In the early days of Hong Kong movies, there was a tendency to include “kung fu” competitions as a major theme. This could be between two styles to determine which was the superior or to establish which was the best fighter regardless of style. When Bruce Lee was engineering his breakout into Hollywood, the use of a competition became standard as in Enter the Dragon (1973) and the partial The Game of Death (1978). Thereafter it was everyman and Karate Kid (1984) for himself as Jackie Chan led off with The Big Brawl (1980). with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport (1988), Eric Roberts in Best of the Best (1989) and so on, following on behind. These were innocent times and such stories had the merit of appealing both as examples of the different fighting styles and as offering the chance for the audience to cheer as the underdog pulled off an improbable victory, e.g. Kurt McKinney in No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) where we get to blame Bruce Lee all over again. The fact none of the films was even remotely realistic simply added to the fun of it all. When we came into the 2000s, the fighting got more realistic as in Unleashed (2005) where Jet Li fights a number of vicious opponents for Bob Hoskins. It’s therefore disconcerting and not a little depressing to come to Wu Dang or 大武當 (2012). This rather painful effort revisits the theme of a martial arts competition without making even the remotest effort to make the film fit the mood of our modern times.
Set in the 1930s, we start off with Dr. Tang Yunlong (Zhao Wen-Zhou aka Vincent Zhao) and his daughter Tang Ning (Xu Jiao) establishing themselves as a caring couple. They are on the way to take part in a martial arts competition run by the Wudang Sect (this is is a fictional martial arts sect appropriately based in a Taoist monastery on Wudang Mountain and much favoured by authors of wuxia fiction). We’re supposed to see our hero as an Indiana Jones figure because his first action on landing in China is to steal a treasure map from a gangster called Paul Chen (Shaun Tam). By a “coincidence”, the map appears to show the location of seven treasures hidden on the mountain. Legend says that whoever can bring the seven treasures together will be able to command remarkable powers, i.e. it’s a rerun of The Touch (2002). In fact, the opening fight is actually quite interesting but, thereafter, the tone is set by the first appearance of Tianxin (Mini Yang). Her motive for flying to Wudang Mountain and participating in the competition is to recover her tribe’s lost sword. Hey, guess what! She has exactly the same map as our dashing professor. This suggests a conspiracy in the works. Her first fight in an aeroplane is laughable and, sadly, almost all the rest of the fighting both within the format of the competition and outside it, is badly choreographed with very poor wire work and the sequences cut in a way obviously designed to hide the weakness of the fighters. If in doubt, the director Patrick Leung Pak-Kin, has blows smash through adjacent timber supports or brick walls with the partitions and ceilings collapsing and clouds of dust hiding the next piece of action. The result is stylised, choppy and complete unrealistic. This rather defeats the exercise if this is intended as a “demonstration” of fighting skills.
As if that’s not bad enough, we also have romantic interludes between our trainee monk Shui Heiyi (Siu-Wong Fan) and Tang Ning, while Tang Yunlong and Tianxin also see great benefit in co-operation. Slowly the story develops as we learn Tang Ning is dying of a genetic disorder. This all makes perfect sense now. She hopes to win the competition against all the top fighter summoned to participate before dropping dead. No wait! Daddy has the fake map and if it leads to fake treasures, he can do the magic thing and cure her. Now that would surely be the optimum heart-wrenching way of ending the film and inducing the maximum amount of nausea. Can this be what will happen?
Then when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse in the same way as Storm Warriors, with one of these mystical transformation sequences that takes itself far too seriously and becomes laughable. Magic can be a very effective enhancement to the general fantasy feel of wirework kung fu fighting. With people flying through the air with the greatest of ease thanks to the amount of chi they control, it’s a small step to have them formally invoking godlike powers as the next evolutionary step. But unless this is done with great imagination or kept short, it quickly becomes boring and incomprehensible. Since we can’t be sure how the villain learned this magic (after all, it has not been done for centuries and there isn’t exactly a Magical Transformation for Dummies book lying around) and no-one really knows what the end point of the process is supposed to be, all we get are lines of power and whizzing thingamagummies flying around the body of the villain. Initially, this makes him invulnerable but, when he has to go ten rounds with the best of three falls, three submission or a KO with the professor, the end is certain.
Taken overall, Wu Dang or 大武當 would probably have been considered a reasonable film from Hong King in the 1980s. In 2012, it’s tedious and dull.
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?
We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.
So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials and the Chen village.
In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.
I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.
For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).
Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)
As you will understand from the title, Ip Man 2 is a sequel following the loosely biographical story as Ip Man, also known as Yip Kai-Man, escapes from the mainland to Hong Kong. Those of you who know the history of this period will understand that some adjustments had to be made to the underlying story. The first Ip Man shows the eponymous hero in Foshan during the Second Sino-Japanese War which ended in 1945. This is untrue. He did not return to Foshan until after the Japanese had been expelled. Worse from the point of view of the Chinese authorities, he was a police officer and a loyal member of the Kuomintang. Once the Communists came to power, Ip Man retreated back to Hong Kong where he had spent some time as a teenager. All these political problems were glossed over in self-censorship by having Ip Man become a Chinese hero for beating the Japanese army’s martial arts expert. It’s then expedient for him to be carried, wounded, to Hong Kong at the beginning of this film.
