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The Avenging Fist (2001) July 23, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, Sci-Fi, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Andrew Lau; Corey Yuen  Kwai  Main Cast: Wang Lee-Hom; Stephen Fung Tak-Lun; Kristy Yeung; Sammo Hung; Yuen Biao  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Sil Metropole Organisation

The initial hype on Avenging Fist was extremely positive: if you were interested in Hong Kong action movies, this was going to be the biggie.  Then, the Tekken license was lost and a few rumours started to break through: this isn’t going to be too good after all.

'I'm keeping this one...' 

It turns out that Avenging Fist went from being the Holy Grail of Hong Kong movies to being a complete also-ran.  Having now, after owning it on DVD for close to a decade, finally watched it, I can see why it fell flat on its face: despite the great special effects, the film itself is incredibly vacuous.  The first impression reaction I had when the movie opened was: “uh-oh, someone’s been watching The Fifth Element”.  While some leeway has got to be given to the makers for at least attempting science fiction (a subject quite alien to the territory), the result is still a hodgepodge of dire warnings on the future, a hackneyed “love is stronger than hate” message and wild speculations on how technology is going to be so much different from how we know it now.  Sadly, the film’s entire premise is based on the enduring urban myth that we only use 10% of our brain.  The remaining 90% of our brain’s capacity, the film tells us, can be unlocked with the help of a Power Glove and can give us fantastic super powers.

Kong (Wang Lee-Hom) is a troubled young man who wants to buy a black market Power Glove and be just like his apparently dead father (Yuen Biao).  He has serious physical potential, and his mother (Cecilia Yip) trains him when he’s not out causing trouble with his friends.  There is also a pseudo-fascist dictator to be overthrown in the form of Combat 21 (Roy Cheung), who has turned Kong’s father into one of his henchmen.  Policeman Dark (Sammo Hung) somehow gets mixed up in all this, despite having a premonition of his own impending death.

Up, up and awaaaay!! 

When Kong’s mother gives him the dire warning not to use his “power moves” in public, the game is finally up: Avenging Fist is simply an updated kung fu picture using many of the same plot devices as so many 70s actioners.  The shiny new coat of CGI simply isn’t enough to disguise the more corny moments and tired storytelling.  The action scenes are particularly poor, with lots of motion-blur and special effects added in.  With no human element to the fight sequences, it’s damn near impossible to engage with them.

I quite liked Andrew Lau’s other CGI-driven movies, but this one leaves me cold.  While it is to be congratulated on trying something new, the results are paradoxically over familiar and this is one movie that must simply be labelled as a failed experiment and forgotten about.

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.

I Love Maria (1988) May 18, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Sci-Fi, 1980s films , 1 comment so far

Director: David Chung  Cast: John Shum, Tsui Hark, Sally Yeh, Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai), Lam Ching-Ying  Action Director: Ching Siu-Tung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Win’s Film Workshop

Hong Kong has never been a great producer of Sci-Fi.  I don’t know whether it’s a cultural thing or simply a case of they never had the budget and technology (until relatively recently) to create credible films in the field.  I Love Maria puts a typical 80’s Hong Kong spin on the genre - brutal gun violence goes hand-in-hand with family-friendly humour, the occasional hint of romance rears its head and scenes of touching redemption warm the heart.  Except this time there are bloody big robots all over the place.

The misleadingly named Hero Gang is terrorising Hong Kong with bank robberies carried out by a seemingly invincible robot called Pioneer I.  Curly (John Shum – I think all of his characters were called Curly), a member of the Special Weapons branch of the police, and Whiskey (Tsui Hark), a former member of the Hero gang, team up when they are both accused of betraying their respective factions.  They are attacked by Pioneer II – an android modelled on the Hero Gang’s main female boss Maria (Sally Yeh) by her lover who is looking for a permanent replacement that will never age or deteriorate.  Curly and Whiskey, who are occasionally aided and abetted by reporter TQ Zhuang (Tony Leung), get the best of the droid purely by accident and begin to reprogram her to do their bidding, leading to a showdown with the Hero Gang, a master who wants to switch sides (Lam Ching-Ying), Pioneer III, the Real Maria and the Boss himself (Ben Lam).

Does this Predicament Scenario make my bum look big?

What surprises most about I Love Maria is that the effects aren’t too bad.  They’re nowhere near Hollywood standard, but they generally don’t look too cheesy and there’s no over-reliance on low shots of fragile-looking miniatures that you would have expected.  It probably goes without saying, but Sally Yeh plays both the human Maria and the android version.  She spends most of her time in the android form, and her costume and actions make her look like a cross between C3PO, Robocop and something from Metropolis.  Tsui Hark, one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, takes a co-starring role in this and shows his flair for comedy and makes a good partnership with John Shum, both looking as though they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Again, this sort of thing can only be found in Hong Kong – you couldn’t imagine Steven Speilburg appearing in Short Curcuit, could you?  I’m slightly puzzled by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (who incidentally looks almost unrecognisably young in this) - I’m still not sure why he was there, but he does kick-start the plot sometimes and provides even more comic relief. 

Like so many films from this period, I Love Maria is mainly played for laughs, and it’s hard not to find it likeable at least some of the time.  The drama is dropped in sporadically and always feels a bit forced and a little hackneyed, but the fun factor never dips too low and the sight of Sally Yeh encased in metal will always be enough entertainment for some people.

I’ve always loved the title of this film: it’s one of the rare instances where the theme or nature of the piece isn’t given away by the title.  It sounds like a romance or at least a cheerful and bright bit of rom-com fluff.  But a film about bloody big robots?  That’s class.

Today’s trivia question: Tsui Hark appeared in another film involving robots.  What was it called?

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