jump to navigation

A beginner’s guide to Kung Fu films - Part I June 24, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Articles , 13 comments

Part One: Definitions and a very brief history lesson.

New to Kung Fu movies?  Don’t know a Wong Fei-Hung from a Fong Sai-Yuk?  Wouldn’t know one end of a three-sectioned staff from another?  Fear not, for after watching far too many of these films, I now offer some background information to hopefully help with the viewing experience.  If it’s not in here, it isn’t worth mentioning.  Or it’s something I’ve forgotten.  Or something I never knew in the first place and was blissfully ignorant of.  In seriousness, this is all done tongue-in-cheek and should not be taken in the least bit seriously, apart from the bits that actually give out useful (and accurate) information, but I’ll try to keep this to a minimum.  Firstly, some general points…

Kung Fu movies have probably been around since the dawn of film technology, but the modern day Kung Fu movie was born in 1970 with the release of The Chinese Boxer and died of natural causes around 1984.  Its death came about as a result of several factors including the demise of the Shaw Brothers film studio and the popularity of modern day action movies like the ground breaking Police Story.  Kung fu movies originate in Hong Kong, or at a push, China.  Any movie not originating from these territories claiming to be a Kung Fu film should be treated with suspicion.  Kung Fu films do not feature kickboxing, karate or ninja.  If you see a DVD cover depicting flying stars or a man with a black mask over the lower part of his face, this is not likely to be a Kung Fu film.  If you see a DVD cover with Steven Segal on the cover, run like hell.  If in doubt, look for words like “Shaolin”, “Drunken”, “Monkey”, “Dragon”, “Fist”, “Snake”, “Chamber”, “Duel”, “Master” and “Warriors”.  Films containing these words are almost certainly Kung Fu movies and therefore can be approached with confidence.  What’s more, it has been scientifically proven that all films with those words in are classics of the genre. 

Another distinction that must be made is the difference between Kung Fu and Wuxia (or Wuxia Pian) films.  Wuxia films are also have ancient origins and were all the rage immediately before Kung Fu came in vogue in 1970.  The difference is Kung Fu films generally feature unarmed combat (or combat with traditional Chinese weaponry) and the fighting is more or less grounded in reality.  Wuxia Pian, on the other hand, is more fantasy-based, with combatants able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, run across bamboo forests and glide gently to the ground from atop a mountain.  They are also armed with swords and are usually bound to a strict code of chivalry. 

Kung Fu movies are generally set in an unspecified point in the 19th Century.  There are many exceptions to this rule; for example, many films are set in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD), which was another exciting (read: bloody) time in China’s history, but most of the time you’ll be stuck in the 19th Century.  A lot of films deal with a specific point regarding Dynasties, and here is probably the most important point of all:

Overthrow the Qing!  Restore the Ming!

This should be your mantra.  It’s surprising how many fans (and I’m talking hardcore fans, here) forget which way round this goes.  The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) was the last Dynasty of China, and as Dynasties go, it was considered a bit of a stinker.  There are many reasons for this, but the main one was that the Manchu people, who were the conquerors of the Han people, were not actually Chinese.  In other words, the Qing Dynasty was headed by foreigners called the Manchu who overthrew the Ming Dynasty ruled by the indigenous Han people.  The Qing were also supposedly responsible for burning the Shaolin Temple and thus spreading Shaolin martial arts across China when the monks fled.  This theme is the basis of many, many Kung Fu films.

In many films you will see the Manchu depicted as evil, corrupt, stupid or incompetent (or all of the above).  The Manchu are easily identifiable by their distinctive uniforms and their little round hats.  When killed, they invariably become hopping vampires and torment the Han afresh from beyond the grave.

By comparison, the Han people are depicted as righteous, hardworking, honest and immune to corruption.  They wear the universally identifiable peasant garb and have long hair in pigtails.  Cutting this hair is a deeply humiliating experience and is always done at some point by the order of an evil Manchu lord.  However, paradoxically, this always seals the corrupt lord’s fate: you can guarantee several cans of whup-ass will eventually be opened upon said Manchu.  The Manchus are too stupid to ever realise this is going to happen.