As with the first film, this continues with the slightly deadpan Donnie Yen in the title role. The character of the man is shown as humble but with stubborn integrity, i.e. he would prefer never to have to fight to prove anything but, if push literally comes to shove, he will defend himself and the reputation of his fighting style. Much of the first part of the film is taken up with the politics of running a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Ip Man refuses to pay for membership of the local association which is apparently run by Master Hong Zhun-nam (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and Fatso (Kent Cheng). In fact, the whole system is front for a protection racket run by a corrupt senior officer in the police force. As a result of his refusal to pay, Ip Man’s “unauthorised” school is attacked and closed.
The narrative structure of this film is an almost exact copy of the first. We establish the character of the Ip Man. He faces a challenge that disrupts his quiet lifestyle. In the first, the Japanese arrive and desperate local thugs start a protection racket. In the final act, there’s a climatic fight with a reasonably villainous opponent. At this point, it’s interesting to compare both parts of the Ip Man story with Fearless (2006) in which Jet Li fights an honourable Japanese champion (Shidô Nakamura). I mention this film because Jet Li disposes of the giant Hercules O’Brian with little difficulty, i.e. the assumption of the film is that Chinese and, by implication, Japanese martial arts are inherently superior to Western boxing and wrestling skills. In Ip Man 2, there’s a big build-up to the fight with Twister (Darren Shahlavi). The obvious intention of the film is to demonise the colonial British. The police force is shown to be largely corrupt and expat entrepreneurs are milking the Chinese for their own profit. The character Twister is wonderfully melodramatic with bulging muscles, a giant ego and little in the brain department. Without exception, all the British in the local fight scene are portrayed as deeply racist, convinced of their innate superiority over the little yellow men. When Twister disrupts a demonstration of the different local styles of fighting, this provokes Master Hong into fighting. He knows he should not. As an asthmatic and older man, he can only fight at something approaching his best for a relatively short period of time. But he feels the honour of the Chinese way of fighting is at stake. He’s therefore prepared to sacrifice himself to prove the point (one way or the other).
In the first exchanges he’s equal to the British champion. But, as he tires, Twister starts to hit him at will. Rather than fall down and save himself, he holds the rope and is beaten to death. This brutal display is embarrassing to the British hierarchy who begin a cover-up, but Twister opens his mouth and issues another challenge. This time, Ip Man accepts. The fight is fairly remarkable because, unlike the earlier “exchange of pointers” between Ip Man and Master Hung which is dominated by fanciful wire work, this is a fight in which both combatants “obviously” hit (and kick) each other. In a relatively short space of time, Ip Man has been felled to the canvas and his face starts to swell with bruising. There’s no sanction when Twister hits Ip Man after the bell has gone and the judges instruct Ip Man that kicking is not allowed, i.e. the fight is being fixed. In a flurry of blows and changes in fighting style, most of which would be illegal under Western boxing rules, Twister is then beaten into insensibility. The fight event ends with an embarrassing “why can’t we just respect each other and get along” speech by the battered Ip Man. The British take a moment to think about how awfully bad they have been and then applaud the sentiment. Frankly, this doesn’t quite fit the plot. When the good guy batters the demon, some degree of triumphalism is expected. All that happens is that Ip Man jogs off to see his new-born baby. His wife played by Lynn Hung has been working on the baby behind the scenes while our hero trains for the fight. The happy couple then disappears back into semi-obscurity. With respect to the director, Wilson Yip, this is not quite the political and emotional pay-off we deserve. Although I concede it’s a nice touch to see him send the young Bruce Lee away at the end.
Unlike the first Ip Man which was more a solo vehicle, this gives fairly equal prominence to Sammo Hung who turns in a characteristically fine performance in acting, fighting and doing the fight choreography. Because Donnie Yen plays Ip Man as a rather gentle man (even prepared to run away if it becomes necessary), it’s somewhat low key to put against Sammo Hung except in their over-the-top fight when they both go at each other with something like full speed. Even though he’s getting old and experienced heart problems while filming, Sammo Hung is a delight to watch in full flow. Wilson Yip turns in a solid performance as director but I’m not sure he could decide what he wanted as the focus of the film. The first Ip Man is very much about the man who reluctantly agrees to teach his fighting style when the country starts to fall apart. The final fight to complete the demonisation of the Japanese is perfectly judged as the victorious Ip Man is shot in the back. That’s a real emotional pay-off. It should be said that the actual Japanese opponent was not wholly dishonourable, but he’s surrounded by people who are.
The sequel seems to be about demonising the colonial British, but it metaphorically pulls its punch at the end. It’s also less about the Wing Chun fighting style because the wire work takes a significant part what we see too far away from reality. A far more interesting approach would have been to show Ip Man and Master Hong learning from each other and developing the more sophisticated version of Wing Chun that would be passed on to Bruce Lee. The only redeeming feature is that, in the final fight, Ip Man is shown losing his aura of invincibility. He’s knocked down by a good fighter with very fast hands. Perhaps we should just see Ip Man as a modest hero doing nothing more than is necessary to prove his point and then waking away. Overall, Ip Man 2 is enjoyable but not as good as the first. I’m not surprised Donnie Yen refused to play the part again.
