Friday, May 02, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Fist of Fury

Amazing how simple the plot is in comparison with Gordon Chan's Jet Li-starring remake Fist of Legend. Bruce Lee's Chenzhen is nothing more or less than a force of nature, bursting on screen in agonized grief, progressing from there through an agonized murderous rampage (in 1930s Shanghai he returns to find his master has been killed. He learns it was by the Japanese, he kills them). Only occasionally is he allowed to express anything other than agony: when he adopts disguises to spy on the Japanese; in his one romantic scene with Nora Miao. Otherwise he may as well be The Hulk. No depth, no complexity (compare Li's Chenzhen, torn between two cultures and two families, genuinely mixed in his sympathies), simply the pure muscular expression of violent revolution, of the (racial) underclass rising up against their (apparently motiveless?) oppressors. There are hints at self-awareness, of nuance: the fact that so many of Lee's fellow Chinese feel the effects of his violence, the collateral damage of his rampage, is felt. And the tortured expressions, often in slow motion, that take over Lee's face when he administers a killing blow convey not the orgasmic release of violence, but the corruption of the mind and soul that each act of destruction takes on him (compare to the puns and wisecracks that accompany such displays in the 80s films of Schwarzenegger and Stallone). Still, it's not hard at all to see why it was a hit, despite the acting, screenplay, sets, direction, characters, sound design, etc, all cheap and chintzy relative to the films Shaw Brothers was putting out at the same time. Even another Golden Harvest production like Hapkido, with a very similar Chinese vs. Japanese premise, released six months later in 1972, looks better and had more thought put into it.

The Way of the Dragon

Much more satisfying than Lee's previous two films, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. The plot is still deathly simple: Lee is sent by his uncle to Rome to defend a Chinese restaurant against a gang of thugs trying to force a sale. But Lee, this time serving as writer and director in addition to star and choreographer, gets a lot more of interest to do in-between the fights. It may be strange to say, but the opening airport sequence, with Lee's Tang Lung starred at by an old white lady then attempting to order in a Western restaurant (capped by his showdown with The Five Soups) is one of my favorite sequences in any Bruce Lee film, above and beyond most of his fights. He's aided immeasurably by Nora Miao as the straight woman in these scenes, exasperatedly showing him around, visibly annoyed to be afflicted with this bumpkin (but watch how the way she looks at Lee changes after she sees him fight: there's no romance in the film, but plenty of sex in that gaze).

The fights in Bruce Lee's films are different than what came before and after in good and bad ways. To the good is their realism: much shorter, more violent and more wrenching than the opera-influenced balletic displays or effects driven sword fights of the late 60s wuxia films. But the downside of that is that they never really feel like contests, more like a bunch of guys standing around waiting for Lee to inflict violence upon them (the climactic fight with Chuck Norris here is a rare exception, acknowledged by Lee with a touching grace note of respect). The choreography in a King Hu or Chang Cheh movie is less realistic, but more exciting. The charge you get in a Bruce Lee action scene is different, it comes not from the "bodies in motion" thrill you also find in a great dance sequence, but emanates instead from Lee himself, first from his status as an icon (of Chinese nationalism, of masculinity, of badassery) and only secondarily from the character he's ostensibly playing. His tragic early death has only heightened this effect: it's impossible to watch one of his films now outside the context of his star status, separate from the deep and widespread influence he had, not just in Hong Kong, but worldwide.

