Sunday, 13 July 2008

Huo Yuan Jia/Fearless (2006)

It was about time I watched this film. It is definitely one of the very best films with Jet Li, as its main, and very serious, point is not the fight scenes, but the spirit behind the martial arts, and how it should be a spirit of respect. Like Danny the Dog, this is an anti-violent martial arts film.

Fearless is also a piece of Kung Fu mythology and history. It tells the story of Huo Yuan Jia (1869-1910), the founder of the Jing Wu school. His father was a martial arts master who refused to teach his son any martial arts. The young bullied Yuan Jia couldn't understand why. He learned Kung Fu by himself and swore never to be beaten by anyone.

He keeps his oath, but the more opponents he defeats in his ruthless matches, the more empty he becomes.

Eventually he has beaten every man in his home region Tianjin, except one master Qin. One day he hears that this master Qin has beaten up one of his disciples for no reason, and goes off to fight him. The fight ends with Yuan Jia killing master Qin at a point when he is already barely conscious. As has always been their habit, Yuan Jia and his disciples celebrate the victory by drinking themselves to oblivion.

The next morning Yuan Jia returns to his home and finds his mother and daughter murdered. It is master Qin's stepson who has avenged his stepfather's death. Furthermore, it now comes to light that master Qin actually had a reson for beating up Yuan Jia's disciple - the disciple was having an affair with master Qin's daughter.

Devastated with guilt Yuan Jia wanders off without aim. He is ready to die, but on the verge of death he is saved by some villagers who nurse him back to health. As he gets better, he gets used to the peaceful and hard-working village life and spends a few years there.

At some point he feels the urge to go back to his home town and pay respect to his dead family members. The city surely has changed while he was gone - there are foreigners from colonial powers all over the place, Chinese dressed in Western attire, children in rags begging on the streets, and even camels ...

The times have become troubled. Yuan Jia is a changed man, as well. He no longer feels the need to defeat everyone and prove himself better than the rest. But still, the only thing he knows is to fight. How can he make a difference and call for peace, understanding and friendship among opponents - both individuals and nations - when China seems so weak in face of the increasing pressure from the great colonial powers?

Yuan Jia decides to participate in matches against foreign champions, promoting "friendship through competition". One day, representatives of the main colonial powers present in China plan a great match with Yuan Jia, alone, against four great fighters - one each from Britain, Germany, Japan and what appears to be Spain (though according to history, shouldn't that be France or Russia?) ... How will this end? How can Yuan Jia communicate his message of respect and compassion despite such an unfair set-up?

This is a good film in many ways. It has considerably more sense than any average kung fu flick, and Jet Li's acting is the best and most varied that I've ever seen. And he hasn't been known as a great actor, so this was quite unexpected, even after his performance in Danny the Dog.

One funny thing, though, is all the nationalism it, in a way, propagates. As in many other films depicting this period of foreign intervention in China, it deals with how the Chinese can tackle this problem. The premise is that the foreign interests come with bad intentions, and it's up to the Chinese hero to convince them that friendship and cooperation is the right way.

The foreigners are all - with the exception of Japan's Anno (Shido Nakamura) - depicted as either some kind of inarticulate brutes of raw power (they don't speak mandarin, so they communicate solely with growls and snarls ...), or cunning, evil scheming capitalists with no respect for human life and moral values.

The most extreme case of the former might be O'Brien from the USA:

The USA (Nathan Jones - not a very unsuitable impersonification of that nation, if you ask me ;o) ... vs. China (Jet Li).

While it is Yuan Jia's aim to advocate for friendship and respect, this is, from all I can see, not the kind of friendship where different nationalities adapt to each other and loosen up the boundaries between their nations, but the kind where they respect each others' nations and do not interfere with them, while taking great pride in their own nation. For instance, when Anno scolds his associate Mita (Masato Harada), he calls him "a disgrace to the Japanese" - not "to humankind" or something more universal like that.
(In Fist of Legend, however, this is the other way around. There, the message is that you should "be fluent and adapt".)

As mentioned, Anno's character is an interesting exception among the foreigners. He is the only one with whom Yuan Jia can actually communicate using words, since he does speak Mandarin. Anno is in China, and he respects Chinese culture and is open to what he can learn from it.
Considering what clashes there have been lately between China and Japan, and what atrocities towards Chinese the Japanese army has been responsible for in relatively recent history, I think it is a pretty soothing move in the film to have a Japanese character be the most sympathetic of all the foreigners.

