Tag Archives: Hong Kong & Taiwan

feats

Little Big Soldier

lbsfeat

You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.

I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.

Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.

For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.

When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.

The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.

During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.

So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.

At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.

Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.

His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000′s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.

And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.

And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.

And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.

Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.

When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.

Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.

If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.

Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.

There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.

If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.

The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.

To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.

Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang

shaolinfeat

Shaolin

shaolin15

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

sifeat

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.

At the time, though my friends and I were voracious consumers of any and every kungfu movie on which we could get our hands, we were also operating more or less in a vacuum. Pre-internet days, you know. So while I wanted to know more about the movies I was watching, there simply didn’t exist the resources that would help me complete the task. I learned to recognize various stars and directors, I didn’t have much historical context beyond that I could paste together based solely on movies I’d seen. There was no way for me to tell a Hong Kong film from a Taiwanese film, and no way for me to understand that I should know the difference — I didn’t suspect that the most bizarre kungfu films we were renting were the product of a Taiwanese film industry that seemed to think acid-fueled fever dreams were the best source material for kungfu movie scripts.


We live in a more enlightened time now, and thanks to the tireless efforts of of sites like Die Danger Die Die Kill!, I have a clearer picture of the Taiwanese kungfu film market. With the ability to put everything into context, I’m no longer surprised that director Hau Chang cranked out a movie as bizarre as Shaolin Invincibles. It was really just standard operating procedure for a man who gave us films like Ape Girl and the truly inspired martial arts fantasy Legend of Mother Goddess. In fact, Shaolin Invincibles is one of his more normal films.

Things start out familiar enough. A murderous Ch’ing ruler (Chen Hung-lieh, Temple of the Red Lotus and Come Drink with Me) has a family murdered, but the little daughters are spirited away by a convenient group of Shaolin monks. Years later, the girls ave grown into Lu Szu Liang (Chia Ling, The Legend of Mother Goddess) and Lu Yu Liang (Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Master of the Flying Guillotine and Young Hero of Shaolin), masters of several secret Shaolin techniques. Now that they’re grown, the abbot allows them to leave the temple to seek revenge on the men who slaughtered their family. Along the way, they’ll be helped by Kan Feng Chih (Carter Wong, 18 Bronzemen and Big Trouble in Little China).


Captain of the guard Lei (Yee Yuen), who happens to own the most splendid robe in all of China (and dolls himself up with matching cosmetics), soon figures out that the guys dropping by the dozens are being offed by the Lu sisters, and even though he’s never seen them, somehow he’s able to mobilize every thug in the province to try and take them out. This results, as you can imagine, in a lot of dead thugs. Also, one of the women disguises herself as a man for no reason other than there was a law in Taiwan that every kungfu movie had to feature a woman who is obviously a woman but passes for a man simply because she dons traditional men’s attire. Afraid that the king will find out that he lied about slaughtering the whole Lu clan, Lei then turns to the sorriest bunch of elite killers I’ve ever seen. It’s your usual assortment — monk with bushy eyebrows, fey dude with fan, dirty old beggar — but this lot seems especially easy to dispatch, even without Carter Wong dropping by at random times to lend a fist.

Lei probably could have spent a little more time shopping around for exotic hired killers, as the king seems preoccupied with the latest additions to his court: a couple of capering gorillas that are, as was usually the case, played by a couple stuntmen in ratty costume store gorilla outfits, complete with loosely flapping pant legs and occasionally crooked masks. As if it that wasn’t enough, the gorillas’ wranglers are a couple of ghosts. I’m not entirely as up on my Chinese folklore as I should be, but I think these guys are supposed to either be Diao Si Gui — the spirit of someone who has died by hanging (thus the long, engorged tongue) — or Hei Bai Wu Chang — the black and white guardians of hell, recognizable for their tall hats, black and white robes, and the accouterments they usually carry (you can see Billy Chong beat a couple up in Kungfu from Beyond the Grave).


I think these dudes are a couple of Diao Si Gui who were spookin’ around one day and found a box of hell guard hats and robes and were like, “We can get free food if we wear these around town!” Otherwise, they’re a desultory couple of hell guards who obviously lucked into the job, and so incompetent were they that the king of hell made up the most ridiculous job he could and convinced them that it was super-important that they take these, uhh… I’m gonna say gorillas, and deliver ‘em to this guy in the fancy robe. Yeah, that should keep ‘em out of my hair for a couple weeks. Sort of like how Lucky the Leprechaun is such a shitty leprechaun that while all the other leprechauns get to guard pots of gold, he has to guard a bowl of cereal. Anyway, the gorillas are almost completely invulnerable except for the top of the head. If you such much as slightly brush against the top of their heads, it sends them into howling fits of agony and, if sustained, they will become totally loyal to you for some reason. I guess this sounded like a decent enough weakness, at least until they ended up in a movie where the heroes’ signature move is to leap up into the air and jam a sword into the top of your head.


