Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pointing In The Right Direction: A Look At The Directorial Work of Wang Lung-Wei - Part 1

This is it folks, what you've all been waiting for. My huge three part look at the directorial work of fan favourite Wang Lung-Wei. For those who may not be familiar, Wang Lung-Wei started out as a contract player with the prestigious Shaw Brothers studio. He landed his first major supporting role in Chang Cheh's Shaolin Martial Arts in which he played a monk which specialized in the Iron Stomach technique. From that point on he would appear in dozens of films, many that include such bona fide classics as New Shaolin Boxers, Avenging Eagle, Ten Tigers Of Kwantung and many more. With his no-nonsense approach to acting as well as being extremely committed to performing martial arts, Wang Lung-Wei has risen to become one of the most recognizable faces in Hong Kong Cinema.

With numerous films under his belt, some of which saw him working with the venerable Chang Cheh, Wang thought it was time he applied what he had learned and embarked on a career as a script writer, choreographer and director. While still under contract with Shaw, Wang called in some of his acting buddies as well as a few fresh faces and made his debut as the writer and director of This Man Is Dangerous AKA Shandong Madman released in 1985.

In it we're told the story of two young police officers played by Chin Siu-Ho and Cheung Chin-Pang who are transferred to CID in hopes of furthering their careers within the department. Things don't quite go the way they planned when Chin inadvertently insults one of their superior officers played by Lam Fai-Wong. Deciding to mess with them a little bit he assigns them the task of getting a set of finger prints from a dead body in the morgue. Now this particular sequence had me scratching my head because I've seen enough episodes of CSI to know that the police have whole departments to take care of that. Also when the two hapless cops go down into the morgue the floor is littered with corpses. Why? Had they run out of storage space? or did they just have some of the laziest morgue attendants working there?

Either way we're treated to some grating comedic verbal exchanges as Chin and Cheung argue over who has to get the prints. This scene went on just a little longer then I would have liked and since Wang was the writer it seems he has quite a morbid sense of humour given what we've witnessed through out the scene. From there we move to a scene which sees our moronic leading men given the task of apprehending a drug dealer by the name of Pink Lady played by the ever dependable Elvis Tsui. It's here we finally get to see Wang's talents as an action director as the two leads engage in a martial arts showdown against a group of thugs in a night club. His style of fight choreography is very much like his acting, no fancy moves just simple kicks, punches and take downs. Though it was a little difficult to take seriously as Chin Siu-Ho was dressed like he was auditioning for the live action version of Double Dragon.

Through out the earlier parts of the film we see Wang Lung-Wei as a violent criminal making dirty deals with a gangster played by Cheung Kuen. Most of these scenes are pretty routine Hong Kong gangster posturing. In fact the first hour or so of the film's run time is pretty unengaging for the most part. except for the scenes which feature Wang. There's a particularly harrowing scene in which he and his gang gun down a restaurant full of people with hand guns stolen from a group of cops earlier in the film. This scene shows that Wang was not going to be shy about showing violence on screen, especially when it involved innocent people.

I get the feeling this is something Wang had learned from working with Chang Cheh. Chang was a director who had no hesitations about killing off characters in his movies. If he absolutely, positively had to kill every main character, he would do it if it meant being able to tell a good story. I have to admire Wang's attempt to tell a good story here. Unfortunately most of it isn't good at all and is pretty typical Hong Kong Cop Caper fair that was extremely common place around this time. It's worth sticking with it though. Oh boy is it worth sticking with it because once we enter the last half hour of the film things turn extremely dark and extremely violent when the police have had enough and decide to go after Wang and his group.

I've seen a lot of Wang Lung-Wei's films and it's safe to say I have never seen him play such an angry, violently psychotic character before or since. While in films like Mercenaries From Hong Kong he did play short tempered but street tough characters, here we have him playing a completely unsympathetic lunatic. This is where Wang's strengths as a director start coming into play. He's able to keep the tension at a level which will keep you glued to the screen. Where else will you see him take on over a dozen police officers armed with nothing more then a pissed off attitude and an Uzi sub-machine gun? not in any other movie made around this time I can assure you.

This Man Is Dangerous isn't the perfect movie but it's a pretty solid debut for someone who obviously wanted to tell a story in his own unique style regardless of whether or not people liked it. When it was released it wasn't a particularly big hit at the local box office but Shaw Brothers were obviously more then happy to let him direct another film under their banner which leads us to our next film and one which is very special to not only myself but a number of my fellow fans and bloggers.