Lee's work as a director is a significant step-up from Lo Wei's work in the previous two films. Lee is less choppy in his editing, adding to the realism of the fights by allowing them to play out in longer, more distanced takes. He does make occasional use of the point of view shots that Lo used as well, with Lee kicking or punching directly at the camera, an effect that would be more terrifying if it didn't feel slightly silly. The comedy in the first half of the film is charming, Lee's fish out of water much more interesting in Rome than he was in The Big Boss's Thailand. I can't help but wonder where he would have gone from here. He died in 1973, two years before Lau Kar-leung's directorial debut and five years before Sammo Hung's. How would he have fared with those guys? Would Lee's idiosyncratic street fights have meshed with Lau's traditionalist Southern Shaolin styles or Hung's acrobatics? Would he have pushed the comedy in his films along the lines Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping would explore? How would he have fared in a showdown with equally skilled and accomplished martial artists like the Five Venoms, rather than an endless succession of ugly white guys? Would he have found a second life in the heroic bloodshed cop/Triad films of the 80s and 90s (like Ti Lung in A Better Tomorrow), or been reduced to smaller cameo roles (like Ti Lung in Tiger on Beat or David Chiang in Election)? Or would he have simply crossed over to Hollywood, leaving the nationalism of his Hong Kong films a faint memory, a blip on the road to riches playing Conans, Predators and Rockys?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

It hooked me from the prologue, flashing back in time to the birth of the main character (not yet the "hero") Lu Chen. Told silent-movie style, it rushes through the early stages of his life with a mix of narration and captions and title cards at breakneck pace, which only slightly slows down when we're thrown back into the present. The best captions breathlessly reinvent an old Shaw Brothers convention, where an actor's first appearance on screen is accompanied by a caption with their name ("Ti Lung as Shi Jingsi" and the like). Director Stephen Fung does the same thing, introducing each actor, but with the excitement of a true movie fan. The cards are exclaimed: "It's Shu Qi as The Freak's mother!" and sometimes accompanied by parenthetical bits of trivia "It's Leung Siu-lung (70s kung fu star)" or "It's Jayden Yuan as The Freak! (2008 Wushu National Champion)!". Then the title sequences comes along and it's an animated comic book. Swoon.

Lu Chen is born with a freakish growth on his forehead. When hit, it turns him into a scary kung fu demon that can defeat anyone in his path, but drains his life force away. To counter this, he's sent to Chen village to learn their kung fu style, which can reverse the damage. Unfortunately, Chen village doesn't share their kung fu with outsiders, so Lu hangs around and gets beaten up a lot. Eventually he's helped by The Other Tony Leung, a mysterious tinkerer and joins Angelababy (weird name, cute girl, solid actress) as she tries to save the town from a demonic railroad-machine operated by her ex-boyfriend. Because this all takes place in a steampunk 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty is desperately trying to hold out against the modernizing forces of Western Imperialism. This is just the first half of the story. In part two, we see how Lu Chen goes from zero to hero.

Picking up right where Tai Chi Zero left off, we find the railroad company defeated (for now) and Lu Chen and Angelababy married so that he can learn the Chen-style kung fu and reverse the dangerous effects of the weird growth on his forehead. A mysterious stranger arrives in town who turns out to be The Other Tony Leung's eldest son, Angelababy's brother. He, like the ex-boyfriend in the first film, is more interested in technology than kung fu, building elaborate steampunk devices packed with neat gears and levers to mimic fighting techniques, and even a stylized airplane contraption.

The central emotional conflict of this film thus mirrors that of the first one. In both movies, the villain is turned villainous after being ostracized by the Chens: the community as a whole in the first one (the ex-boyfriend is an outsider and thus not allowed to learn the kung fu, and Angelababy is the only one that actually likes the poor guy anyway, though she really does like him); the (nuclear) family in the second (The Other Tony Leung never approved of his son's scientific interests, shaming him for his failures to learn kung fu and appalled when the boy used machines to make up for his athletic deficiencies).

Similarly, the plots structures are inverted. The first film follows a conventional structure: hastily explained backstory leading to a long development section that slowly builds to an explosive climax followed by a brief epilogue. The second starts with the development and builds to the big battle scene (Qing troops invade the village). But this climax comes less than two-thirds into the film. The remaining forty minutes is a slow dissipation of the action, as Leung reaches one kind of epiphany and Lu Chen another. That's not to say there are no further fight scenes. There is one big one, but where you'd expect bombs and machines, building upon the expectations set by the battle halfway through, instead we get a one-on-one showdown. And it isn't even a particularly violent one at that.

