Monday, April 27, 2009

Buddha Assassinator

Plot: After a nice studio fight intro ("There was much conflict in the fighting world...") featuring Corey Yuen Kwai, bumbling dogsbody Hsiao Hai (Mang Hoi) is bullied at the local Shaolin Temple, forced into demeaning chores such as the dreaded 'pillar dusting duty'. A kind hearted oaf, he still manages to take care of his (suspiciously young looking) Ol' Dirty Uncle San Lu (Chin Yuet-Sang), who has a predilection for dog stew. Hsaio fortuitously saves a visiting prince (Hwang Jang Lee) from an assassination attempt, involving Hsaio's sister (nbeknownst to him). The Prince favours Hsaio, inviting him into his entourage whereby the strutting Hsiao takes full advantage and beats up his former bullies. The Prince's jealous head honchos Mo (Lung Fei) and Chow Erh (Hau Pak-Wai) frown upon this accident prone newcomer and plot his doom. Meanwhile Hsiao, after serving up the Prince's favourite lapdog to his ever-hungry uncle, discovers that the Ching dynasty-supporting prince is an exponent of the aggresive Lo Han style, a sworn enemy of his uncle's buddha fist. Uncle teaches Hsiao the buddhist fist, and when the Prince discovers that a style he swore to destroy still survives, the gloves are off: it's Lo Han vs Buddha Fist!

Style: Some half-decent temple and palace locations, plus the Prince's secret room where he practices the sleeping fist form is an hallucinogenic delight! Funky wah music mixed with pan-pipes.

Training: Two standout sequences; the Prince's sleeping fist form is superb: a sleeping HJL leaps from his bench and throws furious leg and hand shapes, roaring with laughter, and then throws himself back to sleep again!

The Buddha Fist features a five-elements style - Metal, Wood, Fire, Earth and Water; with each substance used to train different attributes (hardness, sharpness, roundness, speed, etc.).

Fights: A game of two halves- mostly comedy to start, Hsaio's return to beat up his former bully monks ends up in a full scale bundle (for those who grew up in 70's South London :). Later there's a tumble in the local gambling parlour including a stack of benches to pin the miscreants down. The assassination attempt itself is nothing special, but as soon as the training starts the whole movie shifts a gear. Immediately Lung Fei and Hau Pak-Wai are brought in to deliver a fierce duel attack with terrific co-ordinated spearwork and equally good tumbling blocks and counters from Mang Hoi. There's a gruesome ending to this fight involving a barrel, possibly inspired by Donkey Kong.

Hsiao has to use all the elements of Buddhist fist against the madness, fury and, er, sleeping of Lo Han; HJL has his work cut out and blags a Halberd to help his trademark boot. The tide starts to turn when Hsiao pulls off the Prince's ponytail and uses it as a weapon against him. A cracking end barney, reminded me of Chess Boxing's end battle with constant, clever shapes; tumbling and varied attacks.

Grammatical correctness of title: Yep, it's a real word: whereas 'Buddha Assassin' could be interpreted as as assassin from Buddha, 'assassinator' makes it explicit that it's Buddha as an assassin's target. Next week: should it be "Millionaires Express", "Millionaire's Express" or "Millionaires' Express"...?

Overall: 3.5 out of 5, really a game of two halves with an average comedy storyline and underuse of Lung Fei and Hau Pak-Wai to begin; but once the training sequences start though it really ups its game and is an excellent closing 30 minutes. A must for HJL fans, of course.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ip Man (2008)

Plot: Wing Chun Master Ip Man (Donnie Yen) owns one of the many Kung Fu schools in the 'martial street' of the city of Foshan in the early 1930s. There is fierce competition among the schools to lay the claim to teaching the best style; this is evinced firstly by the (mildly rude) challenge from new-arrival Master to Master Ip whilst dining in his beautful family home, and secondly by the outright agression of a Northern gang led by ('Ricky' himself). The in-fighting is overshadowed by the threat of conflict with Japan, which finally leads to Japanese invasion in 1937 and the occupation of Foshan by the Japanese military. Foshan is ruined, the schools are closed, Master Ip's house is requisitioned by the Japanese as their HQ, and only Master Ip's friend and business partner Zhou Qing Quan (Simon Yam) maintains any reasonable trade with his cotton mill. Master IP is eventually reduced to coal mining to feed his wife (debutante Lynn Hung); when policeman-turned-collaborator Li Zhao (Gordon Yam) offers the miners a bag of rice if they fight at Japanese General Miura's barracks (newcomer Ikeuchi Hiroyuki).

