Tag Archives: wuxia

The Four Trilogy – Review

10 Dec

Did you ever wonder what the X-Men would look like if they all knew kung fu? No? Me neither, but I think I found out something that very much resembles that fantasy. I’m talking about Gordon Chan’s The Four and it’s two sequels. Gordon Chan isn’t a film maker who just decided to dabble in the martial arts genre having already made the classic Fist of Legend starring Jet Li and its sequel Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen. The Four Trilogy may not have the same power as these two films, but they are surprisingly fun and never actually bored me, even though the storytelling can get a little hard to follow.

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During the reign of Emperor Huizong in China during the early 1100s, crime was kept under control by Department Six, but there was yet another much more powerful watchful eye being kept over the criminal underworld. The Divine Constabulary, made up of Emotionless (Liu Yifei), Iron Hands (Collin Chou), Life Stealer (Ronald Cheng), and newcomer Cold Blood (Deng Chao), was a department of four super powerful detectives led by Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong). Trouble soon begins to brew for the Four when counterfeit coins begin circulating throughout the banks and merchants, but that soon becomes the least of their problems. The people behind the counterfeit currency, Lord An (Yu Chengui) and his son An Shigeng (Wu Xiubo) are actually after the emperor’s throne, with only the Divine Constabulary powerful enough to stop them.

That’s the basic plot for all three of the movies. The Four deals mostly with An Shigeng and the counterfeit currency while The Four II and The Four III deal with Lord An attempting to usurp the throne. I still can’t shake the feeling that I missed some stuff in these movies though. The way the story is actually plotted and executed isn’t all that good. There’s so many different characters that just start backstabbing each other and the movies all move at such a fast speed, it’s hard to keep track of everyone. One character in particular seems to have a different motive in every scene, which makes it literally impossible to make up your mind about her. Still, one of the better parts of the movies are all of the characters.

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I’m actually seriously surprised that all of the characters in this movie were totally three dimensional and had their own personalities. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this, but I went into these movies expecting mediocre martial arts with a huge cast of characters that I wouldn’t care about. I was wrong on both accounts. Let’s take Life Snatcher and Iron Hands, two characters that very often share scenes. They work great together because Life Snatcher is a thief and provides great comedic relief while Iron Hands is a man of discipline. It’s an odd couple situation that I wasn’t expecting to work so well. Since the characters are all likable and well fleshed out, when something happened to them I actually cared. They’re actually some of the best characters in martial arts movies.

Finally, lets talk about the actual kung fu. Simply put, it’s awesome. It isn’t Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonHero, or House of Flying Daggers but it is really cool. One of the big things that makes The Four movies stand out is the super powerful characters. The powers are really just them channeling energy in themselves making them super strong or able to control things, but it’s still really fun. Whenever they throw their kicks or punches, splashes of color follow their limbs making it clear that they have the upper hand. Every contact is also heard quite clearly making it almost possible to feel their attacks. Really cool stuff and extremely entertaining.

The Four and its sequels provided me with a lot more than I was originally expecting. After just watching The Sorcerer and the White Snake, I was very hesitant to drive right back into martial arts, but I’m pleasantly surprised. These movies aren’t destined to be classics, but Gordon Chan has made three really fun movies that are great time wasters on a lazy afternoon. If you like kung fu, fantasy, and comic book super powers you should track down and find The Four Trilogy.

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The Sorcerer and the White Snake – Review

5 Dec

I’ve made it quite clear in the past that wuxia movies, or Chinese martial arts film, are my cup of tea. It’s a great escape to be able to watch martial arts masters fly above the tree tops and engage in over the top swordplay that defies all sound reasoning and physics. Like I said, it’s a great escape. While certain wuxia movies often feel like they can be part fantasy, Tony Ching’s 2001 film The Sorcerer and the White Snake clearly attempts to fully combine the two to make what should have been an epic martial arts film based off of an old Chinese folk tale. Unfortunately, this movie is a boring mush of CGI, uninspired fight choreography, and a love story that was just downright laughable.

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Fahai (Jet Li) and his apprentice Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are demon hunters who belong to a monastery with the mission of protecting the Earth from demons that come from other dimensions. Fahai is merciless to the demons that threaten the human world, but everything he understands about demons is about to no longer make sense. Susu (Huang Shengyi) is a white snake demon who falls in love with a herbalist named Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) after saving him from drowning. As the two begins a life together, Fahai discovers Susu’s secret and wages an all out war between her and the other monks at the monastery, leaving Xu Xian in the middle to decide if he could ever love someone like her.

