Nowhere is the Chinese Government’s portentous effect on its artists more apparent than in the “Chinese cut” of Iron Man 3. In order to appease the gatekeepers who held the permission for the film to be shown in China, somebody had to create less than five minutes of China-centric footage, featuring Wang Xueqi (Reign of Assassins, Bodyguards & Assassins) as the doctor, and Fan Bingbing (Flash Point, Shaolin) as the nurse, who remove the schrapnel from Tony Stark’s chest.
They also appear in a few other superfluous scenes setting up the operation that are, totally unsurprisingly, designed for nationalism (Iron Man delights a group of Chinese children) and product placement (Gu Li Duo/Yili Milk – which Stark supposedly uses to “revitalize his energy” and “Dr. Wu” downs on screen). Also, far from surprisingly, these obviously interjected scenes are not going over well.
Now, multiply that sort of non-creative intrusion by ninety minutes and you might get a glimmer of what it’s like for Chinese filmmakers at the moment. Two auteurs, however, are using their own decades of feng shui and kung fu to weather the ominous influence. The first is Wong Kar-wai, who, in ten films over twenty-five years, has earned his reputation as South Asia’s premiere art film creator.
Known for seemingly endless shooting, and then equally endless editing, he has become beloved by audiences for his endlessly interpretable dramas, and alternately perplexing and frustrating for casts and crews who never know how their work will turn out, or even if it will appear on screen. Yet all consider it an honor to participate.
The industry was tossed into a tizzy when Wong announced that his next film (after 2007’s My Blueberry Nights) would be The Grandmaster — a biopic of Bruce Lee’s wing chun teacher Yip Man. Some, like Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip, took it as inspiration to do their own biopics, knowing that Wong would never beat them to the cinemas, since he averaged four years between films. Sure enough, while Wong did his usual slow burn, Ip Man (2008) premiered to raves, awards, and boffo box office, unleashing sequels both official (2010’s Ip Man 2) and unofficial (2010’s Ip Man The Legend is Born), as well as a homeland TV series (or two).
Those, and several Grandmaster release dates, came and went as studio executives and movie distributors fretted. Honored choreographer Yuen Wo-ping privately expressed vexation over Wong’s unique Michealangelo-esque approach. My message to him was: “Didn’t you talk to Sammo?” Sammo Hung had served as action director for Wong’s only previous kung fu-ish film, 1994’s Ashes of Time, and he told me that after figuratively and literally wandering in the desert for a few months, he didn’t know which way was up.
In any case, The Grandmaster was finally locked in for late 2012, and what showed up in cinemas was an interesting Wuxia (heroic chivalry) Jiang Hu (martial art world) amalgamation – partly born of studio and government pressure, and partially reflective of the biopics that beat it to the punch. Yet it remained recognizably Wongian.
Wong muse Tony Leung Chui-wai (who has starred in seven of the director’s films) here plays Yip, who is less the star of the film and more of its fulcrum – the center around which all else swirls. Wong seems totally aware of the other Ip biopics, since he uses them as an excuse not to color in the details of Yip’s life. Instead, this tale of seemingly vying for kung fu leadership while retaining kung fu’s core values rests on the emotional journey of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) — a filial daughter who protects the reputation of her father’s school at the cost of her own inner and outer life.
As usual with Wong Kar-wai, several credited actors appear fleetingly or not at all. Cung Le and Venom Lo Mang have short, but effective, fight scenes, while Elvis Tsui (more than a hundred films in his 35 year career) can merely be glimpsed, and Bruce Leung is totally M.I.A. Still, the film’s highlights are its many fight sequences featuring Leung, Ziyi, stuntman John Zhang Jin, and Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). They are beautifully filmed and stand up to my favorite pastime – the multiple viewing test. So far I’ve watched them four times, and I see more each time. I’m looking forward to watching them a bunch more.
The Grandmaster is also a great excuse to learn Chinese, since neither dubbing nor subtitles can communicate the subtleties of the original language, which bear as much analysis as the plot. Even Yip’s early comparison between the meaning of the word “kung fu” as compared to the appearance of the Chinese calligraphy that represents it, can be lovingly interpreted ‘til the cows come home (“one horizontal, one vertical….”).
