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Martial Arts in Media Summer 2015

MIRN

So there I am, clutching a box of chocolate-covered peanuts, feeling like a kid at a Saturday matinee, waiting for Mission Impossible Rogue Nation to whisk me away for a globe-hopping, action-packed joyride — when, right there on the big, modified Imax screen, comes the production company title cards. Sure, there was J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, Skydance, and even Odin, but before them came bold, emblazoned words: China Movie Channel and Alibaba (internet emperor Jack Ma Yun’s billion dollar company). Apparently, I was at the wedding reception for the marriage ceremony that started with Iron Man 3.

Well, if things like IM3 and M:I5 are the result, then I have no problem with it. But, as I watched Tom Cruise, and happily, Rebecca Ferguson, go all hand-to-hand throughout, a small voice in the back of my cavernous skull whispered, “But what about kung-fu?” What about it, indeed. As the rest of the this summer’s Asian action offerings played out before my fascinated eyes, I saw kung-fu struggle to be seen. But happily, it always managed to raise its oppressed head … and, at one point or two, I even saw it wink.

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First up, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F. This latest anime film comes from the venerable five hundred plus chapters of the manga that started in 1984. The TV anime began just two years later, and has been running ever since. The new film is the nineteenth feature film in the series, given special supervision by creator Akira Toriyama himself. I’m happy to say that the cartoon was a celebration, made even more enjoyable by seeing it with a sold-out crowd of Dragon Ball believers.

But I’m not here to tell you how smart, funny, exciting, and satisfying Resurrection F (F for Frieza, a popular, previously vanquished, villain) was in this party atmosphere. I’m here to tell you that Whis, the sardonic servant of the God of Destruction, Beerus (two holdovers from the previous, eighteenth film, Battle of Gods), was doing kung-fu throughout. While training Goku and Vegeta on Beerus’ planet, he only moves as much as he has to, and never makes a fist (except to show how less effective it is).

DBZ Whis

That was wink number one, especially in a series that promotes “fighting-for-fighting’s-sake.” As DBZRF constantly shows, the veteran heroes train to become better, while the villains train to become more powerful — simply because they want to – and how they love to test their training against each other. In fact, one climatic moment shows just how useless all this training is in actual serious combat conditions that don’t involve creatures trying to prove to themselves and others how good they are. As such, the film is a wise delight, and I look forward to the twentieth in the series.

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Whis helped prepare me for a new search for kung-fu against growing propaganda odds. Remember, the first non-propaganda film the Mainland Chinese made was The Shaolin Temple, starring Jet Li back in 1981. Before then, all Mainland films were supervised by the state, while Hong Kong films went crazy with their freedom from 1897 to 1997, when the British lease ran out on the colony. Now, eighteen years later, the grip of Mother China is tightening, and many filmmakers are dancing as fast as they can. The one who’s dancing fastest, and perhaps best, is that madman schlockmaster Wong Jing. Since he doesn’t seem to care about artistry (or, at times, even craftsmanship), his films, even at their worst, are a blast of anarchic abandon in an industry that is being continuously constrained everywhere else.

Sifu Vs. Vampire is not his worst. It’s also not his best. But its pleasures outweigh its flaws … at least for me. Pleasure number one: taking over the vampire hunter role from “Priest with One Eyebrow” Lam Ching Ying is Yuen Biao (or, as I’ve been increasingly calling him, “Yuen effing Biao,” in deference to his kung-fu pedigree) – giving himself a call-back since starring in Mr. Vampire II way back in 1986.

Pleasure number two: producer/writer Wong and novice director Daniel Yee have made this a full-fledged Cantonese B-feature – the tangy-languaged kind that used to fill the bill back when New York City’s Chinatown had twelve new Hong Kong flicks a week in its six HK-cinema-only theaters.

Pleasure three: Wong’s traditional scattershot (some might even say clunky), “hurl-it-at-the-wall-who-cares-if-it-sticks” approach — grinding together juvenile comedy with gyonshi horror. But that’s not all. For those who haven’t simply left their brains at the door (which the film all but begs you to do), there’s a little “poison in the pudding,” as Bob and Ray used to say (look them up). Amidst the ample cleavage, repeated farts, and mucho oral sex (vampiric and otherwise), there’s some crass, but cunning, social satire spotlighting what young people have become during China’s headlong plunge into decadent wealth.

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Pleasure four: the kung-fu. Not only is there Yuen doing his thing, but his female apprentice is played by “Kitty” Jiang Lu-Xia, who has only been in ten films so far, but looks like Yukari Oshima’s daughter, and strutted her impressive martial arts stuff in True Legend, Naked Soldier, Ip Man Final Fight, and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. To top that off, the great Yuen Cheung-yan, veteran of more than two hundred films, who played the Taoist wizard in Sammo’s Spooky Encounters, did the action choreography.

Pleasure five: the rest of the cast. Playing the de rigueur poontang-hunting protagonists are versatile Ronald Cheng (who plays completely different roles in Special ID and The Four Final Battle, and has already made ten movies since this), and Philip Ng (who starred as the Bruce Lee-ish hero in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, but is here hidden under a multi-colored fright wig). For the record, the latter also helped with the fighting.

All in all, Sifu Vs. Vampire is a mess, but a very enjoyable mess. Every time I was about to fast forward, something else lunatic would happen, and I just had to watch in real time. As more and more movies, and moviemakers, more and more obviously kowtow to the powers that be, there’s something thrilling about someone whose films say w.t.f.

