Archive for the ‘Martial Arts’ Category

Movie Reviews 346 – Fearless (2006)

May 24, 2018

While Jet Li has always been a fair actor with martial arts skills to match the movies he has performed in have been decidedly mixed in terms of quality as well as varied in terms of roles he has played. That range includes prominent roles such as the silent captive in Unleashed to his less than  inspirational government bred super soldier in Black Mask. Now that I have finally come around to watching Fearless I can easily say that  this is by far my favorite Li film, both from the point of view of the story and in particular his multi-faceted role.

As a youngster Huo Yuanjia (Li) diligently watched his father teaching martial arts in his private school. Despite being beaten at school constantly by bullies his father refused to teach Huo himself how to fight due to his asthmatic condition. Unfazed and with the help of his more level headed best friend Jinsun (Dong Yong) he manages to steal a textbook so that he can teach himself how to fight. His inclination to learn becomes all encompassing the day he watches his father die in a ‘Death Challenge’ after having been victorious in a string of prior challenges. His father’s death is all the more perplexing to Huo as he had the upper hand in the battle but failed to deliver the fatal blow after having taken down the opponent.

Now a young family man, Huo racks up a string of victories just as his father did, until he becomes reigning champion of the region. But Huo arrogantly flaunts his status as his followers and students party incessantly. When a visiting rival fighter, Qin Lei, beats up one of Huo’s students he immediately goes to a family feast being hosted by Qin in his old friend Jinsun’s establishment. There Huo publicly challenges Qin, disrupting the festivities. Jinsun warns Huo that he is being reckless, but Huo will have none of it, and severing his friendship with Jinsun soundly beats Qin in battle. It is only after Qin dies overnight as a result of his injuries that Huo learns that he did not have the full story. But in retaliation Qin’s nephew has meted out his own justice, killing Huo’s family including his beloved young daughter.

A shattered man, Huo leaves town and becomes a wandering vagrant saved from drowning one day by old woman. The woman brings him home to heal at the hands of her blind daughter Yueci (Sun Li). In their village Toiling in the rice fields Huo learn about humility, patience, and finally love as he falls for Yueci. But Huo is compelled to return to his home to make amends for his past, and once there he is again lured to the battle arena. But this is a new Huo, and his fate will be dictated by his newfound wisdom.

While Fearless does have action sequences – one a particular standout battle atop a high scaffold arena – this is not an action packed film like most of Li’s other films. This film has a split personality that mimics the transition of Huo’s character growth. Edgy at first, then flowing into a somber and humble pace. The message of the film is one of personal ambition clashing with family values, morals and personal integrity while throwing in a dash of anti-colonialism. The end of kind of a mixed bag with Huo finding his inner peace but at a coming with price nonetheless.

If your looking for an action movie there are plenty of better choices, but if you want a well rounded martial arts film this will suit the bill and is definitely recommended.

 

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Movie Reviews 329 – Full Metal Yakuza (1997)

January 19, 2018

As a huge fan of director Takashi Miike, I know that his output can be uneven and that his topics and are as varied as his targeted audiences.  But I felt confident that with a title of Full Metal Yakuza (original title Full Metal Gokudô) that this would be one of his films that are more up my alley than Yatterman for example which was his take on his favorite Japanese kid show growing up. Better known for his explicit horror films like Audition and his violent gang films like Ichi the Killer the title suggested more of an over-the-top blend of the two.

The film features Kensuke Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), a menial wannabe mobster who starts at the bottom of his adopted Yakuza family, literally washing floors at clan leader Tosa’s (Takeshi Caesar) headquarters. He slowly makes his way up the ladder only to fail miserably with his first tangible assignment as a ‘protection’ collector and then ends back to washing duties. But Kensuke’s humiliation does not end there as his fighting skills fail him when confronted by a gang of youths who beat him to a pulp as well as being constantly derided by his girlfriend for his lackluster lovemaking skills. He does have something close to a friend in his partner when he is on guard duty, but even he tends to mock Kensuke at every opportunity.

After his boss Tosa is incarcerated for a number years for having attacked a group of rivals in broad daylight, Kensuke and he are ambushed on Tosa’s first day of freedom when summoned to a supposed yakuza meeting. Tosa is killed and Kensuke is riddled with bullets and clearly must die due to his injuries. Instead he awakens in a ramshackle lab with his head wired and without any apparent torso. His remains and that of Tosa were stolen by a crazed scientist (Tomorô Taguchi) who salvaged parts of both bodies and then added improved cybernetic elements. The new and improved Kensuke is now a powerful metallic monstrosity.

