All posts by Keith

I consider it a good day if you find yourself in a torn Army green t-shirt, using a badly notched machete to split open a coconut and hand half of it to the scantily clad woman sitting on the beach next to you as you stare out at the waves and listen intently for the sound of war drums drifting from the dense foliage of the jungle behind you.

2011 New York Asian Film Festival


I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.

Unfortunately, the realities of professional life often clash with my NYAFF aspirations, and this year I was unable to see The Blade due to work schedule, despite that being the one I really wanted to see since it’s so persistently difficult to find. I don’t know what conspiracy keeps that thing so doggedly in the MIA on DVD pile. I also didn’t get to see Hark’s new film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, because going to buy tickets eleven days in advance of the premiere of the film (with Tsui Hark in attendance and doing a Q&A session) is not soon enough.

Ah well. I consoled myself with Zu, which is pretty satisfying consolation indeed. Like many people who got into Hong Kong film in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Zu was one of the first films I saw — first in random clips, and then finally in its entirety on VHS. It was a staggering, dizzying experience, the kind that leaves you slack jawed and only able to communicate via insane howls and arm flailing for days after. I had never seen anything like it, and thirty years after it was made — around two decades after I first saw it — the movie has lost none of its power to astound. The sheer madness, breakneck pace, and audacity of the film is still almost more than I can process. I sat through the packed NYAFF screening with a permanent, giddy grin on my face. Every time I watch the movie, it’s like I’m discovering it for the first time, and I’m a giggling schoolboy during the whole experience.


Zu has a doubly special place in my heart, though. I moved to New York in 1998, around the same time the storied Chinatown movie theater Music Palace was beginning its painful decline. My first trip to the theater was in 1994, when a friend and I made the trip up to New York City from Gainesville, Florida. I had a girl in Massachusetts at the time, and New York City was a good place to meet — not in the middle, but in the middle between Gainesville and Northampton is, I think, South of the Border, and you can only take a girl to Pedro’s Motel so many times. We had no idea we were showing up in New York the same week as Drunken Master II was premiering at the Music Palace, but once we happened by and saw the poster, we knew what the hell we were going to be doing that night. The movie was an absolute madhouse, as shows at the Music Palace usually were.

For those who were never able to see a movie there, it was a classic single-screen theater, complete with a balcony and a dingy concession stand selling dried cuttlefish. The crowd for Drunken Master II was massive. It was a new Jackie Chan film, after all, when such a thing still got people excited, and it was Lunar New Year to boot. The crowd was an eclectic mix of rowdy young kids and phlegmy oldsters — having a phlegmy, coughing old man sitting behind you being a requirement of seeing movies at the Music Palace. Predominantly Chinese in make-up, this was no staid and quiet crowd. People cheered, hollered, hooted, and a couple teens were so excited by the movie that they were running wild in the aisles, throwing down with mock kungfu moves. the Music Palace was never very big on crowd control.

By the time I was a New York resident, the Hong Kong film industry had pretty much collapsed, and new movies garnered very little excitement. As a result, the Music Palace started struggling. The other theater, a block down Bowery, had already succumb to the downturn, transforming itself to a strictly Cat III softcore porn theater and then, finally, into its current incarnation: A Buddhist temple. In order to spackel the cracks that were beginning to show, The Music Palace augmented new film releases with double features of older movies, mostly from the 80s and 90s. Although it was sad to see the theater struggling, I was overjoyed for the chance to spend Saturday afternoons at a $6 double feature of films like Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, and Swordsman — all these amazing films I’d watched on shitty Tai Seng VHS tapes but could now witness is glorious, massive 35mm projection.


The front row of the balcony became my home for four hours just about every Saturday. The Music Palace really didn’t give a crap about much, so if you wanted to bring in a whole meal and sit there all day, you could — and many people did, mostly families and homeless old dudes who either loved the old movies or wanted a place to sleep and cough a lot. every now and then, a group of Triad dudes young or old would show up to watch a double feature, because I guess there was no one to shake down during those hours. In time, I got myself a New York girlfriend and enlisted her as a partner (she was already well-versed in Chinatown culture and all the expectorating it entails). One of the first movies we saw together (the actual first was The Big Hit in Manhattan’s late lamented $4 budget theater, and we didn’t even get to sit together), and the last movies I ever saw at the Music Palace, was a double feature of two of my all-time favorite movies: Zu and Dragons Forever.