On a more personal note, what touched me the most in the film was Yuan Jia's coming to terms with his heavy conscience regarding the deaths of his mother and daughter, whom he had been careless with while they were still alive, and whose deaths he had caused.

I watched the film on a day when I was having pangs of bad conscience for perhaps not having taken good enough care of a very special person when she was still alive, so I could understand all too well what he was feeling ...

Martial arts:

There are many fighting scenes in this film, but it's not like in those easy Kung Fu flicks where the plot is only there to tie the fighting scenes together. The fighting scenes in this film all bear meaning and each of them carries the plot forward.

Once again, Yuen Woo Ping has choreographed some truly amazing martial arts scenes. Yuan Jia's character is very much expressed by his Kung Fu, and this is shown quite well in the fighting scenes.

In Yuan Jia's defiant younger years, his fighting style is very angry, hard, ruthless and aggressive.

But when he is older and wiser, his martial arts have become soft, respectful, and 'flowing'. (Though it's kind of hard to catch on screencaps ...)

The main misogyny of this film seems to have occurred off the record, and the perpetrator was the actress Betty Sun, in the role of Moon, the blind girl Yuan Jia meets in the remote village. As told by the trivia section at
"Betty Sun was scared by the leeches in the rice paddy. She originally tried to wrap her feet in cellophane, but it showed on camera. Director had to order her to take it off."
Talk about disgrace to womanhood ...

And so do leeches.

Otherwise, the film isn't misogynous at all. One could object to how women and children in a way become symbols for the 'positive' values in life, in opposition to the harsh fighting world of men, but this isn't very obvious, and it could, actually, also be interpreted as depicting and even ciriticizing the society of the time.

Hunk factor:
Jet Li's character is one you (or, at least, I) would identify with, rather than wish you could be with. But there is one very hot guy in the film - the Japanese martial arts master Anno (Shido Nakamura, also known from the heart-wrenching doggie film Inu no eiga) ...

Anno Tanaka - the hottest kendo master on film 2006.

Yuan Jia's mum taught him that, but it's only now, long after she died, that he has understood what she meant.

Awww ... "tea appreciation" ...

Ooh, some chest ... These traditional Japanese V-neck jackets are definately teh hottest.

Great scene:
I just had to take this out. Yuan Jia and the German Hans (Brandon Rhea) are fighting with spears.

Yuan Jia has a bigger one than Hans!

Hans is not at all happy about this. He'd always thought Asians would have really small ones.

(Actually, Hans intentionally broke off his spear at one point. He wanted to be able to use it in combat of closer range, I think.)

The Last Hero in China/Claws of Steel/Iron Rooster vs. the Centipede (1993)

This humorous Wong Fei Hung story (not part of the Once Upon a Time in China series) tells of how the legendary physician and martial arts master (Jet Li) moves to Canton with his school, and ends up in a house next to a brothel. When the prude Wong Fei Hung realises who his neighbours are, he is deeply concerned with how the school will be able to maintain face and how his students will be able to concentrate on their training.

Of course, the students soon get friendly with the neighbours, and they can't understand why their master doesn't want to have anything to do with these nice girls. The madam makes a bet with them that Wong Fei Hung will not be able to resist two of the girls, but it turns out that his interests are of a different kind ... When Wong Fei Hung realises the two patients who've come to see him are actually from next door, and not ill at all, he seizes the opportunity to engage in a bit of BDSM.

No wonder that Master Wong will only be enthralled by a woman with whom he can engage in endless steamy kung fu sparring sessions: Yin-Er (Man Cheung) and her father have disguised themselves as vagabond martial artists performing in the streets, while they are looking for Yin-Er's sister, who has been kidnapped. One day, when a man in the audience to his own misfortune makes shameful comments at their performance, and Yin-Er kicks his sorry ass, Wong Fei Hung introduces himself and offers them his help.

It turns out that Yin-Er's sister was kidnapped by heretic perverted Shaolin monks. Wong Fei Hung, his students, the girls next door and the pimp, who desperately wants master Wong to accept him as his student, help Yin-Er and her dad in their quest to crush the perverted monks and save the women.

