Martial Arts in Media Winter 2015


After conflicting reports warning of a softer 2014 box-office, the China Film Bureau declared that profits were up thirty-six percent from last year, that more than six hundred Chinese films had been produced, and the total number of cinemas now number 23,600.

By any criteria, that’s a lot of eyes, screens, butts, seats, and moolah. So much moolah that they’ve already announced a sequel to From Vegas to Macau (see my review elsewhere on this site) despite the reported falling out of producer Wong Jing and star Chow Yun Fat over the question of Hong Kong’s encroached freedoms.

In any case, mama China continues to tread the tightrope between control and creativity, acknowledging that the quality of the films has to improve while not letting the filmmakers or audience get the wrong ideas. That leads to some pretty interesting, though rarely great, movies, which, like much American cinema, consists of homages, sequels, and reboots.

KF JUngle 1

This all segues nicely to Kung Fu Jungle, a much more interesting, rather than great, martial art movie. Presented as a tribute to Hong Kong action cinema, complete with a lengthy end credit homage to the flick’s many cameo appearances and veteran crew members, it is almost immediately compromised by what appears to be a conflicted understanding of Hong Kong action cinema, as well as what constitutes kung fu.

On the surface, it’s a modern-day throwback to the classic historical Shaw/Golden Harvest/Seasonal/Independent films in which an arrogant fighter sought to prove himself number one in “Jiang Hu: the martial art world.” Donnie Yen plays that modern day number one, who goes to jail after killing a challenger in a bout, only to discover another challenger, driven nuts by the lingering death of his disease-stricken wife, is murdering his way up the list.

From there the film plunges, seemingly proudly, into one artificial contrivance after another, just to hold the rickety, dubious story together in the cold digital light of the 21st Century. Virtually every character is emotionally, psychologically, and even mentally constipated, not to mention tunnel-visioned, petulant, and stubborn, so as to keep the thing at least ninety minutes. No one acknowledges the obvious, or even thinks ahead, because that would end the film very quickly. Things get so predictable that, between the furtive action, the middle sags.

That would be tolerable if the action was amazing, but, unfortunately, the same conflicts that hobble the story assail the fight scenes. The psycho kung fu killer makes no secret that he wants to take on the best in five general skill sets: arms, legs, grappling, weapons, and internal, so expectation is raised for some truly exciting sequences. Especially since the behind the scenes pedigree is so impressive. Stephan Tung Wei (Reign of Assassins), Yuen Bun (Once Upon a Time in China III), Yan Hua (Bodyguards and Assassins), Tam Jan-to (Crystal Hunt), Kang Yu (Special ID), John Salvitti (Blade II), and Donnie are all listed as action directors or choreographers.

So you’d think the bouts would all be incredible, wouldn’t you? I sure hoped so, but not only does director Teddy Chan (The Accidental Spy) film them all with a spasming camera that can’t obscure the obvious, all-too-often, use of wires, but the fighting is just as constipated as the drama. So-called masters repeatedly fall for novice moves, and no one employs anything other than anger-and-muscle-driven closed fists and knifing feet. All the bouts are pretty, but all the bouts are also disappointingly one-note. The opportunity to create the ultimate comparison of technique is essentially wasted, and there’s not a single moment of exhilaration (beyond the cameos. Look! There’s David Chiang! Mang Hoi! Raymond Chow [even Liu Chai-liang, Jackie Chan, and Simon Yuen show up on TV screens]!).

A possible reason for this arrives with the climax. After a lot of stolid stupidity, Donnie finally gets to face off with the psycho, who’s oft-repeated contention is that “kung fu is for killing!” And, as he has done for Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point, Legend of the Fist, and others, he shows that no one can get close to beating him. Were all the other sequences lessened so only number one could shine?

Little matter. Again, specific techniques are homogenized into a vaguely MMA mass that ultimately makes it clear that even the psycho, who has made quick work of all the other masters, is not even close to a match for number one. Worse, the psycho inexplicably doesn’t make good on a threat that he had ample opportunity to complete, simply to contrive a happy ending. Worst, neither Donnie nor anyone else disagrees with the psycho’s contention that “kung fu is only for killing (which it is, most patently, not),” despite the fact that the finale does a variation on the old “kung fu this, m*therf*cker” meme.

During a surprisingly somber fade-out, Donnie’s character says in a voice-over that he’s tired of being number one, and wants to give it all up to explore a life of love. If only he had decided that ninety minutes before. The kung fu in the jungle would have been a hundred times better. An uninspired B-movie with an A veneer, Kung Fu Jungle does a disservice to the films it purportedly honors.

The Four III

The sequel comes with what is generally known as The Four III, aka The Four 3D, although the screen credit reads The Four: Final Battle. By any name, it’s the conclusion of a trilogy that makes The Hobbit films seem succinct. Director Gordon Chan (Fist of Legend) stretches the plot of a famed novel and TV series like taffy to fill the unwarranted running time.

When last we left the X-Men-ish Iron Hands, Cold Blood, Life Snatcher, and Master Zhuge, their mind-reading companion Emotionless (who is obviously named Emotionless the way a short guy would be named Stretch) had discovered that her family was murdered by her fellow Fourers on orders of the Emperor (you can tell how poorly padded the previous films had been since the only “previously on The Four” clips during the opening credits is Emotionless emotionally confronting her once trusted friends as to that fact).

So off we go further into a turgid conspiracy to take over the throne by pitting the Four’s Divine Constabulary against the Department Six secret police. The costumes, sets, and background masses are impressive, but that’s pretty much all you can entertain yourself with as forty sappy, soppy, wet-eyed, pretentious, and portentous minutes drag by. Finally there’s some action, but it’s marred by my old contention that “if anything is possible, nothing is interesting.”

It’s not until the finale that things get even mildly amusing, in a Power Rangers sort of way. But even that is made pretty snortable as Zhuge lets all his treasured protégés repeatedly spit up blood before he deigns to appear and literally put a pin in it.

For the record, this is the second new film of the season that studiously ignores the obvious. When the villain is an all powerful container of chi, all you need do is redirect his attacking energy back to him. Kung Fu Panda knew that. Why doesn’t anyone else (although, to be fair/foul, even Kung Fu Panda forgot that in its misconceived sequel)?!

White Haired Witch 2

The reboot comes with The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, another retelling of a classic, Romeo-and-Juliet-esque, Chinese tale that was seemingly mastered by Ronny Yu’s superior Bride with White Hair in 1993. But this is the tragic fairy tale done for the Avatar generation, suitably pumped up by novice director Zhiliang Zhang, with an assist from consultant Tsui Hark. After an impressively artistic opening credit sequence, the incident-rich plot is off and running with the Wu Tang Clan (the sword sect, not the rappers) being framed for a kingdom-threatening murder.

Even a cursory study of Chinese history shows a wealth of “no-win scenarios,” where each side does its best to do what’s right, only to be ground up by society, lack of communication, and circumstantial conclusion jumpers. Such is the case with the star-crossed lovers here, who, despite an initial headlong rush into the plot, get bogged down by the title character’s contention that “Love is the deadliest poison.”

She should have gotten together with the “kung fu is only for killing” psycho. Now there would be a power couple to contend with. Suffice to say that Fan Bingbing makes a fetching witch, Vincent Zhao makes a great villain, and my favorite moment comes when a castle guard announces, “The head of the secret squad is here!”

Bro o Blades

So what’s best; the homage, the sequel, or the reboot? Naturally none of the above. The lone original film, a labor of love four years in the making, is the winner. This is not to say that Brotherhood of Blades is not reminiscent of anything. In fact, B.o.B. could stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest action tragedies of the Shaw Studio. Seeing David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Chen Kuan Tai at their primes in this would be awesome.

Instead, smoldering Chang Chen, of Crouching Tiger and Grandmaster fame, stars as a Ming Dynasty emperor’s assassin, tasked with finding and killing the ex-head eunuch and all his followers. Everything The Four and White-Haired Witch wanted to be, B.o.B. is – as real as Four is fake, and as powerful as Witch is facile.

Director/writer Lu Yang quickly establishes credibility as the imperial assassin, along with his two partners, must struggle to make ends meet while protecting life threatening secrets, and making life-changing decisions in a time when nothing, and no one, can be trusted. The action, by relative newcomer Sang Lin (Red Cliff) is suitably realistic and brutal as the double and triple crosses start piling up.

But unlike certain previously mentioned films, nothing here is contrived, convoluted, or artificial. Everything is instigated by the character’s own desires and personalities. Ethan Li Dong-Xue is charming and sympathetic as the youngest of the Brotherhood, who longs for the daughter of the doctor treating him for asthma. Wang Jinpeng is not only a dead ringer for veteran great Li Hai Sheng (36th Chamber of Shaolin), but impressive as the most senior, honorable and trusting one — who would rather put his own neck on the chopping block than betray his brothers.

But it is Chen’s central assassin, who desires to free a girl he had condemned to the emperor’s brothel, who bears the brunt of the brutality, and must battle the longest. If there’s anything in this involving, thrilling epic that strained my credulity, it was his fate. But I’ll deal with that, if only I could have more movies with even an ounce of the skill, talent, excitement, and heart on display here.