Call of Heroes (危城, Benny Chan, 2016)

call of heroesA blast from the past in more ways than one, Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes (危城, Wēi Chéng) is a western in disguise though one filtered through Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone more than John Ford. Filled with Morricone-esque musical riffs and poncho wearing reluctant heroes, Chan’s bounce back to the post-revolutionary warlord era is one pregnant with contemporary echoes yet totally unafraid to add a touch of uncinematic darkness to its wisecracking world.

1914 – three years after the collapse of Chinese feudalism and warlords rule the land, each vying for power and terrain but taking little account of the displaced people in their path. The residents of Stone City find this out the hard way when notorious general Cao Ying wades into town and conducts a widespread massacre seemingly for the fun of it. Plucky school teacher Bai Ling manages to escape with some of her pupils even whilst other teachers and children are being summarily executed by Cao’s troupes.

Having left with nothing and walked miles, Bai and the children are near starvation when they stop into a noodle house to share a single bowl. Unfortunately the noodle house is about to be robbed but fortunately one of the diners is bearded wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) who isn’t up for anyone disturbing his serious food coma. Impressed with Ma’s skills, the kids and Bai make their way to Pucheng where Bai has a cousin but Cao is still on the warpath and trouble has a way of tracking good people down.

Pucheng (the name of which literally means ordinary town), is watched over by the noble sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan) though the protective garrison has been sent to the front leaving them with only a skeleton defence. When a mysterious visitor arrives in town and proceeds to shoot dead a man, woman, and even a child, Yang arrests him but when the killer turns out to be Cao Ying’s unhinged son, a number of questions arise. Yang is committed to justice – no matter the man’s name, he ought to pay for his crimes. Yet, Cao Shaolun’s presence is sure to attract his father’s attention and so many of the townspeople feel it might be better to let Cao Shaolun go. Placate a tyrant and undermine the idea of justice by failing to enforce the law or sign your own death warrant by standing up for your principles, it’s a frontiersman’s dilemma.

The references to classic Hollywood westerns are obvious enough, particularly when the narrative takes a turn for the High Noons as Yang finds himself standing alone as the sole resistance to the oncoming militia man threat. Though the townspeople do not exactly turn on Yang in the same way they turn on Kane, they clearly choose appeasement over war. Yang’s dedication to justice is purehearted, there’s little hint of personal vanity in his decision to stand up for the rule of law but only the knowledge that folding now is the same as bowing to Cao’s tyranny.

Though introduced as a possible protagonist, Ma Feng takes a far smaller role in the action than might be expected. Clearly channeling Mifune’s Sanjuro, Peng’s wisecracking drifter and cynical, reluctant hero is almost at odds with the serious business of law vs politics over in Pucheng. His character centric subplot of conflict with a former friend who works for the other side is insufficiently developed to support the emotional weight it’s intended to carry and sometimes feels like a distraction from the main narrative though the great pot mountain based martial arts set piece is certainly one worth waiting for.

If Peng’s Ma Feng feels slightly misplaced with his cynicism and comic stunts, Louis Koo’s hammed up villain Cao Shaolun is in an entirely different film altogether. Wildly over the top, Koo plays Cao Shaolun as a permanently amused psychopath, all crazy eyes and manic laughter. A self consciously cool guy, Cao Shaolun dresses in white and murders innocents with a golden gun all the while knowing he can do as he pleases simply by the virtue of his name.

Shot with a heavily digital aesthetic, Call of Heroes’ evidently high production values are sometimes reduced to a televisual quality or otherwise let down by substandard CGI. The fight scenes themselves are filmed with an old fashioned rigour filled with innovative and exciting choreography and are refreshingly humour free. Like the best westerns, Call of Heroes contains its own parable in that the best weapon against tyranny is a strong and righteous populace but the final stretch almost undermines its noble aims by presenting what is either a revolutionary spring lead by the people for the people, or a worrying case of mob justice.

Prone to narrative dead ends in setting up major characters only to sideline or kill them off unexpectedly, Call of Heroes has a frustrated quality in not being able to decide whether it wants to be a serious call to arms for standing up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming force, or a comedic romp in which a cocky drifter sorts everything out by accident. Either way, Call of Heroes does provide a number of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces even if floundering slightly in-between them.


Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Kuei Chih-Hung, 1974)

TheTeaHouse+1974-248-bWhere oh where are the put upon citizens of martial arts movies supposed to grab a quiet cup of tea and some dim sum? Definitely not at Boss Cheng’s teahouse as all hell is about to break loose in there when it becomes the centre of a turf war in gloomy director Kuei Chih-Hung’s social minded modern day kung-fu movie The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Cheng Ji Cha Lou).

Wang Cheng runs a small teahouse which prides itself on being the kind of progressive environment where everyone looks after each other as long as they play by the rules. Unfortunately, one of his young guys – Blackie, fresh off the boat from the mainland, has got himself into bad company and into trouble with the law. However, as he’s a minor, he gets off with barely any punishment at all. Cheng tells him he can stay at the teahouse only if he pays properly for his crime leading him to try and get himself arrested all over again so he can go to jail (which actually proves very difficult).

Another unfortunate side effect of Blackie’s adventure is that it brings some unwanted gangster attention and when two young thugs come looking for one of the waitresses, Boss Cheng is not going to stand for any nonsense. However, after his attempts to help the girl have failed, he finds himself in trouble with two different sets of gangsters and also a meddling police inspector who seems intent on using the teahouse to trap the triads.

Boss Cheng is a good and decent man but also someone with his own opinions on justice who is not afraid to take matters into his own hands. His rules for workers at the teahouse emphasise obeying the law and behaving like responsible citizens, but he’s not above carrying out a little corrective action of his own if the need arises.

The biggest theme of the film is the rising inequality and place of migrants from the mainland in contemporary Hong Kong society but the first target Kuei has his sights set on is out of control youth. Because of the lenient laws regarding child criminality, the young men of Hong Kong run rampant, safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to happen to them while they remain under the age of responsibility. The two gangsters accused of raping and attempting to force the teenage waitress at the teahouse into prostitution give their ages as 14 and 15 respectively to the trial judge and are released without charge to go back to their life of crime with impunity and no respect for the law or conventional morality. Sadly, this system just creates another child criminal but one who will receive a jail sentence even if a lighter one to be served in a reform school rather than a prison.

Blackie was seduced into crime by a lack of funds – having managed to make it over from the mainland he has nothing other than his job at the teahouse and the support of Boss Cheng. One day a ragged looking little boy leading his sister by the hand wanders into the teahouse to beg for food. It turns out his small family escaped from the mainland too but his father never made it to Hong Kong and his mother is ill, leaving the children to try and fend for themselves. Boss Cheng takes pity on them and gives the boy a job plus paying for his school fees but he still finds himself beaten up by thugs not much older than himself in the street.

All the while, corrupt fat cats are messing with the system to keep the poor in their place while the rich get richer. Cheng takes great pleasure in playing off a corrupt industrialist who tried to use him as a sacrificial pawn in his own war against the triads (well, the triads he doesn’t like, anyway). Amusingly, one of the triad bosses seems to think Cheng is also a brother forcing him to pretend to know all about triad rituals to attempt to make a truce with them. The teahouse is situated right between the territories of two rival gangs making it a prime spot for conflict. However, the real problem comes when the police start muscling in, giving off the impression that Cheng has turned traitor on the triads. Soon, Cheng becomes the single biggest threat to his own teahouse and the progressive environment he hoped it would foster.

The Teahouse is actually a little ahead of its time concentrating not on kung fu or street fighting but mixing in a little gun play and some bloody knife crime. The shooting style is impressive throughout with a realistic, gritty atmosphere which aims to put the real streets on screen. The film does, however, have a tendency to fall into an episodic rhythm and suffers from its abrupt and slightly odd, downbeat ending which finishes things on an unsatisfying note. That said, The Teahouse is a stylishly shot and socially engaged action extravaganza that makes up for its minor shortcomings with a degree of chutzpah which looks forward to the classic heroic bloodshed movies of the ‘80s.


Seen as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.

Unsubtitled trailer (Mandarin):

 

 

King of Fists and Dollars (錢王、拳王, Chen Ming-Hua, 1979)

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-17h07m52s233Review of this rare martial arts movie up at UK Anime Network.


Terracotta have always been keen to bring us the best of contemporary Asian cinema but with the “Classic Kung Fu Collection” they aim to shine a light on some of the much loved movies of the martial arts golden age that have been absent from UK screens for entirely too long. This third entry in the series, King of Fists and Dollars, is a more niche release than the others in the series and has been long unavailable in its original Mandarin language version. Shot in Taiwan in 1979 but starring a host of Shaw Brothers favourites King of Fists and Dollars is a fairly typical example of its genre but perhaps fails to offer anything more.

