Dragon (2011)

aka Wu xia

2016 #190
Peter Ho-sun Chan | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin | 15 / R

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Donnie Yen is small town paper-maker Jinxi, who incidentally encounters and accidentally defeats two most-wanted criminals. While his village thanks him, detective Baijiu is suspicious — does Jinxi’s story add up? Is he hiding some dark past?

Takeshi Kaneshiro is expert detective Xu Baijiu, who adheres slavishly to the law after a past mistake cost him dearly. But is he delusional, inventing connections and powers for Jinxi that just aren’t there? Or are his delusions allowing him to see the truth?

As a Hong Kong production starring Donnie Yen, of course Dragon is an action movie, but there’s more to it than fisticuffs. It engages with themes of justice and redemption, and what it means not only to take the right action, but to have to find the right action to take. Apparently it began life as a remake of One-Armed Swordsman, and while obvious superficial resemblances remain (the Big Bad Boss Man is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, and Yen has to (spoilers!) lop off his own arm), you can definitely see familiar plot points in both films too. But it’s also certainly not a remake anymore. Funny how these things go.

Can I Baijiu a Jinxi?

Naturally, when the action does kick in, it’s fantastic. With the combat directed by Yen, these sequences are expertly and inventively choreographed dust-ups. It’s stylishly directed by Peter Chan — classy, but also thrilling, exciting, and sometimes innovative; and the whole is majestically shot by DP Lai Yiu-Fai (who also shot Infernal Affairs, which I still haven’t seen).

On the downside, at a couple of points I thought the story leapt a little bit or fudged a detail, which is a shame because I don’t think it needed to. This is possibly the effect of watching the international version, which is cut by around 17 minutes (full details here). While it’s a shame, it’s certainly not enough to ruin an excellent martial arts drama.

4 out of 5

Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

aka Du bei dao wang

2016 #101
Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

3 out of 5

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #48

A Roaring Rampage of Revenge

Also Known As: Kill Bill: Volume 1

Country: USA
Language: English, Japanese & French
Runtime: 111 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 10th October 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 17th October 2003
First Seen: cinema, October 2003

Stars
Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, My Super Ex-Girlfriend)
Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels, The Man with the Iron Fists)
Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day, Sharknado 2: The Second One)
Daryl Hannah (Splash, Wall Street)
David Carradine (Death Race 2000, Q: The Winged Serpent)

Director
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds)

Screenwriter
Quentin Tarantino (True Romance, Django Unchained)

The Story
Left for dead by her former teammates, highly-skilled martial artist the Bride awakes from her coma with one thing on her mind: to hunt down her would-be assassins in a roaring rampage of revenge.

Our Hero
The Bride, aka Black Mamba, aka [bleep], is a deadly assassin out for revenge against the gang of former associates who tried to murder her, in particular their leader, Dave. No, wait, that’s not right. What was his name? Anyway…

Our Villains
The five former members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who were involved in the Bride’s ‘murder’. In this film, that amounts to Veronica Green (aka Copperhead), who has settled down as a suburban mom, and O-Ren Ishii (aka Cottonmouth) who is now the leader of the yakuza, commanding a veritable army of ninjas. You’ll have to wait ’til the next film for the other three members to turn up properly, including their leader, Bob. No, wait, that’s not right. What was his name?

Best Supporting Character
O-Ren Ishii’s ultra-violent head bodyguard, teenage schoolgirl Gogo Yubari. Proficient with a weapon that I’ve just learnt is called a meteor hammer. How awesome is that?

Memorable Quote
“That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.” — Budd

Memorable Scene
The House of Blue Leaves: after calling out O-Ren Ishii, defeating her six bodyguards, and meteor hammer-wielding Gogo, the Bride turns to face O-Ren herself… when the sound of dozens of motorbikes roars outside. “You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” In flood O-Ren’s yakuza army, the Crazy 88, surrounding the Bride. The fighting begins, and when our hero bloodily plucks out one of their eyes, the film smash-cuts to black & white to obscure the ensuing bloody bloodbath of bloodletting.

