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Kill Bill (2003/2004) July 28, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, Non-Asian , 9 comments

Director: Quentin Tarantino  Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A Fox  Guest Starring: Sonny Chiba, Lau Ka-Fai (Gordon Liu)  Territory: USA

The Bride (Uma Thurman) wakes from a coma after being shot in the head by Bill (David Carradine) on her wedding day for attempting to leave his crime organisation and the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad”.  Her unborn child gone, the only thing she can think about is revenge on Bill and the rest of the  assassination squad who killed those she loved.

Assuming no prior knowledge, Kill Bill was released in two separate parts upon Tarantino’s discovery that he had shot “too much good footage” for one movie.  However, I have decided to treat it more or less as one film for this review, with just an occasional reference to the two Volumes.

Kill Bill’s intentions are clear right from the beginning – we start with the Shaw Brothers’ fanfare and “Shawscape” logo and with a genuine 70’s “Now for our Feature Presentation” type of promo film.  Quentin Tarantino’s revenge movie picks bits and pieces from just about every genre of cult cinema but focuses on Japanese and Chinese action movies as well as general “revenge” movies from the 70’s.  Tarantino doesn’t so much nod to these types of movies as headbutt them, such is his heavy-handedness at times.  We are regularly treated to B-movie dialogue and (presumably) deliberately wooden acting in keeping with the source material.  Which is all well and good and does have a certain entertainment value of its own, but when lines like: “That’s right – I killed your Master.  And now I’m going to kill you – with your own sword…” are uttered, I have to cringe a little.  I was sure it was going to be followed up with “So.  You think you can beat me?  Well then.  You must be tired of living!” but thankfully it wasn’t.

Just another day at the office.

I’m not going to give away The Bride’s real name, which seems to be a secret through most of the film for some strange reason, even warranting beeping out when uttered by the characters.  It’s just one example of the strange stylistic choices Tarantino makes in the film.  Some are quite good though, and point to the possibility that the film is set in an alternate reality (for some reason, I found The Bride’s ability to take her Katana onboard an aircraft quite inventive). 

The House of Blue Leaves section that closes Volume One is for many a highlight, but for me was the least enjoyable part of the whole experience (with the exception of the Anime sequence, which I didn’t care for at all).  Tarantino mixes Japanese and Chinese movie styles without adding anything interesting of his own.  The Crazy 88 gang are despatched by the Bride with deliberatly overblown violence and gore in a scene too reminiscent of Vengeance!, The Boxer from Shantung, and…well, a dozen Chang Cheh films from the early 70’s.  Oh, and let’s not forget the nod to The Streetfighter when we switch to monochrome, and the fact that Uma Thurman wears Bruce Lee’s tracksuit from Game of Death.  The whole section troubled me for a long time before I finally put my finger on it – it all looks too much like how a westerner with limited knowledge of Hong Kong/Japanese action movies would expect their action sequences to look like.  Obviously this is not true (and let’s not forget Yuen Wo-Ping is the primary action director), but I couldn’t help think it whenever someone moves their head from side to side quickly and the air “swishes” in a ridiculous manner.  Is he taking the piss or what? 

'You want fries with that?'

Which leads me neatly on to the obligatory training section.  Uma Thurman trains under Baak Mei (here under his Mandarin name of Pai Mei) in yet another homage to Hong Kong Kung Fu flicks from the 70’s.  Tarantino uses (and reuses) the patented Shaw Brothers shaky zoom all the way through this sequence in what struck me as the most tiring public display of fanboy masturbation possible. 

When he’s not cherry-picking Asian cult cinema the film is actually quite watchable, and does have some flash and flare.  David Carradine is excellent (which surprised me) and he gives the best performance by a country mile, with his believable portrayal of an everyday man with sickeningly nasty qualities who manages to be thought provoking without lapsing into cartoon villainy.  His discourse on Superman is also well delivered, in a scene evocative of Jules’ final speech in Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino apparently also digs zombie flicks...

Sonny Chiba must also get a mention as the Swordsmith Hattori Hanzo.  He’s clearly having a great time in his scene with Thurman, and although he doesn’t take part in the action himself, his cameo remains one of the highlights of the movie.  He’s also remarkably well preserved for a man of his advancing years.

