Showing posts with label Martial Arts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martial Arts. Show all posts

Friday, June 23, 2017

Derek Yee's SWORD MASTER is a Beautiful Film in Sonata Form

The wuxia pian is a cinematic genre that wanders in and out of favor among the theater going public, but it is one of the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving genres in film. While there are some basic similarities between wuxia and kung fu films, both often feature wandering warriors, the differences far outweigh the similarities. Chief among these differences is the symphonic nature of wuxia narratives. Where kung fu films tell a story with a central them from beginning to end with all the intervening expository scenes necessary to define the motivations of the characters, the characters in a wuxia pian are the thematic elements. As Stephen Teo writes in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions about wuxia auteur King Hu, "Hu is the most musical of martial arts directors. He composes his work like a symphonic piece where the recapitulation of a theme is imperative to the enjoyment." The compositional nature of wuxia as a genre is perfectly depicted in Derek Yee's aesthetically beautiful and emotionally powerful 2016 film Sword Master.

Sword Master is a remake of the 1977 Yuen Chor film Death Duel, updated with modern film effects and techniques and directed by Derek Yee who played the role of the lead character in the 1977 production. This is a film where a star performer returns to one of his key roles to direct the film with a new vision. Death Duel was a masterful wuxia film, but Yee's Sword Master has an underlying sorrowful and nostalgic emotional tone that allows it to stand on its own without any real need to be compared to the original save to mention the deeply personal connection the director has with the original film.

On one level Sword Master is a story of how two of the greatest swordsman eventually come to face one another in a fatal duel. How they get there, and their reasons for fighting, are complex. From the opening moments of the film, we know that the skull faced and doomed Yen Shih-San and the legendary Third Master of the Divine Sword Hsieh Shao-Feng must meet in a battle only one will survive. As the film progresses, the audience's emotions range from excitement at the skilled display that awaits to mourning that one of these men must die to accepting that the eventual outcome is not only necessary but beautiful as well. 

Where Sword Master a kung fu film, Yen Shih-San would be pursuing Hsieh Shao-Feng for killing his master or some similar motivation and who the villain and hero is would be cleanly established. That is not the case in this tale told in sonata form, rather than straight forward narrative. 

Following musical compositional stucture, Yen Shih-San represents Death and Swordcraft. From his makeup and music to his character's struggling with an illness of the soul that is killing him as sure as cancer, everything about Yen Shih-San radiates Death. When the film opens Yen Shih-San is on a quest to defeat all of the greatest swordsman in the world in order to secure his legend and to be remembered as the best swordsman of his era. He has forsaken everything in order to attain this end, he has even forsaken his obligation to protect the innocent from those who would oppress them. As a wandering swordsman, he has two obligations. To attain excellence at swordcraft and to defend the innocent. He is only focusing on one of those tasks and this has led to a corruption of his Chi, and his doom. After winning a fight in the opening sequence, he travels to the Divine Sword school in order to challenge their Third Master who is the greatest swordsman of the era. If Yen Shih-San can defeat the Third Master, his journey is complete. Sadly, Yen Shih-San discovers that the Third Master is dead and that everything he has sacrificed is for naught.

Hsieh Shao-Feng represents Humility and Righteousness. When viewers first encounter Hsieh Shao-Feng, he is known only as Ah Chi (or Useless Chi). In Hsieh Shao-Feng's first scene, he spend a night of self destructive excess in which he forsakes all of the material things in life after which he must become the janitor at a brothel in order to pay his debts. Hsieh Shao-Feng has attempted to leave jianghu, the world of martial arts, by forsaking all sense of pride and by abandoning the exercise of martial prowess. We do not know why Hsieh Shao-Feng has chosen this path, we only know that he would rather be beaten near to death than to harm another person. Where Yen Shih-San has chosen combat over Righteousness and Humility, Hsieh Shao-Feng has forsaken swordcraft for Humility and given that he defends the weak at the first opportunity (even though he does so without fighting) we know he has also focused on serving the innocent. 

Each of our warriors is half of a whole. Each represents half of what a swordsman must be. Each leaves the world of martial arts, jianhu, behind at the end of the first act. But one can never leave the world of martial arts, to do so is to be destroyed and to watch those you love suffer. Such are the stakes, and so our two themes must interact in a cinematic equivalent to a developmental section and arrive at a recapitulation of the themes where they are resolved into a single theme and a warrior is made whole.

In order to accomplish this monumental task, there must be an external threat of sufficient scale to bring our heroes back into the world of martial arts and such a threat exists. With the death of the Third Master, the Divine Sword school can no longer keep its place at the top of the martial world. It can no longer protect the weak from the excesses of champions of evil who seek to spread suffering. A new school has risen to challenge the Divine Sword and to spread misery. This school provides the basis for one of multiple relationship triangles in the film. The triangle triangles of conflict include one between our two heroes and the new evil subjugating the masses, a love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, his former fiancee/bride, and his true love, another love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, an admirer of his fiancee, and his fiancee, a triangle representing the struggle between good and evil that contains Hsieh Shao-Feng, Yen Shih-San, and Shao-Feng's father, and another, and another, and another. There are relationship triangles to spare in this film and they each interact in ways that reveal the underlying motivations of the characters.

There is much to write about regarding the intertwining of relationships in Sword Master, but it is much better to watch the interactions of the relationships as they resolve. For in their resolution we unravel the following mysteries: Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon the Divine Sword school and "kill" the Third Master? Why does the new threat exist? Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon his fiancee and how can he have done so while still being a Righteous man? 

All of these questions are answered in a film that is filmed beautifully with wonderful digital matte paintings that transport the audience out of our world and into the fantastic world of rivers and lakes that is the world of martial arts. The high flying swordsmanship is a joy to watch on the screen as the choreography and camera work combine to create vivid imagery that displays great martial prowess without brutality. One may never be able to leave the world of martial arts, but when watching Sword Master one finds that they don't even want to leave. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Into The Badlands Looks Like a Post-Apocalyptic, Kung Fu, Western and That's a Beautiful Thing.

I've seen quite a few adaptations of Journey to the West, aka Monkey, in my day. Most of these adaptations fail to capture the wonder I experienced when I first encountered Sun Wukong in Ron Lim's excellent comic book Dragon Lines. It wasn't until Steven Chow's wild and imaginative Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons that I saw a filmic version of the tale that approached what I had always wanted to see. I've yet to see a Western adaptation that properly captures the heroism and whimsy of Sun Wukong. While I appreciated Jackie Chan's and Jet Li's performances as manifestations of Monkey in The Forbidden Kingdom, the film itself focused too much on the wandering Westerner and not enough on Monkey. I've been pretty skeptical of Hollywood's ability to bring this character to screen as the rightful protagonist of a tale.

It looks like AMC might just change my assessment. AMC released a preview trailer for their upcoming series Into the Badlands which is based on the classic tale of heroism and wonder, and I'm really impressed. Yes, it's a Western version of the tale, but it is also a "Western" version of the tale. I'll still go in skeptical, but this show looks like a lot of fun and Daniel Wu's performance as "Sunny" looks great. I was never able to see my much wished for version of the tale with Dennis Dun as Monkey, but Daniel Wu brings a wonderful charisma to the screen.

The cinematography of the trailer hints at the influence of Wong Kar Wai and Ronny Yu, and that is a very good thing.

I can't wait to adapt this to Feng Shui, Chris Pramas' Dragon Fist RPG, or Savage Worlds.

Monday, October 22, 2012

David Lo Pan Style: Big Trouble in Little China meets PSY

As many of you know, I am of the opinion that John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China may well be the best film ever made.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you know the way that some Gen-Xers constantly reference Star Wars or Star Trek in conversation?  I'm that way with BTiLC.  I lost count of how many times I have watched the film a decade ago.

The film combines everything I love from Western genre film, Shaw Brothers over the top acting, and post-Tsui Hark Hong Kong cinematography and action.  In short, it is all things great about film that aren't in Singin' in the Rain.

BTiLC doesn't need a remake, but it does need more awesome fan creations like this.  If only Dennis Dun managed a cameo in the video.

