Sakra (天龍八部之喬峰傳, Donnie Yen & Kam Ka-Wai, 2023)

Donnie Yen returns to the (co-)director’s chair in an adaptation of Jin Yong’s classic wuxia Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, Sakra (天龍八部之喬峰傳, Tiānlóng Bā Bù zhī Qiáo Fēng Zhuàn). 59-year-old Yen also stars as the tragic wuxia hero Qiao Feng who is repeatedly stated to be around 30, though he also appears in a handful of scenes as Qiao’s father which might help to explain the casting choice. Even so, Yen mostly pulls it off while striking an authoritative figure fighting for justice in an unjust world. 

As the opening titles reveal, this was a fairly tragic age in which “those who had feelings were all caught in it”. The Northern Song Dynasty faces invasion by the Khitan-led Liao, while the Yan are also vying to restore their lost power. Discovered as a foundling and raised by a Song couple, Qiao Feng joins the notorious Beggar Gang and becomes a powerful martial artist often defending their territory against Khitan raiders. After rescuing a young man held captive by a monk who describes him as a human sacrifice, Qiao returns to be accused of treachery by the Beggars. His leader, Ma, has been murdered, and Ma’s wife Min (Grace Wong Kwan-hing) claims she saw Qiao do it. Ma had apparently told her that he feared Qiao would kill him because he had come into an incriminating letter which suggests that Qiao’s biological parents were in fact Khitans and he is some kind of treacherous sleeper agent. 

Qiao realises there’s nothing he can really do to counter their suspicion except leave and discover the truth about his origins for himself. Unfortunately, however, everyone he could have asked ends up dead with him framed as the killer. Meanwhile, he wrestles with questions of identity asking himself if he can be both a “good” person and a “Khitan” but later coming to doubt his allegiance to Song after witnessing some soldiers massacre a group a of Khitan peasants out on the road. While investigating he ends up saving the life of mysterious spy Azhu (Chen Yuqi) who like him is looking for her origins, having been told by Yan warlord Murong Fu (Wu Yue) for whom she is working that he would tell her if she stole a scroll from the Shaolin temple. Azhu is the only one continues to believe in him, reassuring Qiao that regardless of his identity he is still a “good person”, and the pair soon fall in love vowing to leave the martial arts world behind to raise cattle in the country once their respective quests are concluded successfully. 

Even so, he later claims not to fight only for his land but for a righteous world against the amoral machinations of the villainous Murong Fu and all those who conspired with him. The Beggar Gang is not entirely innocent either, subject to a struggle for succession that made Liao’s existence inconvenient to some while Qiao is later confronted by the realities of a situation he may have misunderstood. Qiao may learn the secret of his origins, but is also left with a new mission in the necessity of stopping Yan’s despotic bid to reclaim Song, riding straight into battle with only a loyal companion at his side. 

Though struggling under the sheer complexity of Jin Yong’s sprawling novel, Yen and Kam showcase the key incidents such as the opening rescue of Duan Zhengchun’s son, and Liao’s epic battle against the Beggars after wading straight into a meeting knowing he’d likely be killed but looking for a doctor for Azhu. The action scenes are visceral and impressive, making the most of the movie’s high production values with a mixture of CGI and practical effects as Qiao faces off against hundreds of men at once or makes daring wire-assisted leaps from under a dome of enemy shields. There is also a genuine poignancy in the tragic romance between Azhi and Qiao who just want to be free of their legacies and the machinations of the martial arts world to live quiet lives as innocent farmers but are reminded there is no real escape from the political reality. Having covered half of Liao’s arc in Jin Yong’s text, a door is left open for a sequel in which Qiao continues to pursue justice and clear his name while hinting at a battle still to come in world in which “those who have feelings are all caught”.

Sakra is released in the US on DVD & Blu-ray June 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Herstory (허스토리, Min Kyu-dong, 2018)

When Kim Hak-sun held a press conference and offered her testimony as a former comfort woman following a statement in the Japanese Diet in which the government rejected any responsibility for wartime sexual slavery, it brought an issue into the public consciousness that many had been unwilling to reckon with. One of many films focussing on the same subject released in the last few years, Min Kyu-dong’s Herstory (허스토리) dramatises the events of the Shimonoseki Trials which took place between 1992 and 1998 and resulted in the first admission from the Japanese authorities that the basic human rights of women had been breached but nevertheless found it not incumbent on the government to offer a direct apology. 