Dragon or Wu Xia is a fascinating film, underpinning the martial arts action with two major social themes: which is the stronger influence, nature or nurture? and whether at a society level through rehabilitation, or an individual level through redemption, can a wrongdoer reform?
Let’s take a central image. I plant an acorn and carefully watch the first green shoots grow into a strong tree. No matter what I might do to the tree during its formative period, it will always grow into an oak. It’s true that some radical surgery might produce a miniaturised bonsai version, but the seed determines the outcome. Translating this into a human context, we might take a view that all babies are born innocent of sin so, if they become wrongdoers, it’s because of their upbringing. Parents are the ones most often blamed for their children’s failures. Or we might stay with the idea of a bad seed and exonerate the parents. No matter what they tried, the child was born a wrongdoer and would always end up in jail.
In the opening frames we meet Li Jin-xi (Donnie Yen). Set in 1917, he’s living a peaceful life in rural Yunnan province. A clan member for some ten years, he married Ayu (Wei Tang), an abandoned wife with a son. They now have a son of their own. He works to make paper and is increasingly respected in the community. One day, two villains pass through the village and, because it amuses them, they try to extort money from the owner of the general store. There’s an extended fight and Jin-xi not only survives, but also leaves the two dead. Xu Bail-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police inspector with forensic skills, takes over the investigation. He’s fascinated by the notion that an “ordinary” man could best two veteran kung fu exponents. Although I could have done without the CSI-style slow-motion recreations of what happens inside the body, the deconstruction and reconstruction of this initial fight is remarkable. I cannot recall seeing anything similar and, without anything more, this is a strong reason to see the film on a big screen so that you don’t miss any of the detail. Seeing where the feet were placed, how a tooth happened to end up inside the jar, how the ear was lost, and so on, is a tour de force. This initial evaluation triggers an investigative battle between the detective and the man with something to hide. It’s surprising they don’t kill each other.
As the detective, Xu Bail-jiu is fighting his essential nature. He was a young, idealistic and empathetic man and, taking pity on a young boy, allowed him to return home. Unfortunately, the boy then killed his parents and permanently damaged Xu Bail-jiu with poison. The detective is left treating himself with acupuncture to prevent the poison from spreading and, sadly, to suppress his empathy. No-one can now be forgiven. When he married, he even handed over his father-in-law to the police for selling fake medicines. He’s chosen to believe the law is infallible and that his role is dispassionately to seek out wrongdoers. He can then wash his hands and leave it to the law to process the criminals. He’s not clear what the outcome of this process should be. The failure of his own decision to give a second chance convinces him rehabilitation is a waste of time. To him, the only good criminal is a criminal behind bars. So when he establishes a good prima facie case that Jin-xi was the second-in-command of the 72 Devils, a notoriously bloodthirsty Tangut tribe, he sets off to the local city to get a warrant for Jin-xi’s arrest. Having borrowed the money, he bribes a judge to get the warrant. In turn, the judge seeks to sell the information of Jin-xi’s whereabouts to the 72 Devils. The detective, with a few police officers in tow, and the 72 Devils therefore converge of the village where our hero has been hiding.
We hear Jin-xi talk about his father (Jimmy Wang Yu) and this prepares us for the family reunion when the main group of the 72 Devils arrives. Now we come to the heart of the film. As a child, Jin-xi missed his father when the gang went out on its raids, so he went along and saw exactly what was being done. After a time, he could no longer stand the excessiveness of the violence. Disgusted with himself and what he had become, he ran away and hid in this village. Both Jin-xi and Xu Bail-jiu therefore find themselves in the same position. As individuals, they have become the sum of their life’s experiences. So which side of their personality will win out? Is Jin-xi inevitably the brutal son of his brutal father? Can Xu Bail-jiu reform and become the empathetic man he once was?
Donnie Yen has the more difficult role if he’s to engage our attention. From the outset we know he cannot be an innocent villager. He’s therefore more of an enigma until we start to hear him talk about his past. Then we can more clearly identify with his struggle to stay true to his wife and family. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a wonderful job as Xu Bail-jiu. He’s a good man deceiving himself. Self-righteousness has blinded him to the harm he does. Even his police boss offers good advice in vain. Yet slowly we can watch the seeds of doubt take root. It’s a carefully measured performance and it carries the opening third of the film with Wei Tang’s Ayu. She sees the good in both men and has the courage to trust they will both eventually do the right thing. Finally, it’s a joy to see Jimmy Wang Yu back in Hong Kong. He’s marvellously malevolent as the father. Put simply, if the Master can no longer have his son, his grandson will do.
Let me finish this review with a mention of a line in this film’s marketing that suggests Dragon or Wu Xia is an adaptation of the One-Armed Swordsman or Dubei dao, a film made in Hong Kong in 1967. Giving credence to this story is the fact this early “classic” starred Jimmy Wang Yu. Well, it’s been my misfortune to sit through this epic drama. Essentially shot in a studio with cheesy sets, it tells the story of a put-upon orphan who’s adopted by a kung fu master. When he proves more skilled than the great man’s daughter and some jealous students, he’s maimed and barely escapes with his life. In due course, he returns to rescue this undeserving shower from a plot to exterminate the entire clan using a quite clever device to neutralise the famous sword fighting style. Our one-armed hero wins because he has learned to fight using his left arm and a shortened sword. Even allowing for the more naive times during which this film was made, it always was embarrassing, being yet another example of Hong Kong’s determination to churn out content regardless of quality. So be reassured. Dragon or Wu Xia is so completely different that I wonder at the decision to even mention One-Armed Swordsman. The problem is casting Jimmy Wang Yu as the father in Dragon or Wu Xia. This creates a link. The director, Peter Chan, should have said he cast Jimmy Wang Yu because he was the best man for the new film. If challenged, he could admit watching One-Armed Swordsman and, having resisted the temptation to commit suicide, learned all that was to be avoided in making kung fu films.
