Martial Arts in Media 1/12

Ok, this is beginning to depress me. First, there was the realization that there was not a single great kung fu movie last year. Now this. It’s not so much that the films below were disappointing, but that they were so slapdash – especially from a storytelling standpoint.

Once upon a time, Hong Kong-slash-Chinese cinema could make up for lapses in plot judgment with awesome fighting and/or astounding stunts. Now both are failing them, me, and us.

Well, might as well get to it. At least I can sharpen my criticism-fu skills….

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is the first of producer Tsui Hark’s 3D remakes of past glories (the second, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, is in Asian theaters as of this writing, and is reportedly more cohesive) – in this case, Green Snake (1993), Hark’s visualization of a folk tale about two sexy snake spirits and the Buddhist monk who attempts to keep them from ruining humans’ lives.

Then Tsui had the spectacular Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong as the snakes and Vincent Zhao — who Hark was promoting after he and Jet Li had parted ways following three successful Once Upon a Time in China movies — was doing all the monking. The snakes are now played by Eva Huang (Kung Fu Hustle) and Charlene Choi (from the singing duo, Twins), while the monk is finally Jet.

As befitting his reconciled star’s status, the role of the spirit hunter has been bulked up, as have the visuals, but Tsui has given the director’s chair to his long-time collaborator Tony Ching Sui-tung (who made such a success of the original A Chinese Ghost Story for Hark back in 1987) and taken all mention of himself from the credits. Now it’s produced by Chui Po-chu (Kung Fu Hustle) and production designed to a fare-thee-well.

It’s hard to figure who they were making this film for. Part of the time it looks like a manhua (Chinese comic book), part of the time it looks like a videogame, and part of the time is looks like a softcore porno satire (the snakes are the actress’ heads grafted onto long tubes of white and green toothpaste that fly through the air like … well, like, giant gobs of sperm).

On the one hand, there’s vampires, bats, and pig demons like it’s Van Helsing (2004), while, on the other hand, there are talking woodland creatures who stand on their hind legs, like it’s a Chinese Disney film. Jet, for his part, seems to know that his paycheck will make a fine contribution to his charity and looks upon the rest of the film with bemused, dispassionate patience. The rest of the cast does what it can amidst the candy-corn of the cgi surroundings.

As a psychedelic prism for a nice night of toking, drinking games, or wtf-ing, this might suffice, but it’s also the very model for my oft-mentioned contention: “when anything is possible, nothing is interesting.”

Legendary Amazons is based on the same historical incidents the Shaw Brothers Studio film, 14 Amazons, was inspired by – namely the Yang family of female warriors, who take to the battlefield after their father, husbands, and brothers are killed and/or betrayed. I have affection for both films since the 1972 Shaw version was one of the DVDs I wrote the unpublished liner notes for (read it in “The Lost Liner Notes” section in the site menu just above this), while the 2011 version was produced by Jackie Chan and directed by Frankie Chan (no relation) – who I always hoped would live up to the promise of his earlier films (such as Outlaw Brothers in 1990).

No such luck. “Slapdash” is putting this one kindly. “A loony mess” is putting it more bluntly. Tone, production value, acting, and action change from scene to scene, and for a “two-Chan” production, the reliance on wires and cgi is unfortunate to say the least. And not just any wires or cgi; really obvious, “we-don’t-want-to-reshoot-or-reanimate-this” wires and cgi. “Call-attention-to-themselves-they’re-so-bad” wires and cgi.

Watching the cast flounder and ultimately sink in this heavily costumed mess is somewhat painful, especially for model-slim, super-cute Cecilia Cheung, who made quite an impression in The Legend of Zu (2001) and Running on Karma (2003), but ran afoul of the Edison Chen “nekkid-pics-stolen-from-his-PC” scandal of 2008. Here she’s asked to play a battle-tested wife and mother while looking like a weighed-down teen.

Only the venerable Cheng Pei-pei rises above this morass as the Yang matriarch. The real yin-yang of this effort, however, comes upon the realization that Frankie convinced his Outlaw Brothers co-star, Yukari Oshima, to come out of retirement after more than twenty-five years, then almost completely wastes her in a minor role.

Such high hopes. Such a cringe-worthy bummer.

There were no hopes for Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu. It came cold on the heels of Choy Lee Fut, another like-titled and like-plotted film starring Sammo Hung and Yuen Wah. In fact, this came out so quickly after the Sammo one that most sources don’t even know it exists or confuse it with the first. That’s utterly understandable, because both are bad, and both make virtually the same mistakes – namely saddling the venerable martial art with ludicrous romantic and tournament subplots.

Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu compounds the viewing agony with crippled “comedy” sequences featuring such Shaolin Soccer vets as “coach” Ng Man Tat and “Iron Head” Wong Yut Fei. In addition, this marks the return of Xie Miao, the child kung fu star of My Father is a Hero (1995) and New Legend of Shaolin (1994), in the thankless role of a buzz-cutted, tattooed, street-brawling, hot head metrosexual. But then again, what role isn’t thankless in this amateur night production?

Actually, Norman Chu Siu-keung (Bastard Swordsman), playing the wise master, manages to sneak out mostly unscathed, as does Kara Hui Ying-hung (My Young Auntie) playing a comely comic foil for Tat. Otherwise it’s every action actor for him or herself as charisma-starved star Wang Bao Qiang and game-but-unconvincing kickass heroine Michelle Ye struggle to make the title technique the next UFC.

It ain’t, they’re not. Chan Heung, Choy Fook, and Li You-san (ostensibly the creators of the form in 1836) must be making circular movements in their graves. Two films, in the space of a few months, both headlining the technique, and both missing the mark by a wide margin? Why don’t they pick on something their own size?

After all that, My Kingdom seemed to be a savior. In fact, the first half hour of this well-made, heartfelt epic of warring Peking Opera performers in the 1920’s was great. Which, of course, only made the remaining seventy-eight minutes all the more frustrating.

The first thirty minutes introduces rich boy Yilong (Wu Chun) who convinces his master Yu (the always welcome Yuen Baio) to save the child (Han Geng) of a revolutionary from execution and make him another Peking Opera apprentice. Together they learn the dancing, singing, acrobatics, and kung fu required for the art.

At a party to celebrate their master being named the greatest in the land, an arrogant Shanghai competitor played by Iron Monkey Yu Rongguang challenges Baio to a “performance duel” – the loser renouncing his career. Because of one of the student’s interference, Baio is defeated, but charges the boys to take vengeance fifteen years later. Which they do … at the half hour mark.

That, of course, should have been the entire film. If novice director Gao Xiaosong had concentrated on the core story, delving into the fascinating Peking Opera subculture, this might have been a magnificent movie. Instead, it labors under the yoke of plot absurdity after story incongruity.

The master sends his charges out for revenge with three unbreakable laws: never throw knives, never fight other “Opera warriors,” and never have a love affair with an actress. Where did he come up with that? And don’t talk with your mouth full or track mud on my nice clean floor while you’re at it.

Guess what happens? But Gao and scripter Zou Jingzhi don’t leave it at that either. Labored “twists” and “surprises” abound until even my fellow KungFuMoviNiters, who have the patience of saints, rolled their eyes and threw up their hands (and you know how painful that can be).

Despite the customary power of action director Sammo Hung, My Kingdom is a textbook example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It is found guilty of “too much plot” and sentenced to banishment from my DVD library.