That the trial takes place in Shimonoseki is itself somewhat symbolic, given that this was the harbour from which boats to Korea and China departed and at which the women who were trafficked to Japan would have arrived. The film begins, however, in Busan where successful travel agent Moon Jung-sook (Kim Hee-ae) has ironically been accused of breaking the prevention of prostitution laws when a Japanese man is found dead after visiting a sex worker and it is revealed one of her employees had been running tours specifically geared towards sex tourism. Struck by Kim Hak-sun’s testimony, the association she leads of female business owners wants to do something to help and seeing as her company has been suspended, Jung-sook sets up a call centre on her premises for other victims of wartime sexual slavery and forced labour to come forward. 

Unlike some of the recent dramas dealing with the same issue, Min focusses on the resistance towards the former comfort women coming from within Korea itself. A taxi driver Jun-sook gets a lift from goes off on a rant describing the women as former sex workers out for a paycheque who should be ashamed of their sordid pasts while in any case all of this happened decades ago so why bring it up now? He is far from alone, even the Mayor describes them as “filthy women” when Jung-sook approaches him for help, and it’s obvious that many find the subject so embarrassing that they simply do not want to discuss it and blame the women for breaking the peace by speaking out. 

It’s also true that in the peculiarities of the political landscape of Korea, conservative elements tend to hold a more favourable view of Japan and the colonial era than might be expected. Economically, there are strong ties and Jung-sook, a fluent Japanese speaker, has close business relationships with Japanese clients which are endangered by her involvement with the comfort women cause. Her friend in the women’s association who runs a traditional-style hotel can be seen warmly greeting Japanese guests, at one point as she expresses her admiration for Kim Hak-sun in Korean to the television as they pass behind her. It’s clear that some would rather not rock the boat because this kind of politicking is often incompatible with running a successful business. 

Jung-sook is minded to buck the trend because she sympathises with the women’s suffering and with their rejection by mainstream society. She has the confidence to do this in part because the wealth she has accrued through business success gives her an unusual amount of power in a male-dominated, capitalistic society. Still she too struggles with contemporary notions of proper womanhood in being accused of neglecting her daughter through her workaholic lifestyle especially as she is considering leaving education claiming that studying isn’t for her. Even so, the women’s association seems to have female solidarity at its heart, collecting money to support single mothers even before taking up the cause and trying to help elderly women who have no remaining family members or means to support themselves. 

As she later comes to realise, the trial has meaning outside of winning and losing in allowing the women to express their trauma and regain some of their dignity. Even so, they are subject to further rejection in Japan, not least from a hotel which asks them to leave because other guests are unwilling to share the space with former sex workers. The Korean-Japanese lawyer also relates having faced racism in his life in Japan because of his Korean ethnicity while his mother’s restaurant is later graffitied because of their support of the case. Right-wing nationalists also hold protests outside the court and in Seoul accusing the women of lying, insisting that they are just “sex workers” as if sex workers weren’t worthy of human consideration anyway. In interpreting the testimony, Jung-sook becomes a kind of everywoman speaking for all women in her emotionally charged translation while inwardly conflicted in realising the toll the process is taking on some of the witnesses who are all in advanced age and often poor health. Min depicts their struggle with as much empathy as possible, avoiding the temptation to demonise while instead presenting a more nuanced perspective focussing on the women themselves and the rejection they continue face even within their own society.

Herstory is available digitally in the USA courtesy of Well Go USA.

Young Ip Man (少年叶问之危机时刻, Li Liming, 2020)

In another branch of the sprawling Ip Man tree, Li Liming’s Young Ip Man (少年叶问之危机时刻, shàonián Yè Wèn zhī wēijī shíkè) aims to kickstart a new strand of streaming action drama in following the titular hero in his days as a student in Hong Kong. Li never misses an opportunity to remind us that this is all taking place in the colonial past, a large British flag flying over the prison in which the film opens. Yet perhaps surprisingly, the betrayals that Ip Man (Zhao Wenhao) faces are local and personal in which the corruption of British rule is felt only distantly and in the priggish figure of a bullying police commissioner who as it turns out is really just an unimportant middleman. 