OK - I'm sorry I made fun of your hats!

The above picture is a typical scene from a film based on the struggles of the Chinese patriots against the evil Manchu lords.  This particular Chinese patriot is about to be executed by the Manchu.  In a typical twist, the commander on horseback has been given buckteeth in order to make him more foreign and ridiculous.

It’s worth mentioning that the Ming was never restored.  You wouldn’t know this from all the victories the hardworking Han patriots win over the Manchu in literally countless Kung Fu films during the seventies and early eighties.  It’s a little like watching a series of American Civil War movies in which the South always win.  The Qing Dynasty was eventually overthrown in the early 20th Century by Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionaries (another good source for dozens of films) and China decided to do away with Dynasties altogether and become a republic.

The corpse of the Kung Fu movie came kicking back to life, much to everyone’s surprise, in 1991 with Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China and suddenly it was fashionable to make period films again, and they are still popular to this day.  But while the “New-Wave” Kung Fu films certainly have their merit, they do seem a breed apart from their 70’s ancestors, and should be considered almost like a separate genre.

Coming soon: Part II – Legends of Kung Fu.  Until then, remember: Overthrow the Ming!  Restore the Qing!  Oh, hang on…

Fearless (2006) June 20, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Ronny Yu  Cast: Jet Li, Dong Yong, Ngai Sing, Nakamura Shidou  Action Director: Yuen Wo-Ping Territory: China  Production Company: Beijing Film Studio of China Film Group Corporation

I can’t really claim to be a Jet Li fan really.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s done some brilliant stuff; but for every Once Upon a Time in China there’s a My Father is a Hero and for every Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk there’s a Hitman.  I just don’t think the guy had good enough quality-control.

I say “had” because this was apparently his last martial arts film.  We’ll see about that, but if Fearless is his swansong, he could have picked a worse project to ride out into the sunset to.

Telling the story of real-life prizefighter Hou YuanJia, the first half predominantly concerns itself with Hou’s rise to the top in the early 20th century despite a childhood plagued with asthma and a father (an excellent Ngai Sing) who wants to keep his son away from the art.  His father is a master of Wu Shu and shows his craft at local duels, which prove to be brutal affairs where the combatants are required to sign “death waivers” to absolve the organisers of blame in case anything goes wrong.  It is into this environment that Hou finds himself drawn, and he eventually follows in his father’s footsteps to become the “Hero of Tianjin”.

Jet Li and Nakamura Shidou

The central character is quite weighty for an action movie, and Jet Li pulls it off well.  Hou turns into an arrogant drunken thug after his success and then has to deal with a cripplingly tragic event in his life.  The latter half of the film deals with Hou’s inevitable rehabilitation and his quest for redemption, rather than revenge, armed with his newborn humility.  Throughout, Li plays it without sinking into melodramatics, much to his credit.

The duels and challenges are shot in typical Jet Li style, with lots of wirework and with a leaning towards the more fantastic.  Thankfully, there is not an over-reliance on CGI in the actual fighting sections of the film, which is what I was most concerned about.  Actually, sometimes Fearless has an almost “dated” feel to it – and I mean that in a largely complimentary way.  I do, however, feel that a film based on a real-life hero should have perhaps been approached in a more realistic way, but that’s a minor gripe.  Besides, you could, at a push, say the same about Once Upon a Time in China.  I will admit, though, that the fight scenes did not always excite me, or elicit any kind of emotional response from me at times.  This happens to me fairly regularly with films choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping for some reason, and I’m not really able to identify why.  And there’s plenty of his films I like, too.

Of course, this story has been told before and a lot of people will know how it’s all going to end up, but that’s not the point.  And while I didn’t enjoy Fearless as much as practically everyone else who’s seen it, I can still see that it’s a well thought out film and probably worthy of most of the praise heaped upon it.

