Lady Bloodfight

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“Now available for Playstation and Xbox”

This rattled around in pre-production for a while, originally being called Lady Bloodsport, and with the names linked to it being significantly higher in profile: Maggie Q, Shu Qi and Zhiyi Zhang. The end result here is obviously smaller and cheaper – the fights at its core all take place in the bastion of martial arts, a warehouse – and you can’t help but think, “What if…?” However, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, despite – or, perhaps because of – feeling like a throwback to straightforward movies such as the original Bloodsport, which helped launch the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

The basic approach seems entirely deliberate, and the simplicity works to the film’s benefit. You don’t watch a film with this title for intricate plot or subtle character study; you watch it to see asses being kicked, and there’s enough of that, you’d be hard-pushed to feel cheated. The excuse is the well-worn trope of a martial-arts tournament for women, the kumite, being held in Hong Kong. The last time it happened, it ended in a tie between deadly rivals, Shu (Hofmann) and Wai (K. Wu). They’re now both looking for someone who can fight on their behalf. Shu selects Jane Jones (Johnston), in Hong Kong seeking a father who vanished under murky circumstances years earlier. Wai chooses and trains Ling (J. Wu), a cocky, streetwise fighter. But there are 14 other entrants, hailing from all over the world, including Russia, Australia and Brazil, who must be defeated before the inevitable Jones vs. Ling showdown.

Yes, it’s utterly contrived, not least in not one, but two, master-student threads. If you can’t think of better ways to achieve the same end, you need to watch more movies. Fortunately, it’s salvaged by a quarter of decent performances from the lead women, who take the clichés they’re given by the script, and round them out into at least an approximation of real characters, good enough for the movie’s purposes. Bonus points due, for not inflicting any sappy romance (although Jones’s interactions with the spirit of her father are occasionally on perilously thin ice instead) and also largely avoiding potentially sleazy cheesecake, save for one locker-room pan.

As the tag-line above suggests, this feels very much like an adaptation of a non-existent video-game. As such, it would have helped if they’d mixed up the environments for the fights a bit, in the name of variety. This is a minor quibble, however, and what you get are some well-crafted slabs of action, showcasing various styles and approaches. Outside of Jones and Ling, the character which stuck in our mind most was likely Mayling Ng’s monstrous Svietta, freed from a Russian prison for the kumite. All tattoos and snarls, she might have made a better “final boss” for the heroine than Ling, who is perhaps a little too sympathetic. Despite any flaws, it’s a brisk tale, energetically told, and with plenty to commend its no-nonsense approach.

Dir: Chris Nahon
Star: Amy Johnston, Muriel Hofmann, Jenny Wu, Kathy Wu

Dragon Girls

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“…and you thought your school sucked.”

dragon-girlsIf you’re familiar with Jackie Chan’s life story, you’ll know he (along with fellow future start Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) was basically brought up in a Peking Opera school, where he learned martial arts and acrobatics as well as theatrical skills. Discipline there was notoriously strict – the film Painted Faces gives a good idea of what it was like. But that was the sixties. Surely no such abusive educational regime exists nowadays?

Well… This documentary suggests otherwise, though the scale is rather different. For the Shaolin Tagu school that’s the subject here says it has 35,000 staff and pupils on a half-million square metre campus. When you see the opening, the screen filled from side to side and top to bottom with synchronized martial artists, it’s not implausible. However, the reasons why parents send their children to these places haven’t changed a lot. Typically the family is too poor, or the kids are too much of a handful, possibly heading into delinquency, and they believe the discipline will straighten them out.

The film focuses on some of the girls, some as young as nine, enrolled in the school, including one who had run away in the middle of the second year, and returned to her family. As well as the pupils, there are interviews with the coaches, the head of the school (“A community’s backbone is shaped by rules,” he says. “In here, those rules are very strict.”) and the chief monk at the nearby Shaolin monastery, who offers a different (rather more laid-back!) perspective on what martial arts are about. There isn’t much in the way of narrative here. While there are mentions of a tournament, I didn’t realize it had taken place, until one of the participants was reporting to her disappointed father that she had failed to win first place. Some obvious questions are unanswered too, such as who is paying for this? Are these places state-sponsored?