The Music Palace itself went derelict shortly after that double feature and sat, empty and crumbling, for years. It took monumental effort on my part to not break in and see what leftovers might still be in the lace. OK, confession. I actually did try to break in. I’m just not very good at it. Eventually, the theater building was demolished, and fans of Hong Kong cinema gathered to lament the loss of one of our last, great landmarks in the United States. For a while, that block also hosted the best DVD stores in Chinatown, but even that is gone now, and all that remains are a few stores that peddle almost nothing but bootlegs, though you can go around the corner to a street stall and get awesome little yellow cakes filled with custard.

Watching Zu at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this year as part of the NYAFF was a different, less greasy experience — though I saw it with the same girl, and for The Music Palace’s sake, we snuck in some roast pork buns (we’d also just that day come off a three day cleansing program and were starving). But nicer setting not withstanding, watching that giant projection of a truly giant film brought an incredible flood of memories and emotion. Movies like Zu, places like the Music Palace, events like the New York Asian Film Festival — these are why Teleport City exists. It was a night long ago spent watching bad VHS bootlegs of Once Upon a Time in China, Project A, Chinese Ghost Story, and Zu that made me start writing about film. My first weeks and months in New York, I didn’t really know many people, but the weird old men, homeless dudes, gangsters, and fellow awkward film nerds who turned up for The Music Palace’s double features were a strange but comforting sort of family.

It was heartening to be in a crowd that cheered wildly for the Golden Harvest logo, for the first appearance of Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, for the first appearance of Brigitte Lin. Sadly, Moon Lee, Meng Hoi and Adam Cheng got less reaction, but what can you do? And Brigitte Lin… my God, Brigitte Lin. She’s so beautiful, so graceful, so perfectly posed and filmed, so elegant in this film that it’s physically painful to behold. I would say my love for Brigitte Lin is rekindled every time I watch this movie, but seriously — who the hell ever loses their love for Brigitte Lin? The NYAFF screening of Zu also had the added bonus of featuring Tsui Hark — these days sans his once trademark mop of curly hair — in a post-screening Q&A session. he was a bit uncomfortable with the movie — what director isn’t squeamish around their old work? — but seem to appreciate how much people appreciated the film.

Although there’s nothing at this year’s festival that will match seeing Zu on the big screen again, it’s been a pretty great year. We kicked off with Karate Robo-Zaborgar, which was quite a bit of fun, then followed up with the more somber kungfu epic Shaolin, which had its faults but was still entertaining. There was also The Man from Nowhere, which friends got to see while I was at work. I have that queued up on Netflix for this weekend, though. Then came the double feature of Zu and Reign of Assassins — with director Su Chao-Pin present (he actually sat in and watched Zu and remarked how awesome he still thought the movie was). Not quite as powerful as Zu and Dragons Forever at the Music Palace, but still a fantastic few hours at the movies.

You can’t really complain about a film festival that has so much awesome stuff showing that you miss a lot — next year, I’ll know to just schedule my vacation around NYAFF. the films I’m missing that I wanted to see — Man from Nowhere, Troubleshooter, The Blade, and Yellow Sea, I’m queuing up on DVD, so I’ll be there at least in spirit, if not physically or at the same time. As for the New York Asian Film Festival, as I did last year, I heartily recommend it. If you’re not in New York, it’s worth the trip. My only complaint — every year, they come out with awesome NYAFF artwork t-shirts and run out of of small and medium within the first couple days. Come on, NYAFF! Not all of us are Sammo Hung! You gotta take care of the Yuen Biaos out there!