Released in the same year as This Man Is Dangerous, Hong Kong witnessed the arrival of an incredibly ambitious and blood soaked tale of Triad revenge on the streets of Hong Kong. Starring the trio of Leung Kar-Yan, Tsui Siu-Keung and Cheung Keung, Hong Kong Godfather sees them play a group of Triad brothers out to avenge the death of their uncle Han (Sek Kin) after the betrayal of Rotten Chi (Shum Wai) in order to help Lan (Wong Chun) gain territory and become the number one Godfather. After completing This Man Is Dangerous it seemed Wang had a little bit more money to play around with and as such the production values while still on the low budget side are much better spent on Hong Kong Godfather. What really sets this apart from Wang's previous film. is with that film the central characters were police officers and as such we saw them as well, nice guys for the most part who don't do anything particularly amoral or anything that could be considered a crime. This time however with Wang having written the script once again, we're following Triads and as such the film's narrative and characteristics aren't constrained by what a character can and can not do. 

The character Rotten Chi in particular is very much the catalyst that sets the course of events in motion that puts our film's heroes on a bloody, violent path of retribution. In the earlier scenes of the film we see him trying to kiss up to Han in an attempt to get in good. It's when Mad Wei (Kar-Yan) enters the picture that we see Chi's jealousy get the better of him and so when Lan makes him an offer that will help him gain better standing in the underworld he accepts. However in the later scene which sees Chi murder Han we finally see that he almost regrets what he is doing but knows that there's no turning back and shows no mercy as he stabs his beloved uncle to death. Shum Wei's face pulling may come across as a bit silly during this scene but it works as it shows just how emotionally damaging this is to him. As mentioned before innocent people don't fare too well when Wang Lung-Wei is directing and not only do we see the death of Han but his entire family including his 8 year old grandson who meets his demise by having his spine smashed before being thrown through a glass window.

Hong Kong Godfather is not a comedy, it's a dark, serious, angry and vengeful film that pulls no punches and spits blood on your face in order to show you these guys do not mess around. Wang also stretches his choreographic muscles a little bit more this time round. Much like the brief moments of hand to hand action in This Man Is Dangerous, the fighting here is simple with a little bit more stylistic edge to it. Almost every character uses a big chopper knife and this gives the scenes a little bit a swordplay vibe but the choreography is still grounded enough so that it doesn't become distracting or out of place. However the film isn't entirely flawless.

The acting, shall we say is pretty bad for the most part. As I mentioned in my previous column Leung Kar-Yan's performance is incredibly uneven. While he was an extremely talented screen fighter and has appeared in some brilliant Hong Kong films, he's never been the best of actors and Hong Kong Godfather does nothing to dis-spell that. During Han's funeral scene you can see he's trying hard to be all upset but all comes off as a bit silly. In fact, that's one of the reasons we and a few others love this film so much, it has so many mad things going on. Just look at Tsui Siu-Keung's hair for instance. Go on, just look at it:

See how ridiculous that things looks? it just screams 80's style right at you and the Sonny Crockett look doesn't help but I can't begrudge it too much since I'm a big fan of Miami Vice. Another what the hell were they thinking moment comes from the pet dogs belonging to Leung Kar-Yan's character. They end up actually playing an important role in the film, especially the German Shepherd Stallone who comes to his master's aide when they're attacked by Rotten Chi and his men. Still for all these crazy moments the closing reel of the film sees one of the most bloodiest, most violent and angry finales ever committed to a Shaws film and that's saying a lot given this was a studio who let Chang Cheh put his characters through the meat grinder during his heyday.

When the brown stuff finally hits the proverbial fans we see our three heroes storm the headquarters of Lan. This is were I think a lot of the budget was spent. Lots and lots of bright red fake Shaw Brothers blood. Seriously, there's a whole lot of bleeding happening during this finale. Wang literally paints the walls with his characters blood and it creates such a vivid image seeing all that red splashed against those clean white walls. The fight which takes place on the stairwell is incredibly brutal and sees our heroes take some seriously fatal hits but somehow manage to pull through. Tsui in particular gets it right in the neck but since he's so tough he just shrugs it off and becomes even more pissed off then he was before.

If you're wondering if Wang Lung-Wei himself appears? he does in a couple scenes. One in the beginning which sees him gun down a group of people in a Casino using the same Uzi from This Man Is Dangerous and toward the end when he fights Leung Kar-Yan in a brief but nicely done fight. Hong Kong Godfather is a memorable piece of 80's Hong Kong Crime Cinema, if only for the fact that it's so clearly out of it's own mind that it's determined to entertain you one way or the other. Upon it's release it wasn't such a huge hit but movies like this rarely were but this didn't deter Wang from pursuing his career as a film maker further. This time directing something less serious and directed a film that fits more into the action comedy mold that had become extremely popular in Hong Kong during the 80s.

