Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012) is the first in what’s intended to be a live action series of films based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki and anime series which has been sold in the West as Samurai X. I watched the anime and it’s great fun, blending the usual besotted young male reaction to the feisty girl trope with some rather pleasingly represented swordplay. The plot is straightforward. About 140 years ago, there was an assassin called Battousai the Manslayer. This is the period when modern technology is directly impacting the means of war. Many still cling to the honour of the Samurai traditions, but rifles and canon are doing away with the need for “real” fighting. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi at the end of this era, Battousai is one of the survivors on the winning side of the Bakumatsu War. As the Meiji Era begins, he becomes a wanderer, protecting the weak in atonement for all the deaths he’s caused. The question asked and answered is how many people one man with one sword can protect. As the revolution has brought new government, the samurai tradition has passed its peak. Fighting must either be ritualised in the pretence of combat using wooden replica weapons, or legalised when applied for government purposes, i.e. for policing or military purposes. As an anti-samurai measure, the Haitōrei or Sword Abolishment Act 1876, prohibited the carrying of swords in a public place.
In spirit, the film is fairly faithful to the anime, enlarging on the opening battle scene until it matches the single image of Battousai’s sword implanted in the ground which we see in the anime. With the passive acquiescence of Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Battousai walks away from the battlefield, leaving his sword behind. But he later returns to take up the name of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato). As the Meiji Era gets underway, Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is smuggling heroin and bribing the other powerbrokers. They have also recruited a group of ex-samurai to guard them including a fake Battosai named Udo Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa). This is, of course, bending the original story to fit the needs of a dramatic structure suitable for a film. When Kenshin first appears, he saves Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) when she’s about to fight Jin-e.
This is convenient. What we now have is an excuse to fight over the dojo with a fearsome adversary in place. Obviously the production of heroin depends on a place for the processing and a chemist. Kanryuu decides to appropriate the dojo of a famous school of sword fighting. The man who ran it has been killed and his daughter Kaoru Kamiya struggles to maintain it with the young Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka) in attendance. The chemist Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) escapes from Kanryuu and needs a place to hide. Needless to say, Megumi turns up at the dojo and meets Kaoru and Kenshin.
We also meet Aritomo Yamagata (Eiji Okuda) as the Military Commander who offers Kenshin Himura a senior position in government, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) turns up in jail and later does the big challenge with his oversized sword. The real question the film is asking is whether death can ever be justified in serving a larger purpose. As an assassin during the war, our hero killed because he was told the removal of these men was the route to lasting peace. Yet now the war is over and there’s something approximating peace, the killings go on. It’s just killing for a different purpose. In the current struggle for power, the identity of the individuals who die is irrelevant to the killer. It’s simply a means to the ends of Kanryuu Takeda. In a way, every death is futile because even if someone produces justifications for each death, there’s never an end to the killing. So long as there are still people alive, it’s possible to invent new reasons to kill them. All this leaves is widows to mourn and to watch while the tragedy repeats itself.
The film becomes a form of discussion about redemption and recidivism. As Kenshin Himura, the assassin has given up killing and now seeks to use his sword only in the defence of others. Udo Jin-e has remained a killer for its own sake and he seeks to provoke Kenshin into rekindling his lust for death. The irony is that ostensibly they are fighting about whether Kanryuu Takeda should be allowed to flood Japan with heroin, but the reality is that neither of them really cares about that. Jin-e simply wants more deaths, regardless of who kills or is killed. Kenshin wishes only to avoid deaths wherever possible.
Some of the fight choreography is literally entrancing. In saying this, it’s necessary to consider the purpose of the film. This is not a “martial arts” film. This is a film transposing the first ten or so episodes of an anime to the big screen in a live action format. The fight sequences therefore strike a balance between fantasy and reality. Ignoring the wirework which is now mandatory in most martial arts films, the sword fighting here is intentionally spectacular. There are two set-piece fights in the final reels which are among the best I’ve seen in years. The first features Kenshin’s katana of standard length against a shorter wakizashi. The second is a more traditional fight between blades of equal length.
