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Wu Dang or 大武當 (2012)

January 20, 2013 4 comments

wu-dang-2012-1

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.

 

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

October 30, 2012 2 comments

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?

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) face the Chinese army

 

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.

Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) approach Chen village

 

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 encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.

Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his British master Peter Stormare

 

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)

 

Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

October 8, 2012 2 comments

Quite simply, Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero, 太極之從零開始 (2012) is exuberant fun from start to finish. To understand the approach taken by the director Stephen Fung and the screenwriter Kuo-fu Chen, you need to understand what can go wrong with a smörgåsbord. This is the Scandinavian approach to a buffet meal. When you enter the restaurant, you are confronted by multiple dishes. Done well, there’s a real synergy between all the different tastes and flavours. Done badly and, despite there being one or two dishes you find enjoyable, the entire experience is something of a disaster. The team behind this film have done their homework and noted all the different styles and techniques that can be put together in a film. When triggering a flashback, for example, they know they can change the aspect, shoot in black and white and use a shaky camera to suggest a home movie. Or they can more generally fade from a freeze frame into a pop-art image, use comic book animation, borrow the video-game need to keep fighting to get to the next level, and so on. When showing kung fu, they can use slow-motion and draw the flow of chi on the screen so we can all follow the logic of the moves and see their consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea. This film is literally a mosaic of different methods but, so elegantly have they been put together that the result rises above mere collage as a pasting of bits on the same screen. This is film-making art, blending the disparate elements into one of the best tai chi, kung fu films I’ve seen for a long time. Indeed, to complete the irreverence to traditional conceits, it’s directly metafictional in using the subtitles to introduce the different actors by their names and not their roles, and to mention odd facts about their real-world backgrounds.

Yuan Xiaochao getting the maximum leverage

 

So what about the plot? Well, the poster alleges this is steampunk but that’s not strictly true. Although the track-laying machine is an exaggeration of what even modern technology can achieve, all the basic machines on display are more or less in period. With the exception of the central machine, there’s nothing so completely anachronistic that it qualifies as steampunk. What we have is a very traditional kung fu film in which China’s culture is being subverted by evil Westerners. In this case, they want to build a railroad and, through local agents, are literally not going to let anything stand in their way. It’s a standard plot having been recycled through films like Tsui Hark’s great series Once Upon a Time in China (1991) which invites us to lament the end of an era in which tradition was made redundant by a different cultural approach supported by foreign technology. The trilogy shows the worst effects of colonialism and the cultural imperialism that accompanied it.

Angelababy prepared to take on all-comers

 

Hence, this film shows us an idyllic village where traditional values have been fiercely guarded for generations. After a long prologue in which we see the birth and training of our hero in the hard fighting styles, Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) arrives hoping to learn the soft style for which the village is famous. He has a serious medical problem and, if he persists in using the hard styles, he will kill himself. Unfortunately, the villagers have a strict policy not to teach outsiders. The village is therefore a metaphor for China, resisting outside influences and preserving the “old ways”. To prove the value of the old ways, the village is then subject to destabilising forces. Our hero will not take no for an answer and learns the core of the soft tai chi style by fighting the villagers and learning from what they do. This is not a theft of their knowledge. Rather it’s using the local strength against itself. If they did not fight him, he could not learn from them.

Tony Leung Ka Fai showing us the traditional way is best

 

The second challenge comes from within. Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) was a villager who went overseas and learned foreign ways. He returns to the village as an agent for the East India Company to persuade them to allow the railway to pass through. As a child, he was loved by Chen Yunia (Angelababy), but he’s now being backed by a British woman and her access to British technology. So this is a film about balance. Fang Zijing’s rejection must be set against Yang Lu Chan’s assimilation of the old ways. Similarly, the hard fighting styles will not work against armour-plating. You need the soft approach to slip inside its defences and then use the machine’s internal energy against it. The strategy comes from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who hopes to use the outsider Yang Lu Chan to defeat the British. That way, no-one will blame the village. Unfortunately, his daughter Chen Yunia joins in the fight directly, fueled by anger and jealousy for Fang Zijing. This leads to a direct attack in retaliation and gives us a chance to see Master Chen in action.

