The Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)

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In 1977, at the age of twenty and making only his third film, Derek Yee got the starring role in Death Duel, a film by prolific Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen. After helping spark a revitalization of Cantonese language language cinema with his hit ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants in 1973, Chor had settled into his own little corner of the Shaw Brothers universe, making a series of lavishly ornate studio-bound wuxias, usually adaptations of novels by popular author Gu Long. The stories are intricate fantasy tales of swordsmen who travel the jianghu, the chivalric world that runs alongside but separate from the everyday reality of the Chinese peasantry, a world with its own hierarchical structures (usually based on swordsmanship) and complex rivalries and feuds. Unlike the Shaolin films that Shaws directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kau-leung were making at the same time, Chor’s movies are relentlessly ahistorical, existing entirely in a world of their own making (even the geography is fictional). The fights scenes are acrobatic and wire-aided and make occasional use of magic but more usually bizarre weaponry and poisons are featured. Chor fills his brightly colored sets with beautiful decorations, gorgeously landscaped backdrops and ornamentations that block  and frame our view of the scene: it’s the closest Shaw Brothers ever came to replicating Josef von Sternberg’s aesthetic. After the success of Death Duel, Derek Yee went on to star in several more Chor Yuen films over the next decade, the final days of the Shaws’ studio, joining Alexander Fu Sheng and Ti Lung as Chor’s primary stars in films like Heroes Shed No Tears, the Sentimental Swordsman movies, and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre Part I & II. But with Shaws in decline, wuxia work dried up and Hong Kong action cinema went in new directions: Fu Sheng died tragically young, and Ti Lung found himself overshadowed by his younger costar in A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun-fat. Derek Yee turned to screenwriting and directing.

Never as prolific as many of his Hong Kong contemporaries, Yee has nonetheless had a productive and somewhat acclaimed career as a director. He won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best director for C’est la via, mon cheri in 1993 and One Night in Mongkok in 2004, and has been nominated for that award five other times. His 1996 film Viva Erotica, with Shu Qi and Leslie Cheung is one of the very best films I’ve seen in 2016. Cheung plays a young director with artistic aspirations who can only find work making a cheap soft-core porn movie. Shu Qi plays his star, a woman who comes to learn that she in fact has more to offer to art than her physical assets. Lau Ching-wan has a brief cameo as a successful director named “Derek Yee” who chats with Cheung and then runs and jumps off a pier, killing himself. Its the kind of weird, beautiful, romantic paean to art that one rarely finds among the work of martial arts actor/directors. Yee has made a handful of action movies over the years, along with comedies and romances, but now, with The Sword Master, he’s made his first period martial arts film. He’s gone all the way back to his beginning, remaking Death Duel in the style of 21st century digital wuxia.

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The story is about two swordsmen who have grown disillusioned with the cutthroat world of the jianghu, where all anyone cares about is celebrity and power. One, Yen Shi-san, cloaked in black with his face tattooed to look like a diseased skull, learns that he’s dying and retreats to a cemetery, where he works as a gravedigger. The other, the Third Master of Sword Manor, abandons his clan’s estate and finds work as an errand boy in a brothel, where he is known as Useless Chi. After defending a young prostitute (allowing himself to be stabbed multiple times by a pair of irate customers without flinching), he flees the brothel, knowing his identity will soon be discovered. He takes up with a friendly young man in a nearby village, who just happens to be the brother of the prostitute he saved and also happens to be located near to Yen’s cemetery. Eventually, all the forces of the jianghu descend on Chi and Yen and the village, led by the woman Chi was supposed to marry, the daughter of another powerful clan, along with a mysterious group of warriors in skull masks armed with nasty poisoned weapons. Everyone fights everyone while Yen resolves to defend the weak and Chi attempts to defend his new family from the psychotic woman who loves him without actually doing any fighting himself. It ends in a battle, followed by the inevitable duel between the two heroes.

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In tone, the film is faithful to Chor Yuen’s works: while lacking the distinctive overcluttered visual style it faithfully reproduces his bright colors and fanciful locations (the setting for the final duel, a fog-enshrouded mountain-top crowned by an ancient, white-blossomed tree, is pure Chor). But Yee and his co-writer and co-producer Tsui Hark, have slightly shifted the emphasis of the original film, amplifying the emotions and the romances while cutting down on the characters and miscellaneous swordsmen who appear only to be cut down after an action sequence or two. The result is less a reflection of a cutthroat world where everyone is driven by ambition, the desire to be known as the best, to rise to the top of the jianghu, where the only way a swordsman’s life can have value is by being known as a great swordsman than it is a soap operatic entanglement of intersecting love triangles. Chor’s films reflect the decadence of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, a laissez-faire world disconnected from the mainland and from history, a ruthless capitalist paradise. The new film is from a different world entirely, and its characters are driven not by ambition but by thwarted desire. Everyone in the film loves someone who doesn’t love them back, the heroes manage to make peace with this, the villains are twisted into evil. But along the way, we’re treated with many a lush romantic interlude, including several momentum-killing flashbacks to the lifelong romance between Chi and his murderous girlfriend.