Lau Ka-Fai (or Gordon Liu, if you prefer) is the other genuine Hero of the East to take screen time here, and has a dual role of sorts.  Firstly, he’s Johnny Mo of the Crazy 88’s and then he’s legendary Shaolin-burner Baak Mei (who appears quite sprightly despite being several hundred yeas old).  In the first role, he sports a Kato mask (is there nothing Tarantino hasn’t referenced in this movie?!) and provides little more than Uma-fodder.  As Baak Mei, he looks pretty much identical to every other depiction of the man himself or any other cruel but brilliant Master training his unruly pupil.  He handles the action scenes about as well as you’d expect, and doesn’t seem to have aged a jot since his 70’s heyday.

The rest of the cast include our favourite ear-slicing psycho Michael Madsen, who turns in a nice performance of a former swordsman turned drunkard and faded star Daryl Hannah, who partakes in the only truly great action scene when she takes on The Bride in an inadequately small caravan.  This scene more than makes up for the deficiencies of everything that goes before it with its cartoon violence and dark humour.  Lucy Liu plays half Japanese/half Chinese American O-Ren Ishii, a head of some kind of Yakuza clan.  Yeah, whatever.

The soundtrack’s excellent (thankfully, one constant in Tarantino’s oeuvre) and I would actually defend the film’s length as being essential to the conclusion.  And despite some of my grave misgivings, I’d have to say I actually like the film (didn’t see that coming, did you?).  But it seems to me that Kill Bill is a cinematic equivalent of a cover versions album.  And while some cover version albums are certainly entertaining, they do tend to make one wish that the band or artiste had spent the time writing new material and that’s pretty much how I feel when I view this film.

Oh, and Uma Thurman has the most horrible toes I’ve ever seen on a woman.

The Magnificent Swordsman (1968) July 26, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1960s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Cheng Kang, Yueh Feng  Cast: Wong Chung-Shun, Shu Pei-Pei, Tien Feng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Lone swordsman Jiang Dan-Feng (Wong Chung-Shun) is ambushed by a pair of bandits and quickly despatches them.  One of them, as he is dying, asks Jiang to take his personal effects to his sister.  This being a Wuxia film, our hero is bound by a strict code of honour, and he agrees.  The bandit’s sister, Xiu Xiu (Shu Pei-Pei), is surprisingly forgiving and tells him that he got mixed up in a bad crowd of robbers before he died.  As it happens, these self-same bandits are threatening to tear up the village at any moment, and Jiang prepares to defend it despite being despised by the town folk for killing Xiu Xiu’s brother.

Wong Chung-Shun’s place in cinematic history is secured.  Although you might not know the name, even the most casual of Hong Kong movie fans has seen him and he will forever be remembered as the guy who betrays Bruce Lee – not once, but twice!

But before he had relatively small roles in Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, Wong Chung-Shun was a stage actor who also appeared in many films, and I couldn’t resist seeing him play the lead in this Wuxia film from the 60’s.

Wong steers his magic Gondola through the forest.

Magnificent Swordsman tries very hard on every level.  There’s a definite attempt to copy the cinematic style of King Hu in almost every outdoor shot, with tonnes of mist and smoke flying about and some wide-shots that would have made the Master proud.  It’s also strikingly like a Japanese film at times particularly the way the lead dresses, acts and the style of the combat scenes.  There are also some good sets to look at, with the bandits’ lair being particularly noteworthy.  Strangely, though, some of the camera work is pretty dodgy, with shaky shots here and there that occasionally hamper the atmosphere. 

One definite highlight is the musical score, which is so “influenced” by Morricone that you’ve got to smile.  If you take a sample from any part of the score and play it to anybody and ask what genre film it came from, they will undoubtedly say it was from a Spaghetti Western.  Even the theme song evokes comparisons to the genre despite being sung in Mandarin.

The story is the spanner in the works, though.  There is a tendency towards melodramatics and overacting, particularly by Xiu Xiu’s finance (played by Yau Lung).  Even without this, there’s nothing terribly compelling about the story, which often promises to go down the Seven Samurai route but frustratingly never does. 

The Magnificent Swordsman is an A Grade Shaw Brothers production with oodles of atmosphere, style and some nice touches to the action sequences.  But the dull storyline ensures this never rises above mediocrity, unfortunately.

Sengoku Jieitai (1979) July 19, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Sci-Fi, War, 1970s films , add a comment

Director: Mitsumasa Saito  Cast: Sonny Chiba, Jun Eto, Toshitaka Kadokawa  Territory: Japan  Production Company: Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho

AKA Time Slip

A group of Japanese infantry are out on manoeuvres one night when they find themselves sharing a surreal psychedelic experience.  Once the dust clears, the soldiers are shocked to find the nearby power plant has vanished and they are being observed by a group of horsemen dressed as Samurai.  What they take to be an historical re-enactment turns decidedly sinister when they are ambushed by about a hundred of these figures, and the arrows they are firing are far from fake!  Lieutenant Iba (Sonny Chiba) takes charge of his men, and along with a helicopter, a tank, a small military boat and a truck armed with a carbine, he cuts a bloody swath through what he begins to realise is 16th century Japan.  The soldiers theorise that they have experienced a “Time Slip”, a kind of chronological earthquake that has transported them back 400 years to a particularly turbulent point in Japan’s history, with clans fighting each other for dominance in a country torn apart by civil war.

Sengoku Jieitai is an odd mix of Sci-Fi, war and action.  The first thirty minutes move at a blinding pace, with hardly a pause for breath.  One of the highlights is the Time Slip effect itself – this is none of your sudden white flashes of light and bang! you’re back in the 16th century.  What we end up with is something so visually striking that my usual two-syllable vocabulary cannot do it justice. 

The 'Time Slip' in action.

After that, things begin to slow down a little and it’s here that the problems become evident.  Sengoku Jieitai is often so episodic in nature that it feels sometimes like a TV mini-series bolted together to make a feature film.  It also has some plot threads that seemingly end up going nowhere, and some unnecessary flashbacks and pop video style montages of people left behind which adds to the disorientation.  Furthermore, only Iba and the Samurai Kagetora are given any kind of individual personality – the rest just seem like cardboard cutouts.  Indeed, one character’s only contribution seems to be to utter the line “I need a piss” at every opportunity.  It is clear that the film is in serious need of a little trimming, and it’s interesting to note that the international version was about 30 minutes shorter than this version, and I assume it did away with a lot of the extraneous material.

Right, griping over, what is the rest like?  Occasionally, it’s bloody brilliant.  Sonny Chiba is great and proves himself to be more macho than usual as Lieutenant Iba.  He abseils from a helicopter (which would have been really special were it not for the fact that he did the exact same thing in Yakuza Deka 2: The Assassin), takes a very dangerous-looking ride in the back of a jeep going through some very rough terrain, and generally kicks, shoots and slices his way through the movie.  Even being shot with an arrow is a minor inconvenience.  His reaction to a mutiny is also as bloody and final as you’d expect from a Chiba movie.

'Never bring a sword to a gunfight'

You’ve got to laugh at the gung-ho approach to the Sci-Fi angle as well.  In time-travel films we are constantly given dire warnings about altering the course of history.  So does Lieutenant Iba heed these warnings?  Not a bit of it!  He chooses a side and ploughs right into the civil war, his rationale being that the upset to history will cause another “Time Slip” and bring them all back to the 20th century.

The most impressive aspect of the film is the epic battle scenes, which employ hundreds of horses and extras, all dressed in period costume.  The scope and execution of these scenes are sometimes breathtaking.  Of course, the Samurai are no match for 20th century hardware, which cuts though them like a hot knife through butter, but the final confrontation is thrilling to watch.  Definitely a film to check out if you think it might appeal to you.

'I can see my house from here!'

This film goes by many names so I’ve decided to use the Japanese title.  It’s currently available in the UK under the terrible title of GI Samurai, but appears to be the full version (minus 40 seconds for “illegal horsefalls”), which is the version reviewed here.

The Haunted School (2006) July 16, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Supernatural , 2 comments

Director: Chin Man-Kei  Cast: Theresa Fu Wing, Amanda Lee, Stephen Cheung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Fortune Star

Teenagers, eh?  It’s a wonder any of them survive into their twenties.  If they’re not being chased by some homicidal serial-killing maniac, they’re being picked off like flies by some supernatural force that the post-pubescent population is either immune to or blissfully ignorant of.

