There’s a scene in Sammo Hung’s MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS, a rollicking heist/western/kung fu movie from 1986, that is a go-to when I discuss the stunt-work being done in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In it, Yuen Biao, one of the stars of the film, does a front flip off of a burning three story building, landing on the ground below. It’s shot well back, so the whole building is in the frame throughout the shot. There’s nowhere to hide. There are no edits. No air mattresses or piles of cardboard boxes. It’s just Yuen jumping off of a burning building. It’s not the most dramatic or even the most dangerous stunt from the 1980s but it’s so honest it’s one of my favorites to talk about. It provides a clear illustration of the unique combination of skill, authenticity and institutional fearlessness that made 1980s Hong Kong stunt work unique in the history of cinema.
It might not look like it from the trailer or even after seeing the film, but DRUNKEN MASTER is a movie that has a surprising depth. Without context (imagine stumbling into a Chinatown theater in 1978) DRUNKEN MASTER is 90 minutes of goofy hijinks and mind-blowing martial arts action. Add in some context, however, and it also emerges as an important waypoint in the development of Hong Kong cinema. Which might be a bit of a surprise. It’s true, though. It really is. I swear.
Back in the day the Hong Kong film industry moved quickly. If a film broke new ground with a novel take on a genre or ushered in a whole new sub-genre; the rest of the industry would rush in to cash in on the trend. Every film industry does this, of course, but Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s was producing so many movies, with such a high concentration of talent, the effect was mesmerizing. People were one-upping each other at every turn.
At one point it was somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but I’ve long been a fan of Wong Jing, the director of CITY HUNTER. Both the embarrassment and the fandom deserve explanation.
After a good six months of watching nothing newer from Hong Kong than 1995’s Peace Hotel, I’ve recently begun catching up on the stuff that’s come out in the past couple of years. The development that I was most curious about (aside from the big budget epic swordplay picture, The Storm Riders) was the rise to prominence (in critical circles at least) of the Milkyway Image group. Well, I finally broke my Milkyway cherry (in big way) with Wai Ka Fai’s Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 and, to be honest, I feel like a prime asshole for having waited so long. This is a phenomenal movie.
My friend Eric referred to this movie as "Two hours of the wood chipper scene from Fargo." Eric didn't exaggerate. Think about Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer minus the dark humor. Add more gore than you can stand and you've got a pretty good picture of The Untold Story
Oh yeah... this film is really bloody. Seriously bloody... People are skewered, stabbed, impaled, chopped, hacked and bludgeoned to death with regularity and the finale features a bunch of monks who train with the specific intent of knocking people's teeth out. Is that enough of a disclaimer?
Before we go any further with this I feel obligated to warn you not to expect very much this time around. In fact, this month's offering may very well turn out to be both short and only vaguely on-target. See, I've had my hands full recently with other endeavors and I've found that I've had very little time to watch or, more importantly, write about movies. Now before folks start to picket Shovel Plaza and demand some good old fashioned kung fu movie related content I have cobbled together a little something to toss your way. Hopefully this potpourri will tide you over until I can put together a heartier cinema selection.
The following review will be split into two different sections. One positive and one negative. The negative will feature my thoughts as "that guy who writes kung fu movie articles for Shovel" and the positive will be my comments as "that guy who writes about an apparently random selection of movies for Boston's Weekly Dig." I hope this makes sense...
Chances are , if you've ever read this column before you've seen mention of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li's first new film in over a year and a half. For you stat geeks, this article will be the 6th time I've said something about this impending release from Warner Bros./Silver Pictures.
Recently, I've lived an odd existence. I'm either extremely busy and don't have time to shave, forget about enjoy myself, or I'm sitting around with enough time on my hands to build a scale model of the Titanic out of toothpicks. To fill those hours I've relied on a few old standby's and have been loving every minute of it. I've been reading again, I've finally gotten around to screening some of the films of Anime wunderkind Hayao Miyazaki, I played (and am still playing) the Blade Runner video game and, of course, I've watched a lot of movies. As you would expect, that pile of films featured a rather large proportion of the kung fu variety. Because of this I'm suffering from a sort of information overload and am going to have to release a little of it in this article. Therefore, there'll be absolutely no theme this month. None. Just reviews of varying length and clarity. Also, since there's no theme I'll be panning some stuff in the words that follow. That's history for this particular corner of the Shovel-verse. Anyway on to it then...
