Sunday, August 26, 2012

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991, Tsui Hark, Media Asia)

Other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon I cannot imagine a film that so completely shatters the preconceptions outsiders have concerning the martial arts genre, while still distilling the essence of what makes wuxia films a unique and beautiful contribution to the voice of world cinema.

Start with Tsui Hark, who gets called "the Chinese Spielberg" and probably has the most encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema of anyone on the planet. Hark impressively stages this film with the most immersive set design I've ever seen in a Hong Kong picture. So many of the great HK films look like they were filmed on the same sets and in the same wilderness on the Shaw back lot, but this movie convincingly creates the illusion of turn of the century China. Fight scenes on the streets in tea houses gain resonance, and this film is the first time I've ever considered how much collateral damage is involved when two kung fu masters go at it in a crowded environment.

The film centers on Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), the most legendary character of Chinese cinema, but unlike Drunken Master, it chronicles him as an adult and makes full use of his rich tapestry of supporting characters. Butcher Wing provides an emotional counterpart to Wong Fei-Hung's Confucian stoicism; Buck Teeth So and Aunt 13 are re-imagined as opposite sides of the same coin; one is a Chinese-American intent on discovering his roots, and the other is a Chinese woman who has become Westernized in her travels abroad.

Which brings us to the thoughtful subtext that sets this film apart as an all time classic. This film concerns itself with questions of what it means to be Chinese, modern, Western, and heroic. These are questions that are certainly period appropriate for the film's setting, as the film is set just before the Boxer Rebellion, but also very interesting and appropriate in the context of when the film was made. In 1991, Hong Kong was a British colony and a center of trade for all of Southeast Asia, but would come back under the rule of the Chinese mainland in 1997. This film, like so many of the greatest Hong Kong movies of this period, tries to deal with anxieties of returning to the mainland.

The fights are spectacular and the choreography is good, there's a lot less of the speed and violence of Jackie Chan or Yuen Woo-ping's fight scenes, but they compensate with a balletic brilliance. Wong Fei-hung is a calm at the center of a storm of fists and intrigue. His stoicism and humanity serve as a kind of hard-bitten optimism for the Chinese in the final years of the 20th Century... and for us as well.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967, Chang Cheh, Shaw Brothers)

Sorry for the brief hiatus.

Today's subject is an important film in the history of the kung fu film. If we were to single out one film as being the first "modern" kung fu film, this would be it. This is the film that first synthesized the disparate influences and forged the genre of the kung fu movie like the sword our hero wields. The script is pure wuxia; ripped right from the works of Jin Yong (RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES, to be specific), but it's merged with the explosive violence of Japanese samurai films, and filmed with the slick, set-bound professionalism of a film in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. This movie movie is where, for better or for worse, wuxia became wushu.

How ironic then that this film evokes endings? Tonally this films is more reminiscent of "end of the trail" Westerns like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE or THE SHOOTIST. It's characters are world-weary, petulant, or damaged and the world of jiang hu they inhabit is presented as one in which decent people are destroyed in a never-ending series of feuds and sneak attacks. This film, unlike so many by its director Chang Cheh, is not built around the brotherhood of men-at-arms but the the strife of families caught up and destroyed in the martial world.

Let's star with the brick and mortar of the film: it looks gorgeous. This is an almost entirely set-bound film , even the externals are done on Shaw Brothers lots. Chang Cheh has total control over the look of the film and he rises to the challenge, crafting scenes on one impressive sound stage after another. This film has a graceful style that adds to the mythic power; it looks like a memory play.

This film also contains the first use of hand held camera in Hong Kong cinema history, and Cheh was very happy to try out his new toy. Just a fantastically well-made film all around.