If you have the chance to see Dragon or Wu Xia on a big screen, don’t hesitate. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is wonderful and the story mesmerising.
For some reason, the summer season is associated with big crowd-pleasing blockbusters. When the sun is beating down and there are so many distractions outdoors, the studios release the films they believe will pull the crowds. In many cases, their choices are really bad. It can just be that the particular script-writing committee and associated focus groups were particularly poorly co-ordinated so the plot emerges in a chaotic state. More often, it’s obvious the cast were only interested in taking the money and finishing as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, the summer is often the graveyard of the studios’ hopes and expectations.
This year from Hollywood has been no exception. There have been some real stinkers. Looking in the other directions, there have been some good films from Europe and one or two excellent offerings from Hong Kong and China. Well, the mould has now been broken with the arrival of Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan from the remarkably prolific Jing Wong. This just goes to show that, whatever Hollywood can do, Hong Kong can beat if it puts its mind to it.
Welcome to the wacky world of wuxia comedy. When this fires on all cylinders not only is the fighting superb, but the laughs flow as well. Treasure Inn is a classic example of how not to do it. I suppose the starting points for this pastiche were Dragon Inn or Long men kezhan (1967) and Dragon Inn or Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) which are wonderful straight fighting films set in a remote desert inn. So, as a modern director, you pick your targets carefully. This will have the Inn act as a haunt for criminals who auction off stolen goods to the highest bidders, making it a lure to all the best thieves who want the top return on their skills. In this instance, it’s all about a jade life-sized Goddess of Mercy. A gang of raiders hire a criminal mastermind to steal it for them and pass it on at the Inn. Standing in their way is an elite group of police agents led by Captain Iron (Kenny Ho). Also involved are Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung playing bottom-feeder officers, left to do household chores by their corrupt local officers. When they insert themselves into the investigation, they are accused of being the thieves and then make a break from jail thanks to the efforts of Fire Dragon Girl (Yi Huang) and Water Dragon Girl (Charlene Choi). Needless to say, this pairs off our “heroes” — you can tell this is love at first sight because of the red hearts that burst across the screen when their eyes meet. Yes, some of the humour is that primitive. The other element of romance is between Tong Da Wei as a doctor in love with Ling Long (Liu Yang), the lady who runs the Inn.
Perhaps it’s an age thing but, when I watch a film, I want it to make sense. I can understand why the corrupt local police would want to drive the innocent do-gooders away, but why they would stay in the face of this relentless abuse is unclear. What makes this a problem is that, when the murders and theft of the statue occur, they are fast to insert themselves into the investigation and obviously ambitious to be recruited into Captain Iron’s troop. Later, when accused of being the robbers, we have slapstick torture and then the rescue by the cross-dressing ladies. There’s no attempt at explanation of why one of the ladies should be locked up with our heroes, nor why the three should be sentenced to death without any kind of trial. I suppose we have to have the ladies readily agree to go to the Inn because that’s the way love works in these films. I could go on but you should understand that, except in the broadest of terms, there’s very little logic or consistency of characterisation at work in this film.
I might have forgiven all this and accepted the one or two laugh-out-loud moments as compensation if the fighting had been any good. Sadly, we are into poor cutting to hide the lack of good fighting sequences. You can always tell you’re in trouble when the use of sound as a weapon is so heavily featured with red blades of doom being cast off the guitar strings while a lion’s roar comes back. Even the CGI storm that rages around and eventually destroys the Inn is embarrassingly bad.
It’s rare I emerge from the cinema unable to find a single redeeming feature. While accepting that humour often does not cross cultural boundaries, it’s possible this film is aimed at mainland Chinese markets and they will all fall about laughing from start to finish. Certainly, much of the humour is lower common denominator and basic — as in the usual argument about who such suck out the snake venom from one of our hero’s buttocks — so if cultural stereotypes are true, this will make a lot of money. Worse, there’s little passion in any of the three romances to distract us, and the fighting fails to deliver anything entertaining.
So even when Treasure Inn is scheduled on terrestrial television, think twice before spending time to watch it.
The Four is a 24 episode drama series made in Hong Kong, retelling the restoration of the Divine Constabulary by Emperor Hui Zong under the leadership of Zhuge Zhengwo played by Dominic Lam, and the stories of four constables: Heartless played by Raymond Lam, Iron Fist played by Kenneth Ma, Chaser played by Sammul Chan, and Cold Blood played by Ron Ng. It plays a standard game of wrapping up a mixture of detective stories in court intrigue with TV-level kung fu characterised by poor wire work, second-rate cutting, and slow motion to create a risible effect. That said, the story is actually quite interesting even if the production values are poor.