Meanwhile, there is the obligatory assassination/kidnapping scheme of a foreign official, in which a certain madly laughing Legate Officer Lui (Gnong Kau Chai) is involved. He also leads a team of centipede dancers, and during a lion dancing show, the lions of Wong Fei Hung's school are suddenly attacked by Lui's centipede, who defeats them and catches the bait.

Wong Fei Hung has tried some ear medicine on himself, resulting in him becoming deaf, and after the rampage of the centipede he goes away to Yin-Er and her dad in the countryside in order to heal his hearing and figure out a way to win over the centipede. When he sees how a rooster kills a centipede, he has a sudden revelation ...

... and returns to Canton, just in time before the attempt on the foreign official is carried out at a centipede dancing show, with a new kung fu style -

- the rooster style! A hilarious fight between the rooster and the Amazing Somersaulting Centipede ensues ...

This is a quite funny and high-paced film with lots and lots of amazing martial arts scenes. Unfortunately, the rather complicated plot gets a bit lost in between the prolonged fight scenes.

Martial arts:
Besides the aforementioned rooster style, the film shows many different kung fu styles and techniques, ranging from Wong Fei Hung's drunken style kung fu to him fighting a convict, whom Legate Officer Lui has unleashed on him, while sitting in a chair during the whole fight.

The martial arts and action scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, and that is also in this film a guarantee for very good quality.

As opposed to Cousin Yi, Wong Fei Hung's love interest in the Once Upon a Time in China films, Yi-Er is really cool and kicks major ass.

As for the conservative views of Wong Fei Hung on the prostitutes, I suppose that if there had been a little bit more focus on the plot, he might have come to the conclusion that they were good people just like himself and his students. ... Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part?

Hunk factor:
I fully agree with the reviewer blazing_1 at "... do not forget to see Jet's rooster style. C'mon, you know Jet Li is the man if he can do that scene and still look hardcore."

Legend of the Red Dragon (1994)

- Thanks for washing my underwear. But you tore them.
- I'm sorry.
- That's okay. I made a smaller pair out of them - for you.
- Thanks, dad.
- ...
- Does that mean you're not wearing any underpants?
- I don't mind. It's cooler.

I almost laughed myself to death watching this movie. It's a Lone Wolf and Cub rip-off or parody (it's hard to decide which) in the beginning, and it incorporates a bit too many elements of the infinitely better movie Fong Sai-Yuk to be all that comfortable. But it's also very funny, silly, and - not least - stupid in its own unique way.

Dad (Jet Li) and his baby child are the only surviving inhabitants of a village that has been eradicated due to the villagers having rebelled against the government. Dad vows revenge. Then he finds out that one other person has actually survived - the one who betrayed them to the government for money. In a dashing fight with his flashing expandable spear and a baby bouncing on his back (hopefully not getting too serious brain damage) dad kills off the treacherous villager ... Or at least he thinks he does!

Some years later, dad and son (Miu Tse) are travelling through the country. They barely have enough money to buy food. Still, son throws away a pear his dad bought him with his last two cents, just because it got a bit mashed when he was in a fight. Perhaps he is anticipating that their luck turns at the next instant: a rich man (Sung Young Chen) hires dad as his bodyguard.

The rich man's young son is actually a disciple of the Shaolin monastery, and he is one of the five boys who have gotten a piece each of the top secret Shaolin treasure map tattooed onto their backs. Of course, the government wants to get hold of this map. Meanwhile, a mother & daughter con team has nestled themselves into the rich man's home: the daughter pretends she wants to marry him, while they are actually about to rob him of all his valuables.

And as if this wasn't enough commotion, the treacherous villager back from the beginning of the film has returned. A witch has "made his body invincible", and he is now a fire-damaged corrosive beast driving around in some kind of weird-ass go-kart.

Martial arts:
This film has lots of hilarious kung fu acrobatics. And never mind that real people couldn't lift a burning log with one hand. After all, that's what movies are for: making your wildest dreams real!!

As mentioned, dad's (and also son's) weapon of choice is an expandable spear. It's very flexible, it can be broken into sections, and the head can be taken off and used as a dagger or dart. Pretty cool.

Son is, of course, subject to rigorous training, such as jumping around on two fingers, defying gravity.

