The Emperor’s Sword


Things are looking up.

(2020) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Xu Chang Chao, Yilin Hao, Qin Chu Ming, Feng-bin Mou, Ruoyao Pan, Zhao Qihang, Xiaofei Shi, Qiyu Yang, Xu Zhangchao. Directed by Zhang Yingli

The corruption that comes with the pursuit of power is universal. All cultures have stories, legends and myths concerning the relation between the two. Some stories are meant to be parables; others are meant to stir the blood in one way or another.

More than two thousand years ago, the Qin dynasty of China ruled with peace and prosperity. The emperor had in his possession a sword that gave him the power to rule all of China. He also led the Seven Gentlemen – the Brave, the Wisdom, the Polite, The Virtuous, the Valor, the Vigor and The Wise – don’t ask me hy two of the seven had essentially the same quality. After the Emperor’s ascension to the throne, they retired to the Wind Valley, confident that the land was in safe hands.

But all good things come to an end and when the Emperor died just ten years later, an ambitious nobleman named Zhao Gao takes advantage of the situation and massacres the family and retinue of the Emperor’s son, who happened to be the Emperor’s most loyal general. Only the Emperor’s daughter survived, having grabbed the sword – which had now been split into two with one half entrusted to the general’s care – and ran for her life. She was protected by one of the Gentlemen, who discovered what was happening too late to save the general’s family but soon enough to protect the sword.

The daughter and the Gentleman split up, with one going to assemble the other Gentlemen, and the girl to an inn run by an ally. The sword must be taken to a holy shrine, and a reformed thief known as the Ghost will escort her there, but there are many looking for the girl and the sword – including someone that she never expected to betray her.

Fans of classic Wuxia cinema will want to seek this one out. It kind of fell between the cracks a little bit; it doesn’t have any major action stars in it, and by the standards of better-known films it had a much smaller budget. That doesn’t mean it is any less worthy of attention. There is beautiful cinematography – one battle scene is shot in a foggy bamboo forest, for example and another in a temple perched high on a mountain – and fight choreography that is second to none. While some of the digital effects are less satisfactory by our standards, likely out of budget concerns, for the most part this is a beautiful film to watch with gorgeous costumes and sumptuous set design.

While this has the makings of a historical epic, it is all pretty much a fictional tale told amid real-life events. There was, for example, a real Zhao Gao although he was a palace eunuch, not a military man as depicted here, and he did attempt to seize power following the death of the self-proclaimed First Emperor, although he tried more through intrigue than military might. The First Emperor, by the way, was the one who was buried with the Terra Cotta warriors near the present-day city of Xi’an, and while his tomb has never been excevated, it remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in China.

While the movie debuted on the martial arts-centric streaming channel Hi-Yah! Back in July, it is only now making its way to premium streaming platforms and DVD/Blu-Ray release. While the story, with all the different Gentlemen and other players in the drama, may have a few too many characters to keep up with, this is a frenetically-paced and highly entertaining Wuxia that is well-plotted and at times, poignant enough to make it one of the very best movies you’ll see this year. I’m only disappointed that it was not made available for theatrical release; it would have looked amazing on a big screen.

And for those who have an abiding affection for Asian martial arts films, let me take a moment to show Hi-Yah! some love. It has an amazing library of titles, going back to Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers, and covering nearly every type of martial arts movie that you can think of. And at only $2.99/month for a subscription, it’s one of the best bargains in the streaming universe. Cinema365 gives it the highest recommendation possible. To sign up for a subscription, click on the Hi-Yah! link below.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful fight sequences. Beautiful cinematography. Some really powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vandenberg spent several years as a member of the French Foreign Legion before turning to stunt work and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hi-Yah!, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Business of Birth Control

One Shot (2021)


Scott Adkins practices his Eastwood sneer.

(2021) Action (Screen Media) Scott Adkins, Ashley Greene, Ryan Phillippe, Emmanuel Imani, Dino Kelly, Jack Parr, Waleed Elgadi, Terence Maynard, Jess Liaudin, Lee Charles, Andrei Maniata, Jamie B. Chambers, Dan Styles, Justin Sysum, James Unsworth, Dimitris Kafataris, Duncan Casey (voice), Anthony Abiola, Ronin Traynor, Dita Tantang. Directed by James Nunn

When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope back in 1948, the movie was set up to appear as a single shot. Back then, it was not technically possible for a complete feature film to be shot all in one take; cameras back then didn’t hold enough film to manage it. So Hitchcock improvised, moving in on stationary objects where he would reload the film and begin shooting again. It proved an effective exercise, although, truth be told, not one of his better films.

