Archive for June, 2011

Review: Executioners From Shaolin (1977)

Posted in Chen Kuan-Tai, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar Leung, Lo Lieh, Yu Wong with tags , on June 28, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

starring Lo Lieh, Kuan Tai Chen, Lily Li, Yu Wong, and Gordon Liu.

Fight Choreography by Lau Kar-Leung

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

The film begins as we center on two fighters: Shaolin Master Zhishan (played by Hoi Sang Lee, the Justice Abbot from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin ) and Pei Mei (Lo Lieh, and yes, it is the same Pei Mei Quentin Tarantino used for Kill Bill) Pei Mei has been ordered to kill all of the Shaolin, and Master Zhishan stands in his way, but not for long as Pei Mei dispatches him after Master Zhishan tries to crush Pei Mei’s testicles and get this:

Pei Mei is able to pull his testicles into his groin. I am not kidding you.

He will pull this trick over and over the entire film. You’ll hear a little popping sound to know his nuts are somewhere within his body. Now THAT is kinda F***ed up. I mean, what happens if they get stuck up there? Do his guys suction them back out with a plunger or something?

I digress. We then follow Hung Hsi Kuan (Chen) as he leads a group of shaolin fighters escaping Pei Mei’s army, when they run into fellow brothers led by Brother Tung (Liu) who, with a small group of men run a diversion so the others can escape. This is Gordon Liu’s one and only scene, and he has a great fight with the soldiers, moving fast and gracefully before he dies in a hail of arrows.

Hung Hsi Kuan, along with his brother Hsiao and the remaining men acquire red boats they use to disguise themselves as an acting troupe, and sail all over China performing while at the same time aiding any rebels they happen across. They come across one town where a kung fu perfomer, the beautiful Wan Yun-Chun (Li) and her uncle, are tired of the red boats, not realizing who is on it. She challenges Kuan to a fight, and her uncle stops it once he realizes who they are, and he and his daughter join them. Months pass and Hung Hsi Kuan and Wan Yun-Chun fall in love, and are soon married. Months later Pai Mei discovered that the Red Boats are what the rebels are using, and has his men attack them wherever they are found. Hung Hsi Kuan takes the now pregnant  Yun-Chun and with his brother abandon the boat, hiding in a small village. Time passes and Yun-Chun has a child, Hung Wen-Ding. As Hung Hsi Kuan grows up, he sees his father training day after to day to finally avenge the Shaolin by killing Pai Mei…

Executioners From Shaolin is a film that spans more than a decade, which is pretty ambitious. Lo Lieh is fairly one note as Pai Mei, but his fights are great, making Pei Mei look like a formidable opponent. Gordon Liu has only one real scene, but he is fantastic in it. Hung Hsi Kuan does a great job playing a man obsessed with killing Pei Mei, even as time passes and he has a family. Lau Kar-Leung has a good cast, but not a very large budget as the camera quality and sets are not very well done, ShawScope or not. A few areas of the film actually blur up a bit.

The fights are well done but I was a bit underwhelmed. The opening fight with Gordon Liu was great, and the Pei Mei fights were fairly good, but the final fight between Pei Mei and Hung Wen-Ding was terrible. There was no flow to it, and it seemed they saw the running time of the film and were like” we gotta wrap this up quickly!” and Wen-Ding easily defeats Pei Mei, which doesn’t jive with the 80 minutes prior of seeing Pei Mei kick all kinds of ass, not to mention the fact that it isn’t Hung Hsi Kuan who defeats him.

The ending mars what is otherwise a fairly decent kung-fu film. Pei Mei is a great bad guy character, but his defeat at the hands of an immature boy just makes me feel as if I was cheated out of a better film somehow.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (7) Some of the best stuff belonged to Gordon Liu, but the Pei fights were great. This falls short of anything better because the final fight was simply not up to par. Lau Kar-Leung has done better than this.

STUNTWORK: (7) The fight on the stairs leading to Pei Mei had many stunt men falling down them, and they made it look fairly good. They performed their duties as cannon fodder well.

STAR POWER: (8) Lo Lieh is the bigger star here, and a cameo by future star Gordon Liu and Kuan Tai Chen, veteran of many Shaw Brothers films gives the proceeding the gravitas it needs.

FINAL GRADE: (7) This film is famous for the villain Pei Mei, whom Quentin Tarantino had Gordon Liu play in Kill Bill. The film itself has its moments, which makes it worth a watch, but the final fight is too disappointing to overlook.


