American author Thomas Wolfe once wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again – a phrase that, over the years, has come to signify that attempting to recapture the joys of one’s youth is folly. In fact, on the Wikipedia page it flatly states “attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail.” Well, if there’s one thing this season has taught me, it’s “never say never.” Or, in this case, “never say always.”
As you may remember last time, the final legal DVD shop in New York’s Chinatown closed. At first I thought it was truly the end of an era that started, for me, in 1978. Gone were the six Chinatown cinemas that only showed Hong Kong movies, where, for many years, I was the only gweilo in a boisterous crowd of Chinese-Americans enjoying the latest Jackie, Chong, or Chow. Gone even were the run-down 42nd Street theaters where, for many years, I was the only honky in a boisterous crowd of African-Americans enjoying the latest Liu Chia, Venoms, or Shaws. It was over, I told myself. All over.
Or was it? Completely by accident, as I searched for the best places to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Kung Fu Panda 3 – two of the best kung-fu films ever — I found that one of Manhattan’s nicest movie theaters was regularly showing new, pristine, digitally-projected, subtitled, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian films every effing week. And on, of all places, 42nd Street.
I was instantly thrown back in time, when just about the only place a poor suburban boy could see kung-fu films was in, prior to its Disneyization, the Combat Zone. Chock-a-block with porn shops and grindhouses, a few of the joints specialized in dubbed double or triple chop-socky features.
So, with all due respect to master Wolfe, it seems you can go home again … or at least you can go to the AMC Empire 25 near the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue to sit in a crowd of young Asian-Americans who have replaced the Vitasoy boxes and wasabi peas of the past with popcorn and smartphones.
Now it was all up to Asian and American filmmakers, all catering to what promises to become the biggest movie audience in the world: China. Signs of international kow-towing are already in ample evidence as producers fall all over themselves to break into the Chinese market (I’m looking at you, Iron Man 3), and Chinese marketers struggle to stretch their creative muscles so they can reach world wide eyes.
Sometimes the results are glorious. Other times they’re weird. Occasionally they’re both. A great example of the latter was Ip Man 3, the third (and via media reports, the last) movie where the venerable teacher is played by Donnie Yen. If his dead-eyed performance is any evidence, Donnie is definitely ready to hang up his wing chun dummy.
I had the pleasure of seeing the movie in the company of comic book legend Larry Hama, who had introduced me to chambara and kung-fu cinema back in ’78, as well as revered wing tsun teacher Alex Richter. The two made a great yin-yang pair, in that one enjoyed it, while the other h-a-t-e-d it. I’ll let you guess who took which side.
As with the previous Wilson Yip-directed, Donnie-as-Ip, films, the two hour film was really two one-hour films – in this case, a fairly resonant story of personal tragedy and professional rivalry, uncomfortably wedged up against a silly tale of ludicrously violent real estate shenanigans. The more effective story thread was reminiscent of Herman Yau’s Ip Man Final Fight (2013), in which the lead was better served by the award-winning Anthony Wong. The less effective plot line featured Mike Tyson as a totally unconvincing ex-pat businessman who just had to have a piece of land upon which stood a children’s school.
Alex is friends with Bey Logan, who told him the movie originally had a solid script, but once Tyson got involved, and it was decided to have Danny Chan play a young Bruce Lee, the production degenerated into what looked like an homage/satire of the “get me that land” Mcguffins that plagued several old skool kung fu flicks … up to, and including, the greasy, sadistic, polyester-wearing, Chinese collaborator character (here manically played by Louis Cheung), who likes nothing better than to threaten children.
The two plot lines give everyone ample opportunity to fight, both en masse and in pairs. The latter are more effective, although the former are fun in their own messy way. Although Yuen Wo Ping is credited as choreographer, it’s hard to believe that Donnie didn’t have a hand (or foot) in the action design, especially since it looked a lot less like Ip Man and a lot more like what Donnie was doing in Kung Fu Jungle/Killer, Special ID, et al.
Alex was especially critical of the wing chun, pointing out that the film took place at a time when the real Yip Man was in his seventies, and would have fought with far more chi and far less fists. Even so, the anger and muscle-driven fights between Donnie and Iron Mike, Donnie and John Zhang Jin (who plays the jealous rival), and, especially, Donnie and Sarut Khanwilai, who plays a Muay Thai assassin hired by Tyson, are extremely memorable.
Although scattershot, inaccurate, and somewhat deadened by Donnie’s nearly catatonic performance, Ip Man 3 is a consistently entertaining time that should have been somewhat better, but could have been a lot worse.
Speaking of Donnie, the very next week the AMC Empire 25 started showing Monkey King 2 3D, a follow-up to the surprise hit in which Donnie played the beloved mythological simian Sun Wukong. While that first, 2014, film was plagued with problems that producers feared would doom it, the sequel seemed to learn from its troubles. Although the same director, Cheang Pou-soi, was at the helm, the small army of writers and producers from the first were absent from the second.
So was Donnie, replaced by Aaron Kwok, starring in what friends and fellow filmgoers tell me is one of the most popular stories from the legendary novel Journey to the West – specifically the Monkey King’s multiple battles with the succubus White Bone Demon, here luminously played by the ethereal beauty Gong Li. According to the audience, and the Tai Seng master of remaster Frank Djeng, the sequel relates the tale with admirable accuracy, as well as superlative visuals. In fact, one of my favorite Empire 25 moments was when a young Asian-American got on his smart phone within seconds of the end credits to call his mother and say “You’ve got to see this … right now!”