That has since been repeated in movies like Birdman and 1917 which were able to film longer sequences without stopping to linger on someone’s back or a table or a sofa thanks to digital cameras. Now, the idea has made it to action B-movies.

CIA junior analyst Zoe Anderson (Greene) is being escorted by a group of Navy SEALS led by taciturn Jake Harris (Adkins) to a Gitmo-like black ops base on an island in Eastern Europe. She is there to retrieve a prisoner (Elgadi) who may have information about an imminent terrorist attack in Washington DC. When they get there, the guy in charge, Jack Yorke (Phillippe) in no uncertain and LOUD terms finds the whole thing highly irregular and wants to verify Ms. Anderson’s orders. But before that can happen, the base is attacked by a gaggle of terrorists who pour out of a truck that may or may not have clowns in it as well, and all of a sudden the SEALs are in a fight for their lives.

When you realize how much effort had to go into choreographing the movie’s action sequences precisely so that explosions and bullet thwips went off precisely, you have to admire Nunn and DP Jonathan Iles for their preparation. Because the camera is handheld and uses fluid motion to take us through the action as if we were there, the whole exercise resembles a first-person shooter more than anything (the influence of which Nunn freely admits).

But it feels gimmicky. You get the sense that the only reason that Nunn shot the movie this way was to show that he could. It doesn’t really enhance the storytelling all that much – in fact, the story is particularly cliché and unimpressive. Worse still, the martial arts skills of Adkins – which are considerable – are not utilized until nearly halfway through the movie and while he indeed shows why he is one of the best B movie action heroes with his slick martial arts moves, by the time they show up you are already checking your email and maybe seeing what you’re going to order on Uber Eats for dinner.

With little to no character development and a pedestrian story, only the one shot gimmick gives the movie any interest whatsoever – and it will feel gimmicky after a while, make no mistake. If as much care and attention had gone into the script as had gone into the choreography, this could have been something truly special, rather than one of many forgettable action movies littering up the VOD services.

REASONS TO SEE: One has to admire the preparation and craft that went into choreographing this thing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The single shot thing comes off as gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem, profanity and some scenes of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in 20 days.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outpost
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Anonymous Animals

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Mortal Kombat (2021)


Ready Player One….FIGHT!!!!

(2021) Martial Arts (Warner Brothers) Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones, Daniel Nelson, Ian Streetz, Yukiko Shinohara, Ren Miyagawa, Mia Hall, David Field, Kris McQuade. Directed by Simon McQuoid

Some movies just don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good review. For many, it’s because the movie just isn’t very good but for some, they have two strikes (and sometimes three) going against them coming in. Movies based on videogames, for example.

Part of the problem with videogame-based movies is that most players of videogames would rather play them than watch them, and understandably so. Videogaming is an active participation activity; movie watching is not. You can say what you want about gamers (and there is a lot to be said about them, to be sure) but they are not into passive activities. They need to be involved, although the way movie watchers become involved is a bit more emotional and mental than videogaming.

There is a plot here but it is awfully convoluted. Essentially, the Earthrealm (where we live) has been involved in a series of fighting tournaments with the Outworld which is inhabited by all manner of monsters. We have, predictably, lost nine tournaments in a row. The tenth is coming soon, and should we lose it, we become slaves to the Outworlders who will take over. That would be a bad thing.

However, the Earth is protected by the thunder god Thor…I mean, Raiden (Asano) He has marked a group of champions with dragon-shaped birthmarks. One of these is down-on-his-luck MMA fighter Cole Young (Tan) – a completely original character for the movie, for those fans of the game looking to find him in one of the many iterations of the game franchise. He is skeptical when told by Special Forces member Jax (Brooks) about what’s going on but an attack by Subzero (Taslim) who has control over ice, which is an ability I generally wish I had during summers here in Florida, help to open his mind. Along with the beautiful Sonia Blade (McNamee) and wisecracking Aussie Kano (Lawson), Cole heads to Raiden’s temple to train for the upcoming bout. He, like the other champions of Earth, will have to learn to find their Arcana – their special powers. However, Outworld emperor Shang Tsung (Han) is eager to win the tournament without having to actually fight it, and has sent some of his own champions to wipe out the Earth champions before the tournament even starts. Boo, hiss.

The strength of the movie lies in the gloriously bloody fight sequences which bring the gore that the original game was notorious for to the big screen – the big knock on the two feature films that were made based on the franchise back in the 90s was that they sanitized the violence which was, like it or not, one of the biggest reasons the game was so loved back in the day.