The most literal villain is, however, arch criminal Ma Long (Mu Fengbin) who is sprung from prison by his gang in the film’s high impact opening sequence. Determined to get revenge on corrupt police chief Stewart (Jonathan Kos-Read), Ma somewhat bizarrely decides to kidnap a bunch of rich kids at school for an English speech competition hoping to get his hands on Stewart’s son Jack. The funny thing is he has a connection to Ip Man’s past and later suggests he may have known that he would be involved all of which seems to be quite a flaw in his plan. In the company of his friend Ya Yun, the daughter of the head of the Axe gang, Ip Man defiantly decides to use his martial arts skills to save his fellow students while squaring off against the corrupt figure of Ma.  

Then again, as we discover Ma only became the arch villain he is because of judicial corruption. When someone close to him was killed, he sought justice but was denied because the perpetrators were influential people, the implication being that they were members of the colonial elite which Stewart was propping up. Filled with grief and rage, he’s hellbent on ruining Stewart’s life and doesn’t really care all that much about what he might have to do to do it. As Ip Man points out, he once tried to teach him about the importance of knowing right from wrong, but Ma now believes that the distinction is one made only by the weak for the strong care only about winning. 

The secondary part of Ip Man’s mission is dedicated to saving his old friend Xuehu from becoming another Ma after becoming frustrated that he was prevented from marrying the woman he loved because of his poverty and the class difference between them. He too vacillates, uncertain if he will actually betray his friend to get the money to get married while remaining complicit in kidnap and murder. As usual, the situation gives Ip Man a lot of opportunities to remind others of the martial arts philosophy and the importance of humanity even if others try to convince him that “feelings are worth nothing in this world”.

Still, the battle plays out like a chess game as Ip Man tries to outsmart Ma and win the students’ freedom while inexplicably still believing in his good sportsmanship certain that Ma will honour his word and let the hostages go if only he manages to beat his arbitrary challenges. Ip Man fights off the bad guys, dashing over balconies and leaping from windows to save his friends, while experiencing an internal conflict as he finds himself at odds with men he previously respected hoping he can still redeem them even as they seem intent on his death. In any case, the most surprising element of the film maybe that in the end the corruption goes largely unpunished with the true winner the duplicitous policeman with a habit of selectively enforcing the law. 

Even Ma seems to recognise the hollowness of his revenge in coming to an understanding of his role and position in otherwise corrupt society while Ip Man appears to win the esteem of Ya Yun’s gangster father who despite his overprotective parenting does nothing at all to try to save her other than raising money and waiting patiently outside the school. Despite its low budget, the film packs in a fair few impressive action sequences beginning with daring prison break and culminating in the schoolhouse siege as the young Ip Man gets the chance to show off his skills while fighting for justice in old Hong Kong.

Young Ip Man is available to stream in the US via Hi-YAH! and released on DVD & Blu-ray May 16 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Code of the Assassins (青面修罗, Daniel Lee Yan-Kong, 2022)

“Assassinate for peace” runs a series of characters along a wall in the secret den of a shady society known as Ghost Valley in Daniel Lee’s fantasy wuxia, Code of the Assassins (青面修罗, qīng miàn xiūluó). It may seem somewhat paradoxical, but the Ghost Valley philosophy is that they can one day help the world turn away from vengeance and hatred towards a more settled humanity by carrying out assassinations in “an age in which assassins are used to solve problems”. 

Yet everyone in Ghost Valley is out for revenge, not least the hero Junyuan (Feng Shaofeng) whose entire clan was wiped out after a mysterious man asked his dad to carve a copper treasure map. The map and its hidden riches continue to destabilise the political equilibrium in a series of neighbouring clans with ambitious retainer Prince Rui approaching Ghost Valley to get him the map and bump off his rival, head of the Imperial Guard Zhao (Hu Jun), in the process. Golden Mask, the mysterious leader of Ghost Valley tells Junyuan’s mentor Grim Ghost to keep him out of it, but Junyuan obviously doesn’t listen because learning the truth behind the map and his parents’ death is his life’s mission. 