Not much at all, really. As in Fong Sai-Yuk, the women are the real heroes, with lots of brains and superior kung fu skills. And, as opposed to Fong Sai-Yuk, the love-interest (con-daughter Ms. Redbean) is actually one of them. When she does use her 'feminine charm', it's just as a weapon to fool men. Her mum, for that matter, is probably the coolest person in the film (and her voice actor was the only one in the American English dubbing who actually had a bit of character).

In pre-school, the teachers always used to tell us that "love starts with fighting" if two kids who were fighting happened to be of opposite sexes. This might not really have been true of the kids in my class, but it is true of dad and Ms. Redbean, who are fighting, using as a weapon first cloth, then thread ...

Hunk factor:
Naah ... Jet Li's character - one of the weakest performances in the film - is not really real enough to be hunky.

Romeo Must Die (2000)

I actually watched this movie in the first place because I saw that Grace Park, of Battlestar Galactica fame, was in it. Was I ever disappointed when I realised that her entire role consisted in just dancing in a perverted way with another girl while Jet Li's character's brother was watching, not long before he would be killed ...

Anyway, Romeo Must Die is the story of the former Hong Kong policeman Han Sing (Jet Li), who set himself up and went to prison in the place of his father, letting him escape to the USA together with his brother. While he has been sitting in prison, dad has quickly risen as the leader of one of the most influential gangs in Oakland, California (played by Vancouver, British Columbia).

One day, word gets to Han that his brother has been killed, and he instantly breaks out of prison and goes to Oakland to pursue the killers. He soon finds himself in the middle of a three-way deal between Chinese, black and white mobsters who will stop at nothing in order to make more money for themselves.

By chance he meets Trisha (Aaliyah), the daughter of the black gang's boss, who helps him find the killers, and there is even a bit of romantic development between them ... (It stays platonic, though. I think two different versions of the last scene were filmed, one with a kiss, one without. Eventually, the one without kiss was chosen ... Maybe their kissing turned out a bit awquard?)

The film is stylish, has some good kung fu scenes, and Delroy Lindo, as Trisha's dad, delivers a good performance. Otherwise, it's kind of shallow and at times really silly, as in the scene where the homeboys teach Han how to play American Football and he ends up kicking their asses, while the little kids watching the game cheer excitedly. (I guess this film is one of the reasons why Jet Li decided to make Danny the Dog - to teach young people that kicking ass is actually NOT cool ...)

The Romeo and Juliet connection is not so very strong, besides the thing with Han and Trish coming from two rivalling gangs, and Han climbing up to Trisha's balcony in one scene ...

To sum it up, it's a nice enough film for a rainy afternoon. And, yeah, the US film industry surely could use some more 'interracial' romance, so that's a plus for Romeo Must Die.

Martial arts:
There are some pretty cool fighting scenes, but at times there is a bit too much 'entertainment' in them. It's a hard thing, trying to keep the balance between the fact that people really can get disabled for life and die when you kick their ass (in this film eerily illustrated by x-ray-style clips of their bones breaking and hearts exploding), and coreographing kung fu into a beautiful dance of death. It can easily become tasteless cult of violence, and in this film that's what happens now and then.

Beauty ...

... and lack of taste? (Han is trying to flirt with Trisha, but apparently the only way he knows how to do it is by kicking people's asses.)

Not much, because Trisha is a cool girl (there aren't that many women in the film besides her). Of course, there is the dancing scene mentioned at the beginning, and there's also ...

Han Sing: I can't hit a girl.
Trish: Look, I don't know how it is in China, but in America, if a girl is kicking your ass, you do not have to be a gentleman.

So, yeah, at one point Han and Trisha are pursued by a bunch of people on motorbikes with lethal intent. When the helmet of one of them comes off, it's - gasp! - a WOMAN!!! Suddenly, Han can't hit back anymore, because, according to his principles, you should never, ever, hit a girl. It's silly, but also kind of adorable.

But how does he solve this problematic situation? Well, of course he uses Trisha's fists and feet, instead ...

Hunk factor:
Jet Li is always cute when he speaks English. And he and Aaliyah make a sweet couple. (Except for in the pretty awquard club scene ... but maybe I just had such a negative impression of that scene because Han was chewing gum, and I happen to have a pretty strong aversion against chewing gum. *shudder*)