Since I know the original story and, more importantly, who everyone is, I’m in two minds as to whether this film stands up on its own. I think the introduction of Megumi Takani is a bit rushed and there’s no clear motivation given for Sanosuke Sagara to help our hero. I was also slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see Kaoru Kamiya fight properly. Indeed, the exclusion of Kaoru Kamiya and Yahiko Myojin from the rescue squad is frustrating although it would delay the set-up for the final fight in the film version of the plot. So, as someone who’s seen the anime version, I think this is an excellent way of distilling a moderately long story arc down to a manageable film length. I’m not quite so sure a newcomer would understand it all. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese samurai films. The politics of the time is quite well done, the fighting is only slightly gory and, overall, Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 is very entertaining.
This is about a village of secretive Ninja spies who call themselves the Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012) and their feud with Kurobaneshu, a secret band of samurai dedicated to wiping out the ninja. The first thing you should notice about this set-up is that neither feuding group really knows anything about the other. They both keep their secrets well. To some extent that saves this film from being a direct rerun of Romeo and Juliet, but the basic plot dynamic is the star-crossed lovers theme. On the Shinobidô side, we have Sumino aka Oko (Aimi Satsukawa), a young female ninja ordered by her village chief (Hatsunori Hasegawa) to gather intelligence about the Kurobaneshu. To do this, she has to go undercover as a serving wench in a nearby town. On her first day in this thriving village metropolis, she rescues a young girl from certain injury if not death. This forces her father, apparently the town drunk called Togoro (Ryoichi Yuki), to wake up and take notice of her. During the day, when he’s dried out, he’s one of these helpful types who helps geriatrics cross the road and repairs whatever’s broken. Needless to say, within just a few frames they are looking at each other with delightfully suspicious eyes. As trained spies, they both know there’s something not quite right about the other but there’s also physical attraction.
At least that’s what we’re supposed to infer from their behaviour. However, it’s at this point that I’m forced to raise flags signally the imminent arrival of a storm. There are times when, within a few minutes of a film starting, you become aware this is not going to be a pleasant experience. This is one of those times. No matter how you judge quality, one thing is certain. In the West, films of this quality go straight to video and expire on the shelves of distant warehouses and obscure shops. It’s not just the production values which are of the economical variety. It’s also the cast who must rank as one of the most wooden I have had the misfortune to see in the last year. That this was released into the cinemas speaks volumes as to the patience of Japanese cinema goers. The star of the show is Aimi Satsukawa. Over the last seven years, she’s contrived to appear in multiple films and television shows. But she’s woefully miscast in this. Here’s a trained killer and superspy. She’s supposed to be able to blend into obscurity when undercover yet not only does she immediately draw attention to herself with a very public rescue, but she walks around the inn as if officiating at a funeral service. There’s absolutely no animation, no spark of life about her at all (except when, Bollywood style, we break off and have a musical number when she and a group do a ninja dance for the villagers). Now it’s always possible that, in these distant times and in hick townships, serving girls did not flirt with the customers to pick up tips. But this performance wins a booby prize for failing the course on Bar (Waiting on Table) 101.
Ryoichi Yuki is no better. We’re to think him lost in grief from the death of his wife (she was supposedly killed by the Shinobidô) but the enemy superspy is his chance of resuming life as a red-blooded Japanese man when he gets a load of our her. Except he’s so undemonstrative, it takes a superimposition of his dead wife’s face over the spy’s so we understand what he’s thinking. Allowing for cultural differences, this is tedious as a romance. And, to prove the point, it rains when she stands him up on their first date and goes back to the ninja village. Now it all comes down to an internal emotional conflict between her loyalty to the village and her possible love for the man. In due course, this conflict has to be resolved in a big fight at the ninja village. The fight has its moments but it’s essentially amateurish as a film spectacle. I suppose I could dignify it by saying the general lack of style is probably realistic. In a real fight, warriors don’t care what it looks like so long as it’s effective. Unfortunately, the way it’s shot and put together rather belies that interpretation. We get staged death after staged death with blood spurting out everywhere in an SFX nightmare. Just in case you come across Shinobidô or 忍道 somewhere on a shelf and feel like surrendering a few minutes of your life in watching it, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say it’s not the rousing climax you would hope for. It simply continues the death spiral from the first few minutes until we crash into the ground with the rest of the dead.