That’s how he gets himself mixed up in intrigue, framed as a traitor to Ghost Valley and hunted by a series of enforcers while falling for enigmatic female assassin Shengsheng (Gina Jin Chen). Dualities seem to abound in the ironic juxtaposition of peace and assassination along with that of vengeance and righteousness in the ongoing battle against hate and darkness. Junyuan vows he will walk out of Ghost Valley once his vengeance has been achieved, but has to ask himself if his time there has changed him and if he can ever leave this shady world of mercenary violence. Golden Mask explains to him that you can’t change anything with a weapon but a plot can change an era, while Lady Hua, who has become a Buddhist, adds that assassinations don’t change anything either. 

Yet the plotters’ revolution fails in part because they have changed since they set their plot in motion and are no longer the right people for the right time. Junyuan grows suspicious of his masked society, certain that mask on or off he is the same Junyuan but now mistrustful of the effects the mask can have on others along with the power they confer. Power can make one hunger for more, contravening the laws of Ghost Valley to embrace greed in taking vengeance against a world that denies them what they want. Then again, hegemony may also in its way bring about “peace” at least for a time.

The eerie austerity of the snowbound Ghost Valley hideout echoes its emotional coldness in the sacrifices that have been made in the pursuit of plotting, romantic not least among them in the melancholy of Lady Hua filled with past regrets and a longing for lost love knowing that the long years of waiting have corrupted the innocent romance of her youth. Junyuan continues to grow closer to Shengsheng though suspicious of her dualistic qualities as top assassin and damsel in distress while himself unwilling to pursue romance in this continually uncertain world. 

Despite his claims to use no weapons, Golden Mask, like Junyuan who has a steampunk prosthetic arm, hides angel wings beneath his armour, while sometime enemy Black Judge has an umbrella that fires nails from its spokes. Lee conjures an anachronistic world of industrialised fantasy echoed in the factory-like design of Ghost Valley and the secret underground mailroom beneath the palace where the authoritarian lord has been secretly reading the private correspondence of his men including Zhao’s frequent letters to his wife which he then uses against him as a veiled threat. Lee introduces the Ghost Valley assassins with their own intro video showcasing their weaponry and techniques along with their mask and lends a touch of wizardry to impressive large scale action sequences with the quasi-magical quality of the equipment and its intricate metalworking. The video game aesthetic and heavy metal end credits also lend a cool if perhaps now retro sensibility injecting a punk spirit in direct contrast to the genre’s usual classicism as Junyuan commits the ultimate act of rebellion in maintaining his integrity in a world of masked intrigue.

Code of the Assassins is available to stream in the US via Hi-YAH! and released on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Well Go USA on March 28.

US release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Legend of Gatotkaca (Satria Dewa: Gatotkaca, Hanung Bramantyo, 2022)

Indonesia has quietly been building its very own superhero cinematic universes over the past few years with Joko Anwar’s Gundala almost certainly the best known internationally. The Legend of Gatotkaca (Satria Dewa: Gatotkaca) is similarly intended to be the first in a new franchise, Satria Dewa, which draws influence from Indian mythology and is set in a dualistic world centuries after a battle between good and evil was ended by the gods to stop evil winning. 

Essentially an origin story for the titular hero Gatotkaca, the film follows down on his luck photographer Yuda (Rizky Nazar) who had to drop out of university because he is poor and also responsible for taking care of his mother who is suffering with memory loss and mental illness following an incident 15 years previously in which the pair were attacked by a mysterious figure in black who could shoot lasers from his fingers. Yuda assumes his memories from back then must have been a dream and that his mother’s mental distress has more to do with his father, Pande (Cecep Arif Rahman), abandoning the family. Nevertheless, he is soon dragged into intrigue when his best friend Erlangga (Jerome Kurnia) is murdered in the same way his mother was attacked during his university graduation ceremony. Determined to figure out the truth, Yuda and professor’s daughter Agni (Yasmin Napper) find their way to a secret organisation Erlangga had been a part of which aims to save the world from destructive forces carrying the Kaurava gene. 

