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!

DRUNKEN MASTER (1978, Yuen Woo-ping, Seasonal Films)

If you haven't noticed by now, I like to deal in strong contrasts for the reviews on this site. Yesterday we had the deadly serious Sonny Chiba massacre his way through a squadron of scumbags in THE STREET FIGHTER, and today we have the equally legendary DRUNKEN MASTER, the movie that solidified Jackie Chan's position as the biggest box office draw in Hong Kong since Bruce Lee. Whereas Sonny is power and rage personified, this film is a light farce with impeccably beautiful and physically demanding kung fu choreography. It, along with its predecessor SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW, also made Yuen Woo-ping's reputation as a top action director, and made Jackie's co star Simon Yuen, Yuen Woo-ping's father, into a superstar before his untimely death later that year.

A bit of context for this film: Jackie had been a stuntman on several pictures (most famously in Bruce Lee's FIST OF FURY and ENTER THE DRAGON) and had even landed a small role in John Woo's directorial debut for Golden Harvest THE HAND OF DEATH. The director Lo Wei, who had broken away from Golden Harvest after directing Bruce Lee's first two features, saw something he liked in Jackie and decided to use him as the backbone of his new independent studio.

Unfortunately, Lo Wei saw Jackie as a new Bruce Lee, going so far as to make Jackie's first film a sequel to Bruce Lee's aforementioned FIST OF FURY. After a series of flops, Lo Wei essentially gave up on Jackie and with three films left on his deal, he loaned him out for two pictures to Seasonal Studios run by Ng See-yuen. Seasonal was a small studio that cranked out cheap films quickly, but allowed its talent a wide berth for creative freedom; a sort of Hong Kong AIP. When See-yuen asked Jackie what he'd like to do, Jackie told him his idea for fast and furious parodies of the classic Shaw Brothers kung fu formula. See-yuen hooked Jackie up with Yuen Woo-ping, who was a talented and imaginative director making some extremely bizarre movies at the time, and together they produced two films, both of which broke box office records and made everyone involved into stars. DRUNKEN MASTER is the second, and more famous, of the two.

Why does this film work so well? Let's start with the first character the film introduces us to: a towering assassin named Thunder leg played by Tae kwon do master Hwang Jang Lee. A kung fu comedy runs the risk of losing all its menace which almost defeats the purpose of putting martial arts in the film in the first place. Laughs are great, but at the end of the day the fight scenes should carry the feeling of real danger and the possibility of sudden death, or they're just dance. Whenever Thunder leg is on screen this movie stops joking around, and the first scene in the movie introduces us to him by showing him coldly and easily murder a kung fu master. He'll reappear twice in the film: once in a key scene in the middle of the film that shows Jackie why he must continue training, and once for the final battle. Each time he commands the screen, and his physical screen presence is awe-inspiring. This is a guy who starts off a duel to the death by leaping into the air and shattering a drinking gourd with a perfectly timed kick.

 The second reason this movie works is no surprise to you, Dear Reader: Jackie Chan. Here he played the most legendary hero in Cantonese cinema, Wong Fei-hung, and playing him as a mischievous adolescent. I'll talk about Wong Fei-hung in more depth when I profile movies featuring the character later this month, but suffice to say that he is a figure of great reverence and respect, and Jackie has great fun playing him as a braggart and a rascal, albeit one who has no time for bullies. His first half hour is almost hypnotically watchable, as he moves from terrorizing his teachers; stealing a grope from a pretty girl on the street; getting wrecked by the pretty girl's mother; heroically taking out a bully who is terrorizing peasants; and then finding out the women he harassed earlier were his aunt and cousin whom he hadn't seen in ten years. Jackie's intro in this movie plays a lot like the intros great comedians get in their first few movies. It's almost as if the director is telling you, "Look what this guy can do!"

