M.A.I.M. 6/11

Having two magazines collapse under me required some recuperation. Although the fix was in for both Inside Kung Fu and Asian Cult Cinema for quite some time (the pruning of magazine racks over the months didn’t bode well for either niche publication … especially after the former’s game of hot potato with various media conglomerates), the muscle memory habit of writing a monthly and quarterly entertainment column for literally decades isn’t easy to break.

I’m fishing for sympathy. Actually, it was. Inside Kung Fu and the kung fu film industry made it somewhat painless. First, years ago, the IKF powers-that-were made it clear that I wasn’t to be negative in any way, lest I threaten advertising revenue. I mean, they wouldn’t even allow me to reveal the pun-on-words inherent in my column’s title: Martial Arts in Media (see the title above for the astonishing revelation).

Furthermore, the ever-eroding economic downturn had seen to it that the effect of the magazine disappearances on my income was negligible. So, given the veritable collapse of Asian action cinema, I was actually kinda relieved not to slap on a happy face every month for IKF and/or vent my spleen every quarter for ACC.

But make no mistake, I did miss it. Between the film documentary and book versions of Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie whatever, my annual San Diego Comic Con and San Jose FanimeCon Kung Fu Extravaganzas, as well as this website, it’s not like I stopped watching martial art movies. Besides, even though I talked it out at my bi-weekly KungFuMovieNite with friends, having some sort of “official” so(a)p box upon which to expound became increasingly appealing.

So MAIM is dead, long live MAIM. Check back every so often for my take on the latest martial art movie releases. Hopefully these first two reviews will not set the tone for subsequent efforts. But I have to admit it doesn’t look good. As I’ve said several times recently, new stars are not the problem. Although Jackie and Jet are winding down their kung fu contributions, there are many new stars just waiting for their shot.

In fact, in a better world, Jacky Wu Jing would already be a super star, but recently he had to return to TV just to keep solvent. The problem is not with the cast, it’s with the filmmakers. All the greats – Bruce, Liu Chia-liang, Sammo – made their own movies. Now the choreographers are under the thrall of directors who seem to know, and care, little about true kung fu (Kung Fu Panda 2 being the most poignantly painful of recent examples).

So martial arts have become either window dressing or victim to the producer’s whims. For a perfect illustration of the former situation see Wind Blast. Better yet, don’t. This is the latest in a lengthening line of self-indulgent, self conscious, and self-aggrandizing films from all over. Films like Sucker Punch, The Warrior’s Way, Ninja Assassin, The Good the Bad the Weird, and Sukiyaki Django Western, to name a brain-kneading few.

Now Wind Blast joins the filmography as a literally and figuratively meandering mess that becomes the very definition of “empty movement.” As new and newer generations of scripters continue to have a loosening grip on their classic education, more and more screenplays have weaker and weaker structures, causing a seriously soft center and a burgeoning reliance on the “city of assholes” sub-genre. That is, a movie where all the actors unrealistically posture, pose, play cool, and act tough … and, are not, for a nano-second, believable as actual human beings.

These films used to be rare (1953’s Beat the Devil), or openly satiric (1969’s The Bed Sitting Room). Now it’s becoming tantamount to a filmmaker’s show of strength: the ability to make a high-budget “mental masturbation” movie simply because they can. It seems like a secret bet going around the film industry: let’s see who can make the most empty-headed film with the best cast and costuming.

Here Gao Qunshu gets his shot after his film festival favorite The Message (2009). He wrote, produced, and directed this boring muddle about a bunch of cops and criminals wandering the Chinese desert trying to find themselves and each other. Happily Wu Jing is on hand as one of the heroes, leading to some customarily snappy kung fu, but sadly, both the actor and his skills are squandered in the editing room. As such, Wind Blast turns out to be an apt description. Maybe the original Chinese title was translatable as Hot Air.

Which leads us to the aforementioned “producer’s whim.” Okay, you’ve got a great martial artist and good kung fu choreography. That should be enough, but once the standardly operating ignorant director gets into the editing room, there appears to be an overwhelming desire to shred the fight scenes.

New editing tech allows for incredible freedom, but just because you can easily make a hundred cuts a minute doesn’t mean you should. Hence Choy Li Fut’s fatal flaw. Co-directed by schlock-meister Tony Law and action director Sam Wong, it had its heart in the right place – to make a film spotlighting, showcasing, and illuminating the kung fu technique that has been called “one of the most complete and effective styles.”

Too bad the same couldn’t be said of the camera. Although the cast features Yuen Wah (Kung Fu Hustle), the legendary Sammo Hung, his son Sammy Hung, Ian Powers (Future X Cops), Lau Kar-wing (Master of Disaster), and even Kane Kosugi (son of “ninja-master” Sho Kosugi) and the film includes myriad training, sparring, and tournament sequences, each and every … single … one is truncated in favor of dewy reaction shots and endless soap-opera blathering.

Then, adding insult to injury, whenever the film seems poised to actually show a complete fight scene…?! You may have guessed it: that fight scene is edited with a cheese grater – which utterly robs it of any power, involvement, or even comprehension. We had a better time noticing that the background seats during the tournament sequences are filled with mannequins and cardboard cut-outs.

Somewhere on youtube there was about eight minutes of unsullied fight scenes, which gave me great hope for this inexpensive, unassuming flick. The “finished” film, however, had the opposite effect: laughable (especially during the sorely used rap theme song which pronounces the title as Choy Lee Fat) when it wasn’t boring or frustrating. A real shame, and, hopefully, not a harbinger of kung fu films’ future.

MAIM indeed.