In the film’s dualistic world view, there was once a civil war between those carrying the Pandava gene which encourages good, humanistic qualities and the Kaurava whose impulses are dark and destructive. But then as Professor Arya (Edward Akbar) who studies such things points out, Pandava can also be destructive while Kaurava are capable of using their “destructive” qualities for good. Even so, most of the bad things that have happened in the world particularly in the last 15 years since a mysterious meteorite fell to earth, can be attributed to the rising Kaurava influence from political corruption to illegal logging and even the COVID-19 pandemic. Someone is bumping off Pandava in an effort to release evil Kaurava general Aswatama (Fedi Nuril) from his imprisonment within a giant gemstone which explains the “mysterious” deaths of talented people like Olympic sportmsmen and a doctor who discovered a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Of course, Yuda turns out to be a chosen one and must pursue his destiny as the defender of the Pandava before assuming his rightful role as Gatotkaca. Only by confronting his immediate family history can he make himself whole and gain the strength to defeat Aswatama, saving the world from chaos. Meanwhile he has to contend with a romantic subplot in which Agni is aggressively courted by the odious and entitled Nathan (Axel Matthew Thomas) and his father who have at least strong Kaurava energy aside from being embodiments of oppressive elitism looking down on Yuda simply because he is poor. The underground cell Yuda eventually comes into contact with are also in their way a resistance to this same elitism, though unusually well equipped in their incredibly expensive-looking lair filled with the latest technology and looked after by a kindly Indian granny who is herself a Karauna but uses her powers, and at one point a good old-fashioned shot gun, for good.

It’s this duality to which the film eventually returns as Yuda declares they must be the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light as they secretly wage a war against an ancient evil apparently already well established in the contemporary social order. This being the first instalment in what seems to be cued up as a burgeoning franchise, there is undoubtedly a lot to take in from the talk of heirlooms and amulets to holy water and ancient weapons though the film does boast some excellent production design even if the centralisation of genetics as an indicator of good and evil is equally uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it’s a promising start to the cycle with a series of exciting action set pieces showcasing the art of silat along with some impressive CGI in the Star Wars-esque laser warfare even if it’s clear Gatotkaca’s toughest battles are yet to come.

Legend of Gatotkaca streams in the US via Hi-YAH! from 17th February and will be released on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on March 21 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Project Wolf Hunting (늑대사냥, Kim Hong-sun, 2022)

“Remember, there’s nowhere to run” an arrogant police officer explains to collection of rapists and murderers locked aboard a cargo ship ready to be delivered to “justice” in Korea having attempted to flee to the Philippines. It is in someways ironic that these men and women, depraved as many of them may be, have been loaded onto a commercial vessel to be shipped home less like cattle than faceless and inanimate objects. Kim Hong-sun’s eerie gore fest Project Wolf Hunting (늑대사냥, Neukdaesanyang) is in many ways about the horrors of the past but also suggests that the present is little better in a world in which there is little difference between cop and thug and we are all at the mercy of looming violence. 

As one older prisoner puts it, “if this isn’t hell, I don’t know what is”. Thanks to an international extradition arrangement some of the worst Korean criminals are about to be repatriated from the Philippines only the historic event is disrupted by a suicide bombing carried out by a disgruntled victim whose smashed glasses and severed limbs are an eerie harbinger of what’s to come. After a rethink, the government decides to hire a cargo boat instead so the public won’t have access to the criminals, which is somewhat ironic, while accompanied by a crack team of veteran cops each with over 10 years of experience on the force. Already it isn’t seeming like a very well thought through plan, but as Captain Lee (Park Ho-San), who openly beats a prisoner with whom he has prior history on the dock, points out, there aren’t any cameras so he has full authority to enforce the law with no concern for the rights of inmates nor basic human morality. To cut it short, he’s little different than they are even if he isn’t, as far as we know, a multiple murderer or rapist. 

In any case, keeping a bunch of violent criminals handcuffed with only one bathroom break a day and no stimulation seems like a recipe for disaster even if it weren’t just plain inhumane. But inevitably the operation is compromised by an attempt to spring a gang boss which lets the criminals take control of the ship albeit temporarily seeing as there’s something else lurking in the bowels of this floating hellscape that is pure nightmare fuel and a not quite living embodiment of man’s inhumanity to man. Predictably, this all stems back to the abuses of the colonial era and the machinations of the equivalent of Unit 731 operating in the Philippines but has since seemingly been co-opted by a shady Korean organisation apparently also attracted to the research’s capitalistic potential in the booming anti-ageing market hoping to usher in the next stage of human evolution. 

