A Triad of Asian Fillms (See What I Did There?)
It was a lazy Friday afternoon. I had already played 1 session of Vampire:Requiem with my roommates and 2 pals. The group was me, Eric (GMing), Brenda, Mike and our non-roommates Zac and James. I’ve known Zac for years, he’s my boy but James was kind of an unknown factor to me when we started playing a few weeks back. He had recently performed in a production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure at the Toledo Repetory Theater with Zac and Eric (which was awesome, thanks for asking). James had played Holmes, Zac was Moriarty and Eric was the King of Bohemia. It turns out James is one cool cat, who definitely gets the joke.
We were taking a break as James had a life of his own to attend to for a few hours. This left me alone with Netflix and Zac, who was doing other things on his computer. Now me and Netflix can be a dangerous thing. I mean I am already way behind on my American film viewing, can you imagine how far behind I am on my Foriegn Films?
I jumped right into the fray, pulling up Ip Man 2 and didn’t stop from there. Well… kinda… I mean I watched Ip Man 2 and Little Big Soldier before our wayward gamer returned. We gamed for 3 more hours and then I finished up my trifecta of movie viewing with The Man From Nowhere. 3 movies, 6 hours of film and one casual movie reviewer. Oh what fun you are all in for!
We’ll tackle these in the order viewed, simply becasue that is how I want it do it wiseguy!
I enjoyed the hell out of Donnie Yen’s first Ip Man bio-pic. Sure it is a rather fictionalized account of Ip Man’s life but damn was it fun. I had high hopes for the sequel, especilly since the action director for the first one, the always entertaining Sammo Hung, was going to be performing onscreen for the sequel. The movie opens with a recap of the first movie and then takes off. It is 1950 and Master Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has moved to Hong Kong and opened up a Martial Arts Studio to train young men in the art of Wing Chun. Things start off with Ip Man having a hard time finding students but that changes when a young ruffian named Wong Leung (Huang Xaoming) challenges Master Ip to spar, saying he’ll join his school if Master Ip can beat him. This is the first fight of the film and does a great job of showing Wing Chun’s philosophy of sacrificing raw power for close combat to combine the strengths of offense with a close combat defense. Needless to say Master Ip wins and Leung even recruits his other friends to join the school. The story initially evolves to Ip Man’s school growing and coming into conflict with the other Chinese Martial Arts Studios in Hong Kong, with the big cheese of the bunch being Master Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung).
This leads to the Masters of Hong Kong challenging Master Ip to prove his right to run his school and his title by fighting some of them in a test of ability. The test itself is to put Master Ip on a balancing table surrounded by upturned chairs and have him fight each of them. He must either last until a length of incense burns out or submit and agree not to teach Wing Chun. The real importance of this is that, back in the time period, Wing Chun was still viewed asa weak style of Kung-Fu, mainly practiced by women. The dominant style of the era were various forms of Hung-gar Boxing.
What follows is Master Ip Man proving Wing Chun can hang with the more “Manly” styles as he fights and beats 2 Hung-gar Masters before fighting Master Hung Chun-nam to a draw. The fight between Hung and Ip Man is awesome, just really fun and entertaining with Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen really putting a show on for the moviegoing fight fan. I loved the fight choreography and the way the draw between the two men is done is clever and didn’t leave me feeling cheated.
While this doesn’t settle the issue of Hung-gar and Wing Chun in the movie, that story gets forced to the back as Master Hung is promoting a Western style boxing match. Needless to say, what transpires is a nice little film about Ip Man and living humbly becomes a rather odd little Hong Kong version of Rocky IV. Master Hung is goaded into a fighting a British Boxer backed by a corrupt British/Hong Kong Cop. A Fight goes down, shit happens. Boxer gives the most tissue thin apology and promises he can beat ANY Chinese fighter. Of course this brings out the humble Master Ip Man, who challenges the Boxer.
What goes down next is a good, final fight where the story is that the British judges are trying to score the fight like a Boxing match and change the rules mid-way through the fight. Ip Man overcomes this handicap, wins the fight and gives the Rocky IV post fight speech. No lie, it is the same fucking speech, I mean the only thing he doesn’t do is tell his son to go to bed. Oh, even better, it throws in some Rocky II by having Ip Man’s wife being preggers right before the big fight.
The Nationalistic storyline of the Chinese overcoming a corrupt British police force isn’t that bad, to be honest. It just doesn’t jibe with the first half of the film. It feels as if there should have been 2 diffeent movies. I mean as great as the draw between Ip Man and Hung Chung-nam was, it feels as if the second half of this movie should have been building to a rematch. The Chinese v. British story just doesn’t mesh well. The fights are great but from a story side of things, the film feels disjointed.