Master Ip initially refuses, but after his brave friend Master Lin (Xing Yu) is badly beaten he volunteers and batters the best fighters in the dojo: General Miura excepted. When Miura sends first Captain Li Zhao and then his weaselly second-in-command Colonel Sato to force Ip into further matches, Sato attempts to abduct Ip's wife, resulting in his severe beating. Forced into hiding, Ip Man is shocked to find that Jin Shan Zhao and his gang have returned to extort the cotton mill, and so he trains the workers in Wing Chun. Naturally there is a Showdown at the Cotton Mill (*ahem*) , but with no Chi Kuan-Chun around it's up to Ip Man to help the workers and chastise Jin Shan Zhao on his lack of patriotism. Finally Ip Man is tracked down by the Japanese forces and made to fight on a podium in his old house against the General, whilst a crowd of Foshan Chinese are forced to watch his expected humiliation...

Production: The general production is excellent, from the glorious furnishings of Ip Man's house through to bustling 'martial street' and the desolate barracks dojo. Colours are muted with very crisp cinematography and editing that does well by both the drama and the fight scenes. The story flows well, you won't be checking your watch when there are no fights on screen. Music is orchestral Chinese (if you follow me) and fits well.

Performances: Donnie Yen does quiet dignity surprisingly well, a world away from his 'cop on the edge' of Flash Point. Ip Man starts as being represented as a man of polite strength who can be pushed to a point and then react with just enough force to prove his point when necessary. Of course, we all know that when a master acts this way it won't be long before his full power is unleashed; the tipping point being when his wife is threatened (not surprising given the dark history of Japanese camps in Nanking) and to avenge the badly beaten Master Lin. Here Donnie is super-aggresive but we get some touching scenes when his wife tends to his wounds.

The supporting cast are not given a lot to do: Simon Yam has basically a cameo, and Gordon Lam does well as a policeman awash with guilt over his collaboration with the Japanese. All well and good. Special mention to Fan Siu-Wong for imbuing Jin Shan Zhao with pathos; it's clear his aggression is misguided and that he feels that he is a victim of circumstance, rather than working on using his considerable talents for the benefit of others. Ikeuchi Hiroyuki and Shibuya Tenma play 'Dashing-but-Sadistic-Occupying-General' and 'Cowardly-Weasel-Dogsbody-Colonel™' by the numbers.

Themes: As with The Chinese Boxer and Fist of Fury to mention but two, this is a very basic representation of the Japanese occupation. The infighting between the rival Kung Fu practitioners highlights the fragmentation which enabled the smaller Japan to succesfully invade. However the ability to overcome a technologically superior aggressor is highlighted by Ip Man calmly disarming the pistol wielding policeman using his bare hands.

The Japanese are shown as simply evil nihilists; I'm not saying that's not accurate for that time and place, but I did enjoy the 'benevolent enemy' of Yasuaki Kurata in Fist of Legend, or the honourable Japanese opponent in Fearless who refuses to press an unfair advantage. Such a touch would have added a welcome extra dimension to the story. It is notable that before fighting all the fighters (except the furious Master Lin) pay respect to their enemy.

Ah, now we get to it. Absolutely top notch. With Sammo and Tony Leung (no, not tghat Tony Leung) at the helm we get masterful choreography and camera tracking. We start with a 'courtesy Kung Fu' challenge with Ip Man politely deflecting and firing minimal counters; but the fireworks really start when Jin Shan Zhao storms into town and goes through the Masters like a boot through butter - vicious foot and heel work. He gets short shrift from Ip Man, though, who angers Jin into using a sword, which Ip counters with a feather duster! Fast, crisp arm work throughout. We get some tasty polework at the Cotton Mill, but the fight highlights are in the barracks dojo. The soon-to-be-legendary '10 v 1' sequence is incredible, varied, and intense' a barrage of chain punches taking down the Karetaka one at a time. The final fight against the General is maybe over a bit quickly, but at least there's some concession to 'actually,Karate's not that bad, let's let him get a few strikes in'. Again a fury of armwork, working the General like a Wooden Dummy, wins the day. Terrific stuff, although there's some unneeded wire enhancement (punting prostrate opponents off the mat, for example).