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Review: Shaolin Temple (1982)

Posted in Jet Li, Yu Hai with tags , on June 24, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jet Li, Yu Hai, Ding Laam

Fight Choreography by Ma Xian Da, Yu Hai, Wang Chang Kai

Directed by Chang Hsin-Yen

In 1980 the secretive  Shaolin temple found itself at a crossroads of sorts. There were not too many new monks coming in, and the temple was finding it difficult to survive without funds. So, in an effort to garner new students the Shaolin Temple teamed up with a Hong Kong production company to make a movie that would showcase Shaolin style kung-fu. The production would be the first time a Hong Kong film would be shot on the Chinese mainland. The background actors would be the monks themselves, and for the star a little known 17-year-old martial arts wunderkind who had won many championships was chosen. His name was Jet Li, and this is where he began his film career.

The film takes place between the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and Jet Li plays Juen Yuen, a young man who, along with his father, a famous kung-fu fighter, are turned into slaves by General Wang. Yuen’s father gets into fight with some of the soldiers and then with Wang himself, and is killed, but not before Yuen is able to escape. Injured and suffering the loss of his father, Yuen makes his way to the Shaolin temple, where he is cared for and allowed to stay by the monks there, much to the dismay of the Abbot’s second.

While he recovers, Yuen is able to watch the monks practicing kung-fu in a great scene of the monks showing off their various forms and styles and weapons, and this leads to what may be one of the most jacked-up scenes ever, as the dog of a girl he likes, named Bai, disrupts his watching the monks in secret, and he accidentally kills the dog, and what he does with the dog after that just defies, well, you just have to see it for yourself. It’s both laugh out loud and cringe inducing all at once.

Yuen does join the monks, but his thirst for revenge always seems to undo everything he has learned about tolerance and forgiveness, as he fights General Wang and his men again and again, but saves Bai as he does so (there is another scene where the soldiers attack her and what they do to the sheep…damn. If you are a member of PETA just steer clear of this film.)

Yuen’s constant attacks, and then saving a rebel Wang is looking for leads to an epic battle as Wang attacks the temple itself, and the monks finally have to defend themselves or fade into history…

Look, let it be known that without a doubt this is a big time propaganda film for the Temple. Even the theme song sounds that way.  Having said that, it’s not a bad film, but may best be known as the film that started Jet Li’s career. The story is decent but nothing that hasn’t been done before in different dressing, but there are fun moments to be had, such as when the master always seems to find some way to justify doing something that a monk shouldn’t do, such as eat meat or kick some ass. It’s hilarious to see the gears turning in his head as he comes up with some buddhist explanation that his students and Yuen are all too eager to accept. Jet does a pretty good job as the star of the film, especially for a first time actor.

The fight scenes start off fairly well but gets better as the film progresses. The field fight and the assault on the temple are the highlights of the film, and while not as smooth as what we may be used to seeing, the fights are very well choreographed and has a flow all its own.

Where the film really falls astray of greatness is in the actual production values of the film itself. The camerawork is shoddy at best, and there are scenes, particularly the night-time fight scenes that are horrendous not because the fights are bad, but because the lighting is terrible, and leaves parts of those fights to the imagination. The editing also has some baffling moments, where they do a cross fade within the same fight scene. Cross fade editing is supposed to be used as a transition from one scene to another, not to be used in a fast paced fight scene that isn’t in any sort of transition.

Despite this the film did very well, and sparked several sequels, and really did spark a new popularity in China for martial arts films, and introduced the world to Jet Li.

(On a scale of 1-10. 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Well done, but not the best ever. It does a great job of showing off the Shaolin fighting style compared to other styles in the film. Jet Li has the most complex stuff, and does well with it.

STUNTWORK: (7) These stuntmen took some nasty looking falls and flips here, and while some wasn’t the best acted, they brought energy to their scenes, some of which looked difficult especially when dealing with the fight choreography.

STAR POWER: (6) When this film came out no one knew who any of these actors are, but Jet Li would go on to become a great star, one of Hong Kong’s biggest ever.

FINAL GRADE: (7) Shaolin Temple isn’t the best film in the world, but it gave us a look inside the philosophy of the temple itself and the style, and gave us Jet Li. That alone makes this worth a look.

