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Posts Tagged ‘martial arts’

Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012)

March 26, 2013 4 comments

Rurouni Kenshin

Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 (2012) is the first in what’s intended to be a live action series of films based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki and anime series which has been sold in the West as Samurai X. I watched the anime and it’s great fun, blending the usual besotted young male reaction to the feisty girl trope with some rather pleasingly represented swordplay. The plot is straightforward. About 140 years ago, there was an assassin called Battousai the Manslayer. This is the period when modern technology is directly impacting the means of war. Many still cling to the honour of the Samurai traditions, but rifles and canon are doing away with the need for “real” fighting. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi at the end of this era, Battousai is one of the survivors on the winning side of the Bakumatsu War. As the Meiji Era begins, he becomes a wanderer, protecting the weak in atonement for all the deaths he’s caused. The question asked and answered is how many people one man with one sword can protect. As the revolution has brought new government, the samurai tradition has passed its peak. Fighting must either be ritualised in the pretence of combat using wooden replica weapons, or legalised when applied for government purposes, i.e. for policing or military purposes. As an anti-samurai measure, the Haitōrei or Sword Abolishment Act 1876, prohibited the carrying of swords in a public place.

 

In spirit, the film is fairly faithful to the anime, enlarging on the opening battle scene until it matches the single image of Battousai’s sword implanted in the ground which we see in the anime. With the passive acquiescence of Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi), Battousai walks away from the battlefield, leaving his sword behind. But he later returns to take up the name of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato). As the Meiji Era gets underway, Kanryuu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is smuggling heroin and bribing the other powerbrokers. They have also recruited a group of ex-samurai to guard them including a fake Battosai named Udo Jin-e (Koji Kikkawa). This is, of course, bending the original story to fit the needs of a dramatic structure suitable for a film. When Kenshin first appears, he saves Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) when she’s about to fight Jin-e.

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) with the iconic scar

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) with the iconic scar

 

This is convenient. What we now have is an excuse to fight over the dojo with a fearsome adversary in place. Obviously the production of heroin depends on a place for the processing and a chemist. Kanryuu decides to appropriate the dojo of a famous school of sword fighting. The man who ran it has been killed and his daughter Kaoru Kamiya struggles to maintain it with the young Yahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka) in attendance. The chemist Megumi Takani (Yû Aoi) escapes from Kanryuu and needs a place to hide. Needless to say, Megumi turns up at the dojo and meets Kaoru and Kenshin.

 

We also meet Aritomo Yamagata (Eiji Okuda) as the Military Commander who offers Kenshin Himura a senior position in government, and Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) turns up in jail and later does the big challenge with his oversized sword. The real question the film is asking is whether death can ever be justified in serving a larger purpose. As an assassin during the war, our hero killed because he was told the removal of these men was the route to lasting peace. Yet now the war is over and there’s something approximating peace, the killings go on. It’s just killing for a different purpose. In the current struggle for power, the identity of the individuals who die is irrelevant to the killer. It’s simply a means to the ends of Kanryuu Takeda. In a way, every death is futile because even if someone produces justifications for each death, there’s never an end to the killing. So long as there are still people alive, it’s possible to invent new reasons to kill them. All this leaves is widows to mourn and to watch while the tragedy repeats itself.

Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) in her dojo

Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) in her dojo

 

The film becomes a form of discussion about redemption and recidivism. As Kenshin Himura, the assassin has given up killing and now seeks to use his sword only in the defence of others. Udo Jin-e has remained a killer for its own sake and he seeks to provoke Kenshin into rekindling his lust for death. The irony is that ostensibly they are fighting about whether Kanryuu Takeda should be allowed to flood Japan with heroin, but the reality is that neither of them really cares about that. Jin-e simply wants more deaths, regardless of who kills or is killed. Kenshin wishes only to avoid deaths wherever possible.

 

Some of the fight choreography is literally entrancing. In saying this, it’s necessary to consider the purpose of the film. This is not a “martial arts” film. This is a film transposing the first ten or so episodes of an anime to the big screen in a live action format. The fight sequences therefore strike a balance between fantasy and reality. Ignoring the wirework which is now mandatory in most martial arts films, the sword fighting here is intentionally spectacular. There are two set-piece fights in the final reels which are among the best I’ve seen in years. The first features Kenshin’s katana of standard length against a shorter wakizashi. The second is a more traditional fight between blades of equal length.