If you don't like this video, you must be monumentally naive or already living in the Hell of Lacking a Sense of Style or Humor.  What can I say?  The Chinese have a lot of hells.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

[Movies] The Man with the Iron Fists -- Red Band Trailer

Long time kung fu film fan -- and hip hop artist -- RZA has partnered with Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino to bring us this little bit of Hong Kong inspired goodness.

 I love it when fans get the opportunity to tinker with the things they love. Sometimes those opportunities end up nightmarish -- like any of my attempts to emulate Michael Whelan art. Other times, they can lead to great entertainment. I'm hoping that RZA's "The Man with the Iron Fists" is able to inspire a new generation to experience the joys of classic Shaw Brothers films like "5 Deadly Venoms."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

SHAOLIN (2011) -- Powerful Drama, Passable Martial Arts

Jet Li's 1982 film Shaolin Temple is a fantastic martial arts film that signaled a sea change in the Hong Kong film industry.  It was the first Hong Kong martial arts film to be filmed in mainland China, it had brilliant choreography, and it had the uniquely charismatic Jet Li.  The film's story of a young refugee in 7th Century China who seeks refuge and training at a Shaolin temple in order to avenge the death of his father is based on common martial arts themes, but the use of naturalistic settings and the fluidity of the martial arts choreography are what make this film a standout to this day.  The film's martial arts are amazing, but real -- and all the more amazing for it.  The film didn't rely heavily on wire-work, as many earlier and later martial arts films have done.  It is a masterpiece, and to "remake" such a film is pure folly.

The futility of making a "remake" didn't stop Benny Chan, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, and Wu Jing from trying with 2011's SHAOLIN.  The result of their attempt is an extraordinary film that is emotionally powerful, even if the martial arts lack the grace captured in the earlier Jet Li classic.

The story is similar to the 1982 film, but with some significant differences.  As this is the 100th Anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, the updated SHAOLIN is set during the era of warlord struggle that occurred during the aftermath of the fall of the Qing dynasty.  As presented in Benny Chan's film, this is a period of chaos, bloodshed, and treason where China's very soul is at stake.

At the beginning of the film Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is a powerful warlord who has just won a major victory, and who has a chance to stabilize the region and bring about a peace that he doesn't yet understand he desires.  In the celebration over his victory, General Hou's sworn brother General Song Hu congratulates Hou and proposes that they formally unify their kingdoms and their houses through an arranged marriage.  Given Song's tone, Hou's paranoia takes over.  He wonders why Song has not asked about the massive wealth he acquired in the battle.  Hou's concerns are further fueled by his ambitious lieutenant Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) who goads Hou into using the marriage arrangement dinner as an opportunity to ambush Song and end a threat to Hou's hegemony.  Cao Man is also attempting to convince Hou to trade with foreign entities who wish to build a railroad in China.  The foreigners will trade water cooled machine guns for the right to use Hou's land.  Hou resists the temptation to sell out his country to foreigners, but accepts the plan to ambush Song.

As one might guess, Hou learns of Song's sincerity and fidelity too late.  Hou finds himself betrayed by Cao Man -- to whom Hou had been cruel and dismissive.  Hou tries desperately to save himself and his family during the ambush.  He manages to escape, but in the process of escaping his daughter is fatally wounded.  He takes his daughter to Shaolin temple in the hopes that they can heal her, but it is too late.  Hou finds that in his pride and greed, he has caused the death of his daughter and the end of his marriage as his wife comes to hate him for his actions.

It is a powerful opening filled with emotional pull.  Andy Lau is compelling as Hou and gives his motivations enough plausibility that we never think of him as evil, even as he is causing others suffering.  He is ruthless and paranoid, but he is a loving father and husband.

The story progresses from their as Hou becomes a monk, is asked to learn cooking due to his impure heart, but who is eventually allowed to study Kung Fu under a senior brother (Wu Jing).  The audience watches as Hou transforms from a ruthless man into a redeemed man, but not yet a man at peace.  Hou must still find a way to bring balance to the harm he has caused the world.