Review: Fist of Legend (1994)

Posted in Billy Chow, Chin Siu Ho, Jet Li, Yasuaki Kurata, Yuen Woo Ping with tags , on June 22, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jet Li, Yasuaki Kurata, Billy Chow, Chin Siu Ho

Fight Choreography by Yuen Woo Ping

Directed by Gordon Chan

During the early 90’s Jet Li wasn’t having a lot of box office success. He had a series of films that bombed during this time period, and he sorely needed a hit film. Enter Yuen Woo Ping and Gordon Chan, with a plan to remake one of Bruce Lee’s signature films. Could they help Jet regain his mojo?

The film starts at Kyoto University, Japan, as Chen Zhen (Li) studies engineering. A group of Black Lotus clan students arrive to throw Chen Zhen out because he’s Chinese.  Things are cool until they threaten to hurt Mariko, his girlfriend, and a scene of asswhooping ensues, as Chen calmly takes them all out. Woo Ping gives his signature first fight here, making it a small taste of what’s to come. There is a lot of great grappling here. Mariko’s uncle Fumio Fukushima (Kurata) arrives to stop the fighting and inform Chen Zhen that his master, Hou Yuan-Jia was killed in a match with a Japanese master. (This is the same Hou Yuan-Jia character Jet would play years later in Fearless, I believe.)  Chen Zhen returns home and immediately goes to challenge the Japanese master Riuichi to a battle, but not before he fights his students in a scene that recreates the famous Bruce Lee fight between the Japanese students. The fights here are fantastic, and shows the audience that this is Jet Li’s version of Chen Zhen, not Bruce Lee’s.

After he defeats Riuichi Chen returns to deal with the impending drama at home as he finds himself in a power play he doesn’t want with his best friend and kung fu brother Ting’en, son of Hou Yuen-Jia. Meanwhile Riuichi blames General Fujita (Chow) for poisoning Hou thus robbing the match of any honor, and the General kills him and lays the blame on Chen Zhen, prompting his arrest. In court Chen Zhen is released due to the testimony of Mariko, which saves Chen Zhen but complicates matters greatly as Chen Zhen is now ostracized by both the Japanese and his own people for loving a Japanese woman. Chen will also face Fumio Fukushima himself in a duel before joining his friend Ting’en for the final fight against Fujita.

Fist of Legend is a great film all on its own, remake or not. Yuen Woo Ping once again brings his “A” game to all of the fights. The fight between Chen Zhen and Ting’en is great, showing the difference of styles between them, and the final fight with Fujita is also well done as Billy Chow gives Jet Li all he can handle, but without a doubt the best fight in the entire film is between Jet Li and Yasuaki Kurata. Woo Ping saves his best for them, and they don’t disappoint. The fight goes from traditional to way cool as both men don blindfolds for the second half of their fight, taking Woo Ping’s choreography to new heights but keeps the wire work to a minimum, and director Gordon Chan makes sure the camera work and editing is spot on. Yeah, this fight is easily one of the best onscreen fights in either Jet’s or Kurata’s careers, and that’s saying a lot.

Jet Li takes the Chen Zhen character and makes it his own, bringing a calm intensity to the character, and Billy Chow plays a great evil General, but he is a much more dynamic fighter than what this film shows, but that’s the character he plays. The acting is pretty good in this film, and Gordon Chan moves the film at a brisk pace, so there are few slow spots.

While Fist of Legend is a remake, it is an excellent remake that tells a better, more layered story  than the previous film, with, dare I say it, better fights than in Bruce Lee’s version, which is no small feat, but good things seem to happen when Yuen Woo Ping is teamed up with great talent, and that’s on full display here. It was this film that gave the Wachowski Brothers the ideas for the fighting styles and wire scenes they wanted for The Matrix.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (10) Some of Yuen Woo Ping’s best work that will be copied in lesser films for years to come. Everyone does a fantastic job, but Kurata and Li’s fight is the highlight.

STUNTWORK: (8) Not a lot of crazy stunts, but the stuntmen perform admirably in every fight scene.

STAR POWER: (10) Li, Kurata, Chow, and Woo Ping, some of the biggest and best performers in the martial arts film world in the same film. Jet Li’s career soared to new heights here, and began to cement Jet beside Bruce and Jackie as one of the best martial arts stars ever.

FINAL GRADE: (10) This is a great film that is better than the original in many ways. Jet has some of his best fights here, and Yasuaki Kurata is gold in whatever he’s in.