Chinese Odyssey 2002 (2002) June 16, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Romance , 2 comments

Director: Jeff Lau  Cast: Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai), Faye Wong, Vicky Zhao, Chang Chen  Territory:  Hong Kong  Production Company: Jet Tone Productions

Ming Dynasty Emperor Zheng De (Chang Chen) and his sister, Princess WuShuang (Faye Wong) long for adventure away from the sanitized life inside their fortress home.  The Princess, disguised as a man, encounters Li Yilong (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and falls in love with him.  Li is somewhat confused over his feelings for his new friend, whom he accepts as a man, and endeavours to marry “him” off to his sister, the mannish Phoenix (Vicky Zhao).  But, though she is more than willing to accept, Li’s worrying feelings for his friend won’t go away.  And then the Emperor himself escapes the castle and meets Phoenix and falls in love…

Chinese Odyssey 2002 is a sparkling romantic comedy based on an old Chinese legend of love that transcends social boundaries and produced by Wong Kar-Wai.  There’s certainly nothing new here – all the gender confusion gags are present and correct and the romantic angle is completely by the numbers (you can confidently predict at which point our loving couple is going to get torn asunder and that they will ultimately get back together right at the end), but it’s written with heaps of wit and charm.  There are gags about Ming-era speed cameras, the unreliability of Wuxia super-powers and parodies of Wong Kar-Wai’s Film Noir voiceovers.

Faye Wong gets seduced by Vicky Zhao - the male population holds its breath.

No doubt cast because of their on-screen chemistry in Wong Kar-Wai’s sublime art house rom-com Chungking Express, Tony Leung and Faye Wong are joined together again in this, and are every bit as good together as before.  Tony Leung really is Hong Kong’s Mr Reliable – he always gives a strong performance and this is no exception.  Faye Wong is quirky, charming and loveable as usual.  I have been a fan of Faye Wong for a while and I must admit I kind of took her performance for granted back when I first saw this in 2002.  On seeing her now, you really do see that the film and music business lost something special with her “retirement”.  Vicky Zhao, although glammed-down as the Tomboy-ish Phoenix, is still irresistibly watchable, especially when heartbroken over being spurned by the Princess – only to fall in love with the Emperor!

Vicky Zhao making 'Romancing Eyes'

I don’t know if it’s the influence of Wong Kar-Wai, but Chinese Odyssey is also shot beautifully.  Almost every shot has a kind of fantasy feel to it – even the comedy scenes.  It is let down on the audio front though, with some pretty invasive dubbing of voices.  It’s a terrible shame that a film that excels so well at the visual should screw it all up on the audio, but that’s the way it goes, I suppose.  Besides, we get a couple of musical numbers from Faye thrown in, so it’s not all bad news.  The original DVD release came with the soundtrack on CD, and although it’s a little samey in places, it’s still a nice memento of the film.

I find it increasingly hard to find films that make me laugh out loud, but this one still does.  Nearly ever gag hits the spot, and though trite, the cross-dressing and gender confusion mayhem are always going to raise a smile in even the most cynical viewer.

Black Belt Jones (1974) June 12, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Blaxploitation, 1970s films, Bad Films , add a comment

Director: Robert Clouse  Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Malik Carter, Scatman Crothers  Action Director: Robert Wall  Territory: USA  Production Company:  Sequoin Films

I thought it was probably time to mix it up a little with another 70’s Blaxploitation movie.  Black Belt Jones is an ultra low budget wisecracking movie with eye-rollingly corny dialogue, some dodgy editing and a couple of performances so wooden they present a fire hazard.  But it also has heaps of funny lines (both intentional and otherwise), a full-on funky score and that authentic 70’s atmosphere that just can’t be recreated. 

