The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.
Ahh, Ruggero Deodato. Is there anything he can’t make weird? Although best known for cannibal atrocity films like Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato was no different than any other workhorse of the Italian exploitation industry, in that he worked in pretty much every genre that required exploiting. He made cop films, kiddie films, sword and sorcery films, horror films, sexploitation, and in the case of Raiders of Atlantis, a film that manages to steal from both Road Warrior and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and maybe a bit of Seatopia from Godzilla vs. Megalon, in a way that keeps the end result unique despite the lack of originality in its individual parts. Deodato certainly keeps his genre films offbeat, if nothing else.
A salvage operation attempting to raise a sunken nuclear submarine is interrupted by a sudden onslaught of bad weather and tsunamis. The crew of the salvage vessel find themselves stranded (except for their helicopter) in a seemingly deserted coastal town, and by seemingly, I mean that there are plenty of corpses placed in various humorous and surprising “tumble out at ya” locations. Generally, once someone has committed a massacre, they don’t stick around long enough to position the corpses of the slain in places that will provide a cheap shock to anyone who happens by and opens a cupboard or something, but whatever. When the salvage crew finally discovers some living people, they learn that the bad weather they encountered was caused by the rising of the lost continent of Atlantis (last seen beneath the Sahara Desert in Conquerors of Atlantis, being hassled by Hercules). The corpses, in turn, are the first victims of the Atlanteans attempts to reclaim their previous position as masters of the world.
Atlanteans dress like background dancers from that “Shootin’ at the Walls of Heartache” song, and their plan to reconquer the Earth involves a lot of hair teasing, new wave outfits, and a couple dune buggies. As far as impressive military showings go, this one falls somewhere below all those third world militias that go to war in Hawaiian shirts and Chuck Taylors. Really, dune buggies? Those haven’t been important military vehicles since the government disbanded Megaforce.
Although Raiders of Atlantis is not a post-apocalypse film, it certainly draws its villains’ fashion sense from such movies, most of which assume that after the fall of civilization, there will be a shortage of food, water, and gasoline but an abundance of shoulder pads, assless leather pants, zany hair and eye make-up, and dune buggies. I’m not exactly an ancient, but I’ve lived a good many years and have yet to ever see a dune buggy. Somehow, according to these movies, dune buggies will be the primary form of transportation in the future, and they will show up in hitherto unimagined quantities.
Despite their similarities to the future people of Billy Idol’s “Dancin’ with Myself” video, the Atlanteans prove to be fairly lame opponents, and a few adequately-trained surface-dwellers with shotguns show everyone why Aquaman was considered such a wuss. Not satisfied with beating up on the Atlantean advance guard, the salvage crew heads into the very heart of Atlantis to rescue a kidnapped scientist and kick a little more ass. In the couple thousand years since we saw Hercules beat up the Atlanteans, their fighting skills, technology, and sense of dress has not improved.
The main short-coming of this film is the budget, which results in some rather lame “toy boat, toy helicopter” effects, but other than that, Deodato manages to turn a goofball script into a bloody, action-packed adventure film that is equal parts Indiana Jones and Mad Max without being the actual equal of either. While the film fails with some of the more ambitious special effects, the stunts are superb. Also helping the film rise above its meager budget is the acting, which is high quality for such a low quality film. No one is going to win any awards, but for the most part, everyone turns in a solid performance. As outlandish as the script is, this is still an amusing high-octane action film that has more than enough thrills, violence, and rolling dune buggies to keep it fun.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.
You would assume upon hearing the title that Zombie Hunter Rika is yet another entry in the seemingly never-ending parade of disappointing slapstick splatter movies that are getting pumped out of Japan at a remarkable rate. While it does contain some material that would be at home in a film by Noboru Iguchi, Zombie Hunter Rika is actually more of a straight-forward zombie film — or as straight-forward as Japan has ever made them. Think less Machine Girl, more Junk. It’s also kind of lame, but not so lame as to become totally unwatchable, which already makes it one of the best Japanese cult films in years. It’s a sad statement on the merits of the Japanese cult film when “I really only wanted to gouge out one of my eyes to escape it, rather than both of them” is seen as praise. But really, Zombie Hunter Rika isn’t even that bad. I still had both my eyes by the time it was over. It’s sort of bland and lacks energy in spots, and like all recent Japanese cult films, it has a stuttering, awkward pace. However, it also has just enough inspired moments to make it worth watching if you’re already a seasoned viewer of crappy zombie movies.
From what I gather, Zombie Hunter Rika is supposed to be the third film in a loosely related trilogy, but this is a trilogy only in the same sense that, say Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and Zombie 3 form a trilogy. I have scheduled but have not, as of this writing, watched Zombie Self Defense Force, the supposed first film in this “Nihonbi” series. The second film, The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, is a largely a pinky sex film that has zombies thrown into the mix. I guess Zombie Hunter Rika falls closer to the Zombie Self Defense Force end of the spectrum, but with a little nudity thrown in to make the kids happy. I guess I will eventually discover what’s expected to link the three together, beyond them being about zombies eating Japanese people. It’s the sort of Bob Woodward-esque commitment to uncovering the story that keeps me going.
Rika and her best friend live in a world that makes almost no logical sense. There are apparently zombies, and the killing of zombies is a sport that creates pro wrestling style internet superstars like the famed Zombie Hunter (one of the worst white guy actors in Japanese movie history — which is a tremendous claim, I know). At the same time, life seems to go on as normal, and when zombies attack a small town, no one else seems to notice or be prepared for it. Some zombie films bend over backward to explain why it’s all happening. Others go with “we will never know what caused this.” Zombie Hunter Rika seems to be taking the approach of “whatever, man.” Rika and her friend fin themselves trapped on the wrong side of zombie gut munchers with her semi-catatonic sword master grandfather, his conniving new wife, her conniving rockabilly-esque brother, a few couple slapstick locals, and a benevolent zombie who has strapped a metal grate to his face to stop himself from eating people. When Rika loses her arm, they conveniently find the big muscular arm of a slain zombie hunter, graft it to her, and thus is born the world’s most powerful schoolgirl zombie slayer.
