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Martial Arts in Media 3/13

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It’s post Chinese New Year celebration time, and the movie release schedule was amped up accordingly. And between Wong Kar-wai’s “official” Yip Man bio-action-pic The Grandmasters, and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, things are actually looking up for the first time in a long time.

Serving as yin to this yang is the continuing sorry story of the great Liu Chia-hui/Lau Ka-fai — aka Gordon Liu – star of many kung fu classics, who suffered a stroke in 2011, resulting in partial paralysis. He was well on the road to recovery (with some reports stating that he was nearly half-way back to normal), when a war broke out amongst his family. As of this writing, Liu has disappeared – seemingly to keep away from relatives who want his money. The whole thing is just sad, and I’d imagine all kung fu film fans wish him a speedy healing … on every front.

It just goes to show that, no matter how things change, some things – like death, taxes, and greed – stay the same. Ironically, that’s a decent theme for this month’s column/post. In the “staying the same” department, there’s Naked Soldier, the latest in schlockmeister Wong Jing’s series of entertainingly loony “Naked” thrillers – starting with the best, Naked Killer, in 1992, and continuing with Naked Weapon (starring TV’s Nikita, Maggie Q) in 2002.

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Now, ten years later (it was released in Asia last year), like clockwork, comes this new incarnation, produced/written by Wong, but directed by short-time director, and long-time editor Marco Mak, as a loving throwback to the glory days of HK exploitation flix. Taking the place of sexy Chingmy Yau and lithe Maggie Q in the lead is the willowy Jennifer Tse (sister of actor Nicholas Tse) – this time as the daughter of an Interpol bigwig who’s kidnapped and trained as a killer by Madame Rose, the evil head of a hit-squad-for-hire (much like Sister Cindy in Killer and Madam M in Weapon).

The lunatic verve of the original 1992 film has been supplanted with eagerness, and a certain old school energy, by the able cast, led by the great Sammo Hung, Andy On, Anthony Wong, and even my buddy Ian Powers – all choreographed by the renowned Corey Yuen Kwai, as well as Yuen Tak. Make no mistake, the kung fu is fun, but all the hard work (Ian tells me there were plenty of cuts and bruises during the production) is ultimately overshadowed by the loopy cheapness of it all.

Naked Soldier is fun, in the now all-too-customary finger-on-the-fast-forward-button kind of way, and it’s hard not to give them an A-for-effort for the imaginatively conceived fight sequences, but I have to admit the film would seem a lot better if you all had a friend who was co-starring in it. But man, that Sammo can still move … in his sixties with stents in his heart!

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Speaking of stents, or modern medical technology that can save lives, puts me in mind of ancient Mosha technology that can take lives. Or, more specifically, the flying guillotine. Yes, the flying guillotine – that mind-bending, neck severing device that galvanized many a Shaw Brothers Studio and/or Jimmy Wang Yu vehicle. Well, producer/director Andrew Lau, famed for the best comicbook-style action fantasy, The Storm Riders, as well as the landmark cop thriller Infernal Affairs (which inspired Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) thought it would be perfect for remastering. He was completely right … but he did it totally wrong.

This new adventure, simply titled The Guillotines, starts okay. The Guillotines, as ever, are the Qing Dynasty emperor’s assassins, who use an “accordion with cleavers” to decapitate his enemies. Only in Lau’s version, the “collapsible top hat with teeth” has been changed into “jai-alai paddles with Transformer Frisbees” – making their highly cgi use even less credible than before.

Even so, this new, even more improbable, weapon would still be a kick to watch if the film was even a fifth as fun as the previous presentations. But one look at the screenplay roll-call – a full half-dozen (credited) writers (who knows how many more were uncredited) – gives a clue to the chaos that follows. Despite a nod to the original design during the credits, and the presence of Jimmy Wang Yu as the team’s boss, the movie is a mess.

No question the film was expensive and beautifully made. The vistas are gorgeous, the sets expansive, the costumes legion, and the cast…!? The one thing I said more often than anything else while watching was “Look at all those people!” Lau doesn’t just fill the screen, he crams it full of folk at every opportunity. It gets ridiculous … and that ridiculousness infects the entire film.

It is one thing to create a team of assassins on his emperor’s secret service, but it’s entirely another to then expect the audience to accept these stone-cold killers as really just a bunch of sensitive, lovable knuckleheads who’d be happier giving each other noogies than lopping off perceived enemies of the state. In the original Flying Guillotine films, it was one renegade who rebelled against the cruelty of his fellows. In this, the entire, naïve, moist-eyed, team is set up for slaughter by the emperor’s new gun squad. Add to that a Christ-like savior who just wants the Manchus to be nice, and you’ve got a recipe for eye-rolling.