Although the presence of the documentary crew may have reined in the harsher side of life at the school, the girls have no problem detailing the corporal punishment dished out, it seems at will, by the teachers, or the insect-contaminated food. There’s one scene where the girls compare scars and try to one-up each other, which plays disturbingly like a teen version of the similar sequence in Jaws. But it’s about the only one which sticks in the mind or goes any significant difference between the fairly obvious. I get the feeling we in the West are supposed to look on this disapprovingly, but there isn’t enough digging behind the facade to justify it. For you could likely make something not dissimilar about any high-pressure training environment here – say, for gymnastics. The main difference would probably be that, here, parents have other options…

Dir: Inigo Westmeier
Star: Xin Chenxi, Chen Xi, Guan Luolan, Yang Ziyu
a.k.a. Drachen Mädchen

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom

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“Pretty, vacant.”

Based on the same novel which previously inspired The Bride With White Hair, this is a lovely-looking, but entirely empty production. The hero is Zhuo Yihang  (Huang), one of the top members of a martial-arts clan, who is instructed to deliver some red pills to the reigning emperor. When the monarch keels over shortly thereafter, Zhuo gets the blame. However, he’s able to team up with Jade (Fan) and her sister Coral (Shera Lee), who run a rebel outpost buried deep in the heart of the titular mountain, forming an utterly impregnable fortress. Zhuo and Jade, naturally, fall in love – at least, until he gets word that she was responsible for the murder of his grandfather, a local governor. However, we already know she’s innocent of that crime too, part of the myriad of political shenanigans which are swirling around our love-struck couple.

whitehairedIt’s clear the aim here is some kind of sweeping epic. Unfortunately, the emotion more likely to be generated is “confused apathy.” Perhaps it makes more sense if you’re intimately informed on 17th-century Chinese politics. That’s unlikely to be the case for many Western eyes, although there’s no denying the lush nature of the visuals to be found here. Having Tsui Hark on board as a consultant has likely helped that aspect, because the film looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s a large box of gooey, top-shelf chocolate for the eyeballs. The problem is, it also has about as much nutritional content for the heart. Who are these people? Why should we care? Cheung appears to have forgotten this, very basic, aspect of storytelling, and what’s left is as about as soulless as any entry in the Transformers franchise.

Fan looks the part, make no mistake, and there are occasional moments, such as her hair changing shade [you’ll spend the first half wondering who the heck the titular witch is, since Jade’s hair is pitch-black], where the visual effects are used for the advancement of the story, not just for whizz-bang effect. It’s the exception instead of the rule, and before long, you’ll be back to wondering who half these people are, and why they are so upset with each other. This climaxes with the film ending in a way that is not so much satisfying, as entirely baffling. As it does so, a song from the earlier Bride With White Hair is played. Presumably, the aim was as a nod to the predecessor; the effect is actually to remind you of the ways in which the earlier film was superior.

One of the major McGuffins here is a magic “Scroll of Apathy,” giving its master incredible powers, albeit at terrible cost. That’s ironically appropriate, since most viewers will also be feeling pretty damn apathetic by the time the credits roll. Guess it proves the scroll worked. I await the arrival of my powers. Any day now, I’m sure.