Eddie Peng cultural traitor taking on British ways

 

I accept Tai Chi Zero may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a halfway house between the traditional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) style and the more Western comic-book fantasies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). The fighting choreographed by Sammo Hung is terrific, helped by the casting of Yuan Xiaochao, a former Wushu world champion. So, putting all this together, I left the cinema with a big smile on my face, looking forward to the second half which is due later this year. Yes, Stephen Fung filmed the two halves back-to-back and, if the clips are anything to go by, this may actually be more steampunkish with airpower adding to large cannons arriving by sea. Obviously, Western strategists recognise you can always defeat hand-to-hand prowess by aerial bombing and artillery fire from a distance.

 

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 Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

 

Ip Man 2 (2010)

January 24, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Donnie Yen and Lynn Hung live humble lives in Hong Kong

 

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.

Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung spar

 

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.

Donnie Yen and Darren Shahlavi in the grandstand finish

 

Unlike the first Ip Man which was more a solo vehicle, this gives fairly equal prominence to Sammo Hung who turns in a characteristically fine performance in acting, fighting and doing the fight choreography. Because Donnie Yen plays Ip Man as a rather gentle man (even prepared to run away if it becomes necessary), it’s somewhat low key to put against Sammo Hung except in their over-the-top fight when they both go at each other with something like full speed. Even though he’s getting old and experienced heart problems while filming, Sammo Hung is a delight to watch in full flow. Wilson Yip turns in a solid performance as director but I’m not sure he could decide what he wanted as the focus of the film. The first Ip Man is very much about the man who reluctantly agrees to teach his fighting style when the country starts to fall apart. The final fight to complete the demonisation of the Japanese is perfectly judged as the victorious Ip Man is shot in the back. That’s a real emotional pay-off. It should be said that the actual Japanese opponent was not wholly dishonourable, but he’s surrounded by people who are.

 

The sequel seems to be about demonising the colonial British, but it metaphorically pulls its punch at the end. It’s also less about the Wing Chun fighting style because the wire work takes a significant part what we see too far away from reality. A far more interesting approach would have been to show Ip Man and Master Hong learning from each other and developing the more sophisticated version of Wing Chun that would be passed on to Bruce Lee. The only redeeming feature is that, in the final fight, Ip Man is shown losing his aura of invincibility. He’s knocked down by a good fighter with very fast hands. Perhaps we should just see Ip Man as a modest hero doing nothing more than is necessary to prove his point and then waking away. Overall, Ip Man 2 is enjoyable but not as good as the first. I’m not surprised Donnie Yen refused to play the part again.

 

Dragon or Wu Xia (2011)

Dragon or Wu Xia is a fascinating film, underpinning the martial arts action with two major social themes: which is the stronger influence, nature or nurture? and whether at a society level through rehabilitation, or an individual level through redemption, can a wrongdoer reform?

 

Let’s take a central image. I plant an acorn and carefully watch the first green shoots grow into a strong tree. No matter what I might do to the tree during its formative period, it will always grow into an oak. It’s true that some radical surgery might produce a miniaturised bonsai version, but the seed determines the outcome. Translating this into a human context, we might take a view that all babies are born innocent of sin so, if they become wrongdoers, it’s because of their upbringing. Parents are the ones most often blamed for their children’s failures. Or we might stay with the idea of a bad seed and exonerate the parents. No matter what they tried, the child was born a wrongdoer and would always end up in jail.