Memorable Music
Tarantino once again raids his record collection to create the film’s eclectic soundscape. The stand-out track is surely Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity, the theme from New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka Another Battle), which has been co-opted into endless TV montages since it appeared in Bill. Of course, there’s also the cover of Woo Hoo by the 5.6.7.8’s, which contains the immortal lyrics, “woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo, woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo / woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo.”

Truly Special Effect
In his quest for authenticity to the ’70s martial arts movies he was homaging, Tarantino forbid the use of either CG blood or modern physical methods. Blood spurts were achieved in the same way the Shaw Brothers movies did decades earlier: condoms full of fake blood that splattered on impact.

Making of
The big battle with the Crazy 88 (see: memorable scene) is in black-and-white everywhere apart from Japan (and in The Whole Bloody Affair single-film cut (see: next time)). This is partly an homage to US TV screenings of kung fu movies in the ’70s and ’80s, when censors insisted scenes of extreme bloodshed be obscured by the removal of colour. However, the scene was meant to be in colour (hence why it still is in Japan), but the MPAA demanded the scene be somehow toned down — hence why Tarantino threw in the old TV technique. So it is an homage, but one brought about for the same reason as the originals.

Next time…
Originally shot as one film, Kill Bill wound up way too long and so was split in half for its initial release, with Vol.2 coming out six months later. Tarantino has long promised a single cut version, known as The Whole Bloody Affair, and since 2011 a version of that has screened a couple of times at the L.A. cinema he co-owns. No luck for the rest of us, though. Rumours persist of a Vol.3, which Tarantino always said he wanted to wait ten to fifteen years to make, so we’re in prime “maybe now?” territory.

Awards
5 BAFTA nominations (Actress (Uma Thurman), Music, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects)
2 Saturn Awards (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Uma Thurman))
5 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Sonny Chiba), Supporting Actress (Lucy Liu), Director, Writing, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Award – Female (Chiaki Kuriyama))

What the Critics Said
“Quentin Tarantino’s giddy homage to the movies he grew up with at the grind houses — the Hong Kong chop-sockies and spaghetti Westerns and samurai and blaxploitation flicks. […] There is no ironic overlay in Tarantino’s movies, no ‘commenting” on the pop schlock he’s replicating. He simply wants to remake in his own way the kinds of movies he’s always loved, and he’s about as uncynical as a movie geek can be.” — Peter Rainer, New York

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“post-modernism retains an awareness of the past, and examines how the past can be reshuffled into something new and exciting. The idea is to take pieces, tropes and archetypes from past-movements and to reshape them, deconstruct them and reference them, ultimately, with the goal of transcending them. And Quentin Tarantino, as a director, understands this process. […] Kill Bill is something of a post-modern masterpiece, and whilst it never really goes beyond the surface of its tropes, it remains one of the most impressive and entertaining movies of the 2000s.” — Carl, some films and stuff

Verdict

If Tarantino had pulled his finger out and bothered to release The Whole Bloody Affair in a way most of us could see, I might’ve bent my own rules and allowed that on. As it is, faced with Kill Bill possibly taking up two whole spots on my hotly-contested top 100, I opted to include just the first half. Back when the two parts came out, I might’ve made a case that Vol.2 was better. Perhaps it still is — but Vol.1 is certainly the more iconic.

Last year’s Hateful Eight seemed to provoke a lot of “my personal ranking of Tarantino films” posts, which just proved that everyone has a very different take on the ordering of his movies — Kill Bill came last in its fair share. It’s an interesting step in QT’s career, marking a shift from talky American crime dramas to wild genre homages. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction may be more innovative, but the style and shape of Bill is a herald for what was to come in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. I like those two even more, but its appropriation of ’70s kung fu styles keeps Bill distinctive and largely enjoyable.

#49 will be… a Black comedy-mystery.