While the king is farting around with the gorillas, the Lu sisters get jobs as maids so that they can infiltrate the palace and get their final revenge. Even though Lei was able to describe the women to every two-bit killer in the kingdom, and even though he and his men drew up a whole bunch of wanted posters with really detailed sketches of the sisters, no one — including Lei — seems to recognize them when they start skulking around the palace. Killing Lei and the king proves a tricky task, however, as the palace is kitted out with the usual assortment of secret passages, traps, and for some reason, a dude who has been in prison so long that he has turned into a monster. Luckily for Carter Wong and the girls, famed leg fighter Dorian Tan Tao-Liang will pop up out of nowhere, announce “It’s me, that one guy who you’ve all been waiting for even though I haven’t been in the movie until now,” and then he’ll kick a lot of people in the name of helping the Lu’s.

Shaolin Invincibles isn’t as crazy as I remembered, but it’s still a lot of fun. There’s a ton of action, pretty good fights, and there’s the gorillas and the ghost and the zombie guy just for the hell of it. A little, something for everybody, really. The best part has to be when the Lu’s are sneaking through the woods and spy the two gorillas from a distance. The gorillas are doing that usual capering and hopping about that bad actors do when they are trying to play gorillas, even though I don’t think a real gorilla has ever moved like that. Upon seeing the two galoots lumbering awkward down a hill, Lu Yu Liang instantly surmises “those beasts seem to know kungfu.” This is pretty sloppily made, and I could have used more Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, but as was often the case with Taiwanese martial art cinema from the 70s, the energy, frequent action, and flat out strangeness is more than enough to result in a fun film.

Release Year: 1977 | Country: Taiwan | Starring: Carter Wong, Chia Ling, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Chen Hung-Lieh, Yee Yuen, Jack Lung Sai-Ga, Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, Lee Keung, Lam Chung | Screenplay: Yeung Gat-Aau | Director: Hau Chang | Music: Eddie H. Wang Chi-Ren | Producer: Geung Chung-Ping | Original Title: Yong zheng ming zhang Shao Lin men

feat

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

feat

Wolf Devil Woman

To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.

Continue reading

coweb-feat

Coweb

cowebfeat

It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.

Following the trail blazed by Yimou, we started getting a slew of impressive looking, giant-scale historical epics, some with more martial arts than others. Having limped along for so many years with nothing at their disposal but pop stars more interested in sculpting their hair and male model abs than in learning the craft of making an action film, Hong Kong film makers suddenly had the best and brightest of China at their disposal, and the mainland Chinese seemed absolutely raring to prove themselves to disillusioned fans. Plus, having weathered the pop idol decade, there was now a new generation of directors who were hungry for the sort of slam-bang kungfu films with which they’d grown up in the 70s and 80s. They wanted new faces who wanted to be martial arts stars, and they wanted to bring back the old guard to serve as mentors. And all of a sudden, we were getting movies like Little Big Soldier and Gallants and 14 Blades. Like I said, we’re only just now starting to rebuild, but the new foundation looks more promising than anything we’ve seen in years. I never felt like I needed to learn the difference between Stephen Fung, or Edison Chan, or any of the other goofy young things that devoured most of the last decade. Now we’ve got a whole new batch of names to learn, though, and some of them are worth learning.

First and foremost, learn the name Jiang Lu-Xia.


One of the things I remember most fondly from the 80s and early 90s are the fighting femmes who took over the screen. Names like Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Cynthia Rothrock — the movies they starred in during those years may not have always been the best written or best acted, but they damn sure delivered the action. Insane stunts, brutal fights, blazing energy — even the worst of them had enough over the top action to make it worth suffering through the missteps. And if the fightin’ lads suffered during the first decade of the 2000s, the fightin’ ladies all but vanished. The old school “girls with guns” class retired, or they moved on to more upscale prestige projects, or they found their genre was no longer favored by film goers and so sought work in The Philippines and other places where they were still a few years behind what was hip in Hong Kong.

As for us fans of the genre, we had nowhere to go. Cynthia Rothrock came back to the United States, but her movies here were mostly terrible. Hong Kong couldn’t come up with anything better than CGI’ing around Charlene Choi and Maggie Q. There was no action actress who instilled genuine fear in the viewer the way Sonny Chiba-trained Yukari Oshima used to be able to do. There was no one with the innocent-but-deadly charisma of Moon Lee. And there certainly wasn’t another Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, when directors and production companies decided to start making martial arts actioners again, they didn’t settle on the crop of cute pop idols and models that were slinking around the joint. If no actress in Hong Kong was going to put herself through what it took to really become an action star, then they’d just go calling elsewhere. That’s when China’s Jiang Lu-Xia picked up the phone.