The movie also suffers from an excess of characters. The MK videogame franchise has developed over the years a pretty lengthy list of champions and villains whom fans of the franchise are familiar with and perhaps not wishing to alienate the core group of fans, many of them make at least a token appearance in this film. This is where they could have learned something from the Marvel and DC franchises, both of which have an enormous amount of characters to draw on. However, you see only a handful of them in the movies to date. Marvel did it best; start with one character and then introduce new ones as the series goes on. The movie is nearly two hours long and it didn’t need to be; save some of these characters for future movies. I guarantee that it will keep fan interest going longer as they wait for the long-awaited appearances of Goro, Mileena and Reiko.

Also, the training sequence takes up much of the middle of the film and is way too long. As RogerEbert.com reviewer Brian Tallerico astutely pointed out, nobody wants to watch an hour-long tutorial in the middle of the game. This is where they introduce a lot of the beloved characters from the game that could have waited for introductions later in the series.

And it is going to be a franchise. No doubt about it. The movie has done well enough in the pandemic-weakened box office to warrant it, and the movie seems to have been set up to jumpstart the franchise once again after Mortal Kombat: Annihilation killed it dead. And make no mistake, there is some potential for a long-running franchise here, but those in charge of it need to be patient and develop it slowly without forcing appearances of characters just to keep fanboys allegedly happy; for one thing, that disrespects the fans who would rather have a good movie made about their characters than a bad one. There is a lot to praise about Mortal Kombat – paramount among those the innovative fighting sequences, the marvelously violent and gory ends to some of the fighters (many built on the ends that these characters suffer in the game itself) and the CGI which is more than adequate. This is a decent kick-off for a franchise but if they want to sustain it they will have to do a better job in the movies that are sure to follow.

REASONS TO SEE: Snazzy special effects and fighting sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is almost an afterthought.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a crapload of violence (much of it gory and violent), plenty of profanity and some crude references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third live-action film based on the best-selling videogame franchise; it is also the first of the three in which Raiden is played by an Asian actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until May 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Fighter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
There Is No Evil

Lady Detective Shadow


Up on the rooftops.

(2018) Martial Arts (Dark Coast) Shang Ring, Zhang Pei-yue, Qi Jing-bin, Zhang Ren-bo, Qiu Yun-he. Directed by Si Shu-Bu

 

In China, Wuxia films are a staple, much as superhero films are here and westerns were in the 50s. They made some brief cultural impact with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon back in 2000 (and the legendary fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen who perfected wire work and is responsible for the graceful fight sequences in that film reportedly worked on this one) although it was to be, sadly, merely a brief moment in the American sun.

This film features Shang Ring in the title role as an itinerant Sherlock Holmes-like detective who travels throughout China solving whatever mystery comes her way. In the desert badlands of an, a string of brutal murders have been committed and the prefect of the city is sure that bandits from a neighboring town which is run by bandit gangs are to blame. Certainly, the evidence points in that direction as there is a literal convention of gangs occurring in an inn on the edge of town where the detective is staying along with her comic relief assistant (program note: none of the roles have been matched with the actors playing them in any literature I’ve been able to find other than the lead role). The Lady, whose given name is Sima Fei-yan, happens to be the niece of the city prefect who urges her to solve the crime for him. It also gives her a chance to catch up with the prefect’s son whom she grew up with and was at one time sweet on.

The closer she gets to the truth, however, the more she realizes that she is getting involved in something much larger than a mere serial killing. She is on the verge of unlocking an ancient secret that could mean life or death for those she cares about most.

Like many Wuxia films, the plot can be hard to follow sometimes and the subtitles roll across at light speed, sometimes too fast for even readers who are fairly speedy to make out. Characters show up in the film whose sole purpose is to kick the McGillicuddy out of somebody (or have it kicked out of them). The acting is over-the-top, the dialogue clunky and the special effects are often rudimentary at best. Some cinephiles turn their noses up at Wuxia for those reasons but true lovers of the genre realize that’s part of their goofy charm.

Most of the genre’s Western fans tend to come for the fight sequences and to be honest they won’t be disappointed, although they won’t be blown away either. This was a low-budget affair and at times it shows, whether on the lack of star power or the occasionally incomprehensible special effects decisions – just FYI guys, when horses gallop in the desert they leave a contrail of dust in their wake.

As entertainment goes, this is fun to watch if you understand the genre. Those who despise Wuxia films will likely not be converted to the cause watching this. Those that love them and forgive them their occasionally many sins are likely to find this a worthwhile investment of their time. Those unfamiliar with the genre and who are looking for an introduction to it, this probably isn’t a worthy starting point but at the same time it does maintain a lot of the elements common to most Wuxia films. One gets the sense that the producers were hoping to initiate a new franchise with this. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were successful in that goal.

REASONS TO SEE: The action is non-stop, just the way it should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story can be hard to follow and the special effects are weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie was initially made for Chinese television.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sides of a Horn

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco