Category Archives: martial arts

Merantau (2009)

Director: Gareth (“G.H.”) Evans

Well, clearly I haven’t watched anywhere near as many films for this “smaller Asian countries” challenge at ICM, but at least I’m signing off on a fairly good note… since we have a while yet for the third Raid film to appear, this seemed like a good opportunity to finally pull this one off the watchlist. Having invoked the Raid films, of course, I should probably add that I might have enjoyed this a bit more had I not seen those films first, cos I now know what he’s capable of, and, well, he doesn’t quite pull it off here in the same way. That said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it or anything (well, except for some of the post-synced sound, and I don’t think that was just my copy at fault), it’s just that it was Evans’ first film of this sort and it’s a bit more derivative and not as tightly controlled. The plot revolves around an old Sumatran tradition called merantau, where the young men go on a sort of walkabout (yes, way to mangle not exactly identical cultural references together, Russell) from their rural communities to the big city to prove themselves as adults; this is the situation our hero, Yuda, is in. Things kind of immediately turn to shit when he finds the place he’s supposed to stay in Jakarta doesn’t actually exist, but then a series of encounters leads him to brush up against a human trafficking ring. Like I said, not the most original narrative, but with the sort of action on show, who cares about that? I know bugger all about silat—the Indonesian martial art on display—but it looks amazing on screen, and the action choreography (really, Hollywood needs to make Iko Uwais a big star and I don’t know why they haven’t yet) is incredible at times… there’s a few particularly berserk bits of stunt action where I can’t believe the performers didn’t sustain serious injury, including some falls from heights onto… well, solid ground with nothing to stop them. There are some right “fucking hell” moments throughout. Like I said, not as good as what Evans and Uwais would pull off in The Raid, but a worthy enough bit of action entertainment in its own right nonetheless…

Ashes of Time (1994)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.

Ong-Bak (2003)

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

This was on SBS2 after Crouching Tiger, and it made for a fairly instructive double bill; if Lee’s film inspired the making of a lot of bigger, more expensive wu xia, the Thai film seems blithely unconcerned by such competition, clearly convinced there was still a market for unsophisticated but jaw-dropping B-grade mass destruction of people and things. Ong-Bak is so enamoured of star Tony Jaa and his frankly implausible athleticism that we get to see most of his stunts from at least two angles; mind you, the phenomenal how-the-fuck-is-that-even-possible skill with which he goes about his work means you’d probably do the same thing if you were the director to get your value out of him. The action scenes are pretty much on a “fucking hell” level throughout—not least the bit where Jaa’s pants are literally on fire—as is the general ludicrousness of the whole thing… The plot revolves around the theft of the head of Ong-Bak, the ancient Buddha statue belonging to a rather nondescript little rural village in Thailand; Ong-Bak’s head has forcibly parted company with his body courtesy of a Bangkok drug dealer looking to sell it for cash from a local crime boss with a taste for old Buddhas. Little did either of them count on the village’s favourite kickass son, Ting, coming after it. What follows is, as I’ve indicated, overkill. There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the plot, however dressed up in modern camera and editing tricks, to the point where the modern-day setting of the story is almost a bit incongruous; it’s the sort of thing that might’ve been made in Hong Kong (probably with a period setting though) three decades earlier. Given the film seems to have been made to try and sell Tony Jaa as a modern-day successor to Bruce Lee—the same sort of damn near invincible warrior, albeit without Lee’s charisma—I’m sure that feeling of throwback was intentional. Ong-Bak is certainly relatively primitive compared to the Ang Lee film we saw earlier tonight, but there’s something appealing about its sheer brutal vigour and it’s rarely dull as such; terrific late night viewing.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee

As the 1001 Movies tells it, Lee’s intention with this film was to make the best martial arts movie possible. The extent to which he achieved this is, obviously, is a matter of individual judgement, but the ambition cannot be faulted, and—at least in my opinion—neither can much of the execution. Obviously a shitload of people felt the same back in the day, when it became a surprise megahit in the US where it soon became the highest-earning foreign film ever (is it still?) and took out Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (plus a Best Picture nomination, among several others), although I do recall back then some people were sniffy about its success; they were hardened Asian action fans who’d been watching films like this for years, and while the uninitiated were oohing and aahing at the flying swordfights and stuff, they were grumbling that Lee wasn’t really doing anything they hadn’t seen before. Which isn’t actually entirely unfair, I suppose, Lee wasn’t really doing much that was new even if most of the people watching this film hadn’t seen it done before. But he was doing these things with probably more resources than any wu xia film had ever had thrown at it before, plus the film did have the relative novelty of an already internationally recognised arthouse filmmaker being the director… indeed, on rewatching it tonight, I got a real sense of self-consciousness about the film, as if it knew it were the martial arts film (cf. what I said recently about Stagecoach and the western), which I suppose is how many people must see it. But also I was struck by how much of the story I’d forgotten, probably because there’s an awful lot of story to keep track of. In some respects you can sum it up as “sisters doing it for themselves”; Jade Fox has killed Li Mubai’s master for refusing to teach a woman his sword skills, and now her disciple has taught herself many of the skills in order to outdo her own master. But there is obviously more to it than just that, and CTHD excels where a martial arts film really should, i.e. the frequency and quality of the fights. Beautifully photographed, well choreographed, it’s not really surprising the film was the hit that it was; the time was obviously right for this sort of thing to go big, and I won’t complain about this being the one that did.