Note there has been some controversy regarding exactly how 'Wing Chun' the combat was (dark talk of 'elbows not being in the centreline', 'dodgy footwork' and 'wrong knuckles') but it certainly didn't stop my enjoyment.

Training: Disappointing compared to Warriors Two and Wing Chun, here is clearly a chance to explain why Wing Chun is effective and counter Jin's insults that 'it's only for women'; but all we get are some Wooden Dummy montages. A real shame, hopefully this can be explored in the sequels.

Overall: 5/5, an action movie that blends incredible fighting and drama very well. Not many dimensions to the characters but don't let that bother you - enjoy!

Version watched: Universe 2-Disc HK edition, with a host of extras.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Canton Viper
Plot: Before I start, let me make clear that this is a review of the unsubbed/dubbed version and as such I can't account for plot details, but here's my best guess...the rough story is of Kal Ma Ryong (HJL), who appears to be a rogue carpenter, being hunted by local militia, led by a stern captain (Hyeon Kil-Su) who was involved in the rape of Kal's mother when he was a child. Victorious but badly wounded, Kal crawls back to...the wife and son of the captain he killed. HJL becomes a father figure, teaching the lad honour, carpentry (with very poor Health & Safety, it must be said) and how to kill people with tridents. He also saves the mother from a gang of would be rapists, tieing in to his own childhood experience. Meanwhile the town elders plot to be rid of Kal once and for all, but must first get past his brother in arms, a mysterious man in black. Following the final showdowns, the boy and his mother discover Kal killed dad - and they have a heart rending decision to make - forgive and forget, or vengeance...?

Production: A pretty low budget - any indoor scenes are very basic, and most of the film is set in forests and meadows (with a token waterfall thrown in for good measure). HJL directs and whilst the fight choreography is understandably excellent, the tracking shots are quite basic - some snappier editing would have been welcome at points. Good dramatic performances from HJL and the lad, it's also nice to hear HJL's own voice for once, a booming baritone which really accentuates his trademark 'laugh-uproariously-and-then-immediately-look-cross' special move. Music is a great mix of Spaghetti and Blaxploitation wah-funk.

Training: A quick form at the beginning from the captain, otherwise all we get is carpentry training, including how to plane really quickly. I can only assume junior grew up without a full quota of fingers if he followed this.

Fights: Terrific. The first showdown between HJL and approx. 40 black-clad militiamen is jaw-dropping. These soldiers attack in complex formation, break off, reform anew and attack again - this reminded me of the Yagyu clan in the Lone Wolf & Cub manga (especially the 'Yagyu wheeel', as filmed in 'White Heaven in Hell'). The attacks are varied involving boot, spear, razor-edge shields and swords; and as you can imagine Hwang's feet don't get much rest. Highlights include a terrific full-circle of reverse turning kicks when surrounded; leaping onto shoulders to deliver head kicks, and (somewhat bizzarely) a 'Hadouken' fireball to free himself from an unwelcome group hug! When the captain turns up he's all weight but too slow, Hwang delivers a brutal 17 kick combo to kill him.

Next up is a fun rumble between 'the man in black' and another officer. We've already seen the stranger kick a guy into a coffin (classy), and so I expected the officer to be thrashed. But no - we get some comic relief as the officer starts chanelling chi and turns the tide, to the stranger's shock. The stranger prevails by spearing the officer on his own penant, which I'm sure would be more ironic if I could read what was written on it...

The fight against the rapists is more vicious boot from Hwang, then it's the showdown against the town elders - who curiously appear to be a collection of kung fu mainstays! There's an Abbot, a Monk, a Fox, a Bandit and an Old (well, middle-aged) Dirty Bastard for good measure. Hwang must cope with a barrage of flying kicks, furious strikes and magic; including a neat burning rope trick. And don't miss the co-ordinated mass kick! Luckily Hwang has remembered to bring his spinny bandleader poles from Secret Rivals 2 and prevails - great (and unusual) to see Hwang pressed so hard in a one v many.

