Ric & Infamous
Writing for a quarterly publication, like comedy, is all about timing. I didn’t really want to review John Woo’s Red Cliff Part 1, until Red Cliff Part 2 premiered in January. But given the on-going paucity of product, Red Cliff Part 1 will have to suffice until next issue.
Despite labyrinthine funding (at least seventeen major international investors), spasmodic production (fashioning a script to satisfy the investors as well as a recalcitrant cast), and woeful tragedies (the fire death of a stuntman), the finished film has a sense of joyous release — unlike, say, something like Jim Carrey’s Yes Man, which has an aura of self-loathing defeat.
Regardless of all the problems, John Woo’s triumphant return to China, after years of increasingly diminishing returns in Hollywood, is apparent in every frame. Although creation of the script may have been tantamount to a United Nations treaty, his on-set, on-location, and on-screen work is suffused with creative freedom – ironic for a production overseen by one of the most attentive, not to mention restrictive, cinema censors in the world.
Then again, Woo taking on The Battle of Red Cliff saga seemed to grant him a censors’ “Get Outta Jail Free” card, since its been a favorite patriotic legend since the publication of the novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 14th Century (not to mention the historical record of the actual event which supposedly took place around 1800 years ago). Although there have been operas, films, and TV shows about incidents in and around the battle, having acknowledged action master Woo decide to wrestle the whole thing onto the screen is somewhat akin to David Lean deciding to dramatize Valley Forge, Gettysburg and D-Day all wrapped up into one.
It’s little wonder that the first part thundered to the top of the Asian box office charts as soon as it premiered, since Woo was giving three-dimensional life to some of Chinese mythology’s most popular characters. This is especially apparent in the supporting warriors, who Woo could cast for look rather than artistic clout. This was especially fun for me as my array of classic Chinese sculptures seemed to come to life on screen. “Ah, so that’s why there are so many statuettes of that guy in all the Chinatown stores!”
In fact, the sense of creative relief extends out of the screen so much that it’s hard to know whether I liked the movie because it’s that good, or it simply is the only quality port in the worsening cinema industry storm. I am far more likely to forgive and forget obvious and unwanted digital fx if I’m reduced to an unchoosing beggar. And yes, there are some annoying forays into all-too-familiar fake camera sweeps, but thankfully most of the masses are gratifyingly real (as director Zhang Yimou said when asked why the performers far outnumbered the athletes at the Beijing Olympic’s opening ceremony: “Well, we have the people…!”).
Woo seems to revel in those masses of actors, animals, and armor — as well as the return of both his deft and unapologetically bombastic stylistic touches, beautifully encapsulated in his use of nature’s teachings. On the one hand, a bird’s wing subtly illustrates a combat strategy, while later, a turtle shell is atom-bombed into the image to encompass a battle plan. It is in the latter scene, most especially, that the exit of Chow Yun-fat from the cast is most particularly missed.
Originally, Fat was to play warrior Zhou Yu, the hero of the tale, while Tony Leung Chui-wai was to play wily strategist Zhuge Liang. But, ironically, both men dropped out, the latter claiming exhaustion after finishing Ang Lee’s Lust Caution, and the former because he felt he didn’t have enough time to prepare (although the director maintains that the real reason was that the production wouldn’t match the sort of treatment Chow received during the making of Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End).
In any case, just as he had in Bullet in the Head eighteen years prior, Tony wound up replacing Chow in the lead role (with Takeshi Kaneshiro taking up Leung’s vacated role). As usual, Leung is exceptional, but no matter how well he conveys emotion he simply can’t match Chow’s physical stature, which is most apparent in the battle scenes. It’s hard not to long for the original casting in those sequences.
Nevertheless, there is much relief and pleasure to be found in Battle of Red Cliff Part 1, which ends after the first of three clashes that make up the historical and romantic record. Part 2 promises to be either an exhilarating astonishment or a proverbial sfx-laden retread. We’ll see next issue, inshallah.
Recently, I sat down with editor/author/expert/martial artist Jeff Rovin to record the audio commentary for the Blu-ray release of Shamo, Cheang Pou-soi’s follow-up to his bleak and brutal Dog Bite Dog. It allowed us to reconsider the 2007 release, which never seemed to be too much of one thing or another. Initially I thought Cheang was a pitch-perfect pick to helm this Chinese live action adaptation of a nihilistic Japanese manga, but on first viewing something seemed to be lost in translation.