The actors are serviceable: Wang Yu is a lot more interesting here than he usually is as an actor, both because the script contains built-in ambiguity as to his motives, and because he's called on to feel more than he would allow himself to in his later pictures. This is before he developed his screen persona fully as "stoic clever guy" and the scene where he discovers his injury is a highlight. Some of the supporting players are marvelous though: Angela Pan has a thankless role as Pei-er, the spoiled daughter of Wang Yu's teacher, who is responsible for the title character's condition. She's playing a truly spiteful character and she invests a lot into it. Her reaction to Wang Yu's disfigurement is pitch-perfect; she underplays the shock and terror and it becomes even more horrifying for the audience as a result.

There's going to be a lot more plot summary and discussion than is normal in these reviews, because I feel like this is one of the rare kung fu films that works for the same reasons good plays work: their construction. Be warned that from here forward the review contains heavy spoilers.

The film's plot is the story of conquering despair after being wounded: Fang Gang (Wang Yu) is the adopted son of a master swordsman Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng). He became Feng's adopted son when his father, a servant of Feng's, courageously sacrificed his life to save Feng from a sneak attack. Fang Gang carries around his only inheritance; his father's shattered sword. The other students at the school, including Feng's daughter Pei-er, bull Fang Gang a bit though he is a brooding and melancholy personality who enjoys wearing his simple peasant's tunic a lot more than the swordsman's garb Feng purchased for him.

After a round of the usual bullying gets particularly nasty Fang Gang decides to leave the school at the same time Qi Ru Feng shares his intentions to retire and pass on the school to Fang with his wife. The other students of the school and Pei-er meet Gang at the forest outside the school to have a showdown, and when he tells them he's planned to leave it only enrages them further. After defeating the two male students at fencing, he easily defeats Pei-er with open hand fighting. When he reaches down to help her up, still laughing, she swings her sword at him, mad with anger and...

Everything up to and including this scene plays like epic tragedy, and if any of the main characters had known what the others were thinking it never would have happened. This stuff is hypnotically watchable: there's a ton of ambiguity in the dialogue and motivations that keeps the view mentally engaged, while the film is visually at it's sharpest. There's even some great mise-en-scene, the first shot of the scene where Gang loses his arm is a tree bough being hacked off with a sword.

Gang staggers away and the students stand by in shock and horror. The Master arrives, having decided to go out for a walk and clear his head and finds the severed arm of Gang and his students standing by it. They set off to find him, but by this time he's fallen in the boat of peasant girl making her way down a nearby river and when the trail ends at the water they fear the worst.

The second act of the film is where the sledgehammer of plot clocks in, and it's here that the film can start to lose it's pace supporting all the material that will go into its fabulous climax. As the peasant girl Xiaoman nurses Fang Gang back to health, and Qi Ru Feng plans his retirement ceremony by inviting all of his former students to return to his home for one last dinner, a powerful enemy of Feng's, Long Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) has developed a plan to get revenge. Devil and his brother Smiling Tiger (Tang ti) have developed a sword lock that will neutralize the swordplay of Feng and his students. They ambush his students, one by one and defeat a number of them in secret, all in preparation for a final attack on Feng on the night of his retirement.

Meanwhile, Gang is just beginning to move past the shock of his injury and accept love and rural life with Xiaoman when two of Smiling Tiger's pupils stroll by and harass her. When he comes to her defense, they humiliate him and threaten to take his other hand until Smiling Tiger himself arrives and sends them home. This episode throws Gang into total despair, and his self pity threatens to consume him. He can no longer defend himself and the woman that he loves, and therefore by his own standard, he is no longer a man.

At this point, Xioaman reveals her past, complete with a parallel primal tragedy to Fang Gang's, and presents him with her father's kung fu manual, for which he gave up his life. The book is half burnt, but through study, Gang returns to something of his former prowess. He even regains his mastery in swordplay, but due to his injury he finds that he can no longer use his master's sword, which is too ungainly, but instead must use his father's shattered half-sword. And so a one armed man becomes a fighting force again from a burnt and tattered book and a shattered sword.

The two plot lines converge, finally, at a town festival when Gang defeats the two men who humiliated him earlier. When he sees their master leave with Pei-er, he has a bad feeling and decides to investigate. Xiaoman has been pleading since she gave him the manual for him to stay out of the martial world, both out of a fear that he will leave her and that he will be killed, and her fears are seemingly confirmed when he rushes off to save his Master's daughter.