So, that’s pretty cool right? I mean demons, martial arts, giant snakes, forbidden love, and Jet Li sounds like an awesome combination. But there is one more thing…what was it? Oh yeah. FAR TOO MUCH F***ING CGI!!! It was almost disgusting really, how much flashy and distracting special effects there were. And you know what’s really crazy? They’re not even that great. In fact some of the effects, especially the snakes in their true form, look downright goofy, almost as if it was the first layer of CGI before it was all cleaned up, and then they just ran out of time so they went with it anyway. The amount of cheesy CGI in this movie is enough to even make George Lucas blush.

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Speaking of cheese, let’s talk about the love story between Susu and Xu Xian. Have you ever been watching The Little Mermaid and thought, “Could this get any cornier?” Well, yeah it can, and it pretty much did in The Sorcerer and the White Snake. There’s one scene near the end especially where the music begins to take hold and the lighting gets all dramatic, and an overly obvious love song begins playing. I just wanted to throw up. That’s not even the only instance, either. The entire plot involving the two forbidden lovers is so generic, predictable and boring. It got to the point where I forgot I was even watching a martial arts movie.

There’s scenes in the movie where we get to stay with Jet Li’s character and see some of the monsters that he fights. Hell, the movie even starts with him fighting a demon, but then we only get to see that a few more times, so it better have been cool. Well, sorta yeah but not really. There was no action in this movie that makes it stand out from other wuxia movies, scenes that really stick with you and make a lasting impression. Instead it’s just a jumbled mess of Jet Li, monks, and poorly computer generated creatures just kind of hitting each other…sometimes. The amount of dumb in this movie outweighs the cool stuff in a huge way.

I’m really upset that I didn’t like The Sorcerer and the White Snake because everything about it sounded so cool, up until I actually watched it and saw what it was all about. Listen, I don’t mind a good love story, in fact I really enjoy a good love story, but this is not one of them. This is a love story that you’ve seen a thousand times combined with a martial arts movie that has no dazzling choreography and a fantasy movie with effects that a fourth grader must have done. Some people out there seen to really enjoy this movie, and I just don’t get that. This one was an absolute mess and altogether just a train wreck.

House of Flying Daggers – Review

9 Oct

Sometimes there’s nothing better than watching a wuxia film where the characters fly through the treetops and can perform incredible moves of martial arts that seem to defy physics in just about every way. Think of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. These are just two examples of such a style, but ones that I think are the most impressive. The director of Hero, Zhang Yimou followed up that masterpiece with his 2004 film House of Flying Daggers, which is everything you must expect it to be. While it is a fantastic visual and auditory experience, the story seems a little bit behind with a boring second act that really doesn’t stand up to the first and third.

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At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the government is threatened by a rebel group of Robin Hood types who rob from the rich and give to the poor. They are both feared and respected and known by all as the House of Flying Daggers. After a new leader of the group rises to power, the local authorities led by Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Liu (Andy Lau) arrest a blind dancer, Mei  (Zhang Ziyi), who may or may not be associated with the Flying Daggers. As part of a conspiracy to find out who the new leader is and assassinate them, Jin pretends to be a wandering warrior who breaks Mei out of prison and vows to return her to the Flying Daggers. As the two travel further and further, they begin to for a relationship that was most unexpected, but also the soldiers who were meant to be on Jin’s side suddenly want him dead. As if that isn’t enough, Mei is holding on to a few big secrets of her own.

I would describe this movie as martial arts meets William Shakespeare. The way the story plays out and the kind of characters are involved kind of reminded me of the Montagues and the Capulets. All of the deception and forbidden love is also very reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. That combined with gravity defying martial arts only adds to how cool this movie is. It is inevitable that I’m going to compare this movie to Yimou’s earlier work with Hero, so let’s just get it out of the way. Hero is the better movie all around. It has a better story, better visuals, and is pretty much just more memorable. That doesn’t mean that House of Flying Daggers is a disappointment though, because this movie is quite memorable in its own right. I’d love to see Hollywood just try to make something like this.