Now as I mentioned before, this was essentially an independent film and as such, the filmmakers don't have the resources to create the period setting or spice up the films with special effects and wire work. Necessity becomes the mother of invention here, and the filmmakers make up the difference in two ways: First, Jackie pushes his body to incredible levels throughout this film. From holding up wine jugs suspended from his neck as punishment early in the film, to full body situps while filling up a bucket with water during his training, there were quite a few moments where the group I watched this with was frankly shocked at what he was doing.
The second way is that the fight scenes are not just beautiful and balletic, but also thoughtful and clever. The movie has great fun with the kung fu convention of moves that relate to nature, or naming techniques after the movements of animals. Its heroes and villains use this convention sarcastically to mock their opponents, and Jackie triumphantly names movements in the Drunken Style he has learned in a way that remind you of a kid who just discovered he can hit a home run. Cantonese comedy tends to be pretty broad and run towards slapstick, but this parody is actually kind of deft and gives the film's humor some bite.

There are a dozen other wonderful elements to this film that I could go into length about, but my time is short so I'll focus the remainder of the article on the final fight scene which is a no fooling masterpiece of choreography, direction, and performance. It is ten minutes of sustained brilliance between Lee, the super- kick expert and Chan, who has at this point mastered his Drunken Boxing. Chan plays the Drunken Master perfectly here; bobbing and weaving and looking for all the world like he's about to lose control at any moment, while Lee throws kicks that look like they could tear down your house. Control of the fight flows back and forth as Lee is at first taken aback by the Drunken style, and then adapts to it by disrupting Jackie's field of vision with feints and hand gestures which are dramatically shown by the camera taking on Jackie's first person perspective. Spiffy direction there! Jackie then combines the Drunken styles he's learned into a feminine style and, having mastered the dichotomy inside himself, is finally able to overcome our villain. Here it is:

See this film-- it is a thrilling and funny classic that holds up to this day.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):

- An early duel where a bad guy gets ten "free hits" that Jackie makes sure cost him dearly.
- A tavern sequence where Simon Yuen gets to strut his stuff against a Bolo look-alike with interesting chest hair
- Jackie's fight with the Stick King where he first tests out his drunken boxing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

THE STREET FIGHTER (1974, Shigehiro Ozawa, Toei Company)

One of the half dozen or so titles from the initial "Kung fu" craze of the early 70's that is still fondly remembered to this day, THE STREET FIGHTER retains all of it's swaggering (if brutish) charm. Too many of these films, even the great ones, can sometimes feel flat because their heroes are too wrapped up in stoicism. Sonny Chiba is just the opposite; a swaggering menace of a menace who spits out mockeries and crushes scumbags' skulls. He's a man who, when a complete strange lets him know that he wants to crush his heart, lets loose a whisper of a smile before he attacks. He's a killer, sure, but he's never a bore. We like him, if only because we know that if he were to come after us, his ego wouldn't allow for anything but a fair fight.

This is not a film that you can do justice to by describing the plot. In a sentence: Chiba plays Tsurugi, a hired gun who, in the course of a job finds out who controls the Yakuza, and becomes a target for termination. The thrills in this movie don't come from the ingenuity of the story, but the execution (pun intended) of the big story beats. Every fight is punctuated by a wonderful bit of murderous violence. The most famous example comes about two thirds into the film when a fight with gangsters in an alley is emphatically ended with a flying fist to the head. When the impact comes, the screen shifts to "X-Ray" and we see the bad guy's skull being impacted. When we cut back to the man's he face he spews out blood, and slumps down under the crimson rain.

This film is significantly more violent than its Chinese counterparts (even films like 5 FINGERS OF DEATH), and it cannot be denied that the violence (as opposed to just action) is a major part of its appeal. One of the things that make this film legendary to this day is that it was the first film ever to receive an X rating for violence in America. Chiba believed in showing the consequences of the violence, and here the blows do real damage. There are only two extended one-on-one fights in the Chinese style (mostly due to a lack of good martial arts actors and stuntmen in Japan, where the action cinema tends to favor swordplay over fisticuffs), most of the action is hard, fast, and dirty. Chiba is a terror; launching into his enemies with reckless abandon and sadistic glee.