So overall, yeah watch Ip Man 2 and be impressed as hell by what you see. Just be prepared. Either way, watch it for the fights. Just some very good cinematic fighting but be prepeared for a shift in story that seems unncessary. Either way, the fights more than make-up for that flaw. Donnie Yen is awesome for his second go as Bruce Lee’s eventual Master and Sammo Hung really brings it as an almost tortured soul in Chung Hung-nam. Ip Man 2 isn’t as good as the original. It lacks that sense of desperation and survival that the original got across, though setting any movie in mainland China during World War II era Japanese occupation isn’t going to give you a very “Golly Gee Ain’t Life Great” vibe. The movie is still totally worth your time though, as it is less about struggling to survive and just about making life worthwhile.
Let’s face it, Jackie Chan is getting up there in age folks. It isn’t like the late 1980s and 1990s where Jackie could make 2-3 films a year, do some crazyass stunts and just walk away thanking God he didn’t die that time. The shit he does takes an insane amount of punishment on the body. Now multiply that by 30+ years of making action films and we are damn lucky Jackie Chan can still fucking walk, let alone act. So it is refreshing to see Jackie make a film where actually, y’know, focuses on acting. I mean, yeah, he busts out some decent stuntwork in Little Big Soldier but nothing insane. No getting himself kicked onto burning coals (Drunken Master II). No jumping from a handrail onto a metal shaft and plunging through a glass domicile (Police Story). No nearly DYING while making Armor Of God!
No, in Little Big Soldier Jackie Chan opts to act and he does it quite well. As well he should, especially for a movie he’s been trying to get made for over 20 years. It is also one of those rare Jackie Chan period movies, even better it is set during the Chinese Warring States Period. It is also one of the grimiest looking movies Jackie Chan has ever made. Every scene is either filled with dust or mud or, as in the beginning of the movie, thousands of dead bodies.
Chan plays the type of role he does best, a simple man put into an extraordinary situation. After all these years Jackie has mastered this type of role. He is so convincing as an everyman becasue you can look at his smiling face and say “This guy could be me”. He does this even while wearing period Chinese armor from the Liang region of China. Chan plays a soldier (we are never given his name), who at the beginning of the film appears to be the sole survivor of a battle between the forces of Liang and Wei. He then is a witness to the actual battle between the last Wei General and his Liang counterpart. When the Wei General triumphs, the soldier strikes and takes him captive. His motive is simple, return home and deliver the Wei General to his superiors and collect the reward of money and a small plot of land. It is a simple life he wants, to live as a farmer and not worry about war like he has for the last 20 years.
What really helps sell this movie is the scenery. Grimy, dirty and full of dust, Chan’s ancient China shows the desolation of war and how it affects not just the people but also the landscape. Yet somehow, despite the scar of war, it manages to be rich and full of color at the same time. Anicent China is brutal yet incfredibly beautiful in this movie. The terrain plays just as much of a role in the film as the actors do, but this is usually the case in most of han’s movies. Usually though, the terrain isn’t so… lush. It usually a casr of the terrain being a prop for Jackie Chn to cut loose.
Anyway, what unfolds is a road movie. The 2 men travelling don’t like each other based solely on their circumstances. Chan’s soldier even points this fact out late in the movie. If it weren’t for the war between Liang and Wei the two probably could’ve been friends. The Wei General just wants an honorable death, notot be handed in by a cowardly soldier whose main specialty was being able to play dead convincingly on the battlefield. This goes against the soldier’s philosophy that as long as you aren’t dead then life is simply, for lack of a better word, marvelous.
There are a few subplots that flow through the movie, like why are Soldiers from Wei hunting the General? Why does the soldier keep having these beautifut disturbing dreams? Why does the desitiute songstress keep re-appearing?
So many questions, only so much time to answer them and not enough space to write about it. I will say that I can see why Chan had spent all these years trying to get this film made. It is because it is a story about people. It is a story of life, death and all the small things inbetween and making a life worth living. It is about honor, duty and betrayal. It is about friendship and loyalty to what one believes is best for one’s own happiness no matter which character is talking. It is about life being marvelous, no matter what happens, simply because being alive is so much more fulfilling than being dead.
South Korea has really been coming out of the woodwork over the last 10 years as a force in modern Asian Cinema. I mean they gave us one of the most incredible series of movies from one genius auteur in director Park Chan-wook. The Vengeance Trilogy (i.e. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy and Sympathy For Lady Vangenace) remain some of the most brutal, emotionally charged movies I’ve ever seen. They also happen to be 3 of the best movies of the last decade, with Old Boy being especially amazing on all levels.
The fact is more and more South Korean films are making it over to the states every year and they aren’t all just revenge films either. Be it Action, Martial Arts, Romantic Comedy, Slapstick, Drama or any other genre, chances are it has had a STREET LEGAL release in the United States. This brings us to <strong.The Man From Nowhere, the 2010 South Korean Box Office Champion. Not only was it king in ticket sales in its native country, it also cleaned up at all the major South Korean movie award galas. It was a critical darling, it was a financial monster and even more surprising was… It was a pretty damn good movie!