 

Since I know the original story and, more importantly, who everyone is, I’m in two minds as to whether this film stands up on its own. I think the introduction of Megumi Takani is a bit rushed and there’s no clear motivation given for Sanosuke Sagara to help our hero. I was also slightly disappointed we didn’t get to see Kaoru Kamiya fight properly. Indeed, the exclusion of Kaoru Kamiya and Yahiko Myojin from the rescue squad is frustrating although it would delay the set-up for the final fight in the film version of the plot. So, as someone who’s seen the anime version, I think this is an excellent way of distilling a moderately long story arc down to a manageable film length. I’m not quite so sure a newcomer would understand it all. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese samurai films. The politics of the time is quite well done, the fighting is only slightly gory and, overall, Rurouni Kenshin or るろうに剣心 is very entertaining.

 

Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012)

March 26, 2013 2 comments

Shinobido

This is about a village of secretive Ninja spies who call themselves the Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012) and their feud with Kurobaneshu, a secret band of samurai dedicated to wiping out the ninja. The first thing you should notice about this set-up is that neither feuding group really knows anything about the other. They both keep their secrets well. To some extent that saves this film from being a direct rerun of Romeo and Juliet, but the basic plot dynamic is the star-crossed lovers theme. On the Shinobidô side, we have Sumino aka Oko (Aimi Satsukawa), a young female ninja ordered by her village chief (Hatsunori Hasegawa) to gather intelligence about the Kurobaneshu. To do this, she has to go undercover as a serving wench in a nearby town. On her first day in this thriving village metropolis, she rescues a young girl from certain injury if not death. This forces her father, apparently the town drunk called Togoro (Ryoichi Yuki), to wake up and take notice of her. During the day, when he’s dried out, he’s one of these helpful types who helps geriatrics cross the road and repairs whatever’s broken. Needless to say, within just a few frames they are looking at each other with delightfully suspicious eyes. As trained spies, they both know there’s something not quite right about the other but there’s also physical attraction.

Aimi Satsukawa as our lethal heroine

Aimi Satsukawa as our lethal heroine

 

At least that’s what we’re supposed to infer from their behaviour. However, it’s at this point that I’m forced to raise flags signally the imminent arrival of a storm. There are times when, within a few minutes of a film starting, you become aware this is not going to be a pleasant experience. This is one of those times. No matter how you judge quality, one thing is certain. In the West, films of this quality go straight to video and expire on the shelves of distant warehouses and obscure shops. It’s not just the production values which are of the economical variety. It’s also the cast who must rank as one of the most wooden I have had the misfortune to see in the last year. That this was released into the cinemas speaks volumes as to the patience of Japanese cinema goers. The star of the show is Aimi Satsukawa. Over the last seven years, she’s contrived to appear in multiple films and television shows. But she’s woefully miscast in this. Here’s a trained killer and superspy. She’s supposed to be able to blend into obscurity when undercover yet not only does she immediately draw attention to herself with a very public rescue, but she walks around the inn as if officiating at a funeral service. There’s absolutely no animation, no spark of life about her at all (except when, Bollywood style, we break off and have a musical number when she and a group do a ninja dance for the villagers). Now it’s always possible that, in these distant times and in hick townships, serving girls did not flirt with the customers to pick up tips. But this performance wins a booby prize for failing the course on Bar (Waiting on Table) 101.

Ryoichi Yuki as the terminally depressed hero

Ryoichi Yuki as the terminally depressed hero

 

Ryoichi Yuki is no better. We’re to think him lost in grief from the death of his wife (she was supposedly killed by the Shinobidô) but the enemy superspy is his chance of resuming life as a red-blooded Japanese man when he gets a load of our her. Except he’s so undemonstrative, it takes a superimposition of his dead wife’s face over the spy’s so we understand what he’s thinking. Allowing for cultural differences, this is tedious as a romance. And, to prove the point, it rains when she stands him up on their first date and goes back to the ninja village. Now it all comes down to an internal emotional conflict between her loyalty to the village and her possible love for the man. In due course, this conflict has to be resolved in a big fight at the ninja village. The fight has its moments but it’s essentially amateurish as a film spectacle. I suppose I could dignify it by saying the general lack of style is probably realistic. In a real fight, warriors don’t care what it looks like so long as it’s effective. Unfortunately, the way it’s shot and put together rather belies that interpretation. We get staged death after staged death with blood spurting out everywhere in an SFX nightmare. Just in case you come across Shinobidô or 忍道 somewhere on a shelf and feel like surrendering a few minutes of your life in watching it, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say it’s not the rousing climax you would hope for. It simply continues the death spiral from the first few minutes until we crash into the ground with the rest of the dead.