Dir: Jacob Cheung
Star: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Zhao, Wang Xuebing

The Red Detachment of Women

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“Carry out land reform!” and other popular Marxist refrains…

reddetachmentThis takes place in 1930, when the Communist revolution was really just getting under way, and Hainan, now the very southernmost part of China, was a hotbed of subversive activity. Wu Qionghua (Zhu) is a virtual slave, who had made frequent attempts to run away from her master, Nan Batian, but has always been caught. She is rescued by a kindly merchant, Hong Changqing (Wang) who is visiting her master and takes Qionghua into his service – as soon as they leave, he frees her, because it turns out he is an undercover operative for the Communists. Qionghua, filled with new-found political aspirations, heads for a nearby village where the Red Army is forming its first women’s army, linking up on the way with another member of the oppressed proletariat, Fu Honglian (Xiang). There, she convinces the commander of her earnest intentions and gets to join. However, her lust for personal revenge on Nan clouds her judgment as a soldier, and potentially puts her life at risk She will need to suppress her own desires – both for vengeance and for Hong – in the interests of the greater good and the Communist uprising.

A little reminiscent of The Forty-First, the big difference is that it built the characters first, and worked any political messages around them, rather than turning the actors into machines for spouting revolutionary polemic. Here, there are times when what comes out of Qionghua’s mouth appears to be straight out of the Little Red Book, which is quite off-putting. It could be down to poor translation in the subs, but considering she is supposed to be a peasant girl, and presumably uneducated, lines such as “Could you tell me why Secretary Changqing and our company commander are more knowledgeable and farsighted? Because they are communists?” are not exactly convincing. Nor are “spontaneous” chants of “Down with feudal rule! Carry out land reform! Overturn the feudal system!” Maybe audiences in sixties China needed to be whacked over the head; I’ve always found propaganda to be most effective when its subtle, and this isn’t. I occasionally expected scenes to finish with a Starship Troopers-esque caption: “Do you want to know more?”

But say what you like about communism – and “It’s a political system which is okay in theory, but a miserable failure in practice” would be close to my own view there – it has done a lot more than capitalism in embracing the GWG as part of culture. We already documented the Soviet approach in WW2, and here, the women’s army is not regarded as second-class soldiers in any way, and are portrayed the equals of their male counterparts, which is certainly laudable. Shame the battles themselves are a bit crap, with the running-dog reactionary lackeys hardly putting up a fight, save for one decent sequence where Wu’s platoon has to hold off an advancing surge by the opposition, while sustaining brutal losses. The same novel subsequently became a ballet: that might be slightly less heavy-handed with the propaganda, though I wouldn’t guarantee it!

Dir: Xie Jin
Star: Zhu Xijuan, Wang Xingang, Xiang Mei, Jin Naihua

Twins Mission

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“To bead, or not to bead, that is the question…”

Twins_Mission-posterTwins Effect, the first film starring the Cantopop duo, Twins, was a frothily entertaining mix of action and humour, that was surprisingly entertaining. Its sequel? Despite a stellar supporting cast, and some great action, not so much, with a historical setting, and a balance that tilted unfavourably towards comedy. This third entry does at least return to the modern era, and also continues some impressively slick fights – and more broken glass than any other movie I can immediately think of – but has a similarly lumpy attitude, feeling almost like two films spliced together.

The McGuffin is a Tibetan relic called the Heaven’s Bead, long alleged to have magical powers to cure illness – which is actually pretty damn big, since I was expecting something that could be measured in millimetres, rather than feet. On its way by train, a robbery attempted staged by an evil collective of twins (rather than Twins, if you see what I mean) leads to it ending up in a bag belonging to the owner of a store in a Hong Kong mall. Meanwhile, good twins Pearl (Chung) and Jade (Choi) are working as trapeze artists in the circus, but end up helping the guardian of the bead, Uncle Lucky (Hung) and his adopted son (Wu) to track down the artefact. But the evil twins also have their agent, Lillian, who is lured in with the promise of the bead’s power being use to cure her cancer-stricken little sister, the unfortunately-named Happy.

Yes, this doesn’t exactly take the high road in terms of pathos, milking child illness for every ounce of maudlin sentimentality it can muster, when not making xenophobic jokes about the funny way foreigners speak. There is also a fight over an autographed picture of David Copperfield [Jade + Pearl’s idol], which ends with it being eaten by a hippo. This apparently tells us two things about China: people still care about David Copperfield, and it may be the only place where circuses that use wild animals are still welcome. I’m not sure which is more surprising, but that’s the level of nonsense between the action that you will have to endure, and I’m not sure the plot makes any actual sense in terms of logic or motivation. Fortunately, the saving grace is said action, with one standout fight between the good twins and several sets of evil twins in the mall, and another at the end, in the evil twins’ lair. Both are long, inventive sequences on finding new and interesting ways to break plate glass, though both the wire-fu and the stunt doubling for the starlets are a bit excessive.

I originally gave this 2.5 stars, then upped it to three, when I realized that was what I gave Twins Effect II, and this surely wasn’t any worse, was it? But on further reflection, it probably was, and I downgraded it again: there’s about 20 good minutes in this, and even Sammo couldn’t save the rest.

Dir: Kong Tao-Hoi
Star: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Wu Jing, Sammo Hung

High Kickers

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“Desperately in need of more kick.”

highkickersHanging on the wall of the training gym in this film, is a banner on which is written in large letters: “WTF”. I imagine this is probably supposed to stand for “World Taekwondo Federation”, but it’s an unfortunate acronym for any organization. Says quite a bit that this is perhaps the most memorable thing, in what is not far from a Chinese knock-off of one of the more forgettable American martial-arts flicks of the 80’s, Best of the Best. Lingling (Huang) shows up one day at a failing taekwondo school run by Zhao Yumin (Liu), and asks to be trained for the national championships, even though she’s never fought before. Zhao sets her an impossible challenge, but when Lingling succeeds, is forced to take her on. As the rest of the film unfolds, we discover why the gym is failing – a former pupil died in a previous championship bout against the cockily brutal Gao Zhi (Cheng) – and also the reason for LingLing’s sudden interest in martial arts. If you’ve seen Best, you’ll probably be there already.

To give you some idea of how generally lame this is, the “impossible challenge” set for the heroine is… to go to a railway station and buy a ticket. We’re given no idea of why this is supposedly such a feat, because we don’t get to see any of it. Maybe it’s surrounded by a pit of crocodiles or something. Huang is also pretty unconvincing, with arms like twigs: before her climactic battle, we get to see her in one bout, which she wins with a gimmick move, so the viewer is never given any reason to feel that she has a realistic chance against Gao. That’s especially the case, after the only martial arts worthy of note, which is when he comes to the gym and basically demolishes an entire platoon of trainees.

The rest of the time is little more than a parade of martial-arts clichés, with Xie far too over-fond of the training montage as a cinematic device. Admittedly, my school of thought says “once” is about the limit, and you’d better have a good reason for doing it that often. Still, it’s in line with the other aspects: the characters are uninteresting, performances nothing special and, with the sole exception noted above, the fight sequences do little to generate excitement or interest. I note that the film is conveniently missing from Gordon Liu’s filmography on the IMDb: if I were in his shoes, I’d probably hope it stays that way.

Dir: Xie Yi
Star: Eva Huang, Gordon Liu, Mark Cheng, Daniel Chan

The Stunt Woman (Ah Kam)

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“Because stunt women have feelings too.”

stuntwomanThe end credits of this show, in a style familiar from Jackie Chan movies, the “stunts gone wrong” montage. Except here, it’s Michelle Yeoh suffering a serious back injury after a bad landing following a jump from a bridge. What’s particularly galling is that the stunt was entirely pointless, in terms of the movie, and also filmed so badly, they could easily have used someone much more experienced in that kind of thing. This is likely what happens when you have a director who apparently has no aptitude for, or interest in, action cinema. Instead, Hui’s filmography is full of earnest social cinema such as Summer Snow, “about a middle-aged woman trying to cope with everyday family problems and an Alzheimer-inflicted father-in-law,” according to Wikipedia.

