Crazy Uncle Rich’s Next Kung Fu Theater!

Posted on December 31, 2014

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This seemed like a fun way to kick off a new year of movie reviews and analysis. For this collection, I’m going to broaden my selection a bit by allowing some Western films with martial arts focuses into the mix. Let’s get it on!

The Bride with White Hair (1993)

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This movie is a complicated love story. Zhuo (Leslie Cheung) trained at Wudang (sometimes written Wu-Tang, and yes it’s the source of the name for the Wu-Tang Clan rap group) Mountain to be a chivalrous swordsman. Put in charge of an army of martial artists, he leads a war against an evil cult planning to rule China. Lian (Brigitte Lin) is an orphan girl raised by the conjoined twins (Ji Wushuang, played by Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who run the cult. Zhuo and Lian meet and fall in love.

Lian escapes the cult after great pain and suffering and goes to meet Zhuo.

For his part, Zhuo returns to Wudang to find his army slaughtered. He and the survivors blame Lian, and in their defense she does have magical powers she gained in the cult and was in the forefront of the cult’s plots. When she arrives, Zhuo attacks her. Devastated by his betrayal, she turns into a white-haired killing machine. Then Ji shows up, takes credit for the slaughter, and the estranged lovers join forces to defeat the leader of the evil cult.

Lian cannot forgive Zhuo, and leaves. Zhuo goes on a quest to earn back her love.

This is another of those movies where Brigitte Lin dresses like a man and that alone fools everyone in the movie into thinking she’s a man. Apparently, that’s culturally reasonable in China. To Western eyes, there is no way to mistake Brigitte Lin for anything other than a beautiful woman. I mention it because, when we watched this movie for the first time in many years, my wife burst into a diatribe about ridiculous it was for the male characters in the film to mistake her for a man.

As writers, we should take a lesson for that. Our audience loses respect for our characters when they do things the audience can’t believe.

This is a classic of supernatural Hong Kong cinema, and worth seeing for that reason alone.

Kung Fu Mahjong (2005)

Oh. My. God.

I loved Kung Fu Hustle (2004). So when I saw that Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen (no relation to each other), who played the landlord and the landlady in that film also starred together in Kung Fu Mahjong, I had to see it. It seemed like it would be in the same spirit as God of Gamblers (1989), which my wife and I adore.

Wah Yuen plays Chi Mo Sai, a down-on-his-luck gambler who happens to be an expert on mahjong strategy. He stumbles into Ah Wong (Roger Kwok), a waiter with an eidetic memory. Sensing a prize pupil, Chi Mo Sai convinces Ah Wong to gamble under his instruction, against the wishes of Ah Wong’s employer and guardian, Auntie Fei (Qiu Yuen).

I was hoping for the over-the-top, slapstick, action that Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen displayed as landlord and landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, and I got it. Wah Yuen started out at the same Chinese Opera School as Jackie Chan, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, and Yuen Biao. He was a stunt double in Enter the Dragon, with Bruce Lee, and is famous for being able to mimic any martial arts technique.

Qiu Yuen started her career as a stunt lady, and was known as one of the great beauties of martial arts cinema. She retired for over 20 years, until she accompanied another actor to an audition and Stephen Chow cast her in Kung Fu Hustle. By the way, she’s one of the two young women who rescue Roger Moore’s James Bond from the kung fu school in The Man with the Golden Gun.

Writers, this is how it’s done. We get understandable, if shallow, characters and a well-structured story with roller-coaster like escalation until the big payoff.

This movie is a throwback to the Hong Kong cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s when mood could shift from humor to action to pathos in heartbeats. It is also so much fun that I have both the sequels coming to me, regardless of how much of the cast reappears.

Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero (both 2012)

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Tai Chi 0 begins the story of Yang Luchan, and right off the bat this story gets a little weird. Yang has a thing on his forehead, a black lump. When something strikes the lump, his eyes glow with white energy and he becomes an unstoppable fighting machine. However, each time, the lump gets bigger. After a big battle, Yang learns that another blow could kill him. He travels to Chen village, hoping to learn their powerful kung fu, master his chi, and put off his death.

He meets the daughter of the kung fu master. Everyone in the village refuses to teach him, and wants him to leave. They quickly discover that he is learning the techniques they use when they try to drive him away.

Eventually they accept him and let him marry the master’s daughter after he defeats the efforts of a corrupt official who wants to build a railroad over the village using a massive, steampunk, track-laying machine.

Tai Chi Hero is the sequel. More corrupt officials show up to avenge the ones defeated in the previous film. Yang and his wife must run from the village and seek justice. Eventually they prove the superiority of Chen village kung fu, and their own virtues and honor, before the emperor.

I wish I could recommend these movies more. Tai Chi 0 has tons of energy, great senses of humor and drama, fun action, and a distinct steampunk flavor. However, it’s obviously an incomplete story. Tai Chi Hero does not live up to its predecessor, and feels a little rushed and too short.