Review: Merantau (2009)

Posted in Iko Uwais, Laurent Buson, Yayan Ruhian with tags , on June 11, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Laurent Buson, Mads Koudal, Alex Abbad, Sisca Jessica

Fight Choreography by Iko Uwais, Team Silat Harimou

Directed by Gareth Evans

The last few years has seen a rush of successful martial arts films from countries not named China or Japan, and names like Tony Jaa, Jeeja Yanin, and Johnny Nguyen have jump to the top of martial arts films. Now a new name from a country not known for martial arts films is here to take his place among them. So how does newcomer Iko Uwais do for for his first time out?

The merantau is a journey that young men in Indonesia take that is a rite of adulthood. It is a a journey of self-realization and finding out their place in the world. The film is about a young man named Yuda (Uwais) whose time has come to go on merantau. The film spends some time with Yuda’s mother and older brother, who has already had his merantau. Yuda has dreams of going to Jakarta and teach his form of Silat harimou in a school of his own. After he leaves home he meets Eric (Ruhian), a fellow traveller who warns Yuda to let go of his dreams, as the world is a much darker and dangerous place. Eric’s words become true as Yuda tries to intervene when a dancer named Astrid (Jessica) is about to be beaten by her boss Johni (Abbad). Yuda’s heroic act is met with hostility by Astrid and her little brother, and Yuda begins to understand that the world is far more complicated than it ever was in his village. Johni needs Astrid to be one of his “girls” for Ratger and Luc, two wealthy but dysfunctional European brothers who are there on business and want a good time.

Johni forces Astrid to go to them, but damn his shitty luck that Yuda sees this, and gives him and his men a grand beatdown, taking Astrid from them and injuring Ratger’s face. These men may not have been aware that Yuda was a Country Bumpkin (you’ve heard this in many of my reviews. These dudes are all badasses.)This affront Ratger cannot take, and has Johni hire men to hunt down Yuda and Astrid, leading to a ton of fights before a fantastic finale on a warehouse pier as Yuda faces off with both Ratger (Koudal) and Luc (Busson) for a final showdown.

Merantau is a confident film to feature such a newcomer, much like Ong Bak was for Tony Jaa. Iko Uwais turns out to be a decent actor, not having a lot of emotion to convey, but what is there he does well. His style of Silat Harimou, which features many low tiger stances and movements, are well done here, but at first the fight choreography isn’t that different from films like Ong Bak, at least not at first. As the film progresses you really begin to see the style of Silat come to the fore. Toward the end there are three standout fights. The first is Yuda against his friend Eric in an elevator, which is a fantastic showcase of silat from two fighters who are well versed in the style. The cramped elevator makes the fight even more intense as you know one mistake and Yuda is dead.  The second is a great fight where half of Indonesia attacks Yuda, and he battles them on the top of a series of shipping containers, and really jacks them up Police Story style,  and the final fight is against both Ratger and Luc. I was greatly impressed by this, as the film doesn’t hint that either brother knows martial arts, and the quiet Luc was especially excellent as the super-kicker of the two. Laurent and Mads did an excellent job here. Can we get more Laurent Buson in a film, please? This guy has done a bunch of short films, and this is his biggest film yet. He reminds me of all the super-kickers who used to take on Jackie Chan back in his 80s’ films. More of him, please!

Merantau is a great first entry for a new talent like Iko Uwais, and just like Tony Jaa the sky’s the limit for him. A good film with great fights and a good story that shows that hope can come from the most unlikely of places. And that Country boys are not to be jacked with!

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (9) The early parts of the film are nothing that hasn’t been seen in a Tony Jaa film, but toward the end they pull out the stops. The elevator fight is a stunning fight scene that really brings home the style of Silat, and the final fight between Uwais and Buson and Koudal is a showstopping fight that is beautiful and brutal all at once.

STUNTWORK: (9) These guys are as insane as Tony Jaa and Jackie Chan’s guys. The scene where the stuntman jump from one building to another only to meet a pole halfway deserves and award, and the fight on the shipping containers will make you wince. Well done.

STAR POWER: (8) Iko Uwais has the talent to go far, but his movie choices will ultimately decide how big he becomes. Buson is a great talent that needs to be a featured baddie more often. You listening Tony Jaa?

