Wu Xia, directed by Peter Chan and starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jimmy Wang Yu, was worth the wait, and a welcome change from some of the mediocre wuxia films I’ve been seeing.
Felix Chong and Alan Mak’s The Lost Bladesman (2011) takes a different tact on Romance of the Three Kingdoms by focusing on the episode where Guan Yu “spends some time” with Cao Cao. I appreciate this more subtle approach to the epic tale, even as it has some parts that do not quite make sense to me.
Finally, I get around to a film I have been eager to see ever since I heard the stories about its production: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen! So here we go!
In order to satisfy me, I knew the movie had to credibly enhance the story of Chen Zhen. What happened after that hail of bullets at the end of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury? Well, I don’t know, but Andrew Lau’s movie drops you in the middle of France, and you don’t have time to wonder how Chen Zhen got there. I have to say, I never expected that opening sequence. I thought it was GREAT! I mean, I knew Chen Zhen was BAD, but DANG! Let’s just say I never knew he was part-SUPERHERO! However, aside from that, I thought the decision to open the film mid-battle in France set a very cosmopolitan tone for the film, one that would be repeated once the setting shifts to Shanghai.
One of the critiques one can make of Lee’s Fist of Fury is that, in the process of making Chen Zhen the ultimate Angry Young Man, other aspects of 1908 Shanghai get flattened. But we have to remember, the 1970s was a very different time (that’s what I heard), especially for representations of Asian men, particularly Chinese men, in particular. Prior to Lee’s Chen Zhen, Asian men were getting the short end of the stick in terms of representations in roles where they had agency and were seen as men. So when Lee’s Chen Zhen goes to regain the honor of Chinese men at the Japanese dojo, it means something. Unfortunately, in the process, the Japanese come off as arrogant, evil, sadistic and mean, often through the use of stereotypes. I wondered when I heard about Lau’s sequel about how he was going to handle this. Can you make a sequel to Fist of Fury without the Japanese as the enemy? How would this go over in the 2000s?
I think Lau does a good job (disclaimer: I’m a Lau fan, and while he CAN do wrong (ahem, The Avenging Fist), in my eyes he rarely does (yes, I’m claiming The Duel–I LOVE that movie). I particularly liked the way he evoked a cosmopolitan 1920s Shanghai: the British businessman, the African American jazz bandleader and orchestra, the Japanese soldiers, the Chinese triad members, workers and students. All of these people are believably in Shanghai (for real! go look it up). I think this also contributes to the way he handles the characterization of the Japanese. Are they evil? Well, Japan was an imperial power and they did occupy many locations, so you kinda have to go there with that. What I find interesting is that Lau does not use stereotypes to make his point. Remember the Japanese from Fist of Fury?
In Lau’s film, the Japanese are bad guys, but their badness is not based on stereotypical representations about the Japanese. Here the characters are a little more fleshed out, more complex. Yes, you have the Japanese commander completely committed to ensuring the victory of the Japanese, and his minions, but the traitor isn’t Woo, a sniveling, groveling go-between who wears glasses. Quite the opposite: Shu Qi (thank you for not letting her dance too much, Andrew) reflects a level of inner turmoil as she infiltrates the club.
And while we’re on the subject of stereotyping, Lau also corrects the omission of the Western presence in Shanghai and their attitudes towards the Chinese. Absent from Fist of Fury were the British, who had a hand in colonial affairs in Shanghai and complicated the political situation in Shanghai in ways that affected both the Japanese and the Chinese. The use of Huang Bo’s relationship to the British guy illustrates just how complicated power relations could be.
Moreover, whoever is responsible for the costuming (Dora Ng, costume design) and sets (Eric Lam, art direction) needs an award. If Lau’s intention was to evoke a lush, glamorous Shanghai, then he was successful. I mean, look at this:
So yes, I am loving just the LOOK of this film, even though I know ultimately, we are supposed to be here for the action. Um, did you not see the cast? Two words: Donnie. Yen. YES! I believe that Donnie does justice to the multi-decade character of Chen Zhen. No longer just looking to punch someone in the face, we see a veteran Chen Zhen, who has seen good friends die in the war, and has become involved in the politics of this country as part of the resistance movement. And yet, as always, you do well not to make him mad. His anger here is far more controlled and more targeted. If Donnie did sucky action direction, it would be news, but you know the choreography is on point. Was it a little TOO slicetastic? Yeah, to a certain extent, but not too much to distract me.