He is given the opportunity when he discovers that Cao Man is using laborers to dig up antiquities -- China's history and soul -- and is selling them to the foreigners in exchange for guns.  Cao Man is willing to betray his own people, and murder them to keep it quiet, without one moment's remorse.  Nicholas Tse is masterful in his presentation of the ambitious and treasonous Cao Man.  What looks like it might be an over the top melodramatic performance, shifts subtly as Cao Man eventually faces the horror of his own actions and overcomes his longing for status and revenge.  This transformation occurs during the fight scene between Hou and Cao, a fight scene that is routine in physical execution but exquisite in emotional appeal.

Given that the film includes Jackie Chan in the cast, one might expect him to steal the show.  While his performance is entertaining enough, it is also somewhat formulaic.  He is a combination clown and hero, a role that Chan has provided us many times before.  He does so ably here, but his performance isn't overpowering or overly memorable.

What is memorable is the performance of martial arts prodigy Wu Jing -- Wu has done some fantastic work over the past few years including a spectacular fight with Donnie Yen in Kill Zone.  If any actor can be said to bring the kind of charisma that Jet Li brought to the first Shaolin Temple it is Wu.  His character has very few lines in the film, but his facial reactions to events within the film provide volumes of detail.  He has a natural ability to convey emotions, an undeniable charm, and his solid performance provides the hub around which the narrative takes place.  The film is -- in many ways -- the story of how Hou becomes more like Wu Jing's character.  The one fight scene that is more than routine is Wu's, sadly it is also the fight scene with the worst camera work.  His grace is remarkable and I look forward to seeing him in more films.

Like many of the best martial arts films to come out of Hong Kong, Shaolin is a deeply patriotic film that is as much about the spirit of the middle kingdom as it is about the narrative being shown.  The movie is well acted, has some spectacular camera work -- even though there are about 2 crane shots too many, and has passable kung fu fights that rely too much on wires and not enough on the grace of the movements.

There isn't as much action as one might imagine a kung fu film to have, this is a kung fu drama and drama is its greatest virtue.  The score and the acting manipulated my emotions perfectly.  I worried for the characters, and wept at all the right moments.  The final scene between Hou and his wife is one of the best scenes I have watched in a Hong Kong film.  It is romantic and tragic, it is everthing I watch movies in order to feel.

If the martial arts had been as good as the acting and the story, this film would have been a classic.  As it is, it is merely excellent.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

[Film Trailer] MURAL: Strange and Inspiring Fantasy

As much genre influence as Hong Kong films have had on American cinema, there is one genre where Hong Kong's influence has yet to have significant impact on American film making. Every modern American action film has some touch of the gunfu and kung fu films of Hong Kong's heyday, but one rarely sees touches from amazing fantasy spectacles like The Bride with White Hair, Dragon Inn, or Warrior of Zu Magic Mountain in American productions.

When we do get film influenced by HK fantasy films -- with the exception of John Carpenter's magical Big Trouble in Little China -- the American adaptations/translations are mere shadows of what could be cinematically.  It's as if Western film makers are afraid to truly push the envelope regarding what a fantasy story can be.  The Forbidden Kingdom is a perfect example.  The film stars two of Hong Kong's greatest actors, yet the film makers decided to add an American protagonist and to mute the fantastic elements of Sun Wu Kung's tale.  The movie is an inelegant patchwork of a number of wonderful tales.  Even when talented Hong Kong directors make films with elements of HK fantasy, like Warriors of Virtue, the fantasy is targeted at young children and the warriors become kangaroo versions of Ninja Turtles.  In these fantasy translations, the "anything can happen" narrative and the "nothing is too extreme" attitude of HK fantasy is lost, only to be replaced with tamer shadows that hint at what could have been.  There are moments of The Forbidden Kingdom and Warriors of Virtue  that shine through, but they are only enough to make the film's moderately entertaining when they could have been spectacular.

