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Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ (2011)

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Jiu

Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ (2011) is a nine episode serial adapting the novel by Tetsuya Honda (as an aside, he also wrote the novel adapted as Strawberry Night or Sutoroberi Naito or ストロベリーナイト). This starts off as one of the better Japanese police procedurals, continuing the theme of women in roles potentially considered gender inappropriate by the majority of Japanese men. This time, we have a very different pair of women working in SIT, the Special Investigation Team, of the Tokyo Police Force. The Team has a fairly specific function in dealing with the response to armed crime, i.e. it blends both the negotiation and the SWAT-type responses. The story starts off with Hiroki Azuma (Yukiya Kitamura) who is caught up in a child kidnapping. Sadly, he’s easily outwitted by Jiu (“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo, a member of the boy band Infinite) who escapes with the money. This leaves Hiroki Azume obsessed by the need to capture the blond young man who outwitted him.

Meisa Kuroki and Mikako Tabe as the odd couple

Meisa Kuroki and Mikako Tabe as the odd couple

Our two heroines are Motoko Isaki (Meisa Kuroki) and Misaki Kadokura (Mikako Tabe). Motoko Isaki is a tough, no-nonsense woman who can and does beat all her male colleagues black and blue in the training rooms. She’s universally disliked within the force but, outside, she makes friends in a slightly unconventional way. Because she feels fighting in a training situation does not equip her to fight in the real world, she goes into clubs known to have gang connections which either deal in drugs or guns or both. She then provokes a fight but never seriously damages any of the gang members. She earns their respect and co-operation since she never turns them in. They become an informal intelligence network telling her what’s going on. As an aside, she’s estranged from her family. On the other hand, Misaki Kadokura is a stereotypical baby doll. She’s supposedly working her way up the promotion ladder, being second-in-command in the negotiating team, but this leaves her making tea for everyone and being the object of male sexual fantasies. In fact, she’s portrayed as intensely naive and not very competent. As we first see her, it’s inconceivable she would have any seniority in the department. She has loving parents who run a small food takeaway shop. She lies to them about the dangerous nature of her work so they will not worry. In fact, they should worry because, in a hostage situation, her senior officers send her into the building to deliver food to the villain. He strips her down to her underwear, ties her up and tries to use her as a human shield to escape. Motoko Isaki has no hesitation in shooting him — naturally, she only shoots to wound. This nicely defines the difference between the two woman. Motoko Isaki is more macho than any of her male colleagues and Misaki Kadokura gets to be humiliated with her photograph in the papers. Fortunately, her parents do not see it.

While the hostage situation is being resolved, Hiroki Azume sees the blond man as the television camera pans round the crowd watching the stand-off. He’s later able to confirm a financial link between the hostage taker and the original kidnapping gang, and requests Misaki Kadokura be transferred to help his overstretched department with the case. In fact, Hiroki Azume has estranged his team of detectives by his obsession with Jiu. They are deeply resentful that all other cases have been subordinated to this one case. Misaki Kadokura proves a bridge-maker and slowly persuades them all to rally round in tracking down this criminal. In Mandarin, Jiu’s name means dove and he routinely kills pigeons and doves, roasting them over fires in abandoned buildings where he seems to live. This gives the detectives something to track when they search buildings.

“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo looking blond

“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo looking blond

As a reward for showing up all the men in her unit, Motoko Isaki is transferred to the elite police commando unit, becoming their only female member. Here she formally meets Takashi Amamiya (Yuu Shirota). She knows she has seen him before but can’t immediately place him. As a flashback, we see him just after she has beaten up a group of gang members. As well as watching her work out in the police gym, he’s well aware of what she does in her spare time. It’s only after they have slept together that Misaki Kadokura uncovers evidence he was following Motoko Isaki before she joined the unit. To say this least, this restores Motoko Isaki’s lack of faith in men. The training is intensive and hard but Motoko Isaki shines. Her position is confirmed even though she seriously injures three unit members who were intent of raping her. When Jiu organises another kidnapping, everything comes together because the kidnappers bring the new victim to the building being staked out by Hiroki Azume and his team. This requires Motoko Isaki’s unit to do what we have seen them training to do, namely infiltrate a building, rescue the hostages and capture the bad guys. During the raid, Hiroki Azume and Misaki Kadokura are injured, two of the bad guys are killed and Motoko Isaki seriously damages the third. During the interview when the survivor is released from hospital, he talks about a cultish group bent on creating a New World Order. They want to throw aside trivial concerns like the sanctity of life, and reform the world by using the binary of life and death to get things done. Love is irrelevant. Social change is the aim.

