Rating: The Good – 84.1 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 99 mins Director: Stephen Chow Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen
Nothing will prepare you for the breadth of imagination, style, emotion, fight choreography, and just plain good story telling that Kung Fu Hustle serves up without interruption for 95 minutes. Writer/director/star/stunt man Stephen Chow is the best kept secret in the world of martial arts movie making. With his mind-boggling talent, he should be held in the same esteem as Quentin Tarantino but few outside the fans of the genre are aware of just how good this guy is. Chow leads the cast as a petty criminal determined to make a name for himself in a world of quirky yet powerful gangsters. However, things take a turn for the surreal when circumstances bring him to a tenement block on the outskirts of the city where the inhabitants are protected by an overbearing landlady and her husband, a couple who have more to them than meets the eye.
Chow’s characters inhabit a strange Kafkaesque world of Eastern noir where the traditional martial arts concept is injected with steroids. Super-fighters emerge when you’re least expecting it and do battle in some of the most innovative showdowns the medium has offered. This is the essence of a martial arts movie, a celebration of bold concepts, graceful momentum, and some thunderously good fight scenes. Surprisingly however, the story is just as good. Chow’s character is truly hilarious as he bumbles through the early scenes but undergoes real change as the story progresses. The film comes alive when the camera is on him and we’re rooting him for him all the way. There’s even a romantic angle thrown in that works a treat, allowing Chow to tie the whole thing together in a most satisfying fashion. There’s nothing about this masterpiece that isn’t fresh and inspiring and it’ll have you laughing and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.
As technically innovative as 2001: A Space Odyssey (seriously!), Quentin Tarantino pulls out all the stops in the first volume of this relentlessly imaginative and convention twisting story of an assassin who mercilessly hunts down her former colleagues after awakening from the four year coma they put her in. Not content to toil in one of the many action sub-genres, Tarantino bridges at least four genres from Spaghetti Western to Japanese Anime, seamlessly interweaving the different styles and pushing the boundaries of their conventions to the point that the viewer finds his/herself witnessing a broader yet unique and singular genre of his own creation. With each passing scene, he squeezes, twists, and stretches traditional conventions to find new ways to lure the viewer into his frenetic world of pure vengeance. The result is the most dazzling synthesis of visuals, sound, and music since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Tarantino crafts one mind blowing scene after another. There’s a fight scene to rival anything from the Jidaigeki genre, a tracking shot to rival Goodfellas‘ “Copa shot”, a split screen shot to rival the best of De Palma, and an Anime scene as good as anything that genre has produced. On top of all that, the inspired casting gives us an utterly superb collection of performances lead by Uma Thurman’s scintillating portrayal of the Bride which finally gives us an action-heroine who talks and acts like a woman and not a man. Many have argued (including the director) that Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2 should have been one film, but given the sleekness of this masterpiece, the difference in tone between the two movies, and the sublime manner in which this first Volume comes to a close, there’s more than good reason to see it in two installments. Unmissable.
Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Good – 93.8 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 200 mins Director: King Hu Stars: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai
There are really few films that have the capacity to take your breath away and this is certainly one of them. A Touch of Zen was released in 1971 and was the first of its kind so if it still manages to knock you for six today, imagine what it did to audiences who had never seen anything of its kind before. Furthermore, imagine how inspired its creators must have been to conceptualise it when there were no archetypes to begin with. All these considerations are pertinent when it comes to properly judging the scale of this film’s brilliance.
A Touch of Zen tells a sweeping story that walks a fine line between the natural and supernatural and opens with one of the most quietly stunning and contemplative moments you’re likely to witness on screen. We begin by following Ku, a modest artist who lives with his mother in an old abandoned fort that is reputed to be haunted. When he discovers a beautiful young woman has moved in to the house across from him, he gets embroiled in a conflict between her and the imperial soldiers who for reasons which eventually become clear are pursuing her.
Having proceeded on a very subdued note until this point, the film then explodes into a martial arts epic with choreography and action on a scale that the later famed Hong Kong studios (Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers) would take a decade to match. A Touch of Zen gives us our first taste of “wire-fighting” but director King Hu was far too clever to saturate us with it. Instead, we see our heroes and villains gliding through trees and over rooftops very seldom and always in a fashion that adds to the story’s mystique.
Though this film could have succeeded wonderfully solely as a martial arts film, around half way through it signals that it is in fact going to be much more and in a final sequence as spellbinding as anything any genre has ever offered up, it confirms that promise and simply blows your mind. This, quite simply, is cinema.
The second installment in the story of the Bride’s quest for revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her for dead four years earlier is a very different animal to the first film in pace, style, focus, and even the genres it reinvents. And these are only four of many reasons why Quentin Tarantino was right to tell the story over two volumes. Much more dialogue driven than Vol. 1, we learn a lot more about the primary characters that feature in this volume including the Bride and we also get to see Bill himself (in a career best performance by David Carradine). Thus, the acting comes to the fore here and Carradine, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen don’t disappoint as they give us some of the most unique action villains that have ever graced the silver screen. As in Vol. 1, there is an array of fascinating secondary characters populating the background to this story who together with the actors who play them (e.g., Gordon Lui, Michael Parks, and Carradine himself) represent a knowing and sometimes audacious nod to the genres that Kill Bill is exploring. For example, the old Shaw Bros. super villain (quite possibly the best in the genre’s illustrious history), Pai Mei emerges in stupendous fashion with a show stealing performance by Lui. These characters are largely responsible for the funnier moments (of which their are plenty) with Bud’s boss Larry (Larry Bishop) being a particular highlight. Although, the action takes a back seat to the dialogue in Kill Bill Vol. 2, there are no fewer than three sublime action sequences, the first being the best martial arts training sequence since The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the last (the ultimate showdown between the Bride and Bill) being the swiftest and most explosive duel since Sanjuro. File under cinematic masterclass.