In feudal China, a tyrannical lord, Chien, rules over the local population with extreme cruelty and disdain. Following a mining accident in which several miners are killed or injured and Chien outright refuses to pay compensation to their families and the townspeople begin to look for a champion to fight Chien on their behalf. Luckily a famous kung-fu master lives in the town, but unluckily he’s retired and not that keen on helping. Nevertheless he finally agrees and a mini rebellion begins to take place, however, Chien is not someone to be lightly overthrown.

King of Fists and Dollars is pretty much your typical late ‘70s kung-fu film. The plot is fairly simple and set piece heavy with the consequence that we simply move from fight scene to fight scene with a few comedy moments thrown in. There is the standard trope of the young hopeful who is forced (or in this case tricked for comic intent) to complete a series of bizarre tasks – this time including catching 100 frogs and hanging upside down all night in a tree in order to prove worthy enough to be allowed to train with the great master. Indeed, training scenes make a large percentage of the movie as Iron Fist trains up a force to beat Chien with the usual bucket based workouts and tricky games of agility.

However when the action scenes arrive they are fairly impressive. All of the different characters fight in different styles and poses and the choreography leans more to traditional clearly defined moves than the more fluid technique prevalent later. There is a fair bit of obvious wire work and off camera trickery at play but fans of old school action will find plenty to enjoy here, especially in the later part of the film which sees the gang facing off against Chien’s seemingly unstoppable champion.

Fans of older kung-fu movies may be more likely to forgive the obvious problems with the film’s presentation which to put it kindly is “imperfect”. The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio rather than the original 2.35:1 (explaining why one character finishes her martial arts trick off screen) and has not been particularly well preserved. Crackly, worn and a little fuzzy the image quality is often disappointing though to be fair this may be the best available at the present time. The disc comes with the English dub as the default soundtrack with the original Mandarin plus French and Spanish dubs with English subtitles available from the menu screen. The Mandarin language soundtrack is similarly fuzzy with a few brief drop outs every now and then and the subtitles are generally fine. Given the film’s rarity (particularly in its Mandarin language version with English subtitles), many genre enthusiasts may find tolerating these defects an acceptable trade off in return for seeing the film but casual fans may have a much harder time forgiving them.

King of Fists and Dollars is therefore something of a mixed bag. A fairly ordinary, pretty typical Taiwanese martial arts film from the late ‘70s it offers everything you would expect but perhaps not much more. The cast of starry Shaw Brothers faces including: David Chiang, Danny Lee, Pearl Cheung Ling and Chao Hsiung are all accomplished performers doing what they best but nobody is really expected to stretch here. Genre fans will certainly jump at the chance to see this rare film but for the casual viewer its charms may be harder to discern.


Available in the UK now from Terracotta Distribution

The Grandmaster (UK Release) (UK Anime Network Review)

background_46481“Once upon a time in Kung Fu”? Really? “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master”? Yeah, this poster tells you everything you need to know. 1000+ word rant Review of the Weinstein cut of Wong Kar Wai’s latest up at UK Anime Network.


You’d be hard pressed to find a more internationally well loved Chinese director than the achingly cool Wong Kar-wai. When it was revealed that Wong was going to tackle the story of legendary martial arts practitioner Ip Man with frequent collaborator Tony Leung along for the ride, excitement levels were obviously dangerously high and only set to rise. However, the project never quite seemed to get off the ground and, in fact, several other Ip Man movies were made in the meantime including the hugely successful series starring Donnie Yen the third of which is currently in development. The film finally found its way to the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and received a brief cinema run in the UK last year but is only now reaching UK homes courtesy of Metrodome.

As usual with Wong who’s never quite managed to find the “save & quit” button, The Grandmaster exists in three different versions – the first being the original “Chinese cut” which runs 130 minutes, the second the “Berlin Cut” which runs 123 minutes and then there’s the “Weinstein Cut” which is 108 minutes long. If alarm bells are already ringing on hearing the name Weinstein, you are unfortunately correct – the UK release is limited to the shorter Weinstein cut. Not only is the film 18 minutes shorter than the longest version, it is an entirely different movie. Subplots have been streamlined or removed altogether, scenes have been reordered and rearranged and crucially additional voice over and explanatory title cards have been added for the “benefit” of an international audience. Seeing as few people will have the opportunity to see either of the other cuts of the film, there’s little point in explicating every last difference but suffice to say if you do have the opportunity to view the 130 minute Chinese version of the film it is a much better option than this overly accommodating “Ladybird Book” style international offering.

