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.
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.
If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?
Director Denis Law seems committed to returning the Hong Kong martial arts movie to the glory days of when they had awesome stunt and fight choreography and were terrible in just every other way, but we forgave them because of the action scenes (or did you watch Iron Angels for the writing?). Bad Blood is the perfect example of Law’s approach to film making. The story is the sort of ridiculous, convoluted, half-assed sort of affair you’d expect from an early 90s actioner. It also stars Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, his wardrobe is subdued. My feeling is that if you are going to cast Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, then he should be sporting the insane sort of crap that he was wearing in Looking for Mr. Perfect.
For my money, this is where the wheels started to come off the Jackie Chan cart. Sure, we had already written off his American career after The Tuxedo (though I personally love Shanghai Knights and think Forbidden Kingdom is bland and stupid but largely inoffensive), but this is where the Hong Kong movies that were our refuge started to show signs of rot as well. I was with him through the 1990s, even when he was working with Stanley Tong, a director who has an impressive ability to make even the most talented action star seem dull and uninspiring. I was even with Jackie through the first part of the new millennium, and while some people didn’t care for output like Who Am I and Accidental Spy, I really enjoyed them.
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.
Gallants is the sort of movie that seems custom made for lapsing into bouts of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. For me, and maybe this only makes sense in my own head (where it also makes sense to advance Manos: The Hands of Fate as a work of profound importance), you can look at and even celebrate the past without becoming nostalgic. Nostalgia is a particular way of looking at the past, one resigned to belief that the past is as good as it ever was, and it’ll never be that good again. I just can’t reconcile myself with that degree of fatalism, though the older one gets the more often one struggles with that sort of pessimism — especially when one turns on the FM radio and hears that dreadful racket the kids these days refer to as music. What’s wrong, old man??? Justin Beiber too bold for ya? Go back to the nursing home and listen to your safe old Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun albums, grampa!