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Martial Arts in Media 5/12

Things are happening. Not now. But they’re happening. As the Chinese movie audience swells, and mainland cinemas are being erected almost as fast as the populace can buy cars to drive to them, more locally-grow films are being demanded to fill the nationalist need. And, of course, the one thing the Chinese do better than the rest of the cinematic world is kung fu.

Sadly, 2011 has been one of the worst kung fu film years on record, with not a single flick that could be considered great. Hopefully 2012 won’t suffer a similar fate, since 12/12/12 is the date that — what is being called Jackie Chan’s “100th” film (the third film they’ve termed that), and his “last” (according to over-zealous, incorrect Cannes wags) great action epic – Chinese Zodiac (aka CZ12 aka Armor of God 3) is now officially scheduled to open.

Taking his favorite plot (rescuing Chinese antiquities – the stuff of Armor 1 & 2, Drunken Master 2 [aka Legend of Drunken Master] and The Myth, among others) and one of his favorite characters (the “Asian Hawk,” an Indiana Jones-type), he is mounting a multi-million dollar, world-hopping send-off, complete with a bunch of English-speaking actors (hopefully superior to all the awful ones who have plagued his past films) and all the ideas he has gathered up in the past twenty years (since his last great action film).

You can judge for yourself by checking out the first official coming attraction trailer, wires and all, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y_XpS0lbAI, among many other web places.

Elsewhere, the Cannes Film Festival is raging, which is where Jackie announced his retirement from stunt sequences and fighting films, and where other Chinese producers have announced their future wares. Donnie Yen is much in evidence, of course, with Monkey King (still in laborious post-production), Ip Man 3D, and Special Identity (now with more Andy On and no Vincent Zhao).

Vincent’s recent Donnie dust-up (being reduced in, and ultimately rejected from, Special Identity) hasn’t seemed to slow him down. Posters for his new film, Wu Dang, were much in evidence, as were such other intriguing action/adventure offerings as The Four and An Inaccurate Memoir, among others. But where in the world is effin’ Jacky Wu Jing, for pity’s sake?!

Meanwhile, back in my living room, slim pickings remains the theme, as the only movie(s) I got to actually watch this month was/were Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale – Taiwan’s answer to Red Cliff, in that it, too, was originally made as a two-part, two hundred and seventy-seven minute, battle epic, produced by John Woo.

But Woo did not direct. Wei Te-sheng wrote and directed the saga after years of fixating on the “Wushe Incident,” where persecuted 1930’s Taiwan natives retaliated against their Japanese occupying oppressors in a pitched attack that was reminiscent of Vietnam and Sparta.

In fact, echoes of such other war movies as 300 and Apocalypto permeate the handsome finished product, in that two thousand Japanese soldiers gathered up to smite, ironically and coincidentally, three hundred aboriginal Taiwanese “savages,” and Te-sheng insisted that those natives speak their actual language, Seediq, as Mel Gibson insisted the actors in Apocalypto speak Mayan.

But, sadly, the other film Warriors of The Rainbow is similar to is A Bridge Too Far. That latter epic was an attempt to recapture the star-studded box office gold of The Longest Day, but with one small difference. The Longest Day was about a military triumph. A Bridge Too Far was about a military disaster.

Warriors of the Rainbow is a beautifully filmed movie, making the Taiwanese landscape its true star. So it makes it all the more unfortunate that Wei fixated on one of the most ignoble incidents in Taiwan history. If anything, he is too accurate to the characters and causes of the mutual, multiple, massacres for his film’s own good. At least in 300, and such other action efforts as The Last Samurai, the producers fudged the history to make one side clearly good and the other side obviously evil.

Here, both sides are militaristically misguided macho a-holes. Te-sheng further complicates audience expectations by including a sequence (in the otherwise accurate historical tale) of our “hero” being visited by the ghost of his father who basically tells him “better to die gloriously in battle than live a life of quiet persecution.” So, on one side, we have a group that is bloodthirstily suicidal, and, on the other, a bunch that is smugly sadistic. Pick your favorite!

Compounding the calamity, the film is extremely well-executed, with powerful images, framing, and editing resulting from obviously trying on-location shooting. Wei uses native songs throughout, and makes his p.o.v. clear by repeating the female members of the tribes’ performance of a lament whose main lyric is “What are you doing?!”

In terms of eliciting audience emotion, the film is abundantly successful, but its core failure is that the emotion it most elicits is sadness. The battles can be thrilling, but the film’s greatest strength comes in such scenes (spoiler alert) as the wives, mothers, and grandmothers’ mass suicide, which only nails the wastefulness of the entire endeavor, both behind and in front of the camera.

Powerful in its tragedy, the movie is eminently admirable, but simply not enjoyable. That was made clear wherever it was released. In Taiwan, a sweet high school romantic comedy, You Are the Apple of My Eye, wiped it off the screen. In China, The Avengers did the same. In America, where it was shown in an 150 minute version (literally eradicating half of its real running time), it didn’t even make a million dollars.

And all of that is completely understandable. Red Cliff was jubilant. The Avengers was joyous. Warriors of the Rainbow, no matter how lovely to the eye, is grim to the brain. It doesn’t help matters that Wei finishes his film with a thuddingly inelegant image of the tribesmen entering warrior’s heaven on a rainbow … without a single wife, mother, grandmother, or child in sight. Congratulations, boys. Message received … and rejected.

It’s too bad the gloriously photographed and designed film didn’t follow the lead of its DVD cover copy – one of the most elegant I’ve read: “Some eighty years ago, in the mountains of Taiwan, two races clashed in defense of their faiths. One race believed in rainbows, the other believed in the sun. Neither side realized that they both believed in the same sky.”

Well said. Too bad.