Swordmasters Of Hong Kong- Midnight at the Coolidge

image, drunkenfist.com asia the invincible swordsman 2Watching 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.

We’re all in for it now.

The New Legend Of Shaolin

In the 90s, if you were a producer or director in Hong Kong looking for someone to play a legendary hero from Chinese History, the first guy you called was Jet Li. It all started with Wong Fei Hung in Once Upon a Time in China. That critical and monetary hit set off a flurry of period kung fu movie in the copycat friendly local film industry and Li was the man to get. By decades end, Li had managed to take care of four of the genre’s heaviest historical heroes. Aside from Wong Fei-Hung, Li added his take on Fong Sai Yuk (twice), Chen Zhen (in Fist of Legend) and the subject of this particular film, Hung Hei-Kwun.

Directed by the inimitable Wong Jing, New Legend of Shaolin is a fun mixture of martial arts and comedy that strikes a nice balance between the lunatic antics Wong is known for and the more serious tone that permeated many of the films made during this period. Li himself provides a little bit of both, working well as a straight man and as a kung fu superhero. Chingmy Yau and Deannie Yip are responsible for most of the film’s funniest moments playing a mother/ daughter con artist team. They work well together and provide an infectious goofiness that drives the film’s oddball tone.

And then there are the kids. I can’t review this one without mentioning the kids. There are six little ones that run around the film and with the exception of Tse Miu, who plays Hung’s son, they may drive you crazy. Tse is awesome. He’s worth the price of admission all by his lonesome. He’s funny, he works well with Li and he’s a great little screen fighter. The other kids are a slightly different story. They’re there mostly as comic relief (and as a plot device) and if five little “we’re so cute” Shaolin students aren’t you’re idea of a good time then you might want to chew your own arm off by the end. If you can handle, or even like goofy kids romping around the screen (which, for whatever reason, I do), then check this one out. It’s a lot of fun.

As a note, Wong Jing himself makes an appearance in the film. He plays the “late” father in the very last scene. Hard to believe that’s the man responsible for Naked Killer.

Swordsman 2

A plainly strange film whatever way you slice it. I mean, I’ve seen hundreds of films from Hong Kong, I’ve seen this particular film several times and I still shake my head at some of the situations presented here. Most of (but certainly not all) of the amazement comes from Brigitte Lin’s character, Asia the Invincible. She/ He starts off the movie as a man, but because Asia wants to learn the invincible kung fu outlined in the Sacred Scroll, he castrates himself and then slowly transforms into a woman. If I were interested in such things this element would be a damned fine topic for critical analysis. Reading between the lines is rarely ever this strange (or fun.) Truly, Lin’s work in the role is what really makes the movie. By design, the character is all over the place and Lin manages to keep up with the changes and in the process creates a damn memorable character. So memorable, she ended up doing a series of sexually ambiguous roles in the years that followed, including a sequel to this film, The East is Red and the next film in the series, Ashes of Time.

With excellent fights, a great performance from Jet Li, a chance to see The Essence Absorbing Stance in action and the above lunacy, how can you not go see this movie?

Ashes Of Time

Let’s just say this one isn’t my style. Beautiful to look at, but (for some) short on coherency, Ashes of Time might be the most critically divided film to come out of the SAR. Some folks, myself included, think it’s a waste of considerable time and talent. Others will tell you it’s amongst the best films Hong Kong has ever produced. Either way, the amount of time it took to shoot (a year,) the stellar cast, and the thoroughly “art house” aesthetic of the results have made this a highly debated effort from Hong Kong’s leading auteur, Wong Kar-Wai.

For my part, the pacing, action (choreographed by Sammo Hung, although you’d never know it) and lack of story (even after you take into account the narrative tricks Wong plays) are enough to turn me off in a big way. Some good performances (with what they had to work with) and Christopher Doyle’s amazing cinematography aren’t nearly enough to save it for me.

As usual, your mileage may vary.

ZU: Warriors From The Magic Mountain

This is one of my favorites. Featuring wild, supernatural action, great acting turns by a classy cast, a let’s- stop- the- end- of- the- world plot and the first full flowering of Tsui Hark’s brilliant imagination, this is one for the ages.

The first film made in Hong Kong to feature modern special effects, Zu has had influence on both side of the Pacific. Locally, it lead to the formation of the first real SFX house and raised the bar considerably for local productions. A development which has, over the years, led to the development of pure Hollywood style “effects” films like A Man Called Hero and The Storm Riders. Over here the film proved to be an influence on John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. And we all know what a mess the world would be without Big Trouble in Little China…

Anyway, this is a damned classic. The effects may not have aged with the grace of, say, 2001, but they certainly still have their charms and the rest of the film makes up for any shortcomings twenty year old technology might introduce. Well worth your time.

This article originally appeared in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in January 2001.