In order to enlist the Qing governor's help, Angelababy and Lu Chen have to defeat the reigning Ba Gua kung fu champion (the reason why isn't really important). So Lu Chen fights him, in the governor's kitchen, as his meal is being prepared. The kitchen is subdivided by a bunch of iron railings forming cubicles, so naturally the two men fight on top of them, in time-honored kung fu movie tradition (see Fong Sai Yuk or Iron Monkey). Oh, and the Ba Gua champion is none other than Yuen Biao, the only person in either film seemingly who doesn't get a caption (if he did, I missed it). Of course, Yuen Biao doesn't need an introduction.

The fight is a thoroughly friendly affair (choreographed as all the action in the two films is, by Sammo Hung), and ends with the governor giving Chen-style kung fu a new name ("Tai Chi"). And with that, the movie comes to an end. Most kung fu films follow a normal, linear structure, quest or training narratives that slowly build to a big finale. But every once in a while, one takes a different path. The A Touch of Zen-model, where the action becomes increasingly abstract, with a corresponding change in story structure, mimicking the character's increasing enlightenment. Tai Chi Hero loses much of the fun of the first film, the captions aren't as crazy, the action not as ridiculous, the emotional beats played more seriously. It becomes more grown up, deeper, more profound. The two films, twin halves of a single work, start with a breathless exclamation mark and end with a deep exhalation.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Herman Yau's Ip Man: The Final Fight

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

If Herman Yau's first Ip Man film distinguished itself from the other recent movies about the man by focusing intensely on the intricacies of the Wing Chun style, this one does so in the detail historical backdrop it creates for its main character. The opening shot, a long digital zoom from high over Hong Kong down to a CGI-scrubbed period street as Ip arrives in town, a refugee from the Civil War, and asks for directions to what will be his first residence/school, hints at Yau's approach throughout the film. 15 years or so of post-war Hong Kong is chronicled: vicious labor wars, the corruption of the police force, a vast influx of immigrants, dire poverty, gang wars, economic recovery and expansion, the hellish lawlessness of the Kowloon Walled City, a place beyond the jurisdiction of government, police and garbage collectors. Through it all stands Ip, quietly going about his business, not looking to pick a fight, or even have students (they come to him, he doesn't have to advertise, in fact, he refuses to advertise). He doesn't preach, he's not a guru, he never tells people what to do. But they follow him nonetheless.

This Ip seems older than the other ones, though Anthony Wong is actually a couple of months younger than Tony Leung and only a few months older than Donnie Yen. Racked by bouts of stomach pain, he seems more frail. Maybe its just the awkward way Wong rolls and smokes his little cigarettes. I don't know: acting. Ip is surrounded by a surrogate family of students, his first disciples There's a hint of an early Christian vibe to their meal scenes together, which might be creepy in less sympathetic hands, or with a more demonstrative and forceful leader at the center. The story is narrated by two characters: Ip's first student and sponsor in Hong Kong, a restaurant worker named Leung Sheung, and Ip's oldest son, Ip Chun. Chun himself played a role in the first Yau film, and he returns in a much smaller, but much more poignant part. He plays the shopkeeper who tells Man he has a phone call, which turns out to be from Ip Chun. We see Man talk to the character Chun on the phone while the real Chun watches in the background. The phone call is the one where Chun tells his father that his wife, Chun's mother, has died.

Like Yau's first film, this one ends in an obligatory action-movie climax, albeit Yau seems to resist this genre tendency as much as he can. There's less fighting in this one that in any of the other Ip Man films. Which is probably a good thing because unlike Dennis To, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung in the first film (to say nothing of Donnie Yen in his films) Anthony Wong isn't really much of a fighter (he told the Singapore New Paper that he was drunk when he accepted the part). As such, Yau makes more use of camera trickery here than he had to in the first film, most noticeably in a friendly sparring match between Wong and Eric Tsang, a rival grandmaster (you can very clearly see the image digitally sped up). The final showdown doesn't have the absurd premise of the spy activities in the first film, but it's fairly ridiculous nonetheless. Ip and his disciples, one of them pregnant, walk into the Walled City, beat up a bunch of dudes and bring a notorious gangster to justice. All of this happens in the midst of a typhoon, as these thing do.