Wolf Warrior

Veteran readers of this column know I love Jacky Wu Jing. This actor, who starred in Yuen Wo-ping’s Tai Chi II and Master of Tai Chi TV series, was once anointed the natural successor to Jet Li – having graduated from the same kung-fu school. But, as everyone in show business knows, timing is everything. He got to play a monk in The Legend of Zu. He got to work with Liu Chia-liang in that master’s final film as director, Drunken Monkey. Then he showed his kung fu versatility as the white-haired knife killer in the original SPL (aka Kill Zone) opposite Donnie and Sammo. Then the film industry’s grip began to tighten in some cases, and loosen in others, resulting in a series of lean, mean, missed opportunities. Instead of becoming the new Wong Fei-hong, Wong Fei-hong was turned into an angry young idiot, and Wu Jing was left to fend for himself.

The reality of being a kung-fu expert in modern Chinese cinema was made painfully clear in what may be Wu Jing’s last films. First up, Wolf Warrior … and a more obvious cinematic kow-tow I’ve never seen. Imagine if the great dancer Gene Kelly made a movie where he never dances. To make matters worse, he hires another great dancer, then ensures that he doesn’t dance either. Wolf Warrior could have been the film where Wu Jing and Scott Adkins (Ninja: Shadow of a Tear) matched skills. Instead, it is a fierce, melodramatic war movie. And, as such, it’s okay … just as a Gene Kelly movie without dancing, a Pavarotti movie without singing, and a Esther Williams movie without swimming would be (btw, the latter and former attempted just that, and were about as well received as Wolf Warrior).

As far as can be ascertained, Jacky Wu Jing wrote, directed, and starred in Wolf Warrior to show the powers that be that he could be a good soldier. Here he plays a loyal marksman in the People’s Liberation Army who is recruited into a Special Forces Unit with red “I Fight for China” patches emblazoned in English on their uniforms. He becomes the target of a drug lord who sends “gweilo” mercenaries after him in retaliation for Wu justifiably killing the big boss’s brother. There follows many a high-caliber confrontation accompanied by many a strident declaration of loyalty, fealty, and allegiance to the Chinese flag … with nary a nano-second of kung fu to be seen.

Although a decent combat movie, it became a disconcerting, even slightly embarrassing display – like a child twirling faster and faster at his dance mom’s party, crying out “look at me, look at me, I can do what you want!”

SPL2

Then there’s SPL II: A Time for Consequences (telling title, that). This one has long been awaited, being the follow-up to one of Donnie Yen’s best modern day films, as well as director Cheang Pou-soi’s return to the “cinema of brutality” after helming the Avatar-ish family adventure film, The Monkey King. The fans of Cheang’s brutal Dog Bite Dog and Shamo shouldn’t be disappointed. This one grabs the back of your head, slams your face into muddy gravel, and grinds it there for two hours. To top it off, it unites Wu Jing with Muay Thai superstar Tony Jaa. If you were expecting skull, knee, fist and elbow shattering with your muddy gravel, you came to the right place.

Here’s the formula for agony time. Undercover cop Wu becomes a drug addict to infiltrate a mob run by a dying kingpin who forces victims into a fetid Thai jail where their organs are harvested. Tony is a prison guard with a young daughter who needs a bone marrow transplant, which she can only get from a undercover drug addict. Okay? On this skeleton Cheang hangs drooling, dripping scenes of anguish, torture, frustration, captivity, and more raw emotion than you could shake a torn-out kidney at.

He will also, occasionally, add a fight scene, credited to Nicky Li Chung-chi, who has a bunch of Jackie (Project A II, New Police Story) and Jacky (Invisible Target, Legendary Assassin) flicks on his resume (although it’s also clear that Tony and Wu contributed as well). Like the original SPL, the first fight comes a full half hour in, and its between the stars, who do not disappoint. Then there’s a prison brawl reminiscent of The Raid II, followed by a punch drip or kick drop in the next hour or so, during which time Cheang seems as anxious to torment his audience as much as he punishes his characters. Also during this time I was tempted to retitle the film An Exercise in Frustration.

Then comes the final half-hour (the spoiler averse should stop reading now). Jacky has kicked his drug habit, tired of his mistreatment, and decides it’s pay back time in the most Dragon Ball Z way possible. He holds the kingpin hostage minutes before the bad guy’s heart transplant, and partners with Tony to take on all the villains in a gun-less, knock-down, drag-out medical center brawl, whose climax harkens back to the good-old, bad-old days of the classic kung fu marathons where the truly heinous kung-fu killer … simply … won’t … die … no matter how hard the heroes fight. In this case, with the killer being played by snake-faced Max Zhang Jin, who cut his teeth in The Grandmaster and Rise of the Legend, it makes for an alternately eye-rolling, teeth-clenching, exhausting, and exhilarating sequence.

Admittedly, all the over-the-top, mean-spirited melodrama, as well as the unnecessary inclusion of wires at jarring, inopportune times, defeated me on first viewing. But the film grew on me like a fungus. Now, as far as I’m concerned, SPL II: A Time for Fast-Forwarding exists only as a half-hour sprint.

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PS: Prior to SPL II’s release, there were reports that Jacky Wu Jing was so badly damaged that he might never act again. But he’s already credited in Jeffrey Lau’s new film, so time will tell. Tony Jaa, meanwhile, is being linked to The Raid 3 and Never Back Down 3, so we need not worry about him for awhile. Besides, we never saw him die in Fast and Furious 7. Looks like the numbers are with him for the foreseeable future….