A combination of rampant bootlegging and a paucity of product has done in the last store in New York City’s Chinatown that still sold actual, authentic, legal DVDs and VCDs. Rest in peace P Music Video Corp. Thanks for your honesty, patience, and dedication.
Rest assured, however, if the store had been called P Music and Kung Fu Video Corp., it would have died much sooner. As the powers that be continue to marginalize kung-fu in favor of mixed up martial arts, even promising projects are homogenized, generic-sized, blended and blanded into time-filling exercises in empty movement.
One of the most exciting yet disappointing examples of this — the saddest since Forbidden Kingdom – is Into the Badlands, the new television series produced and presented by the AMC network, who also gave us two of the greatest drama series of all time, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But, apparently, while those latter two series got accolades up the wazoo, their ratings were nothing to speak of, so, AMC seems most interested in enticing the MMA and NASCAR crowd with a show that is as loud as it is busy.
On the plus side, it stars Daniel Wu, who made a name for himself in both Asia and America as a star in everything from New Police Story, The Man with the Iron Fists, and the up-coming Warcraft flick. It is also choreographed by Stephen Fung, director of House of Fury as well as Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero.
I had a chance to catch up with the two during the New York Comic Con. Incredibly they remembered our first meeting: fourteen years ago in Jackie Chan’s private “Dragon Room” at the superstar’s Hong Kong restaurant. Stephen also explained to me why he added a distracting aircraft subplot in Tai Chi Hero (“I wanted more steampunk stuff!”) and why, when every other character in both films got on-screen introductions, Yuen Biao did not (“He’s Yuen Biao! Everybody knows Yuen Biao!”).
After that, it was down to AMC business. Although others made a big deal that Daniel was the first Asian to carry an American action TV series, Wu just wants to do the best job he can. Unfortunately, he’s fighting more than his on-screen enemies. He’s also struggling up-stream against scripts (at least in the first two, of six, episodes) where every posturing character in this futuristic “realm of assholes” seems incapable of anything smart or insightful, and every single line of dialog, by anyone, is a clanging cliché – leading to some flatly unbelievable reactions that exist solely to continue the limping plot.
“It gets better,” Daniel promised me. “This is sort of a reverse Breaking Bad. That’s why I was attracted to it. Rather than start with a good man and watch him go bad, we start with a bad man, and watch him grow, and change, until he is truly a hero.”
Then there’s the action. To facilitate the extensive, modern Asian-style fight scenes (complete, unfortunately, with samurai-like swords, sfx, and wires), the production has both a drama unit and a fight unit, both working at the same time.
“My primary directive,” Stephen told me, “was to make it look cool.” Little wonder Into the Badlands was initially promoted as a kung fu show (inspired, in fact, by the kung fu show of shows, Kung Fu, which was once set to star Bruce Lee way back when), but was quickly rebranded as a martial arts action show.
And cool it does look. Unfortunately, it also shares the same blight as virtually every other modern TV action show – interchangeable, generic, fighting styles that serve no motivation or purpose other than beat or be beaten (kung fu, remember, is not about win or lose, it’s about learn or not learn). No one fights in character. They all fight the same – man, woman, young, old. It’s cool looking, all right, but not really involving or even exciting.
I like, and have faith in, Daniel and Stephen, so I’ll continue watching for their sake. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Yuen Biao will show up.
Next on the hit parade is another teeth-gritting “you-coulda-been-a-contender” misstep, filled with people I like and even consider friends (hope they feel the same after this).
Guess which movie inspired The Martial Arts Kid? Take a wild guess. Could it be some classic starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, that spawned a trio of sequels and a reboot starring Jayden Smith and Jackie Chan? You know, the ones that have been seen by tens of millions and made hundreds of millions in the last three decades? You know. That one. The one whose plot pretty much everyone knows, and don’t really need a by-the-numbers, drawn-out repetition of?
Well, guess what? The Martial Arts Kid doesn’t stumble because it copies The Karate Kid too closely. It fumbles because it doesn’t. What do you remember most fondly about The Karate Kid? Was it the sappy love story? Well, The Martial Arts Kid seems to think so, because rather than concentrate on the mass of martial artists they recruited to appear in this production, writer/director Michael Baumgarten dwells on the totally predictable love story, dragging it out until the flick crosses the hundred and five minute mark.