What ensues is a parade of senseless violence in which cop and killer alike are stalked by a mysterious “monster” with wolf-like senses and preternatural strength, and that’s on top of the bloody destruction wrought by the vengeful criminals in their unsuccessful attempt to escape. As Lee had said, there really is nowhere to run though as it turns out that cuts both ways. The gang boss proves unexpectedly heroic, genuinely trying to save the moll who’d been arrested alongside him, while law enforcement reveals itself hopelessly out of depth even as Lee and his female subordinate Da-yeon (Jung So-min) pivot towards protecting the prisoners they were previously intent on oppressing as they form a temporary alliance to defend themselves against the mysterious threat, ironically a product of the “kemono” (beast) project and a reminder of what happens when you decide that some people aren’t really “human” after all. 

Even so, the rampage is indiscriminate. The “monster” doesn’t care if you’re a cop or a killer, all it knows is violence smashing in the heads of the toughest gangsters and ripping hearts out of well-built bodies without a second thought. It’s got no eyes but knows how to use a gun and it still might not be the scariest thing on the boat, at least not in the end as we wonder what exactly all this is for and what might be meant by the next evolution of our species. This is indeed hell and there’s no where to run either from the unresolved past or the malignant future. 

Project Wolf Hunting is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Feb. 14 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, Cheng Siyu, 2019)

“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts. 

Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.

Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.

Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save). 

Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.

The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Han Jae-rim, 2021)

“Disasters are arbitrary” admits a pundit commenting on a potential air disaster, “people became victims for being in a certain place at a certain time”. “We were caught in a disaster that none of us wanted” the pilot later echoes while explaining that they have chosen to exercise what little control is left to them in making their own decision as to how they intend to deal with the hand that fate has dealt them. Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Bisang Seoneon) harks back to classic disaster pictures of the 1970s such as genre archetype Airport but also meditates on Korea’s place in the contemporary global order along with the rights and wrongs of exercising one’s own judgement when it goes against all practical advice. 

The disaster in this case begins with a mad scientist, Ryu (Im Si-wan), who decides to kill as many people as possible along with himself by releasing a deadly virus he tweaked to make even more lethal aboard a commercial airliner. Later it’s suggested that Ryu had some kind of breakdown after the death of his mother, also a microbiologist, who had a domineering influence on his life which does seem to play into an uncomfortable trope of blaming the mother for everything that goes wrong with a child though Ryu’s resentment is in part towards the pharmaceuticals company he claims fired him unfairly. As in many recent Korean films, a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism runs throughout, the international pharmaceuticals company with an American CEO refusing to assist the Korean police’s inquires not wishing to admit that they illegally procured a deadly virus from the Middle East and then allowed Ryu to get hold of it illicitly. This also of course means that they are slow to grant access to a potential antidote/vaccine despite carrying both. Meanwhile, the plane is later turned back from Honolulu and prohibited from landing anywhere on US territory because of the uncertainty surrounding the infected on board. 

The plane in effect becomes a kind of plague ship that takes on additional significance during an era of pandemic. Having been rejected by the US, the plane tries to land in Japan but is also refused permission and later threatened by the Japanese Self Defence Forces who even open fire on it and threaten to shoot the plane down if it does not leave Japanese airspace. The official response is more nuanced than it had been with the Americans, a politician expressing his regret and sympathy with the people of Korea but also emphasising that their responsibility is towards the people of Japan and that as they cannot be sure the treatment will work on Ryu’s mutated variant, they cannot allow the plane to land. As the opening titles explain, an Emergency Declaration is a sacred aviation rule that means no one should be refusing them help, yet they do begging the question of what it really means if in the end the authorities can just choose to ignore it. 

But then again, it seems that not even Korea is fully onboard with accepting the plane back onto Korean soil. With news quickly spreading via social media, mass protests erupt from those who brand it a “biochemical missile” and would rather it be shot down than risk contaminating the wider population while counterprotests insist that there are many Korean people onboard and it’s only right that they be allowed to return home and be cared for by the authorities. The authorities are however torn, unwilling to admit they’re considering simply allowing 150 people to die for the greater good leaving only the Transport Minister (Jeon Do-yeon) to exercise her own judgement in arguing for the plane landing with quarantine procedures in place. 