Shot on video, amateurishly made, but decently acted, Zombie Hunter Rika benefits greatly from diminished expectations. That it managed to be even moderately entertaining makes it seem like some great accomplishment. Some of the jokes are actually kind of funny. The conniving brother has a great fight scene against a gang of zombies in which he…well, it’s really hard to describe. But let’s say you had a friend who was actually kind of good at martial arts, and he got in a real world version of a Tony Jaa fight. It’s like that. There’s an air of competence about it, but without precision choreography, there’s also a lot of awkwardness, falling down, and flailing about. It was probably the best art of the movie, and it comes pretty early on. Action direction was done by Tak Sakaguchi, best known as the mysterious anti-hero in Versus but also one of the crew along with Noboru Iguchi responsible for the wave of aforementioned slapstick splatter movies. There’s an obvious jump in the energy level whenever Tak steps behind the camera to take over for regular director Ken’ichi Fujiwara.
The rest of the film follows the standard zombie film trajectory of a group of people holing up in a house to defend themselves. For the most part, the writing is really dumb, and the way the script has its character act in the middle of a zombie apocalypse just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Things start to drag during the second act, but no sooner are you starting to feel your patience wearing thin than they graft that arm on Rika and the film wakes up again for the finale. Things get insane in that way that seems unique to weird Japanese films but common to them all, if that makes any sense. A sort of predictable unpredictability, where you don’t know what crazy shit they’re going to make up, but you know they’re going to make up a lot of crazy shit. It’s film writing via getting a bunch of cult movie nerds drunk then letting them finish a script. Throw in a lot of zombie gore and some gratuitous boob shots, and you have a film that manages just barely to be on the enjoyable end of the bell curve.
Release Year: 2008 | Country: Japan | Starring: Mina Arai, Lemon Hanazawa, Kotaro Kamijo, Ryunosuke Kawai, Eiichi Kikuchi, Risa Kudo, Yuya Matsuura, Mai Minami, Tsugumi Nagasawa, Akina Serizawa, Takeshi Yamamoto | Screenplay: Ken’ichi Fujiwara, Takeyuki Morikaku | Director: Ken’ichi Fujiwara
Goro Miyazaki, son of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has achieved with his debut film, Tales from Earthsea, the same sense of profundity as his father. Unfortunately, while the elder Miyazaki’s profundity usually came from things like wonder, imagination, inspiration, wit, emotion, and beauty, Miyazaki the younger’s effort is one of profound tedium and disappointment. Some might defend the poor lad, saying that the shadow of his father is long indeed, and Hayao Miyazaki has set a standard for animated film making that his son, and indeed the entire Japanese animation industry, could never live up to. Of course, you could also say that Goro Miyazaki would be working at a Lawson’s Food Mart if not for his last name getting him a job. So, let’s call it even.
Tales from Earthsea had a lot of hurdles to clear. First, it was based on a sprawling epic fantasy series by Ursula K. LeGuin — a huge undertaking for even a very experienced screenwriter and director to adapt, let alone a guy trying to do both, and for the first time on top of that. Maybe Goro’s dad could have pulled it off, and indeed, rumors swirled that Goro was having such a hard time with the project that Hayao had to swoop in and clean up some of the mess, though I have no idea if any of that was anything beyond idle fan speculation. I don’t know if Studio Ghibli would want to use Hayao to get people to see this movie, or whether they’d want to distance from him as much as possible.
Eventually, Goro wrangled the books into this movie, only to discover that the US market was closed to him. It turned out that the Sci-Fi Channel had been working on their own Earthsea adaptation and was keen to make sure that their Earthsea was the only Earthsea. Or to be more charitable, they wanted to ensure that us poor, dumb viewers didn’t get confused by something as complicated as different movies based on the same source material, even though one ws a cartoon and the other starred Kristin “Chun Li” Kruek. As a result, the release of Tales from Earthsea in the United States was blocked, at least until such time as the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series vanished from the public consciousness (which, to be honest, probably happened a week after it aired). Despite legal wrangling, however, most of the people who wanted to see Studio Ghibli’s take on the material managed to see it anyway. And the word spreading through fans was that, to be frank, perhaps the Sci-Fi Channel was doing Studio Ghibli a solid.
I withheld judgment. After all, my standards are often vastly different from the average anime fan, so my expectations of what would make the movie good might be very different than those held by, say, someone who gave four out of five stars to Elfen Lied. In addition, I am not completely reverent toward Old Man Hayao. He’s made stuff I love, stuff I like, and stuff I didn’t really care about. He probably deserves all the hype he’s amassed, but I don’t really think that any artist is infallible. Similarly, I didn’t expect Goro to be the same as his dad, nor did I find the nepotism all that offensive. So despite the growing trickle of reviews ranging from lukewarm to deeply offended, I went into the movie with as close to an open mind as an old man such as I could ever hope to have.
What I found was that, as bad as some of the reviews made the movie out to be, I actually thought it was a whole lot worse.
