Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

The Grandmaster – A Lover Not A Fighter

October 22, 2014

In conclusion – Wong Kar Wai clearly doesn’t get the whole martial arts movie genre.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To lay out my stall, I’m not some Wong Kar Wai hater, he’s made some wonderful movies – Chungking Express is a particular favourite – but he needs to leave martial arts films to people who have some understanding of the form.

He’s already tried once with Ashes Of Time, a film that robs the viewer of the swordplay genre’s single most appealing trait – the sword fights themselves – by rendering them as blurry, impenetrable impressionist art. In Ashes Of Time, as indeed in all his work, Wong’s primary interest is in unfulfilled love. That’s his bread and butter, his rice and noodles. So decades after his artful but forgettable swordplay attempt, in The Grandmaster Wong tries his hand at the kung fu movie but, true to form, he delivers another tale of unfulfilled longing and completely botches the kung fu side of the story.

Grandmaster_07

Ip Man could rest easy knowing if ever attacked in the shower, he was ready. No one was going to take his Head & Shoulders and live to tell the tale.

His subject, at least to start with, is Ip Man. Following in the tradition of Cantonese folk heroes like Fong Sai Yuk, Hung Hey Kwun, Wong Fey Hung and so many others, Ip Man is undergoing the process of being transformed into a myth. It began with Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s biopic in 2008 and has been picking up steam with every subsequent sequel and knockoff. The Grandmaster continues this mythologizing but actually adds comparatively little to the mythos. Played here by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ip Man first appears fighting a gang of unknown assailants in the pouring rain, most notably a muscular chap played by Cung Le. This sequence quickly highlights one of the film’s central problems. It’s a triumph of style with precious little substance. Ip’s fight in the rain has no context, his attackers no identities or agenda. So what’s the point of it?

Where Donnie Yen’s Ip Man was a noble family man, in The Grandmaster he’s a smug playboy who spends most of his time hanging around an upscale brothel. The martial arts world he inhabits seems an intensely insular one, the development of skills an exercise in ego to prove who’s the best. Living in Foshan, Ip is the representative of the southern kung fu masters in a contest of skill against the leading master of the northern styles, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). There’s little sense of these masters being connected to their wider communities or world. The Japanese invasion of China is an inconvenience that disrupts their rivalries, rather than a blow to national pride – unusually for a kung fu film set during this period, The Grandmaster does not contain a scene in which Ip has to defend Chinese honour against a foreign fighter. On the one hand, that’s a refreshing choice, but on the other hand, Ip has no great rival in the film to drive his quest for martial arts mastery.

Hi, I'm here for my pointless cameo. What do you mean, 'Who are you?' I was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!

Hi, I’m here for my pointless cameo. What do you mean, ‘Who are you?’ I was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!

The second half of the movie isn’t about Ip at all, but about Gong Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her desire for vengeance against her father’s renegade pupil Ma San (Zhang Jin, who makes for a sneering, two-dimensional villain). This is the oldest, most over-used plot in the genre –  ‘You killed my father, I want revenge.’  If it’s over familiarity wasn’t bad on its own, Wong’s handling of it is clumsy. Gong Er desires retribution for her father and to reclaim the mantle of the Gong family kung fu style, a blend of Hsing Yi and Ba Kua. This is a well worn trope in the genre – the idea that kung fu is a form of inheritance passed on from generation to generation within a family, from master to student. But Wong shoots himself in the foot and robs the whole enterprise of any credibility. Determined to reclaim the Gong family style, Gong Er promptly vows to never get married, never have kids…and never teach anyone kung fu.

Wait…what?

She’s desperate to reclaim the family style from this evil usurper, just so she can take it to her grave? That makes no sense narratively or thematically. It’s a plot device so that Wong can construct an unfulfilled romance between Gong Er and Ip Man and everyone can look wistful all the time.

Grandmaster_04

Waiting for her train, Zhang Ziyi is forced to fight off a West Coast Mainline ticket collector who claims she can’t use her Off-peak Return for this journey.

Ip is not involved in Gong Er’s quest to fight Ma San at all. He’s pushed out of the film entirely for that sequence, only returning for the forced sentimentality of the finale. And then, the icing on the cake, the film closes with the declaration that Ip Man spread the art of Wing Chun all across the world.

Horse. Shit.

The only reason anyone has heard of either Ip Man or Wing Chun is because Ip was Bruce Lee’s instructor before Lee moved to the US. This is the worst sort of revisionism and typical of the nonsense that accompanies the mythologizing of these figures. Lee himself turned away from Wing Chun as he developed his own ideas on combat. This is clear in a comparison of his first book, ‘Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art Of Self Defence’, which is mainly based on Wing Chun, and then his series of ‘Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method’ books, in which he openly criticizes the stances and techniques of traditional martial arts, and his notes on punching in ‘The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do’ which borrow heavily from Western boxing manuals by Jack Dempsey, Thomas Inch and Edwin Haislet.

Grandmaster_05

Oh hey, remember me? I’m the star of the movie. No really, I totally am, not that scene stealing Zhang Ziyi.

The fight choreography in The Grandmaster was overseen by Yuen Wo Ping. For my money, the best Wing Chun fight scenes are those in Sammo Hung’s wonderful films Prodigal Son and Warriors Two, followed by the first Wilson Yip movie. In both Prodigal Son and Warriors Two, the fights are built in the choreography and performance, but the fights in The Grandmaster rely heavily on editing and camera effects for their execution. There are some scenes that showcase different styles in action, putting the spotlight briefly on Ba Kua, Hsing Yi and Hung Kuen but the restless camerawork and quickfire editing obscure a great many movements, rather than revealing the techniques being performed. While the script features a highly generic revenge plot, albeit not one involving Ip Man, there are many other genre motifs noticeable by their absence. Ip has no nemesis to overcome, no technique to refine or master, no process of self cultivation to complete. Instead he falls in love with a woman he can never have because she’s made a nonsensical vow. Yes, the cinematography is beautiful, the sets are lavish and all that, but as a kung fu movie, The Grandmaster is meagre fare.

Ghost In The Machine

February 19, 2014

At the risk of gross generalisation, British sci fi is typically cast in a much gloomier hue than it’s American cousin. Think of American comic books, dominated by superheroes out to save the world, epitomised by Superman, known as both the Man of Steel and the Man of Tomorrow. It’s all very optimistic, the promise of a brighter future and bold, brave heroes fighting for truth and justice. The UK’s flagship comic is 2000AD, home to an array of dystopian visions of the future, from the fascist super-cop Judge Dredd, to the downbeat adventures of Strontium Dog or The ABC Warriors. In this vein of dysfunctional sci fi comes The Machine, a film produced in the unlikeliest of science fiction settings – Wales.

In my professional opinion, I can say with absolute certainty that you have a very nasty boo-boo indeed.

In my professional opinion, I can say with absolute certainty that you have a very nasty boo-boo indeed.

Written and directed by Caradog James (great Welsh name that, Caradog), The Machine is a typically bleak British piece of sci fi in which the promise of a technologically advanced future leads to despair. Set in the near future Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) works for the Ministry of Defence trying to create intelligent machines, capable of independent thought. His aims are altruistic, to use technology to help soldiers who have suffered brain damage in war and those afflicted by degenerative diseases. Of course, the MOD, personified in the form of McCarthy’s cold-blooded boss Thomson (Denis Lawson), thinks only of offensive applications. The culmination of Stephens’ research is The Machine (Caity Lotz), an android in the form of a young woman whose appearance is modelled on Stephens’ assistant Ava (Lotz again). Thomson sees The Machine as a weapon, but Stephens worries that her apparent self-awareness means that The Machine is alive and not just an incredibly advanced computer in human guise.

Sure, it looked cool, but this modern art stuff confused McCarthy. Couldn't they put a nice painting in the office?

Sure, it looked cool, but this modern art stuff confused McCarthy. Couldn’t they put a nice painting in the office?

