Friday evening, June 24th, we went out to see "Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom," and enjoyed this second installment in the series very much.

In this adventure, the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five are called upon to undertake one of the classic king-fu movie missions, "saving kung-fu"--which usually means demonstrating the continued relevance of martial arts in the face of invention of modern weapons. In this case, the insane peacock, Shen, has invented gunpowder cannon and intends to use them to subjugate China.

Jack Black reprises his lovable an unlikely Dragon Warrior, the panda Po, and has most of the story this time as he eventually recovers memories of his early childhood and the truth about how he came to be raised by Mr. Ping, the goose. The other major character is Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman. Oldman's vocal characterization combined with the animated character design makes Shen of the best mad villains we have seen in years (it takes a cartoon to really make eyes bug out--). With the exception of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), the Furious Five are basically just present in support, with minimal lines or action by Monkey (Jackie Chan), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), and David Cross (Crane). We were, however, glad to see Tigress taking a larger place in the action, contrasting Po's native talent with Tigress' hard-won skills, ability, and leadership. It was also amusing to note martial arts movie veterans Jeanne-Claude van Damme as the new character, Master Croc, and Michelle Yeoh in the pivotal role of the Soothsayer.

The plot is surprisingly subtle and moral. Shen is a nasty and psychologically as well as physically spiteful villain, who tries to displace his own rage at his parents onto Po. Po shrugs this off. In a very nice avoidance of cliche, instead of becoming fired up with rage at Shen when he learns his parents' fate, Po is able to use the knowledge to achieve what he needs to bring about Shen's defeat.

We found the movie perfectly satisfying in 2-D. The scenery design and setting was if anything more beautiful and involved than the first movie, and the action witty and fun.
On Sunday the 14th, we went to see "Kung Fu Panda." While animated and played mostly for fun, this is quite a loving homage to classic kung-fu films and we enjoyed it quite a bit. The art is particularly beautiful, especially in the opening sequence (Georgie said she would have quite happily watched the whole movie done in this style--.) As the New York Times and other critics have said, every frame is a work of art, and I agree. I was especially struck by the "lighting" effects which were always well done, and particularly beautiful in the big fight sequence between panda Po (voice, Jack Black) and snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane); a storm has just passed, and they fight it out in the golden light of near sunset, an effect I've seldom seen done well even in live action.

The plot is familiar: the most unlikely subject, Po, turns out to be the "Chosen One," who is destined to inherit the Dragon Scroll, and save the Valley of Peace from the vengeance of the disappointed Tai Lung. (And, yes, there's a distinct thematic similarity here to "Forbidden Kingdom." One question: Why does the trope seem to be that the Chosen One, although he's obsessed with kung-fu, when he's called upon, has no practical knowledge of it what so ever? "Level Zero," as it gets called in this film--. Couldn't they at least have studied a little bit?)

Tai Lung is an "Anakin Skywalker" figure: frustrated and angry because he believes he was arbitrarily denied the Dragon Scroll which he thinks is rightfully his, he has "turned to the Dark Side," vowing to have it by force. Continuing the Star Wars metaphor, the Jade Temple's resident kung-fu teacher, Sifu (Dustin Hoffman), has frequently been referred to as a "Yoda" figure, largely due to his diminutive size. However, he is actually more of an Obi-Wan. Having been Tai Lung's teacher, he is racked with guilt over the monster created by his indulgence. The real "Yoda" in the cast is the mystical tortoise Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), who chooses Po as the Dragon Warrior to come.