Robert Clouse was a bit of an oddity in that he scored such great success with Enter the Dragon and then went on to direct one cinematic turd after another.  From the films I’ve seen of his (by no means his entire catalogue – I’m not a masochist) this is by far the sloppiest – and yes, I’m including Game of Death here.  Either he had next to no time to shoot or he genuinely didn’t care about certain things like actors accidentally talking over each other or delivering their lines in a very stilted manner.

The plot involves a Mafia plot to take over a small Karate school run by Poppa Byrd (Scatman Crothers, who looks like he’s infinitely relieved to be killed off part way through the movie), as the land will be invaluable for an upcoming renovation.  The Mafia enlist the help of local black drug dealer “Pinky” Pinkus (Malik Carter, who gets most of the movie’s best lines - and some of the best shirts), who sets about “persuading” Pop to hand over the business but is thwarted by Black Belt Jones (Kelly), who previously refused to try to infiltrate the Mafia’s impregnable fortress.  When the inevitable happens and Pop is killed, the business is handed to his estranged daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry), who is put under the protection of Jones (known as “Belt” to his friends – seriously!).   But Sydney reveals that she, too, was taught how to fight at the age of three by Pop, and the pair take on the Mafia and Pinky’s gang.

This year's essential menswear

Clouse poached a couple of personnel from the previous year’s Bond movie Live and Let Die for this – Gloria Hendry played Rosie Carver, and one of Pinky’s henchmen played “Whisper”.  Hendry becomes a tough talking bad-ass in this (she can make you look like a sick faggot, apparently), and though her moves are more the result of editing than ability, she does bring a certain amount of class to the film.  Jim Kelly does more to impress in this than he does in, say, The Black Samurai, but he still doesn’t come across as A-Grade superstar material, and is doubled a few times for the more acrobatic moves.  The man apparently responsible for the action choreography is none other than Bob Wall, and he can be spotted behind the wheel of one of the cars at the end.  Also in attendance is a kid I always remember as a petty thief from a largely forgotten Dracula spoof called Love at First Bite.  It turns out his name is Eric Laneuville, and he went on to bigger and better things, including directing several episodes of The Best Television Show Ever™, Lost.  How about that?

Kelly hated mobile phone users on trains.

Back to Black Belt Jones, it’s the dated dialogue and outrageous clothes that are the real stars of this show and make the viewing experience worthwhile.  Some of the dialogue is intended to be funny, and surprisingly some of it is pretty effective.  The scene in which Sydney is put down by Jones and told to “do the dishes or something” is predictable but funny nevertheless.  And the 70’s slang is always going to raise a smile with everyone calling each other “brother”, “cat” and so forth.  You dig?

This film appears in the top 50 worst movies of all time according to some list or other, which I just take to be another recommendation to watch it.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day this gets re-released with the full “Quentin Tarantino Presents” treatment as I’m sure it’s right up his alley.  For now, sadly, it remains unavailable on DVD in a legitimate form.

Bullet Train (1975) June 9, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, 1970s films , add a comment

Director: Junya Sato  Cast: Ken Takakura, Kei Yamamoto, Eiji Go, Sonny Chiba  Territory: Japan  Production Company: Toei Productions

The Hikari 109 Bullet Train has an unexpected passenger – a bomb that primes itself when the train reaches 80KPH.  Subsequently, if the train decreases speed below 80KPH, the bomb will go off  - killing the 1,500 people on board. 

Quite obviously used as a starting point for Jan de Bont’s Speed in 1994, it still has to be realised that Bullet Train is a different kettle of fish altogether.  In actual fact, it is in itself a kind of remake of Airport.

Or at least it starts out that way.  The passengers assemble at the start and all the classics are there – the spoilt pop star, the twitchy, self-centred businessman, the convict en-route to prison and of course everyone’s favourite – the pregnant woman.  Plus we have extremely sweaty train driver Aoki (Sonny Chiba, in an exclusively seated role), the unflappable train crew and the guys running the show in the control booth. 

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines... 