 

In the opening frames we meet Li Jin-xi (Donnie Yen). Set in 1917, he’s living a peaceful life in rural Yunnan province. A clan member for some ten years, he married Ayu (Wei Tang), an abandoned wife with a son. They now have a son of their own. He works to make paper and is increasingly respected in the community. One day, two villains pass through the village and, because it amuses them, they try to extort money from the owner of the general store. There’s an extended fight and Jin-xi not only survives, but also leaves the two dead. Xu Bail-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police inspector with forensic skills, takes over the investigation. He’s fascinated by the notion that an “ordinary” man could best two veteran kung fu exponents. Although I could have done without the CSI-style slow-motion recreations of what happens inside the body, the deconstruction and reconstruction of this initial fight is remarkable. I cannot recall seeing anything similar and, without anything more, this is a strong reason to see the film on a big screen so that you don’t miss any of the detail. Seeing where the feet were placed, how a tooth happened to end up inside the jar, how the ear was lost, and so on, is a tour de force. This initial evaluation triggers an investigative battle between the detective and the man with something to hide. It’s surprising they don’t kill each other.

Tang Wei as Ayu holding the disputed son

 

As the detective, Xu Bail-jiu is fighting his essential nature. He was a young, idealistic and empathetic man and, taking pity on a young boy, allowed him to return home. Unfortunately, the boy then killed his parents and permanently damaged Xu Bail-jiu with poison. The detective is left treating himself with acupuncture to prevent the poison from spreading and, sadly, to suppress his empathy. No-one can now be forgiven. When he married, he even handed over his father-in-law to the police for selling fake medicines. He’s chosen to believe the law is infallible and that his role is dispassionately to seek out wrongdoers. He can then wash his hands and leave it to the law to process the criminals. He’s not clear what the outcome of this process should be. The failure of his own decision to give a second chance convinces him rehabilitation is a waste of time. To him, the only good criminal is a criminal behind bars. So when he establishes a good prima facie case that Jin-xi was the second-in-command of the 72 Devils, a notoriously bloodthirsty Tangut tribe, he sets off to the local city to get a warrant for Jin-xi’s arrest. Having borrowed the money, he bribes a judge to get the warrant. In turn, the judge seeks to sell the information of Jin-xi’s whereabouts to the 72 Devils. The detective, with a few police officers in tow, and the 72 Devils therefore converge of the village where our hero has been hiding.

Takeshi Kaneshiro showing Xu Bail-jiu has a dark side

 

We hear Jin-xi talk about his father (Jimmy Wang Yu) and this prepares us for the family reunion when the main group of the 72 Devils arrives. Now we come to the heart of the film. As a child, Jin-xi missed his father when the gang went out on its raids, so he went along and saw exactly what was being done. After a time, he could no longer stand the excessiveness of the violence. Disgusted with himself and what he had become, he ran away and hid in this village. Both Jin-xi and Xu Bail-jiu therefore find themselves in the same position. As individuals, they have become the sum of their life’s experiences. So which side of their personality will win out? Is Jin-xi inevitably the brutal son of his brutal father? Can Xu Bail-jiu reform and become the empathetic man he once was?

 

Donnie Yen has the more difficult role if he’s to engage our attention. From the outset we know he cannot be an innocent villager. He’s therefore more of an enigma until we start to hear him talk about his past. Then we can more clearly identify with his struggle to stay true to his wife and family. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a wonderful job as Xu Bail-jiu. He’s a good man deceiving himself. Self-righteousness has blinded him to the harm he does. Even his police boss offers good advice in vain. Yet slowly we can watch the seeds of doubt take root. It’s a carefully measured performance and it carries the opening third of the film with Wei Tang’s Ayu. She sees the good in both men and has the courage to trust they will both eventually do the right thing. Finally, it’s a joy to see Jimmy Wang Yu back in Hong Kong. He’s marvellously malevolent as the father. Put simply, if the Master can no longer have his son, his grandson will do.