FINAL GRADE: (9) Not a perfect film, but a very, very good martial arts film that showcases a style new to film and a new star as well. We should all be looking forward to what Uwais comes up with next.


Review: The Image of Bruce Lee (1982)

Posted in Bolo Yeung, Bruce Li, Ying-Chieh Han with tags , on June 8, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

 

Starring Bruce Li, Bolo Yeung, Lik Cheung, Ying-Chieh Han, John Chueng

Fight Choreography by Bruce Li

Directed by Chuang Yang

Let’s get one thing out of the way first…the only image of Bruce Lee you get close to seeing is at the beginning of the film, where you see Dragon (Li) dressed up in the Bruce Lee Game of Death track suit. Dragon is part of Special Squad, which must mean he gets to wear yellow track suits, just to let everyone know who he’s with.

The film opens as Dragon tries to thwart a suicide jumper by sneaking up on him, and fails miserably as the man jumps to his death anyway. So, Dragon gets all pissy about it so of course while training in the gym some of his coworkers challenge him to a little bit of sparring. What the hell ever. Dragon spars lightly at first and then decides to go all Bruce Lee on them and jacks them up, which is a dick move, and also means he won’t be getting an invite to the Police Appreciation Night.

Meanwhile Moustache (Lik Chueng, and yes, that’s the character’s name), an undercover cop interrogates a bar owner for running around with counterfeit money. He points out that he got it from local strip club, and from there Moustache goes to the home of…someone who has something to do with it. It turns out that Dragon was sneaking around and is found by Moustache and so they have to fight until they both realize they are cops. Now if Dragon were nicer he would get invited to more events where he may have actually met Moustache. Yeah, Dragon’s a douche. The fight here is horrible because…it takes place in the dark and you can hardly see anything!

The police chief teams the two up to take down the ringleader of the counterfeiters Han Tin Ling (Han), who is in the middle of making a deal with Japanese mob boss Kimura played by Bolo Yueng who looks like a Chinese Captain Kangaroo. On steroids. And really mean. Dragon follows Han’s son and Han’s niece Donna, who has just returned with new counterfeit plates. Dragon and Moustache discover that things are not what they seem, nor are all the people who are in on the plot…

This is a silly film, but a fun one. They know who their audience is, for certain. If there isn’t a fight scene then there’s a naked woman somewhere. Everywhere. It’s like there wasn’t a clothing budget for any females in the film, particularly for Donna, and by the end of the film there is absolutely nothing left to the imagination regarding her body. Bruce Li is playing the same kind of character he usually does, and doesn’t bring much more to it.

If stealth had a name…Dragon and Moustache wouldn’t be anywhere near it. Every attempt that includes the words sneak, follow discreetly, stealth, and hide end in grand failure, each and every time. There are mountains that can hide better than these two. I think the writers kinda did that on purpose. Dragon, after all, is kind of a dick. No where do they say he or Moustache are good cops.

The fights in the film start out fairly lightweight, but get much better toward the end of this film. It’s great to see Bolo get into a fight (he has two versus Bruce Li) that’s pretty good and really allows him to show off his skills in a way he never could in any JCVD film. He still can’t rock a white turtleneck sweater, though. The final fights are decent enough, and it’s great to see Ying Chieh Han as a baddie again (The Big Boss). The funniest thing about this film is that for once, the police characters don’t kill anyone! They just beat them up, and actually take them to jail, which for a martial arts film not starring Jackie Chan is something of a novelty.

This a kung fu film in the lightest of definitions. The fights aren’t particularly complex nor exciting to watch, but isn’t a terrible time waster. It may actually make a good party film. No one has to pay too much attention to it except for where there is fighting. Or nudity.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (6) Just barely above average. It was great to see Bolo get a decent fight scene, however. The rest is unimaginative choreography we’ve seen in dozens of films. This is just a few years before Jackie Chan’s Police Story, so this is nearing the end of this style of fight choreography.

STUNTWORK: (5) Fairly weak stuff. Once again, this era is ending, and a new, more impressive and brutal style of stunt work was on its way.

STAR POWER: (6) Except for Bolo, this film is nearing the ends of a few careers, rather than the beginning. Many of these stars were fading.

FINAL GRADE: (6) A fun, but ultimately forgettable film that is better known for the two b’s: boobs and Bolo. That pretty much sums up the entire film.

NEXT: Iko Uwais must take a journey of self-realization. And kick a few heads along the way in Merantau!