If you want to draw comparisons to past greats, Jiang is less “the next Michelle Yeoh” and more “the next Jet Li,” albeit with a dash of Yukari Oshima thrown in. Like Li, Jiang is a wushu superstar from the mainland, and her prowess at martial arts turned her into a one-woman self-defense industry. She started training in martial arts at the age of seven, in Mongolia, and eventually pursued training at various spots in China. Before breaking into film, she was kicking ass in a host of tournaments, not to mention working as a referee, starring in self-defense instructional videos and television shows, appearing on a competition-based reality series called The Disciple, and becoming an internet sensation when she started uploading videos of herself under the name “Mao Er Bao Bei.”

While she was busy honing her skills and uploading videos, veteran Hong Kong action film stuntman, supporting actor, and choreographer Xiong Xin-xin (you know him as Clubfoot from the Once Upon a Time in China series, and he popped up more recently in Bad Blood and the unwatchable Circadian Rhythm) was trying to get a new project off the ground, one that would continue the trend of Hong Kong martial arts films getting back to the spirit of the 1980s, when they ruled the action universe. It would also be Xiong’s first time as director. Xiong soon had Jiang brought to his attention, and like many, he saw her potential as a major new martial arts movie star. Unfortunately, those many people didn’t include many studio execs, who were hesitant to put their faith in this supposed kungfu film revival unless the movie was a period piece featuring Andy Lau in a fake beard. Xiong is well-known and respected, but he’d never directed before, and this chick from…where was it? China? Mongolia??? Why the hell would anyone greenlight a movie like that?

Luckily, just as Andy Lau showed faith in a goofy little idea that became Gallants, and was willing to fund the movie when no one else would, Xiong eventually found backers among friends and the Hong Kong entertainment old guard, including the not-so-secretly most powerful man in the world, pudgy little comedy dwarf Eric Tsang. Seriously, have you ever read about him? That dude could have you killed if he wanted to. Anyway, Jiang Lu-xia threw herself into the role, emotionally and physically, with a gusto and willingness to injure herself that we haven’t seen from Hong Kong since the apparent stuntman death wish they had in the 1980s moved to Thailand. Her skill and enthusiasm for the role turns what is an otherwise clunky film into a fairly enjoyable experience, one that focuses almost entirely on watching Jiang Lu-xia beat the shit out of people in a series of increasingly improbable set-ups.


Jiang plays Nie Yi-yi, a teacher at her family’s martial arts academy. When a freak accident causes the death of her father, she sort of drops out of life until an old friend, Chung Tin (Bio Zombie‘s Sam Lee) runs into her and convinces her to take a job as a bodyguard, where she will be able to beat people up while wearing a business suit. Shortly after taking the job, however, Yi-yi is beset by more problems, as her charge and his family is targeted by a seemingly endless stream of goons. Although Yi-yi beats the crap out of most of them, they still succeed with the kidnapping. Yi-yi and Chung Tin launch a mission to get their boss back, but the deeper in they go, the more it seems like something else entirely is going on.

Yi-yi eventually notices that the the various fights she’s having as part of her mission are being video taped, and before too long, she gets the right people to beat the information out of: none of this is about her boss. It’s about her, and one of the favorites of low-budget fight films: a ring of jaded rich people who enjoy watching and betting on life-or-death street fights. They’ve been secretly video taping all of Yi-yi’s fights and broadcasting them on the Web for gamblers — funny, I guess, given that Jiang herself became a star thanks to using the Web to show off her fighting skills. Obviously, the people using her for her ass kicking skills need to have their asses kicked.


Coweb is, like a number of recent low-budget fight films, a throwback to the 80s and early 90s in pretty much every sense — and that includes the daft writing. But like the movies that are its heritage, Coweb seeks to make up for its narrative shortcomings by making sure we never have much time to dwell on them before all is forgiven by watching Jiang Lu-xia in action once again. Xiong Xin-xin is shaky in his first outing as a full-on director, and some of the film’s action sequences feel a bit awkward, like everyone is still feeling things out. Even when he’s restricted simply to being an action director, Xiong can turn in somewhat uneven work, and that’s once again the case here. But one need not fear, because Jiang Lu-xia comes to the game with such intensity and a willingness to do pretty much anything that’s asked of her that her fight film charisma carries the day. Even in a somewhat half-assed film like Coweb, it’s impossible for me not to love watching Jiang in action — and while some of Xiong’s choreography is off the mark, he also gives us more than enough of it to ensure that he has as many hits as he has misses.

