Martial Arts in Media 2/12

You can take China out of propaganda films, but you can’t seem to take propaganda out of Chinese films.

This month I’ve got four movies, three of which supply ample evidence for the above statement. That doesn’t exactly make them unwatchable, but it’s kind of like being on a China tour. No matter how nice and helpful your guide is, you can be pretty sure who they actually work for. And it ain’t you.

It’s also a fairly interpersonal month for kung fu films, in that each seems to weave into the next in some obvious and/or subtle way. Let’s start with the fittingly named Let’s Go, the first offering from Willie Chan’s newly created Kudo Films, created in partnership with singer/actor (and Jordan Chan lookalike) Juno Mak.

Willie, of course, was the veteran manager of Jackie Chan from way back in the day, and together they forged an iconic international post-Bruce legacy. But between Willie’s indominability — despite age and die-hard (bad) habits — and the takeover of Hong Kong by mother China, the two grew apart and went their separate cinematic ways. Jackie decided to kowtow to his new master, while Willie and Juno have decided to thumb their nose at everyone.

How else to explain this weird, not-really-wonderful, phantasagorical that starts with a sweet premise, but all-too-soon lurches in all sorts of unappreciated directions? The sweet premise: a young man who loved watching the Ultraman-esque TV series Space Emperor God Sigma with his father decides, in the wake of his father’s death while attempting to stop a robbery, to follow the heroic dictates of the TV show.

He goes to work for a multinational corporation as a bodyguard, not knowing that the son of the cop who couldn’t prevent his father’s death is now protecting him – much in the same way that he is now protecting the CEO’s beautiful rock-star daughter. Now, there are a few satisfying ways this plot could’ve played out, but director Wong Jing Po and company seemingly decided to do whatever they could think of at the moment — and satisfaction, continuity, or even logic, be damned.

The confusion that results is enervating, not exhilarating, no matter how many abortive, conflicting ideas are thrown in. The CEO decides to slaughter his staff for no apparent reason, shooting his lead bodyguard in the face, seemingly twice. Rather than killing him, it only makes his voice reverberate, gives one of his facial cheeks pizza-like scarring, and seemingly drives him meglomaniacally mad.

Given that the CEO is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, this film, like Jimmy’s previous comeback film Wu Xia (see Martial Arts in Media Oct. 2011 elsewhere on this site) also features a cinematic shout-out to Yu’s groundbreaking One Armed Swordsman, in that Juno inexplicably loses an arm in a subsequent fight, and even more inexplicably, gets another sewn on that somehow allows him to become super-powered.

Meanwhile, the rock-star daughter takes her newly dead dad’s money and has a bunch of super suits made for everyone from Juno to his mother (yes, literally, his machine-gun-toting mother), so they can take on the face-shot guy and his minions.

Now all this might sound pretty cool, but I can assure you it’s not. It’s confusing, frustrating, preposterous, silly, and/or stupid. Not to mention that what I’ve recounted so far is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the revolving door characters, concepts, and convolutions. Ultimately, it’s a nearly incomprehensible mess.

Meanwhile, Willie’s most famous ex-client continues his prostrations to his new guardian. Traditionally, I believe that three kowtows (kneeling prostrations with forehead to the floor) are customary. Jackie’s first was his cameo appearance in The Founding of a Republic – China’s big 21st century propaganda reboot in 2009. Then came Little Big Soldier in 2010. Now comes 1911, Jackie’s full scale salaam about the Xinhai Revolution where-in Sun Yat-sen usurped the last of the Chinese Dynasties.

Reportedly created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution (and officially endorsed by the Government), it was also labeled Jackie’s 100th film, which he executive produced, starred in, and directed. In it he plays Huang Xing, Sun’s right-hand-man and the first commander-in-chief of the Republic of China army. Playing Yat-sen himself is Winston Chao, who became famous not only for his work with Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), but for his repeated portrayals of Sun in other movies and on TV.

Now doing any film about Chinese history is not easy. Motivations, incidents, and conflicts abound in such a way that distinguishing between the an- and pro-tagonists gets muddy to say the least. Jackie does an okay, well-produced, job, but ultimately the weight of the story, and his own legacy, defeats him … not to mention his penchant for hiring the worst English-speaking “actors” imaginable. There’s one gweilo in here, playing a Western revolutionary sympathizer, who is so clangingly discordant that he practically radiates “amateur night” in neon within every scene he appears.