After leaving Shaw Brothers in 1986, Wang directed The Innocent Interloper. A slightly more formulaic but incredibly fun action comedy about a social worker, Shee (Lawrence Ng) who unwittingly comes in possession of a pair of counterfeit money plates and finds himself being pursued by a group of gangsters led by Big Boss Cheun (Chan Cheuk-Fai) along with his right hand man Wicked Brain (Shing Fui-On) but manages to get help from his wayward father (Shum Wai) a tough as nails female fighter, Siao (Elaine Lui) and her brother Paleface (Hwang Jang Lee)

Forgoing any type of serious tone, Wang Lung-Wei directs a film that falls comfortably into to the huge list of action comedies which saw release during this time. Perhaps Wang realised if he wanted his films to be more successful then perhaps he should give them the type of film people liked. Of all the films I've looked at so far, The Innocent Interloper is probably Wang's most accomplished in terms of pacing, characterization and action direction. There doesn't seem to be any filler or terrible acting moments here. Each scene serves a purpose to the story no matter how brief it may seem. The opening especially sets the tone as we see Paleface escaping from a group of thugs having just stolen the counterfeiting plates from Cheun. We're treated to a surprisingly long and wonderfully choreographed action sequence which looks to have been inspired by Jackie Chan featuring lots of quick exchanges and high impact stunt work.

From there we're introduced to the film's key players including Shee, his father and Siao. Lawrence Ng does well enough, especially in some of the film's more quieter character moments, Shum Wai hams it up as his father and shows why he was one of the better actors in Hong Kong Godfather. Hwang Jang Lee meanwhile does what he does best, look like someone ate his lunch and kick people in the head. However the real stand out for me was Elaine Lui as Siao. I was familiar with Elaine, having seen her in a couple other Hong Kong movies but Innocent Interloper marked her acting debut and it has to be said she leaves quite an impression. Not only is she extremely good looking and a decent actress but she handles herself incredibly well during her many fight scenes. So well in fact that Elaine could have given Michelle Yeoh a run for money as the Queen of Hong Kong Action had she appeared in more films like this.

Shing Fui-On also earned himself lots of screen time as the bumbling Wicked Brain. He does a good job here and proves why he was one of more underrated character players working in the industry. To add to the whole Hong Kong Action Comedy vibe there's a ton of cameos thrown in from guys like Wong Yu and Bill Tung to Wong Jing and Chan Wai-Man. Cameos were a big thing during the 80's. That's what I love about these types of films, you always find yourself pointing out people you recognise. However those cameos don't stop the film's narrative in it's tracks and keeps the story moving at a pace so it doesn't become boring. Unlike Wang's previous films as director, the script was written by Huang Ying, who was the writer of films such as The Loot, Close Encounters of a Spooky Kind and Those Merry Souls. It pretty much shows that while I admire Wang's talents as a director his writing did leave a lot to be desired most of the time so it was a good move to bring someone else on board and help craft the story. Although it seems Wang didn't bother with a composer as all of the music ques have been lifted from other movies including Jackie Chan's Armour of God.

What sets Innocent Interloper apart from Wang's other movies besides the tone and characterization is the amount of action we're given. There's quite a lot in here. In fact more then I had originally anticipated. There is a truly wonderful sequence which sees Elaine fight off a group of thugs, while for some of the move it's obvious she was doubled but for the most part you can see it was her. There's a rather painful moment which has poor Elaine take a full on kick to the back of the head and it's a wonder she wasn't seriously injured. Hwang obviously gets to show off his fancy leg moves and has a very good fight with Chan Cheuk-Fai. a martial arts  practitioner who has only appeared in a handful of films and TV series throughout his career but I would hazard a guess and say that his fight against Hwang is probably the best he's ever done.

As you can tell I really enjoyed Innocent Interloper as Wang Lung-Wei has directed a film that is incredibly fun to watch and shows that he's  capable of doing more then just violent crime movies. Unfortunately the film was even less of a success financially but this could be due to the fact that the film featured no major stars but that shouldn't put you off getting the VCD since Fortune Star didn't feel the need to put it on DVD when it really is a film that deserves that treatment along with a number of their titles they released as part of their wonderful and affordable Legendary Collection. The Innocent Interloper is a fantastic slice of 80's Hong Kong action comedy and comes highly recommended to those who have yet to see it.