Merantau (2009) was the first collaboration in Indonesia between director and screenwriter Gareth Evans and action/martial arts expert Iko Uwais. This film follows a rite of passage theme. The word refers to a kind of spiritual journey to be taken by a young man as he seeks to become an adult. The underlying notion is that the relationship you form with nature teaches basic moral values. So the story migrates from an idyllic pastoral opening with a calm and loving family life to Jakarta where an entirely different culture dominates. The film-maker’s intention is to show deep roots in the local community and the problems of displacement. The danger in leaving home is that, when you return, you have become a different person who no longer feels comfortable in the original setting. So the theme is about identity and the balance between who you were when young and who you choose to become as an adult. Assuming there’s some degree of control of the process, the intention should always be to preserve what was good and to add only good new elements. Except, of course, what is good in one place is not necessarily a virtue in another. Experience is culturally specific as everyone adapts to their immediate environment and decides whether to conform to local conditions. Socially, the desire to fit in may lead to compromises in previously held values.
His arrival in Jakarta is not auspicious. The address and telephone number he’s been given no longer offer hope of a welcome. He spends his first night roughing it in a construction site. The next day Adit (Yusuf Aulia), a young thief, tries to steal his wallet and he saves Astri (Sisca Jessica), the boy’s older sister, from a beating by a club owner and pimp. This Johni (Alex Abbad) has a contract to deliver five girls to two more powerful Western businessmen who are organising a trafficking operation. When Johni only has four virgins to make up the final number ordered, this gives him a problem so he sends out his men to find Astri. Of course, our hero is accidentally in the right place at the right time and we see him initially fail to rescue her. It’s a good try at odds of four-to-one, but he loses. Being kicked on the ground does not make him feel better, but it does trigger a new determination. Left outside on his own, he makes a decision about who he wants to be. He may not know the girl but he feels obligated to help her. Naturally this establishes the basis for the rest of the film as a chase with a fairly continuous fight sequence as the outraged gang tries to get the girl back and take revenge on this troublesome youngster.
Some of the fighting is terrific. The form of martial arts involved is silat which is very popular in the ASEAN region and, as seen in this film, appears very effective. In saying this, I’m making allowances for the necessary dramatisation of the fights for cinema purposes. I’ve seen it in television highlights on reports from local and regional competitions and what we see here is similar. We do, of course have the usual problem that sometimes people who are hit bounce back and keep fighting but, on key occasions, everyone lies down as soon as they are hit so that the fight can develop sequentially and then come down to the climatic fights with fellow experts. The fight in the lift with Yayan Ruhian and at the end with the two Western brothers are impressive. The co-ordination between the two brothers in their attacking style is particularly interesting (it features Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson).
Overall, we have a coherent story of an innocent young man who gets sucked into a running battle and chooses to stay in the fight. No-one knows him. If he went back to his village, he would be safe. But as he strives to become an adult, he has the determination to keep fighting. The tenuous relationship he forms with the girl and her brother is simple and emotionally direct. He helps and they accept his help because they have no choice. The ending is rather mawkish and melodramatic but, in the final scenes we come back to the strength that can flow from the sense of belonging to a community. This leads me to conclude this is a good but not outstanding film. It has some impressive fight sequences and the script is more than adequate.
The slight problem lies in the youthful inexperience of Iko Uwais as the hero. Somehow he never comes across as having the “killer” instinct that would be necessary to survive. You can’t fight this number of different assailants if you think they are going to get up after being hit and keep fighting. You have to be prepared to main if not kill. Throughout he just feels too nice. Worse, when he has a moment to reflect on progress to date, he never once expresses remorse for the injuries he’s caused. Because of the opening sequence, he should be conflicted when forced to injure fellow human beings, even in self-defence. Indeed, I find the performance slightly monotonous. It contrasts quite strongly with the acting in The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) where, as a seasoned SWAT officer, our hero has no compunction about disabling or killing anyone who gets in his way. The relationship between the actor and his screen wife and brother make a stark contrast to the man as an officer defending himself which comes over well. In Merantau, Iko Uwais shows immense martial arts skills but is somewhat wooden as an actor.
For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, see The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011).
