It was the best of three months, it was the worst of three months.
An insider friend of mine tells me that a full seventy percent of Hong Kong film workers are unemployed, which is certainly reflected in the frequency and quality of the once vital industry’s output.
Meanwhile, in this neck of the woods, distributors are plugging the leaks in their own bottom lines with cherrypicks from the struggling suppliers’ backlogs. Where, once, beloved films were out of collectors’ reach because of inflated prices, now many producers are happy to part with their once-overvalued babies at reasonable, even discount, rates.
Last issue I really only had Red Cliff Part One to consider. Now, there’s a full half-dozen flicks to savor, not even counting Thailand’s crazy-quilt attempt at a superhero movie, Mercury Man. Unlike Chocolate, which I dismissed last column (perhaps unfairly) because the wit and invention of its extended fights grated against the sadistic brutality of its unnecessarily remorseless plot, Mercury Man whisks up Spider-Man, The Rock, and Born to Fight into a frothing stew of endless climaxes, awkward actresses, and chintzy sfx that’s fun if you’re in the right MST3K mood.
Meanwhile, as Dragon Dynasty, Media Blasters, and AnimEigo nimbly present us with the opportunity to legally see films from the Shaw Brothers Studio library, the Lone Wolf & Cub TV series, and Raizo Ichikawa at his best in both the Shinobi no Mono and Son of Black Mass series (I have a serious psychological problem with calling it the odd, grafted-upon moniker: Sleepy Eyes of Death), I also have the happy opportunity to consider a plethora of new Asian films that have built up over the last twelve weeks, starting with a Donnie Yen double-feature.
The first of the Donnies, Painted Skin, can be quickly dispensed with. Although several filmmakers (even no less a personage as King Hu) have attempted to translate the joys of the original fantasy story, none have been able to capture its ethereal effect. And this latest attempt, via producer/director Gordon Chan, is no exception.
Despite a handsome cast (including Vicky Zhao Wei) and sumptuous production values, this tale of a lovesick “fox spirit” who must munch on human hearts to remain in human form in order to psychotically, not to mention homicidally, stalk her unwilling amour is done-in not just by its unwieldy concept but by its special effects. That is not to say that its sfx are bad, it’s just that everybody gets them … to the film’s detriment.
Just as in Gordon Chan’s previous, disastrous, The Medallion, he showers wires and cgi on both the humanly and superhumanly powered, rendering their differences and confrontations uninvolving, uninteresting, and ultimately meaningless. Everybody tries hard, everything is very pretty — and Donnie, as the heroine’s bro-in-law, gets in some good shots — but the final effect is pointless.
Next in the Donnie hit (and kick) parade is Ip Man, the retitled biopic of Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun sifu. Originally called Yip Man (the more recognizable moniker of the title character), it was changed because the renowned arthouse director Wong Kar-wai was hoping to do his own biopic by that name … but more on him later. This one got out the (Dragon Tiger) gate first, directed by Donnie’s go-to helmer of recent years, Wilson Yip. Together they created such Yen-centric showcases as SPL (aka Kill Zone), Flash Point, and the afore-alluded-to Dragon Tiger Gate.
The result could have, and maybe should have, been titled Onnie Yen —not only avoiding any Wong Kar conflict but because it certainly seems to be more about Donnie’s character, personality, and state-of-mind than the life of Master Yip. As it stands, it’s also a well-appointed compendium of themes done first, and better, by Jet Li and company. Echoes of Once Upon a Time in China, Fist of Legend, and Fearless permeate the handsome production, and no amount of Donnie’s superlative speed and skill can dissipate those shadows.
And there’s certainly plenty of that on display. It’s little wonder that Donnie gravitated to the production. As he plays him, Ip Man is saintly and superlative to a fault from the moment he’s first glimpsed to the moment he’s last glimpsed. I suppose there’s a certain comfort to be found in that regularity, but Donnie’s seeming on-screen desire to be first, fast, fierce, and faultless at all times is a bit Tom Cruisey in effect.
Just about the only other fighters who are able to stand out from the scores of nameless, faceless folk Donnie plows through are Terry Fan and veteran Japanese actor Ikeuchi Hiroyuki, who takes on the Billy Chow Fist of Legend “General of Death” role. Anyway, in order to bend the story to Yen’s will, liberties are taken in plot and character which lead to a certain amount of “huhs,” “whas,” and “yeah, rights.”
Nonetheless, if you’ve come for the fights, and I recommend that you do, a good time can be had by all — if you’re willing to pardon the intrusive presence of wires from time to time. But if wires there must be, no one does them better than Donnie’s ol’ SPL buddy Sammo Hung, who’s credited as the choreographer here. As expected by anyone who knows Sammo’s oeuvre, the many fights are predictably strong, sharp, and aggressive.
If you want to see how absolutely wonderful Donnie Yen is, enjoy Ip Man. If you want to learn about the character and skill of Yip Man, google away. Bottom line: come for the ego, stay for the fights.
And even if Wong Kar-wai doesn’t do his own version of the story, Sony Pictures Classics have recently released the DVD of Ashes of Time Redux, the celebrated director’s remastered reconsideration of his landmark 1994 rumination on life, love, longing, and lopping off limbs. According to the accompanying “making of” doc, the main difference between the original and this new version is the inclusion of seasonal title cards (Spring, Summer, etc.), giving the philosophic waxing some tangible shape, and the rerecording of the soundtrack, supplemented by string virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma.