As Kensuke slowly discovers the powers of his new and improved body – which incidentally includes Tosa’s heart – he goes on to avenge some of his previous exploiters. But soon afterwards he begins to draw into himself, question his life and future, and eventually seeks solitude at a beach. There he meets Tosa’s former girlfriend Yukari (Shoko Nakahara), herself grieving over the loss of her lover. And when Yukari is kidnapped by the rival gang, Kensuke’s rescue is like a high octane homage to Tosa’s battle years ago.

Miike, well known for his egregious use of billowing fountains of squirting blood (later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill) makes good use of this staple here. But this is far from Miike’s best films, while at the same time well rounded providing action, gore, comedy and even a love triangle of sorts. While the special effects are sometimes laughable – particularly in the case of the cybernetic costume – others aren’t as flimsy or dated. It is however more a comedy in many respects but risqué at times such as the when Kensuke inherits Tosu’s apparently bountiful manhood (sadly pixelated on my DVD).

While this is a must see for Miike fans, it may only be a fun curiosity for those who enjoy these Asian mind blowing action movies. Hitting so many notes as it does, you’re bound to enjoy something.

Movie Reviews 312 – The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

September 7, 2017

About 20 minutes into The 36th Chamber of Shaolin I thought “What’s the big deal?”. I’d heard so much about how this was supposed to be a classic martial arts movie, a fan favorite and consistently ranking in most ‘best of’ or top 10 lists. Sure it stars Chia-Hui Liu (better known as Gordon Liu to English audiences) but the first act of the film is as generic as it gets. Poor villagers being exploited by corrupt rulers. Young man and his friends vainly try to rebel. Wants to learn how to fight. Seen it all a million times.

This movie really begins when the rebellious youngster Yude (Liu) turns to a Shaolin temple hoping to learn Kung Fu only to be initially rebuffed. The Shaolin are a solitary group and shun the outside world, including all the evil that exist beyond their walls. His request is seen as interference from the outside but one of the monks takes pity on him and convinces the others to let him stay on for menial chores. After one year they reassess his situation and, with some dissent, they allow him to train, which is done by progressing through a succession of ‘chambers’, each intended to teach him a skill or impart a piece of wisdom. Eager to learn, Yude, now given the monk name of San Te, requests to start with the hardest. Upon entering the room with encountering nothing more than chanting monks he is befuddled and confused, It is explained that this last chamber requires enlightenment to even comprehend the significance. He must begin at the start.

He soon learns that the lessons to be learned in each of chambers are not necessarily forms of fighting, but a battle of wits, poise, restraint, determination and intelligence. His tasks sometimes seem impossible such as walking across floating tied bamboo bundles to cross a water filled threshold. Or ringing a bell with a weight tied to a long length of stick in synchronization with monks banging wooden bells … with one hand alone. The trials are both fun to watch and often agonizing. Each trial is lead by a tutor who does not tell the students how to accomplish the task, but makes sure they follow the rules within which the task must be completed, rules that are sure to inflict pain and suffering with every misstep.

But with defiant determination, he makes tremendous progress. His final test is against one of the monks who doubts his skills, which San Te tries over and over to conquer. When finally he completes his trials, and the monks present him with the opportunity to become the tutor in any one of the 35 chambers, but he instead makes the audacious request to create a 36th chamber. His request is to bring the Shaolin teachings to the outside world so that good young men can be recruited and learn Kung Fu in order to defend themselves accordingly. Once again he is denied his request, but is nonetheless allowed to leave and go among the people.

He returns to his old village and begins to teach the villagers what he has learned and in doing so, utilizes all the skills he acquired in 35 chambers.

Exhibiting an exceptional display of skills and battles under the choreography of director Chia-Liang Liu, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is indeed a film that every martial arts movie fan must watch. The wraparound storyline in which two generals abuse their powers is just icing on the cake while providing the justification for the Shaolin instruction. While San Te (and Gordon Liu) take a stern approach to the teaching and his goal to help the victims back home, there is just a taste of light comedy to lighten the mood at appropriate moments. This is not just a movie with a  message about good versus evil, but one with many messages and words of wisdom. Thirty-six, to be exact.

