Queen Boxer

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“Lee’s skills all but concealed by dreadful release of her debut.”

I have to say, this film would probably merit a higher score given a better presentation. Not only is the GoodTimes DVD barely VHS quality, dubbed and horribly cropped, the dialogue is missing from the right audio. Worst of all, the two tracks are out of sync, meaning that every punch is accompanied by a double sound effect. If there’s a more dreadful DVD in existence, I don’t want to see it: those responsible should suffer the fate depicted in the fabulous poster, shown on the right.

However, one suspects that even under better conditions, large chunks of this would be pretty poor, bordering as it does on the incoherent, with inadequate definition both of plot and characters. Also known as The Avenger, this 1972 film marked Judy Lee’s first film – originally from Taiwan, she was a Peking Opera classmate of Angela Mao. In this, she plays a woman for revenge on the man who killed her brother and gouged his eyes out, and teams up with another guy (Yeung), who is fed up paying protection money to the same villain. They enter the boss’s lair, but he gets shot, and they have to back off – only for her to return, and take them on by herself.

Those two action scenes are both lengthy and pretty good. The lack of directorial inspiration shown here is actually a virtue, since he basically just turns the camera on and off – this is what you need to admire Lee’s skills, which aren’t bad at all. However, up until the last 20 minutes, the only fun is making fun of the film, or listening to the chunks from Shaft and Bond ripped off on the soundtrack. That, and a glorious, deeply satisfying final shot, aren’t enough to save things – but, being honest, few movies could probably survive such godawful treatment.

Dir: Han Wah [according to the DVD sleeve, anyway…]
Star: Judy Lee, Yeung Kwan, Wong Yeuk Ping, Lee Ying

Silverhawk

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“Comic-book stuff – unfortunately, in the bad sense of the phrase.”

There’s no doubt about the aesthetic they’re aiming for here; heroine with secret identity, sneering evil nemesis, gadgets, etc. Take a Marvel comic from the 60’s, transplant it to the modern Far East, and there you are. Indeed, this period is apparently where SilverHawk originated; unfortunately, the makers failed to learn from similar failures such as The Avengers, The Mod Squad and Wild Wild West, and the results are lacklustre.

The problem here is mostly a script with no idea how to fill the gaps between the fight scenes, succumbing to the nemesis of so many HK films: juvenile humour. Jen is the worst offender, playing a cop out to track down Lulu Wong (Yeoh), a.k.a. SilverHawk, who is so incompetent we’re given no credible reason to believe he’d be put in charge of tea-making, never mind a high-profile investigation. They were in the same orphanage as kids: yes, it’s that kind of script. Inevitably, they team up to go against bad guy Alexander Wolfe (Goss) who wants to control people’s minds using mobile phones – the satirical potential in this idea is, inevitably, never realised. The potential for product placement, on the other hand…Nokia and BMW are the big winners there.

That’d all be okay, if the action was above average. It’s not. While still the best thing here, we actually fell asleep during the climax, and had to rewind once we woke up. There’s little sense of escalation: once you’ve seen the opening battle, that’s pretty much all the movie has to offer, save various gimmicks. Silverhawk battles thugs on bungee cords! [The producers were clearly hoping we’d all forgotten Tomb Raider, which at least made a thin pretense at explaining itself there] Thugs on roller-blades! Wolfe is clearly not short of imagination – except when it comes to giving his henchmen firearms, naturally.

It’s great to see Yeoh, now in her forties, still do a motorcycle jump across the Great Wall. However, things like the clunky mix of languages cripple this, and the result definitely won’t help Yeoh’s career. After Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, the world was at her feet, but projects such as The Touch and this one have proved very disappointing. Her talent remains clear; her judgement, on the other hand, is clearly very questionable.

Dir: Jingle Ma
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Richie Jen, Luke Goss, Brandon Chang

Mulan (animation)

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“Here be drag-ons…”

Disney movies are not the usual place to find action heroines: their classic woman is a princess, who sits in a castle and waits for someone of appropriately-royal blood to come and rescue her from whatever evil fate (wicked stepmother, poisoned spinning wheel, etc.) that has befallen her.