The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

aka Mǎ Yǒng Zhēn

2016 #56
Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao | 125 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 18

The problem with watching so many Shaw Brothers movies so close together, as I have this year, is they begin to blur into one. There’s definitely a house style to the stories, the photography, the sets — everything, really. Even the particularly good ones can fail to lodge in the memory as discrete units.

That said, The Boxer from Shantung is a particularly good one. It tells the based-(loosely)-on-a-true-story tale of Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai), a small-town guy labouring in Shanghai. After an encounter with gangster Tan Si (David Chiang), Ma decides that’s the life for him, and sets out to climb the crime ladder.

The Boxer from Shantung displays a greater focus on plot and character than is perhaps typical for a Shaw Bros movie, but doesn’t exactly stint on action either — the sequences are a little more spread out than usual, and it results in a just-over-two-hours runtime that isn’t typical for these films. Fortunately, it’s an engrossing enough story that this isn’t a problem, even if the narrative has a rise-and-fall kind of shape that is fairly familiar in the gangster genre.

Nonetheless, where the film really comes to life is in its stonking climax — a massive brawl in which Ma kicks everyone’s ass for quarter of an hour, even with an axe embedded in his stomach. At the end of the day, tightly choreographed and expertly performed action sequences such as this are why we come to these movies; and, at the end of the day, The Boxer from Shantung doesn’t disappoint.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 (2015)

aka Yip Man 3

2016 #108
Wilson Yip | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & English | 12 / PG-13

Donnie Yen returns as the eponymous kung fu master, who’s most famous for training Bruce Lee, to complete a trilogy of biographically-dubious but broadly entertaining actioners.

This time round, Ip comes into conflict with property developer Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson) when he tries to buy out Ip’s son’s primary school. The principal refuses, violence ensues, and Ip and his students end up essentially working as security guards. While he’s busy doing that, Ip is once again neglecting his home life, where his wife (Lynn Hung) is getting mysterious stomach pains…

That occupies most of the film, anyway, until it suddenly resolves what appears to be the main story a good half-hour from the end, then spins out one of the subplots into the main storyline for the third act. It’s a remarkably odd structural choice. On the bright side, that means it may just surprise you a little — it dodges the boredom of, “well he can’t win now because this fight can’t be the climax”, or, “well that guy’s totally going to go back on his word because there’s half-an-hour left yet”, and so on. Predictable it is not. Well, OK, a fair bit of it is still predictable — you know who’s going to win in the end, don’t you? — but how many movies have you seen where the main villain is dealt with and/or simply set aside at the end of act two, and an almost-completely-new story powers the final act?

The downside is it makes a lot of the story feel like a case of something-and-nothing. Tyson is no real threat, not least because he’s barely in the film and can’t act for toffee, but related subplots — like the potential romance between one of Ip’s students and one of the school’s teachers — literally disappear without a trace. Even when there’s a young pretender to Ip’s title of grandmaster, there’s little sense that they may’ve opted for a “changing of the guard”-type narrative for the trilogy-capper. And, as with both of the previous films, the less said about the film’s attitude to foreigners the better (though I guess Hong Kong’s British occupiers weren’t exactly above reproach).

However, the film does deliver in two key areas. The storyline of the wife’s illness finally tackles Ip’s family issues head on. That conflict between his dedication to his martial arts life and his consequent semi-abandonment of his family has been an undercurrent throughout all three films, but I don’t believe they’ve engaged with it fully until now. That he chooses to forgo a challenge to be by his wife’s side stands in counterpoint to the climax of the second film, where he missed his son’s birth to fight a duel. Not only that, but these events finally get under Ip’s unflappably stoic demeanour, and Yen lets Ip’s polite blank-faced reserve crack. In some respects, it pays off having kept that up for most of three movies. Maybe I’m just being soft today or maybe it is well performed, but either way I really felt the emotional impact of this storyline.

The other key area is the action, with famed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over from Sammo Hung, who choreographed parts one and two. Early bouts are not bad, though surprisingly underwhelming, but things really pick up later on. An elevator fight between Ip and a Thai boxer is the absolute high point, an incredible close-quarters action scene that spills out into a stairwell, but Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a very good sequence also, and the climax ain’t half bad. Particular props to the sound designers in that last one, especially the clanging, squealing knives.