We start with Zhuge kicking his heels for ten years. The Divine Constabulary has been closed down and corruption is now rampant across the Empire. His friend, General Shu Mo-Hei played by Ram Tseung, gets him a commission to carry a sword to Price Qi. He takes his foster son, Heartless, with him. At the mansion, the three most prized swords are stolen and there are three murders. We meet Iron Fist and the man who will become known as Chaser. A rapid-fire investigation follows to show how a locked-room murder can be done, explaining why it can be necessary to move a body and showing why knowing everyone’s history can be important when it comes to solving cases. On their way to the capital to petition the Emperor to reopen the Divine Constabulary, they see an assassin kill the leader of one of the pugilist sects. A second murder by the same assassin follows in the capital. Chaser has already seen the assassin’s face and Iron Fist is on hand looking for a job. The seemingly indestructible assassin will become Cold Blood and complete the quartet.
Zhuge makes a deal with the Emperor to reopen the Constabulary if the team can find the treasure supposedly stashed away to pay for a rebellion plus a medallion that obliges the Emperor to grant one wish to the holder. In a race with the clans who also want the medallion, the solution depends in part upon understanding a riddle and being able to put a map together. However, we get into the realms of wuxia fantasy as following the movements in a kung fu manual provides written instructions. When Zhuge fulfills the promise and returns the medallion to the Emperor for destruction, he is allowed to reopen the Constabulary and informally resume the fight against the corrupt Prime Minister Cai Jing.
This is not the place to discuss the fantasy elements permeating wuxia storytelling, but in this series, there are two continuing sources of amusement. First is the militarised wheelchair and general fighting techniques used by Heartless. Second, who would have thought that 12th century China had so many beautifully paved roads across the countryside and ramps so conveniently placed to enable wheelchair access to buildings. Only when the Constables get into the stone forest is he defeated and it falls to Iron Fist and his “partner” to run around until captured by the group using fake supernatural events as a cover for embezzlement. In the end, the constabulary is able to protect the villagers, so drawing the lines of battle more clearly with corrupt officialdom.
There’s then a particularly weak story element about a plague of zombies, the only real benefit being to encourage the formation of closer bonds between the constables and the women who are “obviously” intended to become their partners. This trend is further reinforced by the next story element which has a merchant scamming armed couriers. In fact, he’s fronting for the corrupt leadership of the clans. By coincidence, the daughter of the clan leader is the love interest for Cold Blood. The plans of the corrupt Cai Jing, played with over-the-top evil enthusiasm by Lau Kong then more clearly come into view with a faintly weird story about weapons that can effectively decapitate their victims, while paid agitators ferment yet more trouble between the clans. The return of those and similar “invincible” weapons at the end gives a pleasing structure to the whole with the origin of the weapons showing how long Cai Jing has been planning rebellion.
Now Cai Jing moves to the next phase of his slow-burning plan by staging a fight between warring clans which threatens the Emperor. This persuades the inevitably dim leader to organise a knock-out contest to unite the pugilist clans. All the major clans will enter a representative and the winner will be accepted as leader of the pugilist world. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s puppet pugilist needs to eliminate the one real threat before having to fight him. So explosives are placed on the boat bringing the righteous contender and two of the Constables to the villa where the contest is to be staged. Believing him to be dead, Ruo-Fei, his daughter, takes his place and, through blind luck, wins the first round fight. The remaining Constables decide to train the daughter to give her a chance of winning the next round. Meanwhile the survivors of the explosion are trapped on an island with what may be a dangerous animal (possibly mythological) — as you can see, no stone is left unturned for plot elements.
The story of events twenty years in the past comes back into focus as the man causing trouble between the clans turns out to have been involved in a death investigated by Zhuge. This leads to a reconciliation between Zhuge and Yan Hong, the daughter of the apparent suicide and now the wife of Prince Qi. In due course we have Cold Blood rehabilitated as his previous status as assassin is revealed. In the process, Cai Jing’s son is implicated in running an illegal gold mine and banished, in part because those managing the mine raped the women including Iron Fist’s sister and the woman intended for Chaser.
Zhi Yan played by Kate Tsui, skilled TCM practitioner and undercover operative for Cai Jing is becoming more active which complicates her relationship with Heartless. Heartless and Iron Hand finally identify their fathers who were set up and destroyed twenty years ago by Cai Jing so he could steal the designs for the “invincible” weapons. Iron Hand also discovers he has a previously unknown brother who is later killed by Zhi Yan.
In the end game, it all comes down to a battle between Cai Jing and the Divine Constabulary with everything turning on the loyalty of Zhi Yan. The plotting and counter-plotting is pleasing as we watch Zhuge’s plans go awry. The fighting against the invincible weapons is more than a little silly but, in the spirit of the show, the team responsible for special effects and fight choreography do their best on a limited budget.
Indeed, taking an overview, the series manages to transcend the weaknesses of the individual parts and become quite consistently entertaining. The only serious narrative weakness lies in the “love” element. With the exception of Kate Tsui’s Zhi Yan which is a well developed role, most of the other women are either decorative or not so gently mocked — Lam Ruo-Fei played by Selena Li is first presented as a spoilt child before being allowed to become something more than merely ineffective as a fighter. In an extended postscript to the battle, our brave heroes are rewarded by the Emperor but, despite their best efforts, all love is doomed by the script writers in this era of Chinese history. Hilariously, Zhuge sets off on a lechery tour of China, using his wuxia skills to seduce young maidens. The only one allowed any dignity is Zhi Yan who rides off into the sunset on a medical mission to improve the health of the poor. At the end, the Four are left holding off invading Jin troops at the pass and facing certain death — just as well there are no women around to slow them down as even Heartless jumps into the air in excitement at the thought of the expected slaughter.