King Boxer (1972)

I have to admit I often have problems determining the period in which most martial arts films are supposed to take place—Chinese history is not one of my specialties—so it was genuinely startling when, as the baddies return home in the last part of this film for the last battle, they find the light bulbs have gone out. HOLY SHIT IT’S NOT AS FAR BACK IN THE PAST AS I THOUGHT… As for the film itself, the first and only time I saw this was probably about 15 years ago, one of the horrible old Warner pan/scan dub jobs we had to make do with When I Were A Lad, back in the analogue age; watching the Dragon Dynasty DVD this evening was like watching it for the first time, not least because pretty much all I remembered of it anyway was someone getting their eyes ripped out… I don’t know much about director Jeong Chang-Hwa, but he seems to have had some skill at compressing an awful lot of business into a comparatively small runtime (his fight scenes are clearly highly edited, and he seems to have liked trimming his shots very tightly); the simplest way to sum the story up would be something like this, there’s a big martial arts tournament coming up and two main schools are competing, one of which is basically lording it over the town where they’re based, so they must be defeated for the good of one and all. But there’s lots of stuff going on around this broad plot, with betrayal being a significant theme; our hero (Lo Lieh; if he didn’t have Bruce Lee’s repertoire of noises he clearly gave good scowl) is dumped on by one of his supposed brothers in arms, who eventually finds himself shafted by the villains. Jeong packs so much in, with a fairly large secondary cast, it’s remarkable how easy it is to actually keep track of; historically interesting, of course, as the first Hong Kong actioner released in the West, it’s probably not the best of its kind, really, but still a pretty damn solid piece of what is still fairly brutal entertainment.

The Street Fighter (1974)

If you’re like me, you probably first heard of this film via Quentin Tarantino, who refers to it in his script for True Romance, and probably got a few folk excited by the prospect of this amazingly violent film having an even more violent X-rated version. And, well, here we are, probably 17 or 18 years after I first saw True Romance, and I’ve now actually seen the X myself… even went out of my way to find a Japanese copy on Youtube  with subtitles, cos I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes of the dubbed copy I found… and now I’m feeling oddly let down. Part of it is that, basically, it’s not actually much of a film, but also, you know, the violence. There’s a fair amount of it, but only two or three scenes (most notably the castration business) that go “beyond the pale” by early 70s standards. The film itself is somewhat curious; I don’t know its production history but it certainly feels like it was designed to make its star Sonny Chiba into Nippon’s own Bruce Lee (albeit a rather darker and nastier version of him)… the modern-day setting feels odd for this character and this story, though, it feels like something Shaw Brothers might’ve filmed only they would’ve set it in the past, and would’ve actually made an effort with it too. I know nothing about director Shigehiro Ozawa other than that the Street Fighter films were basically the last ones he made, and this one doesn’t suggest a great loss to the industry. Filmed in a flat and murky manner, bordering on being outright unattractive, the main things the film has in its favour are its reasonably plentiful action scenes and the antiheroic angle of Chiba’s characters, although even then the film doesn’t make as much of those things as it might’ve done. Maybe it’s more fun on a big screen with an audience; at any rate I was kind of disappointed tonight.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Yeah, I’m kind of reaching for the comfort food with this one, and why the hell shouldn’t I? It’s great. I’ve seen it written that certain film genres could only really flourish when sound film took off, and the martial arts film is one of those, surely; the fights are so much fun when you can hear them as well as see them (and given that a surprising amount of the action in this film, particularly some of the really deadly force, actually takes place just out of camera range, sound really is necessary for their effectiveness). And Bruce Lee, too, would never have been quite the same in silent films; obviously he looked great on film, but it’s the sounds he makes, the whooping, the barking, the shrieking, the gibbering, whatever the hell it is, they’re such a vital part of his fighting performance as much as anything he does with his fists and feet. And the face, too; he does some great face in this (I just watched a month of horror films and none of them were as scary as the look on his face when he stomps Bob Wall’s chest).