All of this leads to a breathless final half hour, where all the tension and power of the film's expertly laid plots and sub-plots detonates across the screen. The last half hour contains three brilliant actions set pieces, including what may very well be the best roadside tea house sequence in the history of the genre (and I just watched COME DRINK WITH ME). Fang Gang rescues Pei-er, rebukes her, returns to Xiaoman, but is drawn back into the martial world for a final show down with Long Armed Devil and his men when he learns their plot. I spoil nothing of what follows. See this film: every moment from the opening shot to the final grim irony is the work of a master.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- "You mocked me because I was maimed. Now you know that pain."
- The look Fang Gang gives the spear through his sleeve at the end. Just masterful.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Do I ever arrest people without cause? I leave that for the judges to decide."

I'll probably profile this film when I do a series on "almost classics" for films that fall just short of the golden rung, but there's no denying this fight scene in Wilson Yip's FLASHPOINT is a masterpiece of martial arts cinema. The brutality and beauty of it is everything we love about martial arts cinema in 8 minutes:

COME DRINK WITH ME (1966, King Hu, Shaw Brothers)

And it's Martial Chivalry's first special event: SHAW BROTHERS WEEK

If you seek out the films I profile on this blog, that intro is about to become very special for you. Shaw Brothers was the dominant force in Hong Kong film making for years in Hong Kong. They had the largest studio, the most stars, the best directors, and the biggest back lot in Hong Kong, and until Bruce Lee signed with rival Golden Harvest they were the unquestioned king of kung fu films. We're going to spend a week, looking at a few of the finest films in their vaults. Let's start it off with...

COME DRINK WITH ME is an unquestioned classic of wuxia cinema, and a key transitional film between the Chinese martial arts films of the silent and early sound periods, which featured fights that were more magic than muscle and more dance than combat and the films which made up the kung fu craze of the 70's. It's also perhaps the last great female-centric wuxia film before everything changed a year later with the release of THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (more on that tomorrow). It is a milestone of 60's Hong Kong film making and a film that still holds up to this day.

Make no mistake this is not a perfect film: it can a bit talky, there are some strange editing decisions in the fights that conspire to obscure the action, and the script seems to be two good kung fu movies fused together at a sharp angle from one another. The fights themselves tend to be shorter affairs that will leave those of who are here for virtuoso displays of physical skill a bit cold. The principal physical villain does not appear until the final act.

However, we can make allowances for pioneers, and King Hu was certainly that, and then some. He brought a refined Peking Opera sensibility to the wuxia film that would continue till the present, every one of the great set pieces in this film has a spontaneous glee, as though even the filmmakers couldn't help grinning as they put it on the screens. There's none of the dreaded camp here, just style for miles and a sense of F-U-N that resonates to this day.

The plot, as I alluded to above, is interesting enough to warrant a summary: A group bandits have kidnapped the provincial Governor's son, and holed up in Buddhist monastery demanding an exchange for their incarcerated leader. The Governor dispatches Golden Swallow (played to a simmer by Chang Pei-pei) to recover his son and bring the bad guys to justice. Meanwhile in the small town where the bandits are to meet up with Golden Swallow, there's a drunken beggar hanging about who may or may not be a grandmaster of kung fu armed with a legendary wand that belongs to the order of monks that the bandits are currently harassing.

Like always, the devil's in the details here-- Beginning with Golden Swallow, the film's most famous character. Golden Swallow is a woman, who is almost always disguised as a man (I suppose technical term would be an androgyne, I am reasonably sure that term genderqueer does not apply to those of the Ming dynasty). Swallow's disguise works on the characters in the film, she's always referred to as a he, and she attempts to sneak into the temple in the second act by disguising herself as a woman, which is pretty neat. She's stoic and cool for most of the film, except when dealing with Drunken Cat (the beggar described above, played by Yuen Hah). He gets under her skin at first, but as the film progresses he's the only character who cuts through her resolve. In a different film they'd have a great love story working here, but this film is completely indifferent to sexuality in the way that traditional wuxia heroes are. There's not a single romantic attachment displayed by any of the characters in this film. These are people who chose the world of jiang hu and left their attachments behind. This concept, taken for granted in this film, will be the key facet of the wuxia  genre to be deconstructed in the coming years. Jiang hu, presented as a kind of Never-Never land in the films before this one, will slowly become a more violent and lonesome place.