The Machine touches on some classic sci fi and cyberpunk themes – at what point does a machine with AI become a living being? If you can capture a human’s memories, thoughts and personalities in a computer, what is the essence of humanity? These ideas have been explored before in everything from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep to Ghost In The Shell but Caradog James digs deep into this central dilemma of the narrowing divide between humans and machines.

Caity Lotz is impressive as The Machine in a role that demands moments of vulnerability and innocence balanced against a very powerful physicality. With a background in dance, Lotz carries herself with self-assured grace and performs her fight scenes with speed and skill, although these are few as this is a drama more than an action movie. Stephens has a difficult task. McCarthy is emotionally brittle and a bundle of tension, which makes him difficult to sympathise with or to warm to. As Thomson, Denis Lawson is obviously the villain of the hour, so some points for style but none for subtlety. Pooneh Hajimohammadi is diverting as Suri, one of the staff in the MOD’s research facility, even if her dialogue is incomprehensible (which is deliberate), and greater development of the subplot around her character would have been welcome.

Now you're just showing off, young lady.

Now you’re just showing off, young lady.

The soundtrack is all synthesisers, which is both thematically appropriate – it’s all music made artificially without natural sound sources – and brings to mind the 1980s, particularly the films of John Carpenter whose self-composed film scores were always dominated by synthesisers. They also create a gloomy, downtrodden atmosphere. There are no soaring orchestras or bright guitars here, it’s all oppressive, cold electronics to match the mood.

TheMachine_01

Given that the film originated in Wales, land of song and valleys, it doesn’t boast a blockbuster’s budget but James and his team create a compelling world within the confines of McCarthy’s research facility. The visual effects on The Machine herself are impressive and moments when the limits of the budget are apparent – the avoidance of external locations being the most obvious – are easily forgiven as the gloomy interiors suit the story and add to a sense of claustrophobia. This is a film that replaces a big budget with big ideas which makes it a welcome contrast to standard sci fi summer blockbuster junk like the Transformers franchise or The Avengers (yes, The Avengers was fun and entertaining, but it was about as deep as a puddle in a drought). The pacing is measured – again anathema to Hollywood – but if the story engages your grey matter, it should have no trouble holding your attention. And, perhaps best and most British of all, The Machine offers a wickedly ambiguous, conflicted conclusion. The Machine will infect anyone who takes their sci fi smart, sharp and edged with darkness.

The Secret Life Of Introverts (And Walter Mitty)

December 29, 2013

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a Negative Asset Manager at Life Magazine in New York. He lives a quiet existence of carefully cataloguing and processing photographs, a monotony that he escapes with vivid daydreams so consuming that he completely tunes out the world around him while lost in his fantasies. On the same day that Walter learns that Life Magazine’s new owners are wrapping up the print edition and going online, he receives a roll of film from famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) with a note saying that image #25 on the roll should be the cover of the final issue. Unfortunately, #25 is missing from the negative so Walter sets out to track down O’Connell in the hopes of finding the photograph.

Ben Stiller The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Stiller’s film is adapted from a short story that was previously brought to the screen in the 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye. The fantasy elements dominate the first chunk but as Walter sets out on his mission to find the missing negative, he slowly stops daydreaming and becomes immersed in the world around him. At the start, Walter is very much an introvert. He is quiet, struggles with small talk and idle chitchat but has a vibrant inner life that is invisible to the people around him. He has a crush on a co-worker at Life Magazine, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) but struggles to reach out to her socially and becomes the butt of jokes from Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the corporate shark sent in to oversee the buyout of Life and the laying off of staff.

Introverts are a rare breed in the movies, where extroverts are the norm. Quiet people are generally shown as being either creepy or as someone who needs to ‘come out of their shell’ (a phrase every introvert will have heard all too often). In a pleasant surprise, Stiller’s movie avoids the temptation to transform Walter from introvert to social butterfly. Certainly, he becomes more confident as his adventure unfolds, but he remains softly spoken and unassuming. His understated progression is expressed through the development of his online dating profile. At the outset, he has left most of his profile blank, believing he has not been anywhere or done anything interesting but his globe-trotting quest to track down O’Connell slowly but surely changes his mind as he realises his own worth. It’s refreshing to see a film in which the protagonist’s development, his coming into his own, is not linked with a change in their personality but instead with a greater sense of self-acceptance.

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The plot twist concerning the location of the missing negative is easy to see coming well in advance, but that’s not the point of the movie. It’s not about ‘Where’s the missing photograph?’ It’s about Walter embracing the opportunities he encounters and reaching out to the people that he meets. It could be argued he is coming out of his shell, but perhaps he is simply taking his shell out to see the world.

The often elaborate fantasy sequences seem like Stiller has made a proof of concept reel to demonstrate he can handle special effects and spectacle, as if he’s auditioning to direct a superhero blockbuster for next summer. However while Walter’s daydreams are fun – the Benjamin Button parody is spot on – the story resonates most powerfully when Walter is doing not dreaming. The relationship with Cheryl is handled with a refreshing low-key approach for a Hollywood movie – there’s no heavy handed melodrama or overblown true romance in their scenes together. Stiller’s performance is naturalistic, with none of the outlandish caricatures of Zoolander or Dodgeball, and similarly Wiig is charming without needing to be zany.

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The locations and photography are beautiful – well worth seeing on a big screen – and in contrast to Stiller’s earlier film The Cable Guy which offered a more cynical, twisted take on the world, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty exudes warmth, optimism and a wide-eyed wonder at the possibilities that Life can offer when least expected. And introverts rule. They just don’t like to talk about it.

Byzantium

May 7, 2013

Vampires may be immortals whose lives span across centuries but ever since Twilight they have been recast as teenagers, the better to reflect the target audience for Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly suckfest. There have been films that kicked back against this toothless treatment including Jim Mickle’s excellent Stake Land which had feral vampires that were far more animal than human. Neil Jordan’s Byzantium takes a very different approach to Stake Land and despite being centred around a vampire dealing with the emotional turmoil of being a teenager, it is a far cry from Twilight.

Gemma Arterton

Gemma Arterton as Clara

The film concerns two women, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They move from town to town, living on the edges of society. Clara works in the sex industry – sometimes a lap dancer, a prostitute or a madam – always working for cash and leaving no paper trail in her wake. Eleanor struggles with the isolation of their nomadic existence and longs to tell someone their secret – they are hundreds of years old and survive by drinking blood.

When they arrive in the decaying seaside town of Hastings, Clara meets Noel (Daniel Mays), a lonely punter who has inherited a rundown guest house called Byzantium from his late mother. Clara sees the chance to turn the former hotel into a brothel, while Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a local boy who is quickly smitten by her. But Clara’s rules forbid telling their secret or getting emotionally attached to anyone.

Saoirse Ronan

Little Red Riding Hood?

Moira Buffini wrote Byzantium based on her own stage play and her script puts a distinctive spin on the vampire myth. Buffini based her vampires on Irish legends, which gives the whole film a very distinctive feel from more mainstream genre outings plus some stunning locations of wild, raw natural beauty. These women do not possess super-powers. They can’t fly, they are no stronger than anyone else, they can’t transform into bats and they are not allergic to sunlight. The story casts Clara and Eleanor as powerless vampires in the widest social sense. Clara is a prostitute and Eleanor is a teenage schoolgirl. They may be un-aging, but they are simultaneously vulnerable to the predations of anyone stronger and more powerful than they are – which in this instance means men, both human and otherwise.

The male cast members include Jonny Lee Miller as Ruthven, the absolute cad responsible for Clara’s fall from grace, plus Sam Riley and Uri Gavriel as two men looking for Clara with unfriendly intentions. Miller makes a splendid scoundrel. As the lovestruck Frank, Caleb Landry Jones has the awkward gangly manner of a teenager still growing into their own body. None of the male characters are as fully developed or as compelling as Clara and Eleanor, but then this is their story not that of the men.