As for the plot of this Weinstein version, it runs more like a traditional martial arts thriller with Ip Man as the challenger who must fight various bosses to become the king of martial artists with some stuff about not kowtowing to the Japanese thrown in. The film has been “refocused” to centre more definitely on Ip Man himself as THE Grandmaster whereas the Chinese cut of the film situates him slightly to one side of things – almost an impassive observer of the chaotic events which over took Chinese society from the mid 1930s through to the early 1950s as seen through the mirror of the popularism of the kung-fu world both real and imaginary. In fact, in the Chinese  version the real story is arguably that of Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er whose tragic life story serves as a metaphor for the dangers of a stubborn adherence to traditional values. Left with little to reflect on, this Ip Man’s story is relegated to a martial arts serial style retelling of the early adventures of the man who went on to train Bruce Lee which is both reductive and actually a little insulting.

The Chinese cut of the film is a sweeping, operatic epic rich with restrained emotions and barely suppressed personal, and implied national, tragedies. Most obviously the subtleties of the central love story between Ip Man and Gong Er are all but lost in this version as the scenes which allowed them to build up the necessarily emotional resonance have either ended up on the cutting room floor or been rearranged ruining the careful rhythms of their relationship and robbing the film of its beating heart in the process. Adding to the zombified feeling are the various title cards interspersed throughout the film which simply display a a few stage directions in an extremely ugly white font, almost like the kind you might see in the restoration of a rare film in which some reels are missing and the only way to fill in the blanks for the audience is to provide a scene synopsis for the intervening action. To put it bluntly, this is an extremely amateurish solution which both takes you out of the ongoing action of the film and adds to the feeling that one is being talked down to.

However, it isn’t all bad. The beautifully balletic fight sequences and often stunning cinematography have both made it through largely unscathed. The film has an undeniable aesthetic appeal and those action scenes are just as exciting as they are good to look at. Likewise, the central performances, though often frustrated by the problems raised by this new edit, are universally strong though it’s shame that Zhang Ziyi’s quite extraordinary work here is being unfairly disrupted by the butchering of her character arc. Coming to the film cold entirely unaware that another version exists, you may feel it’s a so so art house kung-fu movie with a bit too much talking, not enough fighting and altogether too much too much distance between the two but perhaps not find it altogether unenjoyable.

It’s a shame that the UK will likely never see the longer cut of The Grandmaster. Though apparently Wong Kar-wai worked closely with Harvey Weinstein to create a version that was more accessible to non Chinese viewers, it’s difficult to believe this extremely dumbed down approach could really be what he was looking for. After all, there is no dubbed track here – viewers opting to watch a subtitled film most likely aren’t looking for something familiar, they’ve chosen it because they’re interested enough in another culture to spend two hours exploring it. They almost certainly don’t need the kind of bald explanatory text offered here (though, really, who would?) and will most likely feel insulted at having been treated like children who need every last little thing explained in painful detail. Nevertheless, if this is the only way to see the latest film from Wong Kar-wai, there is still a fair amount to enjoy but be aware that it’s far from the true version of The Grandmaster and it may be worth your while to seek out the 130 minute Chinese cut to see Wong’s complete vision.


 

The Grandmasters – Full length trailer!

 

Ladies and Gentlemen! Today is a miraculous day for it seems Wong Kar Wai may actually have  finished a film. Wong has been working on The Grandmasters for some years during in which time we’ve had two films starring Donnie Yen among others to have dealt with the life of Ip Man – the man who taught Bruce Lee. Numerous problems and delays have seen the production of this film constantly in flux with release dates slipping over a period of years yet the film now seems to have a fairly solid date for its Chinese release – 18th December 2012. Assuming all goes well (and the film really, actually is finished) Chinese viewers at least will finally get to see Wong Kar Wai’s latest collaboration with frequent leading actor Tony Leung. Of course even if this date is kept to there’s no predicting when we will finally be able to see this in the West (well, the Anglophone world) but happily it is a matter of when rather than if Wong’s version of this now familiar tale will finally hit our shores. The trailer at least looks spectacular so if that’s anything to go on The Grandmasters could be something very special indeed.