By any edit, the beautifully filmed period piece — about an assassin “agent” realizing an inner truth through the people he brokers killings for — weaves an undeniable spell, no matter how hard I fought it. For the first half-hour, it seemed like the worst sort of self-conscious, pretentious clap-trap. Wong is well known for going scriptless, and shaping some sort of final film in the editing room from the interminable improvisations of his at-sea actors. But by the final fade-out, the ramblings of his exceptional cast (the late Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Brigitte Lin, and both Tony Leungs) take wistful, effecting form within cinematographer’s Christopher Doyle’s mesmerizing images.
The only thing sabotaged by the shifting sands of the desert locale is the kung-fu, coincidentally also choreographed by Sammo Hung, who admits in the doc that he was adrift in the desert for months on the project. Despite his yeoman work, all the action is filmed either sped up, slo-moed, or stutter-shot, as if the pure swordplay itself simply wasn’t good enough somehow. But in the hands of an artist like Wong (or King Hu, who called the kung-fu of his film A Touch of Zen “dancing”) this can be forgiven, I suppose.
What is harder to forgive is the shabby cinematic treatment of a man who, had he been born twenty (or even ten) years earlier would already be one of the kings of kung-fu flicks. I’m talking about Jacky Wu Jing, of course, who showed great promise in Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi II and Master of Taichi, but, because of a great performance as a stone-cold killer in SPL, is now relegated to endless potboilers with either “Lethal,” “Fatal,” or “Assassin” in the title. All can be reviewed exactly the same way: “strong kung-fu, weak story.”
The latest, Legendary Assassin, is notable for Wu’s first stab at directing (sharing the load with Li Chung-chi, who stunted along with Jacky in Fatal Move, Fatal Contact, and Invisible Target, among others). Just as Wu shared the same wushu school as Jet Li, his first helmer shares some of the same issues with Jet’s one attempt at directing, Born to Defence — mainly an inability to tell a strong story straight.
Jacky also makes the traditional misstep so many other first-timers make. Although there can only be one Bruce Lee, novices’ aspirations know no bounds, so while virtually none of them can pull it off in either looks or demeanor, they always cast themselves as the big boss, the coolest cat, the top dog, and just generally the greatest, sexiest, strongest thing since sliced bread.
Jacky plays the title character, who kills a mob boss, only to play hide ‘n’ seek with the man’s minions as a typhoon threatens to smash the island they’re all trapped on. Had he stuck to that lean, mean, possibly powerful plot and paid off the typhoon tease, Jacky might have made it work. But about three-quarters through an on-screen TV news program reports that the typhoon has changed direction!
So, sadly, does the movie, and once Jacky takes the first ferry off the island, the story spins out of control, leading to a ludicrous Baby Cart-esque climax where he takes on somewhere between fifty and a hundred conveniently unarmed extras in the rain to save a stunningly beautiful island policewoman, whose cop associates have magically disappeared.
It’s a shame. By all rights, Wu Jing could, and should, have been a contender. There’s enough good acting, clever ideas, and smashing kung-fu in here to make it worth a look (not to mention the alluring presence of heroine Celina Jade and a welcome surprise cameo by Kara My Young Auntie Hui Ying-hung). But, ultimately, Jacky’s piling on is a lethally fatal combination. Strong kung-fu, but … well, you know….
Thankfully Champions, an ambitious hunk of Chinese propaganda, has a strong story, but, unfortunately, too much of it. Tsui Sui-ming, who I thought of as “Sammo-lite” when I first glimpsed him in Bury Me High way back in 1991, has returned to produce, write, direct, and even co-choreograph this overripe, overwrought, and overstuffed saga about the 1936 Olympic martial arts demo team. Had he stuck to just them, things might have been easier to accept, but, instead, Tsui scoops up hunks from My Young Auntie, Kids from Shaolin, Once Upon a Time in China, Chariots of Fire (among others), and jams them in willy-nilly.
It doesn’t help that he promotes long-time supporting player Dicky Cheung (Last Hero in China, Bloody Brothers) and apparently instructed him to do his “best (albeit incongruous and distracting)” Stephen Chow impersonation — following Dicky’s involvement in the Shaolin Soccer TV rip-off, Kung Fu Soccer, four years prior. By the time Tsui tries to ladle on honest pathos near the end, it’s too much, too late. Champions is interesting, colorful, and filled with plenty of authentic kung-fu. It’s just a crying shame Tsui couldn’t leave it at that.
Finally, this brings me to Kuro-Obi, a 2007 Japanese movie advertised at the time as “Real Fight, Real Karate, Real Japan.” It’s now been released on DVD by Media Blasters as Black Belt with the tagline: “What is true power? What is true strength?” Both descriptions are apt, since it plays like an inexorable Aesop’s Fable. You ever hear the one about the sensei who tells his three students that whoever brings back the true meaning of karate will be his successor? Well, here you go.
It starts, ala Ashes of Time, a lot like the exceptional Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring. There’s beautiful location filming and a lyrical, poetic approach. But then WWII-era militia intrude on the idyllic forest dojo, demanding possession and satisfaction. They get neither, but soon the sensei is dead and his trio of students attempt to understand his mantra of “no fighting, no attacking.” One rejects it entirely, one takes it too much to heart, and the third observes as seemingly inescapable coincidences bring the two opposing students back together for a final full contact blowout.
Whether your credulity is merely strained, or snapped, depends upon how impressed you are by the karate performed by the stars — who are actually real practitioners of the first, fifth, and sixth dan. The over-all message and climatic revelation seem a tad muddled and unclear, but that’s just par for the course for a pastime that promotes peace but teaches fighting. Suffice to say that if a Black Belt is what you’re seeking, Black Belt makes fine viewing.
It was the best of three months, it was the worst of three months.