The direction is mediocre, and everything else about this movie feels second-rate, but Chiba's presence puts this over the top as a classic. Any time he's allowed to cut loose, the movie finds it's pulse. I should also note that it's almost impossible to find this film subtitled (which is my preference) and I had to see this dubbed. Even the dubbing (which is about as good as a Godzilla movie's) can do nothing to diminish Chiba's greatness, as his eyes, his manner, and his charisma demand your attention every time.

There are two particularly fine fight sequences which deserve special mention. The first comes about a third of the way into the film, when Tsurugi attempts to convince a man to pay him to shut down the Yakuza. The man Tsurugi fights looks like a Japanese version of The Penguin from Batman, and is a karate sensai. This leads to the most surreal fight in the film where Tsurugi, who has to this point been invincible, is beaten from pillar to post by a Nippon Weeble. There's no way I can describe in words how amusing I find this.

The second is the final fight of the film, and it is pretty spectacular. For all the film's technical shortcomings they do a fine job in creating a slow build between Tsurugi and the principal fighting villain of the piece (played by Masashi Ishibashi, a guy who looks like someone's uncle). The final showdown happens in the rain, atop a Tokyo skyscraper, and the finale is unlike anything I've ever seen in a martial arts film.

NOTE: This film is not an especially enlightened one with regards to race and/or gender. Tsurugi sells a woman who cannot pay his fee into sex slavery early on, and the only black character in the film attempts two rapes before Tsurugi rips his balls off. Keep this stuff in mind before you decide who you watch this exercise in violence with.

COOLEST MOMENTS (That I didn't get to):
- Chiba convinces a death row inmate he's not a real priest with a close up of his deadly eyes.
- Oxygen coma strike.
- Chinese Liberace controls the Yakuza in Hong Kong.
- Chiba punches out a man's teeth and his entire mouth fills up with blood.
- Tsurugi shoves his fingers into a man's eye-sockets, killing him.
- Throat torn out.

"I'm sorry, I know so many styles..."

A rough plan for where this blog is headed in the next month or so:

Reviews for...

- Drunken Master
- The Street Fighter
- 5 Fingers of Death
- Tai Chi Master
- Enter the Dragon

Abstracts concerning...

- Violence in the martial arts film
- The "ghettoization" of martial arts films by retailers and mainstream critics/cinephiles

Profiles of important contributors to the genre:

- Chang Cheh
- Yuen Woo-ping

Hope you're on board for all of that.

HONG KIL DONG (1986, Kil-in Kim, Korea Film)

The first thing you should now about this blog is that, for now, I am only showcasing films I truly love and admire. This is not (at this time) a review site, because a review site implies a separation of wheat from chaff, lambs from goats. A reviewer wades in the river of the medium and spears the keepers. I am not a reviewer. This blog is a celebration of the films that I love and that have touched me from this wonderful genre that gets far too little respect. I don't fish, I just tell you what's good at the seafood joint.

Happily, the style I've chosen contains dozens of enshrined classics; films that are legendary for a select few, films that are just waiting for you to discover them. It also has, even in a genre that is seemingly so dominated by fetishists, lost classics. These films have escaped notice from even enthusiasts, and by happy chance I have discovered and thrilled to them, and now share with you, Dear Reader. The first two films detailed in this blog come from the first category: they may draw blank stares from your Dad, but if you bring them up to a devotee, you'll get a spark of recognition and a delighted smile. This one, on the other hand...

This one is a whole different story.

This film was the closest thing to a direct inspiration for this blog that I can point to, I searched the North Korean (That's right, and more on that later) film database out of idle curiosity, stumbled across this film, and searched the best database on the internet for martial arts films ( and found no info. That disappointment planted the germ of this blog into my mind, and now here it is. What this blog is intended to be is a free form recollection of my experiences with my favorite martial arts movies, as well as a place to discuss themes and signs that recur in these films and try to gauge what these films say to my friends and I. It hasn't been that yet, but hope springs eternal...