After the second child hostage is released, Motoko Isaki is appointed team leader and later meets Atsushi Kihara (Mantaro Koichi). He’s a freelance journalist researching Jiu, who may have a powerful backer nicknamed M. There’s also some uncertainty what Jiu’s relationship is with the Yakuza. Taking time off from the unit, Motoko Isaki sets up a surveillance operation. In due course, this means she meets Jiu and everything boils up to a conclusion.

Set out like this, the serial probably sounds great and, to some extent, you would be right. Lurking in the midst of all this is a very strong story. Meisa Kuroki is impressive as Motoko Isaki. She’s violent and not a little sociopathic, but we’re able to watch a slow dawning of a more human side. I think she probably would have slept with Yuu Shirota as Takashi Amamiya. It would have been relatively meaningless to her and, when she discovers he was instructed to watch her, she’s naturally outraged at the senior management’s intrusion into her privacy. The real problem with the serial is the character adopted by Mikako Tabe to play Misaki Kadokura. Physically she looks completely wrong for a role in a specialised police unit which will routinely have to deal with violent criminals. Emotionally she comes over as childlike, an impression reinforced by her schoolgirl crush on the divorced and monomaniacal Hiroki Azuma played by Yukiya Kitamura. They strike me as embarrassingly mismatched. Overall, I think the story would have benefitted by losing an hour of its running time. There’s repetition in all the training scenarios the elite team have to practice and the exploration of this New World Order in the police interviews goes on too long. The political philosophy is all too obscure and ill-defined to be interesting even when NWO emerges from the shadows as a kind of terrorist organisation. But the real problem comes at the end where, in practical terms, the credibility of the story dies in almost all respects. This is not to say that elements in the final two episodes are not interesting, but there’s no coherence to most of what we see. I will not spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that although the first half of the serial is reasonably entertaining, I cannot seriously recommend you watch Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ to the end. The book may be better.

Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 or Battle of the Warriors (2006)

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

418px-BattleOfWitsposter02

Originally titled Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 (2006) by the Hong Kong studios, this was later retitled for distribution in the West as Battle of the Warriors. The screenplay by director Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung is an adaptation of a historical novel called “Bokko” (aka “Bokkou”) by Hideki Mori. This was followed by a Japanese manga of the same name by Ken’ichi Sakemi. Both draw on historical accounts of China’s Warring States Period. Putting the question of the contemporary source material behind us, we’re into the period of conflict around 370 BC when the seven competing Kingdoms then making up most of what we now know as China fought over the right to rule. In this case, we’re able to see a major expansionist move by the Zhao army against the Yans. However, the advancing army has the same problem the Mexicans had with the Alamo. Their supply route lies through the small Liang kingdom. If this small military threat is ignored, it could attack the supply route at a critical time and disrupt the Zhao advance. The Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong (veteran Korean actor Ahn Sung-kee) understands his invading army must take the Liang capital and remove all threats.

 

When he hears of the Zhao preparations for war, the initial reaction of the King of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is to send for help to the followers of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher. The Mohists believed in universal love and pacifism but were famous for their ability to defend cities against siege attacks. This belief system is not an early version of flower power, but rather a forerunner of socialism in which each individual was considered of equal value and to be treated with respect. This was the complete opposite of the usual power structures favoured by the Kingships. Instead of simple-minded oppression, the people were to be given the benefit of altruism and selflessness. In a revolutionary attack on the usual mechanisms of wealth, money was to be abandoned and gifts avoided. Status and formalities should be ignored and general selfishness condemned wherever possible. It’s surprising such a humanist philosophy should emerge at the same time as Confucianism and Taoism.