Tales from Earthsea fails as a movie on pretty much every level other than background painting. Because I try to be positive, I will say that whatever slave wage artists Goro had drawing the backgrounds, especially in the city scenes, earned their paycheck. Everything else is a boring wreck. The screenplay tries to jam and juggle several of LeGuin’s novels into a two hour film, and it fails miserably. Plots, characters, and events are picked willy nilly from thousands of pages, and remixed into a tedious mess of a movie that seems designed to maximize the time we spend on the mundane (Goro Miyazaki must absolutely love watching people plow and walk through fields) while reducing anything like action, tension, emotion, or character development into as small an amount of time as he could get away with.
What we are left with is an unengaging, soulless story about a young prince named Arren, who one day stabs his father (hmm…symbolic, Goro?) and runs off. If there was a reason for this, the movie never really cares about explaining it. Arren ha a mysterious split personality, though why and what it means is something they feel doesn’t need to be examined. The wandering lad is soon taken under the wing of a wizard named Sparrowhawk, which is a better name than, say, Orcaseal. The two of them take us on a bored tour of assorted villages as they ride across the land. Eventually, Arren pisses of some slave traders, rescues and pisses off a girl named Theru, and gets himself caught in some ill-defined catfight between Sparrowhawk and his arch-nemesis, the Ziggy Stardust-esque wizard Cob. Eventually, a dragon shows up, because, why the fuck not?
The script puts almost no effort into explaining anything that’s going on or making us care about any of the characters. Things happen because the script says they have to. Characters sleepwalk through actions that don’t seem to have any real motivation. The entire muddled mess is devoid of any emotional hook, dramatic tension, or reason to give a crap about anything.
In my book, the idea of a “good” movie or a “bad” movie is unimportant. All that matters to me is, “Was I entertained?” And a film can, in my eyes, commit no greater offense than being boring. That doesn’t mean slow-moving. That doesn’t mean low key. You can be those things and still be interesting, entertaining, tense, what have you. Tales from Earthsea, however, is boring. Boring, spiritless, and just plain crummy. It’s a movie I wanted to like. I thought the subject matter would be interesting through the eyes of Studio Ghibli. Plus, I always like to champion and enjoy movies other people hated. I thought the potential for a great, sweeping epic was there, or for that matter, for a smaller, more personal story set against a larger background. I got none of that. I don’t doubt that Goro tried hard. I don’t doubt that he was under a lot of pressure. But hey — it’s a big game, and if he couldn’t play it, he shouldn’t have been allowed onto the field just because his dad’s a legend.
This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
The new movie is a mixture of faithfulness to the original and material revised or creating anew for younger, more modern audiences who probably have no idea who Akira Kurosawa was. The basic premise remains intact. A hairy samurai (Hiroshi Abe, with unenviable task of stepping into Toshiro Mifune’s woven sandals) and a princess (played by tempestuous pop star Nagasawa Masami) are in hiding after a disastrous defeat at the hands of an enemy army. They also happen to be in possession of most of the gold from the royal treasury, hidden inside innocuous looking bundles of sticks, which they need to transport across the warzone and into the territory of an allied clan.
That much remains the same. But here, things begin to diverge from Hidden Fortress. In the original, they are accompanied by two bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing rednecks who offer to guide them to safety but mostly just want a share of the gold (or all of it, if they can steal it). In the remake, only one of the duo is a bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing redneck. The other is a hustler of questionable morals, but he’s also young and handsome, possessed of a certain tendency toward honorable behavior, and is played by boy band pop star Matsumoto Jun. In a nod perhaps toward focus group style filmmaking, The Last Princess devises a romantic subplot for the prickly peasant and the noble princess. I can’t claim much familiarity with either of the young stars, but my impressions based on this movie are that Matsumoto Jun might be a boy band member, but he’s also pretty decent an actor. You know, like Justin Timberlake, but with more unkempt facial hair. Nagasawa Masami, on the other hand, seems to struggle to keep up with both her surprisingly passable young co-star as well as the solidly talented Hiroshi Abe. Abe, for his money, is doing the best Toshiro Mifune impersonation he can, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Rounding out the cast of heroes is Japanese comedian Miyagawa Daisuke. With the one scheming peasant transformed into a dashing hero-in-waiting in need of a shave, the full weight of odious comic relief falls upon Daisuke’s shoulders. I’m not a particularly big fan of comic relief characters, partly because they’re almost never funny. Even in the original Hidden Fortress, the bumbling hick shtick was prone to wearing out its welcome and becoming abrasive. Daisuke still tends toward the irritating, but he’s a fairly adept performer and manages a few funny moments, so that already makes him better than most comic relief characters. Still, at least for me, the moments of the film where his character disappears were welcome.
Hidden Fortress was the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a straight-forward, swashbuckling adventure film, and The Last Princess is similarly filled with sword fights and feats of daring. Yeah, a good portion of the adventure is marred by the over-use of CGI (the director was previously an effects supervisor), but at least it throws itself into the action scenes with energy and gusto. The finale is pretty fun up until the moment it feels the need to deliver a gigantic computer-generated explosion (which, apparently, manages to kill almost no one despite demolishing an entire mountain). Ending with a giant explosion was maybe effective back when movie makers used actual explosions, but climactic CGI explosions are considerably less thrilling. Still, the movie has enough other thrills to make up for it.
All in all, even given my initial hesitation to embrace a remake of one of my favorite movies, I thought The Last Princess came down solidly on the side of entertaining. It’s well paced, decently acted, and mostly fun. It even manages to have a human moment or two, which is rare in rollicking special effects blockbusters. In fact, despite the spectacle and sword fights, the film’s best moment is one in which defiant farmers refuse to stop their joyous celebration, even though the killjoy evil samurai demand all fun cease. I could have done without as much CGI, but that’s something all us old timers say about every movie. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more that adequate adventure cinema, and that’s what it is. Which was OK with me, because that’ really all I was asking of it.