The Brotherhood

We are so totally judging you.

Byzantium uses the vampire genre to explore how women survive in the face of a hostile patriarchy. Clara’s involvement in the sex trade is one of the most obvious examples, while the organisation pursuing her is The Brotherhood, just to drive the point home.  Fortunately the script doesn’t labour over this theme so heavily as to become a lecture on feminist studies, but you don’t have to dig very hard to find the ideas at work.

Prior to Byzantium, I had only ever seen Gemma Arterton in Quantum Of Solace, in which she was essentially very glamorous window dressing, and in Tamara Drewe, which was far too fluffy for me. I thought she was exceptionally good here. The role demands a lot from her, but she delivers in every scene. Clara is passionate, stubborn and determined to survive using whatever limited means she has at her disposal. Every time they have to move, Clara tells Eleanor to let the past go and just leave it all behind, yet Clara is a woman defined by her past. It colours all her relationships and is constantly breathing down her neck, reminding her of how perilous her life is.

Jonny Lee Miller

You, sir, are a cad, a bounder and a ne’er do well. Pistols at ten paces!

“I am sixteen forever,” says Eleanor, who has been stuck living with her mother for centuries. No wonder she’s going through a rebellious phase. Saoirse Ronan (how on earth do you pronounce her name?) is occasionally lumbered with overly portentous dialogue but she is intensely sympathetic as the teenager desperate to find her own place in the world.

The film has a very measured pace and viewers raised on a diet of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may struggle to engage with the sombre tone and unhurried direction. But Jordan’s film has substance, two excellent leads and a delightfully morally ambiguous ending.

Resident Evil: Retribution – Revenge Of The Franchise

October 5, 2012

I really need to stop going to see these movies. The Resident Evil series has had its ups and downs (all things are relative- the ups aren’t Citizen Kane), but entry number 5 in the series is undeniably a dip (and not in the good way, it’s not tasty salsa). For those of you just joining us, the evil Umbrella Corporation does not in fact make umbrellas. They make biological weapons and when a virus escapes (I’m free! Free at last!) it infects mankind, turning large swathes of the population into zombies and creating an ever growing array of hideous beasties. Leading the battle against both the Umbrella Corporation and the zombies is Alice (Milla Jovovich), and a rotating cast of supporting characters as forgettable as they are expendable.

Retribution gets off to a spirited start, picking up where the last film ended while running the opening scene in reverse. It doesn’t serve any great plot purpose but it looks cool – the guiding principal that steers the entire movie franchise. Then there is a sequence removed from the superheroics in which Alice is a suburban housewife trying to protect her daughter Becky (Aryana Engineer) from the sudden onslaught of flesh-hungry undead. This is far and away the most effective sequence in the entire film series to date and the one in which director and writer Paul W.S. Anderson fully embraces the tropes of the zombie genre. Most of the time, the Resident Evil movies are light on horror, heavy on superhero-style action and eye candy, but the suburban zombie attack is a reminder of what makes a horror series like The Walking Dead so effective. The human characters seem very fragile, terribly vulnerable and desperate in the face of the zombies. For one glorious moment, Resident Evil: Retribution is actually rather good.

This is my damn swing and if I say you can’t have a turn on it, just accept that no means no before someone gets hurt.

But then it’s back to business as usual. Alice returns to her butt-kicking persona complete with fetish-tastic catsuit. The rest of the film never manages to recapture the intensity of the suburban sequence and instead offers a collection of over-long action scenes that prove the law of diminishing returns. There is an extended battle between a group of good guys and a squad of Russian Red Army zombies. The sequence is an unfocused mess with no momentum and no drama, just lots of loud noises and things exploding. The characters in this scene are indistinguishable from one another. I am fairly sure one of them was called Sergei. But I don’t know which one. I think he died.

The previous film, Resident Evil: Afterlife, borrowed shamelessly from The Matrix. Now Retribution fearlessly lifts ideas wholesale from James Cameron’s Aliens as Alice finds a young girl to protect in the Umbrella Corporation’s underground facility. Before you can say, ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’  it’s bonding time for surrogate mother and child and déjà vu time for the audience. It’s such a brazen example of cinematic pilfering that it could be audacious if it wasn’t so unimaginative.

As a side note, it looks like the sign language for ‘I love you’ is the same as the heavy metal gesture for ‘This totally rocks!’

Jill Valentine in Resident Evil: Retribution

For the busy girl about town, combine the impracticality of having nowhere to put your car keys with a design that makes it almost impossible to go to the toilet in under 30 minutes

The outfits are a fanboy’s wet dream. The male characters all wear ordinary clothes or military gear. The girls all wear catsuits or evening gowns. But not classy evening gowns. The kind a stripper might wear at the start of her routine. Ada Wong, played by Li Bing Bing, sports a red dress with a split all the way up to her thigh. Now remember, this girl lives in a world overrun by zombies. Everyone wants to look their best, but this is ridiculous. Director Anderson pays no attention at all to the idea of world building, of constructing a believable environment or backdrop for his story. Otherwise Ada Wong might have thought combat trousers and a sturdy pair of boots better suited for fighting zombies that her sexy red dress and heels. Jill Valentine, played by Sienna Guillory, wears a figure-hugging catsuit with a neckline best described as more plummeting than merely plunging. Oddly enough, none of the other members of her team wears anything remotely similar.

But take heart, Resident Evil fans – Shawn Roberts returns as Albert Wesker and he still can’t act. He even seems to struggle with walking on camera. He looks so stiff it’s like he has a really bad back and is afraid to make any sudden movements. I find myself looking forward to his appearances, he’s that special. If you ever find yourself faced with a challenge that you don’t think you can overcome, just remember that Shawn Roberts has an acting career. If he can manage that, there is nothing you can’t do. Thank you, Shawn. You are an inspiration to all.

Bite Me Kate – Underworld Awakening

January 26, 2012

Vampires are supposed to be scary. If there is one thing that makes the Twilight movies suck, it is that they have forgotten that fact and made vampires into pasty-faced hunky dreamboats.   Vampires prey on humans, they don’t date them. Last year the excellent Stakeland brought the horror back to the vampire genre and provided a bloody antidote to the Twilight barf-fest. Now Kate Beckinsale returns to the character and catsuit of vampire warrior-woman Selene for her third entry in the Underworld series (there is a prequel in which she does not appear, before anyone feels the need to point that out, so technically this is the fourth Underworld movie).

In the prologue, the existence of vampires and lycanthropes (werewolves) is exposed to the waking world, leading to a mass cull to rid humanity of their “infection”. Attempting to flee with her lover Michael, Selene is captured. When she wakes up in a laboratory, years later, she discovers the humans have been experimenting upon a child called Eve (India Eisley) who is a rare vampire-lycan hybrid and with whom Selene shares a strange bond. Selene takes Eve and goes on the run from the human authorities, determined to protect the girl from humans and lycans alike. They find an ally in vampire David (Theo James), all the while pursued by the forces of Antigen, led by Dr Lane (a sanguine Stephen Rea).

Eve hides in shame after wearing white to Goth Night.

Man Marlind and Bjorn Stein take over the directorial duties and to their credit they have greedily embraced the horror elements of the franchise. If the first Underworld was gothic in tone and style, with gorgeous vamps languidly reclining in sprawling, gloomy mansions, Awakening is the industrial Underworld – a loud, pounding onslaught of a movie. The violence is aggressive, unrelenting and at times quite shocking – a shot of Eve being attacked by a werewolf is graphic and unsettling. However, this is no retrograde horror flick in which women are helpless before unstoppable male predators. The most dangerous character here is Selene, consumed by a maternal desire to protect Eve. Selene is far more ferocious than in the previous films and, unlike the appalling Edward in Twilight, she is not shy about sinking her fangs into a human’s jugular when she’s hungry. Beckinsale imbues Selene with an air of power and self-assurance. She is more dynamic than any of the men, a better fighter and, when matched against a larger, more powerful opponent, smarter.

