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Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) June 29, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, 2000s films , 5 comments

Director: Wilson Yip  Main cast: Donnie Yen; Nicholas Tse; Shawn Yu  Territory: Hong Kong

Childhood friends Dragon (Donnie Yen) and Tiger (Nicholas Tse) reunite as adults on different sides of the Dragon Tiger Gate, a place where youngsters are taught to become heroes.  While Tiger has become an upstanding citizen, Dragon has become the top muscle for the criminal Lousha gang and its masked head, Shibumi.  The two friends come together with the help of nunchaku-wielding friend Turbo (Shawn Yu) when the master of Dragon Tiger Gate (Yuen Wah) is killed by Shibumi.

I realise I’m incredibly late with this one.  Generating massive buzz back in 2006, I’ve only just got around to seeing it.  Reuniting director Yip and Donnie Yen from the previous year’s superior action film SPL, and chucking a sizable budget at the screen, the hopes were high for Dragon Tiger Gate.

Dragon Tiger Gate starts with a bang, and delivers high energy action from choreographer Yen – who incidentally seems to have found a time machine somewhere along his travels as he appears to be getting younger as the years go by.  While the action is along the more fantastic wire-fu variety, it is delivered in an exciting way and almost never ceases to be enjoyable.  The inclusion of Turbo and his ever-present nunchaku grounds the film in some kind of reality when he’s present (barring some special effects shots) and the mixture works well.

Dragon Tiger Gate 

However, the narrative isn’t so good.  I suspect a lot of this is down to being based on a comic strip – there are far too many characters and back-stories thrown in that it quickly becomes frustrating.  I imagine fans of the comic strip will appreciate the detail and thoroughness of Dragon Tiger Gate’s weaving storylines, but personally I thought the film could have lost a few characters and not been any the worse for it.  Again, this is probably obvious for fans of the source material, but I found the partly modern urban and partly dark fantasy settings a bit strange.  It’s always going to be hard to fit a well-established literary serial into a 94-minute movie, but I just wished they’d have simplified it a bit for newbies.

It’s always nice to see Yuen Wah in an action role (albeit rather digitally enhanced) and he has a good, meaty role as Master Wong.  Other than him and the leads, though, the rest is all pretty forgettable, except for a scene with a fully dressed Li Xiao-Ran taking a dip in a swimming pool.  Even third lead Turbo is somewhat a mystery and even though I love nunchaku scenes I thought his character was surplus to requirements.

With so many people praising Hong Kong’s action sequences in an age where they are no longer as accomplished as they used to be and ignoring their much improved ability to tell a good story, it’s always a shocker to see something directly to the contrary.  And that’s what Dragon Tiger Gate is for me – a lot of good action scenes with some less inspired dialogue and uninteresting characters in between.

Yojimbo (1961) June 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai; Yoko Tsukasa; Isuzu Yamada  Territory: Japan 

A Ronin calling himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune) wanders randomly into a town split into two warring factions.  The rival gangs are vying for supremacy and causing much work for the local coffin maker.  Sanjuro decides to play the gangs off each other, who are both anxious to employ the samurai to get the upper hand over the other.  His plan to eliminate the scum hits a snag when the balance of power is shifted with the arrival of the brother of one of the gang leaders wielding a pistol. 

I have to admit that the merits of this Kurosawa film were sometimes lost on me as I struggled to come to terms with how completely Leone had plundered Yojimbo for his A Fistful of Dollars without so much of a nod to the source material.  Yes, I was aware of the legal wranglings over Leone’s film, but I was unprepared for how closely it follows Yojimbo – even as far as shot composition (just compare the screenshots on this very blog!).   

There's gonna be a whuppin' - the prototype 

The opening is brilliant – Sanjuro wanders into town and sees a dog carrying a human hand in its mouth.  This is obviously not your typical small friendly town full of community spirit where everyone helps each other.  It’s actually a vile little town, as Sanjuro soon finds out.  Seibei, the undisputed boss, has a new challenger for power in the form of his former right hand man Ushi-Tora.  Both have their followers, and they have essentially ripped the town in half with their power struggle.  Each side’s avarice and duplicity gets the better of them when acquiring Sanjuro’s services.  Although his mind is already made up before meeting the inhabitants of the town, the gangs prove beyond doubt they are without any redeeming features.  Seibei even plots to kill Sanjuro in his sleep after defeating Ushi-Tora and his followers. 