Overall: I'm not going to give this a score yet simply because I've not heard/seen the dialogue, but will say that the language barrier should not prevent any HJL or boot fan from picking this up. It's low budget but with superior fights and a touching ending inspired the Lone Wolf and Cub manga. Try and source the best print you can as the forest lighting can make for difficult viewing during the start and end fights.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Young Master

Plot: Orphans Lung (Jackie Chan) and Tiger (Wai Pak) have been taken in by Sifu Tien (veteran Tien Fung) of the Jing Fung kung fu school. With the annual lion dance against their local rivals looming, disaster strikes as Tiger appears to be injured and Jing Fung lose as Lung subs for him- but it later transpires that Tiger danced for the opponents for cash, and is kicked out of the school. After further humiliations from the enemy school, Sifu Tien delivers a major reproach to the whole class, resulting in Lung storming out, but being offered the olive branch of returning once he finds his disgraced brother. Tiger, meanwhile, finds out that the rival school is corrupt, and they force him to free local bandit Master Kam (Hwang In Sik) from a police escort. Lung's efforts to track down Tiger are complicated by his identity being mistaken for the now-wanted Tiger, and he has a long comic diversion with local police chief Shek Kin, son Yuen Biao and daughter Lily Li (that's one tough family!). Eventually Lung catches up with Tiger as he is being framed for a bank robbery by his new colleagues, leaving Lung to track down Master Kam and his cowardly toady Fung Fung for a brutal finale.

Production: Golden Harvest assembled a terrific cast, with every major and minor role spot-on: with hindsight this really is a dream-team of an ensemble! Obviously Jackie was blossoming into greatness, and he is served well by harsh but loyal Sifu Tien Fung, conflicted anti-hero Wai Pak. The opening lion dance scene is a true treat; colourful, graceful and agile, brilliantly edited and paced with a suspensful drum beat. Most of the fights make ingenious use of props and comedy; and the editing between the comic scenes and the drama make for spot-on pacing. Jackie's various thwarted escape attempts are as good for me as any Western farce. Dialogue is (intentionally) hilarious: from cracking insults such as "If you're school banner could run away, it would" ; "You're not very stable for a fat man"; to Jackie's over-familiar bantering with Shek Kin.

Fights: Standouts are the freeing of bandit Master Kham, wherein his wagon police escort is attacked by a mohican-sporting Lee Hoi-Sang and his sneering cohort Fung Hak-On (reprising their partnership from Warriors Two). Lee Hoi-Sang makes good use of his looped rope, but it's the parched, half-crazed Hwang In Sik that steals the scene, unleashed from his bonds to deliver brutal side kicks and lightning turning/reverse-turning kicks to the constabulary. Jackie, meanwhile, humiliates everyone's second-favourite tubby kicker Fan Mei-Sheng in the now legendary fan scene showing great dexterity, agility and imagination; clearly involving much patience and many takes. We also get a fun one v many scene in a tiny temple shrine with the fugitive Jackie against sword wielding policemen, led by ol'cross eyes Yue Tau Wan.

The fight scenes against the chief's family are varied and tremendous fun: son Yuen Biao totes his minibench with skill and arrogance, only to be thwarted by Jackie's longstaff; daughter Lily Li uses her skirts to mask her fleet legwork to deadly effect, and big daddy Shek Kin muscles in with his ornamental sword. The variety ensures you don't get 'fight fatigue'. Jackie makes use of Lily's tricks in his now-famous 'flamenco' scene, unleashing vicious kicks from under a makeshift-skirt/toreador cape, and making gymnastic use of street scenery against the deadly duo of Lee Hoi-Sang and Fung Hak-On.

The final rumble against Master Kam has attracted controversy, being around 20 minutes long and being pretty one-sided for the bulk of it. But I love two things: first that Hwang In Sik mixes up his super-flash kicking with a variety of wristlocks and arm takedowns from Hapkido (Hwang was a student of Hapkido founder Jung Sul Choi and is now the Head Grandmaster of Huardo Kwan) . Second is that Jackie keeps pausing for a breather in the arms of rascal Fung Fung, who gives half-baked advice and eventually fills Jackie with waccy baccy juice from his pipe. So Jackie overcomes by being pumped up like Popeye, rather than the shapes mastery of SITES; but it's still a terrific epic fight in my book.