But what sticks with this film is Wong's Ip, in the quiet scenes watering his plants, racked with stomach pains, or visiting with his young girlfriend, an illiterate singer he off-handedly rescues from a couple of toughs, and his underplayed heartbreak at his students' inability to accept her as part of their "family". The true climax of the film comes, as is usual, with Bruce Lee's appearance. This is played as triumphant in the other Ip stories, with Lee the reason we are supposed to care about Ip in the first place ("Yeah, this guy is neat and all but so what? Oh, he taught Bruce Lee, well now I'm interested"). But the Lee we see here, rich, sunglassed, Hollywoodized, is opposite our understanding of Ip and what he stands for. He's much too loud. But Ip doesn't express any disgust or disapproval of Lee. He doesn't correct him, or instruct him in the virtues of simplicity. He simply wanders off to do his own thing and lets Lee decide for himself if he wants to follow.

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh's Ten Tigers of Kwangtung

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Well, there's actually 15, if you count the five descendants of the Ten Tigers. Which could make this a bit confusing, but Chang Cheh gives us some friendly faces and nicely spaced exposition to emphasize that this is actually a very simple story. In the present, a guy and his uncle kill a man in a gambling hall out of revenge for the guy's dead father. The dead guy's four friends gather together to try to figure out why. This triggers a series of flashbacks as first one friend then another recount the story of the Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (or Guangdong, or Canton). During a rebellion against the Qing, various martial artists, descendants of the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, come together to protect an anti-Qing activist from the authorities. We meet each of the men in turn, and patiently wait for them to join together (four of them are tricked, for awhile, into supporting the Manchu side. These more foolish heroes include Beggar So, better known as Wong fei-hung's instructor in Drunken Master. Wong's father, Wong Kei-ying is one of the Tigers, but he doesn't have much to do here. You can see more of his adventures in Yuen Woo-ping's Iron Monkey. So is played by Philip Kwok, best known today for his performance as Mad Dog in John Woo's Hard-Boiled.

The final third of the flashback is recounted by one of the villains, in a neat little narrative shift that unfortunately doesn't follow through with a change in perspective (how cool would it be for this section to depict the heroes as villains, the way the Manchus would have seen them? Alas, such experimentation seems beyond the purview of the classy Shaw Brothers period-epic.). Then we come back to the present for some gruesome fighting, led by a guy I thought looked a lot like, but was pretty sure couldn't be, Yuen Biao. Turns out he is Chin Siu-ho, who played Jet Li's brother/enemy in The Tai Chi Master.

This is one of the later (1980) films in Chang Cheh's Shaolin Temple saga, chronicling the resistance against the Manchurians by various pro-Ming martial arts sects (Shaolin Temple, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two, Shaolin Avengers etc). They're all kind of the same: stoic warriors being tricked by craftier opponents, dying glorious deaths but ultimately losing the war, with flat Shaw studio lighting, percussive and lengthy hand to hand combat, and many repeated actors and sets. This one distinguishes itself with the breadth of its cast, which includes Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng and perennial Chang villain Wang Lung-wei along with the Venom Mob and its various associates. But that's about it. There are too many characters for any of them to really stand out, and the scenario's too rote and simplistic to be of much interest. A minor piece of the panoply that is Chang's vast reconstruction of Chinese history through the lens of its warrior-heroes. But it is the only movie in which I've seen a big golden mermaid statue/figurehead used as a weapon, so it's got that going for it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh's The Duel

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Every time someone talks about David Chiang in The Duel (aka The Duel of the Iron Fist), they use (at least the subtitles do), his full name: Jiang Nan, "The Rambler". The film's other star, Ti Lung (paired with Chiang again and again through the early 1970s) finds himself caught up in an overly complicated series of triad betrayals. Honestly I had no idea what the particulars of the plot were, the exposition in the first few scenes flew by so quickly I simply contented myself with knowing that there were bad guys and Ti was going to kill a lot of them. He does.