Jimmy Wang Yu as a wonderfully malevolent father

 

Let me finish this review with a mention of a line in this film’s marketing that suggests Dragon or Wu Xia is an adaptation of the One-Armed Swordsman or Dubei dao, a film made in Hong Kong in 1967. Giving credence to this story is the fact this early “classic” starred Jimmy Wang Yu. Well, it’s been my misfortune to sit through this epic drama. Essentially shot in a studio with cheesy sets, it tells the story of a put-upon orphan who’s adopted by a kung fu master. When he proves more skilled than the great man’s daughter and some jealous students, he’s maimed and barely escapes with his life. In due course, he returns to rescue this undeserving shower from a plot to exterminate the entire clan using a quite clever device to neutralise the famous sword fighting style. Our one-armed hero wins because he has learned to fight using his left arm and a shortened sword. Even allowing for the more naive times during which this film was made, it always was embarrassing, being yet another example of Hong Kong’s determination to churn out content regardless of quality. So be reassured. Dragon or Wu Xia is so completely different that I wonder at the decision to even mention One-Armed Swordsman. The problem is casting Jimmy Wang Yu as the father in Dragon or Wu Xia. This creates a link. The director, Peter Chan, should have said he cast Jimmy Wang Yu because he was the best man for the new film. If challenged, he could admit watching One-Armed Swordsman and, having resisted the temptation to commit suicide, learned all that was to be avoided in making kung fu films.

 

If you have the chance to see Dragon or Wu Xia on a big screen, don’t hesitate. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is wonderful and the story mesmerising.

 

Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

For some reason, the summer season is associated with big crowd-pleasing blockbusters. When the sun is beating down and there are so many distractions outdoors, the studios release the films they believe will pull the crowds. In many cases, their choices are really bad. It can just be that the particular script-writing committee and associated focus groups were particularly poorly co-ordinated so the plot emerges in a chaotic state. More often, it’s obvious the cast were only interested in taking the money and finishing as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, the summer is often the graveyard of the studios’ hopes and expectations.

Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung finding humour in the moment

 

This year from Hollywood has been no exception. There have been some real stinkers. Looking in the other directions, there have been some good films from Europe and one or two excellent offerings from Hong Kong and China. Well, the mould has now been broken with the arrival of Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan from the remarkably prolific Jing Wong. This just goes to show that, whatever Hollywood can do, Hong Kong can beat if it puts its mind to it.

Huang Yi and Charlene Choi relegated to eye candy roles

 

Welcome to the wacky world of wuxia comedy. When this fires on all cylinders not only is the fighting superb, but the laughs flow as well. Treasure Inn is a classic example of how not to do it. I suppose the starting points for this pastiche were Dragon Inn or Long men kezhan (1967) and Dragon Inn or Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) which are wonderful straight fighting films set in a remote desert inn. So, as a modern director, you pick your targets carefully. This will have the Inn act as a haunt for criminals who auction off stolen goods to the highest bidders, making it a lure to all the best thieves who want the top return on their skills. In this instance, it’s all about a jade life-sized Goddess of Mercy. A gang of raiders hire a criminal mastermind to steal it for them and pass it on at the Inn. Standing in their way is an elite group of police agents led by Captain Iron (Kenny Ho). Also involved are Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung playing bottom-feeder officers, left to do household chores by their corrupt local officers. When they insert themselves into the investigation, they are accused of being the thieves and then make a break from jail thanks to the efforts of Fire Dragon Girl (Yi Huang) and Water Dragon Girl (Charlene Choi). Needless to say, this pairs off our “heroes” — you can tell this is love at first sight because of the red hearts that burst across the screen when their eyes meet. Yes, some of the humour is that primitive. The other element of romance is between Tong Da Wei as a doctor in love with Ling Long (Liu Yang), the lady who runs the Inn.

Liu Yang floats around showing she's in charge of the Inn

 

Perhaps it’s an age thing but, when I watch a film, I want it to make sense. I can understand why the corrupt local police would want to drive the innocent do-gooders away, but why they would stay in the face of this relentless abuse is unclear. What makes this a problem is that, when the murders and theft of the statue occur, they are fast to insert themselves into the investigation and obviously ambitious to be recruited into Captain Iron’s troop. Later, when accused of being the robbers, we have slapstick torture and then the rescue by the cross-dressing ladies. There’s no attempt at explanation of why one of the ladies should be locked up with our heroes, nor why the three should be sentenced to death without any kind of trial. I suppose we have to have the ladies readily agree to go to the Inn because that’s the way love works in these films. I could go on but you should understand that, except in the broadest of terms, there’s very little logic or consistency of characterisation at work in this film.