It’s a film that feels quite curious in some ways, a US/Hong Kong co-production with an American director but mostly HK talent (I’ll defer to Bey Logan’s judgement that Lee was the film’s main creative force rather than director Robert Clouse), shot entirely in HK and yet somehow it doesn’t quite feel like a Hong Kong film, it feels more “American” somehow… I did notice this time how long it actually takes for Bruce to seriously get underway with his mission (i.e. about halfway into the film), and the whole thing did strike me this time as perhaps being more interested, to at least some extent, in its thriller plot than its fights. I could be wrong, but I did get that feeling. Anyway, it’s great, like I said; there is the school of thought that says Fist of Fury is the better film (I’ll need to watch it again to see if I concur or not), but Dragon still holds up as an excellent “gateway drug” for anyone starting out in martial arts cinema, and a great example of early to mid 70s (and how early to mid 70s!) action cinema in general…

Goketsu Jiraiya (1921)

Japanese silent cinema is an area with which I have little acquaintance—something to do with the fact that most of it is lost and much of the extant stuff doesn’t seem to be easily accessible—and this is one I hadn’t even heard of until just recently… running 21 minutes as it does, the IMDB entry seems to think it’s a fragment of a feature, but another piece I found online suggests it probably actually is a complete short—most of the nearly thousand films its star Matsunosuke Onoe made in his short life were apparently one-reelers and the like (did the feature film not establish itself in Japan like it did elsewhere?)—and that was the feeling I got from it too, insofar as I could get anything from it at all. The story of Jiraiya was, evidently, a folkloric phenomenon that translated into novels and kabuki plays in the 1800s (director Shozo Makino handles the film in an apparently kabuki manner, cf. the costumes and make-up), which is probably why it was kind of baffling to me but probably not to Japanese audiences of the early 20s, who would know the original tale (unlike me) and also would’ve had a benshi to narrate the thing (whereas I felt kind of lost without intertitles; the only titles in the film are basically section headers). What might be the drawcard for a non-Japanese viewer, then? How about the bit where Jiraiya transforms into a giant toad? Yeah. Jiraiya is a ninja who can shapeshift into a toad, his lover Tsunade can turn herself into a snail (which I’m sure is… great) and his nemesis Orochimaru turns into a great big serpent. This business certainly caught my attention and gave the film a certain degree of what-the-fuck, kind of like Georges Méliès doing special effects for D.W. Griffith or something. See this rather singular thing here.

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)

After Harakiri I was in the mood for something a bit less heavy. Solution: dive back into the DVD library for some Hong Kong action, and a particularly wild example of same (also one not to be confused with Tsui Hark’s own remake from 2001). Ropey though some of the effects might… well, do look in this day and age, they were state of the art in 1983 and groundbreaking for a film industry not used to them. Tsui imported American technicians to show the Hong Kong crowd what to do, and the result was an extravaganza that’s still kind of staggering, especially in its self-evident and unswerving commitment to Doing All The Things. So determined is it to be a mind-melting explosion of sheer Stuff Happening that it almost succeeds in making you realise the actual plot doesn’t really kick in until over half an hour in; up to that point it’s a long introduction to our main characters, a pair of somewhat odd couples (a Buddhist monk and his disciple; a travelling scholar and a soldier escaping a battle who becomes his disciple). That plot is kind of a thin one; they have to destroy the Blood Demon before it reincarnates, said mission involving a quest to recover two magic swords. Complications ensue when the scholar becomes the embodiment of evil along the way. The simplicity of the good-vs-evil conflict is nice, and the “Chineseness” of some of the details (cf. Sammo Hung’s monstrous holy eyebrows) gives it an obvious flavour, but really it’s about pure spectacle; it’s a film that shouts at you to look at it, see the tricks it can do, marvel at the amount of business it crams into just over 90 minutes, and try not to worry too much about the abruptness of some of the storytelling. At times like this, that sort of thing is just about perfect.

Heroes of the East (1979)

I took a complete random punt on this when I spotted it at my local JB Hi-Fi, I was looking around the Eastern Eye section one day a few months ago and spotted this Dragon Dynasty release there. I didn’t recognise the title, but I spotted Lau Kar-Leung’s name on the box art and decided it had to be worth a try. Closer inspection of IMDB revealed the film is actually better known as Shaolin Challenges Ninja, and Bey Logan’s book regards it highly under that name, so I felt I’d made a fair pick, and on viewing tonight at last I think I was indeed right. Gordon Liu is present (and bewigged—I had a feeling that couldn’t be his real head of hair, and Logan’s commentary confirmed as much) and correct as Ho Tao, the son of a Chinese businessman married off for business reasons to a Japanese girl, who proves—to his less than unmitigated delight—to be something of a destructive tigress when it comes to martial arts, leading to a string of disputes about the merits of Chinese vs Japanese martial arts and culture in general; when she takes herself back to Japan and he sends her a challenge letter, a group of Japanese fighters—including her ninjitsu master former lover—accept it to defend her honour. And the complications don’t quite stop ensuing there. It’s a romantic comedy of a somewhat twisted sort, there’s plenty of such films built around the happy couple squabbling but I can’t think of any other involving a team of martial artists like this… and needless to say there’s no prizes for guessing who will prevail in a Chinese film about a clash between Chinese and Japanese fighters, but Lau was determined to depict all combatants with respect rather than making the Japanese warriors the usual villainous stereotypes. Apart from being great entertainment it must’ve done more good for Sino-Japanese relations than Hapkido, for example…