, are a reaction to the fast paced action of the Thai productions.

While martial arts films are continuously attempting to push boundaries, there are those rare films that push them so far as to redefine genre expectations. Jackie Chan's performances in Wheels on Meals and Armor of God and Jet Li's Bodyguard from Beijing and Fist of Legend quickly leap to mind as just these kinds of films. Jeeja Yanin's latest film Raging Phoenix is attempting to be one of these genre redefining films. Raging Phoenix combines Muay Thai with break dancing and drunken fighting in an attempt to create a visually dynamic action style.

Raging Phoenix has a fairly straightforward plot. Young woman barely escapes being kidnapped by the Jaguar gang of human traffickers when she is rescued by an opponent of the Jaguar gang. The woman's rescuer becomes her martial arts trainer and she joins a rag tag band of people who have lost loved ones to the gang. The members of the band hope to put an end to the Jaguar gang's reign of terror and to rescue the fiance of one of the band's members from the clutches of evil. There isn't much new in the story's formula, but if well executed it can be an entertaining ride.

Sadly, Raging Phoenix -- at least in the subtitled American release -- doesn't convey the narrative of the film particularly well. Time jumps come at seemingly random intervals and the audience seems to be expected to fill in the narrative gaps in the story. This isn't a difficult task, but as in Ong Bok's American theatrical release, it can be annoying as it creates a stutter in the storytelling.

What was particularly frustrating about the stuttering narrative was that the film did in fact have an interesting twist on the main premise. The Jaguar gang is kidnapping women, not for ransom or to sell into prostitution or organ "donation," instead they are harvesting their victims tears in order to create a pheromone based perfume -- perfume made from the tears of the hopeless. It's not just any perfume either, the tears of the hopeless apparently add to the martial and physical prowess of those who use them.

The stilted transition of scenes is additionally frustrating due to the fact that the acting performances by Jeeja and Kazoo are pretty solid. Certainly the performances are theatrical and melodramatic at times, but when they need to be they are quite powerful. The actors portray their emotional losses well, and the film would have been better served if it had all the necessary filler scenes.

But enough of the narrative and its merits. How well does Raging Phoenix achieve its goal of pushing the boundaries of martial arts action through the inclusion of break dancing based techniques? In short, not so well. Overall, the martial arts in the film is quite exciting. Of particular merit is the battle between Jeeja Yanin and Marc Ngai Hoang. There are some great fight scenes in the film, but whenever a character inserts a "hip hop" move the fight seems to slow down and the choreography becomes readily apparent. The break dancing elements typically shatter the illusion that you are viewing anything remotely spontaneous.

Thankfully, the hip hop insertions are minimal and when the fights get really rolling the fluidity of drunken Muay Thai take over. The flying elbows and knees are impressive, and the damage they deal to opponents is believable.

Had the film eliminated the hip hop, focused on the action, and added some narrative filler scenes, this could have been an instant classic. As it is, it is a film that I will fast forward to a couple of fight scenes just to experience them again. None of those fight scenes come close to matching the brutal dynamism of Flash Point.

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