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For the fight sequences, Yee adopts the digitally-enhanced techniques of contemporary wuxias, with lots of slow-motion and computerized movements. It lacks weight and none of the performances or scenes are particularly exceptional, though neither are they ever bad. The fights are fluid and faithfully recreate the fantastical style of the Shaws movies, eschewing the rapid cuts of Tsui and Ching Siu-tung’s wire-fus of the late 80s and early 90s. The choreography is by Yuen Bun, who’s most famous for his work with Johnnie To, and while it lacks the virtuosity of the fights in this summer’s Call of Heroes (with Eddie Peng and Wu Jing choreographed by Sammo Hung), it’s a step above the action in Yuen Woo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. That film provides the best point of comparison, as an adaptation of wuxia literature harkening back to the 1970s, but reformulating the characters and motivations for an audience trained to accept personal melodrama as the only motivation for action heroics (see also: every Marvel movie). The Crouching Tiger sequel though gets the balance all wrong: the characters don’t make much sense and the action is too disconnected, even when it’s quite good (and Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh are certainly more charismatic and accomplished performers than the competent stars of Yee’s film: Lin Gengxin and Peter Ho). The Sword Master is the best version of what Sword of Destiny tried to be, a pulpy wuxia romantic melodrama. A throwback and a tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive filmmakers.

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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.

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

A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)

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The following is an adaptation of a review of A Better Tomorrow II I wrote for my website a couple of years ago.

A Better Tomorrow was a massive hit for the Cinema City studio, director John Woo and the film’s producer and co-writer, Tsui Hark. As such, a sequel was inevitable. But almost immediately problems began. Chow Yun-fat’s character had died at the end of the first film, but a sequel without the man who’d become the biggest star in Hong Kong was unthinkable. So, of course, they decided his character Mark had a twin brother that nobody bothered to mention in the first film. The film is most horribly marred though by a new character, a former Triad gone straight named Lung and played by Dean Shek (a comedian and one of the founders of Cinema City). After Lung is betrayed by one of his underlings, Shek goes crazy and ends up in an insane asylum, where he is found by Mark’s twin brother Ken who nurses him back to health in tedious and endless scenes where Shek refuses to eat. Shek’s performance in these scenes is abysmally broad, so much so that it out-balances his later scenes, when he’s returned to his apparently bad motherfucker real self. The film’s most bizarre food-related scene, though, is a notorious one in which Ken, a restauranteur in New York, is shaken down by some mafia hoods and harangues them in badly-dubbed English, with Chow giving his loudest DeNiro impression while the dubber channels Pacino (note that since I wrote this in 2013, I’ve read that this scene is entirely performed by Chow and not an anonymous voice actor, but I don’t know that I believe it). (The best part of the scene is at the end, where a cop shows up, sees Ken trying to force the mafia guys to eat some rice at gunpoint and tells the hoods, “You’d better eat it!”)

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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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A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

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After an up and down decade as a director for hire in the last days of the Shaw Brothers, working alternately in the wuxia and wacky comedy genres, John Woo finally hit it big in 1986 when he teamed up with Tsui Hark and the Cinema City studio to remake Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 drama The Story of a Discharged Prisoner. One of the most influential films of the past 30 years, A Better Tomorrow established the formal and thematic template for a new era of crime movie: everything that has followed, from Woo’s follow-up masterpieces The Killer and Hard-Boiled to the triad films of Johnnie To, to myriad international imitators, has in some way been a response to it. Its impact on the Hollywood film has been less specific but no less real: raising the stakes of athleticism and complexity in action sequences, the bullet ballet being much more adaptable to the limited physical skills of American actors than Jackie Chan’s kung fu.

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Fists and Fury at the Cinerama

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This week, the Cinerama is playing what they’ve dubbed their “First Mixed Martial Arts Festival”, a collection of movies, Hong Kong and Japan mostly, in which kicking, punching and/or swordplay is prominently featured. Playing two or three different movies per day, mostly DCP but with some 35mm, its an eclectic mix of masterpieces, curiosities and what amounts to an almost-complete Bruce Lee retrospective.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as mixed about a film series as I am about this mixed martial arts series. On the one hand, and probably most importantly, there are a bunch of great movies playing here, included some films that haven’t played in Seattle since the heyday of Landmark’s Hong Kong repertory run in the mid-1990s. The chance to see Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Toshiro Mifune, Stephen Chow and Jet Li in that gorgeous Cinerama environment is not to be dismissed lightly. Even under less than ideal conditions, like digital projections of DCPs and Blu-Rays, seeing these films is a treat. But there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the way this festival was put together, with many of the best films showing at the most inconvenient times, no clear threadlike connecting the films from different countries or eras and a lot of sub-standard source material for a repertory festival.

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The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 2014)

Look deep into the movie listings this January, past the big name awards fodder, the PT Andersons and the Rob Marshalls, the biopics and social problem films, and you’ll find, in limited release, the latest picture from one of the most influential and important directors of the past 40 years, Tsui Hark, whose name remains so unknown in the US he’s as likely to be identified by his personal name as his family name (for the record: he is Mr. Tsui, not Mr. Hark; pronounced “Choy – Hok”). As director, producer, writer and even actor, Tsui has played a prominent role in every stage of Hong Kong cinema since the mid-1970s, from the New Wave through “heroic bloodshed” and the wuxia revival of the 80s and early 90s; from the pre-Handover exodus to Hollywood to the present-day integration with the Mainland and the proliferation of digital technology. With at least a dozen classics spanning just as many genres, Tsui stands among the most accomplished directors in film history, Hong Kong or otherwise. Continue reading The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 2014)”