I first watched this film in a South Philadelphia row home above a pharmacy with four of my closest friends on a Thursday night. My friends: Vitaly, Tom, Joe, and Steve are all film buffs of one stripe or another, but I wouldn't say that martial arts movies make up their poison of choice. To them, the awesome displays of punching and kicking are Murg Vindaloo and not Roast Chicken. But they were more than happy to indulge me this time. After all, how many times do you get to see a kung fu movie from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? So we crammed into the bedroom with the biggest TV, dimmed the lights, and watched a YouTube rip ( of this film, not really knowing what to expect.

It was glorious. It was nothing at all what I expected and it's kind of a minor masterpiece. Somehow, the strange alchemy of film making turned elements that normally make films from Communist governments crashing bores into boons that gave film even more mythic power. This is even true of the physical film itself; since the crew was working with 20 year old disused Soviet film stock this movie looks like it came from the Golden Age of Shaw Brothers' wuxia run. Marxist propaganda? Normally it makes films impossibly preachy, but here it's all subverted into a Robin Hood style hero with an inter-class love subplot that only serves to aid the meaty melodrama, and a bitter sweet ending that differentiates this film from the Shaw Brothers classics it emulates. Even the Nationalism plays out well enough as it gives our hero enemies worthy of his invincible prowess: a group of bloodthirsty Ninja.

The first fight scene got a big rise out of the assembled, and for good reason: our main character and his mother are beset upon by highwaymen and in rushes Hong kil-dong's grandfather to defend them. This commences a virtuoso display of how to write and direct a fight scene: ol' Grandpa here snaps a steel sword in half and effortlessly disables the rogues with pressure point attacks, which will not abate until they have realized the error of their ways.

Next comes the obligatory training sequence, which is not really noteworthy except for a skill dissolve to show the passage of time which is worthy of the great Hong Kong masters. I cannot stress this enough: the people who made this film knew what they were doing. They wanted to construct an epic hero story, and they do without any of cloying irony that tends to drive American attempts at this sort of thing down. These people were fucking thrilled to make a kung fu movie, and they didn't feel the need to apologize for it. That approach had an unusual effect: they took it seriously, so we took it seriously.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what was, for us, the show-piece of the movie, a scene in which Hong kil-dong's confederates are searching for the evil Ninjas in the countryside and decide to rest at roadside inn. The presence of a lone black horse at the inn makes one of the men suspicious, and the scene becomes a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense. Does this elderly woman know more than she's saying? Will the Ninja attack now or after they've left? Can they survive a Ninja attack? My friend Tom commented after the film that he knew the scene worked because we were deadly silent throughout all of it. In our group, even with films we love, this is pretty rare.

There were other things that got the group's attention: a stunning shot of the main character meditating atop a mountain that looked like matte painting the first time but turned out to be unfake-able; a Stalinist take on the classic tea-house fight where Hong kil-dong gets revenge on the highwaymen who attacked his family; a second scene worthy of Hitch (!!!) where a group of evil land-owners hear a flute (Hong kil-dong's signal that he is near) and go crazy until they find a little boy playing the flute right outside. They take the flute away and have a good laugh, until they hear the flute music start up again.

This movie is available on YouTube for free and you should pirate the shit out of it, because no one who made it got a dime and this stuff is too good for Kim Jong-il anyway.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):
- Anytime Hong kil-dong gets in his superhero outfit.
- A Ninja who has failed in his mission is murdered by his fellow Ninja via a vital point strike that makes him spew blood everywhere.
- A group of Ninja are surrounded on a beach and drop a smoke bomb. When the smoke clears the Koreans realize the ninja have burrowed under the sand, and they have to drive them out TREMORS style.
- Hong kil-dong's enemy is defeated a third time. HKD has sworn to kill him if he ever sees him again, and when his enemy sees him going  for his sword he tells him that he is right to kill him because he has wasted his life. HKD realizes the man has reformed, and instead of killing him he swipes off his hair and tells him his old life is over. This is MARTIAL CHIVALRY~!