It is arguable, of course, that Selene is a male fantasy construct – a beautiful image of an idealised female form but the character is never presented as being beholden to or defined by the men in her life. She has her own agenda and relies upon no-one but herself, unlike Bella “How can I make him love me?” Swan.

The movie looks tremendous on a big screen and the action scenes are ambitious and extremely well realised. In the first Underworld film, it was never entirely clear what made Selene special in her status as a Death Dealer who hunted werewolves. This time around, it is abundantly clear that Selene is lethal. The sequence in which she tears through a squad of human police is brutal and delivered with bombast and style. The battles with the lycans are bloody affairs, thrilling in their visceral impact, while the climactic showdown provides an almost deafening crescendo of mayhem. The stunt work is top notch, with cars being thrown around and a lovely shot in which Selene knocks over a moving van by charging into the side of it. She’s a bloodthirsty super-heroine who could punch Batman into next week.

There are some plot elements sure to raise a smirk – the humans hold Selene in captivity as a test subject but inexplicably decide to keep her distinctive catsuit, corset and boots in a cabinet close at hand so that moments after escape, Selene is back in her fetish gear. Beckinsale looks amazing but she does rather look like she’s on her way to a goth-industrial nightclub somewhere to spend the night dancing to Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails. Just as in all the films in the Resident Evil franchise, the ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel. If Beckinsale wants to get back in the catsuit again, I’ll be there. Bite me, Kate. Bite me hard.

Haywire – An Alpha Female Hits The Big Screen

January 5, 2012

Since the boom in public interest in MMA following the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, a growing number of MMA fighters have dabbled in acting. The results have been, by and large, teeth grindingly awful. Straight-to-DVD releases like Circle Of Pain and No Rules are unwatchable, and far and away the best MMA movie so far – Gavin O’Connor’s superb Warrior – made the smart choice to use actors in the leading roles, because, let’s face it, it’s easier to teach an actor to fight than a fighter to act. But then along comes Steven Soderbergh with Haywire, an action thriller starring former American Gladiator, kickboxer and MMA starlet Gina Carano, to buck the trend.

The new "Dodge The Bullets" round on American Gladiators really thinned out the competition

The basic premise is that Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private contractor that works with the US government carrying out espionage for hire. Betrayed by her employer and hunted by the authorities, Mallory goes looking for answers and revenge. The script adds interest to the fairly straightforward premise by telling the story out of sequence and teasing out information gradually.

It was bold of Soderbergh to have a first-timer carry the film, but Carano rises to the challenge. Certainly, the script gives Mallory little time for introspection and certainly none for soliloquising but then this is Soderbergh showing the same lean, muscular style he displayed in The Limey. Carano makes Mallory likeable to root for, with a fair dash of sex appeal, and she exudes enormous self-belief. She’s the alpha female and it certainly does not hurt that she is surrounded by a top notch supporting cast. Channing Tatum (who was excellent in The Eagle, which is well worth your time) is spot-on as Aaron, an agent obviously hired for his muscles rather than his brain, and Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton are all on reliably good form. Ewan McGregor drips sleazy intentions as Kenneth, Mallory’s boss and former lover. He makes a despicable villain and has one of the best lines of the film – “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. That would be a mistake.”

The movie opens with a confrontation in a cafe between Mallory and Aaron that explodes into shocking violence. This is where Carano’s casting really pays off. The fight scenes are brutal, no-frills affairs and benefit enormously from the fact that Carano is visible performing them herself – there is no need for frantic editing and lurching cameras to conceal the presence of a stunt double. Carano carries herself with a fighter’s confidence and cuts an athletic figure. An illuminating contrast is with Angelina Jolie in Salt (such a dumb movie – apparently you can infiltrate the White House by hiding round corners). Jolie is so thin she singularly fails to convince as a hand-to-hand combatant – it is hard to believe anyone so emaciated could pack a punch of any consequence, but Carano has power in her physique and makes you believe in Mallory’s ferocity.

Sure, she can jump over a car - but can she cook?

The stripped down direction of the fight scenes brought to mind the classic scrap on the train in From Russia With Love. There is no time for witty banter or clever insults – these are desperate encounters where defeat will result in death, so the combatants’ concentration is absolute and there is no energy or time to talk. The fight in the hotel room is a knockdown, drag out classic and matched by the scene in which Mallory takes out two members of the Garda in Dublin with ruthless determination. J.J. Perry, who worked on Warrior, is credited as fight choreographer and has really hit the mark. If there was any wirework, I didn’t spot it. Instead there is a mix of Muay Thai and jujitsu all performed with total conviction. It looks painful but is thrilling to behold. If Carano stays in the movies and never returns to the fight game, Haywire suggests she could have a bright future as long as directors continue to play to her considerable strengths.

Wong Fei-Hung And The Shifting Identity Of Hong Kong Audiences

May 16, 2011

Brace yourselves, this is a long one.  In February I was one of the speakers at a symposium on East Asian cinema at Coventry University. I think it was called Asian Exposure, which sounds like what happens when you’re confronted by a flasher on the Hong Kong subway. Anyhoo, I put everyone to sleep with the following load of waffle, now yours to savour. Someone suggested that I shouldn’t post this on my blog as someone might pinch it and try to pass it off as their own work for a college course.  Seriously? Who would want to pinch this? Some of this material was covered in my book, Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, which you should buy. For everyone you’ve ever met.

Wong Fei-Hung And The Shifting Identity Of Hong Kong Audiences

This paper sets out to show how the Cantonese-language martial arts films of Hong Kong evolved from an attempt to connect the displaced citizens of Canton with their native land into a cinema that reflected the separate and distinct identity of Hong Kong itself. To track this shift, I will look at the changing representation of the figure of Wong Fei-Hung, arguably the most recognizable and enduring figure in Cantonese popular cinema.

A large part of what makes Wong Fei-Hung such a useful barometer of change and at the same time such an accessible figure for Cantonese filmmakers is that virtually nothing is known about the real man himself. He was born in Canton in 1847, the son of Wong Kar-Ying, a highly respected martial artist who was a master of the Hung Kuen kung fu system and who passed his knowledge on to Fei-Hung. As an adult Wong Fei-Hung took over the running of his father’s school and medicine clinic, Po Chi Lam, and supplemented his income by serving as martial arts instructor to the 5th Regiment of the Canton Army and the Civilian Militia. He died in 1924. That is largely all that can be said about Wong Fei-Hung with any certainty but through the huge number of films about the figure, Wong Fei-Hung has become mythologized in Cantonese folklore.

Early Chinese cinema had its own heroes, including the Shaolin anti-Ch’ing fighter Fong Sai-Yuk and the fictional character Wu Song from The Water Margin. The earliest known film about Fong Sai-Yuk is Ren Pengnian’s 1928 movie Fong Sai-Yuk’s Battle In The Boxing Ring, made in Shanghai. Wong Fei-Hung did not come to the screen until 1949. At the time a novel called The True Story Of Wong Fei-Hung was running in serialised form in the Kung Shueng Daily News. Despite the title, it was a work of fiction but it inspired filmmaker Hu Peng to bring the character to the screen with Kwan Tak-Hing in the title role. Hu Peng was born in Shanghai in 1910 and moved to Hong Kong in 1936. He directed over 190 films in his career.

Winner of Best Supporting Eyebrows In A Drama Or Kung Fu Movie, 1956.

Kwan Tak-Hing was born in Canton in 1906 and started his career in Cantonese opera. He was ideally suited to bring Wong Fei-Hung to life, with his background on the stage and a fluency in Chinese martial arts, particularly the Hung Kuen style and White Crane boxing. The success of The True Story Of Wong Fei-Hung led to Kwan Tak-Hing playing the character from 1949 up until 1981. The original series with Hu Peng was so popular with Hong Kong audiences that [according to the filmography in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film] no less than twenty-five films about the character were released in 1956 alone.