That is all for part one. Check back later next week as we head straight into part two and look at some more films directed by our mustachioed maestro!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

5 Things To Love About Mercenaries From Hong Kong

Here's five reasons why you should love Wong Jing's action adventure ensemble film Mercenaries From Hong Kong

Number Five: Behind The Times

One thing that always dates movies isn't so much the fashion or the landscape but the technology. This phone especially looks incredibly dated in a completely hilarious way.

Number Four: Ti Lung's Magic Goatee

Mid-way through the finale of the film Ti Lung inexplicably grows a goatee and his hair becomes about an inch longer then it was in the previous shots. Either it's just a case of poor continuity or it could be he does indeed possess the rather bizarre and incredibly useless ability to grow a goatee at will. I'll go with the latter option.

Number Three: The A-Team

Besides Ti Lung, Mercenaries From Hong Kong also stars a crack team of top Shaw Brothers talent including Chan Wai-Man, Nat Chan, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu and Wang Lung-Wei. Seeing this group of actors together makes for some excellent viewing.

Number Two: Co-ordinated Fashion Strike

Since Wong Jing managed to get these guys together he felt the need to have them all wear matching tracksuits during the film's run-time. A completely silly idea but one which ultimately works in the film's favour.

Number One: Philip Ko's Wig

Do I really need to explain this? just look at the god damn thing!

That's it for this entry of 5 Things To Love. Further apologies for the delay in my article but I will be posting it sometime during next week so I appreciate your patience and urge to keep a look out.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sorry For The Delay, Folks

Since making the announcement of the Wang Lung-Wei article, a friend of mine offered to send me better quality copies of some of the movies I was going to be watching so I decided to wait for those before making a start. I apologize to anyone who may have been looking forward to it. It's my own fault for jumping the gun on this. Rest assured though that I will be posting the first part up as soon as it's done. In the mean time, enjoy this image I put together for my friend Achillesgirl

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Coming Soon....

I would like to take this opportunity to officially announce my next series of articles will be Pointing In The Right Direction: A Look At The Directorial Work Of Wang Lung-Wei. Be sure to check back this week end for the first of what will be an epic three part article in which I will be discussing films such as This Man Is Dangerous, Hong Kong Godfather, Bloody Brotherhood and More.

See you all very soon!

Monday, 16 April 2012

5 Things To Love About Like A Dragon

Here's five reasons why you should love Takashi Miike's live action adaptation of SEGA's Japanese Action Drama video game Yakuza.

Number Five: Dog Day Afternoon

While the main plot of the film concern's protagonist  and former Tojo Clan enforcer Kazuma Kiryu returning to his home turf in order to put things right which have gone wrong in the past, one of the sub-plots concerns a pair of bumbling petty robbers who find themselves trapped in a bank in the middle of a heatwave and no air conditoning. Their constant bickering and realising they are way over their head makes for some really funny scenes.

Number Four: The Dragon Of Dojima

Kazuki Kitamura plays the film's main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and while he may not be an exact likeness of his video game counterpart he pretty much nails Kazuma's stoic personality. Also he looks pretty impressive in the numerous fight scenes he partakes in.

Number Three: Brawl For All

One of the video game series core game mechanics is the fighting system. As you play through all the titles you'll get involved with many martial arts battles. The series is known for it's brutally violent content and luckily director Miike doesn't shy away from it. While the choreography used is less over the top hand to hand combat and more down and dirty brawling it works and we get some really good fight scenes, especially the first fight between Kazuma and his nemesis Goro Majima.

Number Two: Feel The Heat

One of the most unique elements of the game's fight system are the Heat Actions. As the player is fighting a special meter builds up which allows them to use special moves such as stomping on a poor guy's face, smashing his head into a wall or slamming a bicycle down on him. When the meter is ready a blue flame emanates from the player's body. If this had been done by any other director then this is something that would have been completely ignored. Luckily Miike is a director who loves using wild and crazy ideas so applying the Heat Actions to the fight scenes is an excellent idea.

Number One: He's One Bad Mutha...

Every hero needs a good villain and Like A Dragon delivers with Goro Majima played by Goro Kishitani. Majima is one of my favourite characters from the video game series and Kishitani plays exactly as he is in the game. His eyepatch may be over the wrong eye but that's a minor complaint given that Majima's crazy yet at the same time incredibly humorous personality shines through.