And finally, one of the big critiques of Fist of Fury (at least for me) was the wimpy woman character (yes that is singular). Here this chick is in the Jing Wu martial arts school, and her kung fu is ok, but at the end of the day she comes off a little whiny and fairly passive. I guess we were lucky to get her in the film at all. However, Lau, in both principal characters and smaller roles, provides women who are in the thick of things (Shu Qi) and who are politically active (the student who protests Japanese control). Even the quite attractive women who are found close to men who have power go down swinging (check out that assassination attempt).
I dimly remember somebody telling me that I may not like this movie. So silly. I think Lau does a good job of advancing the storyline of Chen Zhen in ways that are compelling for a 21st century audience. Is it a little nationalistic? Maybe, but would it be Chen Zhen if it wasn’t?
Oh yeah, and Donnie channels Kato in the central role he should have had in The Green Hornet.
Ok, not really the first YesAsia order, but I thought it would make an interesting post to see what I’m getting and why. Also, this presents a nice change from me complaining about how Netflix has completely ruined our relationship by not having my Asian stuff!
First, let’s talk about what I’m NOT getting: the 94-episode Three Kingdoms released in 2010. Thanks, China, for not loving me. Why no subtitles in English? WHY?! Really, why make it region free (not like I care) but not have English subtitles? And I can’t do the various OTHER internet ways of accessing this (read: quasi-legal). Standards are too high when it comes to wuxia series. Can’t do parts.
So, let’s move on to what I am getting:
Reign of Assassins: You can’t be surprised by this. Michelle Yeoh and Jung Woo Sung. Co-directed by John Woo. I’ve been waiting for this, not just for the action but for the domestic story. It could be an interesting twist on the “I don’t wanna fight any more” plot, because it’s a woman saying it. Usually, we see swordsmen become beleaguered by the life of a hero. They retire to some cave, or become a monk on a mountain somewhere. Which is fine, but when it is a female lead, inevitably part of her domestic life is going to involve becoming romantically involved with a guy. Where else would the tension come from when her gang comes looking for her trying to drag her back into the life? The stakes are different for ladies, and I’m interested in how they handle this.
Shaolin: Once again, this is a given, ever since I saw the trailer for it. AND it’s not JUST because it has Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and some guy named Jackie Chan in it. Corey Yuen does the martial arts choreography and it’s written by Benny Chan. Yeah, I know we’ve seen the destruction of the Shaolin temple many times, but I’m never opposed to revisiting it, especially if someone can bring something new. Plus, it looks like there may be some engagement with the modernization of China. At least that’s what I think of when I see cars and guns versus monks.
The Lost Bladesman: Me, absolutely giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing Donnie Yen play Guan Yu. You had me at Guan Yu. You know he’s your favorite of the Three Brothers. I want Liu Bei to be a better man than he is, and Chang Fei is just cray cray. Now, there is the potential for disappointment here, especially since it will invite comparisons to Red Cliff. You know my aim here is not to tell you what’s “good” and what’s not. I’m just telling you what I like. And I like Donnie Yen. A LOT. Plus, Guan Yu seems to have more potential for exploration as a character. I do want to see him do more than wield the blade and do that move with the beard. I’ve heard some less than stellar things about the actual plot, but hey, I’m getting it ANYWAY!
True Legend: Yes, not just because of Vincent Zhao but because of Zhao PLUS Yuen Wo Ping! Ok, I do have a thing for Zhao and it has everything to do with the emotional roller-coaster he took me on as Chu Zhaonan in the wuxia series Seven Swordsmen. STILL not over that ending! I think that he could be a viable go-to guy for action and wuxia films, but no one seems to go to him. Putting him with Yuen Wo Ping seems like it will be a treat. Yeah, I’ve heard some less than enthusiastic things about it, but hey. I’m getting it ANYWAY! I’m really looking for another treatment of the Beggar So legend than Steven Chow’s stuff.
Ok, so that seems to be a good deal of wuxia-related stuff. But that’s not all I’m getting!
Turning Point: This is has been in my saved cart for a while, and I wondered why I put it in there in the first place. Then I remembered: Michael Tse, of Young and Dangerous fame. You know how attached to Young and Dangerous I am, and I really like this guy. Plus I heard good things about the television show, EU, on which the film is based.. And it has Anthony Wong AND Francis Ng, each with crazy haircuts, which means the potential for their portrayal of off-the-chain characters is high.