Thankfully for fans of Hong Kong fantasy, and you should really be one, the HK film industry is still making fantasy spectaculars.  This September saw the release of Gordon Chan's latest film Mural.  The movie is an adaptation from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio a classic collection of Chinese fantasy stories of Vampires, Ghosts, and Magic.  Gordon Chan's Fist of Legend is one of the best martial arts films ever created, and if this trailer is any hint we might be in for something special with Mural.  Let's hope it gets released stateside soon.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Adventures of Tintin -- Can Digitally Animated Fight Scenes and Stunts Satisfy?

The more I look at the advertising for the upcoming Adventures of Tintin animated film, the more it looks like the film will provide for a few hours of pleasant entertainment.  There is still one major question lurking in the back of my mind...How much more exciting would all of this be if it were a live action film?

The stunts look unbelievably exciting, check out the motorcycle stunt toward the end of the trailer, but I keep asking myself "what if Jackie Chan did the stunt coordination for a live action film?"  I understand that there are limits to what the human body can do, and there are very good safety reasons to use digital effects to supplement stunts, but this film seems so action packed and exciting that I want to see it as "real" and not animated.  It seems that the film makers would be pushing more of the medium's boundaries if they attempted to recreate some of these fight scenes and stunts with real people.

I hate video game to movie comparisons as much as the next guy, but isn't one of the major reasons people attend a Tomb Raider film, or desire to watch an Uncharted movie, specifically because they want to see exciting digital experiences translated into live action.

Isn't the fight scene between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou in Flashpoint  so amazing because it has real people and you can imagine the real physical effort required to create the action sequence?

But the new Tintin film uses "motion capture" so the actors are physically engaged you say?  Some stunts can only be created digitally?  I don't buy it, and can easily imagine Jackie Chan, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton doing that final motorcycle stunt.

None of this takes away from the fact that the Tintin movie looks engaging and entertaining, I'm looking forward to it.  I'm just saying that it looks like it would be "AMAZING" if it were live action.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

1911: Revolution (2011) -- Jackie Chan's 100th Film in Theaters October 7th

Jackie Chan's 100th film releases in American theaters this Friday.  It also marks the 100th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising, the topic of Jackie Chan's latest film 1911: Revolution.

Unlike a majority of Chan's work, this film is not a martial arts or action comedy but like much of Chan's work the film is a patriotic one.  For example in Drunken Master II, the viewer gets a sense of Chan's deep patriotism as Wong Fei-hung battles a ring of antiquities smugglers.  In that film, Fei-hung battles for the preservation of China's history.

In 1911: Revolution, Jackie Chan stars as Huang Xing  who is fighting for the soul of China.  Huang Xing was one of the founders of the Kuomintang and one of the revolutionary leaders who fought against the Qing Dynasty in a series of uprisings.  These uprisings finally culminated with the defeat of the Dynasty in the Wuchang Uprising and establishment of the Republic of China.

From the trailer, one can see that director Zhang Li has lost none of the aesthetic talent that made Red Cliff such a beautiful visual experience.  His camera work captures broad strokes in a way that doesn't overwhelm the view, and he is a master of highlighting an emotive figure in a chaotic environment. 

Filmgoers in the Los Angeles area will be able to see the film at the following locations:

Monrovia -- Krikorian 12
Los Angeles -- Rave 18
Los Angeles -- Mann Chinese 6

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sony Pictures THE RAID -- Holy Moly!

I'm not deeply familiar, or even moderately familiar, with the action film scene in Indonesia.  But if this is any indication of what they have been creating, I'm going to have to change that soon.

THE RAID was a selection at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (apparently still the go to festival for all things awesome) and the preview looks remarkable.

The film is the tale of a SWAT raid on a tenement controlled by a Drug Kingpin that has almost every possible thing go wrong.  I can't wait to see this action with real sound effects, and a real score.

Donnie Yen's WU XIA to be Released in the US

Master martial arts stylist Donnie Yen will be featured in a remake of the classic martial arts film One Armed Swordsman later this year in a film entitled WU XIA (its American release title will be DRAGON).  Yen's work is consistently wonderful, and the story of One Armed Swordsman is quite compelling.  Our friend David Chute did commentary for a Dragon Dynasty release of the film a couple of years ago.  I recommend you go out and buy a copy.