Former pilot Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a passenger on the flight with his little girl who suffers from eczema, is later tasked with exercising his own judgement in deciding whether to land the plane at a closer airport he feels is safer or try to hold out until the destination recommended by the authorities despite dwindling fuel supplies. The plane disaster is Jae-hyuk’s redemption arc allowing him to overcome past trauma in having made a similar decision before which led to the deaths of two cabin crew thanks to the selfishness of passengers who blocked exits trying to retrieve their luggage before escaping. One thing that wasn’t so much of an issue in the ’70s is that passengers are now able to receive information in real time via their phones thanks to onboard wireless, meaning that they learn all about the virus, the cure, and that the cure might not work independently giving rise to even more chaos and confusion and presenting a serious threat to traditional disaster management techniques. Nevertheless, they too eventually exercise their own judgement in coming to the conclusion that perhaps it is better if they choose not to land rather than risk infecting their friends and family.

The passengers on the plane do not blame those on the ground accepting that they are simply afraid. “You can’t just save yourselves” a particularly paranoid passenger is fond of saying completely oblivious to the fact that’s what he’s been trying to do with a pointless insistence in segregating the infected aboard a plane that exclusively uses recycled air only to completely reverse his thinking on hearing the plane may make an emergency landing in which case the rear of the plane, where the infected are, is safer. It is in the end a radical act of self-sacrifice by a policeman on the ground (Song Kang-ho) that paves the way to a happier solution for all but could just as easily have turned out differently. Disasters are arbitrary after all, at least as long as you aren’t the one causing them. Counterintuitively, the message may be that your government might not help you and others certainly won’t, but if you’re making your own emergency declaration you have the right to exercise your own judgement in the knowledge that either way you’ll have to answer for your decision.  

Emergency Declaration is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Nov. 29 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Clip (English subtitles)

Ip Man: The Awakening (叶问宗师觉醒, Zhang Zhulin & Li Xijie, 2022)

“Someone must stand up to injustice!” according to the young Ip Man (Miu Tse) newly arrived in Hong Kong and witnessing the abuses of colonialism first hand. A kind of origin story, the latest outing for the legendary hero, Ip Man: Awakening (叶问宗师觉醒, Yè Wèn zōngshī juéxǐng), has its degree of political awkwardness but essentially finds the young master coming to an understanding of the purpose of martial arts while realising that sometimes you have to play the long game and not every problem can be solved with Wing Chun alone. 

This is something he discovers after stepping in to protect a young woman and her mother who are being hassled by muggers on a street car. Evidently, the thieves seem to have been emboldened and assume themselves to be under no threat from the passengers, driver, or indeed law enforcement and were not expecting to be challenged. Unfortunately, however, Ip Man’s gallant defence of the two women only brings him a whole mess of trouble in a new city in irritating a local gang who are it seems linked to arch villain Stark. A corrupt British official, Stark has been colluding with local police to run a lucrative people trafficking operation though even they are becoming worried by Stark’s increasing arrogance brazenly snatching young women off the street to sell abroad.  

According to Stark, there are only two kinds of people, cheap and expensive, which bears out his imperialist worldview. Yet, Ip Man himself is perhaps awkwardly positioned as a Mainlander fighting colonial oppression in Hong Kong. According to his apathetic friend Feng perhaps it doesn’t matter who’s in charge because it’s all pretty much the same, but to Ip Man it does seem to matter though given the current situation between the two territories his words cannot help but seem ironic if not directly subversive. He seems to suggest that men like Feng, who later tries to appease Stark who has kidnapped his younger sister Chan, have enabled their own oppression and only by rising up against it can they be free which is it has to be said a series of mixed messages only finally resolved by Ip Man’s reminder that “We are all Chinese” during his final fight battling his way towards Stark.

Nevertheless, the battleground that develops is located firmly within the realms of marital arts with a stand-off between the Chinese Wing Chun and the almost forgotten British fighting style Bartitsu. Not content with subjugating Hong Kong, the British apparently have to prove their superiority even over this sacred territory only they’re as duplicitous and immoral about it as they are over everything else. Even so, Ip Man is able to overcome their blatant attempts to cheat through manipulating Feng and proves that Wing Chun is the best after all while Feng pays a heavy price for his complicity but is later forgiven having learned his lesson. 