 

When there’s no apparent reaction from the Mohists, the King sends envoys to surrender. They are all killed and the advance continues. As the Zhao army arrives outside the city walls, a lone figure knocks on the gates, announcing himself as Ge Li – a Mohist (Andy Lau). As a political decision, the King surrenders control of the defence to this man but immediately sees problems as Ge Li appoints Zituan (Nicky Wu) as commander of the archers. This is a decision based on competence and not status in the line of command which should have dictated the choice of Prince Liang Shi (Si-won Choi). Disrupting the usual social order sets a bad precedent. Worse, Ge Li speaks directly to the people and gets them to co-operate in rebuilding the internal defences of the city. Thanks to their hard work and the inspiration of Liang Cavalry Chief Yi Yue (Bingbing Fan), the city is able to withstand a full scale attack.

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace

 

This is a wonderful two-thirds of a film as the worthless King of Liang and his court twist and turn to find the best way to save themselves while Ge Li devises a comprehensive defensive strategy with the Prince and the Cavalry Chief becoming willing followers. It’s also interesting to see the immediate respect between Ge Li and the Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong. They recognise each other as equals and are prepared to conduct a military engagement respecting human life whenever possible. Although they do not share the same Mohist ideology, they are practical men who see the reality in the Liang Kingship and wish they could be elsewhere and pass it by. All this makes the film so much more interesting than the usual military spectacular. That Ge Li gets the common people to fight in their own defence and protects the enemy troops wherever possible endears him to both sides. Unfortunately, the King of Liang sees Ge Li as a dangerous revolutionary, pushing him aside and ordering the execution of the the Zhao troops who have surrendered. This is rank foolishness because it enrages the Zhao. Whereas they might have retreated, now they are determined to tear down the city, no matter what the cost.

 

As a military spectacle, there are some rather beautifully choreographed scenes where large troop movements are seen around the besieged city with some equally brutal moments as the fight moves inside the city. Until we arrive in the final reel, I’ve a clear sense of realism from these military manoeuvres. Unfortunately, realism is then cast aside for the final assault on the city. The small Zhao unit remains hidden in the surrounding forest with no obvious way of putting an assault together let alone feeding the troops and keeping them warm at night without the ability to light a fire. For us then to see hot air balloons carrying commandos over the wall is just absurd. It’s as if the Montgolfier Brothers were suddenly transported from the eighteenth century to mount a special forces assault. I’m just about prepared to accept the flooding of the city with the water pressure able to lift soldiers into the air as the water rushes through the tunnels and bursting up into the main courtyard. But how did our digger (singular) manage to construct the link to the lake in such a short time? It’s another complete absurdity. The final scenes of Andy Lau searching for Bingbing Fan in the prison cells as they flood is hopelessly overdone melodrama.

 

Despite these deficiencies at the end, I’m still prepared to recommend Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻. There’s an underlying consistency of character in the key players that produces the final tragic outcomes. Call it fate or predestination, the fact that everyone loses something of value is inevitable once the basic situation becomes clear.

 

Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices

January 22, 2013 3 comments

Following on from my last report of Lionsgate’s continuing harassment on the 18th January (click here to read it) Google has sent me a new notice dated the 21st January. Lionsgate continues to demand the takedown of pages without any right or interest at stake. This time, the company has picked on the page reviewing Joint Security Area, a film made in South Korea in 2000. To keep everyone up to date, this is my response to Google:

“Re: Your notice dated 21st January and citing http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=765396.

On its face, this notice is submitted for and on behalf of Lionsgate. It purports to show that the page in question is facilitating piracy of Liongate’s work. Such an assertion is not only ludicrous but also malicious. What possible right or interest does Lionsgate have in the film Joint Security Area? According to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260991/companycredits, Lionsgate is neither one of the production companies nor is it a distributor. The suggestion that I am facilitating the piracy of Lionsgate’s work would therefore seem to be a lie on its face. For the record there is no need to remove content from the page because none of the content infringes Lionsgate’s rights as alleged or at all.