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Can you write the word 'respect'?"

No full review today because I have a wedding rehearsal dinner tonight, so instead I present this classic fight scene from MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER between the legendary Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei-hung and Lee Hoi San as Master Cow. It's a prime example of physical storytelling in these films, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976, Jimmy Wang Yu, First Films)

Without a doubt, this is my favorite Chinese film of all time. If you made a checklist of everything you wanted in a kung fu movie (and I would encourage you to do so, because it's a fun way to pass an hour), it still wouldn't have as many brilliant bits of insanity as this film does. It is the work of a deranged savant. To put it into perspective, this is a film where it's not enough to have an evil Yoga master who stretches his arms to strangle his opponents, we also have to see our hero bend one of those arms against a wooden beam and shatter it, all accompanied by a Kroutrock soundtrack that is still legendary in some circles.

This film stars and is directed by Jimmy Wang Yu, who was the biggest star in Asia before Bruce Lee (and again in the years between Bruce's death and Jackie Chan's ascension). Wang Yu is an interesting guy; he's a former swimming champion who became a star in Chang Cheh's ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, which was the first movie to gross 1 million dollars at the Hong Kong box office. He went on to reprise the role for Shaw Brothers in RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (which is another classic) and again in Japan for the little known gem ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, one of the first crossovers of it's kind in film history.

Wang Yu was not a typical action star, he was highly ambitious and creative and ultimately became dissatisfied with working in the Shaw Brothers' studio (Indeed, SB had tried to replace Wang Yu with David Chiang in THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, which is a fine film, though not as good as the two Wang Yu pictures). By the 70's Wang Yu had, with Triad backing, formed his own independent studio in Taiwan called First Films where he wrote, directed, and starred in several films of varying quality.

Audiences demanded another "One Armed" picture and Jimmy obliged in 1971 with THE ONE ARMED BOXER, his own version of the story. Meanwhile, at Shaw in 1975 they had released THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, and Jimmy decided to make a crossover between his ONE ARMED BOXER and the hero of that film.

This film is a revenge plot, but inverted: in this case the villainous title character, not the hero, wants revenge for the deaths of his two students (who were the main antagonists in ONE ARMED BOXER). He sets out, disguised as a Buddhist lama, swearing to kill every one armed man he finds until he gets his revenge. Meanwhile, there's to be a massive kung fu tournament in the One Armed Boxer's region and he sets out to observe it, unaware the Flying Guillotine is on it's way.

The movie's structured like a three act play: In the first act all the major players are introduced, in the second we (and Wang Yu's character) see all the physical bad guys in motion at the tournament, and finally in the third act Wang Yu's character defeat a wonderful collection of foreign baddies. What's really unique is that he doesn't do it through learning a new style, but by studying his opponents' weaknesses and devising traps to exploit them. We, the audience, will see him prepare but the movie never makes it explicit until the trap has been sprung. We find out along with the bad guys, which is inventive.

This film is also pretty stylishly shot and directed. Tarantino has said that this film looks like a Jack Kirby comic, and that's pretty fantastic praise considering how great Kirby's action scenes were. I don't want to get too film critic-y but this movie has a number of beautiful and unusual shots and angles that also make perfect narrative sense, which is saying a lot when you consider this was made on a micro budget and very likely financed by gangsters.


