One Child Nation (Born in China)]


This is NOT a wanted poster!

(2018) Documentary (Amazon) Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Tunde Wang, Xianven Liu, Huaru Yuan, Jiaoming Pang, Shuangjie Xeng, Brian Stuy, Long Lan Stuy, Shuquin Jiang, Peng Wang, Zaou, Yang. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

China is the most populous nation on Earth with over a billion people and counting. Back in 1979, they sought to address their overpopulation problem by setting a “one child” policy, limiting families to only one child. It sounds sensible on paper but things rarely work out in reality the way they do on paper.

For one thing, Chinese tradition values male children over female; many families would have a female baby and then abandon the baby so that they could try again to have a male child. Other female babies would be put up for adoption, with the adoptive parents being led to believe that the children were orphans when in fact their parents were alive and well.

As policing the policy became more problematic, enforcement became a little more brutal. Families that had second children would receive visits from government agents who would forcibly take the additional children out of the home. Women would be sterilized following the birth of their first child. Forced abortions were performed, to the tune of 40 to 50 thousand of them according to Huaru Yuan, a Chinese midwife from that period.

American filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born under the one child policy, although their parents had emigrated to the United States afterwards. Wang was unusual in that her parents received dispensation to have a second child, something that was highly unusual at the time so Wang was often teased at school because she had a little brother.

For the film, Wang traveled back to the rural Chinese village where her family was from. She interviewed family and neighbors about the policy which was finally rescinded in 2015 although now the official policy is a two-child restriction. She reviews the propaganda (which was relentless) and the stories go from heartbreaking to horrifying.

The power of the movie develops in kind of a slow burn despite initial images of aborted fetuses and of Chinese military might; as to the latter, I think the ability to wage war is far less impressive than the ability to make peace but what do I know – but then again, the Chinese have not known war in 60 years. Certainly America, which has only known peace for a total of sixteen years of its entire existence doesn’t know much about making peace it would seem.

I was aware of the policy before watching the film and I always felt somewhat uneasy about it – how is something like that enforced? I remember hearing that the Chinese government was having a tough time enforcing the policy in rural parts of their vast country and the movie seems to bear that out. However, the human toll of enforcement is what this film is all about and at times it is staggering.

The ripples continue to be felt today. American adoptees are not eager to meet their Chinese families, sometimes refusing altogether and their American adoptive parents are understandably nervous that the children they raised will be forcibly returned to China. In the case of twin sisters separated by this cruel policy they were very wary when an agency discovered their Chinese family. Both agreed to communicate but at the moment there’s no question of them meeting. The Chinese half of the siblings wants a normal relationship with her sister but her twin isn’t ready for it. It makes the situation awkward but it’s hard not to feel for the American sister who suddenly has to come to terms that she has a twin while the Chinese sister was aware that there was once a twin. Politicians are never that concerned with the human fallout from their whims, caprices and policies but even those meant with the best of intentions can end up with devastating consequences to those affected.

REASONS TO SEE: It starts slowly but grows more powerful during the course of the film. The human cost of the one child policy is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The evolution from a highly personal family movie to a more general issue film isn’t a smooth one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Florida Film Festival regulars will remember Nanfu Wang’s first film Hooligan Sparrow which received great acclaim during its festival run and later on a limited release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in China
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Princess of the Row

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Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Born in China


Mei Mei reacts to the results of the 2016 American presidential election.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Disneynature) John Krasinski (narrator). Directed by Chuan Lu

 

China is the most populous nation on Earth but it is also one of the most sparsely populated – the vast majority of Chinese people live in big cities. There are rural villages but much of the country, particularly the high plateaus, is pristine wilderness populated by vast numbers of critters some of which are unfamiliar to even those with more than a passing interest in zoology.

As is their wont, Disney nature photographers follow several groups of animals – in this case the insanely cute pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, red-crowned cranes, the notoriously hard-to-find snow leopard and the chiru which is the Chinese name for the Tibetan antelope. The People’s Republic footed a fairly decent percentage of the bill so any reference to the troublesome Tibet province has been excised from the film. Even the habitat of the snow leopard In the Tibetan plateau is referred to as the Qinghai plateau.

The stories of these animals are anthropomorphized and narrated by John Krasinski who isn’t a particularly charismatic reader. It doesn’t help that much of the narration is fairly cheesy and while ostensibly educational, has clunky dialogue where he exclaims that Ya Ya the mama panda has to feed on forty pounds of bamboo a day then re-emphasizing “40 pounds. A. Day!” Ain’t nature amazing!

The photography is as we’ve come to expect from Disneynature breathtaking to say the least; that the locations that they are shooting in have largely gone undocumented by camera makes it additionally of interest to both travel buffs and cinema buffs alike. There are plenty of slow motion shots of monkeys leaping from tree to tree or cranes taking off or flying low on the water. In a lot of ways the filmmakers, mostly Chinese, follow the Disneynature playbook to the letter – like many nature documentaries, this one is organized by the seasons of the year.