The opening of The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) sets the tone of great stillness in prayer and meditation as a counterpoint to the phenomenal power and speed of the blows struck at the punching bag. As in all things, there must be a perfect balance between mind and body if the optimum outcomes are going to be achieved. In everyday situations, you can avoid disaster while only operating at 50%. When someone may be trying to kill you, whether in hand-to-hand or at a distance with a gun, survival depends on fast reflexes (and some luck). Rama (Iko Uwais) is a man in harmony with himself and in a loving relationship. His wife is pregnant, soon to give birth.
Written and directed by Gareth Evans, this has proved to be one of the more successful films to come out of Indonesia over the last twenty years. On a budget of just over $1 million, it took about $15 million worldwide which may not sound much but is actually very successful for a film R-rated for extreme violence. Set in the heart of Jakarta’s slums, this plays to the classic script idea of a SWAT raid gone wrong. In theory, it’s always possible to take down a well-protected building so long as you have the element of surprise. But, if your approach is detected and the opposing forces have a chance to mobilise and prepare defences, what was a perfectly planned operation can turn into a deadly trap for those who manage to get inside.
The briefing for the raid is given by Rama as the SWAT squad drives through the rain to the building owned by Tama (Ray Sahetapy). He’s established this tower block as a no-go area for the police and offers sanctuary to any criminal who can afford to pay. There’s also a drug processing lab so the building has a strong armed guard in place — there are always threats from rival gangs to contend with. It’s somewhat cavalier only to tell the team where they are going at the last minute. To put it mildly, it’s foolhardy to send in such a small squad (including one rookie who’s never actually been on a live mission before). But that’s the way films like this are supposed to work. You send in a team and then watch as, one by one, they fall by the wayside. In this, I note that Judge Dredd and one rookie take on a fortified building. One forgives this idiocy because it’s science fictional and such comic book heroes always prevail no matter what the odds. This has more pretensions to realism and so the idiocy is more difficult to forgive. If the government was serious about removing this crime lord, they would send in the army after softening up the building with artillery. No matter how elite this police SWAT team is supposed to be, this is a suicide mission. To emphasise this, the film has an establishing scene showing Tama cold-bloodedly executing a number of men. When he runs out of bullets, he uses a hammer to kill the last one kneeling. It’s only later we learn that the raid has not been officially sanctioned and no-one else in the police force knows they are in action. For Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) it’s personal but not quite for the usual reason.
At this point, I need to indulge in a little honesty. No-one watches films of this type because they make sense or say something profound about the human condition. Films like this are a guilty pleasure because of the martial arts. Too often, directors are faced with a cast of actors who cannot fight very well. To create reasonable effects, the choreography, camera angles and cutting hide the deficiencies. If all else fails, wire work has people flying through the air to distract us from the lack of real martial arts ability. In this film the director has people who can fight and he’s not afraid to show us all the moves in reasonably clear view, i.e. the stunt fighters and actors could not actually kill each other but had to make it look as realistic as possible. There are few cut-aways and no shaky camera sequences to hide the action. This is violence at its most exciting, if brutal, best. In particular, the fight at end between Rama, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) Tama’s more intelligent lieutenant and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) the vicious enforcer, is quite extraordinary. No matter what your opinion of the depiction of violence on a screen, whether large or small, there’s something magnificent about fights like this. They only come along every now and then. When they do arrive, you should take your time to appreciate testosterone-fueled combat as an art form.
So, to sum up, once we get past the initial whittling of numbers which is almost exclusively by gunfire, we’re into the cat-and-mouse game between the few survivors, who aren’t exactly in the pink of health, and the excitable residents who think the remaining officers will be easy to kill. In this, you should understand the parang or machete is a commonly used weapon in Malaysia and Indonesia. The use of baton or knife as defence is beautifully demonstrated in the corridor fights. There’s little or no subtlety in the plot once the set-up is established. It’s just a race to the finishing line (with just one interesting revelation as we approach the end). For those who enjoy martial arts (featuring silat) or violent action films, The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut is probably a must-see. Everyone else who hates gore should steer well clear.
For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and featuring Iko Uwais, see Merantau (2009).
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.