The kid's verdict: And now for a very special review from number one son, as this was the first traditional kung fu he has watched (although his second Jackie Chan after The Forbidden Kingdom):
"I loved it - good use of fights, lots of hilarious comedy especially Jackie singing 'London Bridge is falling down' in the swamp' and having a wash in the policeman's house who is tracking him by mistake. When Jackie frightened the goldfish out of the bowl I laughed!The lion dance was very exciting as they had to eat all the lettuce first. Jackie didn't give up against the tough kung fu master even when he was hurt and the master did an awesome spinning back kick! I would like to watch another Jackie Chan film as they are so exciting and funny. 5/5 is my rating"

Number one son also gets big respect for choosing the sub over the dub as he wanted to hear how they were speaking naturally.

(PS any concerned parents may want to watch out for Fung Fung's use of the four-letter 's' word during the final fight, but by that stage we were enjoying it so much we didn't give a shit.)

Overall: 5/5, sharp editing, priceless choreography, rock-solid cast and a marvellous blend of comedy and plot make this one of the greats. Jackie's self-deprecating humour mixed with underdog bravery is at its best here.

Version watched: Fox DVD, 106 mins, LBX

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Himalayan

Plot: Kao Chu (Chen Sing) attempts to usurp local patriarch Chang, using a doppelganger of his brother (the bridegroom of Cheng's daughter Chang Ching Lan (Angela Mao)) to ensure he becomes a player in the patriarch's household.Household dogsbody Chin Kang (Tan Tao Liang), a childhood friend and lowly admirer of Ching Lan, rumbles that all is not well, and is chased from the household, closely followed by Chin Lang who has now been framed for killing the doppelganger. All this chaos leaves Chang the patriarch in need of a nice sit down, and so he retires and hands all power to Kao Chu. Our heroes flee to the local monastery, whose Abbot (played by director Wong Fung) teaches the 'Mi' style, a different form to Shaolin. There they learn techniques to defeat Kao Chu's infamous tiger claw, and the scene is set for a furious finale....

Production: worth mentioning here that Golden Harvest and Raymond Chow put a good effort in and they're clearly proud of it: the film even starts with a spoken intro of the Mi style. The Himalayan scenery is magnificent, with beautiful shots of the Tibetan plateau, temples, Chang's household and a local festival. This includes a race to see who can spear a chicken from horseback, no surprise that it's Sammo Hung as the winner! Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao also have cameos.

Fights: Terrific, there's something for everybody (except maybe shapes-only fans!). Chen Sing mixes it up with ferocious Tiger Claw, all upper-body bullying but with some beefy hoof chucked in for good measure. He has notable dust-ups with a local blackmailer at a stunning temple; gets some decent legwork in against Chang's loyal advisers; and bullies a (surprisingly kick free at first) Tan Tao Liang. There are decent one-on-one and one-v-many throughout, and a brutal bundle to end it all: Sammo v Flash Legs, Flash Legs v many, Angela v Chen Sing and finally our heroes deliver a vicious (and ingenious) pasting. It's here that Flash Legs finally unleashes his full kicking arsenal, and it's worth waiting for. Even the patriarch gets involved and gives a good account. Great stuff all round.
Incidentally, there's a neat flashback fight between Angela and Flash Legs' characters as children, with the kids showing terrific legwork - I wonder what became of the actors...?

Training: Patient, novel training sequences featuring strength and breath control, under the watchful eye of the grumpy Abbot. The kicking training is highly suspicious though, involving anti-gravity handstands...but still fun.

Performances: Man of the match is undeniably Chen Sing. He's a booming, gnashing, guffawing villain; cheerfully murdering anyone who may be in his way; including his girlfriend following a softcore sex scene! He's equally menacing in the fights, he looks utterly furious and menacing when he muscles in. He reminds me of a Film Noir villain in the sadistic glee he takes in causing utter misery to all.

Overall: 4.5 out of 5; some may be put off by the pacing which is slow in parts, but it's worth being drawn into the plot. The final fight is terrific, just be prepared for a sudden and odd ending!
Version watched: Bonzai, fullscreen, 90 min, dub, picture/sound good.