(The scene is best described as a bar. The reason for this is simple; it is one. Rob Larsen, dashing man about town and notorious rascal sits at the corner of the bar and carefully balances a silver dollar on the skinny end. After a few aborted attempts he succeeds. He smiles appreciatively at his handiwork and sips his beer. A Guy watches this and after a few moments, cautiously approaches. Carefully setting down his beer, so as not to disturb the silver dollar, he takes the empty stool next to our remarkably handsome hero. Rob turns.)
Well, I promised I'd be "normal" this month and thankfully I think I've kept up my end of the bargain. After a pretty shitty couple of months (or years, depending on whether or not I'm feeling particularly pessimistic), a few things have fallen my way and my immediate future looks like it'll be a lot of fun (or at least pleasantly bearable). Cool, huh? There's plenty of reasons for this upswing (I'll spare you the annoying details) but one of them is the subject of this month's walk down kung fu lane. Y'see, yet another regular subject of this column has made a splash in American cinema and this instance actually gives me some hope that Americans will finally get the whole kung fu movie thing right. The subject? Yuen Wo-Ping, long time kung fu movie stalwart and fight choreographer for the smash hit The Matrix.
The finest year in the history of kung fu flicks? No doubt about it... 1978. Yep, while America was busy creeping out to Christopher Walken's Russian Roulette playing whack- job in The Deer Hunter and humming along to the goofball, whitebread, Middle- American pop garbage of Grease, Hong Kong was busy producing some of the finest films the genre has ever seen. Three in particular stand out as definitive classics, Jackie Chan's first mega-hit Drunken Master, Master Killer (36th Chamber of Shaolin, and the ultimate cult classic Five (Deadly) Venoms. All three are high watermarks for their respective directors, Yuen Wo-Ping, Lau Kar-Leung and Chang Cheh.
This month I'm sliding back into capsule review mode. Why? Well, (a) I've seen a lot of cool new stuff (b) I'm still in the middle of researching a (hopefully) pretty interesting "topic" article and (c) capsule reviews are good clean fun!
Hot damn. I get to freestyle this week. Which means I'm going to heap praise on films from Hong Kong that you've probably never heard of/ paid much attention to.
Alexander Lo Rei is in this one and although I just watched it just a few days ago I can't remember much more than this: there were a lot of really good fights. There was a story, but, if pressed, I couldn't definitively say what it was. Something about the battle for martial supremacy between Shaolin and a bunch of other martial arts schools (including the Tibetan Lama... hence the title). Worth a look.
Aside from the title (if you're particular about this sort of thing, it should really be "...Hong Kong Action Films...") and the fact that none of his noteworthy "straight" films are featured (e.g., Mabel Cheung's An Autumn's Tale, Ann Hui's The Story of Woo Viet or Leung Po-Chi's Hong Kong 1941), the upcoming Chow Yun-Fat retrospective at the Brattle is a solidly constructed happening. Featuring many of his most notable films in West and spreading the directorial focus around a little (this used to exclusively be a John Woo series, if my memory serves me right) the ten films featured serve as a excellent primer on his career and may offer some insight on why some folks call this Hong Kong superstar the "God of Actors."
Hi folks. Welcome to the most remarkable kung fu movie review ever. Why? Well, for one thing, it almost didn't happen. It's true. Y'see my life is basically the equivalent of a beer soaked ashtray right now and I've simply been unable to write this damned thing. Actually it's been a pretty vicious cycle. I sit down with a vague idea of what I'm going to write about (stuff that I normally would be jazzed on, actually) and then all the unresolved trash that has piled up over the last, oh I don't know, ten years rears it's particularly ugly fucking head and the whole thing fizzles out after about two bad sentences. How then are you reading this, you ask? Well, due to a little gentle prompting from the capo de Shovel himself (our beloved Jeff Lawrence) and a little bit of a "fuck the dumb stuff" attitude I've just decided to go with the flow and see what happens. Sound good to you? I sure hope it does because this is the only trick currently left in my bag.