Although all the cast members do well with the parts they are given, casting is somewhat puzzling in a number of ways. Although set in an animated version of "Mythic China," few of the major parts are done by Asians. I can't argue too much with Jack Black in the leading role--his comic timing is excellent, and he and Dustin Hoffman play well off one another (only in animation is the 70 year old actor going to become a master of kung-fu). However, Black sounds exactly like the young American he is. The casting of the wonderfully named "Furious Five" is the kind of thing that drives professional voice actors nuts. We have: Tigress (voice Angelina Jolie), Viper (voice Lucy Liu), Crane (voice David Cross), Monkey (voice Jackie Chan), and Mantis (voice Seth Rogen), any of which could have been done by any number of competent actors, probably for far less money. Jolie does a character voice as Tigress, and so doesn't sound like herself, which makes you wonder, "why her"? Chan ("Monkey") and Liu ("Viper") have about the fewest lines of the major roles. Although their presence does add a little bit, they really don't get to do much as voice actors. James Hong as "Mr. Ping," Po's father (who is, curiously enough, a duck) rounds out the major parts with a very touching and sympathetic characterization.

The animation of the kung-fu is very well done. Part of the obligatory 'training sequence', the chopstick duel between Sifu and Po is one of the cleverest and funniest sparring matches I've seen. It is closely followed by the "bridge fight" between Tai Lung and the Furious Five, good because it shows that, for all their skills, the Five can still be undone by their own arrogance and lack of forethought. The climactic battle between Po and Tai Lung is more straightforward, although kung-fu fans may recognize some amusing homage to "Kung Fu Hustle" at some points.

Altogether, "Kung Fu Panda" is a very sweet film with some morally uplifting content sandwiched in with the kung-fu. Of course there is lots of violence, some of it cataclysmic, but mostly cartoony with no gore.

Line most likely to be quoted: "There is no charge for awesomeness."

Beware of the Wuxi finger hold!
Saturday the 26th, we got a bunch of local fans together to see "Forbidden Kingdom." As I said in my e-mail about the movie: "Jackie Chan AND Jet Li, Mythic China, what more do you need?" Well, if "chop-socky" isn't your thing at all, this movie won't do anything for you, but if you might enjoy a fantasy adventure heavy on the martial arts, then "Forbidden Kingdom" is as close to pure fun as any film I've seen lately.

Michael Angarano does a good job playing a king-fu film obsessed nebbish from gritty South Boston, who gets coerced by the local gang into helping hold up the pawnshop he frequents to scrounge cheap DVDs. In the course of the botched robbery, the aged propietor (Jackie Chan) gives him the Staff of the Monkey King and tells him to return it to its rightful owner. Fleeing from the gang, he falls off a roof, and, instead of hitting the pavement, wakes up in "Mythic China." He eventually joins up with Chan, doing his "drunken master" role, an enigmatic Monk (Jet Li), and Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a maiden warrior intent on taking vengeance on the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who is responsible for the deaths of her family. For varous reasons of their own, they help him in his quest by guiding him to Five Elements Mountain, the lair of the Jade Warlord, and training him in kung-fu.

By the time they get there, Jason (Angarano) has learned enough to be a formidable warrior, especially when armed with the Monkey King's magic staff, and the quest has become personal. Angarano did indeed learn (movie) king-fu for this role and manages to look credible bouncing around the Jade Warlord's throneroom fighting the Warlord's Jade Army and the witch Ni Chang (Bing Bing Li).

However, the real stars of the movie are Chan and Jet Li, and when they are fighting on screen, everyone else fades into the background. Absolutely the best fight scene in the movie is when Chan as drunken Lu Yan and Li as the Monk go one-on-one. Of course, there are bits where obligatory slo-mo and "wire-fu" are mixed in, but just the pure hand to hand combat with its speed and precision is amazing to watch.

Chan's comedic style tends to set the tone for the film, but even the more serious-action oriented Li gets into the act, as he also gets to play the trickster Monkey King, with a roguish grin and twinkling eye.

Collin Chou makes a good master villian as the envious and treacherous Jade Warlord, ably abetted by henchwoman Ni Chang, the whip-wielding white haired witch. (I don't know what it is with Chinese witches and bullwhips, but I've seen this combo in a couple other films, notably the "Swordsman" series--.)

