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The Myth (2005) August 30, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Stanley Tong  Main cast: Jackie Chan; Kim Hee-Sun; Tony Leung Ka-Fai; Mallika Sherawat  Territory: Hong Kong

Jack (Jackie Chan) is an archaeologist plagued with recurring dreams of being a general in Qin dynasty China, escorting the Emperor’s new concubine Ok Soo (Kim Hee-Sun) through hostile territory.  During his waking hours, Jack and his friend William (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) search an Indian tomb for a device that can counteract the laws of gravity.  While there, Jack finds evidence that his dreams may in fact be his past life, and that the princess may have been real.

Much to my surprise, I’ve never done a review for this film before.  I think it might have something to do with watching this over the festive period a few years ago and not really remembering much about it – probably as a result of drinking alcohol.  In any case, the simple fact of the matter is that The Myth is a nice idea that is quite badly executed.

The film is split into two timelines – Qin dynasty China (where Chan is bizarrely dubbed for his Mandarin lines unless I’m very much mistaken) and present day Hong Kong.  It soon becomes apparent that the period scenes just don’t work on any level and soon become increasingly irritating.  When you think of Jackie Chan, you don’t immediately think of period epics, and this looks like someone thought it would be a good idea to jump on the House of Flying Daggers bandwagon.

On the other hand, the modern day thread is surprisingly entertaining.  Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a good stooge to Chan and their banter is favourably reminiscent of the Armour of God dynamic between Chan and Alan Tam.  Furthermore, one of the more successful sequences of the film involves Mallika Sherawat and a glue factory.  It’s a scene that is forced and contrived and has every sight gag clearly signposted, but is no less fun for it.  In fact, it’s classic Chan from beginning to end.

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The problem is that these flashes of entertainment never last long enough.  Both the Tony Leung character and Sherawat’s character are dispensed with just when you’re getting into the fun and you’re thrown back into the story, which is frankly not that interesting.  As with a lot of Jackie Chan films made from the 90s onwards, the story has great ambition but ends up being messy and confused.  A villain is introduced later in the film and I’m still a little hazy as to what he’s doing there.

It’s not just the garbled plotting that causes problems.  There is some truly awful CGI work in this film, particularly when it comes to shots of horses fighting each other.  Whoever thought that these shots could work needs to be kicked out of the business right now – it sounds like the bright idea of a sugared-up eight-year-old kid.  There are also problems in the script department, and the age-old problem of a Chinese (and Indian) cast speaking English crops up yet again, with portions of dialogue being quite hard to understand.   There’s also a speech given by Tony Leung that just makes me cringe.  He’s talking about myths, and says that a hundred years ago, landing on the moon was just a myth.  Erm, no.  Landing on the moon was a dream, an aspiration, but not a myth because nobody had done it yet.  I’m prepared to concede that this is a translation problem and just one of those language quirks that are hard to get around, but it still sounds totally boneheaded.

To sum up, The Myth is not terribly great - and at just over two hours in length, it’s also noticeably bloated.  Which is a terrible shame as it has some really fun elements and a couple of great scenes.  I’ve always said that Jackie Chan films work best on a smaller scale, and this is a classic example of what happens when you try to add too many ingredients to the pot.  And it’s getting quite funny when characters refer to Mr Chan as “young man” without a trace of irony.  And is it just me, or does Tony Leung Ka-Fai look confusingly similar to Ken Lo?  And does the book at the end really have “The Mnth” written on the cover?

Flash Point (2007) August 23, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , 4 comments

Director: Wilson Yip Wai-Shun  Main cast: Donnie Yen; Louis Koo; Fan Bing-Bing; Ray Liu  Territory: Hong Kong

Hong Kong cop Ma (Donnie Yen) tries to take down a ruthless Triad gang led by three Vietnamese immigrants.  Helping him is his partner Wilson (Louis Koo), who is working undercover in the gang.  When one of the leaders gets arrested, the others start wiping out suspects one by one until only Wilson remains.  When the Triad bosses discover Wilson’s true identity, Ma is forced to wage war against the gang to save his friend.