My old Tai Seng buddy, Frank Djeng, tells me that this holiday “treat” was rushed out of the theaters and onto DVD after it summarily bombed, and that is far from surprising. On the basis of the production’s sumptuousness, and the story’s vacuousness, it looks as if producer/director Lau was suffering from a case of “Heaven’s Gate-itis” – obsessing on trees while entirely missing the forest.

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Speaking of Infernal Affairs, an October 2012 Asian release, Cold War, was loudly touted as the new version of that milestone. In fact, one of the things critics held against the modern-day cop thriller was its bombastic ad campaign, which trumpeted the movie as Hong Kong’s combination savior and resurrection. Happily deprived of that set-up, I can only take the film as it is, and as it is, there’s a lot to enjoy.

Writer/directors Sunny Luk and Longman Leung can’t be faulted for ambition – combining the aforementioned Infernal Affairs with Dragnet, Columbo, the Police Story series, Grumpy Old Men, Crimson Tide, and much of the kitchen sink, to create an initially engrossing thriller that convulses with both action and drama.

Aaron Kwok and “tall” Tony Leung play two Hong Kong deputy police commissioners who try to solve the mystery of a missing, heavily armed, police van — and its hostage officer occupants — while the rest of the department and media vie to see which one will be replacing their retiring boss (played by Michael Wong in a charming cameo).

Kwok plays the highly strung, intellectual, cop as if lasers were about to erupt out of his eyes any second, while the goateed Leung shows ‘em how it’s done with a powerfully controlled performance as an aggressive cop who may, or may not, be compromised since one of the captive cops is his son. Their interplay is especially interesting in the way the film invites the viewer to add symbolism. Could Kwok represent HK and Leung China?

Most of the rest of the cast – Andy On as a hothead, Andy Lau as the politically adept bureaucrat, and Chin Kar-lok (who also choreographed) as a sympathetic sacrificial lamb – are equally expert, but singing star Aarif Rahman, who was woefully miscast as the title character in Bruce Lee My Brother (seemingly playing Perry Como instead) again could learn a thing or thousand from Leung about how to communicate inner energy.

The photography is so good, the plot so layered, and the leads so watchable that it’s a shame when Longman and Sunny start giving in to their marketing instincts – filling the film’s back-half with unnecessary, and even ludicrous, ‘splosions and bend-over-backwards plot twists. Even so, I was pleased with what I thought was an ultimately satisfying finale … until Long Sunny Man gave in to the worst modern film instinct of all – the “he’s-not-dead-yet-sequel-baiting” coda. That, sadly, leaves a sour taste in what could have been a totally sweet experience.

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Speaking of sweet and sour, back in 2010, a movie called Samurai Ayothaya was released in Asia. It traveled the far east as The Samurai of Ayothaya or Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, then popped up in Europe as Yamada: Way of the Samurai. Finally it has officially (legally) reached these shores via Well Go USA, as Muay Thai Warrior (and any confusion with Ong Bak, which is also known as Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, is totally hoped for).

By any name, it tells the semi-true story of a Japanese sword master attacked by a crazed ninja sect, who’s rescued and given sanctuary by fighters from a Muay Thai Boxing training compound in Siam. In real life, the saved samurai, Yamada Nagamasa, went on to govern in Thailand, but in the film, played by Seigi Ozeki, he stays in the gloriously picturesque compound and learns the way of Muay Thai — allowing for many a brutal battle scene with swords, elbows and knees.

As directed and produced by Nopporn Watin (hard not to wonder if there’s any porn in his life), this many-titled effort is a beautifully filmed, linearly plotted, batteringly choreographed, totally predictable ninja versus Thai fighter saga with plenty of blood and thunder – especially since the rest of the cast is chock-a-block with actual Thai boxers (in fact, Ozeki’s Eraserhead-coiffed “co-star” steals the show).

The DVD’s (not the Bluray) front cover review line spells it out: “The Last Samurai Meets Ong Bak 2 (really? Ong Bak 2? Why not Ong Bak 1?).” Although brutally one-note, Samurai Yamada Muay Thai Ayothaya Warrior is action-packed and handsomely presented, with great on-location atmosphere. It also well represents the fact that once ninja are deprived of their dirty tricks and forced into the light, they are merely one elbow or knee away from the grave.

If this sort of thing is your cup of blood, drink deep me hardies (and, by the way, if it makes you hungry for more samurai action, definitely check out www.samuraidvd.com — the beautifully remastered, expertly subtitled greats there will blow your mind!).

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