You can probably tell from the title that The Haunted School is in the latter camp.  For reasons that are never explained, four boys are introduced into a previously girls’ only boarding school.  Although the sexes are kept separate as much as possible, contact is inevitable and rampaging hormones do their duty.  Unfortunately, the school’s number one rule is “falling in love is not allowed” (unusual for a girls’ only school, I thought).  There seems to be some wisdom in this rule though, as twenty years previously a fire ravaged the school resulting in two deaths and the stirrings of lust between the kids has reawakened something evil in the school that starts pulling the children into another dimension.

The world's strongest teen shows off his ability to pick people up with one arm again.

The Haunted School is typical teen horror all the way.  It’s unlikely anyone above the age of eighteen will find it particularly frightening, although it does achieve a few good scares along the way.  This is simply because it throws so many of them at you that a few of them are bound to be effective.

There are some decent ideas in here (I quite liked the permanent shadows on the wall) but most of the time the film relies on clichés – the flashbacks to the original incident show that it occurred on a stormy night with lightning flashing in the sky, blah de blah.  Also, the kids’ reactions are just bizarre at times.  One boy, after seeing his missing friend dragged through into the netherworld, simply walks calmly away.  Also, the sudden appearance of hitherto nonexistent doors seems to cause a breakdown in intelligence:  “Hey, that door wasn’t there before!  Let’s go and have a look at what’s inside!”

There are far too many tired ideas in this to make it work, and the attempt at fleshing out the characters fails and just makes the film drag.  But if you’re young and not too demanding, you might find something to like in here.

The Heavenly Kings (2006) July 14, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Documentary, Comedy , add a comment

Director: Daniel Wu  Cast: Daniel Wu, Terence Yin, Andrew Lin, Conroy Chan  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Man 5 Productions Ltd

Could a bunch of Hong Kong actors, only one of whom can sing, form a successful Boy Band simply by hype and manipulating the marketing machine?  That’s the question asked by The Heavenly Kings, an occasionally hilarious comedy filmed as a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The film’s title is an ironic reference to the four “Heavenly Kings” of Cantopop (Aaron Kwok, Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai and somebody called Andy something) and opens with a bleak fact – in 1995, the total revenue from the Hong Kong music industry was HK$1.68 billion, while in 2005 it was HK$700 million.  There’s no doubt that piracy is the main culprit, but there also seems to be a (global) social change in attitude towards music that’s hitting sales these days.  It’s into this world that Daniel Wu and Co enter as the new Boy Band Alive.

I can't see what the problem is, myself.

Daniel sings like a drain, but is clearly the leader, and has the pretty-boy appeal necessary to make a hit with the girls.  Andrew Lin is the serious one, and can often be seen talking to the camera about the problems facing the band.  In stark contrast, Conroy Chan (AKA “Ba Ba”) is clearly just going along for the ride and takes nothing seriously at all (and declares: “I’m the fattest Boy Band member ever!”).  Terence is the ringer; he can actually sing, and once released an album in Taiwan.

Upon entering the studio, it becomes apparent that Alive have got problems.  However, with modern technology (specifically AutoTune, which corrects out-of-tune vocals), these problems are overcome with ease and the band cut their first record and enter the industry proper.  Against all this are real interviews with real pop stars telling real horror stories about the industry and sharing their experiences.  Most of these clips are interesting, but I found it hard to take Jacky Cheung bemoaning AutoTune and saying it was much harder in his day.  His peak was in the 80’s, hardly the dawn of time as far as music goes!

Alive then hit upon the idea of deliberately uploading their tune onto a file-sharing network for everyone to download.  This is a stroke of genius, as they gather together for a press conference to cry ‘foul’ on the music industry and the bootleggers.  The result?  A much higher profile for the band, public support and sympathy in a scene reminiscent of Gillian Chung’s (or was it Charlene Choi’s?) “Bra-gate” scandal.  The group even set up their own website in a blaze of publicity (http://www.alivenotdead.com/– now an “online artistic community” but still with some Alive content).  The cynicism doesn’t stop there though, in a world where “professional fans” can be hired (“F4 use them!”) to scream and wave placards at gigs, and where image stylists can create outfits the Village People wouldn’t have been seen dead in.

'So there I was backstage, adjusting my bra, and the next thing I know it's in all the papers...'