There’s also a cinema version showing the Four come together. See The Four or Si Da Ming Bu (2012).
It’s always interesting when history collides with fantasy and our modern sensibilities. In one sense, The Lost Bladesman is a glorification of fighting skills seen through a lens now more comfortable with arcade and online games where our hero must navigate various levels, using different weapons, to reach the winning destination. Yet, for all the virtuosity of the set-piece combat elements, the film transcends mere fighting with sword, spear and guandao, and becomes an interesting examination of what it means to be righteous.
This is a part of the story of Guan Yu Chang who was a sworn brother to, and general for, Liu Bei. It focuses on the crossing of the five passes and the slaying of six generals as described in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, coming before the battles portrayed in Red Cliff and Red Cliff II.
In this, it’s important to recognise that Guan Yu was deified not long after his death. He’s still respected in the Confucian religion and worshipped as a guardian deity in Taoism and as a bodhisattva in Buddhism, becoming a more general figure of worship in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and other places where Chinese culture has gained a foothold. So when you bring this character to the big screen, you have to show his primary features as loyalty and righteousness.
I suppose we don’t have to worry too much about the historical accuracy of what’s shown save that most of the military tactics and the basic fighting skills are realistic. Even the repeating crossbow, capable of being fired one-handed, is accurately reproduced. Whether Guan Yu invented and used the guandao, aka podau, rather than the more likely dagger-axe — a form of halberd — is also irrelevant. Long pole fighting was common at the time. The key to understanding the film comes from the contrast between Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen, and Cao Cao, played by Wen Jiang.
Let’s think of Cao Cao as a pragmatist working towards the unification of the kingdoms. He has captured Guan Yu and wants to recruit him. Almost without exception, all the other senior officers who surrender or are captured, are mercenary and agree to fight under new colours. Such is the practicality of the day and fighting men of skill do what they must to survive. But Guan Yu is not an ordinary man. He confirms his primary loyalty will always be to his sworn brother Liu Bei. It’s clear that, as soon as Guan Yu finds out where his “master” has gone, he will leave Cao Cao’s service.
Because Cao Cao is willing to accept even temporary allegiance in the hope of eventually convincing Guan Yu to give up Liu Bei, he introduces the man to the Emperor Liu Xie. Unfortunately, Guan Yu soon learns that Liu Bei has moved south to join Yuan Shao. Despite Cao Cao’s attempt to use Guan Yu’s sister-in-law Qi Lan, played by Betty Sun, to keep his allegiance, Guan Yu sets off to find Liu Bei with Qi Lan in tow. Cao Cao is content to let him go, believing it better to have an honourable opponent than a forced servant. Unfortunately, Liu Xie, played by Bo-Chieh Wang, refuses to accept this decision, challenging his position as the puppet Han Emperor. His role in the kingdom is equivocal. In theory, he’s the ruler by divine right, but all the Ministers and senior officials accept Cao Cao as the de facto ruler. The Emperor fears Guan Yu will resume his status as a military tiger and, without Cao Cao’s knowledge, orders the man’s death. When first attacked, Guan Yu simply intends to fight his way south but, with Qi Lan later recaptured, he sets off on a revenge trail north again, believing himself betrayed by Cao Cao.
First the fight choreography by Donnie Yen under the overall direction of Felix Chong and Alan Mak. This is spectacular and, although one part of the sequence involving Han Fu’s ambush in a building with a waterwheel is shot in partial darkness, and the fight against Ban Xi’s troops is out of sight behind closed doors, the overall effect is simply wonderful. This is one of the best martial arts films of the last year. But it’s the interplay with Cao Cao that gives the film depth.
Planning the military campaigns in their country retreat, we can watch the inner circle formulating policy. When Cao Cao discovers the Emperor has overruled his instruction to grant Guan Yu safe passage, his initial anger is calmed by the thought, “It’s better to be wrong than wronged.” When you have the power of life and death over others, there’s no penalty if you are merely in error. But there can real problems if others wrong you, for then you have to decide whether to accept the “injustice”. He realises that, to the Emperor, he’s simply considered mistaken — a view actually accepted by most of his inner circle. The Emperor does not intend Cao Cao to lose face. In reviewing the decision, he decides he will probably win without Guan Yu on his side and so changes his mind. If Cao Cao was righteous, he would have been honour-bound to insist Guan Yu be allowed to leave without further action against him.
The second pivotal scene is the discussion between Cao Cao and a monk who berates the Prime Minister for being more interested in personal power than serving the needs of the people. This does not mean Cao Cao is not generous to the people. He feeds them and, when prompted, finds work for them. But this is only a way of buying their peaceful submission. It’s not done to empower them or to improve their position in any real way. Indeed, arguably, their position grows worse through their dependence of Cao Cao’s generosity. Having nothing to lose, Cao Cao accepts the monk’s view as correct and leaves with a smile.