That's it for this entry of  5 Things To Love. Be sure to check back later in the week when I'll be posting my next review.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Dynamite Brothers (1974)

Larry Chin (Alan Tang) arrives in San Francisco looking for his estranged brother. While there he is apprehended by corrupt police detective Burke (Aldo Ray) who also has small-time crook Stud Brown (Timothy Brown) with him. Both Larry and Stud manage to escape and head to Los Angeles. Stud agrees to help find a criminal called Tuen (James Hong) who knows the whereabouts of his brother.

This is going to be a tough one to review. The reason being despite having just finished watching the movie moments before writing this review, I'm actually struggling to really put down my thoughts in any lengthy way. This is mostly due to the fact that The Dynamite Brothers is such a completely bland film to really go into anything in any detail would be a waste of my time. Still, I'll try my best to present an honest critique of this rather plain but some some small ways curious piece of 70's Blaxploitation Kung Fu Cinema.

First of all, let's discuss the man who directed this picture; Al Adamson. For those who may be unfamiliar, Al Adamson was a low budget exploitation film maker who was more known for making horror then action movies. Having directed films with titles such as Blood of Dracula's Castle and Satan's Sadists it seemed that he tried to cash in on the trend of martial arts and Black cinema in the 1970s by coming up with his own take on the genre.

He also directed a couple other Blaxploitation martial arts films later on; Black Samurai and Death Dimension, both starring Jim Kelly. It wasn't until gathering information on this film that I realised I own both those films so they may end up being reviewed here some time in the future. Getting back to The Dynamite Brothers, it seems Adamson was a director who worked with noticeably low budgets but seemed at least creative enough to make good use of it. While his films may have looked cheap compared to some of the other films Hollywood studios may have been doing at the time, nevertheless he seemed to be able to spend money wisely on his productions.

He even had the incredible foresight to import a Hong Kong stunt team to take charge of the action as well. Lam Ching-Ying was the action director and he brought with him some familiar faces such as Peter Chan, Philip Ko, Mars and Billy Chan. Seeing this group of people in a predominantly American production during this time is very impressive so I have to at least give Adamson credit for getting these guys on board. The late Alan Tang plays one of the co-leads. He had already established himself as a major star in Taiwan and Hong Kong during this time, having made a number of films which made him very popular with local Audiences. He gives a pretty decent performance and handles himself pretty well during the many fight scenes. The odd thing is, for the majority of his dialogue even though he can be seen speaking English, his voice is dubbed yet there are a couple scenes when it is apparent you can hear his own voice and his English was perfect. Why they felt his voice needed to be re-dubbed in his other scenes seems like an odd decision.

Starring opposite Tang is Timothy Brown in the role of Stud Brown. A former NFL star who played for the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Colts. He's also probably best known for playing the role of Capt. Oliver Jones in the immensely popular TV series M*A*S*H. He does well enough here, shows a little bit of charisma and shares some amount of chemistry with Tang. James Hong plays the main villain. Hong is arguably one of the most recognizable actors to have ever worked in the motion picture and television industry. With an incredible 367 acting credits he's appeared in hundreds of films and television series. By this point in his career he had already appeared in a large number of television series and The Dynamite Brothers is one of his earliest film appearances. He plays the typical bad guy character, letting his henchmen do all the work while he sits around and pulls mean faces.

The rest of the cast however are bad. Really bad. Some of them are bad in a way that it becomes comical. Especially Don Oliver in the role of Smiling Man. A gang boss who talks smack and has an army of gun totting canon fodder ready whenever anyone decides to bomb his club.

As mentioned earlier Lam Chin-Ying was in charge of the martial arts action. It's evident from the very first fight scene that while it was choreographed well enough, it was filmed really badly. Adamson may have wanted the fighting to have a Hong Kong flavour to it but it seems they didn't have enough time to do proper camera set ups and as a result the fight scenes do suffer. Lam's choreography is good. Not the best that was around at the time but good enough for a production like The Dynamite Brothers. His style of action seems to concentrate on using kicks with a few fist techniques thrown in. Tang makes for a convincing on-screen fighter. He has several fight scenes and comes off looking like a legitimate tough guy through out all of them.

There's a good fight between him and Peter Chan. Both use kicking techniques and they have some good exchanges. I would have liked it to have been longer and also to have had a more satisfying ending but the way it does end is typical of Adamson's style as it seemed he was iching to get some blood in there. Brown partakes in a few fights but seeing as he's not a martial artist nor is the character he's playing he just throws John Wayne style punches and pushes a few of the stunt men around. If you're wondering if James Hong gets in on any of the action, I'm sorry to inform you that he doesn't. Instead we get a vehicle chase scene which features a rather hairy looking stunt when someone jumps from a motorcycle onto a moving car. It may seem like a simple stunt but if that had been miscalculated by even the slightest inch it could have had a fatal ending.