If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?
Director Denis Law seems committed to returning the Hong Kong martial arts movie to the glory days of when they had awesome stunt and fight choreography and were terrible in just every other way, but we forgave them because of the action scenes (or did you watch Iron Angels for the writing?). Bad Blood is the perfect example of Law’s approach to film making. The story is the sort of ridiculous, convoluted, half-assed sort of affair you’d expect from an early 90s actioner. It also stars Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, his wardrobe is subdued. My feeling is that if you are going to cast Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, then he should be sporting the insane sort of crap that he was wearing in Looking for Mr. Perfect.
For my money, this is where the wheels started to come off the Jackie Chan cart. Sure, we had already written off his American career after The Tuxedo (though I personally love Shanghai Knights and think Forbidden Kingdom is bland and stupid but largely inoffensive), but this is where the Hong Kong movies that were our refuge started to show signs of rot as well. I was with him through the 1990s, even when he was working with Stanley Tong, a director who has an impressive ability to make even the most talented action star seem dull and uninspiring. I was even with Jackie through the first part of the new millennium, and while some people didn’t care for output like Who Am I and Accidental Spy, I really enjoyed them.
Gallants is the sort of movie that seems custom made for lapsing into bouts of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. For me, and maybe this only makes sense in my own head (where it also makes sense to advance Manos: The Hands of Fate as a work of profound importance), you can look at and even celebrate the past without becoming nostalgic. Nostalgia is a particular way of looking at the past, one resigned to belief that the past is as good as it ever was, and it’ll never be that good again. I just can’t reconcile myself with that degree of fatalism, though the older one gets the more often one struggles with that sort of pessimism — especially when one turns on the FM radio and hears that dreadful racket the kids these days refer to as music. What’s wrong, old man??? Justin Beiber too bold for ya? Go back to the nursing home and listen to your safe old Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun albums, grampa!
I’m not exactly old, but I’m getting older. Old enough to occasionally catch myself grappling with the self-indulgent ennui nostalgia breeds. At such times, before I find myself deep my cups and moaning about the old days, I have to remind myself of two important things. First, that the majority of what I consider to be the most enjoyable and incredible experiences of my life have come in the last dozen years, not the two dozen before it. Second, I have to remember that the past was never as suave, cool, rosy, and perfect as we tend to remember during fits of nostalgia. There is a way to embrace the past, celebrate it, even rekindle parts of it, without relegating yourself to it. Like most people, my life is full of regrets, bad calls, stupid moves, missed opportunities, and things I would have done differently. But seriously, is my life today better served by making ornate plans for what I’d do if I had a chance to travel back in time and change things, or by learning from past mistakes, appreciating past victories, accepting my lessons learned, and doing something with the present?
It can be a fine line, and lord knows I cross it from time to time, but I do my best to pull back once I realize I’m getting all pissy about some golden era that never actually happened the way I remember it. Gallants is very much a cinematic adaptation of this philosophy and struggle. It’s a film built around a cast whose best days ended over a quarter century ago, but who also represent a time when we all thought martial arts films were a whole lot cooler than the ones they’re making these days. Rather than turning into an exercise in nostalgia for or imitation of old movies, however, Gallants handles itself as a celebration, a rediscovery, and a re-invigoration, handing its deceptively complex central themes with a deft hand. It’s a film that looks to the past without pandering to it or being trapped by it, resulting in a movie that is uplifting and bittersweet, and ultimately, a refreshingly honest meditation on growing old, feeling obsolete, and rediscovering your spirit and a place in the modern world.
But lest you think this movie is stuffed full of navel-gazing and winsome piano music, let me assure you that whatever themes it contains are delivered by a gang of energetic old guys cracking jokes and beating the unholy stuffing out of one another.
Said old farts are a veritable who’s who of 70s kungfu bad-asses. Under-appreciated even in his day Shaw Brothers workhorse Chen Kuan-tai plays Dragon, and former Bruce Lee clone Bruce Leung Siu-lung plays Tiger, two former kungfu heavyweights who have wasted away the last thirty years watching over their comatose old master, Law (Teddy Robin). As a result, their lives have become unfulfilled and disappointing. The old kungfu school has become a teahouse (a nod to the old Shaw Bros film that made Chen Kuan-tai a star). Tiger and Dragon have never married, never gotten out of their small village, and they spend their days trapped between regret and loyalty to their old master. Keeping vigil with them is the local doctor, Fun (Siu Yam-yam, female bad-ass from such films as Big Bad Sis, To Kill a Jaguar, and Chinatown Kid), who at least has moved on with her life enough to become a doctor. Also staying with the men is a young woman (J. J. Jia Xiao-Chen) whose mother was once saved by the duo in an incident that left Dragon with a permanently crippled arm and Tiger with a permanently bum leg. She feels protective of them, even if they think they’re protecting her, and hopes that she can repay them for saving her mother by somehow jump-starting their lives.
A dispute over the lease for the teahouse with the local heavies commanded by former Deadly Venom and Shaw Bros. muscleman Lo Meng causes a real estate company to send in a mediator: hapless loser Cheung (Wong Yau-nam). Although much younger than Tiger and Dragon, Cheung seems to have given up on life in much the same way, reconciling himself with his loser present while he dwells on memories of the past, when he was a pre-teen kungfu tournament star. Although Cheung and his company are technically on the side of the heavies, Cheung identifies more with the downtrodden old men, especially when Tiger leaps into a kungfu fury to save the young idiot from a beating at the hands of the very people Cheung is there to assist in business. Tiger and Dragon don’t want Cheung around, since he keeps bringing trouble to the teahouse and since he’s ostensibly working for the people trying to put them out of business.