 

Merantau (2009)

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment

merantau

Merantau (2009) was the first collaboration in Indonesia between director and screenwriter Gareth Evans and action/martial arts expert Iko Uwais. This film follows a rite of passage theme. The word refers to a kind of spiritual journey to be taken by a young man as he seeks to become an adult. The underlying notion is that the relationship you form with nature teaches basic moral values. So the story migrates from an idyllic pastoral opening with a calm and loving family life to Jakarta where an entirely different culture dominates. The film-maker’s intention is to show deep roots in the local community and the problems of displacement. The danger in leaving home is that, when you return, you have become a different person who no longer feels comfortable in the original setting. So the theme is about identity and the balance between who you were when young and who you choose to become as an adult. Assuming there’s some degree of control of the process, the intention should always be to preserve what was good and to add only good new elements. Except, of course, what is good in one place is not necessarily a virtue in another. Experience is culturally specific as everyone adapts to their immediate environment and decides whether to conform to local conditions. Socially, the desire to fit in may lead to compromises in previously held values.

Iko Uwais before the fighting starts

Iko Uwais before the fighting starts

 

His arrival in Jakarta is not auspicious. The address and telephone number he’s been given no longer offer hope of a welcome. He spends his first night roughing it in a construction site. The next day Adit (Yusuf Aulia), a young thief, tries to steal his wallet and he saves Astri (Sisca Jessica), the boy’s older sister, from a beating by a club owner and pimp. This Johni (Alex Abbad) has a contract to deliver five girls to two more powerful Western businessmen who are organising a trafficking operation. When Johni only has four virgins to make up the final number ordered, this gives him a problem so he sends out his men to find Astri. Of course, our hero is accidentally in the right place at the right time and we see him initially fail to rescue her. It’s a good try at odds of four-to-one, but he loses. Being kicked on the ground does not make him feel better, but it does trigger a new determination. Left outside on his own, he makes a decision about who he wants to be. He may not know the girl but he feels obligated to help her. Naturally this establishes the basis for the rest of the film as a chase with a fairly continuous fight sequence as the outraged gang tries to get the girl back and take revenge on this troublesome youngster.

 

Some of the fighting is terrific. The form of martial arts involved is silat which is very popular in the ASEAN region and, as seen in this film, appears very effective. In saying this, I’m making allowances for the necessary dramatisation of the fights for cinema purposes. I’ve seen it in television highlights on reports from local and regional competitions and what we see here is similar. We do, of course have the usual problem that sometimes people who are hit bounce back and keep fighting but, on key occasions, everyone lies down as soon as they are hit so that the fight can develop sequentially and then come down to the climatic fights with fellow experts. The fight in the lift with Yayan Ruhian and at the end with the two Western brothers are impressive. The co-ordination between the two brothers in their attacking style is particularly interesting (it features Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson).

Sisca Jessica a fairly sturdy victim

Sisca Jessica a fairly sturdy victim

 

Overall, we have a coherent story of an innocent young man who gets sucked into a running battle and chooses to stay in the fight. No-one knows him. If he went back to his village, he would be safe. But as he strives to become an adult, he has the determination to keep fighting. The tenuous relationship he forms with the girl and her brother is simple and emotionally direct. He helps and they accept his help because they have no choice. The ending is rather mawkish and melodramatic but, in the final scenes we come back to the strength that can flow from the sense of belonging to a community. This leads me to conclude this is a good but not outstanding film. It has some impressive fight sequences and the script is more than adequate.

 

The slight problem lies in the youthful inexperience of Iko Uwais as the hero. Somehow he never comes across as having the “killer” instinct that would be necessary to survive. You can’t fight this number of different assailants if you think they are going to get up after being hit and keep fighting. You have to be prepared to main if not kill. Throughout he just feels too nice. Worse, when he has a moment to reflect on progress to date, he never once expresses remorse for the injuries he’s caused. Because of the opening sequence, he should be conflicted when forced to injure fellow human beings, even in self-defence. Indeed, I find the performance slightly monotonous. It contrasts quite strongly with the acting in The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) where, as a seasoned SWAT officer, our hero has no compunction about disabling or killing anyone who gets in his way. The relationship between the actor and his screen wife and brother make a stark contrast to the man as an officer defending himself which comes over well. In Merantau, Iko Uwais shows immense martial arts skills but is somewhat wooden as an actor.