Jiang’s throw-downs against henchmen in a kitchen is fun. While the set-up of her fight in a disco’s shallow pool of water is completely convoluted and absurd, the end result is Jiang fighting a chick in a short dress in a pool of water. Then she fights a dude with ill-advised hair, has some fun on that old Hong Kong action movie friend (bamboo scaffolding), and takes on some kungfu breakdancers before she works up to the main challenge: Kane Kosugi! Like I said, the fight choreography isn’t perfect, but I don’t ask for perfection. I thought it was all pretty entertaining. If Xiong is a bit shaky as director, Jiang looks like she’s been doing this her whole life. Oh wait — basically, she has, hasn’t she? Anyway, she’s the most obvious recent example of the massive gulf between what Hong Kong was doing for the past decade plus — relying on camera tricks, CGI, and pop starlets — and what I hope they start doing instead –which is relying on women who walk the walk.


Her supporting cast is all right, but frankly, we’re here to watch Jiang Lu-xia. Kane Kosugi is one of those actors who deserves better than he gets. He’s not all that impressive a thespian, but within his limits he’s effective — and he, like Jiang Lu-xia, can walk the walk. The man basically finished Ninja Warrior! that he didn’t get credit for beating the course is a matter of a couple fractions of a second, which I thing should be negated by the fact that he did the whole thing in the rain. The prospect of finally getting to watch him in an action movie with a real opponent — instead of being in awkward scenes with stars who don’t have any talent for martial arts — had me pretty excited. Xiong Xin-xin must have felt the same way, because he gives the two of them a good twelve or so minutes to beat on each other. No gimmicks, no fancy directing — just two very, very good martial arts actors doing what they do best. It’s not Jackie Chan versus Benny Urquidez in Dragons Forever, but it’s still pretty awesome.

Coweb ends up being a lot of great raw material that never fully coalesces into a great film, but for those who are accustomed to rolling with the sloppy writing we forgave in the old girls with guns movies, there’s nothing about Coweb‘s sundry sloppy mistakes and silly plot that will prove to be an impediment to enjoying the movie. Jiang Lu-xia shines, and watching her has made me more excited about the future of martial arts films than anyone in a long time. She probably deserves a better director and choreographer in the future, but the inexperience of both her and Xiong Xin-xin gives this movie a rough around the edges underdog appeal. I seem to have enjoyed Coweb a heck of a lot more than many other people, even among those whose opinions on film I take with some degree of seriousness. But whatever the case, I just found it really easy to roll with. It felt like it was 1992 all over again, with a bunch of us huddled around my shitty little television watching Iron Angels or Righting Wrongs for the first time. I had a big, dumb smile on my face after all was said and done. There’s very little pretense about the type of movie this is, and as much as I love the current trend of humongous overblown epics and haunted warlords in medieval China, I’m also a huge fan of lean, no nonsense ass kickers. On that level, Coweb more than satisfied me.

Release Year: 2009 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jiang Lu-Xia, Sam Lee Chan-Sam, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Kane Kosugi, Wanja Gotz, Chan Kwok-Bong, Mike Moller, Peggy Tseng Pei-Yu, Wai Cha Go Si, Ho Chung-Lam, Geung Kam-Kui | Screenplay: Sunny Chan Wing-Sun | Director: Xiong Xin-Xin | Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung | Music: Mak Jan-Hung | Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Eddie Chan Shu-Chi | Original Title: Por Mong

warlordsfeat

Warlords

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?

Continue reading

bbfeat

Bad Blood

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.

Continue reading

feat

New Police Story

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.

Continue reading

nkfeat

Naked Killer

nk

My introduction to Hong Kong movies was, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to me as a direct result of my writing about film. The year was 1989, and I was writing for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco. I’d like to say that I was “working” for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco, but the truth is that I was actually working as a clerical temp downtown, and that I was, at best, just making a meager dent in my nightly bar tab by writing a couple of film or album reviews a month for the lordly sum of a nickel a word.

Anyway, one day my editor tells me that he’s pegged me as the right guy to cover a certain film festival that’s coming up at one of the city’s small repertory cinemas — a film festival dedicated to this crazy popular cinema that’s been coming out of Hong Kong in recent years. Though I was intrigued, I have to admit that my exposure to Asian cinema at that time was limited to the output of Japan and the Bruce Lee movies I’d seen as a kid. I really didn’t know what to expect. Still, what little I had heard about these films included the fact that they were extremely fast paced and filled with all kinds of crazy stunts, which, then as now, was more than enough for me. I accepted the assignment, and was in turn handed a stack of VHS tapes that had been provided by the festival organizer.


I hadn’t actually planned to watch all of those tapes in one sitting. In fact, upon arriving home, popping the first of the tapes into the VCR, and witnessing its dire picture quality, I despaired at being able to get through even one of them. Those of you who were fans of Hong Kong films during that era know exactly what I’m talking about: The Tai Seng logo, the washed out, dupey images, and just enough of the English subtitles poking up at the bottom of the screen to taunt you with their presence while at the same time remaining completely illegible.