Me and Benny Chan go back a ways, and our relationship has been stormy. Some of his directorial efforts, like Who Am I and Big Bullet, I really like. Others, like New Police Story and Gen Y Cops, I really dislike. So I guess I come out even enough that when Chan makes a new movie, I figure I might as well see it. Shaolin, Chan’s first stab at a big budget period epic, is in a way the ultimate Benny Chan film for me in that I really liked about half of it and really didn’t like about half of it. It’s a movie that seems specifically designed to highlight both his strengths and weaknesses as a director.

Most of Shaolin comes straight out of the generic kungfu film screenplay generator, so much so that I felt like anyone who ever wrote a kungfu film should have gotten credit for the script. As it is, three screenwriters get credit for Shaolin — one of whom (Chi Kwong Cheung) hasn’t done much of note, one of whom (Cheung Tan) wrote a bunch of stuff in the 1990s that was really good, and one of whom (Alan Yuen) wrote a bunch of other Benny Chan films I didn’t like. But it hardly matters who was responsible for what, since so much of the movie is a repeat of things we’ve seen before, only delivered with a lack of subtlety that is nigh staggering. When a film is unsubtle even by the generally subtlety-free standards of the kung film — well, I guess that’s some sort of an accomplishment.

Case in point: we open with the familiar scene of monks cleaning up a corpse-strewn battlefield. Within a minute of the film starting, we get a shot of a lone yellow flower (I think it’s yellow — Benny Chan has opted to go with the artificially washed out, colorless look — like pretty much every other director in the last decade) blooming amidst the grime and death. As if that wasn’t groan-inducing enough, the point is further sledgehammered home by having the flower cupped in the hand of a dead child. Seriously, Chan? You’re going with the single flower on the battlefield? In the hand of a slain child? That’s your opening shot? Amazingly, the film actually managed to get even more ham-handed than that as it progresses through its story of warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau, who apparently devoured, Highlander style, the power of all other superstars from the 1980s and 1990s to turn himself into the most powerful elder statesman ever), a basically evil guy waging war with his neighbors during the lawless period after the Chinese Revolution. This might be one of the first times one of these warlords hasn’t been portrayed by a bald guy with a handlebar mustache (even though Warlords proved Andy Lau can wear fake facial hair with pride). Hou Jie is the merciless sort, even willing to gun down an already dying man — in the back, no less — on the steps of Shaolin Temple, much to the consternation of Shaolin’s abbot (a welcome Yue Hoi, who starred in the much better Shaolin trilogy alongside Jet Li in the early 1980s) and prize pupils (Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, and Xing Yu).

Tagging along with the dastardly general is pouty young upstart Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who despite being a warlord’s second in command during the early 1900s, still sports anachronistic 1990s moody anime guy hair, proving that no matter what Nick Tse does in his career, his hair is still most important. While Hou Jie schools Cao Man on the finer points of being a ruthless dictator, the Shaolin monks start careers as noble bandits, stealing stockpiled rice and flour and delivering it to the city of refugees that has sprouted up outside the temple. The monks and the soldiers don’t have much interaction with one another after the film’s initial conflict, until the night Hou Jie and Cao Man conspire to murder an ally warlord. It turns out, however, that the ambitious Cao Man has really been paying attention to Hou Jie’s evil lessons, and the young soldier stages a coup of his own, with the assistance of a band of brigands (which includes Xiong Xin-xin, as is required by Chinese law I assume).

In the ensuing fight, Hou Jie’s wife is gravely wounded and his little daughter, after being tossed around like a rag doll for a spell then hit by a galloping horse then tossed off a cliff) is killed. At this point, the movie kicks off what is basically an endless parade of people weeping, though to be fair to Benny Chan, at least he mixes it up with a blend of weeping hysterically and weeping solemnly or simply letting a solitary tear roll down an actor’s cheek. Andy Lau and his wounded wife (Fan Bing-Bing, from Shinjuku Incident and Bodyguards and Assassins) turn in a ten minute freak-out during their daughter’s death that looks like they were both trying to outdo Jacky Cheung’s famous scenery chewing freak-outs from Bullet in the Head.