The choice of Wu Xia as the title of the film can be translated a number of ways -- including "armed swordsman" -- but most of the translations infer a kind of moral code on the part of the hero.  Western readers have tales of chivalry and tragic sagas.  Chinese readers and viewers have wuxia tales of larger than life heroes who often seek to leave the "world of martial arts" behind them, only to be drawn back into a life of violence.  The films and stories are often deeply melodramatic and filled with wonderful commentary on the role of honor, romance, and justice.  It is no wonder that so many of these films get made, and remade.

The decision to call WU XIA by the title DRAGON in the US seems an odd one, and one that is hopelessly trapped in associating martial arts films with Bruce Lee and his legacy.  To be fair, Bruce Lee is one of the greatest martial arts stars the world has ever known.  But are American audiences so limited in their appreciation of the genre that they need a title like DRAGON to bring them in?

I think not.  The preview speaks for itself and demonstrates a combination of martial arts realism with a touch of wuxia wire work.  This looks to be an engaging and exciting film.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wong Kar Wei and Tony Leung Chiu Wai Take on Ip Man with "The Grandmasters"

The Wilson Yip directed and Donnie Yen starring martial arts action film Ip Man is easily among the most entertaining martial arts films ever made.  Yen's charisma and mischievous smile -- and his prodigious martial arts talent -- combine to make his depiction of the Ip Man one of the pantheon of great kung fu lead characters.  It ranks right up there with Bruce Lee's character Lee in Enter the Dragon, Jackie Chan's portrayal of Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master 2, and Jet Li's portrayal of Chen Zhen in the classic Fist of Legend.

Had you asked me within the first few moments after my first viewing of Ip Man if there could be another portrayal of the character as memorable as Yen's, I would have laughed at the thought.  Of course, I would have been overlooking the Hong Kong film industry's ability to make multiple films about the same character that all add some new interesting point of view -- a point of view worth experiencing.

Jet Li's characterizations of Wong Fei-hung are as wonderful as Jackie Chan's, though the portrayals are very different.  Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen have all portrayed Chen Zhen in dynamic and exciting films that each have a different feel politically and aesthetically.  Ip Man itself shares many features with the story of Chen Zhen.

If Hollywood were to release as many films about the same subjects and same characters as the Hong Kong industry does, critics would write screeds about the lack of originality in the industry.  One's first thought might be to agree with such critics, and extend that assumption to Hong Kong film makers.   Such an assumption would be wrong.  The Hong Kong film industry has demonstrated with films like Fist of Legend, Legend of the Fist, and Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) that it is entirely possible to get tremendous variation, depth of vision, and creative interpretation while making multiple films about the same subject.

All of which explains why I can be so excited when I hear that Wong Kar Wei and Tony Leung Chiu Wai have worked together to create their own version of the Ip Man story, even while loving the Yip and Yen production.  I cannot wait to see this film.

h.t. to David Chute

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Review : Ip Man (2008) -- Ip Man Delivers

Image Copyright Mandarin Films Ltd.
Three of the best Hong Kong martial arts films ever made depict stories of kung fu masters defending Chinese honor during a time of Japanese military occupation. Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury -- called The Chinese Connection in the United States -- is one of the films that helped secure Bruce Lee as a legitimate action star. Jet Li's Fist of Legend improved upon Lee's classic and proved that Jet Li was a martial artist who didn't operate in anyone's shadow. Li's Fearless took the tale back a generation into what is essentially the prequel story to Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend and created a powerful narrative of struggle against tyranny and the power of patriotism.

All of these films are classics in the genre. The story they present is a simple one. The Japanese have invaded the Chinese mainland and are oppressing the people of China. In order to further humiliate the Chinese people, the Japanese forces seek to prove that the Japanese Fist (Karate) is superior to the Chinese Fist (Kung Fu). They hope that doing so will break the spirit of the Chinese people.

Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury both begin with a student of the Jingwu school of martial arts returning home to find that his sifu has been murdered by the Japanese during one of these "honor duels." To make matters worse, the Japanese poisoned the sifu in order to guarantee the win. The student -- filled with the arrogance of his extraordinary skill and the power of his righteous indignation -- enters the Japanese enclave and gives them a quick "lesson" in the Chinese Fist. Things escalate from there.

In Fist of Fury, the Japanese are presented in a stereotypical and demeaning manner. Li's version tones down some of the racism and has Japanese characters who aren't mere two-dimensional villains. The Li version adds a cross-cultural romantic subplot that is one of the many improvements that film adds to the Lee version. Fearless, as a patriotic piece, represents other cultures in a more stereotypical light than Fist of Legend, but in a less offensive manner than Fist of Fury. Fearless, taking place before the action of the two "Fist" films, sets the tone of honor and national pride that makes the two "sequels" narratively possible.

All of these films feature a compelling drama and phenomenal displays of martial arts. Li's fights in Fist of Legend are some of the most compelling martial arts duels to date in film. Li's final battle rivals the end fights in Meals on Wheels and Drunken Master II. Watching the duels it becomes clear that the audience is watching more than a choreographed fight, they are watching Art. The aesthetics of the action are breathtaking. The brave use of wide shots during the action accentuate the beauty in a way that American films have yet to match -- primarily due to American cinema's over reliance on the close up during fight scenes. A static wide angle filming masters is a thing of beauty that shaky close angle shots will never match.

As great as these films are, they all lack one key dramatic component. None of the Li/Lee tales of Japanese oppression truly illustrate how devastating the occupation was to the Chinese people. This is where Donnie Yen's Ip Man takes the established formula of the Fist of genre and pulls it out of the "action film" ghetto and into high drama. Prior to Ip Man, I would have argued that Fist of Legend comes close with its romantic sub-plot, but after Ip Man there is truly no comparison when it comes to moving pathos.

Ip Man tells the tale of Yip Man a humble master of Wing Chun. Ip Man isn't filled with righteous indignation and he is completely lacking in arrogance. He is the antithesis, in many ways, of the able Chinese fighters in the Fist stories. He is a kind family man who is merely seeking to provide for his family and to live an honest life. But he is also a man who can only witness so much injustice before he must step forward to protect his community. When push comes to shove, it isn't the "honor of the Chinese Fist" for which Ip Man fights, it is for the honor of those who have been oppressed.

Donnie Yen's performance as Yip Man is deep and touching. When one watches a martial arts film one expects action, but one doesn't often expect to be given genuine pathos. Yen's substantial martial arts talents deliver on the action end, but his acting chops are proven as well. Yen manipulates the audiences heartstrings as ably as any actor in an "independent tragedy." The film, and Yen, are almost somber in their presentation. This is a film about resisting tyranny, and not a film about revenge. As such, the film gains an emotional power that would otherwise be lacking.

The film, like Fearless, is a highly patriotic film -- presenting the virtue of Chinese society against the tyranny of Japanese society. Like Fist of Legend it portrays a more complex Japanese occupier, though it does portray some negative stereotypes in its depiction of the Japanese political character. Ip Man also displays a more complex Chinese citizen than the past films in the genre. Ip Man's Chinese citizens act like the oppressed, taking actions that undermine the Chinese people and make things easier for the occupying Japanese. Bandits steal from hard working Chinese families instead of fighting the Japanese. Translators hand over Kung Fu masters, though the master's may end up shot if they are too successful against the Japanese, out of fear of punishment and a need to support family. There are no simple quislings in the story, but the oppressed act in ways that make the job of the oppressor easier.

It all makes for one of the most emotionally powerful martial arts films ever made. The action in the film is amazing -- as I have come to expect from Donnie Yen films -- but there is something special about this film that has nothing to do with the action and everything to do with the performance and direction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is The Cup of Tears Already the Third Best Ninja Movie Ever Made?

Gary Shore's two-minute independently produced "trailer" The Cup of Tears has already led to him signing an agreement with Universal to direct a film based upon the trailer. The two-minute trailer combines Tibetan monks, Shaolin looking monks, Samurai, Ninjas, things that look like missiles shot in "bullet time," and space ships shooting at each other. Somehow it manages to do this with almost no similarity to Cowboy Bebop.