Cinematography and settings are fantastic. The film is shot on location and takes advantage of the many stiking vistas China has to offer. Special effects are well integrated. (Once again, I am struck by the influence "The Lord of the Rings" has had on fantasy films. The Jade Army marching out is a distinct homage to the army of Mordor leaving Minas Morgul, and the mystic waves attendant on Monkey King being freed echo those that accompanied the dissolution of Sauron.)(That being said, conventions of Chinese cinema remain. Evil henchmen multiply geometrically--i.e. two go down, four more appear, then eight, then sixteen, etc.,--until the good guys break away.)

Typical of the kung-fu genre, there is very little actual blood: a bit seen when one character is wounded by an arrow, an artistic bit from a split lip at the end of a fight. Other than the arrow shot, however, I don't think a blow is landed with an edged weapon throughout the film.

Of course a high-stakes adventure can't be without cost, and who dies in the course of the film may be a bit troubling, although dramatically and honestly foreshadowed.

The movie's quest plot is simple, straightforward, and played with sincerity as well as humor. All the actors do a marvelous job of integrating their actions with special effects flying staves, magic bursts, and room-length flailing hair. Pure fun.

In English, with occasional Mandarin with English subtitles.
We only got to one film of the Milwaukee International Film Festival this year, but it was a good one, "The Banquet" ("Ye Yan") by director Xiaogang Feng, stars Zhang Ziyi in a fascinating variation on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (frequently noted as crossed with "Macbeth"--.)

The year is 907 AD, the beginning of a turbulent time in Chinese history, referred to as "The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms." Evidently, this time has given rise to a lot of literature and movies, since "Curse of the Golden Flower," previously reviewed in this journal, is set at the same time, and has many of the same elements.

The movie opens with much the same set up as "Hamlet": the Emperor has been found dead, supposedly stung by a scorpion; his brother (Li, played by You Ge)has assumed the throne while the crown prince (Wu Luan, Daniel Wu) is away studying. What makes a critical difference is that Empress Wan (Ziyi) is not Wu Luan/Hamlet's mother, but in fact had been his intended spouse before being claimed by his father, the now-deceased Emperor. Wan/Gertrude still has feelings for Wu Luan, but agrees to become Li's Empress in part to protect Wu Luan from Li's assassination attempts but also because Li turns out to be a far better lover than her prior husband ever was--. It is this attention to her own interests that causes parallels to be drawn between her character and Lady Macbeth, plus, when she utimately chooses the Kingdom and Wu Luan over Li, it is she, and not Li, who touches off the carnage that climaxes the film. The body count is almost--but critically not quite--the same as Shakespeare, and the film ends with a startling twist that I shall not reveal.

The film is beautifully photographed and mounted, which seems to be the standard for Chinese epics that make it over here. "The Banquet" shows us a more rustic, less regimented, and ultimately less cruel Imperial palace than "Curse of the the Golden Flower," and the toxic family dynamics seem less shocking, perhaps because we are somewhat familiar with the setup.

Very fine acting by Ziyi in the starring role, well supported by Daniel Wu, You Ge, and the rest of the cast. Well worth seeing if nothing else for the interesting variation on the "Hamlet" theme.

A word of warning for those who don't like blood: the first extended sequence deals with Li's assassins, a unit of the Royal Guards, who massacre the members of Wu Luan's theatre school when they do not surrender him. There is LOTS of blood in this scene, artistically sprayed about in the Asian cinema fashion. While there are some bloody moments later in the film, this is by far the most intense scene and things are more decorous after that.
Beautiful. Dire.

Georgie, I, and two friends went out to see the new film by Zhang Ximou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers,") and it was well worth having to pick our way through the snow to get home.

