The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Advertisements

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

The Promise (Wu ji)


The Promise

Just one of many stunning visuals from The Promise.

(2005) Martial Arts Fantasy (Warner Independent) Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian, Anthony Wong. Directed by Chen Kaige

Over the past ten years or so America has discovered the films of Asia. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon major Hollywood studios have been looking for the next Asian film to connect with Western audiences. In particular, the Weinstein Brothers of Miramax films and more recently of Weinstein films have snapped up a number of pictures in the Crouching Tiger vein and left them languishing on the shelf, leaving fans of Asian films (like myself) twisting in the wind.

Long listed on Weinstein release schedules as Master of the Crimson Armor, the Weinsteins and filmmaker Chen Kaige (who is best known for Farewell My Concubine) couldn’t agree on a release strategy so eventually the rights were let go and picked up by Warner Brothers, who in turn shuffled them off to their independent arm Warner Independent. Finally the now re-titled The Promise (which was its title in other English-speaking territories) would see the light of day here in America. Unfortunately, it didn’t get such a wide release that a ton of people were able to see it, and quite frankly it didn’t do thrilling box office numbers.

In all fairness, it’s somewhat of a confusing story and Western audiences may not appreciate Eastern fantasy. Set in the Kingdom where Gods, mortals and not-quite-mortals dwell side-by-side, a young girl makes a promise to a goddess to forego true love in exchange for wealth, comfort, beauty and power. Somewhat later, the young girl has become a princess (Cheung) in the Kingdom where the King’s best General (Sanada) fights against a ruthless warlord (Tse). Aiding the general is a slave (Jang) with remarkable powers.

The general receives word that the King (Qian) has been surrounded by the forces of the Warlord and sets out to save the King, but is attacked by a mysterious man in black (Liu) and wounded. He sends his slave to rescue the King, dressing him in the general’s magical Crimson Armor to hide the slave’s identity. The slave, not knowing who the King is, kills the King when the King tries to murder the Princess (don’t ask). The slave rescues the princess and the two fall in love, except that the Princess thinks he’s the general. Unfortunately, the Princess is recaptured and to spare her life, the slave agrees to jump over a cliff, which he does. This being a Chinese fantasy, he survives long enough to aid the General in rescuing the Princess. However, she thinks she’s in love with the General, who discovers her feelings early on and because he has fallen for the girl himself, doesn’t correct her error. However, according to her promise to the goddess, she is doomed to lose her love. What’s a fantasy princess to do?

The plot is all over the place and the less said about it the better. Don’t try to follow it or else your brain will swell up to the size of a dishwasher and float out of your head until it reaches some bizarre Chinese heaven at which point it will….see, it’s happening to me too. There are numerous CG effects in the movie and quite frankly, some of them simply don’t work. Both the writing and the special effects really make it difficult to love the movie.

What saves it is the cinematography of Peter Pau, who is for my money the best at what he does in Asia. Almost every shot is visual poetry, filled with color, form and elegance to the point that you nearly weep. After awhile, I found myself just tuning out the dialogue and plot points and just watching the visual imagery, like a visit to an art gallery.

The DVD contains both English and Mandarin versions of the movie. I do recommend the Mandarin version for two reasons. Firstly, the acting isn’t nearly as overwrought and quite simply it is much easier to then ignore the plot and subtitles to concentrate on the visuals. I can see now why the Weinsteins hesitated to give this the kind of general release that Kaige wanted. Quite frankly, it isn’t up to snuff in terms of Western storytelling expectations. Still, it is lovely to look at and worth seeing just for the visual aspect alone, but just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography by Peter Pau. Impressive martial arts seqneuces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders all over the place and quite frankly defies belief. The acting is nothing to write home about.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some stylized violence and fantasy martial arts sequences, as well as a few moments of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film ever made in China.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.9M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Green Lantern