Yojimbo is also full of sardonic humour, as demonstrated when the two gangs call a truce when an official visits town.  Or when Sanjuro first unleashes his skills and kills two thugs and seriously wounds another – he walks back to the Cooper and simply says: “two coffins…maybe three”.  In fact, I’ve been wracking my brain thinking if this very line was uttered in A Fistful of Dollars.  I don’t think it was, but it certainly sounds like something Eastwood would have said.  Another funny scene is when Sanjuro gets the two gangs to face off with each other, and then quits the fight to watch their pathetic mid-day squabble from the bell tower, which is reminiscent of the ‘cowardly’ depiction of the samurai fight from Rashomon. 

As usual, there’s an air of Kurosawa being ahead of his time.  There’s a fantastic special effects shot where Sanjuro throws a knife into a leaf blowing around a room.  This effect blew me away, and although it turns out to have been achieved in the most mundane and obvious way, it still seems to have been shot in a way that still seems realistic today.   

Yojimbo is a great film, but I sincerely wished I’d seen it before A Fistful of Dollars.  That way, its impact on me would have been greater.  Out of the two, I think Kurosawa’s style, humour and the use of black and white film gives this film a grittier edge than Leone’s film.  Mifune seems born to be Kurosawa’s cinematic alter ego and gives a solid performance here.  What’s more, he handles the katana with speed and convincing confidence.  He certainly had me convinced he was a samurai master, anyway. 

For once, I thought the BFI DVD was quite good – although the image quality could have been better.  But the subtitles are removable and an appropriate size, which was an immense relief.  It’s probably not a patch on the Criterion edition, though.  One for the wish list, perhaps…

The Hidden Fortress (1958) June 12, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Toshirô Mifune; Misa Uehara; Minoru Chiaki; Kamatari Fujiwara  Territory: Japan

Two farmers travel the land trying in vain to profit on the war waging across the territories.  After stumbling upon a cache of gold, a wayward princess and her famous general, the peasants tag along hoping to get their hands on the loot.  But the princess and the general are in grave danger, trapped behind enemy lines and desperate to get to safety.

This was Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, and it does look pretty spectacular at times.  The film itself is surprisingly straightforward (apparently a deliberately “light” film to repay employers Toho for letting him make heavier fare such as Rashomon) and tells a reasonably simple tale.  Seen through the eyes of farmers Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), the tale is acknowledged as the inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars.   Having read various accounts of how much it resembles the classic sci-fi film, I can categorically say the likeness is pretty superficial.  Besides two bickering droids substituting for the peasants, a princess in peril and some wipe transitions, there really isn’t that much the two movies share.

The Hidden Fortress

The peasants wander into the lives of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and the famous general Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), and their cache of gold, and are roped in to escort the two nobles back to safety by the use of a cunning plan to go around the enemy territory into a kind of neutral area.  The major characters often play second fiddle to the minor ones in this film, as the pair of peasants bicker, backbite and betray.

If the film has a failing, I would say it is these characters.  Yes, sometimes they are funny and entertaining.  But often they are annoying, and at one point where they draw straws to decide who gets to rape the princess, they are positively chilling.  Also, at over two hours in length, the film does seem slightly over-long.

But there is a thick vein of adventure to The Hidden Fortress, and the scene where Toshirô Mifune rides horseback with katana drawn against a foe is a pure testosterone rush that a million Hollywood action stars wouldn’t be able to emulate without expensive CGI and/or stunt doubles. 

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is, I feel, not Kurosawa at his best.  Despite some cracking visuals (as usual, the film feels way ahead of its time) and some great action/adventure elements, the story is not as gripping as some of his other fare.  Having said that, from what I’ve seen from the director already, the bar has been set pretty high and you can’t expect a Seven Samurai every time.  And I have to admit that I’d still take this over most modern adventure films. 

The Region 2 DVD comes courtesy of the BFI, and as usual I have a complaint about it.  The subtitles are non-removable and bloody huge.  Furthermore, there is a large grey border around them and this means some film detail is obscured and they get in the way far too often.  Otherwise, the presentation is passable, but I strongly suspect nowhere near as good as the Region 1 Criterion version.  If you have the money to spend, I’d say it’s probably a safe bet to go Stateside for this one.

Heroes of the East (1978) June 7, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1970s films, Kung Fu , 12 comments

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Main cast: Lau Ka-Fai (Gordon Liu); Mizuno Yuko; Kurata Yasuaki  Territory: Hong Kong

Following an arranged marriage to Japanese beauty Kung Zi (Mizuno Yuko), Chinese kung fu expert Ho To (Lau Ka-Fai) finds his new wife to be quite a destructive practitioner of Karate.  Their relationship flounders when neither will yield as to which is the superior form of martial arts, and Kung Zi heads back to Japan.  In a clumsy attempt to win her back, Ah To issues a martial arts challenge to Kung Zi which is intercepted by her old friend Takeno (Kurata Yasuaki).  Takeno then assembles a team of highly trained and disgruntled karateka to head back to China to win the challenge.