A great deal of tension is created early on when the Control Centre discover the train’s been compromised and relay the information to the driver.  However, what you expect to be a series of mishaps and challenges along the route never really happens.  There’s one problem when a train ahead on the track has mechanical problems, and inevitably the pregnant woman goes into labour, but not a lot else until much later on.

The reason for this is that for quite a lot of the movie we follow the bombers.  Lead bomber Okita (Ken Takakura) pretty much takes centre stage throughout – and at one point late in the movie I’d even forgotten about the train entirely!  It must be said the film’s handling of the terrorists is unique and actually rather interesting – they are portrayed as human, compassionate and they elicit a damn sight more sympathy than the obnoxious passengers on the train.  It’s an odd direction, certainly.  Their cause (if they have one) is never mentioned, and they are always referred to only as “radicals”.  It seems to me that they are in it purely for the money, rather than for any political motivation.  However, not being particularly knowledgeable about Japan’s socio-political stance during the mid 70’s, it could just be a form of the filmmakers showing some tact by not naming any specific cause by name.

All this kind of makes for a bit of a jumble of a movie.  Certainly the “disaster” angle of the film is a washout, as we don’t really see enough of the train and it’s inhabitants to care – and as mentioned before, they’re a pretty objectionable lot anyway.  These films work by creating a sense of claustrophobia, creating the illusion that the viewer is also in the perilous situation, but when so much of the film is shot away from the train this never has the chance to work. 

The version reviewed here is the unabridged Japanese language version released by Optimum Asia.  At over two and a half hours, it’s certainly an epic (even the cut version is nearly two hours long), and I don’t think there’s enough in there to warrant that running time.  But Bullet Train is occasionally enjoyable – it’s just that I can’t see myself wanting to watch it again anytime soon.

Virus (1980) June 2, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Thriller, 1980s films , 4 comments

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Cast: Masao Kusakari, Bo Svenson, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn  Territory: Japan

A horrifying man-made virus is unleashed onto the world – killing everyone except the world’s scientists stationed in Antarctica and the crew of a nuclear submarine which set sail before the outbreak.  The stunned survivors gather together, but find that old nationalistic prejudices still apply despite the apocalypse.  Then, a final act of human stupidity threatens to destroy the Antarctic base and finally put an end to mankind.

My all-time favourite novel is Stephen King’s The Stand, which has clearly been used as a template for the apocalyptic theme of this film.  Both use a man-made flu-like virus which is accidentally unleashed (although I can’t remember now if this was ever explicitly mentioned in the first published version of The Stand, which was the only version available at the time this film was made) and devastates the world.  It does then veer off in a different direction, with the survivors at the South Pole trying to resurrect the human race against a Cold War backdrop.

To give it its due Virus has aged particularly well, Cold War references aside.  A lot of the themes could well apply today, and, for a film set in the near future of 1982, that is certainly quite a feat.  The scope of the film is also extremely commendable – it seems that no sociological issue is left unaddressed.  It’s often a downfall of films like these that gloss over certain important issues, whether it be social, sexual, political, national or suchlike.

And that’s where, I think, the film falls down.  I feel Virus never really establishes a focus.  It can be reasonably said that there is no “star” of this film, and that can be a tad disconcerting.  A case could be made that Masao Kusakari is the focus as he has the most screen time, but his character is as broadly drawn as anybody’s, really.  And his English is not quite good enough to carry him through the picture – there were several times I found myself struggling to understand him.

And for my next trick...

I also have trouble with the film’s response to sexual attitude – after the rape of one of the community’s eight women, the response is along the lines of “well, it’s terrible, but it’s bound to happen”.  They then rule that the women must, essentially, “service” the 850-odd men on a rota basis.  The women, evidently, do not argue against this.  Abstinence is not an option, then? 