 

For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, see The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011).

 

The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011)

February 19, 2013 7 comments

The_Raid_Redemption

The opening of The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) sets the tone of great stillness in prayer and meditation as a counterpoint to the phenomenal power and speed of the blows struck at the punching bag. As in all things, there must be a perfect balance between mind and body if the optimum outcomes are going to be achieved. In everyday situations, you can avoid disaster while only operating at 50%. When someone may be trying to kill you, whether in hand-to-hand or at a distance with a gun, survival depends on fast reflexes (and some luck). Rama (Iko Uwais) is a man in harmony with himself and in a loving relationship. His wife is pregnant, soon to give birth.

 

Written and directed by Gareth Evans, this has proved to be one of the more successful films to come out of Indonesia over the last twenty years. On a budget of just over $1 million, it took about $15 million worldwide which may not sound much but is actually very successful for a film R-rated for extreme violence. Set in the heart of Jakarta’s slums, this plays to the classic script idea of a SWAT raid gone wrong. In theory, it’s always possible to take down a well-protected building so long as you have the element of surprise. But, if your approach is detected and the opposing forces have a chance to mobilise and prepare defences, what was a perfectly planned operation can turn into a deadly trap for those who manage to get inside.

Ray Sahetapy and Pierre Gruno decide whether it's a good day to die

Ray Sahetapy and Pierre Gruno decide whether it’s a good day to die

 

The briefing for the raid is given by Rama as the SWAT squad drives through the rain to the building owned by Tama (Ray Sahetapy). He’s established this tower block as a no-go area for the police and offers sanctuary to any criminal who can afford to pay. There’s also a drug processing lab so the building has a strong armed guard in place — there are always threats from rival gangs to contend with. It’s somewhat cavalier only to tell the team where they are going at the last minute. To put it mildly, it’s foolhardy to send in such a small squad (including one rookie who’s never actually been on a live mission before). But that’s the way films like this are supposed to work. You send in a team and then watch as, one by one, they fall by the wayside. In this, I note that Judge Dredd and one rookie take on a fortified building. One forgives this idiocy because it’s science fictional and such comic book heroes always prevail no matter what the odds. This has more pretensions to realism and so the idiocy is more difficult to forgive. If the government was serious about removing this crime lord, they would send in the army after softening up the building with artillery. No matter how elite this police SWAT team is supposed to be, this is a suicide mission. To emphasise this, the film has an establishing scene showing Tama cold-bloodedly executing a number of men. When he runs out of bullets, he uses a hammer to kill the last one kneeling. It’s only later we learn that the raid has not been officially sanctioned and no-one else in the police force knows they are in action. For Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) it’s personal but not quite for the usual reason.

Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian decide who's the best

Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian decide who’s the best

 

At this point, I need to indulge in a little honesty. No-one watches films of this type because they make sense or say something profound about the human condition. Films like this are a guilty pleasure because of the martial arts. Too often, directors are faced with a cast of actors who cannot fight very well. To create reasonable effects, the choreography, camera angles and cutting hide the deficiencies. If all else fails, wire work has people flying through the air to distract us from the lack of real martial arts ability. In this film the director has people who can fight and he’s not afraid to show us all the moves in reasonably clear view, i.e. the stunt fighters and actors could not actually kill each other but had to make it look as realistic as possible. There are few cut-aways and no shaky camera sequences to hide the action. This is violence at its most exciting, if brutal, best. In particular, the fight at end between Rama, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) Tama’s more intelligent lieutenant and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) the vicious enforcer, is quite extraordinary. No matter what your opinion of the depiction of violence on a screen, whether large or small, there’s something magnificent about fights like this. They only come along every now and then. When they do arrive, you should take your time to appreciate testosterone-fueled combat as an art form.

 

So, to sum up, once we get past the initial whittling of numbers which is almost exclusively by gunfire, we’re into the cat-and-mouse game between the few survivors, who aren’t exactly in the pink of health, and the excitable residents who think the remaining officers will be easy to kill. In this, you should understand the parang or machete is a commonly used weapon in Malaysia and Indonesia. The use of baton or knife as defence is beautifully demonstrated in the corridor fights. There’s little or no subtlety in the plot once the set-up is established. It’s just a race to the finishing line (with just one interesting revelation as we approach the end). For those who enjoy martial arts (featuring silat) or violent action films, The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut is probably a must-see. Everyone else who hates gore should steer well clear.