Taken as a whole, this is a thoughtful martial arts film with Wen Jiang finding real depth in his portrayal of Cao Cao. This is not the simple black-and-white, evil prime minister who traditionally graces the screen as the manipulative back-stabber. This offers a real counterbalance to Guan Yu’s code of morality requiring loyalty to his brother and virtuousness in support of the people. If it was left to Guan Yu, there would be no fighting or, if it was unavoidable, it would only be on the battlefield. Cao Cao is more practical and kills anyone who gets in his way, no matter where they are. In the end, they go their separate ways because that’s the fairest way of resolving this episode. It may not be quite the same as written by Luo Guanzhong in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but that doesn’t stop The Lost Bladesman being one of the best “historical” dramas of the last year.
About half way through this film, I began thinking about the best meaning to give to the adjective “affectionate”. It’s an easy word to dismiss because it falls somewhere short of love and, in our rather back and white culture, we seem to consider mere affection as somehow a failure. In a society where we’re all supposed to be trying for love, this is a wishy-washy second-best. Yet, in more open-minded terms, we can always say that affection is a forerunner to love. It’s that warm feeling you get when you meet someone. It’s that positive sense you enjoy someone’s company. It’s something you treasure because, in those shared moments, you know you are both special and set apart from the general crowd around you.
Well, although this is not a review of a relationship, it’s a statement about the way the filmmakers and cast so obviously feel about both kung fu and basketball. And before we go any further, I need to say a few words about Shaolin Soccer which is Stephen Chow having fun (again). Both films must come to a confrontation between a team of underdog heroes and an “evil” team. Since there will be wire work and SFX, the ball will act in strange ways that do not follow the usual laws of physics, while the players will move through the air as if able to defy gravity. Such is the fantastical beauty of kung fu when it stops taking itself seriously and decides to play for fun. Yet the two films are actually chalk and cheese, with the soccer more deliberately intended as an action comedy, whereas the basketball is really about a young man growing up and recognising who his friends are.
Kung Fu Dunk was originally intended as a big screen adaptation of a highly popular Japanese manga series created by Takehiko Inoue called “Slam Dunk!” Except, when director Yen-ping Chu began work, he realised a different approach was required. Thus, Kung Fu Dunk starts off as if it’s going to be played for laughs — a baby found abandoned by a basketball court is taken in by a kung fu school where he has the good fortune to see his shifu (that’s a kung fu master for those of you not educated in the ways of these films) lose control of a complicated kata intended to control time and freeze to death. It then charts the boy’s startling lack of success in relationships with girls and leads us to his modern day existence as the top student whose primary job is to pretend the school principal can punch like a mule. This is Fang Shi Jie played by Jay Chou. When he fails to give a convincing performance, he’s kicked out for the night and meets the redoubtable Eric Tsang as Zhen Wang Li, an impoverished trickster with a heart of gold. So begins the real story as the orphan finally gets the chance to learn the benefits of having a father-figure in his life and the power that can come from a team as a family.
What gives the film its strength is the natural chemistry between Jay Chou and Eric Tsang. Although the basketball team led by Ting Wei (played by Bo-Lin Chen), the girl Li-Li (played by Charlene Choi), and the teachers at the kung fu school are all important in what, for the most part, is an ensemble piece, Eric Tsang must be credible for it all to hang together. Fortunately, he gives a quietly understated performance and, most importantly, pulls an improving performance out of Jay Chou who starts out as slightly wooden, but ends with a genuine sense of affection for the conman and loyalty to the rest of the team. Whereas kung fu is mostly about individual skills (except for some of the most extravagant formations we see on the large screen), a game of basketball is won by individuals who trust each other and sacrifice their own glory when it’s necessary.
First a word about the kung fu. There’s a terrific fight sequence in an expensive bar owned by one of the owners of the “evil” team. This sets the tone for the relationship between the “good” guys and the “bad”. More importantly, it establishes that Jay Chou can fight convincingly. All I will note about the sequence is that, at the end, the major ornament above the circular bar falls to the ground and smashes. It’s a double dragon and a reminder of the shaolin style. The basketball, when shown in training and played straight, is also convincingly skillful. When the two are combined, the results are pleasingly absurd. The intervention of the teachers is masterful with unexpected prowess from the one female teacher. It just goes to show you should never underestimate the ones that look the weakest. They can compensate for power with low cunning and a knowledge of the acupuncture points. If push does come to shove, the right application of chi delivers the momentum needed to surprise even a school principal.
This is a film that could have been a sentimental and hackneyed copy of Shaolin Soccer. Instead, it’s an affectionate take on both the tropes of kung fu and the drama that comes from basketball played well. Although there are some good individual jokes, it’s less a comedy and more an “entertainment”. However you choose to put it, this is a fun sporting film that tells a good story about family and sporting values. It also shows that if you put Jay Chou in the right part in the right film, he can deliver a better than good performance. Unlike Secret in which he miscast himself, this is showing off real star power. It’s easy to see why, after two more films, he should end up in Hollywood playing Kato in The Green Hornet. As a final note, Jay Chou is, of course, a musician and wrote the score for the soundtrack.
