Salt trailer

Angelina Jolie is likely the queen of Hollywood action heroines: not just for her roles as Lara Croft, but also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted, delivering the perfect mix of attitude and aggression necessary to the genre. Hence, Salt is one of our most-anticipated action films of 2010, in which she plays a operative who finds herself… Well, just watch the trailer, it’ll fill you in on the details.

CoWeb

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“Solid action, hampered by limited acting and particularly poor storyline.”

It’s nice to see Hong Kong making a decent action heroine film: that’s really where the genre started off, and it’s been responsible for some of the best entries in the field. That said, this doesn’t quite deserve to be placed on the same level, but star Jiang Lui Xia certainly has her potential – my immediate thought is to put her in the same film as Jeeja Yanin, and we might really have something. [Sidenote: Jiang got her big break as the result of a couple of unusual ways. Viral videos she posted on the Internet, which in turn got her a slot on a reality show called The Disciple in Hong Kong, produced by Jackie Chan. The winner – not her – got to star in a feature.] Much like her Thai colleague, Jiang is clearly a martial artist first, and actress…well, probably fifth or sixth, despite her resemblance to Shin Eun Kyung from My Wife is Gangster. She seems to have three expressions, used in strict rotation, and the plot is frankly implausible nonsense too.

She plays Yi-Yi, the bodyguard of a gangster’s wife; when her charge is kidnapped, Yi-yi starts getting phone messages leading her to various locations. Hoping to redeem herself by rescuing the wife, she follows along, only to discover she is walking into trouble. Turns out the battles which result are being streamed over the web, with bettors wagering on the results. As Yi-Yi’s reputation rises, the sites become more and more popular, and profitable; can she fight her way through, to discover the truth about what’s going on? Yeah, “total bollocks” would be putting it kindly. It is not much more than a flimsy excuse to move the heroine from level to level, until a final confrontation with tae kwon do fighter Kosugi.

Fortunately, the fights are entirely acceptable, with a range of spectacular, if somewhat contrived confrontations – such as the one in a disco, outfitted with a pit containing a shallow pool of water (maybe it’s a standard accessory for Hong Kong discos?). The best is perhaps a kitchen brawl against German Wanja Götz, where just about everything bar the sink comes into play; there’s also one on a set of bamboo scaffolding, which appears to be the current venue of choice in the same way that car parks or Chinese restaurants were in their time. They were nicely put together, and sufficient to keep us watching, despite subtitles on our copy which were a) ten seconds behind the dialogue, and b) in Lolcat font. That we were willing to struggle past this says a lot about the fights, though even they could do nothing to help a particularly lame plot. Still, we’ll be interested to see where Jiang goes from here.

Dir: Xiong Xin Xin
Star: Jiang Lui Xia, Sam Lee, Eddie Cheung, Kane Kosugi

Fighter

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“If you see only one Danish/Muslim action-heroine kung-fu film this year… It’ll be this one. Almost for sure.”

Certainly one of a kind, this coming-of-age film tells the story of Aicha (Turan), a Muslim girl born of Turkish parents, who is obsessed with learning martial arts – the last thing her father wants. This thoroughly unfeminine interest, in the eyes of her community, is carried out in secret, but Omar (Banissi), a friend of her brother’s fiancee’s family finds out, and is thoroughly unimpressed. “I don’t fight girls,” he says dismissively, when ordered to spar with Aicha, and this leads to his ejection from the club by their teacher (Xian). When he confronts Aicha at the engagement party, the resulting argument becomes a brawl, and leads to the breaking off of the engagement – which is doubly unfortunate, as the bride-to-be is discovered to be pregnant. Meanwhile, Aicha has to prepare for an upcoming tournament, alongside her training partner, Emil (Melville) – and for which Omar has also signed up as a contestant.

There’s a good deal of this which feels borrowed from The Next Karate Kid, and if you can not predict how the tournament unfolds, you definitely need to watch more movies. However, the cultural backdrop gives this a freshness not found in the actual storyline. While women may have made huge strides in many parts of the world, it’s clear that there are still societies where subjugation is almost a norm, and female members of such societies have to struggle to obtain rights and freedoms taken for granted in many places. Here, Aicha’s fondness for martial arts is bad enough; but her presence in a mixed class, in close contact with those of the opposite sex, is enough to get her labelled a cheap slut. This is not an exaggeration: recently, here in Arizona, an Iraqi immigrant ran over and killed his daughter, allegedly because she was becoming “too Westernized.” In the light of incidents such as this, the film seems almost to understate the situation if anything.

Turan is a martial-arts expert with no professional acting experience and that’s occasionally apparent. While the fight sequences are put together and executed with grace and power, she does seem to struggle when asked to deliver more than the shallower emotions. The rest of the cast are up to their tasks, even if the roles are perhaps not much more than broad stereotypes. Still, it’s different from the norm, and is definitely worth a look, as a reminder that action heroines are not only found in the most obvious of locations or cultures.

Dir: Natasha Arthy
Star: Semra Turan, Cyron Bjørn Melville, Behruz Banissi, Xian Gao

Raging Phoenix

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“Want another piece of Chocolate?”

If you’ve seen Chocolate – starring the same lead actress, though confusingly billed under a different name here – you’ll know what to expect, and the film delivers much of the same. Which would be stunning, brutal fight scenes combined with moments of mind-numbing tedium. The plan for Yanin’s career seems to be to contrive methods by which she can avoid acting: last time it was autism; here, it’s a drunken style of kung-fu which helps mitigate a voice that might charitably be compared to broken nails on glass. She plays former rock-star(!) Deu, who is on the edge of being kidnapped, when she’s rescued by Sanim (Tang). He and his fellow masters of alcohol-fu have all lost ladies in their life to the kidnappers – who, it turns out, are doing this because… No. You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you – and are trying to locate their lair. Deu joins the team, and agrees to act as bait, to see if the kidnappers will go after her again.

After a brisk and entertaining start, this drags badly in the middle. At 111 minutes, it is simply too long, and needs to lose at least a quarter of an hour. However, as with Chocolate, the action makes up for any such deficiencies, with the final reel featuring an escalating trio of fights, any of which would be entirely credible climaxes for any other movie. This culminates in a battle against female body-building champion Roongtawan Jindasing, the leader of the kidnappers, which is the most savage, knockdown, heroine vs. villainess brawl I’ve seen in… Ever? I can’t think of anything to match it immediately. Jindasing’s raw power pitted against Yanin’s devastating flexibility makes for a fabulous contest, and this is preceded by some great “pairs martial-arts” [when you see it, you’ll understand], when Deu and Sanim try to take out the villainess.

A fractional complaint is that the spotlight, action-wise, is not solely on Yanin, especially in the first two-thirds of the film. While the co-stars are by no means incompetent, it’s a step down from Chocolate, where the focus was squarely on her, and going into the last turn, this one getting a seal of approval seemed unlikely. However, the movie found an entirely new gear – one apparently just not available to other film-makers – and surged over the finish line. Just as Chocolate was the best action-heroine film of 2008, it looks like Raging Phoenix will be right up there in the 2009 contest.

Dir: Rashane Limtrakul
Star: Jeeja Yanin, Kazu Patrick Tang, Nui Sandang, Sompong Lertwimonkasem