After an awkward first half, Ip Man 3 gradually transitions into a rewarding set of circumstances, on both the action and emotional fronts. The lack of consistency may mean it doesn’t satisfy fans as much as the first film did, but I’d say it’s a step up from the second, and definitely worth a look for fans of the old punching-and-kicking-and-hitting-each-other-with-poles-and-knives.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Assassin (2015)

aka Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng

2016 #99
Hou Hsiao-Hsien | 105 mins | Blu-ray | 1.40:1 + 1.85:1 | Taiwan, China, Hong Kong & France / Mandarin | 12

The Assassin is a martial arts drama about Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a woman trained since childhood to be a highly-skilled assassin. When her emotions lead her to renege on a mission, her master sets a difficult task for Yinniang to prove herself: she must return to her homeland and assassinate its leader, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) — her cousin, to whom she was once betrothed.

The Assassin is also a Palme d’Or nominee, winner of Best Director at Cannes, a BAFTA nominee for Best Film Not in the English Language, and Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll winner for the best film of 2015.

If those paragraphs sound somewhat incompatible, it’s because they kinda are. Has the artier side of the film appreciation world gone genre mad? In short, no. If you take those two paragraphs at face value — martial arts flick vs. Sight & Sound poll-topper — then The Assassin is more befitting of the latter. It’s a slow film, that revels in shots of the countryside or people sat waiting. The backstory is told in infodumps (at least, that’s what we’d flag them as in ‘lesser’ films), while the present narrative comes in dialogue about political intricacies or the looks people give each other at certain times.

So little happens at times that it’s very easy to become disconnected from it. At one point my mind wandered to other films it reminded me of. Ashes of Time, for instance, which was an arthouse-bent martial arts movie that I really liked. Also, oddly enough, The Wolverine. I wondered how and why that film seemed to have been so quickly forgotten, concluding it wasn’t just because it’s not as memorably great as the finest X-Men films, but also because it wasn’t as memorably bad as The Last Stand or X-Men Origins; and therefore that that was pretty unfair, because shouldn’t the fact it’s better (quite a bit better) than those two mean it comes up more often; and— wait, what were we meant to be talking about? Oh yes, this calming scenery shot, which hasn’t ended yet.

The cinematography is certainly pretty — we’re all agreed on that. Framing it in more-or-less Academy ratio (apparently the ratio shifts slightly from shot to shot, but you’d have to be some kind of wunderkind obsessive to even notice that) is an uncommon choice, but not an unprecedented or unattractive one. However, the choice of ratio is brought to our attention by the inclusion of one scene in widescreen, especially as it’s difficult to see what purpose this serves. It’s not a scenery shot or an action sequence, the kind of things that might benefit from a wider canvas, but someone singing a song in flashback. Maybe it’s simply to differentiate that it is a flashback? That seems a pretty shallow reason for such an extravagance as completely switching aspect ratio, though.

For all that, there is some action, but director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has said he’s more concerned about the before and after of a fight than the process itself — it’s about the mood, the tension, the ultimate outcome of winning or losing, rather than the choreography of the combat — so there’s a lot of build-up for very brief bursts of action. That’s certainly not an invalid way to handle it — it’s Leone-esque, in its way — but it does mean anyone looking for the detailed swordplay or fisticuffs you expect of a martial arts film will come away disappointed.

The Assassin is far from your typical martial arts film, and so will appeal to a different kind of viewer. Hou has said it’s more about the spirit and deeper meanings of martial arts than it is the physical combat, and I can only presume that’s true. Besides looking very pretty, and presenting a (barely explained) adjustment in the mentality of one character, it’s difficult to know what to take away from it.

3 out of 5

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

aka Wu Lang ba gua gun / The Invincible Pole Fighters

2016 #75
Liu Chia-liang | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & Mandarin | 18

When a warrior family are betrayed and killed, the surviving siblings seek vengeance.