In the absence of any historical information about the figure, Kwan Tak-Hing effectively became Wong Fei-Hung, with the fictional portrayal of the character on screen filling the vacuum created by the lack of any official record. Despite being produced, shot and distributed in Hong Kong, the Wong Fei-Hung films were deeply rooted in Cantonese culture. The films showcased traditional Southern Chinese martial arts, lion dances, traditional Cantonese music and songs to the extent that the series served as an archive of Cantonese culture for the people uprooted from South-Eastern China. How Wong Fei-Hung pitted 7 Lions Against the Dragon features a lengthy sequence of lion dancing, dragon and even centipede dancing that would sorely test of the patience of any modern audience. Unlike the Hong Kong movies of the 1980s, which were shot silently and then dubbed into numerous languages to enable them to be as widely distributed throughout Asia as possible, the Wong Fei-Hung films were shot with synchronous sound in the highly distinctive dialect of Cantonese.

The opening title music in the series was Under The General’s Orders and the theme became synonymous with the character. In his article The Prodigious Cinema of Wong Fei-Hung: An Introduction, Yu Mo-Wan notes that, “Quite apart from their subject matter, this strong regional flavour, including of course the lively and vivid Cantonese dialect, clearly distinguishes these films from productions from mainland China or Taiwan. Few Hong Kong productions have succeeded in embodying or reflecting this regional sensibility to the degree accomplished by the Wong Fei-Hung series.”

I have come to drink tea and kick ass. I'm all out of tea.

The cinematic figure of Wong Fei-Hung as played by Kwan Tak-Hing was the very embodiment of tradition, a living concatenation to the past with no relation to the reality of life in Hong Kong in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Wong Fei-Hung is shown as the stern Confucian patriarch and a shining example of the notion of wu de, or martial virtue. This is an idea drawn from the four Confucian principals – the Way (tao), ritual and propriety (li), humaneness and compassion (ren) and virtue (de). Confucianism is concerned with the cultivation of a moral and righteous spirit and is reflected in the traditional Chinese approach to martial arts, with an emphasis on improving the practitioner as a human being who only uses his kung fu as a last resort in self-defence. Throughout the series, Wong Fei-Hung personifies this spirit and he triumphs over his opponents not only because he is the superior martial artist, but simultaneously the superior human being.

He is a mediator, a source of knowledge and prone to giving long lectures at social gatherings in which he extols the benefits of self-cultivation, eating your greens and being an upstanding citizen. Kwan Tak-Hing’s vigorous health and longevity off screen seemed to speak to the truth of his onscreen alter ego’s words. The line between the film and real worlds became increasingly blurry. Kwan Tak-Hing opened his own medicine clinic and martial arts school in North Point, Hong Kong. When the actor was in his mid-Seventies, he played Wong Fei-Hung again for Yuen Wo Ping in The Magnificent Butcher. The opening sequence establishes the legitimacy of Kwan as Wong Fei-Hung as he performs a series of exercises to prove his continued potency, including press ups on his finger tips. The sequence states loud and clear – this is the real Wong Fei-Hung. Accept no substitutes.

However Hong Kong had begun to develop its own popular culture in the 1970s that broke with the traditions brought over from Canton and began to speak directly to the experience of life in Hong Kong. The three main players in this process were the Hui Brothers, Michael, Sam and Ricky. All three were stars on TV and in the cinema, while Sam was vital in the birth of Cantopop, a form of pop music sung in Cantonese but using modern Western-style instrumentation and arrangements. The 1974 film, Games Gamblers Play, was set in contemporary Hong Kong, not Republican China. The Hui Brothers films were comedies, not martial arts films, but their impact on Hong Kong popular culture was enormous. They made great use of the Cantonese language’s capacity for wordplay, setting a precedent that Stephen Chow would follow in the 1990s. The characters the brothers played were ordinary men struggling to get ahead. They were cynical, street wise and totally lacking in the four Confucian precepts. By contrast, Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei-Hung looked nostalgic at best and out of touch with the times at worst. Kwan made a handful of outings as his legendary alter-ego in the 1970s and early 80s, in The Skyhawk, Dreadnaught and The Magnificent Butcher. Lau Kar-Leung explored the relationship between the young Wong Fei-Hung, his father Wong Kar-Ying and their sifu Luk Ah-Choi in Challenge Of The Masters, from 1976. Lau Gar Fei took the role of Fei-Hung but the film retained the spirit of the Kwan Tak-Hing movies, with a strong emphasis on martial virtue and respect for your elders.

However, with the rise of the Hui Brothers and the development of youth-oriented Cantopop, the kung fu movie had to move with the flow. The result was a proliferation of kung fu comedies, a blend of slapstick, word play and kung fu with no relation to the Confucianism of the 1950s cinema. In late 1976 director and producer Ng See Yuen founded his own production company Seasonal Films, where a young action choreographer called Yuen Wo Ping was given his first chance to direct a feature – Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, starring Jackie Chan, who had previously been toiling away unsuccessfully in formulaic kung fu movies for Lo Wei’s production company. The movie cast Chan as a hard-luck orphan who learns kung fu from an old beggar, enabling him to defeat an evil Eagle Claw kung fu assassin, played by Korean Taekwondo master Hwang Jang-Lee. The box office success of Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow led to star, director and producer reuniting on Drunken Master, in which they tackled the most revered figure in Cantonese cinema – Wong Fei-Hung.

The young Wong Fei-Hung bears the burden of looking after the elderly. In our aging society, such situations will soon be commonplace.

As is all too often the case in Yuen Wo-Ping’s work, Drunken Master lacks a cohesive plot and is really just a collection of set pieces linked together by the central protagonist, in this case the young Wong Fei-Hung played by Jackie Chan. This presentation of the hero is a far cry from that of Kwan Tak-Hing. As an independent producer, Ng See Yuen did not have access to the large period sets of the big studios like Shaw Brothers and there is only a passing attempt to approximate a period mise-en-scene. In particular, Chan as Wong Fei-Hung is clearly taking fashion cues from Sam Hui, with his long pop star hair that is totally anachronistic for the story’s late Ch’ing Dynasty setting. In Yuen’s film, Wong Fei-Hung is no longer the stern, severe patriarch. He is the spirit of modern Hong Kong, youthful, vital and irrepressible.

The Confucian notion of self-cultivation through the pursuit of martial virtue is noticeable only by its total absence. This Wong Fei-Hung chases after pretty girls, clowns around during kung fu lessons and even tries to cheat when practicing horse stance, the very foundation of the Hung Kuen style. It is out of the desperate desire to curb his son’s impetuosity that Wong Kar-Ying puts Fei-Hung into the hands of Beggar Su, the titular Drunken Master played by the director’s father Yuen Siu-Tien.

Drunken Master was not the first film to feature Wong Fei-Hung performing drunken boxing. The 1968 movie Wong Fei-Hung: The Eight Bandits, directed by Wang Feng, saw Kwan Tak-Hing’s Fei-Hung employ drunken kung fu in a duel with a villain using Monkey style, played by Yuen Siu-Tien. Ten years later, Yuen Wo-Ping’s film took drunken boxing to its illogical conclusion, as the more Fei-Hung drinks, the better he fights. This is the opposite of the Confucian notion of martial virtue and using martial arts to cultivate the self. Fei-Hung, played by Chan, is a belligerent drunk who goes looking for the King of Sticks specifically to get revenge and humiliate him for the earlier assault on Beggar Su. Rather than being improved through kung fu, Fei-Hung is a wine-guzzling brawler.