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I really can’t get over just how aesthetically awesome this movie is, even though it really came as no surprise. This may sound cheesy, but I can’t really help it. This movie is visual and auditory poetry. One scene in particular where Mei dances and beats the drums with her sleeve is the perfect combination of sight and sound. Every fight seems to have its own colors, sounds, and music that make them all unique. That and the way that the characters seem to effortlessly glide through the air only serves to make it all the more stunning. Finally, the score is so traditionally Chinese and occasionally thumps with a barrage of percussion that the action happening onscreen literally feels like it’s being high lighted. It is a sensory overload and I love it.

The only problem I really have with this movie is actually quite small. The beginning and end parts of this movie are both fantastic, especially a climactic fight scene that seems to begin in fall and end in winter. The middle, however, is kind of weird. This is where a lot of the excellently choreographed action scenes take place, but in between those is just a whole lot of walking around in the forest. This is where the visuals kind of lack compared to the rest of the movie, and the relationships between the characters don’t really have much depth until the third act when a lot of the secrecy is revealed.

House of Flying Daggers is an excellent example of the wuxia style of film making that I just love so much. I saw a post on Imdb where someone was complaining that it wasn’t realistic. Well duh. It’s not meant to be, so going into this movie expecting to see some true to life history would be a mistake. Instead, enter this movie expecting a visual and auditory experience that combines martial arts, fairy tales, and Shakespearean tragedy. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all. This movie is absolutely fantastic.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate – Review

23 Jun

If you were to take the CGI effects of Hugo, the amount of characters from Snatch, and the impressive fighting choreography from Hero, the outcome would probably look a lot like Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. This is a wuxia movie that uses the impressive 3D and computer generated effects to create a magical looking film filled with excellent action and beautiful scenery that will suck you into the apparent anti-gravity universe that all of the characters inhabit. Before this movie, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a battle take place inside a tornado, so it’s easy to say that there was a lot in this movie that was an over the top blast. Unfortunately, far too many characters with far too little motivation prohibited this movie from reaching the standards of classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and left it just as a movie that had great action and looked really nice.

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After the Emperor’s eunuchs have split themselves into the two Bureaus of the East and West, ideas of justice and law soon went flying out the window. Zhou Huai’an (Jet Li) is a wandering warrior who has decided that it is up to him to protect these ideas of law and order by assassinating the heads of the Bureaus and eventually the Emperor. When a sandstorm threatens to cause major havoc in the area, a group of thieves and soldiers for the Emperor find themselves hiding in the Dragon Inn, but what they don’t know about each other, Zhou will use to his advantage. The thieves are here to find the hidden gold of Dragon Gate and the soldiers are there to kill a maid who was impregnated illegally in the Emperor’s court. Zhou begins to play these group off each other, but soon becomes involved in finding the gold at Dragon Gate with the boisterous group of thieves.

Normally, I like to name the main characters in movies and what they are doing, and even who they are played by, but I really don’t think I’d be able to with the overload of stories and characters in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. There was a point about half way through the movie where I was worried if I wasn’t paying enough attention, and that’s not a feeling that I want to experience when I’m watching a movie. Confusion is one thing, but feeling like you’re missing something is totally different. When all of the characters are in the vicinity of the Dragon Inn, I was starting to sort of piece together what was going on, but I was still pretty unclear. This is because there are so many characters with not enough motivation and narrative drive. Things were happening without too much explanation. There were a few interesting characters, one of them being Jet Li’s role, so obviously this is who the movie focuses on…?

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Since Jet Li started the movie off with a bang with an excellent action sequence and then following up on his story with important scenes involving his mission, I was completely invested in what his character was doing and I was really into it. Too bad after I was really getting into the story, a giant handful of new characters show up and Jet Li disappears for a good amount of time. This is the time where I really started losing track of the plot because this is where the plot about finding the gold comes in, and compared to assassinating government officials in flying scenes of swordplay, this seems a lot less interesting. Another problem is that the movie becomes just as cramped as the Dragon Inn, itself. All of these characters and all of their plots are carelessly mushed into one movie and it just left me baffled.

While the story gets messed up in a really bad way, the action and special effects are spectacular. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate really is a spectacle in every sense of the word. The action scenes offer some really awesome slow motion and interesting choreography with weapons that made me laugh at the craziness of it all. The genre of wuxia has a lot of cool things to offer in terms of plot, but the action is what normally really gets me. Much like Hero, this movie puts the computer generated effects to good use with a combination of balletic swordplay and beautiful CGI backdrops and other effects.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate isn’t particularly a good movie in every sense of the word, but in terms of how cool it is, it excels. The visuals are all mind blowingly awesome and the fight choreography meshes very well with the countless number of effects happening all around the characters. If the plot was just structured better and there were a few less characters, this film would probably be remembered as a martial arts classic. Unfortunately, this is a movie that will probably be missed or completely forgotten by people who aren’t completely devoted to this genre.