Cheung’s bad luck isn’t at an end, though. He soon discovers that one of the junior bosses in the thug army is a guy named Mang (American born rapper “M.C.” Jin Auyeung), who used to be the very kid Cheung bullied and abused mercilessly when they were kids. Mang, needless to say, regards Cheung with open hostility and is keen on making up for a decade plus of pent up frustration and shame. Dragon is ready to give up the fight, seeing no way they can win. Tiger is irritated that they haven’t fought enough. Of course, Mang still expects Cheung to do the job for which he’s in town, which means Cheung finds himself in the even more precarious situation of being in the middle of physical violence and vandalism. And then an accident awakens Master Law from his thirty year coma, and all hell and hilarity breaks lose.
The central movie is, I think, a reflection of what I was rambling about earlier, something that might have the appearance of nostalgia but is really a reaction against nostalgia. Tiger, Dragon, and Cheung are all men who live in the past, pining for the days when they were fierce and respected — even though those days were likely never quite as glorious as they remember them to be. When the history of Master Law, Dragon, and Tiger is revealed, it’s communicated by the film through bold, heroic looking animation, and when Cheung reflects on his past, he remembers himself as a champion and kungfu star rather than as a bully. So obsessed are they with what they used to be that they’ve let their present lives become total shambles, giving up and accepting that their best days are long gone. It’ snot until the three despondent men meet, and then are subjected to the delirious vigor of the delusional Master Law once he is revived, that the trio begins to understand that the present sucks so bad mostly because they’ve put all their efforts into thinking about how much better the past was.
The film doesn’t let itself become what it criticizes, though. It is rejecting the modern style kungfu film, with all its CGI trickery and pouting teen idols more concerned with hairstyles than with learning the craft of making a good kungfu movie, but it’s not retreating into the past, or kicking the dirt and being all glum. Instead, it’s forging ahead with gusto to be what it’s saying we should strive to become. Gallants does have more than a whiff of dusting off the old guard to show the young whippersnappers how to do the job properly, but what’s going on here is more complex than just aping the past. The martial arts style son display, for example, are a mixture of multiple approaches that have been popular over the years. You get intricate Shaw Bros. style duels (watching Chen Kuan-tai and Lo Meng lock up is a wonderful treat). You get high-speed, frenetically filmed fights in the style of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (the same style that put guys like Lo Meng and Chen Kuan-tai out of business at the end of the 1970s). there’s some small irony, I suppose, in the fact that this style of fighting and filming a fight is handled largely by Bruce Leung — and yes, if you were wondering if they would let him break out the old Jeet Kun Do stances as well, you need not fear. The philosophy seems to be that none of these approaches to film fighting is necessarily better than the other. What’s important, what makes a martial arts movie so special, is the insane commitment and hard work that goes into creating a good fight scene. What each of these styles has in common is that they’re being performed by seasoned pros busting their ass, giving their all, and really taking pride in the artistry of what they’re doing. You can’t get that from an actor who is just being popped around a green screen set by CGI.
Perhaps the most evident expression of this comes when Master law and his rag tag band of followers limp, stagger, and swagger into a gym owned by Master Pong (played by another familiar veteran of the old school game, Michael Chan Wai-man, who slight build now gives off a serious Peter Cushing vibe). Pong’s gym is hosting a largely self-promotional tournament, and the school itself is populated almost entirely by supermodels and posturing gangsters doing pitiful kungfu wrapped up in a slick package. It’s impossible not to see them as a reflection of Hong Kong’s idea of what made an action star in the first decade of the 2000s.
The film’s commitment to being more complex that you expect of such a film continues to manifest itself in the forms of Master Pong and his one real pupil, Pon (Li Hai-to, who like most of the young cast in this film, has very little experience before appearing in Gallants). Although far more financially successful than Tiger or Dragon, Pong and Pon have also been cruising along with no real motivation or spirit — the elder resigned to being the figurehead for a sham martial arts gym, the younger resigned to being the only real martial artist in a gym full of egotistical, talentless gangsters and fashion models. Among the bad guys, only Pong seems to remember Master Law and hold any respect for him or his two pupils, When Law awakens and starts prowling around looking for challenges and hitting on the supermodels in Pong’s gym, Pong and Pon begin to part ways with the real estate thugs, interested in a chance to finally test themselves against worthy opponents, to rediscover the fact that they are both martial artists.
Even Mang, who is the usual obnoxious young chump, is more complex than he might be in another movie. Yet again, he’s a character whose present is defined entirely by something that happened to him in the past — in this case, the fact that he was constantly exploited and abused by Cheung. It’s turned Mang into a trash talking dick with a Napoleon complex, but Gallants isn’t content with just letting him fill that archetypal role. We understand entirely why he holds such a grudge against Cheung, and part of Cheung’s journey toward rebirth involves confronting what he did to Mang when they were kids. American born rapper Jin Auyeung — M.C. Jin if you’re nasty — turns in the sort of Chinglish performance that, if you’ve seen it once, you know exactly what to expect. I think Daniel Wu invented it in Hong Kong films, but it reminds me most of Dante Basco in Fakin’ Da Funk. Lots of hip hop slang, randomly dropping into English, a lot of sneering and making the “Huh?!?!” face — it’s cartoony but not quite over the top. Jin is another guy in this cast who has no substantial acting experience — it seems like the cast of this movie each made either two or two hundred movies — but for a first timer, out of his element, and surrounded by a gaggle of legends, he holds his own.