Moreover, where the original series served as a catalogue of authentic Southern Chinese martial arts, the

Kids today, with their long hair and kung fu. Hanging's too good for 'em.

choreography in Drunken Master drew heavily upon the acrobatics of the Northern style martial arts seen in Peking Opera. In the final showdown with the villain of the story, played again by Hwang Jang-Lee, Fei-Hung performs Beggar Su’s Eight Drunken Gods style, which includes Fei-Hung pretending to be an inebriated woman, Fairy Ho, and performing techniques with names like “Old Lady Sits On The Toilet”. It is very funny and, at the same time, mildly iconoclastic for an audience raised on Kwan Tak-Hing’s majestic countenance to see the revered figure of Wong Fei-Hung transformed into a blundering rascal and grotesque drunkard. Yuen Wo-Ping’s film makes no attempt to act as a record of Cantonese tradition and rather than looking back to an idealised vision of the past, the film reflects the youthfulness of its intended audience and the blossoming self-awareness in Hong Kong pop culture that it needed a new identity.

Wong Fei-Hung defeats the villain in Drunken Master not because he is morally superior or the product of self-cultivation. He triumphs through a combination of athleticism and raw vigour. He is not the model of Confucianism, but represents the irrepressibility of youth. The characters Jackie Chan played in Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master and subsequent films The Young Master and Dragon Lord, saw him merely providing variations on the same screen persona. Such models of youthful rebellion were crafted to appeal to a contemporary audience whose first point of reference was no longer Canton, but Hong Kong itself.

Shih Kien in Millionaire's Express, one of Cantonese cinema's great screen villains.

The 1980s saw the decline of the traditional kung fu movie. It was replaced by modern day action thrillers or comedy-action vehicles like the Lucky Stars series. Wong Fei-Hung largely disappeared from cinema screens, although he would pop up in unexpected places, as the character makes a cameo appearance in Sammo Hung’s Millionaires’ Express from 1986. Wang Yu plays Wong Kar-Ying, taking his young son on a train journey on which they share a train carriage with a rival master, played by Shih Kien, the perennial villain of the Kwan Tak-Hing series. If nothing else, the skit shows that Hong Kong filmmakers and audiences had not forgotten the Kwan Tak-Hing series after its demise.

The film that brought Wong Fei-Hung back to the forefront was Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China. Tsui’s earlier films,  The Butterfly Murders, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Swordsman (which he produced and co-directed), drew more heavily on the Mandarin language cinema of King Hu and the swordplay genre than from anything in Cantonese cinema. Peking Opera Blues showed Tsui had his finger on the pulse of Hong Kong, with a thinly veiled critique of the lack of democracy set in Republican China. However with Once Upon A Time In China, Tsui reinvented Cantonese cinema’s most important figure for a new generation and revitalised the stalled career of his star Jet Li at the same time.

Released in 1991, Tsui’s film was not an irreverent take on the character, like Drunken Master. It was a pure martial

Didn't I used to have hair?

arts movie, not a kung fu comedy, but it offered a very contemporary spin on Wong Fei-Hung. Tsui establishes that his film belongs to the traditional canon right from the get go, opening with the theme Under The General’s Orders and a display of martial arts leading in to a lion dance. However, the choreography in Once Upon A Time In China moves even further away from Southern martial arts than Drunken Master. Jet Li’s background is in the gymnastic form of Wu Shu and the action scenes in the film draw upon Li’s acrobatic ability married to a great deal of wirework and special effects to create gravity defying scenes of combat more in keeping with the flights of fantasy found in Hong Kong swordplay films than any pure kung fu movie.

As Wong Fei-Hung, Li brings a youthful charm to the role even as the film cast Fei-Hung as the keeper of the flame for traditional Chinese values in the face of the encroaching influence of the West. This is demonstrated throughout the film by Wong Fei-Hung’s relationship with Aunt Yee, who has travelled abroad and adopted Western fashion and manners. Once Upon A Time In China is not about reconnecting the citizens of Hong Kong with Canton, it is an allegory for Hong Kong caught between the competing and contrasting influences of China and the West on the cusp of the city’s return to Chinese control in 1997.

This is expressed elegantly in an exchange between Fei-Hung and Aunt Yee when she tries to convince him to wear a Western suit:

“Chinese shouldn’t wear suits. Chinese are Chinese,” says Fei-Hung, to which Aunt Yee replies, “Soon with railways, telephones, everything will change. China will change with the world.”

Fei-Hung responds, “You’re right. Western guns and ships have arrived. Everything is changing. What will we become?”

That deceptively simple question was at the forefront of the minds of Hong Kong’s citizens ahead of the handover to China. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, found the issue was so all consuming that he described the local press as “a one-issue media”. If Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei-Hung was concerned with the propagation of tradition, then Jet Li as Wong Fei-Hung was concerned primarily with the quest for identity and self-realisation set against the clash between East and West. In the second film in Tsui Hark’s series, Fei-Hung fights against the rapidly anti-Western White Lotus Sect who want to drive all foreigners out of China. That the cinematic figure who personifies all that is good and great about Chinese culture should set himself in opposition to the White Lotus Sect’s xenophobia is testament to the changing nature of the character’s presentation.

Always stretch thoroughly before engaging in vigorous exercise, especially beating up gweilos.

In 1997 Jet Li made his final outing as Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon A Time In China And America, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Sammo Hung. By this point the market had been saturated with Wong Fei-Hung knockoffs and imitations and Hung’s film was less concerned with exploring what it meant to be Hong Kong Chinese than with playing with the cinematic legacy of the figure. The script was written and re-written during production and the result could politely be described as patchy, but there are a handful of standout sequences. After Wong Fei-Hung loses his memory following a bump on the head, his friend Clubfoot Seven tries to jolt his masters memory back in to place by re-enacting Fei-Hung’s battles with Iron Robe Yim and Lan Yuan-Shu, characters from the first and second of Tsui Hark’s films. Tellingly, Clubfoot Seven did not join the series until the third film, so how is his character able to re-construct battles that he did not witness much less participate in? The answer is simple – Clubfoot Seven, like the viewers themselves, has seen the movies he is referencing. As the battle heats up, the local Chinese grab musical instruments and start playing Under The General’s Orders. They too are obviously well versed in Wong Fei-Hung’s cinematic heritage.

Similarly, a recurring element in the Kwan Tak-Hing films was the moral of each story, in which Fei-Hung would expound at length about the Confucian precepts and the importance of hard work and clean living. Sammo Hung references this twice in Once Upon A Time In China and America. In an early scene, Fei-Hung is shown putting his audience to sleep with a long-winded speech about presenting a positive image of China to the Western world. Then, after the climactic battle, Fei-Hung addresses the crowd again and says just a few short words. When he is finished, no one dares move because no one believes Fei-Hung to be capable of such brevity. It is very funny but only in reference to Fei-Hung’s established screen persona as a virtuous windbag.

Despite the 1997 handover, Hong Kong filmmakers continue to produce films in Cantonese alongside Mandarin language cinema. Since Jet Li’s final outing, Wong Fei-Hung has been absent from Cantonese cinema [Sammo Hung played him in a cameo in Around The World in 80 Days, an English language production]. In a period of almost fifty years, Wong Fei-Hung has been transformed from a symbol of the past and the power of tradition, to a testament to the vigour of youth and the new individualistic spirit of Hong Kong in the 1970s. With Tsui Hark and Jet Li, he became the means to explore Hong Kong’s unique position as the meeting point between East and West before finally Sammo Hung used the character to explore Fei-Hung’s cinematic lineage. After that exercise in intertextuality and deconstruction, perhaps there was simply nowhere left for Wong Fei-Hung to go. Hopefully Cantonese cinema is not finished with its greatest hero and the character will be reborn for a new generation and used to express their unique situation with the same eloquence seen in the past.

Too Much Fisting – Chen Zhen, Chinese Nationalism And The Myth Of Kung Fu

December 21, 2010

On an internet forum about Asian pop culture I recently saw a post from someone interested in taking up a martial art. They said they wanted to learn something that would enable them to take on a group of attackers, like in the movie Ip Man. They were thinking of trying Wing Chun. A recurrent theme in Hong Kong kung fu movies is the superiority of Chinese martial arts over pretty much everything else. I don’t know when the idea was first expressed on screen, but it can be found in the 1969 film Wong Fei-Hung: The Conqueror of the Sam-Hong Gang starring the legendary Kwan Tak-Hing. In that movie, Wong Fei-Hung defeats a Japanese samurai played by perennial Hong Kong movie villain Feng Yi, who would later tangle with Bruce Lee in the guise of the rotund judo instructor in Fist of Fury.