Right, it’s high time I actually reviewed the movie this blog’s named after!  Heroes of the East is the first film in what I call Lau’s “light” trilogy of films, situation comedies that deal with tradition, propriety and nationalistic, cultural and/or gender attitudes.  Although not connected in any way, I nevertheless consider this, My Young Auntie and The Lady is the Boss to be close relatives – if only for the unusual and noteworthy tone of the movies.  Rather than a seething revenge plot, these films are refreshingly void of melodrama and violence, and if memory serves there isn’t a single fatality in the whole lot of them.  There certainly aren’t many kung fu pictures that can make the same claim.

Heroes of the East seems to be set in an alternative reality where martial arts is all that people talk about or do.  There’s only the briefest hint that the newlywed couple even know that sex exists.  In this world, eating is just another way to perform martial arts and the garden ornamentation is only there to be demolished during a karate practice session.  The comedy comes from the stubbornness of both lovers to accept the other’s national martial art, even going as far as to dismiss or belittle it.  And obviously their pride will not allow for both systems to coexist, so they are constantly at war.

Heroes of the East 

Often guilty of portraying the Japanese as ignorant, evil and inhuman, Heroes of the East is one of the earliest movies I’ve seen that pokes gentle fun at Chinese attitudes while having a more open view of the Japanese.  Having said that, although the ignorance and stubbornness cuts both ways, I think Kung Zi is shown to be excessively unreasonable at times.  Still, small steps and all that. 

Although touching on social issues, Heroes of the East is a kung fu comedy through and through, and a very good one at that.  The film’s premise allows for a pretty good look at the differences between kung fu and karate, along with an impressive selection of weapons.  Throw in some judo, ninjitsu and even some drunken boxing (courtesy of a cameo by Lau Kar-Leung himself) and you’ve got a film that covers quite a lot of ground.

The Japanese fighters that assemble under Kurata Yasuaki were real experts in their field, which apparently led to some difficulties in filming.  More used to competitive fighting than screen fighting, they would often go flat out once Lau called action.  This is often evident during the film, particularly during the armed combat scenes. 

The only criticism I have of the film is the rather hokey ninjitsu effects towards the end, but even this doesn’t bother me much any more.  Heroes of the East is a fun, light film with no bad guys, no revenge plot and no huge gouts of fake blood.  It’s one of the most watchable kung fu films of the 70s, and is definitely one of the few that you can watch in polite company! 

Oldboy (2003) June 4, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 5 comments

Director: Park Chan-wook  Main cast: Choi Min-sik; Kang Hye-jeong; Yu Ji-tae  Territory: South Korea

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is snatched off the street one drunken evening and is held prisoner for fifteen years.  He has no idea why he has been imprisoned, and is equally baffled when he is released one day without warning.  Teaming up with Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), a young sushi waitress who takes him under her wing, Oh Dae-su seeks answers to his imprisonment and revenge for his wasted years.

I am probably not alone by saying that Oldboy was my introduction to Korean cinema, and probably also not alone in saying I have seen nothing to surpass it.  Unfortunately, it is a film that works best when you know as little about it as possible, making reviewing the film rather tricky.

However, it’s also fair to say that most people who would want to see the film already have.  In case you haven’t, Oldboy is a superb thriller with a vein of surrealism and dark comedy running through it and enough ambiguity and layering to keep you thinking about it long after the film has finished.

Have hammer, will travel 

After the initial kidnap and imprisonment section, the film becomes, for a time, a kind of mystery thriller, with Oh Dae-su (now in “the bigger prison”) and Mido searching for clues to the former’s captors by hunting down the suppliers of the fried dumplings he was fed throughout his captivity.  Tracking the culprit down as Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), Oh Dae-su is still none the wiser, but still on the lookout for revenge.

There are a number of things that Oldboy so great.  Firstly, the performance from Choi Min-sik is simply enthralling – he is both manic yet also believable.  Secondly, the music is incredibly atmospheric and memorable and has one of the most haunting themes I’ve ever heard.  Thirdly, and more importantly, is the story that Oldboy tells.  Full of twists, turns and perversely entertaining imagery, Oldboy can be likened at its most basic level to an Asian Fight Club.  If you like your thrillers with bite, originality and weight, this is a must see.

This film is the middle film of Park Chan-wook’s “revenge” trilogy, and will always be my favourite.  Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is a good film, for sure, but Lady Vengeance, in my opinion, was a film too far and had very little to add to the subject.  Oldboy is just so damn watchable, uncomfortable violence and live octopus eating excepted.  If there is one single person out there that hasn’t seen this film and was hovering over the decision, I sincerely hope I’ve persuaded you to try it out.

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