Still, this proved to be less of an impediment to my enjoyment than I anticipated, and I was soon popping in one tape after another, devouring them greedily like a fat kid with a box of bon bons. As a result, my introduction to Hong Kong films was less of a gentle easing in than it was a process of total immersion, like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end. In that one afternoon and evening I watched Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and the first Police Story, as well as a couple others whose titles escape me at the moment. Then, on the following day, I skipped work to go to an early morning press screening that featured back-to-back showings of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II.


As you might imagine, to say that my mind was blown would be an epic understatement. This was a pivotal event in my life as a film fan, one that would change the way that I watched movies forever. But to understand just how blown it was, you really have to understand how different these movies were from what I, like a lot of other Americans, was used to at the time. It seems silly, thinking of it now, but previous to that time I had dedicated a lot of word count to decrying what I saw as Hollywood’s then increasing reliance on action spectacle, singling out now fairly conventional films like Lethal Weapon II and The Abyss for reeling out fast paced series of big “events” at the expense of those things that thoughtful and sensitive folks such as myself were supposed to place a higher premium on, like plot and characterization.

What I had yet to realize, though, is that it wasn’t that those Hollywood action films were going too far, but that they weren’t going far enough. With Hong Kong movies, I experienced for the first time the joys of pure cinema, of movies that you experienced viscerally as a blur of motion, speed and undiluted style. This is not to say that I had previously been a stranger to the thrills of genre and exploitation cinema, mind you. Thanks to the variety of theaters available to us, my friends and I came of age as film geeks on a steady diet of equal parts art- and grind-house cinema, and back in the day were just as likely to be found at a matinee showing of Death Race 2000 or Don’t Go In The House at the St. Francis as we were a Bunuel retrospective at the Castro.


It’s just that, in these Hong Kong films, I saw consistently demonstrated something that, in my long experience of watching American genre films, I had only very seldom seen: and that was a solid commitment to actually delivering. Though about as mercenary as could be, these movies paradoxically displayed a desire to entertain that seemed completely untainted by cynicism, refreshingly free of the air quotes that modern Hollywood tends to put around anything as corny as the idea of actually trying to inspire wonder in their audience, as well as of the short-cutting, bait-and-switch tactics of the exploitation game. With movies like Eastern Condors or Police Story, your mind was blown because their makers saw it as their duty to insure that your mind was blown, no matter how limited they were by their means.

Of course, who wouldn’t be blown away by their first encounter with Jackie Chan in his prime? Or by the Better Tomorrow films, whose on-screen body count was at the time greater than anything I’d seen before — to the point of being exponentially so — yet also exuded visual poetry, along with an awful lot of not-so-subtly gay undertones? Or the, at the time, very discordant seeming collisions of ruthless violence, wacky slapstick, and overweening sentimentality found in most of these films? And then there was Zu, my initial reaction to which I have been striving to recreate throughout all of my subsequent years of trolling through world pop cinema. I quite honestly had never seen anything like it. So taken with it was I that I excitedly subjected the girl I was dating at the time to an impromptu screening, which she effectively shut down after twenty minutes with an indignant cry of “I can’t believe you thought I would like this!” (We didn’t stay together too long after that.)

So, needless to say, there were a lot more of those warbly Tai Seng videos in my future, as I spent much of the next few months trying to make up for all the time I’d spent on Earth not knowing that these movies existed. Then, in 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and during the period of adjustment to a new town, a new job, and a new relationship, I started to lose sight of some of my old interests, including, for a time, my pursuit of crazy Hong Kong movies. This dark period, I’m sad to say, went on for far too long, finally coming to an end in the mid 90s, when an old friend, who thankfully hadn’t realized how lame I’d become, gifted me with a copy of the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head — a book which I now know featured contributions from an upstart young film scribe by the name of Keith Allison.


It didn’t take long for that book to rekindle my passion, and I was soon down at my local video store –- which, like many non-chain video stores by that time, had a lovingly curated section dedicated exclusively to Hong Kong movies — trying to catch up on what I’d missed. With the Sex and Zen book as my guide, I chose as my first two rentals Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio and the film that I am eventually going to get around to reviewing here, Naked Killer. Both films have gone on to count among my very favorites — not just in terms of Hong Kong films, but films, period. And while watching them for the first time, along with being blown away anew, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong films had changed while I was gone. For starters, everything was blue! And, as Naked Killer clearly evidenced, there was lots of sex now!

Of course, one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong cinema during my several year period of inattention was the transformation undergone by the country’s “Category III” rating, which went from simply being part of the ratings code to becoming a distinct genre all its own. Essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the U.S.’s NC17, Cat III was notable for being the one tier on the HK ratings system that was actually enforceable by law; underage audience members who flaunted it could be subjected to heavy fines. Though the rating had been around for a while, it was not until the late 80s, with the success of films like the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun, that producers recognized a substantial potential audience for exactly the kind of taboos that the rating was designed to prohibit. Thus came forward a wave of films that courted the Cat III rating with depictions of almost every kind of depravity imaginable, as well as, of course, copious amounts of those age old friends of the exploitation filmmaker, nudity and simulated sex. Rape, cannibalism, sexual mutilation and graphic child murder were not uncommon in the Cat III films. And if the film happened to be directed, written, or produced by Wong Jing, it likely added to those disturbing elements a jarring dose of lowbrow slapstick comedy.