Hou Jie, wracked with grief and rage, wanders out into the countryside and promptly falls in a pit owned by Shaolin’s eccentric cook (Jackie Chan), who of course is going to be the one to dole out in whimsical fashion a series of philosophical platitudes and questions that will cause Hou Jie to realize the errors of his greedy and evil ways, renounce violence, and become a monk. The other monks are suspicious of the one-time warlord at first, but he soon proves himself a dedicated and benevolent changed man. Not so for his underling, though. Cao Man, freed from the shadow of his mentor, embarks on a reign of terror that includes flopping his bangs into his face, slouching, and growing a goatee. He also teams up with a nasty, conniving British general who eventually gives the movie its single greatest, most stilted line reading, and the best example of hilariously terrible acting by a white guy in a Chinese film since the evil Dutch East India guy in Once Upon a Time in China barked, “Who is this Wong Fei-hong? THE DEVIL???” Needless to say, Cao Man will eventually learn that Hou Jie is still alive and thus will declare war on Shaolin Temple. A truly monumental amount of people crying and being murdered in slow motion will result.

To say that Shaolin‘s many stabs at symbolism are sledgehammer subtle would be to underestimate the precision work one can do with a sledgehammer. This movie is an endless barrage of symbolic cliches, from the aforementioned solitary flower on a battlefield to the scene where Andy Lau’s repentant monk slides, in slow motion, down the front of a giant buddha to land resting in its hands. But even that isn’t enough, so Benny Chan then has it rain, so that we can get scenes of rain washing away blood while — I kid you not — a solitary tear streaks down the Buddha’s face. I was shocked that Chan didn’t follow this up with a shot of the entire nation of China crying dramatically in slow motion. As with the lame attempts at emotion and pathos in New Police Story, Benny Chan overplays everything to the point where attempts at tragedy simply become comical, and the ham-fisted delivery of his film’s symbols and messages would seem clumsy in a first year screenwriting student’s first assignment of the year. There is no feeling of sincerity or earnestness. The stabs at emotion and symbolism are so generic and overdone that they feel little more than crass, cheap melodrama. Benny Chan doesn’t try to jerk tears from the audience; he tries to rip them from you using a giant dump truck and a drag car.

Attempting to match the screenplay’s goofily overblown melodrama is the acting. Andy Lau turns in a credible performance for most of the film, but he has a few scenes that push into the realm of ridiculousness. His character’s journey from ruthless overlord to modest monk happens without any sort of journey. He’s a bad guy; his daughter gets killed; he sits in a pit for a day while Jackie Chan talks to him, and then he emerges as the single most pious and devoted monk ever. There’s no sense of development, no hint at internal conflict the way we got in movies like Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter or 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where a similarly violent character seeks refuge as a monk but must constantly struggle to defeat their inner demons. Although those films have less of the air of “prestige picture” about them, they are much better at exploring the struggle in the central character. In contrast, Andy Lau’s character seems to obtain benevolent enlightenment almost instantly.

Luckily, anything Lau does, no matter how overcooked, seems reigned in when compared to the embarrassing performance by Nicholas Tse. In the late 1990s, when the boy band idols were given the reigns of the Hong Kong film leading man status, I thought that maybe Nicholas Tse would emerge from beneath the hair salon addiction and make something of himself. And while he has flirted with doing that from time to time, for the most part he remains still a pretty boy pop idol who plays every role like a pretty boy pop idol. His attempts here to act or laugh menacingly made me cringe and chuckle. He’s just terrible, often humorously so, which makes it even harder to buy into Benny Chan’s desperate and over-ripe attempts to infuse this movie with tragedy and meaning.

The monks fare better, with most of them turning in decent if forgettable performances. Jackie Chan’s turn as the quirky cook is basically him doing Jackie Chan, only a little less so. There is something novel about seeing him play the character his character from older movies so often trained with, but the joke about how Chan is the one monk who doesn’t know any kungfu is as predictable as everything else in this movie. Jackie Chan cameos can often stop a movie dead in its track (see Project S), as it often feels like he wandered in from an entirely different movie, but I think he clicks pretty well in Shaolin. It’s a strange day indeed when Jackie Chan is the actor giving the most restrained performance.