I took solace in the battle sequences, and the one short scene is which Xing discovers rapidly approaching assassins within his ranks, causing him to take them down single-handedly. Suddenly it was no longer a historical epic with nationalistic trappings, but a “Jackie Chan Film,” minus his customary “reluctant-warrior” comedic contrition. For a moment, there’s a glimmer of what might have been if Jackie’s fight scenes were as unapologetic as Sammo’s, but then it was back to the mudslide of Chinese history, where every victory was just delayed defeat.

1911 doesn’t so much as end but wander off, muttering.

Ironically, 1911 starts with the execution of Qiu Jin, the first female revolutionary in Chinese history. That all but explains the existence of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, a beautifully-produced, well-acted, snappily choreographed, full-on biopic of a remarkable woman, brought low by a single poor editing choice.

It’s not possible to reveal who made that decision without costly investigation, but it’s easy to stare accusingly at director Herman Yau, a veteran helmer of more than fifty films since 1987 – none of which boded well for this respectful testament to a great woman (in fact, Yau is best loved for such sordid films as The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome).

You see, Qiu’s remarkable story is told in increasingly tortuous flashbacks and flashforwards – a technique that effectively steals any suspense or emotional involvement from the film, despite fine performances from star Crystal (Betty) Huang and Anthony Wong as a sympathetic court officer. It even fatally undercuts exceptional fight scenes choreographed by Tony Leung and enacted by Crystal, Dennis To (Ip Man The Legend is Born) and Hung Yan-yan (“Clubfoot” from the Once Upon a Time in China series).

What could have been an effective, and effecting, film honoring a fascinating person becomes a self-indulgent missed opportunity. Someone needs to re-edit this in a linear fashion and gift it to youtube.

Which brings us to White Vengeance, which may be a good movie because it is a good movie, or it may just be a decent movie that seems like a good movie because of the disheartening films preceding it. In any case, it is a testament to the perseverance of Danny Lee (aka Lee Hsiu Shien), who started his career as a Shaw Brothers Studio star (even playing Bruce Lee in the Betty Ting Pei smear job called Bruce Lee and I) and survived as an actor, writer, producer, and director through forty years and more than a hundred films.

Incredibly, despite working in flicks that would make Herman Yau blush, Danny keeps trying to get better and White Vengeance is arguably his most accomplished, almost-great, film. Like The Woman Knight, it exists in the shadow of other films, most obviously John Woo’s blockbuster Red Cliff. There, the characters of warring generals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu (and their mutual strategist Zhang Liang) were kept in abeyance, but here they take center stage – specifically in terms of the game-changing “Feast at Hong Gate,” one of the turning points of the Warring States era.

When Red Cliff was edited down from its original two-part, five-hour-plus length for an abortive one hundred and sixty minute U.S. release, much of the intriguing strategic plot and counter plot was lost in translation. But White Vengeance rests solidly upon it — as the opposing forces attempt to out-think and out-maneuver each other back, forth, and around the battlefield. It makes for a welcome change from all the poor plotting afflicting other 2011 releases (see above).

The hundred and thirty-eight minute film is nimbly balanced between battles of armies and battles of wits, featuring fine performances from such respected actors as the aforementioned (and progressively omnipresent) Anthony Wong as a tragically misused mastermind, Jordan Chan as a self-sacrificing warrior, and Andy On (the unforgettable True Legend villain) as a supreme assassin. There’s also some other Shaw Brothers veterans filling the ranks, such as Wu Ma and the always welcome Chen Kuan-tai.

Only at the very end does the director/writer stumble a bit – getting repetitive with his concepts and images (using three shots when one would do), but even so, it’s a fine, strong, promising performance from this remarkable veteran of the Chinese film wars.

And, by the way, I’m well aware that all the web sources maintain that it was the younger Daniel Lee Yan-kong who wrote and directed this film, not the fifty-eight year old Danny Lee Sau-yin who I credit, but I saw the film, as well as the “making of” doc, and I got news for everybody: that’s Danny Lee talking. Nyah.