Although Sammo Hung is credited as choreographer, most of the heavy lifting was done by the massive special effects crew that stretched from New York through China into New Zealand. The resulting images stay in my mind’s eye as much as the one-on-one fights in Ip Man 3. In addition, one of the most memorable effects was simply the subtitles, which were more than subtitles, they were front-subtitles: words that floated between me and the action behind them. Although Monkey King 2 was a bit long at two hours and not everything worked, there was more than enough to make it worthwhile.
But the Empire 25 was not through with me yet. Coming just a week or so later was the latest Chinese film to set new box office records – eclipsed only by the records set by the same filmmakers’ previous two films. Yes, it was Stephen Chow’s new movie, The Mermaid, which takes it place alongside Chow’s own second take (following his two-part A Chinese Odyssey in 1995) on the Monkey King story Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) as the kings of Chinese cinema (essentially making him the James Cameron of the East, in that he works on a creative and money-making level beyond petty criticism).
And criticism he gets. Everything I heard about The Mermaid from the usual suspects was negative. Even so, my connection to Chow was extra ordinary, so I was going to see for myself, no matter what. Not to my surprise, I found that not only was the fantasy-rom-com more than worthy to stand alongside Chow’s lunatic “moy len tau [silly talk]” classics (of which I number at least twenty), but it is also somewhat revolutionary, and even important. In the face of pervasive control of the Chinese cinema industry by the powers-that-be, Chow has made a wildly entertaining film that both lampoons and (literally) harpoons the modern Chinese culture of greed, power, and pollution.
Chow co-wrote and directed the story of Shan (Lun “Jelly” Lin), a beautiful young mermaid who is convinced by her race to try seducing, then assassinating, a billionaire (Deng Chao of The Four fame) who has poisoned the oceans in order to turn a wildlife preserve into a maxi-mall. As with so many of Chow’s movies, the tone veers wildly from crazy pathos to cartoonish violence (as well as non-cartoonish violence), but, as almost always, Chow made me and my fellow viewers care about the characters no matter how outrageous things got. I left the Empire full of admiration in my heart and a big smile on my face. The fact that he got the thing done at all within the present Governmental gauntlet is remarkable, and the fact that audiences have taken to it in no uncertain terms is encouraging.
In fact, the prognosis for actual, elevated, true kung-fu films is better than it has been for years. Even if I had never discovered the hidden gems within the AMC Empire 25, I would still be hopeful because of The Force Awakening (you notice that Rey is only truly powerful, repelling Kylo’s attack with ease, when she’s calm) and Po the Panda repudiating his second installment.
Kung Fu Panda 2 should have been called Martial Arts Panda since there was not a moment of actual kung fu in it. It’s entire plot was falsely predicated on the concept that a cannon could “destroy” kung fu, and the climax was squandered when the writers and director misunderstood Po the Panda’s catchphrase “skadoosh” as something physical (catching a cannonball and SPOILER ALERT letting the villain die) rather than a sign of, as original co-director John Stevenson said, another step toward enlightenment (simply dodging the cannonball and showing his enemy the error of his ways).
Given that crushing disappointment, I approached Kung Fu Panda 3 with trepidation bordering on despair. Kung Fu Panda 2’s director, Jennifer Yuh, was now a co-director with Alessandro Carloni, who had been promoted from the animation department, and the film was a co-production between DreamWorks L.A., DreamWorks China, and DreamWorks India. But that only added to my concern since China, who have always had an “interesting” relationship with kung fu, seemed to be trying to marginalize it in favor of wushu (martial arts) in their other recent films.
I shouldn’t have worried. Everything Kung Fu Panda 2 got wrong, Kung Fu Panda 3 got right — in abundance. Not only did it play like the true sequel to the original, it also seemed like a dazzlingly conceived mea culpa for the second installment. When the wise master tortoise named Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) is the first (and last) thing seen on screen, it was a great sign – a signal that paid off with every passing moment. For you plot fans, the silly cannons of part two are replaced with “chi” in part three – that inner energy that powers you and every living thing (and probably originally inspired Star Wars’ “The Force” [metachlorians not withstanding]).
Kai (J.K. Simmons), a literally bull-headed past friend of Oogway, now wants to prove his superiority by possessing the chi of every kung fu master, turning each of his vanquished opponents into jade power amulets or zombies to do his bidding. Oogway is unperturbed by his ego-driven aggressor’s selfish desires, having made Po the “Dragon Warrior” for a good reason. Po (Jack Black), however, is facing the double challenge of his Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) making him the teacher of the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Seth Rogan) – a position he feels vastly unprepared for – and finding his birth father (Bryan Cranston), who wishes to reunite him with his extended family … much to the distrust and displeasure of his adoptive goose father (James Hong).
Upon this structure, Yuh, Carloni, kung fu choreographer Rodolphe Guenoden, head of story Philip Craven, and scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have hung a consistently surprising, clever, and delightful cornucopia of involving details that run the gamut from subtly awakening Tigress’ maternal instinct to adding a vastly important new word to the kung fu vocabulary: “hugs.” Perhaps most importantly, not only are the healing aspects of kung fu not ignored (as in a certain previous installment), they are made integral to the involving, exciting, satisfying story.
I will say no more, other than to urge anyone who hasn’t seen this yet to see it, and anyone who has, to see it again. Not only is it entertaining and beautiful, it joins the original film as one of the best true kung fu films ever made in America (and now China and India).