The Heavenly Kings is a mostly great exposé on the music business but towards the latter half the film loses its subtlety a bit, and the illusion is dented.  Furthermore, the ending is a little familiar and predictable.  Nevertheless, there aren’t many films that get me to laugh out loud these days and this achieved that rare feat a couple of times.  It also seems to have achieved CAT III status simply with its use of swearing, which I found bizarre.

You certainly don’t need to know anything about the world of Cantopop to enjoy this film as the issues it addresses are pretty much global.  And although I detest the whole manufactured pop world, I found myself cheering on this bunch of inept but likeable pop stars-in-waiting. 

Where can I get the album?

Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) July 11, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Cast: Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar-Fai (Gordon Liu), Lau Kar-Leung  Action Directors: Lau Kar-Leung, Hsiao Ho, Lee King-Chue  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

It’s hard to believe, but this film was made in the same year as Jackie Chan’s Police Story and is a good indicator of just how out of touch the Shaw Brothers studio had become.  It flopped so badly that even some fans of the first film are totally unaware that it even exists.

The second sequel to the 36th Chamber of Shaolin is actually more of a true sequel than Return to the 36th Chamber, in that Lau Kar-Fai reprises his role as (the real) San Te.  However, he plays second lead (and second fiddle) to Fong Sai-Yuk (Hsiao Ho), who, along with his two brothers (I didn’t even realise Fong Sai-Yuk had brothers, but never mind), journey to the Shaolin Temple in their own quest to put one over one the Manchu government.

The story is predictable and the script is uninspired.  But what’s worse is the ‘humour’ that crept into the first sequel is even more in evidence here – and it’s at least ten times as unfunny.  Lau Kar-Leung apparently wrote this himself, and it’s well known that he was having a bad time around this period, which might have contributed to the lacklustre script.

There’s a vague outline of the three-act structure from the other two films, but it’s all very tenuous.  As far as I know, Fong Sai-Yuk didn’t exist in the same timeline as San Te, but I could be wrong and I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.  His addition to the series is probably an attempt at adding someone familiar to the formula as Lau Kar-Fai had already gone through the training twice before as two different people!  In any case, the training is definitely less inspired this time round.  This is perhaps not too surprising, as the market had already become saturated with 36th Chamber wannabes.  Plus, of course, Fong Sai-Yuk doesn’t need much training, does he?

That's a bit unfair, isn't it?

For all that, though, there’s no denying that the action scenes are pretty damn impressive.  For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, Hsiao Ho only had leading roles in a couple of movies (although he’s visible in many, many others).  His acrobatic skill is superb, and his presence saves this from total catastrophe.  Right from the opening, we are treated to a blistering display of ability.  While I’m on the subject of the opening titles, is it me or does the title sequence have absolutely nothing to do with the film itself?  I mean, usually it has some relevance, but if this is the case here, it escaped me totally.

It’s not enough to salvage the film, though, and at times it’s all very tired-looking.  The genre needed time to rest, and unfortunately this film helped to make the traditional Kung Fu picture persona non grata for a few years.  In a very real sense, this movie marks the end of a glorious age, and taken in this context, Disciples of the 36th Chamber is a little easier to accept.  It’s a hard film to like, but it’s impossible to dismiss.

Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) July 8, 2007

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , add a comment

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Cast: Lau Kar-Fai (Gordon Liu), Wang Lung-Wei (Johnny Wong), Hui Ying-Hung (Kara Hui), Kwan Yung-Moon  Action Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

The runaway success of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin pretty much guaranteed a sequel would be made.  The trouble was, how could it work?  San Te (Lau Kar-Fai) had already gone through the gruelling training required to become a master of the martial arts and exacted his promised revenge on the cruel Manchurian General.  Last we saw of him, San Te had returned the Shaolin Temple to become a monk and had set up the titular 36th Chamber.  What more could you do?  Give him amnesia and make him go through the whole process again?