This sequence of notices arises out of Lionsgate’s objection to the review of Arbitrage. Since its posting, Lionsgate has submitted a sequence of complaints on completely unrelated matters. The law is very clear. It is a precondition of using the DMCA process that the allegations of infringement are made in good faith. I have in these responses put Google on express notice that these allegations are being made in bad faith.

What then is Google’s role? If I submit requests for restoration of the URL, which I have in each case, Google must engage in a review process to ensure that the DMCA notice was properly issued and restore the URL if there is no material infringing the complainer’s rights. This is a quasi judicial function and, as such, requires due process. If Google fails to take any or any proper action to respond to these notices, it is by implication colluding with Lionsgate to chill the exercise of free speech. I suggest this is unlawful conduct on Google’s part and formally give notice that if Google fails to respond constructively and restore the URLs. it must be joined as a party in any action involving Lionsgate to defend its failure to protect my rights.”

So far, the only good thing I can say is that the flow of notices is slowing.

You may also be interested in reading:
Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage
Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices
Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

Categories: Opinion Tags: , , ,

The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010)

January 22, 2013 1 comment

the_man_from_nowhere_poster01_small

Back in the 1980s and 90s, there were a run of films featuring “action stars” like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Let’s take Nowhere to Run (1993) as an example. Van Damme is a convict newly released. He wanders into a situation on a farm and defends the widowed mother and two kids from certain death at the hands of a rapacious property developer. The essence of such stories is always a man possessed of amazing fighting skills, often with a military background, who defends others from harm (this can include the environment and animals as in On Deadly Ground (1994)). Being Hollywood, there’s always a strong theme of righteousness about the hero. In most films, he’s not a vigilante and is always seen to have a higher moral code than those he fights. Even when the hero is a “criminal”, i.e. has been convicted of a serious offence, there’s usually a backstory to show he’s not so bad. This is not exactly to excuse his past or what he does. Simply there’s a lot of whitewash used to cover up the fact such heroes usually leave a significant number of victims in their wake either dead or with what would be permanent disabilities. Why? There’s a fundamental paradox in operation. Hollywood crafts myths based on the idea of the hero. By definition, the majority of heroes are expected to be “good” people or they are bad people who redeem themselves through their actions. This makes it inconvenient to show heroes with feet of clay. Hollywood therefore squared the circle by sanitising the violence on screen. We would see all manner of mayhem and death, whether by major exchanges of bullets leaving rooms and/or entire building shredded or destroyed, but it was rare for us to be shown raw brutality. If such images did appear on-screen, the “bad” guys were the ones responsible thereby making our hero look better (if not good) by comparison.

Won Bin closes in on his prey

Won Bin closes in on his prey

 

The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010) is a magnificent film from Korea playing in the same sandpit, but it embraces realism to a greater degree. All the action revolves around the tension between a major gang which deals both in drugs and organs for transplants, and the police. As part the drug distribution network, there are clubs used as post offices where content changes hand to move down for sale on the streets. One such club is staked out by the police led by Detective Kim Chi-Gon (Kim Tae-Hun) but, before they can make the arrests, Jung Hyo-Jeong (Kim Hyo-Seo), a dancer at the nightclub, tasers the intermediary and runs off with the heroin. Sadly, this dancer is a serious addict and, although she has a boyfriend who helped her, the heroin is mostly intended as her stash. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the gang are outraged their drugs have been stolen. The police are upset their plans to follow the drugs through the distribution chain have been frustrated. The dancer has a young daughter named Jung So-Mi (Kim Sae-Ron). She’s already on the verge of becoming a criminal, acting violently to her peers in and out of school, stealing from shops, and so on. The only one who even vaguely takes any notice of her is Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) who runs a low-life pawnshop.

