Martial Arts in Media 5/14

The cinemas in China continue to multiply, and the audience continues to grow, but the films that are being fed to them are like meat to lions. If they’re hungry, they’ll devour anything thrown at them and roar for more – no matter how tough the gristle. Producers and studios don’t mind. “Look how successful we are!” they seem to cry. Yes, of course, anything colorful that fills the screen will be seen, but the movies this month give rise to a new adage: “starving viewers can’t be choosers.”


Starting with the least resonant, there’s The Four II, whose very title belies its erratic presentation. It is, of course, a sequel to The Four, co-writer/co-producer/co-director Gordon Chan’s X-Men-ized adaptation of a popular novel and TV series concerning a bunch of specially trained policemen, who, for the purposes of these new films, have been mutated into wuxia superheroes with both supra and super human powers.

When last we left Master Zhuge (Anthony Wong) – the leader of the Divine Constabulary — and his team that consists of the psychic, wheelchair-bound, Emotionless (shades of Professor X!), kung fu king Iron Hands, bon vivant Life Snatcher and the heart throb Cold Blood, they had successfully foiled a crime wave as well as the jealous machinations of the competing police force known as Department Six … or something to that effect.

This time Department Six is doubly dedicated to destroying the Divine Constabulary, and it seems that a series of new slaughters might just be the ticket — especially when all clues point to Master Zhuge as the culprit — extra-especially because he flat-out lied, Obi-wan Kenobi-style, to Emotionless (who is anything but, by the way) about her family and origins … or something to that effect.

In fact, given the convoluted chaos of the catch-can plot, a far better title for this abortive sequel would have been Or Something to That Effect, since the film, such as it is, is full of special effects as the cast repeatedly (and literally) run around to no apparent purpose. Wuxia novels are well known for their double, triple, and quadruple crosses, but unless a savvy filmmaker reigns in the convolutions, it’s hard for a viewer to care – especially when any explanation or denouement would stretch the credulity of even Sherlock Holmes.

That great sleuth once said “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” The problem with Four II is that the impossible is never eliminated. Making matters worse, Chan seems to think that this sequel is actually the second installment in a trilogy, so all the melodramatic, self-flagellating, time-wasting nonsense he fills this film with doesn’t have anything remotely close to a satisfying conclusion. There may very well be a Four III, or maybe even a Four IV, but I, for one, will be hard pressed not to deep six, or eighty-six, it.


Next on our hit (and kick) parade is a Chow Yun-fat double feature. Like so many Hong Kong filmmakers who tested the Hollywood waters, the venerable Chow eventually returned to Asia, where he wouldn’t have to fight against stubborn tinseltown producers who insist on finding anyone other than white males “exotic” (i.e. uncastable). As you may recall, he was considered both small and big screen poison for years, until he broke through in both mediums in the early 1980’s.

Chow, like most of his peers, has weathered many Hong Kong cinema storms, from the triad takeovers in the 1990s to the Mother China takeover now. And, throughout, Master Chow has been stylish, charming and adaptable. What many seem to forget is that, in addition to his award-winning performances in dramas and classic gun-fu films, Chow acquitted himself beautifully in many a silly horror/action/comedy. His latest is a throwback to those carefree years.

In 1989, he starred in, and as, God of Gamblers, arguably schlockmeister Wong Jing’s best film as writer/director. Given the ebb and flow of the industry, Chow Yun-fat eschewed the role for five years, allowing Stephen Chow (no relation) to claim it as his own for awhile. But in 1994 he returned to the part of Ko Chun, the gambler who can’t be beat. So here, ten years after that, he’s back again in From Vegas to Macau (aka The Man from Macau) … or is he?

Wong Jing, back behind the script and camera, begins by playing with the lead character’s identity. At first the star seems to be Nicholas Tse, playing a Robin Hood/Ocean’s 11/Mission: Impossible/Leverage-type confidence artist who steals from the rich and gives to his cancer-stricken mother. Soon, however, he gets teased with being taken under the wing of “Ken,” a great gambler who, apparently, can magically alter cards (ala Stephen Chow’s version of the role) as well as weaponize them (ala Ricky Jay and Marvel Comics’ Gambit).

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to get the impression that Wong Jing is not a huge fan of coherence and credibility. Given that he’s always been shameless throughout his thirty-five year career and almost two hundred films, it’s not shocking to see that Wong seems to be having a ball spending China’s movie money, and not giving a hoot what any Government bureaucrat tells him to put in or leave out.

He goes crazy with the editing, the casting (using super skinny, seemingly surgically altered Kimmy Tong as Ken’s daughter), the transitions, sudden musical numbers (taking special delight in making Chow sing, since the actor is famous for being game, but tone deaf), and even the many action sequences (ably choreographed by Nicky Li Chung-chi, who started with Project A II in 1987). In short, he has loads of fun … but does the audience? Depends on where you draw the line between silly and stupid.

For me, I enjoyed the battle between Chow, Tse, and the aptly named DOA Corporation, who wants to win at any cost. Things move along briskly, anything goes, and there’s satisfaction to be found in a hero you know will never lose. And I was especially gratified with the ending, where a special guest arrives with great style and flair to make it clear whether Ken is the God of Gamblers or not. Unlike the Four II, if there’s a Man from Macau II, I am so there.


Then there’s The Monkey King in 3D, which, according to its advertising, is the actual title of this long gestating film. How long? It was originally announced in 2010 with Cheang Pou-soi, the down and dirty filmmaker best known for the brutal Dog Bite Dog, as its director. In the four years hence, Cheang, incongruously, remained the director and his TMKI3D has become the poster child for official Mainland moviemaking in the 21st Century. Over the years of agonizing production, it was given a green-screened, computer-animated makeover from a problem child into a shining example of pure put-on-a-happy-face publicity.

Donnie Yen suitably stars as the alternately mischievous and destructive mythical god-tweaker of legend, in effective make-up that renders him almost unrecognizable. But there’s no mistaking his remarkable physical skills, despite all the wires that were used to almost obscure his actions as much as the special effect appliances obscured his face. Donnie is also credited as action director, and does his best – along with a literal army of crew members — to meld the live action with a tsunami of animation.

It’s little wonder that the film did great box office throughout Asia, because it was wisely sold as China’s “answer” to Avatar, which it resembles in a myriad of ways. Even as far away as my East Coast office came tales of production woes and salvage operations by no less than fifteen, count ‘em, fifteen production companies, stretching over years. What resulted was an eye-filling Peking Opera primer that certainly gives the Imax 3D fan their money’s worth (the film’s budget, not surprisingly, doubled in the interim).

The homeland reviews state the Asian case (, but from one westerner’s perspective, the two hour epic is an eye-full, if not a mind-full. Beyond that, for American novices to the Monkey King story, it’s a painless education, where things that would be familiar to every Chinese schoolchild may come as a revelation to the unaware gweilo.

The story is simple enough: the innocent simian demigod Sun Wukong is used by the black-wearing Bull Demon King — a horned power monger played by heart throb Aaron Kwok (in a change of pace role) — in his obsessive battle against the white-wearing Jade Emperor, played majestically by the film’s emotional core Chow Yun-fat.

In fact, Donnie may have been secretly relieved to be behind all that make-up and special effects since, despite the distance afforded by working almost exclusively within a green screen studio, Kwok and Chow’s charisma shines through everything they say and do, all but rendering the Monkey King into a distracting tool. But anyone’s appreciation of this box office triumph depends on their tolerance for children’s book storytelling pumped up to anything-goes excess.

There’s plenty of colors and lots of movement, but I look forward to seeing it again in a big screen, 3D, environment to find out if it’s actually any good.