Thankfully, they came up with a much better idea – Lau Kar-Fai plays Chou Jen Chieh, a conman pretending to be San Te.  This comes in useful when the workers at a small dye factory have a pay dispute with their Manchurian employers.  Chou is brought in, playing San Te, to negotiate and subtly intimidate the bosses into paying the workers their full wages using a mock Kung Fu demonstration.  Inevitably, the Manchu get wise to the con and pummel the workers into submission.  Humiliated, Chou departs for the Shaolin Temple to undergo training for real.  Here he meets the ‘real’ San Te (now played by Lee King-Chue), who continually thwarts Chou’s attempts at learning Kung Fu, and instead makes him erect a massive net of scaffolding around the entire Temple for future renovation work.  Once complete, Chou is dismayed when, instead of finally being accepted as a pupil by San Te, he is told to tear down the scaffolding and promptly thrown out of the Temple for good.  However, when he returns to his down-at-heel friends, he quickly discovers he might have picked up a few techniques after all…

The Abbot admired the incredibly lifelike 'Kung Fu monk' statue

Probably as a result of being made after Drunken Master (and being a sequel), there is a lot of comedy involved in this film.  I’ve said it before, but I really don’t think the Shaw Brothers writers really ‘got’ comedy, and this is another largely witless and unfunny attempt.  The exception is the great scene early on where Chou, imitating San Te, uses a series of tricks to make believe he’s the real McCoy.  Apart from that, the humour is lame in the extreme and gets extremely tiresome after a while.

Thankfully, like the original film, this has a three-act structure, and the second and third acts are nowhere near as bad as the first.  In the second act, the film picks up considerably when Chou starts his training (unbeknownst to himself).  The section is not as good as in the original, but has plenty of good stuff in there – like Chou washing his face by throwing a large rock into well and using the splashback to his advantage.  And of course, you’ve got all the scaffolding work, which doesn’t take a genius to foretell is going to come in useful at a later point.  Unfortunately, the larking about during the first part of the film eats far too much time and we’re left with a rather curtailed training section when compared to the first film.  But what’s there is good, and that’s the main thing.

The third and final act, where Chou takes on the dye factory bosses, is actually an improvement on the original film in that it doesn’t feel like an anti-climax after all the hardship the lead character goes through.  Also, like Martial Club (and like a lot of Shaw films from this period), almost all of it was filmed inside the studio.  When the climax comes, the players go outdoors for real, and this feels almost like the film is breaking out of prison.

It goes without saying that the action scenes are magnificent, this being a Lau Kar-Leung film.  The only downside being that there aren’t any real action scenes early on.  But as mentioned above, that early section does let the side down for many reasons.  Don’t let it put you off, though, because after the initial segment the film is really an excellent example of the period.  And one hell of a neat idea for a sequel.

Brothers Five (1970) July 4, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1970s films , 5 comments

Director: Lo Wei  Cast: Cheng Pei-Pei, Lo Lieh  Action Director: Sammo Hung, Simon Chui  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

In one of the episodes of the British TV series Extras, Andy Millman (played by Ricky Gervais) is talking about films, and utters the following gem: “I love all the ‘number’ films, really: Seven Samurai, Ocean’s 11…the Dirty Dozen…”

It got me thinking about Hong Kong films, and the abundance of titles with numbers in them that are classics: Warriors Two, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Heroes Two, 18 BronzemenHeroic Trio.  And one of my personal faves, the Savage Five.  All good stuff, so I was quite looking forward to this old Lo Wei film and wondered if the theory could be proved once more.

When you think about Lo Wei (if you think about him at all), you probably think of a director too easily distracted by horseracing commentaries on the radio, unnecessary cameo roles, or no-budget chop-socky dramas starring a young Jackie Chan.  You probably do not think of lavish high-budget productions where the term “visual splendour” would not be out of place.

And yet you definitely get this in Brothers Five, a film that must have been one of his last efforts at Shaw Brothers before going to Golden Harvest.  If this was his last, it would certainly look good on his résumé – at times, this looks as good as a King Hu film.  I’m guessing the exteriors were filmed in Taiwan, as this has a very “open”, foresty look to it, with long rolling hills in the background.  The interiors are also splendid, with some of the nicest interior sets made up to look like exteriors.

I'm not coming down until I get a better script!

Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit of a drag.  I’m not going to go into the plot here as I’ll probably end up wanting to commit suicide from continually explaining the same situations the heroes find themselves in before realising the bleeding obvious and teaming up together, but what it amounts to is a “united we stand, divided we fall” motif that gets bloody thin even before we reach the twenty minute mark.  There is nothing at all that is not deeply predictable every step of the way.  I know I must make allowances as the film is 37 years old, and this kind of story hadn’t been done to death at that point, but the fact is that so many films have done it better and you can’t help but feel bored to tears over the whole thing.  Cheng Pei-Pei isn’t really the star of this, she just kind of glides in and out when the plot(?) needs moving forwards or if one of the brothers has done something particularly dumb and needs a nudge in the right direction.