The Dynamite Brothers isn't a particularly good film, even when compared to other well known Blaxploitation movies of this era but it is on reflection a curious piece of the genre's history given the fact it features Hong Kong talent. If you like Grindhouse style movies and are looking for something to watch then I'd probably recommend it but don't go rushing to see it as you're not missing much.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Music Videos Feat. Jackie Chan, Leung Kar-Yan, Conan Lee & More!

I made these a few weeks ago but haven't posted them up here, some new music video for your viewing pleasure!

Drink & Fight, Jackie Chan!

Battery Feat. Leung Kar-Yan!

Secret Agent Man Feat. Jimmy Wang Yu!

Ninja, Ready To Fight!

That's it for today, new review will be up tomorrow!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

My Schoolmate, The Barbarian - 我的野蠻同學 (2001)

Edward (Stephen Fung) is transferred to a new school after an incident involving his ex-girlfriend. Not long after he butts heads with the school bullies and is forced into a fight. After losing, another student called Stone (Nicholas Tse) agrees to train him so he can better defend himself. Meanwhile Stone has to deal with Mantis (Samuel Pang) constantly challenging him in order to become The King Of Duel.

Wong Jing has always been a film maker for better or worse that can make a profit. Not a huge profit when compared to most Hong Kong film makers but enough so he can fund further projects. With a knack for being able to make movies very fast and very cheap, as well as being able to change scripts on the fly even when filming. Wong Jing has gained a reputation among fans as a director which you either love or you either hate. Especially when you consider the fact that he's worked with some of the top names in the HK film industry. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung and Chow Yun-Fat are just some of the people which he has worked with on a consistent basis.

My Schoolmate, The Barbarian is a film which sees him working with what were at the time two of the hottest young actors working in the industry, Nicholas Tse and Stephen Fung. Two actors who have since gone on to have very successful careers even in a time when young actors like themselves would often fall out of popularity with local audiences and fade into obscurity. Nicholas especially has matured into a very capable actor in both the dramatic and action stakes with Fung enjoying a career as a film maker in his own right having directed films such as Enter The Phoenix, House of Fury and the upcoming Tai Chi O.

It's a good thing this film has two actors like Tse and Fung in the lead as if it had starred anyone else it could have easily fallen apart very quickly. While Wong Jing may be able to make films quickly, some times they just aren't very good. The pacing which moves at the break neck speed suffers from annoying supporting characters, horribly written dialogue and not enough action to justify the title. Wong isn't entirely to blame though. He actually co-directed this with another director Billy Chung who has directed such genre "classics" as Kung Fu Mahjong and The Lady Iron Chef. You would think an inept film maker Chung would be able to rein in the mediocrity once in a while but it's obvious that Wong Jing seems to be responsible for most of the scenes that were filmed.

Getting back on topic with the two leads. Tse and Fung are very likable. Fung plays the naive smart guy pretty well and Tse plays the stoic hero in a very competent way. Tse's character Stone especially gets to enjoy the benefit of actually being fleshed out and given a real personality with a believable if not purposefully tragic back story. Shame none of the other characters enjoy this sort of treatment. Joey Yung's character Phoenix almost comes close but when she has moments which sees her screaming for no apparent reason we stop seeing her as an interesting character and somebody who should be receiving psychiatric treatment. Her parents come off slightly better though. Frankie Ng and Rocelia Fung have some nice scenes together and it is nice to see Frankie play something other then a Triad for once.

Handling the fight choreography is Ching Siu-Tung, another big name who has worked with Wong Jing on several occasions. Ching seemed to be an interesting choice here as at this time he was mostly doing more fantasy orientated work like The Duel and Shaolin Soccer and despite the film trying to be a teen comedy drama he uses the exact same style of choreography and film techniques he applied to those films. Not that I had a problem with that in any way. I'm all for action directors doing fight scenes in unique and interesting ways and it's a testament to Ching's talent as an action director that he's able to apply his style of frantic and fantastical action to a film such as this. One problem I did have with the film was that there wasn't enough of it.

