The New York Asian Film Festival (read all our past coverage and reviews here) is one of the highlights of my year, and this year has been almost overwhelming. The number of films I want to see far exceeds the number of hours in the day I have to see them. The most impressive part of this year’s program, in my opinion, is the inclusion of some very rare Taiwanese exploitation films: Challenge of the Lady Ninja, A Life of Ninja, Woman Revenger, Lady Avenger, and the granddaddies of all Taiwanese “social issues” exploitation films, On the Society File of Shanghai and Never too Late to Repent, as well as the documentary, Taiwan Black Movies. Of the lot, I’ve heard of all of them but only ever seen Challenge of the Lady Ninja. Unfortunately, that remained the case throughout the festival, but I am hoping the work the NYAFF crew did in unearthing prints of these films might lead to them eventually finding their way onto DVD somewhere.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
Bloody Tie is an interesting film because it sports all the polish and big budget precision typical of Korean action films but combines it with a frenetic, almost anarchic approach to filmmaking that makes the entire thing feel like it’s totally bonkers and off the rails even when it isn’t. The closest comparison I have for it is Myung-se Lee’s 1999 film, Nowhere to Hide, but you’d have to take that and mix it up with Goodfellas and a healthy dollop of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without and Humanity, maybe with some Michael Mann on the side, to come close to the loopy energy of Bloody Tie. It’s a deliriously colorful, insane celebration of the very seediest and scummiest cops and drug dealers you can conjure up under Korean censorship laws. Even within those confines the movie achieves a level of sleaze I’m not accustomed to seeing in Korean films.
My introduction to modern Korean cinema was a crash course facilitated by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was a Netflix style rental-by-mail service (with blue envelopes) that concentrated on foreign and non-Region 1 DVD releases. Within the span of a couple of weeks, I rented and burned through probably half a dozen Korean films, including Shiri, Nowhere to Hide, something with a lot of electric guitars and flying swordsmen, and Arahan. I didn’t know much about any of the films and was picking them largely on “that title/cover/plot synopsis sounds OK” with occasional input from some fo the few English-language websites that wrote about Korean cinema. Each of them proved to be very impressive in their own way, and while Shiri emerged as my favorite and Nowhere to Hide was the most visually striking, Arahan also earned a special place in my heart with its blend of urban setting, martial arts action, fantasy elements, and ridiculous comedy.
Let me begin this article by commenting on how happy I am that this movie did something with an empty handgun other than the “bang bang click click look at gun throw away.” I mean, why would you do that? First of all, guns cost money, and you can always reload it later if you get the chance. Second, even empty it’s a solid chunk of metal (unless it’s a Glock, I suppose) that is just waiting to be creatively applied in other ways. During this film’s climactic showdown, North Korean spies Pyo and Dong spend some time taking pot shots at one another and, upon exhausting their supply of bullets, they both take to using their guns as sort of brass knuckles-meet-bludgeons. Gentlemen, I salute your ingenuity. And now, on to the review…
Karate Robo Zaborgar presented me with the sort of soul-searching conflict that often plagues those of us who worry about the higher philosophical questions in life. On the one hand, it was a presumably loving spoof of one of my favorite genres — the old “tokusatsu” superhero shows of the 1970s, with their karate cyborgs, fringed jeans, motorcycle helmets, random explosions in rock quarries, and theme songs dominated by jazzy trumpets. On the other hand, I watched a similar movie last year — Takashi Miike’s Yatterman — and still consider it one of the worst, most unenjoyable movies I’ve seen in the better part of a decade. My bottomless disdain for Yatterman comes despite the fact that I generally like Miike as a director. Karate Robo Zaborgar, by contrast, was directed by Noboru Iguchi, a director who has yet to make a movie I didn’t dislike. His stock in trade is slapstick splatter send-ups of popular Japanese genres, but done with such juvenile laziness and awkward, ill-realized timing that what should have been outrageous comes across merely as tedious.
Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
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
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