The Man with the Iron Fists – Review

17 Mar

The Wu-Tang Clan are best known as being one of the most influential and popular rap groups of all time. They also had a huge part in an underground revival of kung fu films, taking unknown trash and re-releasing them on video under their own names. That being said, it seems only appropriate that RZA, a member of the group, direct an homage to these “beloved” kung fu films of the past. With the help of Eli Roth, a script was written and a film was made.

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In feudal China, clan leader Gold Lion is charged with delivering the Emperor’s gold to awaiting soldiers. The gold never arrives, however, since Gold Lion’s lieutenants Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Bronze Lion (Cung Le) betray and assassinate him. Now in possession of the gold, there are other parties moving into Jungle Village to claim it for themselves. These parties include a rogue soldier Jack Knife (Russell Crowe)and a madame of a brothel, Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). Finally, a Blacksmith (RZA) is caught in the middle of it all, and takes it upon himself to defend the village and the woman he loves, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung).

Personally, I think kung fu is a pretty cool genre when done correctly. I really like Wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and HeroThe Man with the Iron Fists take these two styles and blends them pretty well. It has the cheese of Kung Fu and the wire work of Wuxia. What’s not to like? Well, believe it or not, a lot of stuff. This is a really sloppy movie both in the way the story is told, the editing, and the effects. I had much higher expectations for this movie and have not felt so disappointed in a film in a long, long time.

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I do feel a great sense of appreciation by RZA and fellow writer Eli Roth. All of the tropes and cliches of the genre are there from the gold worth dying for, the over the top violence, and the cheesy dialogue. I recognize all of these, but it really doesn’t save the movie. The most distracting thing here is the acting. Pretty much all of the actors do subpar jobs, which I feel has a lot to do with the writing. I understand that Kung Fu films aren’t supposed to have the best dialogue, but some of this stuff is so derivative and corny that it’s painful to listen to. Thank goodness Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu have scenes to balance it a little bit. Crowe delivers his lines like a champ and Liu relishes the silly dialogue she has been given and provides a wonderfully over the top performance.

I will give massive props to the production design. The brothel, the Pink Blossom, looks awesome. It is bright and, as the name would suggest, very pink. I think that’s a pretty bold move to have a completely pink set in such a violent film, but hey, it works great. The costumes are also really nice looking. The only problem with the look of the film is some of the special effects. One character turns completely into brass when struck, and that looks so cool. There are some quick special effects shots, such as a bell shattering, that have such cool potential but look so fake it’s annoying. I can’t say it enough, I know I shouldn’t over think this movie, but when things are so bad it’s distracting, I have to say something.

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The action does look pretty cool sometimes, and I’ll go so far as to say there are some really, really awesome shots of crazy gore and slow motion goodness. Unfortunately, the pacing of the movie is absolutely dreadful. There is a huge chunk in the middle of the movie where the pacing changes so abruptly from fast moving to not moving that it’s jarring. My attention felt like it was literally thrown out the window. It got so boring. When it eventually did pick up again, I already lost so much interest in the movie that I didn’t really care about what I was watching.

As much as it pains me to say this, I didn’t like this movie too much. Out of almost two hours, I only really like twenty minutes worth. The rest is completely forgettable. The characters are dull, the acting is horrible (save for Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu), and the action scenes were pretty sloppy and suffered from some weird editing issues. I expected a lot more from The Man with the Iron Fists, but instead, I feel completely let down.

Geisha VS Ninjas – Review

22 Nov

Japanese B-movies always seem to grab my attention when I’m browsing a DVD store. Normally they’re entertaining as hell with over the top scenes that make me laugh myself stupid. With a name like Geisha VS Ninjas, how could I possibly pass this movie up? Unfortunately for me, this movie is a derivative and cheap excuse for an action/martial arts film that has almost no story at all and fights scenes which you have seen the like of before, but done so much better.