The film opens with a great fight between Nicholas and another actor whose name seems to allude me. Right away this fight sets the tone for the style we will be seeing. It very much reminded me of the classic Kung Fu movies of the 70's which would open with a fight that displayed what would be the primary style and generally easing the audience into the over tone of the film. The fight uses a lot of exaggerated kicks and punches with a lot of it done in slow motion allowing for some cool moments so the actors look like they are legitimate fighters. Nicholas has always impressed me when doing action. It comes as no surprise that even to this day he takes his training very seriously and has been able to show off what he can do in films such as Invisible Target and Shaolin. His moves are a little stiff but for someone who was never formally trained he is very impressive.

Stephen Fung also gets to look like a bad ass fighter when he has a rather impressive fight with Yu Ka-Ho. The most interesting aspect of these fights are that they take place on a bunch of school desks all pushed together to create a platform. As each move is executed the desks are knocked away leaving a smaller area for them to fight. This made Ching become more creative in terms of the choreography and I'm surprised this idea of a slowly shrinking area of movement hasn't been used in other films.

Another good fight sees Nicholas fight Samuel Pang. Pang is a performer who I've yet to see used to the effect he was here. He's an extremely capable fighter but no one has used him like this since and it's a shame because I'm hugely supportive of actors who can not only act but can fight convincingly on screen and Pang is one of those types of actors. His very lean build and cold stare make for a good villain and I hope one day a director will realize his potential and use him in a good way. His fight with Nicholas is a fine example of his skills and flexibility, particularly when he throws a few nice looking kicks.

We then get a rather lengthy and nicely done finale taking place in a garage. Ching throws in as many ideas as he can in the remaining running time. Both Tse and Fung take on Lee Tat-Chiu. Lee's character uses a lot of big kicks and some traditional arm and hand locks. Again, the exaggerated way in which Lee uses his moves and applies them evokes 70's Kung Fu with a slightly contemporary edge. He has a few nice exchanges with both actors. There's a nice moment when Chiu and Nicholas have a classic sword duel with a spanner and baseball bat replacing swords. Ching uses the exact same style of action he used in films such as Swordsmen II and it was interesting to see this used in a more modern setting. Things get even crazier from there when Fung has to fight on his own against Lee and we see Wong Jing indulge in his love for video games. Something he's done before. It's a good solid final fight and is definitely worth checking out.

My Schoolmate, The Barbarian is an interesting mix of comedy, drama and almost fantasy style martial arts action. Not all of it works but what does work is great and what doesn't is ultimately forgettable. While I wouldn't say it's a must see for fans of Hong Kong action cinema. Fans of Ching Siu-Tung or Nicholas Tse might have a good time with this one.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Over 12,000 Hits!

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Monday, 2 April 2012

Under The Influence: Modern Hong Kong Action Cinema And The Spirit Of Chang Cheh

If someone were to ask me who I thought was the most influential film maker in the history of Hong Kong Cinema, my money would be on the prolific and much beloved Chang Cheh. Having directed over 90 films in his long and storied career, Chang is the man responsible for popularizing the swordplay genre during the Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema during the 1970s. Drawing influence from Spaghetti Westerns and Japanese Chanbara movies, he was able to create the genre which would become known to fans as Heroic Bloodshed. Films which emphasize themes such as brotherhood, loyalty, respect and honor. These types of films not only proved to be incredibly popular with local audiences but also became huge hits overseas. Films such One Armed Swordsman, The Heroic Ones, Vengeance and Blood Brothers are just a few of the films he directed that really pushed the idea of that in these films, these characters and their relationships matter just as much as the martial arts action.

With this mentality Chang Cheh was able to not only have films which contained memorable action scenes but equally as memorable characters and stories. As you look deeper into the machinations of Chang's mind, you begin to realize just how much of an impact he had not only on the martial arts genre but Hong Kong film making as a whole. During his days at Shaw Brothers, Chang took on a young assistant director who helped him on films such as Boxer From Shangtung, The Water Margin and Blood Brothers. When it came time for his young assistant to strike out on his own, he was able to apply what he had learned, use these stories and characters and transport them to a more contemporary setting.

That young assistant's name was John Woo.

Having already made over a dozen films as director, Woo felt it was time he brought his mentor's teachings to a more modern setting and ended up creating one of the most popular and most memorable Hong Kong films ever made, A Better Tomorrow. In it we are told the story of discharged prisoner and former Triad Sung Tse-Ho played by Ti Lung (Himself a frequent collaborator with Chang and along with David Chiang they had been known as The Iron Triangle during their days as Shaw Brothers) having been jailed for crimes he committed earlier in the film. Upon his release he finds that his entire world has been turned upside down. His brother Kit played by Leslie Cheung wants nothing to do with him, his best friend Mark played by Chow Yun-Fat (in a role that would single handedly define his career) is a mere shadow of his former self, eking out a living washing cars and living in a parking garage and to make matters worse, his former apprentice played by Waise Lee is now head of the Triad.