Kim Sae-Ron pawning one of her acquisitions

Kim Sae-Ron pawning one of her acquisitions

 

One day, he takes a bag containing a camera and other items from So-Mi. He does not care that she probably stole it from her useless mother. He keeps it and “lends” her a few dollars. Unfortunately this bag has the stolen heroin sewn into the lining. In due course, the heavies led by Ramrowan (Thanayong Wongtrakul) turn up, take away mother and daughter, and prevail on Cha Tae-Sik to hand over the bag. Ramrowan immediately identifies Cha Tae-Sik as “different” and the gang bosses decide to frame him to distract attention from themselves. They separate mother and daughter, killing the mother and harvesting all her organs. They plant her body in the trunk of a car which is given to Cha Tae-Sik with instructions to go to the headquarters of a rival gang. The police are called and Cha Tae-Sik is arrested along with all the other gang members. Particular attention focuses on him when the body is found. There’s a nice joke about using the Americans to get around Korean security systems for classifying sensitive information. This enables the police to make an identification but it’s only later we see the backstory in flashbacks to understand how Cha Tae-Sik came to be in this rundown place. The film now falls into the traditional mould of our self-motivated hunter escaping police custody and tracking down the gang to rescue the girl. On the way, there are some delightful sequences, one of the most interesting explaining how the Chinese gangs use disposable children to work for them. There are also some terrific fights, with two against Ramrowan who proves a formidable opponent.

 

So with the caveat that there’s quite a lot of blood spilled and some creepy moments involving human organs and their extraction, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is sensationally good. Won Bin is genuinely malevolent and particularly dangerous because he no longer cares whether he survives. Kim Sae-Ron does a good job as So-Mi. Her role is a lot more than as a perky kid who has to look scared a lot of the time. Thanayong Wongtrakul is a thoughtful “villain” while all the gang leaders are the usual arrogant and not very bright thugs. At every level, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is worth seeing.

 

The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The Devil's Looking Glass

The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press, 2012) is the final contracted work for the Swords of Albion series. i.e. this is not strictly a trilogy. It’s left in a way that, should the publishers feel there’s sufficient demand, they can cross the palm of our heroic author with silver and await the continuation of the adventure. Since this is the equivalent of James Bond under the earlier Queen Elizabeth, you can see how our horse-powered, sword-wielding hero could fight enemies around Europe and, when tired of local sport, turn his attention to Russia in the east. Given the inherent flexibility of the format, we could be into a multibook series except. . . This is not to deny the presence of some excellent features, but I’m not sure such a series could maintain itself. The problem lies not so much in the human side of the equation. Indeed, I would say the history in this alternate history is quite pleasingly realistic with the European politics bending to accommodate the outside supernatural input. Half the fun is watching just how perfidious this version of Albion has been and continues to be as the series develops. But the problem lies in the nature of the supernatural beasties.

Perhaps I’m just a natural killjoy but I prefer magic systems to be constructed in a way that treats them as real, i.e. there are rules to be obeyed and recognisable limits on outcomes. The sad fact is I’ve now read all three books and it’s still not at all clear what the context is for this entire conflict. The “fairies” are ruled by the Unseelie Court — somewhat amusingly their base of operation is in the New World. Trust a British author with a sense of irony to make America the source of all this terrorism and potential invasion. As a sticking plaster on this wound to national pride, this is not the New World in our reality — American readers should stay calm. To get to this mirror image version of the New World where the sun rises and falls the other way round, all must pass through a portal. Ah ha! Not only is there a gateway to a transportation system, it depends on a form of lighthouse to guide people from one side of reality to the other. So what we have is the development of an earlier version of life on Earth. Or perhaps this Fay lot came through the portal from this mirror world. Either way, they were here before us and watched us grow up as a species. As in the classic fairy stories, there’s a time dilation effect between our world and the alternate reality occupied by the Unseelie Court. It seems to be about one-thousand of their years to fifteen of ours. When on Earth, they live under hills and in forested areas, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But, at some point, there came a breakdown in mutual toleration. They grew contemptuous of our lack of morals, thinking us little better than animals. Although there could have been a reconciliation, outright conflict was provoked when Dr John Dee built a defensive network of spells to keep the Fay out — the first truly effect immigration controls from the British government.