Not that it matters. The young cast is good. The old cast, particularly Bruce Leung and his insane callouses, are great. But from the minute Master Law comes out of his coma, this movie belongs to Teddy Robin and his riff on the crotchety old kungfu master. Teddy has balanced a long career between acting, producing and composing music. Gallants provides him with ample opportunity to flex his comedic muscle as the arrogant but noble old master who has no idea he’s been asleep for thirty years, and he nails it every time he’s on screen. Yoda-esque in stature and possessing a high pitched croaky voice, much of his comedy has to be seen in context (“Call me…Ben”) or depends on how he says something rather than what he’s saying. He doesn’t recognize Tiger or Dragon, mistakes Cheung for Tiger and Dragon, and complains that Cheung has brought these two old bums into his kungfu school. He also steadfastly adheres to three rules: one, he hates anyone who practices kungfu for the health benefits only instead of using it to fight and raise hell (“If you just want to be healthy, go swimming or ride a bike”); two, he will not tolerate anyone with long hair; and three, ugly people are not welcome in his school (“Luckily, you’re quite handsome” he says to Bruce Leung). Amid the comedy, he even gets a few moments of genuine heart, and his final moments in the movie are handled with a poignancy and subtlety you might not expect.
If the acting belongs to Teddy Robin, then the action belongs to Bruce. Chen Kuan-tai seems to be playing the same role that he played in the 1970s — a guy so dependable and competent in the performance he turns in, that you tend to underestimate how good he really is. But Bruce — Bruce is a whirlwind in this movie. Relegated early in his career to the ghetto of Bruce Lee imitators, he had to bust his ass to prove that there was more to him than aping Bruce’s haircut and thumb to the nose. He became a frequent co-star of Angela Mao’s and went on to make some great films in the 70s, when people discovered he was a much better ass kicker than anyone had given him credit for when he was Brucing it up. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, people were going to see next gen stuff like Young Master and Prodigal Son and, a couple years later, Project A pretty much killed the sort of movies Bruce Leung (and everyone else) had been making.
Unable to make the transition to the new bone-breaking, stunt-driven style of Hong Kong kungfu film, Bruce’s career faded. In 1988, he appeared in what we could all safely assume was his last film. And for sixteen years, that was the case. He was dormant — either getting old and getting on with other aspects of his life, or encased in ice and slumbering under an Arctic ice shelf until humanity needed him again. It’s up to you to decide which eventuality is more likely (though I will give you a hint — Sho Kosugi is slumbering under the same ice shelf). Then, for some reason or other, Hong Kong comedy megastar Stephen Chow dug Bruce Leung up and gave him a substantial role in the blockbuster Kungfu Hustle — a movie which, much like Gallants , depended heavily on stars and fighting talent from the aging previous generation (albeit in a Looney Tunes sort of CGI-heavy fantasy world, rather than the no-nonsense no-computers approach of Gallants). So began an unlikely but warmly welcomed career revival for Bruce Leung.
Gallants gives him a chance, unlike the special effects laden Kungfu Hustle, to dust it up old style — or what is now the old style but was previously the new style that retired Bruce’s previous old style. Got it? In other words, he’s pulling off some serious Sammo Hung moves, full of speed, power, and surprising dexterity. This is the meatiest role, both as an actor and a fighter, that I think he’s ever had, and the opportunity to show what he can do in both aspects is not squandered. At the same time, as good as he is in the action scenes, the movie doesn’t let you forget that he’s an old man. His leg is week. He gets winded quickly. And his final duel, when Pon and Pong come to pay their respects and remember what it was like to be real fighters, is a delirious mixture of energy, speed, heartbreak, and earnestness. “When you’re older,” Master Pong tells a confused Mang, “you’ll understand.”
In an industry that doesn’t really feature seniors as anything other than background characters or cheap comic relief (“Oh, look — they’re having Betty White curse again”), and seems to worship at the altar of youth, Gallants never allows its older cast to be presented as novelties. Yeah, for long time fans, seeing Bruce, Kuan-tai, Lo Meng, and Siu Yam-yam in action once more is a treat, but the movie would betray its own theme if it allowed itself to simply get by on nostalgia alone. The writing-directing team of Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin, and Frankie Tam don’t have much experience between them, but they work hard to make Gallants heartfelt, honest, and witty, and something much more than a crass exercise in exploiting yesteryear. Like the cast, the crew puts everything into trying to make this movie good. And just like it does for the character sin the movie, that unwillingness to compromise, or to take the easy route, is what makes Gallants such a tremendously enjoyable movie.
And it’s not surprising that one of the central themes to emerge in the movie is that you should keep trying, find ways to keep believing, and always try to keep yourself moving forward while, at the same time, not forgetting what came before you. As if they were characters in the movie, the makes of Gallants went through an endless series of downfalls and rejections. No one wanted to finance this movie, this weird heart-on-the-sleeve celebration starring a bunch of people no one remembered or no one had heard of. Studio after studio slammed the door in their faces, until finally, somehow, word got around to Andy Lau. Lau loved the idea and brought the movie into his own production company, fronting his own money (or so I hear) to get it made. Martial arts movie fans everywhere ow him a debt of gratitude. Although I’ve never been disappointed with kungfu films that do nothing more than deliver the action, I’m even more pleased when a movie like Gallants comes along and proves just how fun, smart, and even touching the genre can be.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Teddy Robin Kwan, Wong You-Nam, J.J. Jia, Jin Auyeung, Li Haitao, Law Wing-cheong, Siu Yam-yam, Chan Wai-Man, Lo Meng, Ku Kuan-chung | Screenplay: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Director: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Cinematography: O Sing-Pui | Music: Teddy Robin Kwan, Tommy Wai | Producer: Ka Tung Lam, Andy Lau | Original Title: Da lui toi
American International Pictures in general, and Roger Corman in particular, were infamous for coming up with movie titles and poster art before coming up with a script. This meant that they often ended up with a film that had precious little to do with the title or promo material — promising Frankenstein in a movie that didn’t have Frankenstein in it, stuff like that. It was classic “movie maker as carnival barker” hucksterism, and I admire the approach as much as I bemoan the number of times it’s hornswaggled me into watching something I might otherwise have passed by. With that said, it’s refreshing to come across a movie who’s title exactly reflects the content of the film to which it’s attached. In fact, in the case of low-rent Hong Kong action comedy Kung Fu Chefs, the title is not only a true and accurate description of the film’s contents; it’s basically the entirety of the plot. There are guys who are chefs, and they do kungfu.