Movie Reviews 305 – Onechambara: Bikini Samurai Squad (2008)

July 8, 2017

The problem with making movies based on video games is that the games have to have a fairly deep and layered story to begin with if anything of relevance is to be culled from the source, which of course is not usually the case.  If you are going to attempt to make a film based on a “hack and slash” video game, as is was the case with Onechambara here, the only hope is that the writer stretched their imagination way beyond the gameplay to deliver a cohesive well plotted and most importantly, interesting story.

While the movie does make an effort to have at least a semblance of a plot, this is as threadbare and predictable as they come. For the most part I felt like I was watching a game as much as I was watching a movie. That said, as one would expect there are some interesting visuals and I’m not only referring to “Bikini Samurai Squad” subtitle.

Set in the year 20XX (That’s not a typo or me just forgetting the exact year, that’s exactly how they define the time period in the intro text), the postapocalyptic world is overrun by zombies that were unleashed by a rogue scientist from the D3 corporation – D3 being the name of the company that created the original game of course. Our bikini wearing, katana wielding heroine is Aya who glumly roams the land accompanied by her chubby sidekick Katsuji. She’s on a mission to avenge the death of her father at the hands of her own sister while Katsuji hopes to find his own little sister Saki who he abandoned long ago. Along their journey they meet leather clad, motorcycle mama Reiko, intent finding the scientist responsible for the zombie mess.

The backstory of how Aya’s sister was jealous of her fighting abilities since they were toddlers is played out as the trio battle one zombie horde after another until they find the evil Dr. Sugita who is still madly churning out the walkers with now with Aya’s sister at his side.

The CG effects when not outright laughable are annoying, with blood spurts that break the 4th wall between the set and the viewing audience as droplets on the screen. I was tired of this the second time they used the effect and just plain indignant as it continued well into the film. Aya is as short on words as she is in fighting prowess. As many martial arts movies as I’ve watched, there is usually at least one or two attempts at a novel fighting move but you will find all of these here repetitive and even boring. The finale battle introduces a facsimile of chain whip brandishing Gogo Yubari from Tarantino’s Kill Bill that is somehow supposed to entertain us when she is neither original nor combat worthy like Gogo. And before anyone points out that Tarantino himself based Gogo on a character in Battle Royale the difference is that he gave depth to Gogo and kick ass fight moves and did not just blatantly create a carbon copy image.

A pointless cash grab aimed at the enthusiasts of the video game, this has nothing to offer to those ignorant of the game, and probably stung worse for those fans who wanted to see a live action version of their dear franchise.

When it comes to this film I want my quarter back and I was never happier to see the “Game Over” ending.

Movie Reviews 288 – Ichi (2008)

February 17, 2017

ichiNot to be confused with Ichi the Killer, director Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent yakuza thriller, this Ichi is yet another variant entry of the Japanese Blind Swordsman lore known as Zatoichi. In this case the blind sword wielder is a lonely and depressed young woman whose day to day meanderings are driven by one solitary goal.

As a blind orphan, Ichi (Haruka Ayase) was rescued and trained by Zatoichi to master the sword. Unable to care for her himself he sent her to become a member of a goze – a term used for visually impaired women who have taken on jobs as musicians for hire – but left her with a little ‘calling’ bell with a promise to visit when rung to comfort her.  After being forced upon by a goze patron and accidentally killing him, Ichi is banished from the goze and began travelling the land in search of the lost Zatoichi.

On the road she meets Toma Fujihira (Takao Ohsawa) – a hapless samurai who cannot remove his saber from its sheathing, guilt ridden due to an accident he had as a child while playing with it.  Their journey brings them to a small resort, or “Inn” village ruled by a benevolent Yakuza known as the Shirakawa clan but now being held under siege by Banki (Shidô Nakamura), the scar faced gang leader of the Banki-to with a snivelling laugh.

That night, Toma decides to do some gambling at the local parlor and with the help of Ichi’s acute hearing Toma wins handsomely while the Banki-to participating in the game loose.  As Toma, Ichi and Shirakawa boy who has started clinging to Ichi depart into the night, the flustered Banki-to follow to reclaim their lost wagers. As Toma once again stammers with his sword, Ichi springs into action and slices to shreds the outskilled Banki-to. Moments after the battle, Toraji (Yosuke Kubozuka), the son of the reigning Shirakawa comes across the fallen Banki-to and, mistaking Toma as the adept swordsman, hires him to protect the Shirakawa and help rid the village from Banki’s oppression.