Halfway through the film he learns he's been betrayed and returns home to kill a bunch more people. But first he finds his girlfriend, the woman who inspired him to get a giant butterfly tattooed across his chest. She's spent the intervening years forced into prostitution (the villains apparently run some kind of scheme where they force-sell factory-working women into sexual slavery). At first, Ti is outraged by her sluttiness and slaps her. Then he quickly comes to his senses. The two embrace and as she tells him of all the horrible things that happened to her, he calmly tells her how much he loves her and calls her his wife. This generosity of spirit proves too much for her to take and at the first opportunity she kills herself. Tough world.

The duel of the title isn't between Ti and the army of betrayers he must kill (and, spoiler alert: he kills them), but rather between him and Chiang, as Jiang Nan, "The Rambler". Always preceded by a tubercular cough, Jiang Nan, "The Rambler" is every bit the accomplished killer Ti Lung's character is. Tricked by the villains into murdering Ti's godfather, the two find themselves on the same side for awhile, but their shared Code demands that Ti eventually seek revenge. The cough gives away the secret: underneath all the kung fu trappings this is actually a version of The Gunfight at the OK Corral, with the added twist that after the famous showdown, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday must face off against each other.

Released in 1971, the film was made in the midst of a remarkably productive stretch for star Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh. Following 1968's Golden Swallow, he directed six films in 1969, four in 1970, six in 1971, eight in 1972, six in 1973, eight in 1974, five in 1975 and five in 1976. That's 48 films in eight years. Such a ridiculous pace would only be sustainable under the factory-like studio conditions of Shaws at the time, and as is usually the case, quality suffers during such a prodigious output. Mistakes will be made. In this case, it comes down to the screenplay, needlessly convoluted while at the same time wholly unoriginal. Particularly egregious is the desperate way in which the writer(s) contrive(s) reasons for the head gangster to let Ti go after they've captured and tortured him.

Similarly a symptom of mass production is the soundtrack, like many Hong Kong films of the period cobbled together from the scores of other films, either directly or in slightly altered form (Ennio Morricone usually being the favored source). Perhaps the most memorable thing about this for 21st Century viewers will be the film's several uses of Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" fanfare, made famous by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's tempting to treat this as some kind of intertextual reference, as though Chang wants us to draw some parallel between his proto-heroic bloodshed saga and The Dawn of Man, but that would almost certainly be ahistorical. The much more likely explanation is that someone in the Shaw music department thought the theme sounded badass and so stuck it into the film as a character motif.

This poses an interesting dilemma for critics. The musical choice was almost certainly not intended to "mean" something in the sense movie homages and references are used to create meaning in post-modern cinema. Yet when watching the film, we can't help but interpret the musical cue as an invitation to draw a connection between the two works (or between the Strauss original or even the Nietzsche work the Strauss is inspired by). Such a train of thought might lead us to see the bloody triad struggle in terms of human evolution, as the kind of violence that is the first result of humanity's mastering of tools (too we might see a visual connection between the long bones used in 2001 and the long daggers used by Ti Lung). We might then interpret the friendship between Ti Lung and David Chiang's Jiang Nan, "The Rambler" as the next stage in human evolution, where abstract ideals like friendship and honor serve to pull us out of the bloody muck to some higher plane of existence, while at the same time the just-as-abstract ideal of duty and loyalty drags us back down in a never-ending cycle of revenge-killing. This we might frame in the wider context of Chang Cheh's career, referencing other films like Blood Brothers, Duels of Fists, The Heroic Ones or Vengeance! to see the pattern of Chang's thoughts on violence, honor and friendship between men and the push-pull contradictions of the Chinese Confucian and Buddhist/Taoist traditions. The evolution angle gives us a new way of reading a recurring theme, with the potential for new and revealing insights about Chang as an artist. At that point, the question of who put the musical cue in the movie and for what intended reason doesn't matter for the work of criticism. If we were ever able to find out who did it and why, it would certainly be an interesting point of history, a matter of trivia, and possibly an entraining and revealing anecdote, but it would nonetheless be irrelevant to the value of the criticism as criticism. This is, I think, an overlooked matter in Kent Jones's call for more historicity in auteurism (to close "the gap between artistic practice and criticism"). At a certain point, the details of artistic practice are simply irrelevant to the reception of the finished film. The job of the critic and the job of the historian are often overlapping, but they are not the same.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Herman Yau's The Legend is Born: Ip Man

