Martial Arts in Media 12/12

December is a big month for cinema all over the world. As Hollywood rushes out its Oscar bait before the turn of the year, many countries try to screen audience catnip for the holiday season. China is no exception, especially since it’s now predicted that Asia will be the largest movie market in the world by 2020.

Unfortunately, just because it’s the largest doesn’t mean it’s the best. I’ve been saying for quite some time now that the creative environment in China is doubly difficult since the filmmaker not only has to deal with studio interference, but the Government’s mercurial dictates as well.

The result has been one of the worst film years ever in terms of quality, with erratic storytelling reflecting the sign of the times. Viewers look to their past idols for relief, but most have reduced their output to a crawl.

December was going to be the month when cherished art film luminary Wong Kar-wai was supposed to release his Yip Man biopic The Grandmaster (above). But now, with its release postponed until January 2013, December is Jackie Chan month. 12/12/12 is the date he’s chosen to release what he’s calling his last full-tilt-boogie kung fu film, Chinese Zodiac aka CZ12 aka Armor of God 3.

The several coming attraction trailers they released for it months ago – filled with worldwide locations, cool equipment, and kung fu — looked very promising. The coming attraction trailer they released for it a few weeks ago – filled with silly women and goofy guys – did not. But until I get to actually see it, all that’s left is drips and drabs that sneak out of its shadow.

The most obviously derivative drip is Wu Dang – which is named for its location rather than its subject. Wu Dang Mountain is home of Wu Dang swordsmanship, but this is not a film about the technique or that school’s teaching. Rather it is an obvious knockoff of Jackie’s Armor of God series, which is, in itself, a Chinese variation inspired by Indiana Jones.

Vincent Zhao (True Legend, Once Upon a Time in China IV) stars as an archeologist/adventurer in early Republican China, who’s not seeking the five Armor of God pieces, but the seven treasures of Wu Dang Mountain, with which he hopes to cure his charming daughter (Jiao Xu) of rampant hemophilia.

But he’s not the only one looking for the stuff – there’s also a beautiful mercenary (Mini Yang) and a greedy, gun-toting crook. Complicating things further is a Taoist proponent of “sleeping kung fu” (Louis Fan Siu-wong of Ricky O and Ip Man fame) who’s tending his sick mother, and a martial arts championship on the grounds, moderated by a seemingly benign monk (To Yu-hang of Ip Man The Legend is Born fame).

Directed by the middling Patrick Leung (The Twins Effect II), but choreographed by the great Corey Yuen Kwai, on the actual Wu Dang mountain itself, the film looks great, and, if you’re not put off by the unoriginal, unchallenging story, there’s some fun to be derived in the first hour of the lively, colorful effort. Vincent, Louis, To, and Corey are always dependable, and their kung fu is fine, but once the tournament starts, things start to disappoint.

Zhao is too busy hunting the treasure to participate, so his daughter is left to compete, and while Xu is many things (charming, sweet, personable etc.), a martial artist she is clearly not. Nor is Mini, who’s also called on to wire-assistedly bent-leg kick and powerlessly punch with the big boys. But even that is tolerable, given the scenery and Vincent’s ample ability.

But then, at the sixty-eight minute mark, the film take a left turn into cgi silliness, as one of the treasures turn out to be animated yams (yes, you read that correctly). As if their inclusion gives the filmmakers a license to relax, the whole film starts unraveling. Louis’ sleeping kung fu subplot dissolves before your eyes, and the climax becomes an unwelcome, occasionally inexplicable, sfx fest.

It’s as if the producers decided, after some test marketing, that their film wasn’t a family adventure, but, rather, a kiddie flick. So the originally bittersweet finale becomes a “everybody-gets-a-medal-for-just-showing-up” feel-good fade-out – markedly missing Louis and the Wu Dang abbot, who had just been in the scene a few moments before.

Still and all, Wu Dang is nominally worth it for Corey and Vincent’s participation, as well as the cinematography of a glorious location, but it will probably be best remembered for its disappointments rather than its accomplishments … if remembered at all. Ironically, the Wudang school is well known for its development of Taichi, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua, and, coincidentally (?) elsewhere, a movie monument to the latter was being developed, only to be released in cinemas at about the same time.

As Indiana Jones begat Armor of God, which begat Wu Dang, Wu Dang begat The Kungfu Master — aka Ba Gua Zong Shi. Either title had cause to set the kung fu film-ist’s heart aflutter, since it tells the story of Bagua’s development. By the looks of it, this was an old school throwback to the classic era, filled with gravity and balance-based martial arts, performed by kung fu lovers, masters, and fans. Prominent among them was Ou Li-hao, who starred, wrote, produced, and choreographed this homage to the “eight trigram palm technique.”

Looks can be deceiving. On the surface, it’s a great movie. It tells the story of Dong Hai-chuan, the man considered the founder of Bagua (aka Baguazhang) in the early 1800’s. It features such welcome kung fu stars as Bruce Leung Siu-lung (Kung Fu Hustle, Gallants), Xiong Xin-Xin (Clubfoot in the Once Upon a Time in China series), and even an all-grown-up Miu Tse (New Legend of Shaolin). The photography is clean and clear, and both the locations and costumes are more than adequate.

But while The Kungfu Master’s heart, and camera, are in the right place, the spirit is missing. Novice director Chen Shu-kai has made a perplexingly lifeless, uninspiring movie. Despite the depth of the subject matter, and the conviction, not to mention the dedication, of its star/writer/producer/choreographer, The Kungfu Master is, against all odds, stunningly bland.

It should have ranked up there amongst such efforts as Liu Chia-liang’s Executioners from Shaolin, and other tales of kung fu style creation. Instead, it exists for Bagua completists only … and you know how many of those there are (and even they would have to admit it’s pretty flat). Ou Li-hao must be commended for getting his labor of love made, but I can’t help but wish there was more love and less labor.