I want to say that Wong Jing is a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema, but the truth is that there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the fact that his films are generally awful. Or, I should say, a consensus among those who do not include the many, many, many filmgoers who made Jing a very wealthy man as a result of his not underestimating their appetite for trash. Jing was one of the most prolific and successful commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, thanks to a factory-style production technique, a shrewd ability to identify and shamelessly copy popular trends, and a willingness to stoop as low as necessary to provide his audience with what he deemed their desired (very generous) level of sex, violence and vulgarity. This last quality, unsurprisingly, made him a pretty heavy presence in the Cat III scene. And while I have not exactly sought Jing’s work out, I have to say that, in my experience, his name in the credits is not necessarily an impediment to a very enjoyable viewing experience. For instance, he acted as a producer on The Seventh Curse, which, alongside The Eternal Evil of Asia, is one of the most crazy and flat-out fun examples of Cat III supernatural nonsense out there. He also both produced and wrote the Clarence Ford directed thriller Naked Killer, which, as I’ve already said, is one of my favorite movies.

Now I should say here that Naked Killer definitely exists on the tamer end of the Cat III spectrum. In terms of sex and violence, its content doesn’t go far beyond what you’d see in the kind of direct to cable erotic thrillers that Cinemax was showing at the time. But while, in the case of those thrillers, the most you could hope for, in the best of circumstances, was that they would actually deliver those promised elements, Naked Killer sets itself apart by being so much more than even the most unrealistic thrill seeker could hope to expect. This means that, along with our very generous apportionment of skin and gore, we also get a raft of bizarre characters, a seemingly inexhaustible series of outlandish situations, and one jaw-dropping plot twist after another, all thrown at us at the reckless, head-spinning pace that we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong at the top of its game. And to put the bow on the package, the whole is at once coolly stylized to within an inch of its eroticism-oozing life and as slick as a stretch of rain covered blacktop.


Naked Killer demonstrates its good will toward its audience by making good on its title within scant minutes of its opening credits. And by that I mean that there is a killer, and that she is indeed, by all appearances, naked. This automatically makes Naked Killer better than approximately 80% of all other non-porn movies with the word “naked” in the title. After an opening shot of a mysterious woman hurrying down a rain slicked street bathed in atmospheric blue light, we see an armed man making his way through a darkened apartment and surprising a woman in the shower. “What are you doing in my apartment?”, he asks, effectively making our expectations do a quick somersault. Well, it turns out she’s there to kill him, which she does by handily disarming him, then hobbling him with his own workout equipment before crushing his skull and sealing the deal with a well placed bullet to the groin.

We later learn that this woman is Princess (Carrie Ng), a professional assassin who, along with her partner and lesbian lover Baby (Madoka Sugawara), is responsible for a string of castration murders that have the Hong Kong police baffled. Participating in the investigation is improbably fashion-forward young police detective Tinam, played by former model Simon Yam. And, because this is a Wong Jing film, Tinam has a partner named Shithead (or “Dickhead”, as he’s referred to in certain, more dainty translations of the film) who we will later see mistakenly eat the severed penis of one of Princess’s victims thinking that it’s a sausage, as well as verbally abusing a Filipino maid with all kinds of sexually inappropriate questions. Comedy!

This being a Wong Jing film, poor Tinam is also not without a few peculiarities of his own. It seems that, ever since a recent shooting incident in which he mistakenly killed his policeman brother, he is unable to handle a gun without becoming physically ill and vomiting. He also can’t get it up. In order to allay his blues, his superior officer suggests that he go get a haircut.


At the salon, Tinam witnesses a beautiful and provocatively dressed young woman named Kitty flirting with, and being aggressively hit upon by, one of the hairdressers. Things heat up when the hairdresser’s pregnant girlfriend shows up demanding to know why he dumped her. Kitty at first eggs the guy on in his contemptuous treatment of the woman, but then reveals that she is in fact the woman’s friend, and that she was merely setting him up in order to demonstrate to her friend what a scumbag he was. Then she takes the hairdresser’s cutting shears and stabs him repeatedly in the groin with them.

