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).
Last Hurrah for Chivalry
Without knowing who the director was, Last Hurrah for Chivalry would simply be an above average period piece. Possessing a vague and sometimes uninspired first half and a much-better-but-not-great second this film is really noteworthy only for a couple of satisfying stretches and a handful of all-too-brief glimpses of the Woo-to-be.
The biggest tie to Woo’s later work is in the thematic examination of honor, friendship and trust amongst men of violence. Well, let me clarify that. It’s supposed to be a thematic examination of honor, etc. The faulty structure and pacing of the first half hamstring the success of this element. Unlike the instantly accessible (and memorable) characters in The Killer, Hard Boiled, etc., this film possesses an apparently limitless well of two- dimensional stock characters straight out of Chop- Socky 101. Want examples? Well, there’s a drunken wandering assassin, a famous swordsman who has put away his sword, a purely evil guy who kills his own men for practice and an ambitious young man who will stop at nothing to possess fame and power. Yawn…
All of these guys (plus a few others) are introduced in an almost haphazard fashion. We switch back and forth between them randomly and the result is a sort of gray, lumpy, characterization porridge that hinders the development of the necessary emotional attachment. It happens , but it happens a little too late.
This isn’t a fatal flaw. There are positives. The plot, once it finally gets going, is interesting and there is an extended storm-the-stronghold bit near the end that has some really good moments (one being a fight with the ridiculous "Sleeping Master," a guy who, yes, pretends he’s asleep while fighting.) Another noteworthy section is a sequence that directly parallels the christening that ends Coppola’s The Godfather. Master Kao (the ambitious young man) has set forth machinations that will lead to the death of his enemies and great personal power. He has hired an assassin (not the drunken one) to kill his own master so that he will be able to (a) possess his master’s mystical sword and (b) trick Chang (the famous swordsman who has, ugh, put away his sword) into killing his enemy. This plan unfolds while Kao attends a funeral. The action then crosscuts between the quiet spiritual moments of the funeral to a very enjoyable sword fight between Kao’s master and the (not- drunken) assassin.Sure, its’ derivative, but its’ still a neat juxtaposition.
When you get right down to it, though, it’s the "Woo- isms" that really make this film worth the two dollar rental fee. Besides the aforementioned thematic issue there are plenty of other things that might remind you of the really good stuff. There’s slow motion all over the place, for one thing. It only works well a couple of times, but it’s still interesting to see him play with what will become a personal signature in his later films. He also experiments with some sophisticated camera movements that showcase his ability to accentuate the motion and rhythm of an action scene. It’s not a consistent "style", but he tracks, tilts and pans his way through a few of the later fights in a way that no one but Woo can do. Other familiar notes include a nascent version of the "two-guys-bonding gaze" and an absolute vacuum in the female character department (He couldn’t do it then he can barely do it now. It’s a good thing he’s got guns and Chow Yun-Fat).
All in all it’s an interesting film to watch if you’re already a fan of the man. It’s worth a look even if you’re not but, as a fan, seeing him make even small discoveries a full eight years before his ground- breaking A Better Tomorrow is interesting.
Burning Paradise is, on paper, a very standard kung fu film. The plot is simple and time tested. A legendary Shaolin patriot, Fong Sai-Yuk, escapes the burning of the Shaolin Temple and is on the run. He is cornered, captured and the elder monk with him is killed. Fong is then imprisoned in the Red Lotus Temple, where he encounters the wildly evil leader of the cult, Elder Kung and another legendary Shaolin patriot, Hung Hei-Kwun, who is apparently working for the bad guys. Before long, Hung is revealed to be a spy (which isn’t really a surprise considering the fact that this guy is a well- known hero) so Fong and Hung then spend the rest of the movie trying to escape from the temple and bring down the Red Lotus Cult in the process.
That Lam does something special with this humble setup is not surprising. He has shown a knack throughout his career for pulling something new out of tried and true formulas (his brilliant Prison on Fire being ample evidence of that). This film is no exception.
Burning Paradise is simply a treat to watch. The art direction is superb. I quite confidently compare it to films like Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys and Aliens in that it chooses unique and successful "look" for itself and plays it for maximum effect. From the desolation and isolation of the opening scenes in the desert to the claustrophobic and menacing Red Lotus Temple, every set, costume and prop serves to heighten the mood. At a time in Hong Kong when every period-piece looked as if it had been filmed with leftovers from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, this film stands alone as a unique and visually exciting interpretation of a theme that has been played many times before.
Another highlight is the demonic villain, the purely and unflinchingly evil Elder Kung. He deals death, pain and torment left and right and revels in it with diabolical glee. Lam is obviously playing Kung as the Devil and the Temple as his personal Hell and no interpretation could have worked better. The combination of the temple and its’ master create scenes that combine implied danger and revulsion in a way that make Kung a perfect foil for the honor and heroism that the leads represent.
The leads… If there is one thing I would change about this movie it’s the casting of the leads. Neither is particularly inspiring in the acting department and neither is of the caliber of a Jet Li, Xiong Xin-Xin or Zhao Wen-Zhao in terms of their martial arts skill. They’re both very good but neither possess the necessary grace to push a film like this over the top. I mean, if Jet Li played Fong Sai Yuk and Zhao Wen-Zhao played Hung Hei-Kwun I might be talking about the "Greatest Ever" instead of merely the excellent.
That said, the leads are a minor concern with this film. The rest of it is so skillfully crafted and entertaining that cardboard cutouts would have made a decent replacement. The Temple itself more than makes up for their relative shortcomings. It is a labyrinth filled with deadly traps and unwholesome characters that practically hums with doom. This is a setting, and a film that should not be missed.
This article first appeared in Shovel Magazine #7, September/October 1998.