On a similar basis, I guess this is about a middle-aged stunt woman, Ah Kam (Yeoh), trying to cope with everyday cinematic problems, and an alcohol-inflicted father-figure (Hung). What we learn, is that the life of an stunt person involves as much sitting around and drinking as it does actual, ah, stunting. We also find out, apparently, that you can go from walking-on to the set, to becoming the de facto director in about two days. Actually, snark aside, this is the most interesting section of the film, with a no-holds barred depiction of the crappy conditions under which action scenes are created in Hong Kong cinema, with a brutal mix of time constraints, Triad hassles and a near-complete disregard for personal safety. You won’t do this stunt? Kiss employment goodbye, because there’s always someone else who will. If nothing else, you will come away from this with an enhanced regard for the people who put their bodies on the line for your entertainment.

However, odds are that’s all you’ll get, for the longer this goes on, the further this meanders off track, in to a series of unsatisfying threads which are equally underdeveloped and unsatisfying. Ah Kam falls for a man and follows him to China, only to find life as a bar manager not what she expected, so she gives up and goes back to movie work. The Triad troubles escalate until they lead to the death of a major character, but this doesn’t go anywhere much either. Even when she has to rescue a young boy, kidnapped for what’s basically a prank on a mob boss, there’s little or no resolution, the movie ending in such an abrupt fashion, it feels like Hui ran out of film-stock. While it’s nice to see Yeoh given a chance to exercise her dramatic talents more, and she acquits herself well, the results are singularly disappointing, and unfortunately, are also definitely not worth the injury she sustained.

Dir: Ann Hui
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Sammo Hung, Ken Lo, Hoi Mang

Ambitious Kung Fu Girl

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“More ambitious than kung fu”

Tian Si Si (Yim) is a spoiled rich girl, whose doting daddy pays kung fu fighters to give the illusion that she can beat them up. Despite his desire to wed her off in an arranged marriage to Yang Fan (Tak), Si Si runs off to meet her idol, Qing Ge (Chen), a true master of the martial arts, whom she knows only through the fictional tales of derring-do, told by her maid. Susequently, Si Si becomes the target first of con-men, then is sold to a brother, and when they realize who she is, becomes the centre of a scheme to force her into marriage, so her husband can inherit her father’s fortune. Throughout it all, Yang is about the only loyal friend, though when she meets her idol, she discovers that, while if he isn’t as depicted, he still has a courageous streak of his own.

This is clearly intended as a light and frothy confection, not to be taken seriously – witness the gambling contest between Qing Ge and his rival, which has much more in common with a modern game-show than anything from the period. However, the plot is actually smartly written, with enough angles and schemes to keep your head spinning, as you try to figure out who actually wants to help our heroine, and who is against her. I’m not normally a fan of this era of martial arts, often finding the action too obviously-staged. However, this is quite well put together, and I do appreciate camerawork which lets you appreciate the performers’ skills.

Indeed, as a film in general, this would probably rate a star or so higher, and is a fun 90 minutes: my main disappointment is that the heroine is really not the kung fu girl of the title. Apart from the initial encounter with the paid opponents, her “Sloppy Blind Man’s Sword” technique is hardly used. Though there are some other strong female characters – most notably brothel owner Madame Mei (Wong Mei-Mei), who clearly has physical skills beyond what you’d expect from her job – they are largely secondary and/or subservient to the male ones, with the possible exception of courtesan Zhang Hao Er (Choh Seung-Wan), who is certainly her own woman. But overall, entertaining fluff though this is, it only barely qualifies for inclusion here, rather than in our Hall of Misleading Advertising.

Mulan (live-action)

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“Joan of Arc, without the religion. Or stake.”