From this point in the film we see the hand of Chang Cheh hovering approvingly over it. All the troupes of Chang's work are here and it was with this style of film making Woo was able to become one of Hong Kong Cinema's biggest directors. Woo was one the first to really push the idea of Heroic Bloodshed in a modern setting and make it a hit with audiences. Many producers and film makers attempted to bring their own version of A Better Tomorrow to the screen afterward, all with varying degrees of success. However, the influence doesn't stop there. If you look at the directorial works of Wang Lung-Wei, particularly Hong Kong Godfather. A film which came out a whole year before A Better Tomorrow but is just apparent in were it draws it's inspiration from.

Hong Kong Godfather is an incredibly violent and delightfully mad Triad film which sees three Triad brothers avenge the death of their Uncle. While Wang seemed the lack the more deft touch of Chang. You can see straight away just who he seems to be channeling. Especially toward the end of the film when the violence reaches monumental levels of insanity and blood literally covers the walls. Truly a film was never more deserving to be called Heroic Bloodshed.

The 80's would see a number of Heroic Bloodshed Triad pictures. Mostly drawing inspiration from John Woo. A man who was more then happy to carry on the work of his mentor. Moving into the 90's we would see a resurgence of the Swordplay genre. This time with more fantastical elements brought in, thanks to the truly astounding choreographic work of Ching Siu-Tung. While gangster pictures were still being made, none of them would ever really reach prominence. However in 1995 we saw the beginning of one of the most popular film series of it's time with Young & Dangerous. Directed by Andrew Lau, Young & Dangerous told the story of a small group of young Triad fighting to survive on the streets of Hong Kong. Through the various character interactions and the way it plays out, you know just what Lau was trying to do. Tell those same stories John Woo tried to tell with A Better Tomorrow but re-working them for a more modern audience.

This seemed to cause yet another slew of Triad crime films. All of which featured story lines and characters all distilled from the works of Chang Cheh decades ago. It's amazing when you really start to examine just how far the reach of Chang Cheh goes. Even today, his spirit lives on thanks to film makers such as Wilson Yip and Johnnie To. During a lull of martial arts action pictures in Hong Kong, one film came out which caused shock waves throughout the industry. Directed by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam and Sammo Hung as well as a real breakout role for Wu Jing, 2005 saw the release of Sha Po Long. A dark martial arts crime film that featured the much anticipated on-screen clash of Yen and Hung. Two figures, despite having been in the industry for a number of years, had never had the opportunity to work together. Featuring a compelling story of a detective pushed to using questionable methods in order to bring down a powerful crime boss, Sha Po Long was able to combine a well written story with engaging characters as well as some incredibly brutal fight scenes. 

It's the central relationship Simon Yam's character has with his fellow officers that you can see that these are a group of men who respect each other, care for each other and would do anything for each other. They share a bond that no one else can understand and it is this bond Yam's character has with his men in that he is able to start really getting underhanded when he thinks it's time he finishes Sammo's crime boss character off, once and for all. Again, we can see here those familiar themes of brotherhood, loyalty and honor. This combination of dark story telling and brutal action would lead to number follow ups such as Flash Point, Fatal Move, Fatal Contact, Legendary Assassin among others. All of which took a leaf from SPL's book and would go on to be moderately successful. If Chang Cheh were alive today, these are the types of films he would be making.

Johnnie To is another director, while not perhaps directly influenced by Chang Cheh, whose work shares a lot of similarities with Chang. If you watch films such as The Mission, Thrown Down, Exiled or the Election films, the true themes of Chang's work immediately leap out at you and while this is in no way intentional on the part of Johnnie To, you can't help but feel that Chang would be proud that his work has had such a profound effect on modern Hong Kong Cinema, especially when you see that with the re-emergence of period war epics, swordplay films and traditional martial arts films, film makers from Hong Kong and even Mainland China are keeping these classic stories alive in their own way. 

Whether you agree with me or not, Chang Cheh is the most influential figure in Hong Kong Cinema history. His talent as a story teller and combining it with great action can be felt even to this day. Next time you find yourself watching SPL or The Mission. Just pay attention to the relationships between the characters and theme of Chang's work will begin to show themselves. Brotherhood, Loyalty, Respect, Honor. It's all there. Trust me.