Kitty is played by the actress Chingmy Yau, here saying goodbye forever to the nice girl roles that she had played previously and embarking on her career as one of HK cinema’s biggest sex symbols of the 90s. Yau was the girlfriend of the married Wong Jing at the time, and the producer had — and would continue to — cast her in a number of his films, including, in the wake of Naked Killer‘s success, quite a few Cat III titles. Intimations of the casting couch aside, it’s easy to see why this was. Yau is a star with enormous sex appeal, and, in Naked Killer the camera just can’t get enough of her. Cinematographer William Yim takes great care to insure that no opportunity is missed to milk the beautiful star’s every pose and gesture for all of its fetishistic potential, whether she be zipping herself in or out of some picturesquely restricting pleather or spandex garment, or suggestively wielding an automatic weapon.

Interestingly, despite her status as a star of erotic films, you will never see Yau fully nude in any of her pictures — though the lengths gone to strategically place mussed sheets, picturesquely out of place strands of hair and resplendently splayed limbs to accomplish this render her “not nude” in only the most technical sense. This is a product of the general desire to avoid the stigma of nudity on the part of those actresses who appeared in Cat III films but also wanted to maintain their foothold in mainstream fare. Such career-protecting reticence is also the reason for the absurd lengths to which the actress Amy Yip went in almost every one of her films to conceal her nipples while at the same time showing us virtually all of the goods. In the case of Naked Killer, Japanese pinku actress Madoka Sugawara had to be imported in order to deliver the necessary quota of skin, as all of the other lead actresses keep their wardrobes within teasing yet strictly PG-13 parameters. (Note that this only holds true if you have something other than the US DVD of the movie, which has all of Sugawara’s full nude scenes, among much else, edited out. So be forewarned: If you are not seeing a naked Madoka Sugawara, you have been sold an inferior product.)


After witnessing Kitty’s de-balling of the hairdresser, Tinam pursues her out of the salon, only to be overcome with nausea when she grabs his gun from its holster and points it at him. Apparently fascinated by this strange and pathetic creature, Kitty uses her shrewd skills at manipulation to convince Tinam to leave the scene without arresting her, but then uses the excuse of his left-behind pager (ah, the 90s) to contact him later. With some dogged persistence on Kitty’s part, a cautious, teasing courtship between the two begins, one which soon show signs of developing into a full-blown case of amour fou. Before this can happen, however, Kitty comes home one day to find that her father, a humble food cart operator, has been killed by his much younger wife’s lover, a Triad type by the name of Bee. Kitty responds to this by showing up at Bee’s offices with a sub-machinegun and killing absolutely everyone in sight –- receptionists, secretaries, file clerks, everyone –- before finally doing in the man himself. With some of Bee’s goons in pursuit, she then takes as a hostage an older woman who, it appears, just happened to be visiting the office at the time, and makes her way to an adjacent high-rise parking garage.

Once in the garage, however, it is quickly revealed that Kitty’s hostage is much more than she initially seemed. As the goons close in, this woman suddenly whips off her dowdy business attire to reveal a skintight cat suit, then assumes one of those cat-like, battle ready ninja poses that lets you know that the shit is on in no uncertain terms. What follows is an absolutely spectacular set piece in which quick cutting, masterful stunt work, and lots of blood packs combine to present us with the vision of two female badasses making hash out of an army of hapless stuntmen. 70 seconds later, when it’s all ended with an explosion and the two women using a fire hose to rappel down the face of the parking structure, one can only catch one’s breath and immediately reach for the replay button. Truly, what’s most amazing about the sequence is that, despite it’s skittering pace, chaotic staging and lightning fast edits, the viewer is never left confused as to what exactly is happening or whom is doing what to whom. Michael Bay take note.

Kitty’s new friend, it turns out, is a sort of hitwoman mother superior by the name of Sister Cindy (Taiwanese singer Kelly Yao, aka Wai Yiu), and, when Kitty next awakens, she finds herself in Cindy’s house, which is basically a multicolored comic book funhouse well suited to being a villain’s lair in an old episode of Batman. She also finds that her fingertips have been removed. Cindy tells her that she has decided to take her under her wing and train her as an assassin, and given that the alternative is for Cindy to either kill Kitty or turn her in to the police, Kitty reluctantly agrees. And so the training begins.


Like any hitwoman worth her salt, Cindy has a violently psychotic pedophile chained up in her basement, and Kitty’s first lesson involves her being locked in with him with no choice but to kill him in order to get the key, which Cindy has planted on his person. Once this is out of the way, much of the other lessons involve Cindy drumming into Kitty’s head the idea that her most formidable weapons are her body and feminine wiles, all the while groping and fondling her suggestively. Finally, school is out and it’s time for Kitty’s first assignment, which involves icing a Yakuza at one of those classic 1990s erotic thriller nightclubs where there are half naked people in masks on the dance floor, orgies going on in the bathroom, and men quite literally snorting coke off the backs of whores. While Kitty’s mission is completed successfully, it has the unfortunate consequence of the Yakuza hiring a rival pair of female assassins in order to get payback against her and Cindy –- and these turn out to be none other than Princess and Baby. Princess, we learn, is a former pupil of Cindy’s, one whom Cindy has warned Kitty to be wary of, as, unlike the two of them, who only kill people who “deserve” it, Princess and Baby would kill their own mothers –- or mentors –- for the right price.