All of the detail that Virus goes into portray the end of the world makes for a pretty plodding movie, and it’s only in the last half hour that it really takes off.  I understand the film bombed on release, which is probably why I’d never heard of it until about three weeks ago.  But the large-scale international cast and high production values (it was the most expensive film from Japan at the time) do make for a reasonably well-presented project.  However, Chuck Connors as an Englishman?  I think not!  Actually, the best bit of casting goes to the bloke who played Dr Horatio Kane in my old favourite Kill and Kill Again.  He even gets a couple of lines!

The version reviewed here is the full Japanese version, which has been remastered and presented in widescreen and runs at about 2 hours 35 minutes.  There are other versions available, but they are abridged and usually fullscreen.  The full-length version can be obtained on Region 1 DVD on the “Sonny Chiba Action Pack”, which is odd as it’s not an action movie nor a Sonny Chiba movie (he has about thirty seconds worth of screen time and maybe two lines of dialogue).  Although it can’t complete with other apocalypse films (one of my favourites is a little New Zealand film called The Quiet Earth) it is rather a shame that the film seems to have fallen by the wayside and largely been forgotten.

Oily Maniac (1976) June 1, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Horror, 1970s films, Wacko, Bad Films , 2 comments

Director: Hoh Mung-Wa  Cast: Danny Lee, Chan Ping, Ku Feng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: a sort of superhero-cum-monster movie set in Malaysia with lots and lots of topless ladies and the shark theme from Jaws.  The title alone sold it for me – any film called Oily Maniac is a must-have as far as I’m concerned. 

Danny Lee plays the eponymous Maniac – a polio victim who gains his powers when his mentor, shortly before his execution for murder, gives him the key to superhuman powers.  All he has to do is dig a hole in his own house (which is built upon some kind of bewitched ground) and the magical oil will bestow its power.  What it boils down to is this: if he covers himself head to toe in oil (of any kind), he becomes an invincible killing machine.  He can switch between two forms at will: an oil slick (great for sliding along the ground or ceiling and slipping into the tiniest of cracks) or a more-or-less human form (great for throttling his victims).  The Maniac then goes on a killing rampage righting the wrongs he sees in his everyday life as a clerk in a solicitor’s office.

Honey!  I'm Home!

I’ve just reread that plot synopsis and realised I’ve just made Oily Maniac sound a hell of a lot more exciting than it really is.  It tries to be both a superhero movie (the monster is kind of like the Incredible Hulk in a way, and the mild-mannered Danny Lee character is like any number of superhero alter-ego average Joes) and a horror film.  It doesn’t really achieve either thanks largely to some terrible – and I do mean terrible – special effects.  Plus, it’s about as scary as an episode of Postman Pat. The oil slick effect wouldn’t fool a five year old today, and it probably didn’t look too convincing back then, either.  As for the human form of the Maniac – well, it’s a guy in a (badly made) rubber suit.  Add to this the blatant ripping-off of the Jaws theme tune whenever the Maniac is about to appear, and it all makes for one hell of a wacko experience.  Actually, if it wasn’t for this piece of music popping up all over the place, I’d swear this was a lot older than 1976 – if not for the effects, then for the fashions which seem more like they’re from the late sixties or early seventies to me.

No comment.

As you might expect, all this results in some unintentional comedy and an overall campy feel to the film.  Which is just as well, because the rest of it is a complete write-off. The morality of the film seems a little skewed, too, and some of the plot doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  I think the crew probably thought that if you throw enough topless ladies in, you could disguise the film’s shortcomings.  This is probably the most “breasty” Hong Kong film I’ve seen, although I’m sure it can’t hold a candle to Cat III films (of which I haven’t seen any, Officer, I swear).  The action scenes involving the Maniac aren’t too bad, though, but you can never get past the fact that it’s a man in a rubber suit.  The film’s conclusion was more than a tad predictable, too.

Oily Maniac is not so much a B-Movie as a C-Movie, but is entertaining enough in its camp way - and is probably the only place you will ever see a man beaten to death with his own bicycle.

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 5/5 (10)