Tong Da Wei looking dangerous in a different film

 

I might have forgiven all this and accepted the one or two laugh-out-loud moments as compensation if the fighting had been any good. Sadly, we are into poor cutting to hide the lack of good fighting sequences. You can always tell you’re in trouble when the use of sound as a weapon is so heavily featured with red blades of doom being cast off the guitar strings while a lion’s roar comes back. Even the CGI storm that rages around and eventually destroys the Inn is embarrassingly bad.

 

It’s rare I emerge from the cinema unable to find a single redeeming feature. While accepting that humour often does not cross cultural boundaries, it’s possible this film is aimed at mainland Chinese markets and they will all fall about laughing from start to finish. Certainly, much of the humour is lower common denominator and basic — as in the usual argument about who such suck out the snake venom from one of our hero’s buttocks — so if cultural stereotypes are true, this will make a lot of money. Worse, there’s little passion in any of the three romances to distract us, and the fighting fails to deliver anything entertaining.

 

So even when Treasure Inn is scheduled on terrestrial television, think twice before spending time to watch it.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan (2008)
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)

The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)

The Four is a 24 episode drama series made in Hong Kong, retelling the restoration of the Divine Constabulary by Emperor Hui Zong under the leadership of Zhuge Zhengwo played by Dominic Lam, and the stories of four constables: Heartless played by Raymond Lam, Iron Fist played by Kenneth Ma, Chaser played by Sammul Chan, and Cold Blood played by Ron Ng. It plays a standard game of wrapping up a mixture of detective stories in court intrigue with TV-level kung fu characterised by poor wire work, second-rate cutting, and slow motion to create a risible effect. That said, the story is actually quite interesting even if the production values are poor.

We start with Zhuge kicking his heels for ten years. The Divine Constabulary has been closed down and corruption is now rampant across the Empire. His friend, General Shu Mo-Hei played by Ram Tseung, gets him a commission to carry a sword to Price Qi. He takes his foster son, Heartless, with him. At the mansion, the three most prized swords are stolen and there are three murders. We meet Iron Fist and the man who will become known as Chaser. A rapid-fire investigation follows to show how a locked-room murder can be done, explaining why it can be necessary to move a body and showing why knowing everyone’s history can be important when it comes to solving cases. On their way to the capital to petition the Emperor to reopen the Divine Constabulary, they see an assassin kill the leader of one of the pugilist sects. A second murder by the same assassin follows in the capital. Chaser has already seen the assassin’s face and Iron Fist is on hand looking for a job. The seemingly indestructible assassin will become Cold Blood and complete the quartet.

Zhuge makes a deal with the Emperor to reopen the Constabulary if the team can find the treasure supposedly stashed away to pay for a rebellion plus a medallion that obliges the Emperor to grant one wish to the holder. In a race with the clans who also want the medallion, the solution depends in part upon understanding a riddle and being able to put a map together. However, we get into the realms of wuxia fantasy as following the movements in a kung fu manual provides written instructions. When Zhuge fulfills the promise and returns the medallion to the Emperor for destruction, he is allowed to reopen the Constabulary and informally resume the fight against the corrupt Prime Minister Cai Jing.

This is not the place to discuss the fantasy elements permeating wuxia storytelling, but in this series, there are two continuing sources of amusement. First is the militarised wheelchair and general fighting techniques used by Heartless. Second, who would have thought that 12th century China had so many beautifully paved roads across the countryside and ramps so conveniently placed to enable wheelchair access to buildings. Only when the Constables get into the stone forest is he defeated and it falls to Iron Fist and his “partner” to run around until captured by the group using fake supernatural events as a cover for embezzlement. In the end, the constabulary is able to protect the villagers, so drawing the lines of battle more clearly with corrupt officialdom.