Everybody Wang Chung tonight

Fist of Fury is a vital film in the canon of kung fu movies because it introduced audiences to the fictional character of Chen Zhen, immortalised as an unstoppable engine of Chinese vengeance by Bruce Lee. In the film, Chen is the student of Fok Yuen-Gap (aka Huo Yuanjia), a martial arts instructor who lived in Shanghai and was head of the Jing Wu Athletic Association. Fok is referenced in many films, notably Legend of a Fighter, and his lofty status is typical of the mythology that springs up around these figures and informs so much of kung fu cinema. There is a very thin and fragile dividing line between fiction and reality in the world of kung fu. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the portrayal of Wong Fei-Hung in the Kwan Tak-Hing series. So little was known about the real Wong Fei-Hung that the films became a substitute for history so successfully they generated their own folklore in Cantonese culture. The same process is now happening with the figure of Ip Man in a slew of films about the Wing Chun kung fu instructor following the wake of the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip hit.

Chen Zhen, who would rather die of hunger than eat okonomiyaki. Or try to spell it.

A similar process of mythologizing has occurred with Fok Yuen-Gap and Chen Zhen. Much of Fok’s reputation is built on stories of his fight with a Russian wrestler. This encounter is the source of the endless scenes in kung fu movies in which a Chinese martial artist takes on a foreigner in a challenge match and invariably triumphs. You can see this in Fist of Fury in which Chen, played by Lee, defeats the Russian karateka played by Rob Baker. A similar scene is played out in The Boxer From Shantung, starring Chen Kuan-Tai. Fearless, with Jet Li, is basically all about Fok Yuen-Gap beating up foreigners to preserve the honour of China. The only problem with all this is that it is based on something that never happened. Yes, a  Russian wrestler passed through Shanghai during Fok’s lifetime. There was even a challenge issued. But then the wrestler left Shanghai and moved on. No fight ever took place. Fok’s reputation for invincibility is based on a fight that didn’t happen.

Now Chen Zhen has become the embodiment of Chinese national pride, which is even more absurd as Chen is not even a real historical figure, but was a character invented for the Bruce Lee film in 1972. Chen has since been played by Jet Li in Fist Of Legend, where the character exists as a cipher for Bruce Lee, and by Donnie Yen in the Fist of Fury TV series and again now in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.

Fisting in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I'm happy again...

The impact of China’s defeats in international conflicts in the Twentieth Century upon Chinese pride, even in the displaced Cantonese populace in Hong Kong, was considerable. Having been beaten by the Japanese and the British, forced to hand over Hong Kong to the Brits and allow Shanghai to be occupied by the Japanese, China’s pride was badly bruised. Japanese abuses in Hong Kong and the appalling treatment of the civilian population in Nanking have left scars on the Chinese psyche that have proven slow to heal. So it falls to the movies to provide the retribution that was unavailable in the real world. In Fist Of Fury Chen Zhen single-handedly decimates an entire dojo of Japanese fighters. Legend of a Fighter qualifies the anti-Japanese sentiment, with Yasuaki Kurata playing a karateka who befriends Fok Yuen-Gap but is then forced to fight him against his own wishes. Fist of Legend is far less rabidly anti-Japanese than its predecessors, having Chen fall for a Japanese girl which would have been heresy in the Bruce Lee/Lo Wei original.

Sadly, Legend of the Fist is part of a recent trend in Hong Kong cinema following a pattern of regression to the mindless jingoism of the 1970s. Fearless, True Legend, Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, both Donnie Yen Ip Man vehicles and now Legend of the Fist centre upon the spectacle of a Chinese martial artist beating up non-Chinese opponents in the name of national pride. The irony is that China has never been more in the ascendant internationally. China is a global economic powerhouse and yet apparently there is still a need for Donnie Yen to beat up Japanese men and shout “The Chinese are not the sick men of Asia!” echoing Bruce Lee’s cry of forty years ago. Frankly, no one is currently suggesting anything of the sort, China. In fact, everyone wants to trade with you and business and political leaders are falling over themselves to be your number one pal. Just ask Taiwan, which has lost official diplomatic relations with a slew of countries as China has flexed its industrial and economic muscles.

So why this insecurity about being sick men? Historically, Chinese martial artists have not fared well in competition. Partly this is because traditionally most Chinese martial artists were hobbyists, by which I mean they were not professional fighters. There is a world of difference between someone who spends their free time in a training hall learning forms and following the Confucian mode of self-cultivation through martial virtue – wu de – and someone who fights for a living. In the past when Chinese martial artists went to Thailand and stepped in the ring with seasoned pros, or travelled to Japan to compete in Kyokushinkai knockdown competitions, they learnt the hard way that all the martial virtue in the world was no substitute for experience.

Worst Anti-Smoking Ad Ever.

In modern Chinese martial arts, there is clear divide between the practice of Wu Shu, the acrobatic display form endorsed by the Chinese government, and the competitive fighting style of San Shou, which is essentially kickboxing. What does it say about the practicality of Wu Shu that it bears no resemblance to the techniques of San Shou? Chinese martial artists have begun training in MMA and are starting to build a reputation slowly in events like Art of War, but at present China and Hong Kong have no competitive fighters of international standing. Professional boxing is dominated by America, Mexico and South America, and the former Soviet nations. MMA is ruled by the North Americans and Brazilians. Muay Thai and kickboxing are dominated by the Thais and the Dutch, with very strong contingents from Morocco, France and a growing number of European nations. Where are the Chinese tough guys to be found? In the movies.

Legend of the Fist gets off to a stirring start with Chen Zhen and his compatriots under fire in Europe during World War 1. Chen saves his friends and single-handedly beats the hell out of the Germans. Back home in Shanghai after the war, he is part of an underground network working to oppose the Japanese occupation. The Jing Wu Athletic Association is empty and China’s pride has never been at a lower ebb. The Japanese and the British wrangle for control over the country but then Chen puts on a mask and sets about putting the Japanese in their place, one broken jaw at a time. He becomes entangled with nightclub singer and hostess Kiki (Shu Qi, surely one of the most beautiful women in the world), who has a dark secret, while the Japanese set about murdering everyone who stands in their way in their bid to control Shanghai.

So when I get done killing people later, you want to hang out? I don't mind where we go, as long as it's not for sushi.

Several key icons remain from Fist of Fury. There is a flashback of the scene of Chen smashing the Sick Men Of Asia placard and killing the Japanese sensei, played here by Yasuaki Kurata, which is a lovely touch. When Chen returns to the Hongkou Dojo for the climactic showdown, he wears the white suit worn by Bruce Lee in the opening sequence of Fist Of Fury. It’s all very referential if more than a little generic. The principal villain this time is Takeshi Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata), who is the son of the sensei killed by Chen in the backstory. You can’t get more generic than the plot device of “You killed my father, I want revenge”, which is indicative of the lack of progress in Legend of the Fist, a movie all too content to retread very familiar ground under the stewardship of director Andrew Lau.

Donnie Yen was his own action director on Legend Of The Fist. He’s done good work as both an action performer and choreographer in the past but the fight scenes here are surprisingly weak. The lurching camerawork is distracting, the frantic editing is obtrusive and obscures far too much of what is going on. By contrast, the camerawork and choreography in Fist of Fury served to reveal the techniques, not hide them. For a film that so clearly wants to state the case of the superiority of the Chinese and their martial arts over the Japanese, it is not possible to deduce from the fight scenes what kung fu style Chen Zhen is supposed to be skilled in. He’s certainly not performing Hung Kuen or Wing Chun, not Chow Lay Fut or even Northern Long Fist. The kicks are more akin to those found in Taekwondo than any Chinese system and most of the time Chen is just brawling. At one point he even throws a bolo punch, a slightly old-fashioned boxing technique that has nothing at all to do with Chinese kung fu.

