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