What Ip Man learns is that as his teacher points out righteousness requires both wisdom and resources. He can’t expect to solve all the world’s problems by wading in his with his fists and sometimes doing the right thing is going to land him in a world of trouble and complication but even so he has to do it because a “world in which asking for justice is wrong would be truly hopeless”. Perhaps more mixed messages, but leaning in to the Ip Man mythos as a man who stands firm in the face of oppression and fights for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. 

Then again, this is a Mainland film and if was surprising that the spectre of police corruption was raised (it’s the British colonial police after all) the conclusion ensures that the authorities will finally get on the case and put a stop to the human trafficking ring once and for all while clearing out the corrupt imperialists. Ip’s sense of righteousness is well and truly awakened in the knowledge that he and his fists can make a real difference even if lasting change requires a little more finesse. With some nifty if occasionally unpolished action sequences Zhang Zhulin and Li Xijie’s take on the classic Ip Man story makes the most of its meagre budget while positioning Hong Kong veteran Tse Miu as the latest incarnation of the ever popular hero.

Ip Man: The Awakening is released in the US on DVD & blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA on June 21.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Spiritwalker (유체이탈자, Yoon Jae-geun, 2021)

“Who do you think I am?” the amnesiac hero of Yoon Jae-geun’s existential thriller Spiritwalker (유체이탈자, Yucheitalja) eventually asks having gained the key to his identity but continuing to look for it in the eyes of others. Yet as he’s told by an unlikely spirit guide, maybe knowing who you are isn’t as important as knowing where you’ve come from and where it is you’re going advising him to retrace his steps in order to piece his fragmented sense of self back together. 

A man (Yoon Kye-sang) comes round after a car accident with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He arrives at the hospital after a homeless man (Park Ji-hwan) calls an ambulance for him, but quickly realises he might be in some kind of trouble especially as the police are keen to find out who shot him and why. With that in mind, he decides to make a break for it but finds his sense of reality distorted once again as the world around him changes eventually realising that he’s shifted into the body of another man somehow connected to his “disappearance”. In fact this happens to him every 12 hours which is in many ways inconvenient as his impermanence hampers his ability to keep hold of the evidence he’s gathered while preventing him from making allies save for the homeless man who is the only one to believe his body-hopping story. 

As the homeless man points out, no-one in his camp really knows who they are anymore and to a certain extent it doesn’t really matter (in fact, he never gives his own name) because they have already become lost to their society as displaced as the hero if in a slightly different way forever denied an identity. What the homeless man teaches him, however, is that the essence of his soul has remained figuring out that at the very least he’s a guy who prefers hotdogs to croquettes even if he can’t remember why which is as good a place to found a self on as anywhere else. Even so, through his body-hopping journey he begins to notice that all of his hosts are in someway linked, inhabiting the same world and each possessing clues to the nature of his true identity. 

The central mystery, meanwhile, revolves around a high tech street drug originating in Thailand which causes hallucinations and a separation of body and soul apparently trafficked to Korea via a flamboyant Japanese gangster with the assistance of the Russian mafia in league with corrupt law enforcement members of which have begun getting dangerously high on their own supply with terrible if predictable results. This sense of uncertainty, that everyone is operating under a cover identity and those we assumed to be “good” might actually be “bad” and vice versa leans in to Yoon’s key themes in which nothing is really as it seems. Body and soul no longer align, the hero constantly surprised on catching sight of “himself” in mirrors, not knowing his own face but realising that this isn’t it while desperate for someone to “recognise” him as distinct from the corporeal form he currently inhabits. Though they may not be able to identify him, some are able to detect that he isn’t “himself”, behaving differently than expected, speaking in a different register, or moving in a way that is uniquely his own even while affected by other physical limitations such as one host’s persistent limp. 

Inevitably, the hero’s path back to reclaiming his identity lies in unlocking the conspiracy of which he finds himself at the centre, figuring out which side he’s on and what his highest priorities are or should be in gaining a clear picture of his true self as distinct from the self that others see. High impact hand-to-hand combat sequences give way to firefights and car chases while the hero finds himself constantly on the run in an ever shifting reality, Yoon employing some nifty effects as an apartment suddenly morphs into a coffee shop as the hero shifts from one life to another existentially discombobulated by the lives of others but always on the search for himself and a path back to before finding it only in the returned gaze of true recognition. 

Spiritwalker is released on blu-ray in the US April 12 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Interntational trailer (English subtitles)