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72 Martyrs or 犀照 (2011)

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

72-Martyrs-2011-Movie-Poster-2

Political history is always a challenging topic for storytellers since, by definition, the current generation not only has the benefit of hindsight but also the power to change the way the past is shown to fit modern needs, e.g. Shakespeare revised historical facts to make good theatre and rehearse moral arguments about the propriety of rebellion. In this film, we come to the centenary of the sequential revolts and uprisings in China of the early twentieth century. The political decision was made to invest in a number of films to explore some of the individual events leading up to Xinhai Revolution and the birth of the modern Chinese state, e.g. 1911 or Xinhai geming (2011) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011) dealing with a slightly earlier martyrdom. I suppose at one level, this is an example of state-funded propaganda. The modern political need is not simply to remind people of how the Communist Party got going. It also needs to confirm the only reason it was ultimately successful is because it garnered enough support from the people. Albeit the modern party has evolved and no longer makes policy with quite the same revolutionary roots, it still needs to reinforce messages of self-sacrifice and the need for the people’s continuing support for those policies.

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

 

The topic here is the Second Huangzhou Uprising which took place on the 27th April, 1911. Since almost all those who took part knew they were likely to be killed in the attack on the Qing Representative in the province, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause was inspirational. In part, the reason for their fame was the letters they wrote to their families and loved ones before they went into battle. These were later published and individual contributions like that of Lin Jue Min who wrote to his wife, have become classics of modern Chinese literature. Thematically, this was covered in To My Wife or 百年情书 (2011) which follows Lin Jue Min’s life from 1905 to 1911, showing the balance between love for his wife and his patriotism. With one other film already in the pipeline dealing with the same subject matter, the director Chiu Sung-Kei took the decision to deal with the more general history of the lead up to the uprising. Instead of focusing on the seventy-two and having dramatic sequences showing them first taking command of the Qing compound and then being overwhelmed, it offers a more gentle analysis of the relationship between the Qing representatives, the gangs and the revolutionaries.

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

 

The immediate group of revolutionaries is led by Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and newspaperman Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho). They are joined by Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui) who has spent time with Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia. To raise money, Luo makes friends with Jiang Mei-Xi (Irene Wan). She’s under the general protection of gang boss Fang Hong-Zhi (Wang Jianchang) and despite the man’s jealousy, is able to secure money from him. This funding is also in repayment of Luo’s intervention to solve a turf dispute between the gangs. His timely action disrupts a dispute by disabling a gang leader. Fang’s daughter Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) is also attracted to the newcomer and is a revolutionary in spirit. Trying to keep a lid on this volatile situation is the corrupt Li Zhun (Eric Tsang) who, as the Quing representative, is also dealing with the British in the heroin trade.

 

At its heart, this is a very simple and low-key film. The local revolutionaries grow tired of being told to wait. They know the extra few days added to the schedule are not going to make any difference. They will all probably die in the uprising. Indeed, they acknowledge their role is to be as martyrs. If the people are to be provoked into anger, they have to see the brutal way in which the regime deals with revolutionaries. History shows their sacrifice was not in vain. As a film it’s quietly understated and rather melancholic. Although there’s heroism on show, it’s in the quiet determination to make every life count in the greater struggle. 72 Martyrs or 犀照 makes a thoughtful contribution to the patchwork cinematic review of this period of Chinese history.

 

Kung Fu Dunk or Gong fu guan lan (2008)

About half way through this film, I began thinking about the best meaning to give to the adjective “affectionate”. It’s an easy word to dismiss because it falls somewhere short of love and, in our rather back and white culture, we seem to consider mere affection as somehow a failure. In a society where we’re all supposed to be trying for love, this is a wishy-washy second-best. Yet, in more open-minded terms, we can always say that affection is a forerunner to love. It’s that warm feeling you get when you meet someone. It’s that positive sense you enjoy someone’s company. It’s something you treasure because, in those shared moments, you know you are both special and set apart from the general crowd around you.

Jay Chou and Charlene Choi thinking about ice cream

 

Well, although this is not a review of a relationship, it’s a statement about the way the filmmakers and cast so obviously feel about both kung fu and basketball. And before we go any further, I need to say a few words about Shaolin Soccer which is Stephen Chow having fun (again). Both films must come to a confrontation between a team of underdog heroes and an “evil” team. Since there will be wire work and SFX, the ball will act in strange ways that do not follow the usual laws of physics, while the players will move through the air as if able to defy gravity. Such is the fantastical beauty of kung fu when it stops taking itself seriously and decides to play for fun. Yet the two films are actually chalk and cheese, with the soccer more deliberately intended as an action comedy, whereas the basketball is really about a young man growing up and recognising who his friends are.

Bo-Lin Chen unimpressed by Jay Chou's ball-handling skills

 

Kung Fu Dunk was originally intended as a big screen adaptation of a highly popular Japanese manga series created by Takehiko Inoue called “Slam Dunk!” Except, when director Yen-ping Chu began work, he realised a different approach was required. Thus, Kung Fu Dunk starts off as if it’s going to be played for laughs — a baby found abandoned by a basketball court is taken in by a kung fu school where he has the good fortune to see his shifu (that’s a kung fu master for those of you not educated in the ways of these films) lose control of a complicated kata intended to control time and freeze to death. It then charts the boy’s startling lack of success in relationships with girls and leads us to his modern day existence as the top student whose primary job is to pretend the school principal can punch like a mule. This is Fang Shi Jie played by Jay Chou. When he fails to give a convincing performance, he’s kicked out for the night and meets the redoubtable Eric Tsang as Zhen Wang Li, an impoverished trickster with a heart of gold. So begins the real story as the orphan finally gets the chance to learn the benefits of having a father-figure in his life and the power that can come from a team as a family.

 

What gives the film its strength is the natural chemistry between Jay Chou and Eric Tsang. Although the basketball team led by Ting Wei (played by Bo-Lin Chen), the girl Li-Li (played by Charlene Choi), and the teachers at the kung fu school are all important in what, for the most part, is an ensemble piece, Eric Tsang must be credible for it all to hang together. Fortunately, he gives a quietly understated performance and, most importantly, pulls an improving performance out of Jay Chou who starts out as slightly wooden, but ends with a genuine sense of affection for the conman and loyalty to the rest of the team. Whereas kung fu is mostly about individual skills (except for some of the most extravagant formations we see on the large screen), a game of basketball is won by individuals who trust each other and sacrifice their own glory when it’s necessary.

Eric Tsang and Charlene Choi looking for a score

 

First a word about the kung fu. There’s a terrific fight sequence in an expensive bar owned by one of the owners of the “evil” team. This sets the tone for the relationship between the “good” guys and the “bad”. More importantly, it establishes that Jay Chou can fight convincingly. All I will note about the sequence is that, at the end, the major ornament above the circular bar falls to the ground and smashes. It’s a double dragon and a reminder of the shaolin style. The basketball, when shown in training and played straight, is also convincingly skillful. When the two are combined, the results are pleasingly absurd. The intervention of the teachers is masterful with unexpected prowess from the one female teacher. It just goes to show you should never underestimate the ones that look the weakest. They can compensate for power with low cunning and a knowledge of the acupuncture points. If push does come to shove, the right application of chi delivers the momentum needed to surprise even a school principal.

Jay Chou showing off his star power

 

This is a film that could have been a sentimental and hackneyed copy of Shaolin Soccer. Instead, it’s an affectionate take on both the tropes of kung fu and the drama that comes from basketball played well. Although there are some good individual jokes, it’s less a comedy and more an “entertainment”. However you choose to put it, this is a fun sporting film that tells a good story about family and sporting values. It also shows that if you put Jay Chou in the right part in the right film, he can deliver a better than good performance. Unlike Secret in which he miscast himself, this is showing off real star power. It’s easy to see why, after two more films, he should end up in Hollywood playing Kato in The Green Hornet. As a final note, Jay Chou is, of course, a musician and wrote the score for the soundtrack.

 

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