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

Why is all this a problem? Well this book seems fairly clearly to signal that the Fey did not create the portal. Although they have natural magical abilities, they fit into a broader system of magic and supernatural powers. Dee is drawing on occult powers and seems to be using a different source of power to control both individual members of the Unseelie Court and as general barriers to movement e.g. the defences built along the banks of the River Thames. There also seem to be other beings around. They may be classic demons or incorporeal beings who can take possession of humans. Not only do we have the transdimensional portal, we also have a real-time communication system through mirrors and a different obsidian mirror with slightly different qualities which John Dee has. So although these three books focus on the conflict with the Fay, there’s absolutely no attempt to give any background on the more general context for working magic, nor is there any explanation for any of the effects we see, e.g. the manipulation of the weather or the creation of different types of land or water-based animals. I have the sense Mark Chadbourn is making it up as he goes along. There’s nothing wrong with this but my money says it’s better for the reader to be able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups in a consistent way.

Anyway, this novel starts us off in 1593 and England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte, is caught up in the latest crisis as Irish spy, Red Meg O’Shee, kidnaps Dr Dee and sets off to export him to Ireland. With the help of John Carpenter, Tobias Strangewayes, and Robert, the Earl of Launceston, we ride over to Liverpool where there are interesting developments. On their return to London, we get the best bit of the book as the Thames freezes. We then flirt with matters vaguely piratical, i.e. we get on to ships of the period and sail hither and thither avoiding adverse weather conditions, pirate and Fay attacks, and the misplacement of the Sargasso Sea, until we arrive at the “island”. This entertains us with a short version of Shakespeare’s Tempest and then it’s off to the New World through the portal.

Overall, there’s a lot of ingenuity on display to keep the action going. Indeed, some of the plots and conspiracies are quite pleasingly malevolent. At times, the fantasy shades into horror which is again a positive sign, avoiding some of the tweeness that can afflict stories involving fairies. I like some of the ideas discussed on the nature of honour and the prices both sides in a war pay to make progress, but there’s not much philosophical development. The good ideas are repeated with little added save that, as we might predict, no-one comes out of this mess looking good. To that extent, the ending is realistic. So The Devil’s Looking Glass continues the standard of the second outing as a reasonably enjoyable adventure romp around an alternate history sixteenth century with some time spent on ships and in a jungle (yawn) but otherwise blending swords with sorcery in a moderately effective way. If you enjoyed the first two, you will definitely enjoy this.

For reviews of the first two books in the series, see:
The Scar-Crow Men
The Silver Skull

Wu Dang or 大武當 (2012)

January 20, 2013 4 comments

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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.

Zhao Wen-Zhou and Mini Yang back-to-back fighting

Zhao Wen-Zhou and Mini Yang back-to-back fighting

 

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.

Xu Jiao and Siu-Wong Fan compare notes on kung fu tag teaming

Xu Jiao and Siu-Wong Fan compare notes on kung fu tag teaming

 

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.

 

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

January 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Errantry

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, 2012) is another wonderful collection of short stories from an increasingly impressive small press. This should be required reading for anyone interested in the craft of writing short stories and approached without any positive preconceptions about genre labels. The majority of these stories simply exist. Trying to categorise them would be to diminish them.

 

“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” was shortlisted for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novella and won the 2011 World Fantasy Award. It’s a pleasingly elegant story that flirts with science fiction and fantasy ideas but never really commits itself. Conventional wisdom says that, if you’re going to write a “science fiction” or “fantasy” story, it must contain distinguishable features of either or both genres. So, for example, if there’s going to be time travel, you need movement, say from today to 1901, where folk from the different temporal regions interact and fail to kill each other’s grandparents. Or there should be aliens aggressively trying to market Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters as hair restorer tonic. If it’s supposed to be fantasy, there should be wizards or ghosts or barbarians waving their big swords around. Without such signposts, readers will be cast adrift, unable to relate to a story of three ageing men (one of whom takes his two sons along for the ride), who go on a trip to film the flight of a model plane. Sadly, they can’t rebuild the original Bellerophon, so the best they can do is fly a model and recreate the sense of the old film that recorded the first powered flight (before the Wright Brothers). They want to do this because an ex-colleague is dying of cancer and it will lift her mood if she can see a recreation of the original film. So be warned. There are no alien monsters in the sea or invisibly on land helping people (and things) to fly. And no-one could ever dream of cameras (or model planes) moving between different times. That would be silly. Really, I can’t think why this story is so good.

