Notice anything different about the headline? Yes, the day has finally arrived. Although I have maintained this monthly column for Inside Kung-Fu magazine and on this site for decades, the martial art movie is in such dire straits — from Chinese Government interference to American studio sabotage, as well as the general creeping generic action film malaise — that finding enough stuff to review every four weeks has been an unwelcome challenge (and, happily, I must admit that my schedule has been pretty crowded lately as well).
So it is with certain regret that I announce that this column will appear when it appears — sometimes seasonally, sometimes quarterly (ala my “Ric & Infamous” column in the late, lamented Asian Cult Cinema magazine), sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes maybe even back to monthly … whenever there is enough news to fit. In any case, in the words of one of my book mentors, let us carry on … with style.
Speaking of the aforementioned Government interference, many filmmakers — suffering under the yoke of seemingly arbitrary, seemingly daily, demands about what can and can’t be shown — have opted to throw back to the past (perhaps to use the justification gambit of “well, you approved this before!”). Exhibit 1: Iceman, a 3D remake of 1989’s The Iceman Cometh (not to be confused with the classic 1939 Eugene O’Neill play), starring (and co-directed by) Yuen Biao, featuring the glorious Maggie Cheung, and the equally glorious (in a different way) Yuen Wah.
Both plot skeletons are relatively the same: a hero and villain are frozen during the Ming Dynasty and thawed in the modern day, where action and antics ensue. The original had Biao’s charming energy, Maggie’s beauteous talent, and Wah’s memorable skill (at one point stepping from a trash can lid to the roof of a moving taxi!). The remake has Donnie Yen, newly minted comedy star Wang (Lost in Thailand) Baoqiang, a script from hunger, wires/cgi up the wazoo, and a literally shitty attitude — most likely born of rampant cinematic plot-blocking (imagined conversation — Filmmaker: “But it was ok in 1989!” Official [icily]: “This isn’t 1989”).
Poster looks serious, doesn’t it? But like most of the film, it’s a lame lie. The tone of the new thing is set almost immediately, with the Terminator-style thawing of Donnie, who then pisses like a cannon onto a passing Hummer. Not surprisingly, the new version ups the budget and the ante, by unleasing a trio of stupid villains into the present, where they and Donnie literally wander around for a good hour, getting into mischief that ranges from the homicidal to the scatological. Instead of mirroring the fun of Yuen Biao’s version, this feeble reboot is like a combination of the 1993 French farce about medieval peons in modern Paris (Les Visiteurs) and 2003’s Dumb and Dumberer.
There are dreadful English speaking actors, literal potty jokes (at one low point, Donnie blows up a toilet he has just super-shitted into so the cops chasing him are given a bronzen shower), and the entire plot hinges on everyone trying to find “Shiva’s Balls.” Suffice to say that Donnie circa 2014 and comedy are not a natural fit. Huang Shengyi tries to fill Maggie’s shoes, but this mess is a far cry from the game but overmatched actress’ introduction in 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle.
It was as if everyone concerned wanted to test just how much the Chinese audience would tolerate. Not surprisingly, word rapidly got out that the production had gone over schedule and had doubled its original budget. But Monkey King 3D, also starring Donnie, was also a budget/schedule fustercluck, and that became a huge hit. No such luck here. Despite a perfunctory, tacked-on, anti-climatic sequel-bait end-credit sequence, the Asian audience soundly rejected Iceman … while I merely soundly ejected it from my DVD player. They were lucky I didn’t throw it out the window.
Iceman was co-produced by Donnie and written by a committee. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai was co-produced and written by Wong Jing … and that makes all the difference. As I’ve oft-mentioned, Wong Jing is the madman of Southern Chinese cinema, and, as From Vegas to Macau (see Martial Arts in Media May 2014) showed, he’s got a “bring it on” attitude when it comes to Government “suggestions” (imagined conversation — Official: “We want a shark in the film.” Wong: “Ok, how about a shark that erupts from a girl’s boobs?!”).
I heard some bad things about this movie. That it squandered its kung fu cast, and crammed its action scenes with unnecessary camera tricks. Happily, I found neither to be true. I contend that the initial naysayers didn’t realize what they were seeing. OUATIShanghai is nothing less (and something more) than the best-produced, best-filmed, most expansive, most expensive, and best cast “Bruce Lee Clone” movie ever made.
Yes, fans of those Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Dragon Lee flicks, have I got a motion picture for you! Here, the ripped Philip (Wan-Lung) Ng, who made notable appearances in New Police Story, House of Fury, and Naked Soldier, gets the Bruce bowl haircut and an introduction clearly by way of The Big Boss. Rather than resist kicking the asses of some Thailand mashers after noting the jade pendent his mom gave him, Phil resists destroying a refugee boat bully by the super cool jade bracelet his mom gave him (whose main gem spins like a pinball when it picks up his angry energy). Poor guy wants to make his way in 1930’s Shanghai, but he’s caught between the invading/occupying Japanese and the more-corrupt-than-usual Triad. And when the Triad bosses are played by kung-fu film masters Chen Kuan-tai (Blood Brothers), Fung Hak-on (Magnificent Butcher), and Yuen Cheung-yan (7 Grandmasters), that’s saying something.
Is that all? Oh no, that’s not all. Also caught between the Japs and a hard place are Sammo Hung, as a noble chef who is forced to play nice to protect his lovely daughters, and Andy On (Chi-kit), who plays a Mr. Canton and Lady Rose-type club owner who gives Philip a shot, only to run afoul of the burgeoning bad guys. Some musical numbers follow, many confrontations result, and much death ensues until the Game of Death climatic marathon finale, when our Bruce Lee/ng must fight all the triad and invading villains up the levels of an ominous pagoda.
Glorious? Not quite. In addition to carrying the Bruce Lee clone yoke, which brings with it a general pale plagiarism, the actual fighting has not, unsurprisingly, progressed from the 1970’s closed-fist, muscle-driven, anger-motivated fighting of Bruce’s undeveloped prime. But here, of course, it works just fine, especially since the legendary Yuen Wo-ping is credited with the choreography (along with his brother, the nearly equally able co-star Yuen Cheung-yan). Wong Jing being who he is, the film also borrows from Stephen Chow’s Fist of Fury 1991, in that our new Bruce/Philip is said to have the most powerful right fist in all of China.
Happily for us all, he proves it in no uncertain terms. Bones, flesh, faces, skulls, and everything that can be broke is broke, and, whether it’s because it’s a fun, entertaining movie, or because everything else that’s coming (or not coming) out is so bad, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a Bruce Lee Clone fairytale that, for me, has a happy ending.