Martial Arts in Media 6/12

Got some vaguely promising, vaguely troubling, kung fu films on the horizon, not the least of which is Stephen Fung’s (House of Fury) new cyberpunk adventure Tai Chi 0. It’s set to be released in the States by Well Go USA in the fall (although I’m hoping to get a scene or trailer to sneak peek at my 15th Annual San Diego Comic Con Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza on July 12th from 7:30-10:30pm).

Well Go USA has been in the running with Funimation, Indomina, and Media Blasters to be the premiere distributor of Asian action films in America, but with their handling of Ip Man, Ip Man 2, Legend of the Fist, The Man from Nowhere, and Let the Bullets Fly, they’ve made a great case for being the big boss, if not taken the lead.

But their situation is the same as the other companies – there’s just not enough truly great product to genuinely excite the fans (especially since a certain company that shall not be named insists on continuing to shelve the lion’s share of great Hong Kong kung fu films). The result is an audience (and a distributor) that is essentially grateful for what it can get.

Case in point: a batch of recent Well Go releases I’ve had occasion to screen (in preparation for the aforementioned Comic Con Extrav). The first’s fame preceded it: War of the Arrows (aka Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon), a historical battle saga in the tradition of MUSA (still my favorite Korean epic) — not to mention Apocalypto and even Conan the Barbarian (the original Arnold starrer, not the more recent abomination).

Park Hae-li (who some may remember for supporting performances in Memories of Murder and The Host) won awards for his leading role of a guilt-ridden brother of a beauty (Moon Chae-won) who fled from the unjust slaughter of their father. But when she’s abducted on her wedding day by invading Qing Dynasty Manchurians pillaging for slaves, he takes up the title weapon and gives chase.

The film, written and directed by relative newcomer Kim Han-min, is solid and entertaining, if a bit inexorably predictable. Only in the last quarter, as Park has very satisfyingly thinned the villains with many a shaft to the heart, head, and throat, is suspension of suspense threatened by one digital arrow too many, one all-too-obviously c.g. eyed (not to mention contrived) tiger attack, one-too-many wire-assisted canyon jumps, and a stone-faced performance by main antagonist Ryoo Seung-yong that borders on self-satire.

Then there’s the ending, which we’ll get to presently. But first, as both a cautionary tale and additional witness for the prosecution, comes A Better Tomorrow, a Korean remake of John Woo’s seminal Hong Kong “gun fu” classic. Reportedly based on Woo’s original script, and exec-produced by Woo himself, this well-intentioned production shows its hand early.

Rewritten (and Koreafied) by Jo Chang-ho, then directed by relative newcomer Song Hae-seong, it has a huge shadow to elude. Woo’s 1986 version revolutionized Hong Kong, as well as international action, cinema, cemented Ti Lung’s legendary status, and made Chow Yun-fat a superstar. That makes it especially tough for Song Seung-hun, who takes on the thankless Chow role.

The major change in the versions is made apparent in the prolog when Hyuk (Ju Jin-mo of MUSA fame) abandons his little brother and mother when all three attempt to escape North Korea. Only Hyuk makes it, precipitating his mother’s death and his brother’s obsessive enmity. To track down his younger sibling in order to make amends, Hyuk becomes both a cop and a criminal (!?).

Already the plot is fraying around the edges, but things become moot in an early scene where his partner in crime, Lee (the Chow role) bets a Thai gun smuggler that he can assemble a gun faster. He even lets the Thai thug have a long head-start. The only way – I repeat, the ONLY way – this scene would have sung is if the director had filmed it in one continuous shot, thrilling the audience and cementing Lee’s skill.

Guess what happens instead. Yup: it’s lawn-mower editing time, with the reassembly of the gun filmed with cut after cut after cut — rendering the entire sequence weightless, consummately ineffective, and even a bit insulting to both the character and the viewer. From that point on, the audience is like an American distributor: grateful for small things but hyper-aware of all differences.

Where Ti and Chow’s camaraderie had a remarkable ease and naturalness, it’s all artifice, posing, and posturing here. While Chow was effortlessly cool, Song is effort-fully “chill.” While Ti suffered nobly, Ju suffers masochistically. The power of the original’s plot, as well as the fire power, keep things watchable until the ending, where the truly big changes lie, and the delayed point I alluded to six paragraphs ago returns.

Some years back, it was my pleasure to perform as “The King” at the New Jersey castle of Medieval Times – North America’s number one dinner theater event. The knights there were all passionate film lovers, and I had many a great afternoon between shows watching the latest releases with them, as well as having many a late-night kung fu film party.

Whenever I showed a Japanese, Korean, or even Thai action film, however, their reaction soon became standard: “Oh, a downer flick,” they’d say. And they were right. Except for the rare exception, many, if not most, of those masterpieces ended with everyone dying. They were what American horror films have become. How can fans say The Omen and Se7en were special when now EVERY film ends with evil winning?

Spoiler alert: ain’t gonna be no sequels to the Korean version of A Better Tomorrow, unless they trot out exact twins of all the major characters (which they did to resurrect Chow for A Better Tomorrow 2). Little hint for American horror, and Asian action, film producers: you don’t have to be a “rebel” anymore. Happy endings haven’t been “in” since 1980. If you truly want to be a rebel now, end your films satisfyingly!

Speaking of that, there’s nothing like a pleasant surprise. To round out Well Go USA’s latest releases, we head back to Hong Kong for Triple Tap, writer/director Derek Yee’s latest attempt to make a classic film (in the wake of his promising Full Throttle, One Night in Mongkok, and Protégé). Although very handsomely filmed, and featuring such respected stars as Louis Koo (Throw Down, Election, Flash Point) and Daniel Wu (House of Fury, Hit Team), the plot wouldn’t be out of place on a Columbo episode (which is not meant as a criticism).

How you might like it depends upon whether you saw the coming attraction trailer, which uses a dream sequence from the film’s last ten minutes to make the movie look like a non-stop gun-fu thriller — and whether you were disappointed or pleasantly surprised that it was not. Guess which camp I’m in (especially since I was a “special media consultant” for Columbo in its final seasons)?

The less said about the plot the better for your enjoyment. Suffice to say that the nearly two hour Hitchcockian mystery-suspense film takes its own sweet time establishing mood, character, and story, but it had a pleasingly cumulative effect for me and my fellow KungFuMovieNite friends. You could do far worse (see five paragraphs previous).