Inspired by the same poem as Disney’s much-loved feature, this has the same basic idea – a young woman impersonates a man in order to save her father from being drafted in the army. However, this takes a rather different approach, being much darker in tone, not that’s this is much of a surprise, I guess. It’s also a lot longer in scope, with Mulan (Zhao, whom you may recognize as the heroine/goalkeeper from Shaolin Soccer), rather than fighting a single campaign, becoming a career soldier and rising through the ranks as a result of her bravery in battle, eventually becoming a general, tasked with defending the Wei nation from the villainous Mendu (Hu). He has killed his own father in order to take control, and has united the nomadic tribes of the Rouran, amassing an army of 200,000 to invade Mulan’s home territory. She comes up with a plan to lure him into a trap, but when she is betrayed by a cowardly commander, things look bleak indeed for Mulan and Wentai (Chen), one of the few who know her secret.

Initially, I was rather unconvinced by Zhao who, being in her mid-30s, is a tad old to be playing the dutiful daughter. But given the longer view taken by the movie, the casting makes sense, and she ends up fitting into the role nicely; there’s a steely determination which develops over the course of the film, and by the end, you can see why she has become a commander. That’s one of the themes of the movie: duty, contrasted with the terrible losses war can inflict on a personal level, Mulan being largely powerless to watch as almost all her friends end up dying in battle. “I’ve fought battle after battle,” she says, “Lost one after another of my brothers, I really don’t want to fight any more.” There’s almost a neo-totalitarian implication to the final message, however, which suggests that everyone – even those who have sacrificed everything already – need to put aside their personal interests for the greater good of the state.

There’s a nice balance between the action and emotional aspects, but Zhao doesn’t actually do much in the latter department after the battle which gets her noticed. She’s broken out of army jail to take part, after confessing to stealing a jade pendant, in order to avoid a strip-search [death before dishonour]. After that, she’s more a leader than an actual fighter: heavy is the head that wears the general’s helmet is the moral here, and it’s driven home effectively enough, thanks mostly to Zhao’s solid performance.

Dir: Jingle Ma
Star: Zhao Wei, Chen Kun, Hu Jun, Jaycee Chan

Undiscovered Tomb

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“Tomb service.”

Obviously inspired by a certain raider of tombs, this has Yuan as Georgia, who was rescued from an orphanage, along with her sister (Koinuma) and trained in… well, raiding tombs. When their foster father vanishes while on an expedition seeking the secret of immortality, the two siblings head off to look for him, only to come under attack from a range of locals, natives and the local fauna. Meanwhile, Professor Ivy Chan (Shimada) links up with billionaire art-collector Michael Lui (Wong), and discovers that shady forces are after a relic possessed by Ivy, and that they need to follow the girls into the remote jungle.

The best thing about the film is certainly Yuan, and it’s not surprising when you consider her pedigree – her mother is Cheng Pei-Pei, the Jade Fox herself. She has the necessary charisma and action chops to succeed, and it’s a shame her IMDB filmography included only half a dozen features after this one. The problems with the film are not just elsewhere, they’re almost everything else. Koinuma is profoundly irritating, whining perpetually about make-up, and the attacks serve no purpose beyond an apparent requirement for an action scene every 10 minutes – it’s painfully obvious the same guys are playing all the villains, and there’s only about four of them. Finally, if you’re going to write a script that requires a 20-foot snake, check with your special effects house they can deliver something at least slightly convincing. This step was clearly omitted entirely here.

Despite these painfully obvious flaws, I can’t say I was ever bored here. There’s no shortage of action, and it’s decently-staged, with Yuen proving a more than adequate Joliealike. I also enjoyed the majestic (Chinese?) landscapes which acted as a spectacular backdrop for the jungle sequences. Overall, it was certainly more entertaining than the over-blown Cradle of Life, and on a per-dollar of budget basis, probably comes out ahead of its original inspiration as well.

Dir: Douglas Kung
Star: Marsha Yuen, Miyuki Koinuma, Yoko Shimada, Ken Wong