Busy season. Finally! After months of inactivity, kung fu cinema makes a rush toward summer, with a fistful (and kickful) of films making their moves on the American cinema (and DVD) circuit. Some signal a possible advance toward energetically elevated, open-minded martial arts, but some, of course, dig in their heels and kow-tow to the powers-that-cling-to-their-prejudices … in both America and Asia.
A prime example of the latter is The Master, which started its life in the People’s Republic in 2011 as Choi Lei Fut: True Master, prior to staggering onto airline entertainment queues in 2014, then finally settling onto a Lionsgate DVD in 2015 – complete with yet another piece of pandering, standard-operating-racism, cover art that has the hero photo-shopped onto a non-descript, one-from-column-A body holding a samurai sword.
On the surface — by any name and with any title — it’s a slow, stereotypical, sub-standard chop-socky made by a no-name director/writer (Ke Zhou, who has no other film credits to his name). But just under the surface, it’s a labor of loving propaganda that serves as an interesting undercurrent to the booming Chinese cinema business.
I heard a rumor years ago of a Choy Li Fut fan who created a production company just to glorify his favorite kung fu style, so this could be it. Decades before that I stumbled on an unknown Chinese action propaganda film that magically appeared on a L.A. cable TV station in the middle of the night. Although it had swords rather than Choy Li Fut, the earnest, rudimentary style of production was very similar.
But the proof here is in the plot. Sze Hung-bor, a veteran of two dozen films as actor and a half-dozen as choreographer, comes out of his 2005 retirement to star as a consummate kung fu student who returns from Choy Li Fut mountain to his home town in time to save a lovely (Yuki Cheng) from white slavery and stop an evil guy (Dragon Shek, who might have been playing a Governor, warlord, or even the emperor – the film really doesn’t make it clear) from destroying China by collaborating with foreigners.
Director/writer Zhou wants to have his cake and smoosh it in your face too by starting the film with Sze being as great a martial artist as possible, then, over eighty minutes, leading him inexorably away from enlightenment so he can sacrifice himself, his family, and all his friends in a vain-glorious attempt to prevent gweilo from tainting the motherland. By then even his allegedly great Choy Li Fut had degenerated into closed-fist, anger-and-muscle-driven, MMA.
The end credits encapsulate the wrong-headedness of the entire production. Our hero is shown standing at the bow of a flat boat, apparently heading toward the heavens, on choppy seas. As a narration drones on about how great and glorious he is/was, it’s clear that Sze is doing everything he can not to fall down or be thrown overboard. It was practically satiric in its unintended metaphor.
Coincidentally, there’s another film that was initially titled The Master. It came out in China during 2015, but arrived on American shores as The Final Master in 2016. With all these masters, including Wong Kar Wai’s Yip Man movie The Grandmaster, things could get a bit confusing. But keep in mind what all these grand and final masters have in common is a gentleman named Xu Haofeng. He’s only made three movies, starting in 2012, as either director, writer, editor, choreographer, or all of the above, but he’s already established himself – at least in my mind – as one of the most interesting and important kung fu cinema creators since Lau Kar-leung.
A writer first, his biographical novel, The Bygone Kung Fu World, was published in China during 2006 and established him as a creative historian and important observer of the actual martial arts world. Eschewing the flying sword-people of wuxia and Jiang Hu, his work is anchored in balanced, gravity-based, physical kung fu, which he contrasts with imbalanced mental desires for power and control. Essentially, he plays kung fu with his audiences, and seemingly hopes they keep up rather than slowing down to let them catch up.
Which is why it is such a shame that Chen Kaige, famed for his direction of such classics as 1984’s Yellow Earth and 1993’s Farewell My Concubine, made such an uncomprehending hash of the 2015 film version of Xu’s 2007 novel Monk Comes Down the Mountain. It’s a painful, perfect example of what happens when a writer knows so much and a filmmaker knows so little. Wang Bao-qiang, who became a comedic superstar after Lost in Thailand, plays the title character like a combination of Otis from the 1978 Superman, Rain Man, and Forrest Gump … only with even less intelligence. But on the basis of the rest of the agonizingly overlong effort, the fault of the film’s failings do not rest with him.
Kaige establishes from the very outset a tone of unrelenting, unrealistic silliness as well as sumptuous cinematography, scenery, sets, costumes, and supporting cast. But all the production values in the galaxy won’t save a film that a director clearly doesn’t understand. The blinkered 123 minute film starts with the monk discovering the nature of love and lust in 1930s China, but soon develops into a recognizably “Haofengian” inter-school battle for kung fu mastery. The great Yuen Wah plays a sifu who wants to be number one at any cost, including the soul of his son (ironically played by Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee).