Stool Pigeon: I’m always looking for a good crime drama, and given that this is directed by Dante Lam, who also directed Beast Stalker, I’m willing to give it a try. I always love to see Nick Cheung do serious roles, because the first time I saw him was as the wise-cracking security official in Andrew Lau’s The Duel. Who knew he’d go from that to things like this? Plus it looks like Nicholas Tse isn’t as pretty as he usually is in films. I’ll deal with it.
And to round it out, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart: Who doesn’t love Louis Koo? And I particularly like him when he’s being silly and romantic. Pair him up with Daniel Wu in a Johnnie To vehicle, and this could be great.
So that’s it. That’s what I’m getting. Once my shipment arrives, I will regale you with my opinions, because I know you are so looking forward to that.
Reign of Assassins, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i4yVbYX98I
The Lost Bladesman, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sA2NETUFkc0
True Legend, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNzRP0ZSKzw
Turning Point, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5EMxEVFE2E
Stool Pigeon, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-6NX_ZnCLM
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh0gGbDf6XM
Dear Takeshi Kaneshiro,
I feels like forever since I’ve seen you. Like I could ever forget your face:
Don’t you remember how we met? I know you may want to forget Returner, but you should fondly remember that crazy film. I saw our potential even as you worked your way through the alien time travel. Don’t remember the subsequent good times?
Red Cliff? This warrants a brief pause, because you KNOW my love of Zhuge Liang.
I even watched you in Fallen Angels and you KNOW how I feel about Wong Kar Wai. So where have you been?
While one might assume you have been up to no good, you clearly have been doing good stuff, starring in Peter Chan’s Wu Xia. Ok, let’s say it together: WU XIA! Just the name makes me giddy. And just when I think it can’t get any better, IT HAS DONNIE YEN ALSO! And just when I think my mind can’t take anymore. THEY TAKE IT OLD SCHOOL WITH JIMMY WANG!! Really?! YES, REALLY!
Don’t believe me? Look here! (I know since you are in the film you already know. I’m just telling the people).
How could I have ever doubted you? Ok, I will wait patiently for your return. The end of 2011 seems so far away. :(
And it better be good. Just sayin’.
So, it may seem that I’ve abandoned my love of Chinese wuxia, having seen the bright lights of the kdrama Queen Seondeok and the sexy manly of Korean idol bands like SS501 (oh yes, a WHOLE entry devoted to them is coming)…..
Fret not, I’m still down with my wuxia! I thought people might get a little sick of me continuing to wax poetic about Zhuge Liang, because I can talk all day long about Romance of the Three Kingdoms! I teach an Asian film and lit class, and that time is rolling around again for the biannual showing of Red Cliff, Parts 1 and 2. I did watch Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame awhile back, and was pleased, just haven’t got around to putting my thoughts down.
But the historical kdrama and the Chinese wuxia series are closely related to my interests: women you don’t want to mess with, and talented handsome men who tag along! (How many times do I gotta tell y’all about applying to be my own personal Hwarang? Then again, I have to think about what function a contemporary Hwarang would have….and do they need a health plan?). So I need a basis for comparison. Plus, the Chinese series are a little slow in coming….I’m not really interested in Chinese Paladin, and I’ve heard bad things about The Jade and the Pearl. The last ones I watched were The Master of Tai Chi (with my perennial boo, Vincent Zhao) and The Four (with, you know, those four guys). While The Master of Tai Chi had several significant women’s roles, The Four had none. Well, that’s not true, it did have one, but she’s kinda disappointing in the end. Ok, more than one, but it was still not the greatest for women. I keep meaning to hit the new versions of The Book and the Sword and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, but not yet.
I’ll be back in full effect once my YesAsia shipment gets here: most notably, the 95-episode treatment of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, True Legend, Reign of Assassins, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (DOOOONNNNIIIIEEEE!! I know, not wuxia, but it’s Donnie Yen!).
Don’t worry, I keep my eye on the wuxia world………
I love a good remake. Let me say this again: I love a GOOD remake. I’m not down for “reimagining” somebody else’s film just because you think you can do it better (yeah, Scorsese, I’m talkin’ to you).
So I’m intrigued when hearing about some interesting Asian film remakes on the horizon.
Donnie Yen is supposed to be revising the angry young man theme in his remake of Fist of Fury. I like Donnie, so I’m looking forward to this and I’m particularly intrigued by what he plans to do with all that anti-Japanese sentiment from the original. When Jet Li when this route, you practically forgot the Japanese were even in this movie.