The settings and costumes are intentionally opulent and gorgeous, the better to contrast with the ugliness and rot running through the character of the people involved. The story is set in the Late T'ang Dynasty period (936 AD), and the plot somewhat resembles that of "The Lion in Winter." We have an aging but still formidable Emperor (Hong Kong action film god Chow Youn Fat), a stong-willed Empress (queen of Chinese drama Gong Li) and three sons of varying levels of ambition and ability (Liu Ye, Jay Chou, Qin Junjie), either of whom the Emperor might chose as his sucessor. However, that's where the resemblance ends. In "Lion" Henry and Eleanor spar openly, argue vigorously, and scheme with a perverse pleasure, and the story ends with a rather bloody-minded optimism that things might yet work out for the best. The dynamics in "Curse of the Golden Flower" are quite different. The Emperor's rule is so absolute that he cannot be openly defied in even the smallest thing. Rigid requirements of courtesy and decorum forbid anyone to admit that anything may be wrong, so discontents must fester in secrecy. Both discontents and secrets are rife, as we quickly learn that Empress Phoenix has been conducting an affair with her stepson, Wan, the current Crown Prince (Liu Ye), and that Emperor Ping is conspiring with the Imperial Doctor to bring about the Empress' death by means of a slow and hideous poison--and things go downhill from there as plots, counterplots, and revenges layer on one another until the foundation of lies finally, and catastrophically, collapses.

The film is chiefly a vehicle for Chow Youn Fat, the ruthless Emperor, and Gong Li, the desperate Empress, as the two major players. Chow Youn Fat is following in the footsteps of James Mason and Sean Connery, maturing from an action hero to a powerful chracter actor; however, the script mainly calls for him to be formidable and inscrutable, which he does well. When he does finally unleash his rage, he is terrifying. Gong Li is given a wider licence to chew the beautiful scenery, and gives it her all, ranging from sensuality, to illness, to despair, to madness. They are ably supported by the three young men as the mostly bewildered sons, and Ni Dahong, Chen Jin, and Li Man as the Imperial Doctor, his wife, and daughter who are caught up in the machinations. There is also a cast of what seems like thousands of courtiers, servants, and soldiers who recreate the often stifling and regimented life of the Imperial Palace.

The ultimate resolution kept us surprised until the end, and I won't give away more than I have. Highly recommended for adults only, due to the extreme emotional and physical violence. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

The Promise

May. 7th, 2006 09:36 am
Sunday afternoon the 7th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see "The Promise,"("Wu ji") a beautifully staged and photographed Chinese fairy tale. While not quite so gorgeous as "Hero", there is no doubt in my mind that at the present time, the Chinese are the leaders in presenting cinematic beauty.

The story is set in a pre-mythic China. The Middle Kingdom is relatively small, and surrounded by "barbarians", and seems to consist mainly of a single palace/city made up of concentric rings. As the story opens, a poor orphan girl wanders over a battlefield, scavenging the dead soldier's belongings for any food. She encounters a noble boy, who berates her for having robbed the dead, and extorts a promise from her that she will be his slave in return for food. She agrees, then knocks him down, takes the food, and runs off. Shortly, she encounters the "goddess" Manchen, who offers her a bargain: she will have wealth, beauty and fame on the condition that she will loose every man she ever loves. This will be her fate, unless snow falls in the springtime, the dead live again, and time turns backward. The girl agrees.

Cut to twenty years later. The girl, known as Qingcheng (Cecelia Cheung), has grown into a famous beauty, and become concubine of the King. The King's great general, Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) is on the western frontier fighting off a barbarian incursion, which he does with the inadvertent help of the slave Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang). Kunlun is one of those fairy tale characters out of Hans Christian Andersen, or perhaps "The Five Chinese Brothers." He is immensely strong and can run faster than a fast horse, even with another man on his back. Nevertheless, he is so simple and humble that when his former master is killed, he is quite content to be "rewarded" by a position as a slave for a richer master, General Guangming.