One of those guys is Sammo Hung. I assume that Sammo needs no introduction, but I assume that because I’m an old Hong Kong cinema obsessive, or at least I was until round about 2001, when all the stars I loved started getting old and were replaced by really boring pop idol types appearing in really uninteresting movies. Sammo was one of the building blocks of the Hong Kong new wave, and even more than Jackie Chan, it was Sammo who introduced the world to the sort of hard-hitting, eye-popping, lightning fast action choreography that helped define Hong Kong cinema in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. And he did it all while being a big fat guy with a staggeringly consistent procession of terrible haircuts.
Well, we’re decades past that heady belle epoque, and Sammo is turning sixty soon. He’s not as fast or agile as he used to be, nor can he take the type of beatings his style of choreography used to demand of him and everyone around him (the idea to make sure someone’s foot was covered in dust or powder so you could see that the fighters were actually making contact during fight scenes was his). Of course, he’s still a big fat guy, and he still has a terrible haircut (though it’ among his better ones, relatively speaking), and even if his star has faded a bit in his native Hong Kong, those of us elsewhere who cut our teeth on the Hong Kong films of days gone by still revere him as Big Brother Big, and for us, he still cranks out the occasional movie.
Kung Fu Chefs is the sort of low-budget quickie Sammo himself has said he’s not all that interested in doing at this stage in his life. Unfortunately, he has three sons who are all trying to break into the film business, and “we’ll give you a part if you get your dad to show up in our movie” tends to come up a lot. So Sammo keeps cranking out low budget films in order to keep his sons working. In fact, one of them shows up in this movie, long enough for his real-life dad to beat the crap out of him.
Sammo plays Wong Bing-ying, a master chef and village chief who is framed by his vengeance-minded nephew, Joe (Fan Siu-Wong, from The Story of Ricky). Joe blames Wong for the disappearance of Joe’s father/Wong’s brother (Leung Siu-Lung — that’s Bruce Leung to you and me), who was drunk and shamed one night long ago when he and Sammo squabbled over ownership of a near-mythical chef’s knife. If you can’t roll with that as a concept, then you are definitely in the wrong movie. And probably at the wrong website.
After Joe sabotages a wedding banquet with the help of an accomplice (Sammo’s son, Timmy Hung — professional tip one: if you want to succeed as an actor, reconsider “Timmy”), Sammo is forced to leave the village in disgrace. He ends up at a restaurant owned by two sisters played by Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi (from Fulltime Killer) and Ai Kago (a Japanese pop star and former member of the Logan’s Run-esque eternally youthful supergroup Morning Misume). At the same time, a hoshot young kungfu student named Ken (Vanness Wu — we’ll talk about that name in a moment) arrives, after having been sent out into the world to broaden his cooking skills. In this movie, cooking and kungfu are interchangeable, and no one practices one without practicing the other. Sammo challenges the resident chef to a duel, choosing the mysterious hipster Ken as his makeshift assistant, and the two soon become the top chefs of the restaurant. This doesn’t sit well with deposed Chef Tin, who seeks employment at the restaurant’s number one competitor — which just happens to be run by Joe.
There have been a number of “cooking as kungfu” movies from Hong Kong over the years, with the first big one being 1995′s Chinese Feast directed by Tsui Hark and starring Anita Yuen and Leslie Cheung. That was gave a passing nod to kungfu films, but it was much more an attempt to make a Chinese Tampopo. As food culture became more mainstream, there were bound to be more movies about it, and given the intense training and dedication of master chefs, coupling cooking with the martial arts was pretty much a given.
Such films went ballistic in 1996, when Stephen Chow directed and starred in the box office smash God of Cookery. In that, the relationship between cooking and kungfu was even more explicit than Chinese Feast, creating a genre I refer to as “kung food.” Over a decade after the fact, we get Kungfu Chefs, a movie that takes the relationship even further by basically taking the script for any of a thousand old kungfu films and just searching and replacing “kungfu” with “cooking.” Disgraced masters, cocky young protege, esoteric styles, training sequences, dueling schools, and of course, a big tournament at the end — the exact same ingredients go into this movie as went into so many old kungfu films.
As parody of both cooking and kungfu films, Kung Fu Chefs manages to be more entertaining than not, despite possessing a host of drawbacks. This movie feels like something that would have been cranked out in the early 1990s, during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, when everyone was so insane and energetic and flush with triad money that pretty much any old piece of crap could get made and become moderately successful. There was a glut of hastily assembled Hong Kong action films from that era that all played basically the same: broad acting, sloppy editing, numerous continuity and editing gaffes, cheesy synth score, and usually some spectacular action sequences that redeemed the whole mess. Apart from Sammo being older, if you told me Kung Fu Chefs was a product of that era, I would believe you. It has all the same elements, right down to the typo-riddled subtitles and awkward edits where music and dialogue is unceremoniously cut off in the transition to the ext scene, as were common in the slapdash productions of the late 80s and early 90s. If Cynthia Khan or Yukari Oshima had showed up at some point, the illusion would have been complete.