But they do break with tradition – one of the main “characters” in the film doesn’t survive the brutal winter and the body of the unfortunate creature, partially buried in the snow, is displayed which might upset some of the more sensitive kids in the audience. It’s all a part of the Circle of Life that Disney has essentially copyrighted since The Lion King as if it were a concept that the House that Walt Built came up with. The law of the jungle predates even the venerable Disney Corporation – survival of the fittest is not a new concept after all.

Disney likes to give parents and children a kind of moral theme and very often it revolves around the nature of family – here very much it is about the importance of parents and how very dangerous it can be not to listen to them. That’s going to go over well with more traditional parenting sorts although some of the more progressive parents may well encourage their kids to question everything – including themselves.

The sequences here are moving, sometime profoundly so, and both the locations and animals rarely seen on film so this is a must-see for nature lovers and travel buffs alike. Those who aren’t particularly interested in the great outdoors will still find some value in the Disney messaging here, particularly if they have young kids. While those who don’t fall into either category may well find this less compelling, there is still enough here to make it worthwhile viewing even if you don’t have kids or care about animals.

REASONS TO GO: As always, Disney excels at showing the cute side of nature. The film is unusually moving for a nature documentary. There is some gorgeous cinematography of fairly remote areas of China.
REASONS TO STAY: The narration is a bit hokey.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes that might end up being disturbing to the littlest members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth film to be released on Earth Day by Disneynature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: African Cats
strong>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Battle of Memories

The Ivory Game


It's a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

It’s a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

(2016) Advocacy Documentary (Netflix) Craig Millar, Richard Leakey, Andrea Crosta, Prince William, Richard Bonham, Hongxiang Huang, Elisifa Ngowi, Ian Williamson, Ian Craig, Uhuru Kenyatta, Robert F. Godec, Iain Douglas Hamilton, Winnie Kiru, Otir Drori, Georgina Kamanga. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson

 

The magnificent elephant is an iconic sight on the African plains, majestically walking through the savannas. One cannot think of Africa without thinking about these beasts, but these creatures are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

That is because of their tusks. The ivory from them can fetch exorbitant prices in China (where most of the ivory goes to) and so poachers are attacking elephants with a will, killing one every fifteen minutes on the average. If that goes unchanged, there will be no African elephants in the wild within 15 years and those remaining in zoos will die off not long thereafter. For most of you reading this, that means the African elephant will be extinct in your lifetime.

There are those who are fighting for the elephants. Craig Millar, head of security for the Big Life Foundation (dedicated to the protection of elephants from poachers), patrols areas of Kenya trying to protect the herds from poachers. He talks to farmers who are dismayed that the elephants wander into their farms and eat their crops – a problem when you consider that food is scarce in that part of Africa. They see elephants as pests and aren’t inclined to report poachers, which Millar can sympathize with. His solution is to build large electrified fences to keep the pachyderms out but those are expensive and most of the farmers can’t afford them.

Investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang is ashamed that his country is responsible for gobbling up the ivory. The market is heavily regulated but dealers have no problem bringing in illegal ivory and corruption is rampant in the enforcement of regulations. Huang’s hidden camera interviews show the brazenness of the dealers and his reports helped stir the Chinese government out of lethargy.

Government investigator Elisifa Ngowi has been chasing one of the biggest poachers in Namibia, a man who goes by the name of Shetai which translates to “devil.” His gang has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 elephants by themselves and not a few humans as well. A lot of good citizens who deplore the slaughter of the elephants are far too frightened of Shetai to say anything, but Ngowi is doggedly and determinedly pursuing the criminal.

Georgina Kamanga is the head of intelligence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Zambia. She is tough as nails, but the sight of elephants, freshly decapitated, is enough to move her to tears. “I’m taking the whole thing now very personal,” she says in a voice that betrays her emotion. Finally there’s Andrea Crosta, the founder and lead investigator for the website WildLeaks, which looks into animal rights issues. He sends undercover investigators to document corruption in the ivory trade in China – and is horrified when one of them is discovered.

The filmmakers depict all these stories in the vein of a thriller, and in some ways I suppose it is. There are bad guys, victims and crimes being committed. Certainly the extinction of a species like the African elephant is fodder for that kind of genre, particularly when the poachers are hell-bent on exterminating the entire species since it will drive the price up of ivory the fewer of them there actually are. When they are all gone, the price for African ivory will be sky high.

That works well along with the thriller-like musical score, but the filmmakers bounce around from story to story without any sense of flow. If this were a scripted thriller, I’d likely have marked it down a great deal but it gets a bit of a pass due to the documentary nature of the film, and the African vistas are beautifully shot as are the more urban jungles in China, London and African cities.

Elephants are incredible creatures who are fiercely protective of their families (the shots of baby elephants cavorting are among the most priceless in the film) and who mourn their dead with silent grief. Like humans, they bury their dead and can instinctively tell when they are in the presence of a graveyard, even if none of their herd are buried in it.