 

“Near Zennor” won the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella which, if nothing else, should tell you how well Elizabeth Hand writes. This opening pair of prize-winning novellas makes the first third of this collection outstanding. Yet again we’re in allusive territory. It’s not so much the nature of events described or the ending which is somewhat predictable. Rather it’s the quality of the journey we take in arriving at the conclusion. When the ordinary writer sets off on a supernatural story, we can expect ghosts and various assorted ghoulies. Should the author decide to stray into fantasy land, there can be something fey or creepy spells can be cast for malign effect. Here we have a husband who’s grieving over the loss of his wife. Going through boxes of her possessions, he comes across a locket and some letters marked “Retuned to Sender”. Perhaps not entirely sure why he’s inspired to investigate, he goes on a quest to discover why she wrote the letters and what, if anything, happened to her when she was barely a teenager and visited an author who lived near Zennor in the south west of England. It’s a beautifully sustained piece of atmospheric writing.

Elizabeth Hand almost featuring a halo

Elizabeth Hand almost featuring a halo

 

“Hungerford Bridge” beautifully captures the loneliness of living and working in a big city. You’re surrounded by millions of people but never regularly find time to meet up with friends and acquaintances. As a rare compensation for this social isolation, the city itself can offer completely unexpected views of a different world in which the sharing between two people advances to a new level. Except, if that happens, there would often be no-one to tell because that would destroy the magic. “The Far Shore” should remind classical music lovers of The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius. This short story version of the myth tells of a tragic accident that leaves a ballet dancer unable to perform, yet his spirit aches to fly in grand jetés. The idea of wintering at a deserted camp site sounds a good way of reaching emotional balance. The physical peace of the lake should inspire greater acceptance of the need to find a new career. Except one day he finds a half-dead young man lying in the snow.

 

“Winter’s Wife” is a wonderful story about living life how it should be lived, respecting nature and the environment, and aiming to have strength in the community with all in harmony. Except, of course, there are always going to be some people who are naturally perverse or who acquire such wealth they no longer believe they need take account of anyone else’s wishes or feelings. So how should long-term residents react to the nouveau riche who feel they are not accountable? In this case, we get more than just a stony-faced reaction. “Cruel Up North” is a short vignette creating the mood and then capturing a moment of inconsequential death. Similarly, “Summerteeth” captures the moment when a man and a woman meet again. This time, they are on an island where the man is running a project to interview people about their first marriages. He wants to immortalise their oral histories as they focus on their failures to relate to significant others. There’s another woman on the island as well and a strange story about two missing cats. Perhaps something took them. It’s poetic brilliance to take your breath away without the need for anything specific to happen (or not happen as you prefer).

 

“In the Return of the Fire Witch” (which first appeared in Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois) we have a story in honour of the preventive strike. When you know the newly elevated King is literally out to get you, the only sensible thing to do is to get him first. Somewhere there’s probably one of those interminable ballads much beloved by lutenists who think they can sing which celebrates how the mighty are brought low by those they despise. With only magic mushrooms to distract and a plangent melody to play, how can this plan go wrong. “Uncle Lou” encourages us to think about whether we ever really feel comfortable in our own skins. Particularly as we grow older and remember how fit and healthy we used to be, the idea of ending our days as someone different takes hold. Then comes the practicality of casting aside all the material things that used to be so important to us and, having said our farewells, we can move into the secret retirement home we’ve kept in reserve. And finally, “Errantry” has our disparate group wander around their old stamping ground and the immediate countryside. It’s not quite a quest but they do contrive to pull off a rescue in rather strange circumstances. Sometimes when you unfold a piece of origami to see how the “trick” is done, even the paper used can have significance — as if the words used on the page somehow gave thought to the final form. A good note on which to end this review of Errantry: Strange Stories because the words this author uses magically produces an infinite variety of forms. You should read this collection!

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see;
Available Dark
Last Summer at Mars Hill

 

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