The sequel means the first movie doesn’t have to have a satisfying ending. The sequel, however, is necessary to complete the story of Yang Luchan, legendary master of Tai Chi. As writers, it’s worth watching them to think about how it could have been done in one movie and provide more satisfying experience.

That said, you could do a lot worse.

47 Ronin (2013)

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The legend of the forty-seven ronin is said to be key to understanding Japanese ideas and ideals. In brief, a samurai lord is murdered by another lord. The dead lord’s samurai are dishonored because they allowed their master to be killed. This leaves them in a quandary. Normally samurai would either avenge the insult on their honor or kill themselves. The emperor forbid them to kill themselves, since that was considered an honorable death and they were dishonored. Since they were no longer samurai either, they had no right to seek vengeance.

They resolved the dilemma by spending years masquerading as merchants, craftsmen, and traveling actors, gathering information about the murderer, his retainers, and his castle. Then they infiltrated the castle and slaughtered the murderer and his retainers. This avenged their lord and regained their honor, but made them criminals. So they committed mass suicide, and became legendary heroes.

The movie takes this framework and builds a fantasy story around it. In many ways, this weakens the power of the original story. As an independent story, it’s poorly structured. The movie ignores the years of work and setbacks required to achieve vengeance. It adds a romance story involving a half-breed, played by Keanu Reeves. It lacks the structure that Western audiences unconsciously expect, where the protagonists have to fail several times before learning enough to succeed.

As writers, we need to avoid gilding the lily. We do have to change familiar stories to tell something fresh, but we have to understand both the key points of story structure and the key points of the original material.

It’s pretty, and Reeves acquits himself well, but overall I can’t recommend it.

Man of Tai Chi (2013)

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Keanu Reeves conceived this story with his kung fu/stunt instructor, Tiger Hu Chen, while filming The Matrix. They worked on the story for years, and the result is a powerful morality tale about an impatient martial artist who wants the whole world to appreciate the style he practices as much as he does.

This movie really understands chi energy and how martial arts attempt to develop and manipulate it. It offers real motivations and temptations to the protagonist. Reeves directs, and takes the smaller role of the villain of the film. The choreography is good and the story is understandable.

Man of Tai Chi is a good example, for writers, of creating a visceral story. You have to communicate a character’s greatest desires and greatest fears. The more visceral these are, the more the audience invests in our story. Tiger loves Tai Chi, and loves the temple where he learned. He desperately wants recognition as a “real” martial artist, although Tai Chi is often described as “a dream about a martial art” rather than as a fighting art. This gives Donaka Mark (Reeves) ways to manipulate him, and we as the audience understand. We understand how loving someone, or something, changes our priorities and our decision-making. We understand making sacrifices for those people and things.

If it’s not clear, I do strongly recommend this film.

The Wolverine (2013)

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If we didn’t have better super hero movies, this would have been okay.

To be clear, I read the Frank Miller limited series comic book, The Wolverine, when it came out way back in the day. It was the story of how Logan, a bestial brawler, fell in love, pursued the object of his affection to Japan, fought ninjas, and learned to control his bestial nature. He learned that he could fight without a berserk rage, and (briefly, because it’s comic books) developed as a character.

This movie takes the setting and basically shits all over the rest of the source material.

In this movie, Logan (Hugh Jackman) travels to Japan to honor the dying wish of a Japanese man whose life Logan saved during World War II. This instantly begs a question: How in the world does anyone ever take the Wolverine prisoner? Granted, back then he lacked an adamantine skeleton, but he still had his mutant healing ability, centuries of fighting experience, and his (bone) claws. It instantly broke suspension of disbelief.

In the present day, Logan mourns the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who he killed. Which means we have to admit that the abortion that was the third X-Men movie really happened. That just alienates fans further.

Then there’s a story about Wolverine giving up his adamantine and his healing powers to help his dying friend, betrayal, kidnapping, a hostile attempt to gain control of a Japanese conglomerate, ninjas, more betrayal, a giant adamantine suit of samurai power armor, and some more stuff.

I won’t deny that it looks good and its tightly paced. However, the significance of the original material is completely lost. There’s no reason for Logan to develop as a character. There’s no reason for him to let go of Jean’s memory. The romance between Logan and Mariko is unbelievable, particularly in contrast to the incendiary friendship between Logan and Yukio, and Viper is hardly a memorable Marvel villain to throw into the mix.

As writers, we have to know the core of our characters and our story. Then we have to brutally, ruthlessly, cut away everything that does not support those things. When we write, we do so in a limited relationship. It may be a solo activity, or it may be done in partnership with a limited number of other people. We should exercise the control this gives us over the material to its fullest extent.

And be prepared to surrender all that control if we ever write for Hollywood.

The Wolverine is a fun enough comic book movie, but Sony and (in this case) Fox just are delivering at the level Paramount and Marvel are delivering. The Wolverine does not live up to the standards set by movies like Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers.

Conclusion

Every day in 2015, look for an opportunity to make the world a better place, even if it’s just for one other living being.

And complete a writing project. I don’t say “finish,” because we never really finish. We keep editing and polishing until someone takes it away from us.
In other words, have a great new year!

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Posted in: Movies