Kung Fu Chefs also has the same sort of half-assed script that characterized low-budget Hong Kong films from twenty years ago, full of hackneyed dialogue, jarring transitions, and scenes that just make no sense at all — like the one where Ken and Ying (Ai Kago) are locked in a deep freeze while a fight to free them rages outside. When Sammo is victorious, and finally procures the key to unlock the freezer in which his two proteges must be on the very edge of death, everyone stops for a leisurely conversation and some hand-shaking before, we assume, letting the two youngsters out of the freezer (we have to assume, because it’s never actually shown). On top of the bad writing and dialogue is the fact that this is basically the same plot as God of Cookery and Chinese Feast, both of which were considerably funnier than Kung Fu Chefs.
Also reminiscent of the worst of Hong Kong in the early 90s is some of the acting. Sammo is Sammo, of course, and while he seems at best moderately engaged by this film, he’s too much of an old pro not to turn in a decent performance. Bruce Leung, who has been enjoying an unexpected but very welcome career resurgence since appearing in Kung Fu Hustle as a guy who can inflate his neck like a frog, only has a cameo role, but one of his two scenes is a fight with Sammo, and that was just awesome.
Cherrie Ying barely registers as the older sister, but Ai Kago more than makes up for it by turning in a performance as the younger sister that is best described as “like a shrill, manic pixie on cocaine and helium.” It’s all squeaking, screaming, pouting, and wild gesticulating. Trying to match her step for step, with a totally comic-booky “I’m EVIL!!!!!” performance, is Fan Siu-wong, fondly remembered by cult movie fans for the time he punched a man’s eyeball out in the hilariously over-the-top Story of Ricky. Here, he’s all nonstop shouting, eye-bulging, and sneering. But where Ai’s performance could be seen as a parody in that it is every bit as annoying as the old performances it parodies (and I’m not convinced she was consciously trying to parody anything), Siu-wong’s over-the-top scenery chewing generally works as broad comedy (the only kind of comedy Hong Kong seems to appreciate).
Vanness Wu, who should have hired a consultant before picking his English name, is considerably more laid back than his inevitable romantic interest in this film, but he still does plenty of juvenile mugging in the vein of Jackie Chan back in the day. A while back, I had a long email conversation with Dave Tomas, proprietor of Steamed Prawn Buns, about the current generation of disappointing pretty boy action stars he dubbed “the hair farmers,” on account of their being more concerned with awesome hair than any actual martial arts or acting skills. We made particular fun of Vanness Wu, since he apparently liked the Western name Vanessa and assumed dropping the “a” equated to the masculine form of the name. I can’t think of any other explanation for such an inexplicable name choice.
Anyway, I wasn’t a fan, thinking him largely untalented, overly pouty, and yes, way too into the pretty boy routine. Despite his hamming it up in this movie, though, he kind of won me over a little, at least enough for me to think that he might have a future as something more than a forgettable boy toy model. Some actual acting talent, decent performance in the action scenes, and even charisma tempered with a self-deprecating willingness to be a total goofball made him charming. He was giving off a bit of a Takeshi Kaneshiro vibe this time around, though maybe I only think that because he had the same scrubby facial hair as Kaneshiro did in Red Cliff. He even handles himself well in the more demanding fight choreography, which is better than can be said for most of his hair farmer brethren.
Like I said, the otherwise crappy low-budget action films of the 1990s were often saved by their undeniable energy and over-the-top action scenes, and just as Kung Fu Chefs has all the flaws of such a film, it also has their redeeming strengths. The fight scenes are actually pretty good, and unlike the greater portion of modern kungfu films from anywhere in the world, it eschews CGI trickery in favor of old school choreography, with a few late 90s wire tricks thrown in to make sure Sammo can hop up onto those platforms. Grocery stores, restaurants, storage warehouses, and loading docks were, as you know, invented solely because they would serve as awesome locations for kungfu fights, and what precious little plot there is to Kung Fu Chefs is tailor made for making sure a fight does indeed occur at least once in each of these locations. Choreographed by the venerable Yuen clan, the action in Kung Fu Chefs may not raise the bar or shift the paradigm, but it does throw us back into a time when stars and stuntmen were willing to put some effort into the action, instead of just depending on the computer to move them around. It’s more complex and more physically demanding than anything we’ve seen in quite a while.
Similarly, there’s an undeniable glee in the films many cooking scenes, and it all comes together to lend Kung Fu Chefs an amiable sort of charm. It may not be fine cuisine, but it’s definitely easy-to-eat, disposable fast food. And the one thing it does lack that many 90s films had was an uncomfortable mean streak. Many were the times back int he day we’d be cruising along with a perfectly acceptable Hong Kong action or comedy film, only to have everything interrupted by some nightmarish rape or a woman getting her uterus cut out and shoved into her husband’s face or something. Kung Fu Chefs thankfully comes in a post-Wong Jing world, so we can kick back and relax. This movie is harmless, good-natured fluff from beginning to end.
If you are looking for a sign that Hong Kong is lifting itself out of the abyss its film industry collapsed into in the early days of the new millennium, Kung Fu Chefs is not the sign for which you are questing. It’s cheap, shoddy, sloppy, and generally idiotic. But it’s not lazy, it’s not mean-spirited, and it’s not lethargic. This isn’t the kind of movie that will turn someone into a Hong Kong movie fan, but if you’ve been one for a long time, and you remember the old days of renting VHS tapes from the local Chinese grocery store and sifting through all sorts of goofy junk while boiling your bag of frozen pot stickers, then you might, like me, find a movie worth enjoying amid all this nonsense.