 

Kotomi (Minami Tsukui) is probably the second most deadly geisha to ever live (RoboGeisha still ranks number one). On a mission to avenge her father’s death, she tracks down the killer, a samurai Katagiri Hyo-e (Shigeru Kanai). Of course, killing him isn’t as easy as it would seem. She must get through all of the warriors that stand in between her and the samurai, each warrior showing an increasing amount of skill.

Watching this movie is like watching your friend play the bosses of a hack and slash video game. Hell, I wished that I was playing a video game instead of just watching a movie play out like one. If I was asked what the movie was about in a more casual way than this review, I’d probably just say that a geisha has to fight a bunch of people. That’s pretty much all the movie is with some footage of her walking around the forest. There’s no suspense, no intensity, and really no payoff.

 

I don’t mind if a movie is made on a very small budget, but if you have these budget constraints, you have to think about what kind of movie you are trying to make. Low budget dramas and horror films work out just fine for me normally, as long as there’s a backbone to support it. Low budget action films are more difficult (although films like El Mariachi shows that it can be done), especially if its a costume piece at the same time. I will say that some of the costumes look really nice. The geisha looks like a geisha and the samurai looks like a samurai. The actual photography of the film is distractingly bad. It looks like a movie that was shot on the director’s own personal camera.  Maybe if the story was better, I wouldn’t be so critical of the camera work.

While the camerawork and image quality may look cheap, I will say some of the cinematography looks really nice, especially in the beginning and the end. When the action gets really dramatic during the climax, the scene almost becomes theatrical with hard light blocking off the background and really focusing on the action. It actually makes that scene stick out and easy to appreciate. That’s about all you can appreciate.

 

As I’ve said, this movie is a sorry excuse for a martial arts movie. While it does show some respect to the classic martial arts films of the 70s and the modern masterpieces like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it made me feel like I’d rather be doing anything else. Luckily, this movie is only 79 minutes long, so the torturous boredom didn’t have to last too long. Even if you love martial arts, samurai, and wuxia films, Geisha VS Ninjas is a weak attempt at storytelling that is better off being ignored.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – review

7 Sep

Wuxia has been a genre of Chinese martial arts literature and film for many years. For a long time, however, most American viewers weren’t even aware of its existence. In 2000, Ang Lee brought this style oversees with his film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Its emergence on the scene cause much hype and expectations that was not only met, but exceeded.

When Li Mu Bai’s (Chow Yun-Fat) sword, Green Destiny, is stolen by a thief and his old arch-nemesis, violence and treachery erupt in Peking. Along with an old friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Mu Bai wages a personal war with Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). They also meet a governor’s daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a young woman with a romantic past and sword skills that are entirely unexpected. How the paths, histories, and conflicts of these characters intersect will determine the fates of them all.

The real star of this film is the fantastic choreography of the fight scenes. Instead of these intense frenetic battles, we are treated to a violent dance of fluidity and grace. These excellent scenes can be attributed to master choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, who also choreographed the action sequences in The Matrix Trilogy. The action is nowhere near as intense as it is in those films, but you get the idea that this guy is a master at his craft.

This movie reminded me a lot of another Wuxia film that became popular in America, Hero. There are a lot of comparisons to be made, but never enough to say that Hero ripped off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What Hero succeeded in more was the visual design and color schemes. Crouching Tiger beats Hero when it comes to story, character development, and drama. In fact, this film had some of the best character development I have ever seen and I never felt like I was left in the dark about any aspect of a main character.

I really got a feeling for Chinese culture from this film. The surroundings, how they spoke to each other, class differences, and gender roles all play a big part to the narrative. In fact, without them this story wouldn’t have been as great as it was since the history and culture play such an important role in how people interact with each other and are treated.

 

One point where this movie kind of hurts itself is in the middle when Jen’s past is told through a flashback. I understand that it is a crucial part to the story, but it went on for a very long time and I felt like it could have been trimmed down. Once the main plot was back on track, I was so relieved. More relieved than I should have been. In fact, I shouldn’t have felt relief if the segment was paced right. Still, this is the only part of the movie where I was bored. Think of it as your bathroom break. A “what did I miss” should cover you.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an epic martial arts masterpiece that has to be seen to truly be appreciated. The story is so captivating and multilayered that it rivals the excellence of the action sequences. If someone asked me which I prefer: Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I would probably say Hero. Still, this can easily be ranked as one of the best films of all time, whether you’re new to the genre or a Wuxia fanatic.