Not that this film is completely sanitary in that department. The red stuff is peppered throughout the film, and the film doesn't shy away from death. The most shocking moment of the entire movie comes about a third of the way through, when the head bandit (played in eunuch make up with icy charm by Chan Hung-lit) shoots a dart through a rice paper wall at a boy listening in outside. The boy turns out to be a novice monk who has now been blinded and is shouting in agony. When one of the senior abbots pleads for mercy the eunuch bandit smiles and orders the child killed. Now the actual stabbing is off camera, but the stabber is hit in the face with a streak of red afterwards. A pretty chilling scene overall.

The highlight reel scene in this film is the inn sequence, which is justly famous. Golden Swallow arrives at the saloon and calls out a coded drink order. The obsequious under boss of the the bandits brings everyone to attention with a sweep of his fan, and the inn clears out. What follows is an excellent cat-and-mouse game between the filmmakers and viewers. The bad guys attack Swallow through faux-accidents, never acknowledging what they're doing until the mutual insult is too great and the tension is released with a great, balletic, fight. The scene comprises about half of this YouTube clip:

Some time in this review should be dedicated to the second, but not secondary, story of the film, because it dominates the ending. Drunken Cat's character is a archetypical character in these stories: the wandering drunk, but it so happens that his drunken fawning conceals a great sadness just as his beggar's songs conceal crucial information from everyone but Golden Swallow. We "discover" the depth of his power in a masterful sequence that was almost certainly the inspiration for the rooftop fight in  CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON where Drunken Cat feigns fear to enter Golden Swallow's bed chamber, makes off with her swords without her noticing, leads her on a breathless chase through the sleeping city before disappearing and leaving behind her swords. When Swallow returns to her hotel room she finds bandits inside looking to kidnap her, and realizes the whole thing was Drunken Cat's gambit to save her life without showing his hand.

The relationship between them deepens until the main villain shows up in full Shaolin regalia. He's the evil head abbot of the monastery the bandits have overrun and he has a long history with Drunken Cat (whom he describes as "a dangerous man who loves playing the fool"). This character inspires fear in everyone in the film, and when Drunken Cat earnestly confesses to Swallow that he doesn't think he beat him alone, we expect them to team up to defeat him, or for Drunken Cat to fail, and Golden Swallow to avenge him. Luckily for us, this film evades our expectations as easily as our heroes evade the bandits' swords and we get a rousing and atypical climax.

Great locations, set design, characters, and action. A beautiful film, and important one too. See it, but don't expect ONG BAK, if you know what I mean.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- The temple fight
- The look on the eunuch's face when Swallow has finally chased his ass down.
- When Golden Swallow think she's going to just stab the evil abbot and then finds out a little bit about Iron Armor Tai Chi.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Where the hell is my elephant?"

There's not going to be any content from me for the next two days, I have a wedding to attend. Monday will begin SHAW BROTHERS WEEK.

Friday, June 8, 2012

OUT FOR JUSTICE (1991, John Flynn, Warner Brothers)

OK, so this is one of those movies I'm going to work a little harder to convince you to see. That's fine. They can't all be the DPRK wuxia film, right?