Produced by actor/environmental activist Leonardo di Caprio and former Microsoft executive Paul Allen (among others), the documentary is an important one and like most advocacy documentaries give viewers opportunities to become involved, either through financial contributions or by getting involved directly. If you don’t have Netflix or don’t wish to view the film but would like to help, you can go to the film’s website by clicking on the picture above.

Some of this movie is hard to look at. I’m not an elephant junkie by any means, but these are amazing creatures who don’t deserve to be wiped off the planet and it is man’s greed and man’s indifference that is doing it. Spin it however you want to, this is a crime pure and simple and if a film can spur people to action as Blackfish and The Cove did, then perhaps this film can do something similar. God knows the elephants need someone in their corner.

REASONS TO GO: The elephants in the wild make compelling visual subjects and the baby elephants are as cute as the dickens. The subject is a vitally important one.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps from subject to subject in a seemingly haphazard fashion at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of dead elephants as well as adult themes and occasional bouts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Following China’s ban on importing ivory, this film became an official selection of the Beijing International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lion

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo

Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

The Man With the Iron Fists


How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

(2012) Martial Arts (Universal) RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu, Andrew Ng, Kuan Tai Chen, Xue Jing Yao, Telly Liu, Wen-Jun Dong, Zhan De Re, Lu Kai, Jin Auyeung (MC Jin), Ka-Yan Leung, Liu Chang Jiang, Brian Yang, Hu Minnow, Eli Roth, Pam Grier, Grace Huang. Directed by RZA

Most film buffs have a soft spot for a particular era or style of movie, be it the film noir of the 40s, the psychedelic cinema of the 60s, the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, the slasher horror films of the 80s – or something completely different. All of us have movies that we grew up with that appealed to us in some way and helped mold who we are.

For rapper RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, that would be the chop sockey films of Run Run Shaw and other producers from Hong Kong in the 70s. He wouldn’t be alone in that regard; folks like Quentin Tarantino (who is credited as a “presenter” here and helped produce), Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth (who co-wrote, produced, and appeared in a small role) all are fans of the style. Those who know RZA say he is a walking encyclopedia on the subject and certainly his music bears that out. Some thought it might only be a matter of time, ever since he got into acting, that he would create a film of his own.

Well, here it is. Like many of the original chop sockey films of the 70s, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. A nameless blacksmith (RZA) – who happens to be black – creates weapons for the various rival clans of a small village. The village is a powderkeg waiting to explode and the arrival of a stranger named Jack Knife (Crowe) from England is all it takes. Soon the clans are at war and the Blacksmith will be drawn in not just as a maker of weapons, but as a fighter.

And that’s really it. And to be honest, the plot isn’t the most important thing about a movie like this, although I wouldn’t have minded a little more flesh on those bare bones. This is clearly a labor of love for RZA and reportedly he and co-writer Roth went into great detail into the mythology of the village, the types of weapons that he would create and the people who inhabited them. We don’t see much of the background except in dribs and drabs and I suppose that if he did go into detail, the movie would have ended up being a two-parter, or at least a single movie four hours long.

And to be fair, most folks who like the Wuxia movies and chop sockey films are all about the fights, and RZA recruited one of the best choreographers in the world – Corey Yuen – to work his film. And yes, those fights are pretty spectacular. However, the quick-cut editing and sumptuous visuals make it hard to follow those fights.

And the visuals are sumptuous, from the pink-hued cathouse where a good portion of the action takes place in, to the village streets and smithy which are period-friendly. It’s a great looking film but the editing again gives it a more modern feel than I think RZA was originally going for; or at least, he should have been.

RZA as a director shows promise; as an actor though, he should have stuck to directing. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor necessarily but he was wrong for the part. His personality onscreen is laidback and almost comatose; there’s just no excitement being generated by the lead character and that’s damn near fatal for any movie. If your audience isn’t connecting with your lead character, chances are they are changing the channel, walking out or otherwise finding something else to do with their time.

The characters have interesting names, weapons and personalities and some of the actors who inhabit them go over-the-top as well they should. Crowe and Lucy Liu as a conniving madam both seem to be having a good ol’ time with this; appearances by the legendary Gordon Liu, the equally legendary Pam Grier and Daniel Wu don’t hurt either. Rick Yune was also getting some heat but seemed to disappear way too early without explanation. Or at least, if there was one I wasn’t paying much attention by that time.

At an hour and a half this felt much longer than it really was and it’s a shame; there are a lot of elements here that are worthwhile had they been put together better. A direct-to-home video sequel was released earlier this year but I can’t say I have any desire whatsoever to see it and likely I won’t. I hope RZA continues to make movies; I just hope they’re better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A demented and occasionally entertaining cross between a spaghetti Western and a Hong Kong chop sockey.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A godawful mess. RZA doesn’t have the presence or the energy to be a lead.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it extreme) and sexuality (some of it extreme), a bit of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first cut of the movie ran over four hours long and RZA at one point considering splitting the film into two parts but producer Eli Roth disagreed and thus the movie was edited down to its current 95 minute length.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains both the R-rated theatrical release and an unrated version that is about 12 minutes longer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warrior’s Way
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark