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

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

One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

aka Du bei dao

2016 #58
Chang Cheh | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

After martial arts student Fang Cheng is killed protecting his master, the latter takes in Cheng’s infant son, Fang Kang, as his student. Years later, Fang Kang is bullied by his aristocratic classmates and treated as a servant by the master’s daughter, Pei, though he’s a better student than any of them. Eventually goaded into leaving, his fellows corner him, challenge him, accidentally lop off his sword arm, and leave him for dead. Kids, eh? Fortunately, Kang is found by orphan Xiao Man, who nurses him back to health. With the help of an old textbook, he learns to fight left-handed, which is handy because there’s a conspiracy underway to kill all of his master’s former pupils…

One-Armed Swordsman is a relatively early and defining entry in the martial arts genre — it inspired countless “one-armed” imitators, not to mention numerous sequels and remakes starring the titular hero (he even crossed over into the Zatoichi series, which obviously I’ll get to one day). Being so early and formative, it apparently plays as quite rote and clichéd to anyone very familiar with the genre, though of course it was establishing those clichés rather than succumbing to them. As a relative kung fu neophyte, however, such elements are much less troubling. Sure, there are plot points that are recognisable from other movies, but that’s genre — any genre — for you.

Besides, as is the case with most works that inspired many imitators, there’s a reason they provoked copycats, and that’s because they’re darned good in themselves. One-Armed Swordsman is not a fight-a-minute actioner like some of its genre stablemates, but it doesn’t need to be. When action does explode onto the screen, it’s fantastically done, with a fair few smaller tussles along the way before it reaches an almighty climax. Nothing innovative in that kind of structure, of course, but the bouts are all well choreographed and performed, and the villain’s “sword lock” weapon is a neat touch.

However, for me the film also worked very well as a drama, and even sometimes as a romantic drama. Fang Kang is an interesting protagonist. His lifestyle is torn from him, and rather than simplistically train to regain it or give up entirely, he battles with that decision. He returns to that way of life only to defend himself and his rescuer, and then out of a sense of loyalty to the master who raised him, but he’s also prepared to abandon the martial life to be a farmer… when the job is done, naturally. Jimmy Wang Yu, in a star-making turn, sells this character arc as well as anyone in a kung fu picture ever has. He’s also (somewhat) torn between two women, the kindly and supportive Xiao Man, and brat-with-a-heart Pei. While no one could truthfully call this a romantic picture, the love-triangle aspect also functions surprisingly well.

Another joy is the dialogue — though that may be accidental, because who can say how much of it was in the original script and how much in the particular set of subtitles I watched. And naturally I can only speak of the copy I watched, which was riddled with spelling and grammar errors, so I can’t guarantee you’ll find the same enjoyment from a more (shall we say) legal edition. Nonetheless, I submitted a handful of my favourite moments to IMDb’s quote section, so you too can revel in the offhand way everyone keeps referring to the minor infraction of cutting someone’s bloomin’ arm off.

In my previous reviews of Shaw Brothers movies (like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) I’ve mentioned their positions on “greatest kung fu movies”-type lists (and that’ll come up again next week when I review Five Deadly Venoms). One-Armed Swordsman doesn’t seem to feature on those as often, nor chart as highly when it does. I disagree with that. Perhaps those lists are based on the abundance of action in these films, by which metric this probably has too much drama — though, as I said, it’s not devoid of fisticuffs and swordplay. Combine that with a solid story, engaging characters, and a brisk pace (even with its near-two-hour running time), and you have one of my favourite Shaw Brothers movies I’ve yet seen.

4 out of 5

The One-Armed Swordsman returns in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, part of Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season tonight at 1:40am.

Come Drink with Me (1966)

aka Dà Zuì Xiá

2015 #178
King Chuan (aka King Hu) | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

The first wuxia film directed by King Hu (King Chuan, that’s Hu! #MildlyRacistHomophoneJoke), the success of which allowed him to make his next even-more-significant movies in the genre, Come Drink with Me sees a gang kidnap the governor’s son to use him as leverage to release their leader. Instead, the governor sends his daughter, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), to rescue her brother. She receives some help from local drunkard Fan Da-Pei (Yueh Hua), who may be more than he’s letting on…

The film features good swordplay action, for the era — i.e. it’s not as tightly choreographed as you’d expect today. There’s a mix of huge free-for-all clashes, and Leone-esque long pauses followed by short bursts of violence. It also establishes Hu’s tendency to feature a strong female protagonist. Okay, she has to be saved by a man in the middle of the film, but at the climax she’s back kicking ass. To cement the point, it’s the female guards who fare best in the climactic battle, surviving long after most of the men have been slaughtered.

For all the fun, the story gets derailed a bit halfway through. Revealing that Fan Da-Pei is not just a drunk but actually an awesome fighter is okay — the groundwork is laid — but shifting the focus on to him and his old rivalry, which springs up out of nowhere two-thirds of the way through, isn’t good. Even the final duel is based on this last-minute subplot. It feels like a late-in-the-day addition designed to add a one-on-one aspect to a climax that would otherwise be about two ‘armies’ duking it out.

But this is a structural niggle, really. There’s so much else to enjoy — not just the action, but some amusing scenes, engaging characters, strikingly brutal villains (they not only kill a child (you wouldn’t get that in most movies) but they do it for no particular reason), and beautiful widescreen Technicolor cinematography — that it doesn’t grate too much.

Two points to be aware of when viewing. Firstly, when Golden Swallow arrives she’s pretending to be a man. This isn’t obvious to the viewer because she’s rather pretty, but all the characters behave as if she’s a fella nonetheless. Secondly, the version available on Netflix doesn’t bother to subtitle a couple of songs, which is frustrating because it’s clear from dialogue that they convey plot points. You get the gist, but it’s not as thorough as it should be. (Hopefully Film4’s screening will be more complete.)

I confess, I primarily watched Come Drink with Me because last year Masters of Cinema released Hu’s next film, Dragon Inn, and this week released the one he made after that, A Touch of Zen — I do like to watch things in order. Those follow-ups are regarded as seminal classics of the genre, a conversation Come Drink with Me doesn’t often come into. Whether that’s right or not, I’m glad to have been led to it, because it’s a very good swordplay movie in its own right. If Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen are indeed even better, they’re a very exciting prospect.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Come Drink with Me is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.