Looking at Shore's direction of the action sequences, I am almost tempted to say that this is the third best American made ninja movie ever produced.

The first two?

Ninja Assassin and Revenge of the Ninja

The lack of Sho Kosugi automatically removes Shore's film from the top two.

As for other films in the Top 10 American Produced ninja movies, they include in no particular order The Octogon, You Only Live Twice, American Ninja, The Challenge, and The Hunted.

I don't consider Kill Bill a ninja film. It is too much an amalgam of all that is awesome in Eastern action cinema.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

You Can Never Leave "The World of Martial Arts"

John Woo returns to his Last Hurrah for Chivalry roots with Reign of Assassins.

God I love wuxia films and the narrative tropes of jiang hu.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday -- Enter the Ninja

The classic Bond film You Only Live Twice, may be the first example of ninjas being featured in mainstream Western cinema, but it was the Sho Kosugi vehicle Enter the Ninja that captured the imagination of a generation. I can still remember sitting in my 7th grade Drama class, having just finished performing a monologue from The Glass Menagerie, as a group of my classmates enacted a sequence from Enter the Dragon.

The instructor wasn't very impressed, but I was and I immediately hunted down the Sho Kosugi film and experienced pure viewing pleasure.

Enter the Dragon follows one of the standard Golan and Globus action storylines. In this case it is the "old army buddy comes to visit an old friend who he served with during some military exchange or another, only to find out that the friend is in trouble with the local (criminal underworld, greedy land grabbing corporation, or both)." It's up to our protagonist to kick ass, take names, kick the asses of the people whose names he took, and save the day. Enter the Ninja adds ninja techniques to our protagonists usual repertoire of skills, which naturally makes him invincible as only a ninja can kill a ninja.

Franco Nero (Django and Camelot), our protagonist, has less than stellar martial arts skills, most of the acting is horrible, and the film suffers from Samurite syndrome. The film often borders on the ridiculous. For example, there is a point when Christopher George is calling out stating, "I want my ninja now!" in a manner that can only be described as extremely homoerotic -- an extremely incongruous moment in the film. Any one of these flaws could have ruined the film for all time, yet none do.


Sho Kosugi. The moment Sho Kosugi hits the screen, the viewer is in for a treat. Even while covered head to toe in his ninja costume, Sho Kosugi brings charisma and power to the screen. Yes, ninja costumes are inherently cool, but Sho is cool beyond the outfit. He is a joy to watch, which is likely one of the reasons Revenge of the Ninja drops the Samurite aspects of narrative and let's Sho carry the film. Sho Kosugi was the quintessential ninja throughout the 80s, and I cannot wait to see him in the forthcoming Ninja Assassin -- even in a small role.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Warner to remake Enter the Dragon

I know this is old news to most of you, but I was out in Washington, DC locked in a hotel basement for the past week. According to Variety, on August 9th, Warner Independent Pictures has selected "The Shield" executive producer Kurt Sutter to direct a re-envisioning of the Bruce Lee classic martial arts extravaganza.

This is pretty exciting, and pretty worrisome, news. While Five Fingers of Death was likely the first real experience Western audiences had with the martial arts film, and it certainly set the tropes for most American kung fu films, it was Enter the Dragon starring the legendary Bruce Lee that guaranteed that US audiences would be watching martial arts films for years. I am excited to see what Kurt and crew can do with the picture, but as I mentioned I am also worried.

As I read the Variety article, it became increasingly clear that the "hero" of the film (or at least the narrative focus) is likely to be as white as I am. The "noir" potential of the piece appeals to me, but the "lone FBI agent who pursues a rogue Shaolin monk into the bloody world of underground martial arts fight clubs"? Not so much.

A "lone FBI agent? A "rogue Shaolin monk"?

Does it take place in "a world gone mad"? Or even "beneath our noses"?

It's a little cliché. Maybe Kurt Sutter can incorporate some of the narrative of how the Triads and the Southern Shaolin Temple are related. Now that has noir potential.