If I can get a word in over the sound of you rolling your eyes, I'd like to explain something: Before he became a punchline, before he got fat and convinced he was a Lama, before the blues album and the energy drink Seagal could GO, man. Warner Brothers had him pegged as the next great action star and his first three efforts (ABOVE THE LAW; HARD TO KILL and MARKED FOR DEATH) were competently directed, solidly acted, well choreographed martial arts action pictures. As a martial artist, Seagal is the real deal: a 7th dan black belt in Aikido and former bodyguard, who became the first occidental to open his own dojo in Japan. Seagal choreographed many of his own fights, and they are Hobbesian -- nasty, brutish, and short. Seagal's philosophy on hand to hand fighting is on display in this excerpt from his first film (under its British title NICO):

So, what makes this particular film, OUT FOR JUSTICE, so good? We'll start with the least likely suspect: the script. Seagal's early movies all feature him as an Italian Roman Catholic family man looking to escape a dark past, usually some sort of CIA work. This dispenses with the CIA nonsense and ramps up the Italian stuff to eleven; placing the story in Brooklyn in the immediate aftermath of the murder of a police officer by a psychopathic low level gangster. The film establishes quickly that all the principals have known one another since childhood, and uses the rest of the film to float details to the audience about the back story. It's a solid hook that keeps the exposition from ever running heavy on the film.

A special shout out has to go to whoever the hell wrote the dialogue for this thing (David Lee Henry), because it achieves a nice hyper-real quality that a lot of films go for, but end up sounding cute or self-referential. It also has some of the wonderful virtuoso profanity that seems to be unique to the Northeast corridor of these United States, and that cursing has a purpose in the story. Check out this, the most famous scene in the movie, in which what seems like gratuitous profanity is really a clever ruse to bait someone into saying the wrong thing at the man baddie's brother's bar:

Also, you gotta love a character who calls someone "a chicken-shit fuckin' pussy asshole" and then when he, in turn, is called a prick asks "Is this the proper place for profanity?" That is some clever tough guy dialogue, right there. Also check out the nice repetition of certain phrases "Anybody remember seein' Ritchie?" and "He ain't nothin' without that badge and gun." In this scene two different characters try to use the other's anger to get what they want, and the scene escalates in tension until it breaks into a pretty brutal fight. The characters are clever; constantly interacting with their environment (cue ball, boxing stuff, "Go get 'em Sticks", telephone booth guy) without the movie banging you over the head with it and it makes the entire thing feel spontaneous and real. You may recognize this as quality film making. With or without aikido, this is a 5-star, no fooling, great scene.

This sort of thing happens throughout the movie: In an early scene Seagal is driving and in the background a barely visible hooker asks "Want to fuck?" with such disdain that he begins laughing hysterically. When pulls up to the next corner and asks some extras "Did you hear what she just said?" An old man asks, half mocking, "What'd she say, my man? What'd she say, my man?" and Seagal starts laughing again and drives away. This is all one continuous shot and, for a moment, you think you're following a real cop around Brooklyn.

The acting is aces here, as they assembled a fine cast to support Seagal, who turns in his best performance here. William Forsythe gets a star part here as the drugged out psycho and instead underplays the part, forcing the audience to focus on the pathetic nature of the character and actually going for more reality than you would expect. Jerry Orbach plays a prototype of his "Law and Order" character here and is as dependable as a revolver, here. Gina Gershon gets a small part as the sister of Forsythe's character and gives it enough humor and humanity to work (She also gets the dirtiest line in the entire movie). There's a selection of old New York faces playing mafiosi that give their scenes a slick charm.

The biggest compliment I can give this film is that it's the story of a New York cop who's a master of aikido (and while no reason is given in the script, my friend Anton pointed out that there's a katana in the background in one or two shots of his apartment, so good attention to detail, guys) and brutally murders about 25 people in two days, and yet the entire thing feels so organic at times that you can't help but be swept away by the reality of what you're seeing. Great drama, brutal fights, and a solid script make this a lost classic and that's exactly what this blog is here for.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):
- Meat cleaver
- Road rage murder

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"I thought I could teach some Silat in Jakarta."

A hard hitting and thrillingly choreographed bit of business from a recent film we'll be profiling soon. This is from Indonesia's first (but not last) martial arts film, MERANTAU. Enjoy it!