Ang Lee, the director responsible for films like The Ice Storm and Eat Drink Man Woman, here delivers a fascinating exploration of the traditional Chinese Wuxia Pian (film of martial chivalry.) With a blend of traditional elements and a modern attention to craft and character this film plays like a weird hybrid between the worlds of King Hu , Tsui Hark and Lee's own efforts. With an overalltone straight out of Hu's Dragon Gate Inn or Come Drink With Me, wild bursts of outrageous, fantastic action a' la Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China or Zu, Warrior from the Magic Mountain and Lee's own masterful appreciation of humanity. Crouching Tiger. represents a unique and welcomed achievement in genre cinema- a film that should satisfy both the genre fan and (because of its Academy blessed pedigree) the casual moviegoer.
This interview took place 1-9-1999 at the Chinese Wushu Research Institute, Donnie's mother's school.
More astute Shovel readers (although you're all pretty astute) will remember that I sat down with actor/director Donnie Yen last year. As I mentioned last month, Donnie was back in town recently for a screening of his film, Legend of the Wolf, and he graciously made time to sit down with me again. We met at The Chinese Wushu Research Institute and tried to catch up on what turned out to be a pretty interesting year in Donnie's career.
I can say the following with a certainty that would surprise most of you (except for you folks that know me from Shovel): this film contains the greatest fight scenes ever captured on film. Note: don't even think about offering another example. Whatever film you're thinking of, this is my answer, "Yeah, I've seen that and the fights in this are better."
Well, this month in honor of writer's block I'm offering up a little kung fu movie stew. You see, when I woke this morning I looked at my reflection in the mirror and said, "your brains are turned to mush." I was actually just quoting one of my favorite lines from Goodfellas, but it was true nonetheless. My brains have turned to mush. I've fumbled around the past few weeks and have found that I am absolutely incapable of sustaining coherent writing for than a paragraph before hitting <Control A> and backspacing the whole thing into digital oblivion. When faced with a situation like this I figure a person has two options, (A) quit or (B) wing it. Being the trooper that I am I've chosen the latter and am feeling pretty damn dedicated about it. So, anyway, into the fray I go...
Hey folks, one of the best martial arts movies ever made is now readily available for rental. I'd say that's pretty sweet especially considering the difficulties this film has experienced on its way onto Blockbuster's shelves.
What does this have to do with Kung Fu movies, you ask? Well, I have just returned from two weeks in the very town in which the original Scopes" Monkey Trial" took place. A remarkable string of coincidences have merged to form an eerie parallel to the summer of 1925. It seems one Charlie Scopes (A remarkable coincidence considering that he is in no way related to John T. Scopes, the defendant in the "Monkey Trial") has gotten into a load of hot water with the local authorities. Scopes is the proprietor of a small "Art House" Cinema and as part of his weekly schedule he shows a kung fu film on Friday nights. Everything went smoothly for years until just last month when he showed a film featuring the talents of Boston's own Donnie Yen. The next day he was in jail. The film? Iron Monkey. The crime? "Passing off Wire- Fu as Kung- Fu." It's a ridiculous statute on the books in Tennessee. It was tacked on the back of a drunk- driving bill by an overzealous Jackie Chan fan who just happens to be a member of their House of Representatives. Since my adoration of wuxia pian (the Chinese name for super- powered kung fu films) is well documented, I was immediately summoned to take part in his defense. Since I was the only person who showed up on his behalf I was forced into serving as his attorney. The following is my closing summation from the soon- to- be infamous Scopes "Iron Monkey" Trial.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. When the press packets for Lethal Weapon 4 come out they will be complete, except for one (in my opinion) glaring omission. Oh sure, there will be up-to-the-second updates on the state of star Mel Gibson's hair, ass and salary (a reported forty million dollars). Costar Danny Glover will obviously be rewarded for his work in the series with a glossy booklet highlighting his illustrious career. Chris Rock will get a lions' share of publicity because he's, well, Chris Rock and the studio that he tapes his HBO series at is quickly becoming a Manhattan landmark. No, everything dealing with those well-known performers will be kosher. The problem will lie with the man who is going to play the villain in the film. Nowhere in all the copy that introduces this Asian superstar will be the one phrase that I feel is the key to understanding his appeal. What are these magic words? Would I set you up like that and not pay out? No, I am far too kind and gentle. Here goes...
This month in honor of nothing in particular I'm going to take a look at a couple of kung fu films from two directors who aren't immediately associated with the genre. Definitely known more for their examinations of the Triad lifestyle and their oftentimes gratuitous bullet counts, John Woo and Ringo Lam have both taken stabs at the kung fu thing. The films? Woo's less-than-stellar Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978) and Lam's captivating Burning Paradise (1994).