Lau Kong and Dominic Lam pretending to enjoy the show

There’s then a particularly weak story element about a plague of zombies, the only real benefit being to encourage the formation of closer bonds between the constables and the women who are “obviously” intended to become their partners. This trend is further reinforced by the next story element which has a merchant scamming armed couriers. In fact, he’s fronting for the corrupt leadership of the clans. By coincidence, the daughter of the clan leader is the love interest for Cold Blood. The plans of the corrupt Cai Jing, played with over-the-top evil enthusiasm by Lau Kong then more clearly come into view with a faintly weird story about weapons that can effectively decapitate their victims, while paid agitators ferment yet more trouble between the clans. The return of those and similar “invincible” weapons at the end gives a pleasing structure to the whole with the origin of the weapons showing how long Cai Jing has been planning rebellion.

Now Cai Jing moves to the next phase of his slow-burning plan by staging a fight between warring clans which threatens the Emperor. This persuades the inevitably dim leader to organise a knock-out contest to unite the pugilist clans. All the major clans will enter a representative and the winner will be accepted as leader of the pugilist world. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s puppet pugilist needs to eliminate the one real threat before having to fight him. So explosives are placed on the boat bringing the righteous contender and two of the Constables to the villa where the contest is to be staged. Believing him to be dead, Ruo-Fei, his daughter, takes his place and, through blind luck, wins the first round fight. The remaining Constables decide to train the daughter to give her a chance of winning the next round. Meanwhile the survivors of the explosion are trapped on an island with what may be a dangerous animal (possibly mythological) — as you can see, no stone is left unturned for plot elements.

Kate Tsui comes good at the end

The story of events twenty years in the past comes back into focus as the man causing trouble between the clans turns out to have been involved in a death investigated by Zhuge. This leads to a reconciliation between Zhuge and Yan Hong, the daughter of the apparent suicide and now the wife of Prince Qi. In due course we have Cold Blood rehabilitated as his previous status as assassin is revealed. In the process, Cai Jing’s son is implicated in running an illegal gold mine and banished, in part because those managing the mine raped the women including Iron Fist’s sister and the woman intended for Chaser.

Zhi Yan played by Kate Tsui, skilled TCM practitioner and undercover operative for Cai Jing is becoming more active which complicates her relationship with Heartless. Heartless and Iron Hand finally identify their fathers who were set up and destroyed twenty years ago by Cai Jing so he could steal the designs for the “invincible” weapons. Iron Hand also discovers he has a previously unknown brother who is later killed by Zhi Yan.

In the end game, it all comes down to a battle between Cai Jing and the Divine Constabulary with everything turning on the loyalty of Zhi Yan. The plotting and counter-plotting is pleasing as we watch Zhuge’s plans go awry. The fighting against the invincible weapons is more than a little silly but, in the spirit of the show, the team responsible for special effects and fight choreography do their best on a limited budget.

Indeed, taking an overview, the series manages to transcend the weaknesses of the individual parts and become quite consistently entertaining. The only serious narrative weakness lies in the “love” element. With the exception of Kate Tsui’s Zhi Yan which is a well developed role, most of the other women are either decorative or not so gently mocked — Lam Ruo-Fei played by Selena Li is first presented as a spoilt child before being allowed to become something more than merely ineffective as a fighter. In an extended postscript to the battle, our brave heroes are rewarded by the Emperor but, despite their best efforts, all love is doomed by the script writers in this era of Chinese history. Hilariously, Zhuge sets off on a lechery tour of China, using his wuxia skills to seduce young maidens. The only one allowed any dignity is Zhi Yan who rides off into the sunset on a medical mission to improve the health of the poor. At the end, the Four are left holding off invading Jin troops at the pass and facing certain death — just as well there are no women around to slow them down as even Heartless jumps into the air in excitement at the thought of the expected slaughter.

There’s also a cinema version showing the Four come together. See The Four or Si Da Ming Bu (2012).

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