Guangming is interrupted in his victory celebration by news that the wicked Duke of the North, Wuhuan, (Nicholas Tse) has rebelled against the King and invested the Imperial City, and Guangming must come to the rescue. On the way, he is ambushed and wounded by Wuhuan's assassin, Snow Wolf (Ye Liu), who is driven off by Kunlun. Unable to ride, Guangming commands Kunlun to don the general's famous (and identity-disguising) Crimson Armor, and ride to the King's rescue in his place. The complications that ensue drive the complicated, sad, and tragic plot. We enjoyed the movie very much and found no flaws in it.

The beauty of the production extends to its cast. Notably, the most beautiful actors are some of the men: Dong-Kun Jang as Kunlun is one of the most nobly handsome men I've ever seen, and Nicholas Tse as Wuhuan looks as much like an anime bad boy as is humanly possible. Wuhuan is also one of the "best" villains I've come across in a long time. Besides being wickedly handsome, he's also a snappy dresser, an effective and stylish fighter, a sublime plotter, and has a wicked sense of humor.

Highly reccomended. In Chinese, with subtitles. Too subtle and intense for young children, including the rather bloody final fight scene, and the flashback wherein Snow Wolf becomes the wearer of the Black Cloak.

Miscellany

May. 16th, 2005 03:31 pm
Well, I've been a bit slow updating lately, both because of busy-ness at work and home, but also because my attempts to upgrade my internet service to DSL have so far flopped, with the result that neither DSL nor dial-up is working. Rats! I'm in the process of replacing the modem I was sent, and also fixing my browsers, which seem to have become corruped in the process--.

The spring continues in a sort of stasis. The continued cold weather has made the daffodils and tulips hang on longer than I've ever seen, but everything else is well behind time.

We've caught a number of movies recently:

Kung Fu Hustle: Probably the wierdest movie of the year so far. Set in a "mythic China" of the 1950's according to the cars (perhaps Kowloon) this split personality picture starts out as a classic gangster movie with a very brutal set-up killing in which the Axe Gang becomes (almost) undisputed masters of the city's underworld. The immediately celebrate with a dance number. After that, we have a blend of traditional martial arts movie blended with Warner Brothers cartoon. Two down and out grifters attempt to shakedown "Pig Sty Alley", probably the poorest slum in town, pretending to be Axe Gang members. They get their butts kicked by the ragged denizens, which altercation drags in the real Axe Gang, who are also repulsed when several of the locals turn out to be retired kung-fu masters living in seclusion. Since the Axe Gang can't afford to lose face, this results in an ever more fantastic escalation of kung-fu battles until the Axe Gang brings out what they believe to be the ultimate kung-fu assassin--.

Besides the overt cartoon references, the film is rife with other references, including that the Axe Gang all wear top hats (a reference to Bill the Butcher's gang in "Gangs of New York,") and black suits, which make some of the battles distinctly resemble those between Neo and the multiplexed Agent Smith--.

Once past the rather shocking opening scene, the violence is all of the kung-fu movie style, with little gore and lots of flying, leaping, throwing, etc. Very good fun if you care for the genre. If not, it's probably a waste.
And back to the not-quite-sublime, but nevertheless very good. House of Flying Daggers is being compared on a regular basis with both Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is not really just. House is not as stylized as Hero, nor as magical as Crouching Tiger. What it does have is a marvelously convoluted plot of intrigue and betrayal, enhanced by just enough of the magical level of martial arts. It stars Zhang Ziyi (of Crouching Tiger and Hero) as well as veteran actors Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. A lot about this movie is swift and brutal—both the fighting and the sex. In fact, the “sex scenes” are quite pure with no nudity. In fact, it got to be rather an unintentional running gag that every time someone wants to have sex with Mai (Ziyi), they end up wrestling on the ground—we conjectured that she would ultimately choose the man who offered her a real bed—but ultimately the competition for her crosses path tragically with the ongoing rebellion and counter-rebellion. While still very good, I would class this with other serious historical dramas rather than the mythic works such as Crouching Tiger. Recommended. In Mandarin, with subtitles.

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