Rating: The Bad – 54.3 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 99mins Director: Yimou Zhang Stars: Jet Li, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung
An unknown warrior presents himself before a powerful ruler of ancient China to explain how he rid the paranoid emperor of his three most fearsome enemies. As he recounts his battles with these warriors, a secret motive begins to surface which may or may not be to the ruler’s liking. Although, this film has been lauded by most of the film-going world, this review is largely critical of the film. The few existing criticisms of this film have in the main focused on a theoretical political undertone or indeed a message that justifies the political regime who bankrolled the film. Such criticisms are not the concern of this review which focuses simply on its artistic merit.
Hero is a beautiful looking film full of astonishingly choreographed fight scenes. This much has been said by practically everyone who has seen the film and it is not really up for debate. However, while it may look lovely and involve lots of spectacular choreography, Hero makes some unforgivable movie-making mistakes while getting there. Firstly, it does look lovely, every second of it. That’s the problem. By making every frame of every scene a picture of beauty, Yimou Zhang shows no understanding of the importance of restraint and so he saturates the audience very early on. A Kubrick, a Jackson, or a Malick would tease you here and there and then intermittently knock you for six with great cinematography. One reason why cinematography is a separate profession from directing is cinematographers don’t necessarily know how to sew their lovely shots together into a coherent affecting experience. It’s the discipline of a great director that makes the best use of great cinematographers. Hero is a case of astoundingly good cinematography let down by astoundingly poor directing. In a similar act of indiscipline, on several occasions, Zhang seems to use the plot as nothing more than a tool to present us with as many visual feasts as we can chew on – and then a dozen more. One gets the distinct and frankly inescapable feeling that each of the key scenarios are set up merely as vehicles for furthering the visual spectacle. With such visual saturation and with plot and story coming second to the look of the film, the audience becomes alienated from the characters and Zhang’s directorial failure is almost complete.
And then there are the fight scenes. Great choreography in a fight scene is of course important but it means nothing if the scenes lack the more important visceral factor. One can only assume that Zhang substituted good old fashioned hard hitting thrusts and smacks with the tippy-tappy attacks that these flaccid scenes serve up in an effort to augment the gentle balletic qualities of his movie. Regardless of motive, however, the result is a series of anemic battles that do little to rouse the attention of the viewer. Testament to this of course is how difficult it is to recall any of the actual fighting in Hero. Sure, we can remember the scenery but the battles dissolve into a series of thinly remembered snippets.
But of course, there are some who argue that Hero isn’t about the fighting or even the story. That it’s about a meditative experience it creates. Well, it could be counter-argued that it is here where Zhang’s direction falls the shortest. Hero approximates a meditative vision by shoveling every type of visual technique that is stereotypically associated that sort of film making into a nearly every scene. For example, to slow down the viewing experience, Zhang repeatedly relies on slow motion (!). The problem with this technique is it’s all explicit. It’s obvious. The viewer knows exactly what you are trying to do. The same level of craft typifies a tourist promo: “Visit China because it is beautiful and to prove it we’ll show you beautiful images.” The audience doesn’t take the message at face value because they’re aware that they are being manipulated into that conclusion. Hero works with that same coarse technique. As a perfect counter example, take A Touch of Zen (the film Hero was perhaps trying to convince us it was). That film works largely on a preconscious level because none of its techniques were familiar and they played on an abstract conceptual awareness as opposed to a perceptual one. The audience had to “unpack” the information which duly allowed the film to creep in past our psychological defences and create all sorts of ideas and feelings we weren’t braced for. Hero does the very opposite. (It should be noted that A Touch of Zen also manages to tell a coherent story while doing all this too.)
Unfortunately, therefore, in the final analysis, Hero is a case of all gloss and no substance. This is somewhat a pity because the gloss is pretty spectacular but as it is not embedded in a story of substance (and therefore being a servant to that story instead of vice-versa) it becomes decidedly unsubstantial. Worse still however, is the brutish, unsophisticated, and ultimately cloy feeling that this film is trying to force feed us an experience. A garish sense that the film is attempting to bootstrap its own standing from undisciplined technical piece to profound cinematic contemplation.
You have to admire films where the rule book is thrown clear through the window. John Carpenter’s cult classic is a martial arts fantasy set in San Francisco and follows the fortunes of all-American truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) who gets mixed up in kidnapping, Chinese mysticism, human rights lawyers, and warring triads. Everything about Big Trouble in Little China is counter-conventional. The leading man is a loveable doofus who means well but ends up needing as much saving as he saves others. The action is straight out of the Chinese flying films that had only really begun to gain popularity in the East by the time Carpenter’s movie was being made. Throw in a few sorcerers, lots of neon lighting, a throne room with a real no-foolin escalator, and Carpenter’s sensational electric-guitar soundtrack and you’re left with one totally unpredictable kick ass martial arts romp.
Carpenter’s films are each defined by a unique energy and momentum and that was never channelled in a more fun and exciting manner than it is here. The kidnapping and pursuit sequence in particular is a perfect example of his brilliant unorthodoxy from the editing and camera angles to their coordination with the score, dialogue, and action choreography. In fact there’s not a single aspect to this movie that isn’t contributing strongly to its enjoyability. The fight scenes are terrific fun and for the most part just plain inspired, the chemistry between all the principals is spot on perfect, the dialogue and its delivery is of classic noir standard (seriously!), and the pace of the film never lets up for a second. Irresistible!