Action direction is handled by the team of Yuen Kwai and Yuen Tak, and it’s the usual modern mix of real stuntwork with tons of wirework. Some of the wirework is well done, some of it not so much, but for the most part, I enjoyed the action scenes. As is par for the course these days, Benny Chan’s camera spends too much time on fast edits and gets too close to the action, but I think maybe my brain is getting to the point where it can decipher this style of filmmaking. Andy Lau is a believable fighter, and Xiong Xin-xin does what he usually does, which is show up and kick the shit out of people. Nicholas Tse has about as much presence as a fighter as he does as an actor, but the rest of the cast is able enough to carry him. The final assault on Shaolin Temple is pretty spectacular, full of all the noble slow motion death you expect from such a film but with the added bonus of a well-executed artillery siege courtesy of that fantastic British general. The action scenes are not great, but they’re good enough to save the movie from the hollow, overwrought melodrama in which it wallows.

All in all, Shaolin isn’t a very good movie, and Benny Chan’s weakness as a director and the screenplay’s endless procession of cliche and hokum can’t be disguised by the big budget epic sheen — which is dulled considerably by the seemingly unquenchable desire of every modern filmmaker to make every film looked dull, washed out, and blue tinted. Seriously, the color palette in this film is so over-processed and dim that I thought the projector was messed up when I saw it. However, Shaolin is bad in a way that still allows it to be entertaining, and entertained I was. There is some good action, and the destruction of Shaolin Temple achieves the epic scope for which the film strives. It’s a shame that Chan didn’t recognize the event itself was powerful enough, and thus he feels the need to undermine it with lots of shots of people crying in slow motion or falling into the hands of a giant Buddha with rain-tears rolling down its face. I wouldn’t really give it much a recommendation, but if you happen across it, it’s dumb but harmless enough. Once people get past the big budget glaze, I think they’ll see Shaolin for what it really is: a hokey, badly acted, poorly written, astoundingly hammy, generally entertaining modern day equivalent to cheap, generic, moderately enjoyable old kungfu films.

At the same time, suffering through Shaolin‘s overplayed attempts at tragedy might make you wonder why you aren’t just watching Eight Diagram Pole Fighter or Shaolin Temple instead, and to that question, my only answer is, “Yeah, why aren’t you?”

Release Year: 2011 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Andy Lau, Fan Bing-Bing, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, Xing Yu, Yue Hoi, Xiong Xin-Xin, Bai Bing, Sang Wei-Lin, Chen Zhi-Hui, Liang Jing-Ke, Shi Xiao-Hong | Screenplay: Chi Kwong Cheung, Cheung Tan, Alan Yuen | Director: Benny Chan | Cinematography: Anthony Pun | Music: Nicolas Errera | Producer: Benny Chan


Gears of War 2

Video game reviews for me, though still a new venture, often end up being very involved affairs, which I enjoy immensely. On the other hand, it means that they take a long time to complete, and so I don’t finish them at the ace I would like to maintain. Gears of War 2, luckily, affords very little in the way of diversionary analysis. It’s loud and stupid and full of violence. The plot is disposable and generic. The voice acting is shouty and stilted. The game play is pretty predictable and designed in a way that causes the entire game to hover somewhere between idiotically enjoyable and tedious. Basically, whenever people write about how crass and moronic video games are, they’re writing about Gears of War. Of course, as with an action movie that could have the same description applied to it, crass and moronic doesn’t mean the game is without its…not exactly “high” or “positive” points… let’s just say that there is some entertainment to be mined from this gibbering buffoon of a game, in much the same way as one can be entertained by an Antonio Margheriti war film.

Continue reading


Shaolin Invincibles

There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.

Continue reading



“To build a city at the bottom of the sea…insanity! But where else could we be free from the clutching hands of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control? A society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea…it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” — Andrew Ryan

Continue reading


New Legend of Shaolin

During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.

Continue reading


Hard to be a God

In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.

Continue reading


Norwegian Ninja

It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.

Continue reading


Khooni Dracula

Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.

Continue reading


Never Surrender

Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either.

Continue reading