The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008)
When Korea first began to “do history”, it was very reverential. While accuracy no doubt earns credits in academic circles, it’s hardly entertaining. As a reaction to falling audiences, the last twenty years has therefore seen a steady erosion of deference and an increasing willingness to have fun. The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008) sees a maturing of this trend. Although it would be unfair to call it a comedy, there’s a willingness to update the sensibilities and mash-up both the music to heavier guitars and the cinematography to include freeze-frames morphing into manga-style images of fighting and other key events.
As the Korean title tells us, we’re back in 1724 with Joseon Korea going through a significant period of economic and social upheaval. It was all the fault of the merchants. When society was simple, the yangban families were self-appointed nobility who carefully prevented upward mobility. The best the increasingly rich merchants could hope for was to buy their way into socially successful clans. But as the orthodoxy of Confucianism was questioned and Korea learned more of Western culture, wealthy merchants joined the yangban class as equals. It was industrialisation that clinched the deal. It had begun with the improvement of agricultural technology and the development of commercial farming. As factories sprang up social change was inevitable. Mercantile wealth grew to be more important than wealth based on landholdings — as land passed down the generations, ownership was distributed among ever more in the kin group, thereby diluting the power. Set at the start of King Yongjo’s reign, 1724-1776, this film sees the first attempts to end clan factionalism which had been using private armies and gangs to entrench their power on the streets.
We start at the bottom of the heap with Cheon Dong aka Thunder (Lee Jung-Jae). His granny owns a rundown drinking house with an upmarket name, and he’s a street fighter, tough but prone to losing his concentration mid-fight. As a demonstration, we watch him distracted by the arrival of Seol-Ji aka Dishy (Kim Ok-Vin) as a passing spectator newly arrived in town. When he recovers consciousness, he discovers Seol-Ji has mistakenly arrived at the “wrong” drinking house. This does not prevent Granny from setting her to work as a dishwasher (hence the nickname). He does his best to make her welcome, drawing water for her to have a bath, but then falling asleep in exhaustion at the end of a long day. When he awakes, the mistake has been corrected. Seol-Ji has been spirited away to the upmarket gisaeng house with the same name. In frustration, Thunder innocently gets into a fight with Odd Ears aka Jjak Gwi (Yeo Kyun-Dong). His unexpected victory over the leader of the local gang leaves them without someone to go to a meeting of the gang leaders. Second-in-command Chil-Gab (Lee Won-Jong) decides Thunder should go. This is a fortuitous decision because the meeting is to be held at the gisaeng house run by Big Gun aka Man-Deuk (Kim Seok-Hun) where Seol-Ji now works. At a stroke, therefore, the question of who should lead the gangs is resolved into a head-to-head battle between Thunder and Man-Deuk over the heart of Seol-Ji. They are actually cast in the same mould but separated in years and experience. Both come from street fighting stock but Man-Deuk has risen to the top of the gang structure and now hangs out with the yangbans who want to use the gangs to hold on to their power. Thunder cares nothing for niceties and does what he knows best. He hits physically and economically, provoking increasingly angry responses from those higher up in the food chain.
Yeo Kyun-Dong directs, wrote the script and, as Odd Ears, lies with a beatific but comatose smile on his face for most of the action until the snow fight at the end. You can’t help but be amused by the collision of eighteenth century Josean culture and modern attitudes. Combine this with some fast editing and a contemporary soundtrack, and you have an irreverent romp through the usual tired court conspiracy plots. With considerable panache, we have a people’s hero reluctantly mobilise people power as royalty manoeuvres to suppress the yangbans. Although initially tongue-in-cheek, the fighting is actually very competent with an appropriate amount of blood spilt in later confrontations. In other words, the film starts in what’s intended as a rather silly view of history and then transcends the silliness into a more universal ending of royalty and the people combining to defeat the corruption of both the yangbans and their gangs. If what you want is a rough-and-tumble martial arts film with a sense of fun, The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 is definitely for you.
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.
Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is a film that could have been very good with a large cash fund made available by producer Jackie Chan. It’s is set in a period of Chinese history where myths combine nicely with what we suppose was the reality, and gives film-makers the chance to really get their teeth into a good story. Set in the eleventh century, we follow on from the television series, the Young Warriors of the Yang Clan where most of the male line of Yang Generals has been wiped out thanks to the usual duplicity of senior court officers. The only General left is Yang Zongbao (Richie Ren) and he’s apparently cut down in a border confrontation with the army of Western Xia at Tianmenguan Pass when Pang (Ma Wu) refuses to send reinforcements (the standard way of disposing of a rival). With the invading army looking a real threat, the corrupt Emperor sends out all the widows plus a token army of men to defend the Song Dynasty from ruin. For those of you not into this particular piece of history, legend says the women of the Yang family were efficient and effective fighters, equally as good as their husbands but, because of the usual sexism of the day, they were always left behind to guard the children. In this case, however, there’s no choice when the Emperor’s command comes in. To protect the last of the male line, Yang Wenguang (Xiao Ming-Yuh), who is designated the leader, Taijun (Pei-pei Cheng), Mu Guiying (Cecelia Cheung) and the legendary Amazons set out for war.
At this point, I would like to be able to say we have an intelligent use of military strategy through which the outnumbered and physically weaker Amazons slowly wear down the invaders, pulling them into situations where their physical superiority will not overwhelm the women. Except the initial battle featuring Yang Zongbao set the tone for the rest of the film. The invaders pulled up just short of the city and attacked it with trebuchets. A few well directed stones brought down the walls at a conveniently limited point and out stepped the Yang hero to keep the invaders at bay. He whirled his guan dao around a bit, seemingly invincible, then ran back inside so he could send off a carrier pigeon to tell his wife he’s in trouble. During this time out, the enemy waited respectfully outside the city. When the bird was released, the enemy also released two predator birds, but two convenient archers on the city walls shot them down. Our hero then walked back out and started fighting again. In other words, it’s laughable as a siege. The walls are breached in minutes and then a few soldiers come forward to fight one man. I hadn’t realised battles were spectator sports for both sides.
Anyway, this sets the trend for fights to be very small scale, with ludicrously inept wire work and almost no martial arts skill on display. Wherever possible, these fights seem to be shot on a sound stage with green screen generated scenery around the actual fighters. Frankly, I can’t remember seeing a war film being shot in this incredible way. Under normal circumstances, you have waves of soldiers, backed up by cavalry, charging at each other and generally hacking each other to pieces. These have to be the worst choreographed battle scenes I have ever seen on a big screen. Indeed, most efforts for made-for-television series are better. To add further embarrassment, television companies are usually too professional to speed up the action. Not our director Frankie Chan. Here we have obviously trotting horses moving rapidly across the screen and, wherever possible, the fight scenes are accelerated and cut in a vain attempt to hide the fact most of the women couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.
But the real highlight comes when a section of our Amazon army gets itself caught in what should be a kill zone. This is supposedly a dead-end canyon. They are herded in and the enemy roll down burning tumbleweeds. Fortunately, the Amazons can retreat into a massive cave system — no attempt has been made to block the entrance. It’s sufficiently massive that everyone can run through it and all the burning bundles can bounce their way through after them. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more silly, the Amazons run out on to a ledge. There’s a chasm to cross. So, quick as a flash, they take off their chain mail and unravel it, platting the chains into two ropes. Archers then shoot these cables across the chasm, soldiers inch across and lie on top of these wires as the aged Pei-pei Cheng and others walk across their backs to safety.
To cut a tediously long story short, it inevitably turns out that not only did our Yang hero survive, but he was also able to recruit and train guerillas who infiltrate the enemy and cause havoc in various unlikely ways. There’s a little incomprehensible politicking as Pang threatens not to send any reinforcements (again) and then victory as the enemy leader is cut down (although many of the Amazons and the older Yang hero die).
Frankly, I can’t imagine what the production team thought they were doing. Absolutely everything is at an unprecedented level of amateurishness. It’s cringeworthy from start to finish. The acting is wooden and, to be honest, I gave up trying to work out which Amazon was which. In any event, the individual characterisation was irrelevant. All the women were required to do was kill a few men, often with blood spurting out from unexpected places, and then perish in these individual acts of heroism. Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is the second worst film of 2011 and you should only pay to see it if you can find humour in completely inept film-making.