The first inklings of a change to this traditional attitude came in 1991 with Beauty and the Beast, where Belle was an independent-minded young lady who rejected the advances of the handsomely square-jawed hero, because he was an idiotic jerk. Unfortunately, the moral was somewhat diluted by the end when – and I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone – the Beast turns into a rather convincing facsimile of said handsomely square-jawed hero. So, looks are everything, after all… Much more successful was their 1998 attempt, Mulan, recently released for the first time on DVD, which took a traditional Chinese legend about a girl who dresses as a man to join the army, and converted it into the traditional Disney animated feature format, complete with songs and amusing sidekick. Given the studio’s previous track record (hey, why bother paying writers to come up with new stories, when there’s public domain ones to rape?), qualms here are understandable. Perhaps most memorably, Disney gave Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid a happy ending, though turning Quasimodo into a lovable Happy Meal probably comes close – that whirring sound you hear is Victor Hugo spinning in his grave.

And, yes, liberties were taken, though to be fair, you expect this in any screenplay – especially one whose story originally appeared in a poem written by an anonymous Chinese author around the 5th or 6th century AD. [See one translation. The poem also appears on the DVD, but without any attribution or context; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a Mousketeer] From here sprang a whole raft of tales, with different eras, locations or surnames, largely dependent on the author’s feelings, but having several common threads. The story takes place over more than a decade, and Mulan’s identity isn’t discovered until she has finally returned home and resumed her normal life.

There’s also no threat of execution when her deception is found out – Chinese culture may perhaps actually have a more tolerant approach to such things, though this is admittedly going only by the likes of Peking Opera, and a good chunk of Brigitte Lin’s career. And, of course, both the romantic angle and amusing sidekick were modern additions. This contrasts sharply with one version of the original, which has the Emperor hearing of Mulan’s exploits, and demanding she becomes his concubine. Mulan commits suicide in preference to this fate, an ending that, for some reason, didn’t make it into the Disney adaptation…

Perhaps the surprising thing is that there haven’t been more movie adaptations of the story – contrast the literally hundreds of movies based on Wong Fei-Hung. There have been a couple, most notably 1960’s The Lady General Hua Mu Lan, directed by Yue Fung, and starring Ling Buo as Mulan (real-life husband Jing Han played General Li). Before that was Maiden in Armor starring Nancy Chan, made in 1937, largely as propaganda to rally the Chinese against the Japanese. The most recent version was in 1999; Yang Pei-Pei’s 48 episode TV series starred Anita Yuen as Mulan [photo, right]. However, over the past couple of years, no less than three versions have been rattling around in development hell. The most eagerly anticipated one stars Michelle Yeoh as Mulan, with Chow Yun-Fat co-starring. The director is uncertain (Peter Pau and Christophe Gans are most often mentioned) and production still hasn’t started, even though it was announced back in July 2001; recent reports now have it scheduled to begin filming early next year.

Stanley Tong has also been working on The Legend of Mulan; the original plan was to shoot this in English, with Lucy Liu and The Rock as Mulan and the Hun general respectively, but this may have fallen through; with Tong now working on the next Jackie Chan film, this one seems to be on the back-burner. Finally, a Korean version, with either Jeon Ji Hyun (My Sassy Girl) or Zhang Zi-Yi, was scheduled, but not much has been heard about this lately. The Disney version, on the other hand, just came out on DVD for the first time – in part, I suspect, to act as marketing for the forthcoming, inevitable Mulan II. The trailer for the sequel is on the Mulan DVD, but Lady and the Tramp II, The Little Mermaid II, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II and Aladdin II should give you an idea of how wonderful Mulan II will be. [It’s going straight to video, of course, but it does at least have Ming-Na Wen. No Eddie Murphy though.]

That’s a shame, because the original still has a great deal to offer. Unlike many Disney films, the songs don’t bring proceedings to a grinding halt and are notably absent from the second half of the film. Indeed, the transition is deliberately abrupt: a band of happy, singing warriors is stopped mid-verse when they come across a burnt-out village which the Huns have exterminated (right). It’s a simple, but highly effective moment, where silence says a lot more than any words. [At one point a song for Mulan about the tragedy of war was considered, but this was dropped, along with Mushu’s song, Keep ‘Em Guessing – both decisions which can only be applauded.]