The climactic scene when Chen takes on the Japanese in their own dojo relies on editing and camera tricks for its execution. Chen pulls out the nunchaku, another reference in the 1972 film, but Yen/Chen is clearly not the master of the weapon that Lee was. Lee didn’t need camera tricks and a busy editor to make him look good. I’m not sure that Donnie does either, but you’d never know it from watching this. What I always found so appealing about the Hong Kong films of the 80s was that you could always see what was happening. The final fight scenes in Donnie’s 80s and early 90s films, particularly Tiger Cage II and In The Line Of Duty IV, are showcases for his abilities and the superb choreography of the Yuen clan. Legend of the Fist could be any Hollywood action movie, like the Bourne series, where the fight is built in the editing room and you can never actually see what anyone is doing. The worst recent perpetrator of this is The Expendables, when all you see is a series of blurry, jerky shots during most of the fight scenes.

Chen Zhen wants you to know that he hates you and he hates your assface, Japan.

While I have criticised Legend of the Fist for being regressive in genre terms, it neglects a vital genre element in the fight choreography, which is the development of the martial artist. A common element in traditional kung fu movies is the invention or refinement of a new technique. The best single example of this is the final fight between Tan Lung (Bruce Lee) and Colt (Chuck Norris) in Way of the Dragon. In the early exchanges, the stronger Colt overpowers Tan Lung and knocks him down. Then Tan Lung adapts his style, becoming elusive, light on his feet and unpredictable. No longer trying to match Colt’s strength, Tan Lung beats him by evolving his own martial arts technique in the heat of battle. Fist of Legend apes this idea in the scene between Chen (Jet Li) and Funakochi (Yasuaki Kurata), as their sparring match becomes an exchange of ideas, a conversation between two bodies about the martial arts. It’s a brilliant scene and easily one of the best in Li’s career, in no small part due to the fact that the scene doesn’t rely on the wires to do the work.

Sadly, there is none of that here. In the climactic fight between Chen and Chikaraishi, Chen starts out being beaten all over the dojo. Then he thinks about China and his dead countrymen, gets really mad and kills Chikaraishi with his bare hands. There is no development of any new technique, no exchange of ideas and no conversation between bodies. It’s just two guys taking turns beating each other’s faces in and the Chinese guy wins because he’s fighting for China’s affronted honour. Frankly, that’s weak. It perpetuates the myth of the invincibility of Chinese martial arts, which has no grounding in reality, and teaches a new generation of movie-goers to hate the Japanese. It is high time Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers moved on from this sort of xenophobic nonsense and found something else to talk about.

Dorkarama VS Scott Pilgrim VS The World

October 15, 2010

My uncle used to live in Bermuda where he learnt a very handy phrase that has proven invaluable in a wide variety of situations in day-to-day life that I would like to share with you. Dilligas. It’s an acronym for Do I Look Like I Give A Shit? What a wonderful word it is. Please share it with as many people as you can.

Scott Pilgrim struggles to be more interesting than the blank wall behind him.

I bring this up because what I found essentially wrong with Scott Pilgrim VS. The World was that the attitude of all the characters in the film, bar one, can be summed up as Dilligas. The plot is extremely straightforward. 22-year-old unemployed slacker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating 17-year-old high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). That doesn’t stop Scott from falling ass-over-tip for new-girl-in-town Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, in order to be able to date Ramona, he must first defeat her Seven Evil Exes. He does so. The end.

Like, y'know?

That’s the whole shebang right there. It is linear, very simple and untainted by the blemishes of suspense, surprises, twists, turns or even just an ill-considered Deus Ex Machina. There are some jokes scattered sparingly throughout the dialogue that should raise a smile, many of the best ones involving Scott’s gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin, but a handful of quips don’t really add up to a compelling screenplay.

While the opposite of a protagonist is usually an antagonist, Scott Pilgrim is the negation of a protagonist. He is less active than your average sponge when it’s tuckered out from a long day being absorbent and swaying gently in the ocean currents. Scott is entirely reactive and makes only one decision of any consequence in the entire story – to introduce himself to Ramona. Every other decision is made for him or forced upon him to the extent that in the final scene of the whole movie, Scott does not choose which girl he ends up with out of Ramona and Knives, the decision is made for him. Perhaps Scott considered being indecisive but then thought he’d just wait and see what happens. He is an emotional infant, eager to be told what to think and feel. Why is this character supposed to be appealing or engaging?

The whole enterprise is permeated by an attitude of disaffection so all-pervasive that no one cares about anything.

A study of studied ennui.

When Scott receives the email from the First Evil Ex announcing their impending fight he says, ‘This is so…boring’ and deletes it. Everything is boring to Scott and his friends. He plays in a terrible band called Sex Bob-omb and they all go to a party just so, in the words of their drummer Kim, they can have something to complain about. Later on Scott leaves the band, the only thing he actually has going on in his life, but clearly it never meant anything to him anyway. He can’t be bothered to be bothered. What does he do all day? He has no job, no ambition, nothing. The script completely avoids the issue of why girls are attracted to him in the first place. He has nothing to offer – certainly not passion. In his passive fashion, it falls to Ramona to seduce Scott. He just waits for the adult to take command.

Knives Chau smiling. Loser.

The emotional range on display runs the gamut from wry detachment to bored resignation. Everything that happens, no matter how outrageous, is greeted by the characters with no more than an archly raised eyebrow. The only character that ever shows any passion or enthusiasm about anything is an object of ridicule – Knives Chau. Her youthful excitement for Sex Bob-omb is meant to be laughable – she screams when they come on stage and passes out from sheer over-stimulation. Everyone else just looks at her, eyebrows cocked. What sort of loser actually shows enthusiasm for anything in public anyway? Oh right, an Asian one, because Asian kids aren’t cool. They’re dorks. The singer of Sex Bob-omb even explicitly says that he wants Knives to geek out over the band. Those geeky Asian kids, with their maths and their good grades, they’re freaking hilarious.

As a filmmaker Edgar Wright has shown considerable style in the past. Shaun Of The Dead is a great zombie movie and his TV show Spaced was inventive and often very funny. The basis for the visual style of Scott Pilgrim VS. The World is the aesthetic of video games, particularly fighting games, which is both under-whelming and yet completely appropriate. There is nothing at stake when you play a video game, especially on a home console where you don’t have to keep feeding coins into the machine. If you lose, you just re-start. Defeat has no meaning when you can just re-load where you left off. That’s the biggest problem with the movie. Despite all the onscreen fighting, there is no sense of jeopardy in the battles. The fights take place in an aura devoid of pain or even the possibility of injury. Scott gets kicked about, thrown through the air and walloped in his all-too punchable face but he never actually gets hurt. When he is defeated, he simply returns to the start of the level and picks up from there, just like playing a video game. Some sense of danger, of there being a price to defeat and perhaps even a cost to victory, would add some much needed tension to the proceedings.

Savour the intensity. Or don't. Whatever.

All the fighting serves no actual purpose but to fill time as the plot inches slowly in a straight line to its inexorable, inevitable conclusion of boy gets girl (and hopefully syphilis). A good fight scene is a drama unto itself, a dialogue between two bodies, an exchange of techniques and a chance for the hero to defeat both his opponent and himself. In Scott Pilgrim VS. The World, the fight scenes are eye candy, devoid of drama or menace. It’s all so hip and post-modern that it collapses under the weight of all the inter-textual references that attempt to fill the void at the heart of the film. I’d be angry if I wasn’t so lethargic. You know, like the cool kids. I mean seriously, do I look like I give a shit? No? Thank crap for that.