Then there’s the Dragon Inn remake. Yes, it’s supposed to star Jet Li but what I’m really interested in is who is going to reprise the roles that made me want to be Bridgette Lin and Maggie Cheung when I grow up. Any suggestions? Michelle Yeoh seems like an obvious choice, but I guess we’ll see. What did Tsui Hark forget to do the first time around? I hope this is better than his Seven Swords soiree.
But this is the most trippy of all: the Korean version of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. I found this trailer, and I don’t understand Korean, but I immediately could tell that this was A Better Tomorrow:
Now, just cause you put on a white suit and some shades and roll with a couple of guns doesn’t automatically make you Mark. But given my penchant for Korean film, I’m willing to give it a shot. And given the tendency for Korean films to be crazy good, this may be one of those remakes I love.
The first time I watched Seven Swords was on the heels of Tsui Hark’s series version. At that time, I was so enthralled by Vincent Zhao’s Chu Zhaonan that I didn’t really pay too much attention to the movie, but with some time on my hands, I’m giving it my full attention, and I got questions.
The movie requires you to know this story, because it unfolds on the screen so fast. First, funky looking people are whacking villagers, next thing you know, you’re in the mountains with meteors raining down from the sky. But I did like some of the changes Hark made, like making Yuanyin female, because girls can carry swords too.
But I’m most intrigued by Donnie Yen’s Chu Zhaonan being Korean. He wasn’t Korean in the series, and since the world has not seen fit to provide an English translation of the novel both are based on, I have no idea if this is original or of Hark’s own making. In the wuxia genre, outsiders are generally from “the West” or anyplace other than where our heroes originate. Does it make a difference that Donnie is Korean? I think so; it underscores what I guess is supposed to be the character’s aloof nature. He’s all anti, which makes the whole supposed love-relationship with Green Pearl not very believable…..that is, unless you know the story. He’s anti because he’s not from “here” but making him from Korea puts a new spin on who he is as a character. Is it supposed to make him more noble, or more distant?
What I miss is the exploration of the relationships among the brothers, and between Chu and Yang Yunchong. In the movie, they just seem to be hanging out on Mt. Tian, and you don’t get a sense of the brotherhood.
What does remain is the crackaliciousness of the villagers. They are supposed to be righteous, but they would sell out their grandma. Upright swordsmen come to save you, and you accuse them of being traitors. Where’s the love? Village leader willing to whack his own daughter with no proof that she sold out the village. People willing to whack kids (how low!). So much for doing it for the people.
A few days ago, I was channel-surfing, and found Highlander: Endgame on. I was delighted to find that this is the one with Donnie Yen in it, well, at least for the about 10 minutes of total screen time he gets. And this got me to contemplating, Donnie Yen is WAY underrated. Yeah, you’ve seen Donnie in films like Highlander: Engdame and Blade 2, but what you might not know is that he is also action director on these films. Who else do you think makes Adrian Paul and Wesley Snipes look cool? You’ve seen the brilliance of Donnie Yen, even when you haven’t seen him.
Yeah, we got Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but where is the love for Donnie Yen? Just like Li and Chan, he did his stint paying homage of Bruce Lee by doing the almost obligatory remake of Fist of Fury, but Donnie has a special place in my heart because is SERIOUS about the martial arts film. Ask Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue, his co-stars in Dragon Tiger Gate. In the special features, all of them do their bit on the film. When Nic and Shawn are asked, “So, how did you like working with Donnie Yen?”, they both get the same look in their faces. Fear? Not sure; both are used to doing action films that require a lot of activity, but they both bowed to the master Donnie Yen, who obviously put them BEYOND their paces. Donnie seems to be on a mission to bring back/keep what made the Hong Kong action film the bomb.
Like I said, he’s serious. In the special features for SPL, he’s choreographing a knife fight. So I’m watching, then realize like 20-25 minutes later, I’m still watching him choreograph the same knife fight! That’s commitment. It’s especially good to see him work with someone on his level, like Collin Chou, because I found myself getting nervous when they went at it in Flash Point. While some of us were longing to see the ultimate cool martial arts match-up in Forbidden Kingdom between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, we may have forgotten the legendary fight between Donnie Yen and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time In China 2. Whee!
So, show some love for Donnie Yen! Get out and watch a film! (Any film will do, but you can skip Empress and the Warriors, it is a complete waste of Donnie’s talents!)