Along with being something of a classic among Cat III films, Naked Killer is also a key entry in the whole “Girls With Guns” sub-genre that flooded Hong Kong’s screens during the late 80s and early 90s. And, truly, it’s hard to imagine a film that makes more explicit the already none-too-subtle “chicks with dicks” subtext of those particular movies. (Though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suggesting that, in the varied and perverse world of Cat III and GWG cinema, another such film might not exist.) The film’s world of male characters is made up either of violent, sexually predatory curs who deserve nothing less than the castration meted out to them by the female leads, or ineffectual neurotics like poor Tinam, who appears to have some difficulty with getting his “gun” to work properly in the first place. Really, in the end, it’s only Naked Killer‘s chicks who have the dicks. And while the film’s depiction of lesbianism is — let’s not kid ourselves –- clearly intended to titillate, it ultimately ends up looking less “naughty” than it does to be the only sane alternative in the world the film presents. In this sense, Naked Killer reminds me a lot of the Japanese films in the Pinky Violence genre, as, like those films, it comes to its male viewers with the self loathing already built in, reflecting them back to themselves as an unseemly parade of slavering potential rapists and impotent boy-men. I suppose all the better to be squished under Chingmy Yau’s imposing thigh high boots.

And, of course, first in line to be squished is Tinam, whose investigation of the castration murders ultimately leads him to Sister Cindy’s doorstep. However, by this time, Kitty has assumed a new identity, and, upon seeing Tinam, pretends to have no idea who he is. At this point, Naked Killer briefly feints toward being a sort of Hong Kong new wave take on Vertigo, but Tinam and Kitty’s mutual attraction soon proves too strong to allow this situation to stand. We are treated to a montage of each masturbating languorously in his and her separate corners of Hong Kong, cluing us in that the mounting pressure will soon place them in bed together where we all now want them. When this does happen, I imagine that few will be surprised to learn that Tinam’s former erectile difficulties are now firmly consigned to history. In fact, so heated is this coupling that Princess, spying on the two through her rifle’s telescopic site, finds herself instantly in the throes of sexual obsession with Kitty, and, at the height of her arousal, discharges her weapon skyward in frustration.


Clarence Ford has said that his primary inspiration in making Naked Killer was Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, while Wong Jing had wanted a Hong Kong version of the recent American hit Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the finished product does, to some extent, come across as a combination of Chor’s more refined and elegant approach to eroticism and Paul Verhoeven’s coarser one. Though I think that, in the end, Chor Yuen won out. Ford was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes, as well as with requiring nudity of his actresses, and so kept both to a minimum (certainly by Cat III standards, at least). He compensated for this by conveying sensuality through lushness of atmosphere and luxuriousness of texture, along with a voyeur’s obsessive focus on the physical beauty of his actors. In other words, by an engagement with the truly erotic. Dated 1990s fashions and trip hop music notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone can deny that Ford’s is a movie that’s oozing with a potent sexuality — one of the type that only gains intensity by it’s proximity to mayhem.

And mayhem there indeed is, with Sister Cindy taking it upon herself to kill everyone who can establish a connection between Kitty’s new identity and her former life, including Tinam’s boss. Tinam himself only escapes as a result of Kitty’s constant interventions. Meanwhile, Princess combines her stalking of Sister Cindy with an increasingly fevered erotic pursuit of Kitty, inspiring not a small amount of ire in the heart of the lethal Baby. It probably goes without saying, given all that has lead up to it, that the end will come in an epic conflagration fraught with grand tragic gestures and operatic bloodletting. Who would expect anything less?

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Naked Killer. But, to me, it’s only the subpar exploitation films that give sex and violence a bad name, while the ones like Naked Killer put sex and violence back on the pedestal where they belong. Rather than the nihilistic sleaze-fest that one might typically expect from the Cat III genre, Naked Killer is a film that rages with vitality, and offers about as good an example as I can think of of cinema’s unique ability to show us a vision of our waking world merged with that of dreams. And by “dreams” I don’t mean the kid stuff that Hollywood usually sells, but the sweaty adult variety, teeming with submerged guilt and forbidden desires. It’s an aestheticized orgy of sex, death, lust and murder that, when it’s all over, somehow leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty damn wonderful place. And for that I can only say this: Thanks once again, Hong Kong, for delivering.

Release Year: 1992 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Carrie Ng, Madoka Sugawara, Wai Yu (as Kelly Yao), Ken Lo, Shiu Hung Hui, Cheung Jing | Writers: Wong Jing | Director: Clarence Ford | Cinematographers: William Yim, Peter Pau | Music: Lowell Lo
Producer: Wong Jing