Caught in the double, triple, and quadruple crosses are sifus and students played by Chan Kwok (The Legend of Bruce Lee), Aaron Kwok (Monkey King 2), Tiger Chen (Man of Tai Chi), and Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) – leading to some spectacular set-ups for many epic battles between styles and schools. Ku Huen-chiu is credited as choreographer, and has such films as Iron Monkey and Fist of Legend on his action direction resume, but there’s no hint of his skill here, since Kaige has chosen to bury the many fights in tsunamis of special effects and wire work. Even worse, the great masters are repeatedly shown punching each other with closed fists, and/or simply standing still for being pummeled. Kaige continually displays that he seems to have absolutely no concept of what kung fu is, or, maybe more importantly, what kung fu isn’t.
Otherwise, his approach here reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s work in his one flat-out “comedy,” 1941. Kaige and Spielberg’s direction to his cast seemed to be “act funny,” and, when that clearly wasn’t working, “exaggerate everything.” Tragically, Monk Comes Down the Mountain could’ve been a great film if it had a director who appreciated the source material. Instead, what should have glorified kung fu winds up trivializing it, and what could have been an exhilarating marathon of classic kung fu battles becomes a tedious, stupid, increasingly infuriating, and, ultimately, ridiculously disappointing waste of talent.
The only happy thing about this misbegotten production is that it set me up nicely for Xu’s The Final Master – another step on the path to Haofeng’s cinematic enlightenment. Based on his acclaimed novella The Master, it tells of a character who lives up to his title physically, but runs afoul of mental martial arts (as I’ve often said, all political and religious systems work great … until you put people into them). Fan Liao (Let the Bullets Fly, Chinese Zodiac) plays a wing chun expert who ties himself up in knots to fulfill a promise he made to his sifu to establish his “southern style” in the economically powerful north of 1912.
To accomplish this anti-kung-fu goal, he hatches a complicated, convoluted, plot with the North’s “number one” (Jin Shi-jye, [Brotherhood of Blades]) which includes marrying a disgraced club hostess (Song Jia [Red Cliff]), duping a talented kung fu librarian (Song Yang, who starred in Xu’s previous two films, Judge Archer and The Sword Identity, both 2012), and just generally going against everything he ever believed in outside of wing chun. Or, as Xu says in the production notes, “The North is one of political consciousness with the South being one of individual will. To fully illustrate this contrast, the film’s action sequences are specifically choreographed with knives. Both the South and the North knife artistry involve intricate footwork and steps. As such, rather than following the common Hong Kong action films style of quick edits and flashy dance-like moves, The Final Master is filmed with long, full-body shots.”
It is indeed, choreographed by the director himself, who has developed a staccato style of rich, textured images, actor movement, and sharp cuts (both cinematic and literal). Here all the in-(and out)fighting leads to a final, extended confrontation in a Martial Club-slash-Old Boy alley between our hero and every Northern kung fu sifu who isn’t nailed down … including Chen Kuan-tai, who also seems to be representing all kung fu cinema up to that point. And, just as in Haofeng’s previous films, I was delighted and thrilled.
Do you have to know and love energetically elevated kung fu to truly appreciate The Final Master? See it (it opens in New York City, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C. on June 3rd, with a wider release planned shortly thereafter), then you tell me.
Ah, but you don’t have to know and love energetically open kung fu to enjoy the hung gar stylings of the great Sammo Hung. Sadly, there are just a paltry few examples in his latest effort, My Beloved Bodyguard, which plays more like a tribute than a movie. It’s a throwback to Sammo’s Heart of Dragon, which he directed in 1985. In that, he played the mentally handicapped brother of special security officer Jackie Chan. In this, he plays an aging special security officer suffering from growing dementia, who winds up taking care of the daughter of a gambling addicted neighbor played by co-producer Andy Lau (who Sammo helped introduce, also in 1985, in Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars).
My Beloved Bodyguard serves as a 30th Anniversary project of sorts, since it also features Yuen Baio (Prodigal Son), Tsui Hark (Yes Madam), Karl Maka (Aces Go Places), Dean Shek (A Better Tomorrow II), Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend) and the aforementioned Yuen Wah and Song Jia — among some slightly more obscure others — in cameos. As an “old home week,” it’s sweet and nostalgic, but it just barely works as a too-neatly-tied-up drama. Even so, it’s all just there as nicely directed filler for the three major fight scenes, cleanly dropped in thirds during the ninety plus minutes. Andy Lau has a fine chase sequences that echoes a far sprightlier sequence in Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers, but the highlights rest with Sammo, doing some sharp, smart, judo-esque jiu-jitsuey MMA against the Triad and Russian mobsters alike.
Is it enough to recommend the film as anything other than a fast-forward-to-the-fights special? That all depends on how much you admire Sammo. I admire him loads, but I will admit that my thumb, forefinger, and remote control got a decent work out.