- The entire soundtrack.
- The opening scene is magnificent, as our villain finds out about his students' deaths; decapitates a chicken, blows up his house and swears revenge.
- The entire tournament sequence. Special points for the pole fight with spikes.
- Anytime someone's head is ripped off.
- The Yogi's arm getting broken.
- The fight with the Thai boxer is sadistic and wonderful.
- The entire final fight in the mortuary.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

FIST OF LEGEND (1994, Gordon Chan, Golden Harvest)

This is the movie that got me back into kung fu movies after a very long absence. When I get a pay check, I tend to pick up a DVD or two. I've been doing it for a few years, and have a pretty large collection. I always enjoyed martial arts films and I had quite a few, but I hadn't watched any in a year or so until I saw a three pack Dragon Dynasty had put out with this film and two others (TAI CHI MASTER and MY FATHER IS A HERO) for ten bucks, so I said "Why not?" I brought it home, put this on for me and a couple friends and I've been watching kung fu movies everyday for six months now.

This film as you may or may not know, is inspired by the Bruce Lee film FIST OF FURY (Original US title: THE CHINESE CONNECTION) and it maintains the bare bones of the story: in Occupied Shanghai a brilliant martial artist returns to avenge his master's death at the hands of Japanese occupiers. However, between the early 70's and mid 90's Japan had become one of the biggest markets for Hong Kong action movies, so they have to walk a tightrope here. If you saw CAPTAIN AMERICA (THE FIRST AVENGER) you know what I'm talking about here. In that movie, the bad guys were switched from Nazis to HYDRA agents so Germans wouldn't get too mad. This movie doesn't invent a fictional special weapons division, but it does take time to let you know that some of it's best friends are Japanese: The first thing we see in Japan are antiwar protestors; Jet Li loves a Japanese woman, and hey some of these Chinese guys could work on their tolerance too. There's also a Japanese karate expert who turns out to be a solid guy and gives Jet Li the key piece of instruction he needs to (spoiler) beat the bad guy at the end and win the movie.

When I watched this movie with my buddies we didn't really discuss the racial and nationalistic nuances because we were busy freaking out every time Jet Li got into a fight (which happened at a regular clip). Yuen Woo Ping choreographed these fights, and it shows because even though the wire work is minimal every fight begins with someone going from moving normal to WARP FACTOR 5 in the way that people only seem to do in Yuen Woo Ping movies. I have a real soft spot for the first big fight in the movie where Jet Li beats about 12 Japanese dudes down by dislocating various body parts (including one guy's jaw, which prompts him to literally turn around to his fellow assholes and point to his jaw like "What the fuck is this shit?"). There's a duel between Jet Li and a karate master towards the end of the film that is pretty like a lady: they amongst a cyclone of swirling leaves on the ground and it felt a lot like a Baby Cart movie for a second. Then when the karate master is blinded by swirling flora, Jet Li whips out a scarf and they have a BLINDFOLDED DUEL that is about ten thousand times better than anything they will ever come up with for a Daredevil movie, because they are too busy force feeding everyone the same fight scene twenty different ways over there at Fox.

Sometimes the things other people say about movies are so perfect that they should be presented by themselves and an online acquaintance had this to say about one aspect of the final fight and I think it rings true:

[QUOTE] when he starts whipping [the main bad guy] with his belt like a dog at the end... I mark out every time - Rusellmania [/QUOTE]

Yeah, if you want to see a man get beaten about the face with a heavy leather belt at light speed, this is a movie you need to see.

- Belt whipping
- Blindfold duel, and the MARTIAL CHIVALRY implicit within.
- Jet Li beats up an entire school.
- Japanese general murders underling with a backbreaker.
- Facial dislocation.

Highly recommended.

"Ha ha! You must be tired of living!"

This is a blog about martial arts movies. It won't be limited to the films of any particular nation, era, or genre. If the film features martial arts to my satisfaction, I'll talk about it here. This is not a news site, as I have no access. It's not really a review site in the strictest sense either; that would require me seeing everything new coming out and telling you if it's worth buying/seeing or not and I'm not up for that. This is just a repository for my feelings on the genre and the films I've seen, along with the circumstances of seeing them. I hope that it will be fun for the devotee and informative for the novice.