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Oh yeah, another movie about Ip Man. This one covers his early years, growing up in a kung fu school, his first romance, years in college and such. The emphasis, more than in any of the others, is on the specifics of the Wing Chun technique itself, with a whole plot line built around the issue of whether or not a high kick is authentic enough. To this end, the film is aided immeasurably by the presence of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The two old pros play the young Ip's teachers, and the film begins with a beautiful blindfolded sparring sequence between the two. The early scenes in the school are reminiscent of some scenes from Painted Faces, the Hung-starring 1988 film that chronicles his own youth in a Peking Opera school, growing up with Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan, Corey Yeun etc.

Even more delightful is a quest-starring turn by Ip Chun, Ip Man's oldest son. Still teaching his father's style, Ip served as a consultant for most of this cycle of Ip Man films. Here he plays a Leung Bik, a breakaway disciple who has added controversial innovations to the form and thus been ostracized from his family and the broader Wing Chun community. But he has a deep influence on Ip Man, opening him up to innovation in his martial art just as his time at an English college in Hong Kong is opening him up to the possibilities of the wider world (one of the primary themes of Wong Kar-wai's film). All of these early scenes stick pretty closely to the historical record and are much more interested in the specifics of the Wing Chun art than they are any kind of personal or historical drama. This is what distinguishes this from the other Ip Man films. The Wilson Yip films, starring Donnie Yen, follow a more conventional historical biopic structure with the great man caught in the sweep of historic events leading to triumph and tragedy; while Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster uses Ip as a conduit to explore the passing of one age of China's history into another, with martial arts serving a metaphorical purpose. All of the Ip Man films explore the uniqueness of the Wing Chun style, but none with the dedication of this one.

However, the film's factuality falls apart in the final third. In this story, Ip has an adopted brother, Ip Tin-chi and a friend from school, a woman named Mei-wai. She loves Man, and Tin-chi loves her, but Man is oblivious (he pursues instead his future wife, the daughter of the wealthy deputy mayor played by Lam Suet). None of this love triangle stuff works, mostly because Rose Chan, playing Mei-wai, plays every emotion so broadly. Dennis To's Ip is what we come to expect from the character: reserved, calm, steely. Chan's highly emotional melodramatic performance contrasts poorly with To's underplaying. Louis Fan, as Tin-chi, doesn't fare much better, but as his plot line becomes increasingly ridiculous (to lead us to the inevitable all-out battle extravaganza) there's not much he can do to make it work. To's performance is actually pretty good, the first starring role for the wushu champion. He actually reminded me a lot of the young Donnie Yen.

As the film's plot reaches its absurd conclusion, the fight scenes become the only really interesting thing (although I guess the idea of an army Japanese sleeper agent children at work in 1920s Foshan is interesting). Fortunately, the fights are pretty great, beautifully shot by Yau (who worked as a cinematographer on Tsui Hark's Time and Tide and Seven Swords, with an emphasis on realism in the movements and actions. There are a few leaps aided by digital wires, but otherwise the action is clean and crisp and highly legible, with a judicious uses of overhead shots, slow motion and close-ups used to highlight particularly unusual or innovative actions. With this approach, the deliberateness with which Yau explores the intricacies of the Wing Chun style and demonstrates those nuances on-screen, this is the closest I've seen a 21st Century kung fu film follow in the Lau Kar-leung tradition.