When you view any foreign film, the inevitable first response is to filter the experiences through the lenses of your own cultural expectations. What you see triggers associations with memories of your own visual experience. You are reminded of television programmes and films you have seen. Because of Western notions of supremacy, you tend to find foreign films derivative. You think whatever you recall from your own culture must have come first. That the foreigners have merely copied these ideas. In the 1950s, I grew up with the constant reinforcement of the post-war myth that everything made in Japan was a cheap copy of one of “our” inventions. This gave us two reason to think badly of Japan (apart from the war which, as victors, we were supposed to put behind us as we rebuilt for the future). That all they could do was copy. There was no natural creativity. And that everything they did produce was cheap and poor value. In reality, this was the worst of manipulative protectionism, shielding our manufacturers from the very effective competition from abroad.
So it is particularly fascinating to come to Volcano High aka WaSanGo, a film written and directed by Kim Tae-Gyun, made in Korea in 2001. A casual first glance would nominate key words like kung fu, action and fantasy. But there’s rather more cultural substance to it. No matter what you might expect, this is not a routine “kung fu with fantasy elements” movie set in a High School. It’s a clever and innovative way of examining some of South Korea’s core values.
For a moment, let’s think about the culture of South Korea which derives its power from a mixture of Shamanism and Confucianism. It has the same general materialism of other “Asian” countries (using Asian in its broadest sense) valuing success and seeking for sufficient prosperity to ensure good health and a long life. But the primary values are filial piety, focussed on the family and depending at its root in continuous deference to those who are older and in positions of authority. This runs through the worship of ancestors, a practice intended to reinforce a general emphasis of social hierarchy. Everyone has their status and the respect accorded it. Maintaining this pecking order maintains a spirit of collectivism and social harmony. Conformity and loyalty to the peer group is fundamental. Yet there is always a potential for change through Shamanism. This proposes the view that there is an animate power in particular objects and nature in general, which can directly affect the fortunes of every individual.
So it is that Kim Kyeong-su played by Jang Hyuk comes to Volcano High. This is the end of the line for him. He has been kicked out of all the other local schools for indiscipline. In this, he is a great disappointment to his father who has always taught him to respect his elders and, if necessary, take a beating to prove it. This goes hard for the young man who is actually possessed of great supernatural abilities. Able to draw on water for strength and energy, he could be the most devastating of kung fu exponents. Yet, in this last chance saloon, no matter whether he is personally humiliated or he perceives others around him unjustly victimized, he makes a virtue of turning the other cheek.
What makes the story so interesting is the subversive nature of the actual power relationships both among the students and the staff. In this kind of film, we are always dealing with clichés. There’s the terrible school bully who uses his fighting skills to intimidate everyone else. This is Jang Ryang played by Su-Ro Kim When he deems the time right, he notifies the beautiful and righteous girl, Yu Chae-i played by Shin Min-A, that she is now to consider herself his girl. Needless to say, this is not well received. Then there’s the devious school deputy who is prepared to go to any lengths to secure possession of a kung fu manual hidden away by the mild-mannered school principal. Indeed, because it has remained hidden, there has been a seventeen-year lull in the feuds between the different clans and factions. The myths say whoever holds the manual will rule the world. So at a personal level, the deputy must oppose his “boss”, while at a society level, the prize is the ability to defeat the Korean hierarchy. It represents the end of deference and the use of skills to establish a new pecking order.
As you might predict, Kim’s arrival destabilises the dynamics among the students. The fact he chooses not to fight is more than obvious to all who see him. Then the plans of the deputy go awry and, with the principal incapacitated, he must call in outside help to find the manual and subdue the students. The arrival of a high-powered squad of five enforcers is the catalyst to bring Kim’s powers out in their full glory. In this he is fortunate that it’s raining most of the time — a factor that gives Kim access to enough power to beat all-comers. All he needs to do is break the conditioning imposed on him by his father and, when you place him in full context, all Korean society. Consider that he is now defying a group identified as disciplinary masters representing the power and authority of the Education Ministry. The fact they are not authorised and merely top kung fu exponents employed by the Deputy to find the missing manual does not change the challenge to Kim’s social conditioning. Fortunately, the student framed for the attack on the principal is able to help Kim achieve his full potential.
The hit squad’s leader, a maths teacher called Mr Ma, is played with wonderful malevolence by Jun-ho Heo). Without this pivotal performance, the film would collapse but, in a clever use of shadows, he moves as if partly cloaked in darkness. The cinematography and direction is careful to establish his dominant status and therefore represent the most effective challenge to Kim. Indeed, if the team had imposed order in a more even-handed way, Korean values would have prevailed and Kim would not have rebelled. Mr Ma must therefore victimise individuals and be manifestly unKorean to provoke our hero. When finally roused, Kim takes to the air in full wired combat mode as the rain sweeps across the sport field. Although some of the wire work lacks the control we now expect of these sequences, the resulting fight is really pleasing, driven by the intensity of Mr Ma’s control and the raw emotion of the rookie just coming into a full understanding of what he can do.
And at the end? Well, in a sense, order is restored and the key characters fall back into the roles expected of them. You can only bend Korean society so far before it snaps everyone back into place.
This is genuinely enjoyable whether you want to watch it just as a kung fu movie with faintly comic aspirations or as an interesting commentary on Korean social values. And, of course, it is creative, original and not derivative at all.