No movie called The Martial Arts Kid should be more than ninety minutes, tops, especially if the bulk of it is not filled with fun and interesting martial arts lessons from several real champions who they introduce, then quickly cut away from before they say or do anything interesting or useful – in favor of the well-worn love story. Don’t get me wrong: screen lovers Jason Panttierre and Kathryn Newton are attractive and likeable performers, but the film isn’t called Those Personable Teens.
That’s bad enough, but when its not repetitively beating the love story to a pulp, it also gives short shrift to the action choreography of James Lew (Mortal Kombat). The great Cynthia Rothrock gets some good moments in the several sequences that require her to trounce a standard operating asshole on the beach or in a bistro, but the great Don “the Dragon” Wilson is wasted in a surprisingly flat climatic confrontation with kneejerk villain T.J. Storm (Punisher War Zone).
Adding insult to apathy, they even slip in Chuck Zito (Sons of Anarchy) at the very last second to bait an absurd, revenge-driven, sequel. This is especially egregious for a film that is being sold as a family friendly, anti-bullying scree. Actually, The Martial Arts Kid has an anti-bullying message the way Fist of Fury has a “don’t poison your teacher” message – too little, too late.
It’s too bad, because they had all the ingredients right in their hands. They just didn’t know how to mix them properly. When you’re doing an obvious knock-off, it’s always a good idea to mix smarts with shamelessness. Hit the romance beats in short-hand and concentrate on your chosen variation. There might be a really fun flick within The Martial Arts Kid, but right now that’s most likely on the editing room floor.
Once upon a time, back when there were six movie theaters and four video stores in New York Chinatown that only showed or sold Hong Kong movies, I could look to the east for relief. No more. Now, even the most dependable Chinese filmmaker’s work shows obvious signs of strain since they’re caught between the demands of Government supervisors as well as studios. The latest two that have reached me serves as a good analysis of the present cinematic predicament. First, Full Strike, a film that is apparently trying to be a “Shaolin Soccer meets badminton” lark. Sounds cool, huh? Uh-Unh.
Derek Kwok, who became a favorite for his 2010 kung-fu film homage Gallants, teamed with long-time special effects man Henri Wong to write and direct this hipster comedy dedicated to all lovable losers. Combining an extremely eclectic cast — culled from cult faves like award-winner Josie Ho (Purple Storm), versatile Ronald Cheng (The Four), former Category III darling Siu Yam-yam (Girls for Sale), and former heart-throb Ekin Cheng (The Storm Riders) — with self-reverential, crazy, camera work, the final result is more scattershot than successful.
What a difference five years makes. While Gallants seemed assured, Full Strike seems uncertain. While Gallants seemed made from an expert recipe, Full Strike appears thrown together out of anything anyone could think of, leading to sequences that come out of nowhere, go nowhere, and are then repeated in case anyone missed anything the first time around. Ultimately, it’s a wearying, frustrating, disappointing experience that smells of the same stench that separated Johnnie To’s amazing Mad Detective (2007) from his messy Blind Detective (2013). The former seemed made with complete freedom. The latter, not so much.
At the very least, Full Strike should have been at least twenty minutes shorter. The same could definitely be said of From Vegas to Macau II (aka The Man from Macau II), but with a big, shit-eating, smile on my face. As veteran readers of my review columns might recall, I quite enjoyed the original, not the least of which for its writer/director’s reactions to China’s new filmmaking realities. While Johnnie To, Derek Kwok, Tsui Hark, and many others are obviously struggling, Wong Jing surveys the mine field and cries “oooo, more landmines for me!”
FVtMII was designed as a Chinese New Year release, and continues in the great tradition of fun, dumb features unleashed at that time, and has been roundly decried as a purely mercenary endeavor. After all, Jing swore he would never work with Chow Yun-fat again because the venerable actor sided with the Hong Kong freedom demonstrators against the Chinese Government … but here Chow is back again as a rich, card-throwing, God of Gamblers wannabe.
Reread that last sentence. Wong Jing said he’d never work with Chow Yun-fat again. Did you hear that, Chinese Government? Wong Jing is on your side. Keep giving him the freedom to make his crazed schlock with more money and production values than ever before, right? Fine, good, now resign Chow Yun-fat.