Plotlines, characters, and eras come and go, either leaving fascination or frustration in their wake – often both. But that’s Wong Kar-wai for you. Much to my amazement, several martial art movie associates announced the same thing; “I didn’t know it was going to be an art film!” Of course it is … a MARTIAL art film. A martial art film that deserves to be savored. What were they expecting from Wong Kar-wai? A cartoon?
Speaking of cartoons, the other man who suffers the indignities of modern Chinese filmmaking with grace and humor is Stephen Chow Sing-chi. He seems to be the embodiment of the reed that bends more the stronger the wind blows. He came to his superstardom at a time when Triad gangsters ruled the Hong Kong film world, and manifested his on-screen character – the seemingly vacuous bumpkin who shields a spine of steel. Using his pliant balance on and off screen, he navigated the treacherous waters of show biz until he was king of comedy.
Now, with the added delights of Chinese Government power, Chow has taken his own sweet time preparing his new film (with the read-into-able title), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. After writing, directing, and starring in two seemingly matchless movies – 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, he created the children’s comedy/fantasy CJ7 in 2008 as something of a palate cleanser in preparation for this: his first full fledged comedy adventure under the total thrall of the new bosses.
Given the state of his world, as well as his middle age (he’s presently fifty), he decided to “do a Woody (Allen)” by co-writing, co-directing, co-producing, but not starring in the movie. Instead, twenty-eight year old TV and movie Wen Zhang plays the “Chow” role of sweet, stupid, seemingly slow enlightenment seeker Tang Sanzang. Chow also decided to do a “Drunken Master” by making the tale of how a venerable Chinese character became the man he did, since EVERYBODY knows that Tang is the central character in the landmark Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (basically China’s spiritual Wizard of Oz, which Journey to the West clearly influenced and inspired). You knew that, right?
Chow has trod this ground before, of course. He Chow-ized the tale by combining Back to the Future with it for A Chinese Odyssey Parts 1 and 2 (both 1994). Here, he comes at it from a different direction, making JttW:CtD full of wit, verve, imagination, energy, irreverence, and surprises — while maintaining his amazing ability to make the viewer care about the characters, no matter how lunatic the situations get. Although Chow claims the main credits, he led seven other scripters on the project – much the way Pixar creates its films. Also, Derek Kwok Chi-kin, the promising young director of one of my favorite recent kung fu films, Gallants (2010) shared the helmer’s seat.
Not surprisingly then, JttW:CtD plays like “live action animation” – especially since, like Soccer and Hustle, there’s so many special effects. But, also like Soccer and Hustle, these special effects reflect Chow’s approach: both fully integrated into the story, yet somehow still totally aware they’re in a movie – as if we’re all in an exciting, entertaining lucid dream. It starts as a new version of A Chinese Ghost Story with hunks of Jaws and Monty Python and the Holy Grail thrown in, then shifts into Buffy the Chinese Demon Slayer as Shu Qi (The Transporter) enters as a beautiful, violent, monster catcher intent on wooing Tang.
Misadventures ensue until Tang’s master, a seeming sham artist, sends him to find the Monkey King, imprisoned by Buddha in a mountain. In human form, he’s played by Bo Huang, who many consider the “new Stephen Chow” for his comedic performances, especially in the box office busting Lost in Thailand (2012). In monkey form, he’s played by stuntman Ge Hangyu, and many excellent special effects, as a team of monster hunters and demon slayers attempt to defeat him (with the aid of action choreographer Guk Hin Chiu, who also worked on Kung Fu Hustle and CJ7).
Although as charming, funny, and heartfelt as most of his best work, it’s hard not to wish that Chow himself was starring (especially in the scenes with Bo Huang). As fine as Wen Zhang is, he just doesn’t have the king of comedy’s mischievous spark. But, by finale time, when Tang has taken his rightful place alongside Eight Precepts Pig, River Monster Sha Wujing, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Leiyin Temple, Wen’s commitment to the role’s serenity pays off.
This latest Journey to the West set the record for the biggest opening day gross, as well as the biggest single day gross, just four days later. Last time I checked, it was well on its way to becoming the most successful Chinese film ever (not the first time the star/writer/producer/director did that). Money aside, it is a journey well worth joining, and it clearly shows how ingeniously Stephen Chow is conquering his demons — both inward and outward.