Although the story features a lot of back-and-forth-ing to little avail, there are parts to commend it — the sequence where one son brutally inducts himself into a Buddhist temple is fantastic. Less clever: proving he isn’t too war-obsessed to become a monk by… fighting the other monks.

(Said monks are pacifists, refusing to kill wolves because that’s cruel. Instead, they defang them… presumably ensuring a slow death when they can’t feed. Well done, monks.)

Anyway, it’s rear-loaded with exceptional fight choreography, so providentially ends on a high.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

King Boxer (1972)

aka Five Fingers of Death / Tian xia di yi quan

2016 #12
Cheng Chang Ho | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 15 / R

Released in the US as Five Fingers of Death, this popularised kung fu Stateside… before Enter the Dragon came along just a few months later and completely overshadowed it.

Viewed today, it’s a bit cheesy (which is par for the course, really), and does occasionally drag with the back and forth machinations of the rival schools. But there’s a good level of action (the primary reason to watch any kung fu movie worth its salt, surely), and a particularly stunning, casually inventive, multi-fight climax.

Also look out for “the Kill Bill sound effect” (actually from Ironside) and Evil Michael McIntyre.

4 out of 5

Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season concludes tonight at 1:35am with The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

The Five Venoms (1978)

aka Five Deadly Venoms / Wu du / Mm Dook

2016 #9
Chang Cheh | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 18 / R

Some say The Five Venoms is one of the very best martial arts films ever made. Some say it’s the best. I’m afraid I have to disagree. Strongly.

It begins with a daft premise: a student is instructed to find five former pupils and a teacher, but he doesn’t know their names or where they went. All he knows is their fighting styles, which they will use in an emergency, and that the ex-teacher is rich. Presumably he therefore had to scour the entire country watching everyone fight until he stumbled on the right guys. Oh, and there’s a time limit because the pupils may go after the teacher’s money… though how the chap who’s setting this mission is supposed to know they haven’t already, I don’t know.

So the plot is a non-starter, but we don’t watch kung fu movies for the plot. Unfortunately, The Five Venoms seems to think we do, because action is actually in short supply. When a decent slab of it does arrive, in the form of a five-way fight for the climax, it’s somehow boring. Before then there’s bouts of torture and plain violence, and while the blood is as fake as ever, the style is cold and gruesome. The only really good bits come from the characters’ imagination: there’s the opening scene, with flashback demonstrations of everyone’s powers, in comic-book-gaudy colours; and later, the student teams up with one of the ex-pupils to plan and prepare, and as they practice we see the villains appear through their imagination.

I’m not sure what people see here to call it one of the greatest martial arts movies ever. The establishment of the Five Venoms and their styles, all of that mythology, seems to be a big thing for some people. I keep reading things like “the concept of the five Venom styles is simply amazing”, or that “the mythology alone is exquisite”, but I just don’t buy it. There’s nothing wrong with it — it’s a decent setup — but to call it a “mythology” is bordering on grandiose. And whether it’s a full-blown mythology or just a high-concept setup, either way it’s not that incredibly mind-blowing a concept.

The hype means that The Five Venoms is a disappointment — cheesy, convoluted, sometimes nonsensical, lacking in action, and, worst of all, often dull.

2 out of 5

The Five Venoms is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm as part of their Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season.

Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)

aka Shao Lin da peng da shi

2016 #13
Liu Chia-liang | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & Mandarin | PG / R

Con man Gordon Liu poses as San Te (Liu’s character from the first film) to help his oppressed friends at the dye factory. When his ruse is rumbled, he heads to the Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu… and spends a year constructing scaffolding and learning to wash his hair with a rock. Of course, he may’ve accidentally learnt a few other things too…

Return’s story follows the shape of its forebear, but with less inventiveness and more comedy, both intentional and not: the villain’s weapon of choice is a collapsible stool. Each to their own.

Fine, but no classic.

3 out of 5

Talking of kung fu and returns, Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season kicks off tonight at 11:05pm with The Boxer from Shantung.

For more quick reviews like this, look here.