On to the action sequences.  Frankly, this was the only reason I kept watching.  The fights are co-choreographed by Sammo Hung, and even this early in his career it’s evident he was streets ahead of his time.  It’s scary to think that this film was a full fifteen years before he reached his prime as an action choreographer! 

Sadly, however, there’s a problem with the fights, too – there are too many of them and they just go on so damned long!  This could sound like heresy to a lot of fans, but I swear it’s true.  I just lost interest and my eyes glazed over.  At one point I was sure it was all finally coming to a close, only to look at the display on the DVD player to find that just over an hour had passed.  The total running time’s about 100 minutes, so I was a bit gutted.  I stuck it out to the bitter end, but sadly there is no great redemption at the end.  In fact, I can’t really remember what happened at the end – and I’m pretty sure I was relatively sober.

Sober enough to remember halfway through that 5 Shoalin Masters was a bit of a stinker, and I never cared much for Ocean’s 11 in the first place.  Bang goes that theory, then.

Iron Monkey (1993) July 1, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1990s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Yuen Wo-Ping  Cast: Yu Rong-Guang, Donnie Yen, Angie Tsang, Jean Wang, Yuen Shun-Yi  Action Directors: Yuen Cheung-Yan, Yuen Shun-Yi, Guk Hin-Chiu  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

One thing I’ve never been good at is judging just which Hong Kong action films are going to go mega with fellow westerners.  For example, I would have put money on this one sinking without a trace outside its native territory.  Instead, it has become one of those massive cult hits that sell on DVD by the bucketful.

Dr Yan (Yu Rong-Guang) is an honest doctor by day and the notorious Iron Monkey by night.  Iron Monkey is a kind of Santa Claus, Robin Hood and Batman all rolled into one – robbing from the opulent Qing lords, giving the proceeds to flood victims and doling out justice to evildoers along the way.  Naturally, the authorities aren’t too keen on this sort of behaviour and put a price on Iron Monkey’s head.  So when one of the Ten Tigers of Kwan-Tung himself shows up, Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) along with his young son Fei-Hung (Angie Tsang), he is quickly asked to help out, which ostracises him from the local population, which idolises the Monkey.  When Wong Fei-Hung is kidnapped by the officials, Kei-Ying begins to doubt the validity of the authorities’ claims against the Iron Monkey…

'Monks aren't monks, officers aren't officers.  Bullshit!'

This is an official prequel to the Once Upon a Time in China series, set when Wong Fei-Hung was still a young boy.  The film kicks off with some of the most outrageous wirework I’ve ever seen outside parody.  I have to admit not being terribly keen on that sort of thing, but things then settle down for a while until Wong Kei-Ying shows up.  I’ve always been a little wary of Donnie Yen as a lot of his fight scenes are undercranked to the point of silliness, and sadly that’s the case here as well.  His introduction fight is the worst, in which he fights off foes with his umbrella in what will eventually become his son’s chosen weapon in future films.  In case there are still people unaware, in this instalment Fei-Hung is played by a thirteen-year-old girl – Angie Tsang Sze-Man, a member of Hong Kong’s national WuShu team at the time.  She’s fantastic, especially armed with a pole, and gives the grown-ups something to worry about.

Anyone familiar with Dreadnought and Drunken Tai-Chi will know Yuen Shun-Yi, brother of director Yuen Wo-Ping.  He has one of the most distinctive faces in the industry and when given a decent part, often specializes in playing homicidal maniacs. Here, however, he provides most of the comic relief for the movie as the surprisingly honest and sympathetic Qing General and is a genuine scene-stealer.

Iron Monkey is agreeable enough but the excessive wirework and Donnie Yen’s undercranked performance take the shine off as far as I’m concerned.  It’s good that it provides some background in the fictionalised history of Wong Fei-Hung as told in the Once Upon a Time in China series (complete with umbrella).  There are a lot of enjoyable scenes and performances here, that’s for sure, and I certainly don’t begrudge the film’s popularity.  But it’s a little short of an all-out classic in my view.  Mind you, I say the same about Drunken Master 2…

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