This sequel is fevered, self-indulgent, and overblown, but in a festive, just-sit-back-and-see-it-to-not-believe-it way. The evil organization D.O.A. from the first film is back, and even worse, trying to claim fifteen billion dollars from an ex-employee (Nick Cheung), who is on the run with his daughter. But this is just an excuse for scattershot satire, pranks, action (of both the high caliber and empty-handed kind [choreographed by Lee Tat-Chiu of Bodyguards and Assassins fame]), flesh (both male and female), travelogues (predominantly Thailand, which has never looked better), and surprise guest stars. David Chiang! Eric Tsang! Ken Lo, who makes fun of his final Drunken Master II fight! And, in a big spoiler set-up of From Vegas to Macau III (coming next Chinese New Year), Andy Lau as his character from God of Gamblers.
Both Andy and Chow look emaciated, but the latter is game for anything Wong puts him through. Actually, the same is true of the entire cast, who bear up remarkably well under jokes that include Woody Allen’s Sleeper, Transformers, James Bond, Marvel Comics’ Gambit, and even black face. The bottom line is, like Wong Jing’s also roundly criticized Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, I had a whale of a good time watching it, if for nothing else than the writer/director’s gigantic raspberry to anyone or any thing that might stand in his way.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. Our final film this time is the “controversial,” award-winning, anti-martial art movie, true kung-fu art film, The Assassin. Taiwan’s venerated director Hou Hsiao-hsien has only made nineteen films in his thirty-five year career (the first one when he was thirty-three), presenting some of the most measured, sonorous, naturalistic movies ever, including the quintessential Taiwanese new wave drama City of Sadness (1989). So, going in expecting something akin to Five Deadly Venoms, or even 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is sort of setting yourself up, don’t you think?
“Think” is probably the operative word here. Well aware of Hou’s oeuvre (and if anyone’s filmography should be called an “oeuvre,” it’s his), I went in ready to sit back and savor, hoping for a little taichi audience push-hands with one of the last fully free directors left in the world, who was making his ultimate kung-fu “epic” while the world still allowed him to.
The plot is simplicity itself. The glorious Shu Qi plays Nie, a Tang Dynasty princess who is given, for reasons that defy complete understanding, to a homicidal, quietly power-mad, warrior monk nun, who trains her as a consummate assassin – supposedly to eradicate corrupt officials. But when the young woman shows signs of wanting to make up her own mind, the nun orders her to kill a handsome young governor in a distant Northern province who’s also the cousin Nie was once betrothed to.
Within the first fifteen minutes, I was smiling. By the first half-hour, I was chuckling. By the end of the two hour movie (which, of course, seems much longer), I was grinning from ear to ear – not despite, but because no shot is less than six seconds longer than it has to be (I know, I counted). Naturally (and I chose that word knowingly), every shot is meticulously beautiful. Probably the archetypal sequence occurs in the governor’s mistress’ chamber, which is lit only by candles and shot through shimmering gauze curtains. Obscure enough for you?
My favorite single scene, however, is when Nie climbs up the back of a peak the nun is standing upon to report that she will now follow her own heart and mind. The whole thing, done in one panoramic take with a stationary camera, shows the landscape around them both, the nun looking left on the left, the assassin on the right, looking up, and, as she speaks, a fog rolls in, obscuring the nun’s view. It’s awesome, and, I’m certain, completely unplanned … at least as far as co-star Mother Nature is concerned.
Although the great Stephen Tung Wai (the Enter the Dragon kid) was the action choreographer, Hou, not surprisingly, tweaks his audience’s noses by cutting away from the action, having the biggest battle off in the distance, and letting the rest of it occur in less than a trio of moves (shades of “three kick Bruce” indeed).
But, as frustrating as some of this may sound, just by being himself, Hou is both making a trenchant comment on modern, cut-happy, movies, but, more importantly, also on the nature of kung-fu versus martial arts. Elevated, chi- and empathy-driven, true kung-fu unavoidably opens the mind. Aggressive, muscle, fist, and discipline-driven martial arts unavoidably closes it. The Assassin is actually a nearly comedic, empowering coming-of-age flick about a girl who decides to think for herself … and a filmmaker who lets her, no matter what an audience might want.