The thing is, I got the feeling I had watched this movie before. 2 years ago there was this fun little movie where Liam Neeson basically beat the crap out of the entire city of Paris just to get his daughter back. Yes, I’m talking about Taken, the first movie bearing Luc Besson’s name that I’ve liked since Leon: The Professional and that was way back in 1994. The Man From Nowhere has the same basic premise as Leon: The Professional but it tweaks the formula a little and the result is actually a superior action movie and a superior movie overall. This is no mean feat because Taken was a pretty damn good time at the movies.
The things that make The Man From Nowhere better though are depth of emotion and degrees of violence. Now the depth of emotion argument is the harder subject so we’ll take that on second. So we are going to discuss degrees of violence first. What a fucking place to start though. I mean it isn’t like Taken was any sort of fucking Disneyfied action movie. It was probably the most violent movie Liam Neeson has ever been in and he has starred in movies for both Sam Raimi (<strong>Dark Man) and Jon Boorman (Excalibur). Fucking hell he was in the new A-Team movie as Hannibal Smith. The difference there is Neeson was part of mass violence perpetrated by a group of people, where as in Taken he was one man that became a hurricane of violence. An instrument of vengeance so insane and devastating that to watch his performance in Taken is like watching God unleash his wrath on the city of Paris simply for being French.
The Man From Nowhere> ups the level of violence in direct correlation to the heinous nature of the crimes perpetrate. I mean in Taken we were dealing with a bunch of Mediterranean white slavers. That is nothing to sneeze at given what the main character went through to get his daughter back from them. Well, The Man From Nowhere looks at those white slavers and laughs. “Fuck your White Slavery bullshit”, you can hear it laugh mockingly, “I got Chinese Triad via North Korean mobbed-up dope dealing, child abducting organ harvesters. Fuck your pussy ass white slavery ring!”.
I mean watching Won Bin wipe out a room full of armed Korean gangsters is something special. Bin plays Cha-Tae-sik, a quiet man who runs a pawnshop. He ends up befriending the daughter of his junkie neighbor, despite having various rumors about him spread in his building. Of course it all goes south when the girl’s junkie mother steals a load of heroin from local gangsters that have ties to the mainland China Triads. In case you missed me saying this movie is similiar to Taken, the daughter gets kidnapped. Now this this is Cha-Tae-sik’s only friend. He is a loner of the highest caliber. He gives off an aura of sulleness for a fucking reason. No, I’m not giving that info about why Cah Tae-sik is such a badass up, watch the movie.
The lengths he goes to in order to save this girl are pretty amazing. He becomes a drug mule, gets framed for the murder of the girl’s mother and then gets fed up with dealing with the cops. Now when I say he gets fed up with the cops, I mean he breaks out of a police detention center in like 4 minutes. He then goes on an insane rampage of violence against the Korean gangsters. Hell he even lets them know that he is coming for them and that he will kill them because they gave him a fucking cell phone. Fucking idiots!
So what is the emotional aspect of this film that makes it deeper than Liam Neeson playing a guy trying to savce his daughters from white slavery?
Chan Tae-sik is a man that has nothing save this girl’s friendship. He is a true loner in the end. He is detached from the real world because of his past trauma. So Mi, the girl, is his only connection to the world outside. Cha Tae-sik is willing to throw his simple life away to keep that one good thing in the world safe.
How does that make Cha Tae-sik more invested emotionally than Neeson in Taken exactly?
Neeson is playing a fther. Yes, he has emotional investment in his daughter. Yes he can and will do anything to save her. The difference is he is expected to as her father. Cha Tae-sik has no expectation from anyone to care about this girl. In fact early on in the movie there is one scene where Cha Tae-sik demonstates that he may not care about So Mi at all. You’ll know it when you watch it. Hell the closing scene of the movie clearly references it.
So in the end The Man From Nowhere is a moving movie that is awash in violence yet has a kind of tenderness and sentimentality in its undertones that Taken didn’t. Taken is more about a once violent man trying to live simply but forced back into violence because of his daughter’s abduction. The Man From Nowhere is more about a man who never really renounced violence, he just was never put in a situation where the skills from his old life call him back to violence. Cha Tae-sik is rage personified and that rage can only be subsided by the only person he calls friend.
Well there you have it. 3 Good entertaining movies. A fun old school style kung-fu flick, a funny yet moving Jackie Chan can act movie and an ode to good old fashioned violence and mayhem. I say go watch them with some friends, movies are always better in a group. Make a big tub of popcorn and watch the fun unfold. Save The Man From Nowhere for last as it really is the piece de resistance of the 3 films reviewed. Either way, you are going to have a fun time watching these films and really watching a movie, any movie, should be about having a good time.