Martial Arts in Media: Sept. 2011

Chinese movie theater construction is growing exponentially, so, happily, more features are appearing faster, but with the gutting of the industry through bootlegging, great films are still few and far between. To compensate, well-meaning filmmakers are indulging themselves, resulting in watchable, if not wonderful, efforts.

Nowhere is that better exemplified than in Bangkok Knockout, one of the worst films ever made, but one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Its cause and effect is different than the Chinese conundrum, however.

Bangkok Knockout, for you geographically-challenged, is a Thai(land) flick (if the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway), and like almost all Thai movies, it’s a smashup of exuberant action and execrable everything else (I was going to say “all” until I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a haunting, heartfelt ghost story, a fortnight ago).

More people have asked me if Thai cinema is the next great hope for martial art movie fans, but I always reply: not until they learn how to align their plots with their action. The only one that got close was the original Ong Bak. Since then, all their flicks go off the rails at some point, wallowing in misery and brutality while the fights are invigorating and even exhilarating.

Bangkok Knockout has not-so-neatly dodged that trap by embracing it. Bear-hugging it into unconsciousness, in fact. Basically, everyone who ever worked with Tony Jaa before his apparent/alleged emotional/professional melt-down (including his director Panna Rittikrai and all his stunt people) decided “oh screw it,” and made a movie the way Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland put on a show in those old MGM musicals.

The plot serves only as a showcase: a good but stupid muy thai team faces an arrogant but cruel muy thai team in a tournament. The good team win, but then act like total assholes during their celebration dinner. They wake up afterwards in a warehouse that has been rigged to force them into muy thai bouts with all their enemies while a group of international gamblers (played by some of the worst actors ever cast) bet on the outcome.

From then on, it’s simply one fight scene after another, that look as if each participant was told: show what you can do. Or do your best. Or do your worst. The viewer is left to marvel at the variations the performers can wring from the elbow-in-head, knee-in-chin sadistic square-dance that is muy thai, while also gaping bug-eyed at the ridiculous characters, some of the most mangled pronunciations ever attempted, and the most obvious playing-for-time plot twists thus far foisted.

In short, the flick is a total hoot if you’re in the mood for an elaborate live-action Thai Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. After the now de rigeur attempt at leaving room for a sequel, the assembled heroes offer the beleaguered audience a way out: they break character during a scene that mirrors the hospital injury ward ending of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and start to dance. Obviously they want us to do the same.

Ah, someday there’ll be a completely satisfying Muy Thai film again, but until then, there’s always Donnie Yen. Clasping his kung fu king crown in a death grip, his latest film, The Lost Bladesman, exhibits some of the things Chinese cinema now do best, but also have always done worse. Best: costumes, sets, casts of hundreds (both human and animal). Worse: propaganda affectations left over from fifty years of insular techniques.

The Lost Bladesman elaborates on a subplot from the Romance of Three Kingdoms novel by way of John Woo’s Red Cliff: the relationship between the legendary personages of kingdom-maker Cao Cao and the beloved General Guan Yu (the subject of many a Chinatown figurine). Donnie plays the latter (as well as serves as action director) while Jiang Wen, the only man who’s giving Yen a run for his ubiquitousness, plays the former.

Both are fine, although Donnie, like many great action superstars, winds up more himself than Guan. That’s forgivable since his contribution is the most enjoyable. The action scenes buoy the effort, which is always nice to look at, but ultimately gets wearing. That’s probably layable at the feet of scripters/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong, who were both best known for their scripts for the Infernal Affairs films. They slather on several unwelcome artistic affectations that do more to draw attention to them than the film.

Jiang Wen needn’t worry. His other new film, Let the Bullets Fly, was a critical and monetary success. It represents Chinese cinema’s growing pains in the new century. Seemingly made up as it went along, it tells the story of an intelligent, quirky bandit king (Wen) in the 1920s who, in an attempt to go legit, runs afoul of a small town mob boss (Chow Yun-fat). They engage in a battle of wits, wills, and mounting body counts to emerge with the biggest ego.

The loosey-goosey improv feel helps to create an atmosphere of surprise, since I never knew what was going to happen next, but the director/star/scripter’s challenge was to rein in the sudden “Looney Tunes” moments so suspension of disbelief wasn’t popped. He was successful, as far as I was concerned — making a self-indulgent, yet charming, comedy/action social satire of maniacal manners. As Chow Yun-fat says in the special features, “Once I realized where it was going, I just had fun.” The stars are so skilled, they let the audience in on it, too.

The same was essentially true of Just Call Me Nobody, a comedy that occasionally turns into a lampoon. With Stephen Chow on creative sabbatical, producers are trying to serve his audience ramen, hoping they will buy it since they can’t get anything else. One of the people who have benefitted most from Chow’s absence is Kevin Chu, a prolific, if unexceptional, director, who has also given us the mediocre (to be kind) Kung Fu Dunk and Treasure Hunter in recent years.

Just like hopeful stars Jim Varney, Harland Williams, Pauly Shore, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and many, many others who get a shot at becoming comedy movie stars in the wake of Jerry Lewis, now it’s Xiao Shen-yang’s turn to try on Stephen’s shoes, as, ironically, an old world cobbler who wants to be a king in Jiang Hu (martial art world). In his trek to return a badly repaired shoe to a runaway princess bride, he meets all manner of crazy kung fu characters, as well as satirizes many better films (at one point he uses the falling body of the Zhang Ziyi character in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as a boost to get to his next scene).

You want to know how forgettable this movie is? I’ll tell you how forgettable this movie is. Although I recall seeing it with enjoyment and fondness, I cannot remember how it ends, or pretty much anything else about it other than what I’ve already told you. It’s nice that it has given Chu some more to chew on, and makes a good showcase for the likeable star, but otherwise … um … what was I saying again? Come back Stephen Chow, I miss you!

Finally, there’s the well-meaning remake of A Chinese Ghost Story, generally designed as a 25th anniversary homage to the original film (they dedicate it to the memory of its original star, Leslie Cheung, and even use Cheung’s title song). Suitably therefore, they demote the character Cheung played in the original –a lovesick student-slash-tax collector who runs afoul of a tree demon who uses beautiful ghosts to lure men to their succubussing doom – to concentrate on a lovesick demon hunter, played in the original by Wu Ma, now essayed by the much handsomer Louis Koo.

The film is now essentially his story, with the student reduced to little more than a distracting pest. And his story is that he loves the nicest ghost (played in the original by the extraordinary Joey Wang, and now disembodied by sweet Liu Yifei) so much that he supernaturally forces her to forget him. Unfortunately his pining for her creates a slight conflict of interest, resulting in the literal disarmament of his demon hunter partner (the always welcome Ricky O star Louis Fan) and the on-going succubussing of the spiderish tree demon (the ever wonderful Young Auntie herself Kara Hui).

It’s bright, it’s colorful, it moves along (except when it doesn’t), and is okay viewing for anyone who likes these actors and hasn’t seen the original. Then, just to make sure you know how full of homage-ness director Wilson Yip is, he throws in obvious allusions/rip-offs to Painted Skin and The Bride with White Hair. It winds up less forgettable than Just Call Me Nobody, but, then again, what wouldn’t be?