His secret now out having frozen in action when confronted by the Banki-to in the presence of the Shirakawa, Toma is beaten and berated. But when the elder Shirakawa is slain by Banki, Toraji decides that enough is enough and that the Shirakawa will finally stand up to Banki with a final, all out battle. Scorned by the Shirakawa members, Toraji lets Toma join the fight, goading him to act becoming of a samurai.

The direction is a bit uneven especially in the beginning as transitions between light comedy and poignant drama are somewhat awkward and untimely. But once they arrive in the village the story finds its footing. There are also plenty of solemn and introspective points, either with Ichi distancing herself from Toma, and when Ichi is briefly held captive by Banki. The battles are decent and bloody but don’t expect the usual acrobatics or gimmicks.

Movie Reviews 285 – Clan of the White Lotus (1980)

January 26, 2017

Clan of the White LotusFor martial arts movie aficionados, what could be better than watching a battle featuring the great Pai Mei as the opening credits roll to begin a movie? Right from the first frame of Clan of the White Lotus we are treated to an awesome battle pitting two young men, Hu Ah-Biao (King Chu Lee) and Hung Wen-Ting (Chia-Hui Liu a.k.a the great Gordon Liu) battling the silver haired and lighting quick master. With dazzling acrobatics and breakneck speed the two determined antagonists finally overcome their seasoned foe and mete a final winning blow.

As the scene cuts to an emissary reading out a declaration from the emperor, a narrator explains that all prisoners that were followers of the Shaolin temple including Ah-Biao have been pardoned and are to be released. But the White Lotus Pai Mei (Lieh Lo who also directed the movie) does not take the news well and sends out his thug army to kill all of the prisoners that were released with the primary goal being to kill Ah-Biao, Wen-Ting seeming to have avoided incarceration. While the ambush is a slaughter for the newly freed Shaolin disciples marching their way home, Ah-Biao himself is spared having left the group earlier. But the clan of the White Lotus, eventually track him at his home where his pregnant wife Mei-Hsiao (Kara Hui), Wen-Ting the equally deft fighter Tsing-Tsing are welcoming the warrior back home.

No sooner does Ah-Biao settle in for a long awaited home cooked meal with his beloved and good friends does Pai Mei’s conscript’s arrive to settle the score with Ah-Biao and his his companions. But the two couples, each highly skilled fighters in their own right, put up an effective but eventual losing battle. Wen-Ting and Mei-Hsiao flee, leaving Ah-Biao and Tsing-Tsing to suffer the ultimate fate at the hands of Pai Mei.

The two take refuge with a relative of Mei-Hsiao, where she soon has her baby and as Wen-Ting endeavors to enhance his fighting skills so that he may one day enact revenge on the seemingly unbeatable master, so named after his bushy white eyebrows. Wen-Ting believes that the answer lies in combining Crane style and Tiger style fight manoeuvres, but every time he pits himself in battle against the silver haired Pai Mei, he still proves to be no match. Practicing against paper clothed bamboo mannequins, it is Mei-Hsiao that diagnoses his problem. His over aggressive, full force styles of conflict must be tempered with a soft touch. She teaches him that his Crane and Tiger stances must be abetted with tender, woman like strokes like that of threading a needle in order to have a comprehensive and effective fighting arsenal. The solution is further improved when Wen-Ting discovers acupuncture as a means of ‘threading the needle’. With that newfound technique in hand he takes one last stab (pun intended) at the villainous master.

While perhaps not as revered as other Kung Fu movies of it’s era, the Shaw Brothers studios’ Clan of the White Lotus (also known as both Fist of the White Lotus and Fists of the White Lotus) is the epitome of the genre. Superb and agile action sequences framing a quasi-realistic and passionate story line. The fighting and practice scenes are both streamlined and intricate along with a dollop of comic relief in the guise of a lazy relative and a few cliché Kung Fu grips such as the seven second death touch.

If some of the above seems familiar (as it should), the character of Pai Mei was more recently brought back into the spotlight in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, and played by Gordon Liu for an ironic role reversal. Tarantino being a longtime fan of 70’s martial art films, often uses both characters and actors from the heyday of the genre and Clan of the White Lotus was obviously an influence.

While the English transfer does suffer some hiccups and slightly confusing bits (the exact nature of the opening sequence being one) presumably due to poor translation or actual scene omissions, the end result is still more than satisfying.This masterwork is not to be missed.