Any filmmaker who prize their creative freedom may never make another film in China, unless they need money or things change. At the moment all Chinese filmmakers (Hong Kong included/especially) have to brave the gauntlet of Governmental review at the start and end of production (at the very least).
Even for those willing and able to make action films, they still have to deal with the People’s Republic’s long, “complicated” relationship with kung fu. Kung fu, at its optimum, is a self-improvement system whose healing applications are remarkable and whose martial applications are devastatingly effective.
That, in itself, is not necessarily troublesome to any one but rushed filmmakers or aggressive, hate-filled people. The problem may lie in that, at its best, kung fu opens the student’s mind, and that is not necessarily something the Party is always comfortable with. Having several billion free thinkers to control is not often the goal of any self-preserving state.
So, not surprisingly, China seems to much prefer wushu (the word that means “martial arts” [kungfu means “good work” or even “human achievement,” which rarely includes fighting]). That often means that any filmmaker, hoping to exit the bureaucrats’ temple unscathed, tries to bend kungfu into what the Government wants, rather than what it actually is.
This season, we explore three different filmmakers’ attempts to bend to the new normal, but not break. First, easiest, and, in a way, saddest, is the great Herman Yau Lai-to. He’s one of my favorite new(er) cinematographer/writer/producer/actor/directors (although he’s been around more than twenty five years, and has made more than sixty films — some times as many as five a year).
In that time he has presented comedies (Master Q), horror (Ebola Syndrome), crime (The Untold Story), and, yes, kung fu (Ip Man Final Fight). His latest, Kung Fu Angels, is all of the above in weird ways. There are attempts at slapstick as well as romantic comedy (that aren’t very funny), it’s a horror that Yau felt the need to make it, and it’s a crime the way it presents and pads its limited desires.
Basically, this tale of a painfully thin, spoiled, rich girl (Karena Ng) who learns humility, teamwork, and how to be a good friend at a sports college looks, sounds, and feels like a Disney Channel TV movie – only the actors are at least a half-decade older. The core of the plot has the intrepid college wushu club, Glee and Pitch Perfect-style, trying to beat its hated rival college in the championships, and the by-the-numbers script bends over backwards stacking the predictable deck.
Despite the film’s many limitations, Yau is obviously always in there plugging away, dressing up even the most rudimentary scenes with at least a half dozen tracking shots. And Yau being Yau, there’s even an insidious, anarchic, hard-to-find method to his madness by having the climatic bout take place between the rival wushu team’s overweight, over-tall, over-aggressive leader and our tiny, seemingly anorexic, heroine.
Even so, the choreography by Tony Leung Siu-hung, who’s been working since 1976, and has My Kung Fu 12 Kicks, Magic Crystal, and Ip Man on his resume, is not exactly awe-inspiring, or, apparently, required to be, given the omnipresent wirework, green screen, and obviously untrained cast. None the less, had this been the undercard at a double-feature, it would be a relatively painless, curiosity-sparking, way to fill eighty-eight minutes. But as something to pay good money for? I’d rather wait for Yau’s rumored Wong Fei-hong reboot.
Speaking of Wong Fei-hong reboots, now we come to this season’s travesty, Rise of the Legend. You know Wong Fei-hong, right? Virtually everyone in Asia does. Confucian healer? Noble hero? Wise leader? Consummate true kung fu practitioner? Almost a hundred films from the 1940s to the 1980s starring Kwan Tak-hing? Gordon Liu Chia-hui’s role in Liu Chia-liang’s Challenge of the Masters and Martial Club? Jackie Chan’s breakthrough role in the Drunken Master duo? Jet Li’s resurrecting role in the Once Upon a Time in China series? Yes, that Wong Fei-hong.
Anyway, someone got the smart idea to revive the character for the 21st century. Unfortunately someone also got the stupid idea to revive him the same way Batman and James Bond were recently revived. But the Dark Knight and 007 started as brooding characters. Wong, and his origin story, was anything but. Warping Wong into Bruce Wayne is like deciding to rework Harry Potter into Snape, Obi-wan into Darth, Felix the Cat into Fritz the Cat, or …. I could go on, but back to the review already in progress.
The enraged, mentally constipated, over-emotional Wong (as played by Jake Gyllenhaal/Jared Leto-esque Eddie Peng Yu-yan) is unrecognizable as the character established over seven decades. To accomplish that, scripter Christine To Chi-long (Fearless, True Legend) didn’t so much as alter Wong’s tale as napalm it, shred it, garbage disposal it, then sausage link it through Bruce Lee and Bruce Wayne’s meat grinder.
In the original story, Wong’s father (who Donnie Yen played in Iron Monkey) still lives. But because Batman’s dad was killed and Bruce Lee rejected his father’s taichi teaching, the new, not-improved Wong rejects his father’s Confucian, healing values, and watches him, as a child, die in an arson fire that destroys the Wong family’s famed, beloved clinic/home Po Chi Lam.
Wong is left to survive in a Qing Dynasty that was seemingly fashioned from Hieronymus Bosch visions. It’s a cesspool of crime, corruption, and perversion that looks remarkably like the Chinese historical version of, oh, I don’t know, Gotham City maybe? To make things right, Wong decides to learn martial arts from a convenient monk in a mountain cave, who will only let Wong leave if he correctly defines what “revenge” is. Revenge, according to this film, is something you do to help people (?!?). Are you beginning to see where I think this thing went wrong?
In any case, to “help people,” Wong decides to infiltrate the worst triad organization, led by Boss Lui (played by the great Sammo Hung, who also co-produced this) and destroy it from within by using the mistaken, conceited, essentially useless mantra he had been maintaining since childhood: “I am invincible.” So the already misguided, illogical Wong fills the two hour, ten minute running time with all sorts of convoluted nonsense that requires much sacrifice, tear-spilling, and teeth gnashing.
Enough plot, already, how are the fights? Well, on the basis of how Wong’s story was warped, you can probably guess how the glorious work of Kwan, Gordon, Jackie, Jet, and Donnie were warped as well. It’s no accident that Eddie’s fists are tightly closed on the poster. Choreographers Corey Yuen Kwai (Fong Sai Yuk), Wei Yu-hei (Tai Chi Zero), Kwok Yung, (Tai Chi Hero), and Liu Fang (Wu Dang) were required to deliver the now de rigueur anger, muscle, wire, straight arm, straight leg, and sfx driven martial arts. I’ll admit that the work is solid, but also stolid, and considering Wong’s legacy, disappointing.
If the real Wong Fei-hong had been watching this, he would certainly admire, as I did, the sumptuous production values, the amazing sets, the impressive costumes, and the huge cast of teeming extras. He might also schedule the protagonists for a life time of acupuncture and maybe a straight jacket. Sad to say, even the largest cast and the greatest production values cannot make up for a woefully misconceived script. Had this been a Fong Sai-yuk reboot – the Shaolin hothead who shared cinema fame with Wong up until the 1990s — I would be singing its praises to the skies. But because the creators chose unwisely, it is the Batman & Robin of Wong Fei-hong films.
Finally we come to main attraction … the man who revolutionized kung fu cinema at least twice … mama China’s favorite prodigal son … Jackie Chan. Life has both blessed and cursed him — with a stunningly emotionally deprived childhood as well as an extraordinary career as an Asian icon (only eclipsed by his mentor Bruce Lee, causing him to successfully fashion himself as the anti-Bruce Lee). But things have been confusing for the superstar since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China rule – a fact that is amply reflected in the films he’s chosen and how he’s chosen to present them. Arguably, he hasn’t made a truly great film since Drunken Master 2 (1994) and, even more arguably, Rush Hour (1998).
Dragon Blade is also not a great film. But it is so much closer to great than everything that came between, so I’ll give it a boulder-sized benefit of the doubt – first and foremost because it has, miracle of miracles, wonder of wonders, actual kung fu in it. Not enough, certainly, for my taste, but after the Fei-hong fustercluck, anything is better than nothing. Jackie plays Huo An, an extremely noble commander of the Han Dynasty “Protection Squad,” who manages to keep peace among the thirty-six nations who congregate on the Silk Road.
This is cleverly established in a desert confrontation with a veiled, whip-wielding warrior princess played by Lin Peng where Jackie repeatedly frustrates her attempts to hurt him while not hurting her. To watch Jackie use his more than forty years of kung fu experience in such a deft and subtle way is a relief and delight. Unlike most martial arts students, Jackie never really dedicated himself to one style. As such, he is truly a kung fu sponge, who’s able to take lessons from all his teachers — including Bruce, Sammo, Liu Chia-liang, Yuen Wo-ping, Jet Li, and so many others – then make them uniquely his own, based on his temperament, motivations, and even age.
After the Protection Squad is framed for a crime it didn’t commit, it is exiled to the remote Wild Goose Gate, and tasked with rebuilding it. Although Huo is consistently optimistic and encouraging, things look bad when an errant Roman legion, led by a framed General played by John Cusack, tries to besiege the city. Using his sword skills, as well as a threatening sandstorm, Huo convinces the Romans to take shelter, and they repay his wise, redirecting, kindness by using Roman experience and learning to help rebuild the fort in two weeks.
Thus endeth the first hour of this one hundred and twenty-seven minute earnest, emotional epic. Death, destruction, and loads of Lord-of-the-Ringish battle-fu ensue when the evil, framing Roman consul — lip-smackingly, mustache-twirlingly played by Adrien Brody — shows up with 100,000 blood-thirsty legionnaires. I, of course, would have preferred a little more kung-fu thinking in the climatic sequences rather than Jackie’s traditional abuse-taking, but the film thrillingly ends with the highest lesson of kung fu wisdom emblazoned on a golden tablet for all to see.
As I said, it’s not quite a truly great movie, but it is so good in parts, and, despite a contrived, unnecessary, framing device, so much better than anything else that’s shown up recently, that I can strongly suggest it. Writer/director Daniel Lee Yan-gong has gotten better with each of his previous ten films, and Dragon Blade is no exception. Besides, how can you miss any film with Benny the Jet Urquidez listed as John Cusack’s personal trainer?