I was perplexed. The hiring of Cheang seemed to announce that Shamo would be three-dimensionalized in all its unforgiving glory, but once the film arrived, it blunted the edges of the source material in a seemingly apologetic manner. Why choose a comic in which the “hero” murders his parents, then is schooled in survival by a “sensei” who tried to assassinate the prime minister if you’re going to make it “accessible” to a mass audience in the most “ha, fooled you, just kidding” kind of way?
Admittedly everybody does a decent job. Cheang’s skill with locations, actors, framing, and cinematic symbolism is mostly spot-on, and the cast is top notch. Shawn Yu plays the title character to such a degree that he’s virtually unrecognizable from his role in Dragon Tiger Gate. Frances Ng, although forever doomed to be a “poor man’s Anthony Wong,” clutches every scene he’s in, and Bruce Liang/Leung Siu-lung has settled in nicely for his post Kung-Fu Hustle career.
But it’s the script, reportedly fiddled with for months, if not years, where Shamo stumbles. To be forewarnedly spoileriffic, it’s best not to alienate a manga movie’s core audience with a late-in-the-game twist that not only renders the lead a fool and a tool, but essentially makes an illogical shambles of everything that precedes it — despite some wedged-in dialog that sorta kinda shoulda coulda explains it maybe. The creators seemingly try to make up for it by having Ng’s character actually succeed in killing the prime minister, but that only makes his ultimate fate all the more ludicrous.
Increasing my disquiet was the blandness of the action choreography. Admittedly there’s precious little kung-fu on display. The protagonist is taught karate and stumbles into the “Lethal Fight League’s mixed martial art/Thai boxing bouts,” so the choice of a young Chinese action director may not have been the most apt. Wong Wai-lung is credited as the martial arts fight director after working as a stuntman and assistant for Divergence, S.P.L., Fatal Contact, Fatal Move, and Invisible Target (following a longer career as an actor).
As I’ve said about one or two of those films, the body is willing but the inventive spark is not yet there. The snap, crackle and chop that’s evident in the work of Yuen Wo-ping, Tony Ching Siu-tung, Donnie Yen, and even Corey Yuen-kwai is mostly missing from these more recent Fatals and Lethals, and are sorely missed. Hopefully they will return as the new breed get more screen time, but, meanwhile, Shamo’s fights roll right out of the mind’s eye and memory like Olestra.
However, if you can accept the ludicrousness of its plot points and the vanilla of its action, Shamo is a cleverly made chunk of pulp fiction which’ll look fine in HD. Why, it even has a nifty commentary. How’s that for an unqualified rave?!
Finally, a quick word for the record to the idiots at DreamWorks. Not the geniuses, mind you. They have a bunch of them there. No, I’m talking to the idiots, of which, obviously, the company has a few. Now, I know, for a long time, all of DreamWork Animations’ releases were designed to either satirize or steal the thunder from Disney productions. DreamWorks made a pretty penny doing just that for years and years until one wholly original, honorable, sincere feature, untainted by “lowest-common-denominator-itis,” somehow managed to emerge from the Walt-reverential, pop-culture-crutched crucible.
So what do the idiots do? First, naturally, they totally lowball its profit expectations. Good, that’s good. That means they won’t fiddle with it too much. But when it goes on to exceed expectations to the tenth power, making 600 million rather than the 60 they projected, what do they do? Do they accept its quality and get on board? Of course not. If you’re not working on a Shrek, this is the typical Hollywood funhouse of pain.
Somewhere, someone along the line decided that Kung Fu Panda was for kids, and for kids only. That explains the weak, violence-driven, inauthentic toy tie-ins (with three exceptions, thankfully: the eight-inch Po, Monkey, and Tigress figures) and curses the uninspiring, frustratingly banal DVD release. Please, did you even watch the film?!
Gents and ladies, you like aping Disney/Pixar so much? Then look at the satisfying Wall-E DVD release that came shortly after your poorly packaged, condescending Panda discs. That shows you how to present a DVD for the whole family that doesn’t talk down to anyone.
Kung Fu Panda was actually inspired by A Touch of Zen. Your marketing of it was seemingly inspired by Bruce Li in New Guinea. It’ll serve you right if it upsets Wall-E for the best animation Oscar. You’ll look stupid, but you probably won’t care. Maybe then you’ll even be inspired to micro-manage Kung Fu Panda 2 to its utter ruin (come on, kids only like Bruce Lee and MMA!).
Shameful. Get with the program, idiots.