 

For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and featuring Iko Uwais, see Merantau (2009).

 

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.

 

The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008)

January 4, 2013 2 comments

The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan

When Korea first began to “do history”, it was very reverential. While accuracy no doubt earns credits in academic circles, it’s hardly entertaining. As a reaction to falling audiences, the last twenty years has therefore seen a steady erosion of deference and an increasing willingness to have fun. The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008) sees a maturing of this trend. Although it would be unfair to call it a comedy, there’s a willingness to update the sensibilities and mash-up both the music to heavier guitars and the cinematography to include freeze-frames morphing into manga-style images of fighting and other key events.

 

As the Korean title tells us, we’re back in 1724 with Joseon Korea going through a significant period of economic and social upheaval. It was all the fault of the merchants. When society was simple, the yangban families were self-appointed nobility who carefully prevented upward mobility. The best the increasingly rich merchants could hope for was to buy their way into socially successful clans. But as the orthodoxy of Confucianism was questioned and Korea learned more of Western culture, wealthy merchants joined the yangban class as equals. It was industrialisation that clinched the deal. It had begun with the improvement of agricultural technology and the development of commercial farming. As factories sprang up social change was inevitable. Mercantile wealth grew to be more important than wealth based on landholdings — as land passed down the generations, ownership was distributed among ever more in the kin group, thereby diluting the power. Set at the start of King Yongjo’s reign, 1724-1776, this film sees the first attempts to end clan factionalism which had been using private armies and gangs to entrench their power on the streets.

Thunder (Lee Jung-Jae) and Dishy (Kim Ok-Vin) dreaming of a bath

Thunder (Lee Jung-Jae) and Dishy (Kim Ok-Vin) dreaming of a bath

 

We start at the bottom of the heap with Cheon Dong aka Thunder (Lee Jung-Jae). His granny owns a rundown drinking house with an upmarket name, and he’s a street fighter, tough but prone to losing his concentration mid-fight. As a demonstration, we watch him distracted by the arrival of Seol-Ji aka Dishy (Kim Ok-Vin) as a passing spectator newly arrived in town. When he recovers consciousness, he discovers Seol-Ji has mistakenly arrived at the “wrong” drinking house. This does not prevent Granny from setting her to work as a dishwasher (hence the nickname). He does his best to make her welcome, drawing water for her to have a bath, but then falling asleep in exhaustion at the end of a long day. When he awakes, the mistake has been corrected. Seol-Ji has been spirited away to the upmarket gisaeng house with the same name. In frustration, Thunder innocently gets into a fight with Odd Ears aka Jjak Gwi (Yeo Kyun-Dong). His unexpected victory over the leader of the local gang leaves them without someone to go to a meeting of the gang leaders. Second-in-command Chil-Gab (Lee Won-Jong) decides Thunder should go. This is a fortuitous decision because the meeting is to be held at the gisaeng house run by Big Gun aka Man-Deuk (Kim Seok-Hun) where Seol-Ji now works. At a stroke, therefore, the question of who should lead the gangs is resolved into a head-to-head battle between Thunder and Man-Deuk over the heart of Seol-Ji. They are actually cast in the same mould but separated in years and experience. Both come from street fighting stock but Man-Deuk has risen to the top of the gang structure and now hangs out with the yangbans who want to use the gangs to hold on to their power. Thunder cares nothing for niceties and does what he knows best. He hits physically and economically, provoking increasingly angry responses from those higher up in the food chain.

Man-Deuk (Kim Seok-Hun) trying out the uniform of higher office

Man-Deuk (Kim Seok-Hun) trying out the uniform of higher office

 

Yeo Kyun-Dong directs, wrote the script and, as Odd Ears, lies with a beatific but comatose smile on his face for most of the action until the snow fight at the end. You can’t help but be amused by the collision of eighteenth century Josean culture and modern attitudes. Combine this with some fast editing and a contemporary soundtrack, and you have an irreverent romp through the usual tired court conspiracy plots. With considerable panache, we have a people’s hero reluctantly mobilise people power as royalty manoeuvres to suppress the yangbans. Although initially tongue-in-cheek, the fighting is actually very competent with an appropriate amount of blood spilt in later confrontations. In other words, the film starts in what’s intended as a rather silly view of history and then transcends the silliness into a more universal ending of royalty and the people combining to defeat the corruption of both the yangbans and their gangs. If what you want is a rough-and-tumble martial arts film with a sense of fun, The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 is definitely for you.

 

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

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)

 

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