Again, I’m probably the last person claiming to be a Hong Kong film fan to actually see this film.  I don’t know why, but I’ve always put it off.  Well, I’ve got a good idea it’s the title.  Flash Point is one of the best examples of the brainless two-word action film titling I can think of.  It means nothing, is instantly forgettable and was probably decided by rolling a pair of dice and consulting a list of “tough words”.  Moreover, the film’s plot reeks of generic unoriginality, and Donnie Yen has always been a bit patchy for my liking.

Well, the good news (and you probably all know this already) is Flash Point is actually really good.  Yes, the story is unoriginal and by-the-numbers, but the mix of Triad drama and high action works better than you’d think.

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Originally conceived as a prequel to the hugely successful SPL (and with both director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen on board), the film is set in 1997 Hong Kong, just before the takeover.  The first half runs like a straight Triad thriller (albeit slightly confusing until you get a grip on the story) with almost no action at all, while the second half is almost all action.  While this could have killed the film stone dead, the characters get room to breath and the viewer gets the chance to bond or despise them as appropriate.

The supporting cast are workmanlike and there isn’t really a memorable character amongst them, apart from Louis Koo’s mole in the underground gang.  Elsewhere Fan Bing-Bing pops up to play a totally undemanding damsel in distress girlfriend role, and Kent Cheng demonstrates just why you should never put aluminium foil in a microwave.  It’s a good job then that Donnie Yen and his choreography saves the day – despite him not actually grabbing much screen time early on in proceedings.

One can only wonder why Yen hasn’t performed action choreography like this through his entire career, but the fights in Flash Point are simply breathtaking.  Unlike the Yip/Yen collaboration it followed, Dragon Tiger Gate, the special effects do not get in the way of the enjoyment of the fights and while there simply had to be a bunch of CGI shots in there, most check out cerebrally.  This film includes some of the most dangerous looking stunt and combat scenes I’ve seen from Hong Kong since the days of Jackie Chan’s 80s hey-day and I have to admit I loved every full-contact second of it.

When the dust settled and the ending credits rolled, I couldn’t help comparing this with SPL, and deciding that Flash Point wasn’t quite as satisfying as a film experience.  Despite that, it is a hugely enjoyable film and the bone-breaking action scenes will keep me coming back for more.

Kagemusha (1980) August 2, 2009

Posted by Cal in : War, 1980s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Tatsuya Nakadai; Tsutomu Yamazaki; Kenichi Hagiwara; Daisuke Ryu  Territory: Japan

The warlord Shingen hires a petty criminal to be his double on the battlefield.  But when Shingen is mortally wounded, the impostor is asked to take over full-time in order to keep rival clans from sensing their vulnerability and attacking them.  The lord had wished his death to remain a secret for three years in order for the clan to regroup, but can the impostor keep up the illusion for that long?

It seems odd watching an Akira Kurosawa film in colour, and that in itself is odd because the first Kurosawa film I ever saw was in colour.  As you might expect, Kagemusha (meaning ‘shadow warrior’ but also ‘impostor’) looks fantastic.  The sets, locations and costumes are all top-notch and there are seemingly thousands of extras all decked out in Warring States garb ready to do battle for the puppet lord.

Warring States-era Japan really took gay pride seriously

Kagemusha screams epic right from the very opening scene, which involves Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai – who also plays the Kagemusha) and his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and sitting discussing the hiring of the petty criminal.  The scene, which is virtually static and involves lengthy dialogue goes on for more than five minutes.  Elsewhere, you can’t help feeling that the film could have been tightened up considerably, and some scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor entirely.

I should point out that the version under review here is the Criterion longest cut version at about three hours’ in length – significantly longer that the version available here in the UK.  This might actually be one instance where the more complete version of a film is not as desirable as a shorter version.

Another problem for me was the score.  The film, for some reason, has a western soundtrack, with orchestra and western fanfares and suchlike, and I found that really off-putting.  I don’t know if this was a concession to the film’s saviour (20th Century Fox, by way of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola) or just a terrible mistake, but it does its best to ruin the whole atmosphere of the film.

It’s not a complete write-off of course.  There are moments of brilliance aside from the impressive battle scenes that close the film and the stunning visual style.  Kagemusha’s relationship with Shingen’s grandson and the scene where the impostor improvises an important military decision by quoting the clan’s code of honour are two obvious highlights.  It’s just that there’s a hell of a lot of waiting around for the film to get to the point. 

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