This is the 18th article of this kind I've written for this magazine and, to the best of my knowledge, it's the first one I've written wearing pants.
First off, and most importantly, I enjoyed this film. Donnie Yen isn't Tsui Hark, but he is a director with some creativity, a desire to experiment and a nice (if sometimes overwrought) visual style. The film itself is for the most part fast-paced, has a relatively engaging story (more on that later) and is packed full of top-notch action scenes. Not a classic, but certainly a solid first time cinematic effort. With a little more cash, a better script (again, more on that later) and a little less "art" Yen Ji-Dan could become a director to be reckoned with.
This film is tough. Sammo has taken the idea that "bad things happen to good people" and stretched it to its limit. Kill everybody at the end (instead of mostly everybody), rewrite the script into blank verse and you've got the makings of a new Shakespearean tragedy. This isn't to say the film isn't fun. It is (and so are parts of Hamlet for that matter), there are some very funny and creative bits, the fight scenes are excellent and the cast is charming. All of this doesn't hide the fact that much of the film serves as a funnel, channeling the characters toward tragedy.
Well, let's see... Ringo Lam directs Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Ka Fai (who is apparently in every HK movie I've seen recently) in your basic "newbie prisoner under the wing of a more experienced con" story. The setup is really basic; Lo Ka Yia (Tony Leung) is naive, wet behind the ears and gets sent to the big- house for manslaughter. There, he is befriended by wise- cracking, experienced Mad Dog (Chow Yun Fat.) The rest of the movie deals with the two buddies struggles against an unhinged Triad boss and a constantly pissed- off head of security.
Apparently trying to butter me up by giving me something fun to write about; or maybe just taking advantage of all the good things being said about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the good people over at the Coolidge are putting together a fun couple of months in their midnight movie slot. First off the blocks is four weekends featuring the ultimate in martial arts actresses, and the star of Crouching Tiger... Michelle Yeoh. Putting it simply, Michelle Yeoh is a phenomenon. She can act, she's beautiful, she carries herself with immense grace and she's one of the ten best screen fighters ever.
Watching all four of these movies in preparation to write about this midnight series at the Coolidge has made me a little loopy. With all four films under my belt in less than 24 hours, I've begun to seriously contemplate the Essence Absorbing Stance as a viable self-defense technique.
Anyway, regardless of what the Oscar® folks think (screw them anyway), this is one of the best films of recent vintage. Eschewing his normal, oftentimes confusing, super-experimental style, Wong here delivers as close to a standard film as he's likely to produce and the result is a tight, lyrical masterpiece. Mind you, by "standard" I don't mean run-of-the-mill. In the Mood For Love is extraordinary . It's just that the music- video- meets- French- New- Wave style with which Wong earned his "art house" chops is softened, and the result is a more coherent, almost traditional, narrative film. It still possesses many of the traits that make Wong special; great music, a unique take on life, an indisputable cleverness and a quirky, well- timed sense of humor. What's missing may be just as important however as it's the absence of cinematic chicanery like step framing, shaky handheld work, and any of the other tricks Wong has played with in the past that allows these other strengths to come to the forefront. This is an interesting step for Wong, a filmmaker whose daring is as important as his actual results sometimes, and the success of it makes me even more interested to see what he's going to come up with in the future.
I've been saying this for years and I have no qualms about saying it now, Iron Monkey is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. As a bonus, the version being released here in the States doesn't have me reaching for my revolver. Seriously. Buoyed by the success of Sony's Chinese language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax has gone and done what would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago- release Yuen Wo-Ping's 1993 classic basically uncut and in the original Cantonese language. Sure, with new subtitles, a new soundtrack and new sound effects it's not exactly the original version; but it's a lot closer than I ever expected to see from one of these Hollywood re-releases. Besides, since I like the new soundtrack, subtitles and sound effects, I'm actually happy with the changes. In all honesty, if they hadn't left out Wong Fei-Hung's theme, I would have no complaints at all with their handling of the film.
I went into this viewing knowing pretty much nothing about this film. Coming out the other side, I'm happy to report that One Nite in Mongkok is a pretty successful cops and triads drama. It's focus wanders a little bit from time to time, but it's also got some heart, looks great and tosses a few surprises out there which pushes it solidly into the positive category.