SPL: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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It’s unclear if this film is actually a continuation of the SPL series or if it just started as one and then mutated into its own thing. I thought I saw the characters for “Sha Po Lang” on the title card of the movie though, so I’m just gonna go with it. Regardless, like the second film in the series, SPL 2: A Time for ConsequencesParadox has only a tenuous thematic relation to its forbearers: all of the characters are new. Louis Koo plays a Hong Kong cop who travels to Pattaya, in Thailand, in search of his daughter, who has gone missing. He hooks up with a Thai cop (Wu Yue) as the two uncover an organ trafficking ring with connections all the way to the top of city government. Helping out in the investigation is another cop, a superstitious (possibly psychic) Tony Jaa, star of the last SPL and arguably the best martial arts star in the world today, in what amounts to little more than a guest-starring role. The final villain is played by Lam Ka-tung (Sparrow, Trivisa), which means that the two most important Thai characters in the film are played by Chinese actors. Such are the vagaries of international cinema.

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VIFF 2017: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.

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SIFF 2017: God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

It’s the King Hu film I can never quite remember, The Valiant Ones, remade as PRC propaganda, all national, class and gender unity in the face of foreign aggressors (in this case: samurai masquerading as pirates in Ming China). The action is mostly very good, but there isn’t nearly enough Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao (The Blade) weirdly looks like Jimmy Fallon now. Veteran kung fu/ninja star Yasuaki Kurata is exceptional as the samurai leader.

SIFF 2016 Report #2: The Big Road, The Island Funeral, Heaven Can Wait, The Final Master and My Beloved Bodyguard

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Brief accounts of a handful of films from the SIFF’s second week as it rolls into its third.

The Big Road (Sun Yu, 1935) – Something like an amalgam of Our Daily Bread and Mrs. Miniver for the Anti-Japanese War, by which I mean it’s a propaganda film celebrating first the communal virtues of collectivist rural life (the hard work of uniting the nation through literal road-building) and then the bold heroism of that collective as it stands against Imperialist aggression, in the form of the traitorous land-owning, but not land-working, class (relics of Old China, these rulers wear 19th Century clothes, and live in Qing mansions, the feudal system in opposition to the power of the Modern Industrial Worker). It ambles, plotless for most of its length, but it’s accumulated enough power that by the end, as its hero (eight characters combine to form one hero, a communist Voltron) is smashed to bits by advanced machines of war, it resembles nothing less than “Guernica” in its devastation.

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Rise of the Legend (Roy Chow, 2014)

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Every generation gets the Wong Fei-hung they deserve. A fin-de-siècle doctor and martial arts instructor, the real life Wong has been inspiring cinematic incarnations for most of the history of Hong Kong’s film industry. The first was in a series of productions running form the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, where Wong was played by Kwan Tak-hing as the embodiment of Confucian masculine values. Dignified, somewhat aged, even-handed and scrupulous, Kwan played Wong in an astounding 77 films (at least), between 1949’s The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame and 1981’s Dreadnaught, which is some kind of a record. A generation of actors and stuntmen, choreographers and directors (most notably Lau Kar-leung and Yuen Woo-ping) got their starts training on the Wong Fei-hung films, which served roughly the same role for Hong Kong action cinema that Roger Corman’s exploitation films did for the New Hollywood. Lau Kar-leung put his twist on the character with Gordon Liu starring as a young student Wong in Challenge of the Masters in 1976 and as a somewhat older man striving after nonviolent resolutions to the deadly rivalries of the kung fu world in 1981’s Martial Club. Yuen Woo-ping and his father Yuen Siu-tien, who also worked on the Kwan Tak-hing series, upended the Wong Fei-hung mythos in 1978 with Drunken Master, in which a young Jackie Chan plays Wong as an impetuous, vulgar, undisciplined youth who is beaten into shape by the eponymous instructor (the elder Yuen), kicking of an era of irreverent kung fu comedy hybrids and launching Chan as a superstar. Tsui Hark revising the legend again in 1991 with his Once Upon a Time in China series, in which Jet Li played the hero with a mix of Kwan’s grace and nobility,  Chan’s youthfulness and Li’s own awkward romanticism. Now, Roy Chow gives us Rise of the Legend, with Eddie Peng playing Wong as a brooding, blood-spattered young warrior, desperately fighting against the nihilistic hell that is Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta in the late 19th Century.

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Yes, Madam! (Corey Yuen, 1985)

yes1Of the members of the Seven Little Fortunes Peking Opera troupe to become major figures in the Hong Kong film industry in the last 20 years before the colony’s handover to China, Corey Yuen is the least well known. Unlike Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, he stayed mostly behind the camera, though he does have some memorable supporting turns in a few films, most notably in the Yuen Biao vehicle Righting Wrongs and as one of Hung’s Eastern Condors. He’s best known for his directorial work, on some of Jet Li’s best films (the Fong Sai-yuk series), on All for the Winner (the 1990 film that made Stephen Chow a superstar), and on the films that launched Jason Statham and Jean-Clude Van Damme into the action world (The Transporter and No Regret, No Surrender, respectively). With 1985’s Yes, Madam! he launched two careers (Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock) and a whole subgenre of the Hong Kong action cinema (the Girls with Guns cycle).

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