Obviously, in terms of action, it’s hamstrung by the G-certificate (though the British censors insisted on a headbutt being removed to get the equivalent ‘U’-rating), but allowing for this, it’s still got some exciting scenes, and the first encounter between Mulan and the Hun army is fabulous by any measure. It also avoids the pitfall of many a Disney film – making the villains more memorable than the main characters. [Everyone remembers Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians; but can you name the hero?] Here, Shan-Yu is almost a caricature, but does what’s necessary quickly, allowing the other characters to be developed more completely, and compared to other Disney heroines, Mulan may be the most well-rounded human being.

Of course, Eddie Murphy comes close to stealing the show as demoted family guardian, Mushu. Unlike Shrek, where the competition for laughs with Mike Myers was painfully clear, Ming-Na Wen is content to be the straight “man”, and the film benefits as a result. Murphy’s accent is entirely anachronistic, naturally, but that’s half the fun – interestingly, the American DVD offers the option of a Mandarin soundtrack, which is a nice option. We did try it for a bit, but the Chinese Mushu just didn’t have the life and energy of Murphy, and we soon switched back. [HK singer CoCo Lee plays Mulan, while Jackie Chan is the voice of Shang in both this and the Cantonese versions] The tunes are perhaps not quite “classic” Disney, in the sense that they don’t stay in your brain for years after, to explode at the most inappropriate moments. They’re still fairly hummable though, and Jerry Goldsmith’s Eastern-tinged score compliments the similarly Oriental-flavoured animation well. The makers clearly did a lot of research, thought it does have to be said, the film does not exactly portray Chinese culture in a particularly good light; Mulan, the heroine, is shown as rebelling against it in almost every way. One reviewer describes its basic theme as, “a woman with western values overcoming the oppression of a backwards Chinese civilization.” Ouch.

However, personally, I’d say the value of having a clearly non-Caucasian heroine (a first for any Disney film) outweighs relatively minor quibbles about subtext. It may be the last great hand-drawn animated feature from the studio which invented the genre, and all but defined it for sixty years, so I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this as an empowering and highly entertaining tale for children – of any age, but especially those too young to read subtitles. There aren’t many action heroine films our entire family loves, but Mulan is definitely high on the list.

Dir: Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook
Star: Ming-na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D.Wong, Soon-Tek Oh

Silk & Steel (Police Branch 82 – Rebirth)

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“Take a look at the cover, and work it out yourself.”

Another title in the ongoing Metropolitan Police Branch series, has much the same ingredients as the other entries: cheesecake and mildly competent action. I think this is the second entry, but as the three films have three different pairs of actresses playing policewomen heroines Mika and Rin (Hara + Iijima in this case), it’s clear continuity is less the purpose of the exercise than the aforementioned C + MCA.

Most of the gratuitous nonsense is got out of the way early, with the pair going undercover as dancers at a strip-club – hey, what are the odds against that? Though it’s notable that one of the actresses is notably reluctant to disrobe; I would tell you which one, but, really, I could hardly tell them apart and, in any case, it’s an informational nugget of absolutely no importance. After this, the film largely forgets the nudity, heading off in a subplot where Rin (or is it Mika?) gets kidnapped and brainwashed by an evil, noodle-slurping villain, and Mika (or is it Rin?) has to rescue her, which involves acting as bait and going through the whole procedure.

If you’re thinking this sounds like an excuse for some BDSM scenarios…you’d be right, though it’s relatively restrained – pun not intended! – in this area. Or perhaps it just seems that way, in comparison to Blood Gnome? There are a couple of acceptable catfights between Mika and Rin before the finale which, being totally honest, I can’t remember as being either good or bad. Actually, this is true for the film as a whole: a week after seeing it, very little remains in my memory. Either I’m getting old, or this was as forgettable as it seems.

Dir: Masahide Kuwabara
Stars: Kumiko Hara, Miyuki Iijima, Hajime Tsukomo, Edo Yamaguchi