Donnie Yen

Wing Chun (詠春) (1994)

I was on a Crazy Rich Asians/Michelle Yeoh high when I remembered I had this gem collecting dust like nobody’s business. Yeoh takes on the decidedly working class Asian role of Yim Wing Chun, the legendary founder of the martial art named after her. The film hedges closer to slapstick comedy is about the characters more than it is about Wing Chun, but those hoping for something with a martial arts pedigree will enjoy the performance of Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action co-director.

The story goes, as they often do, that during the Qing Dynasty, there was a beautiful tofu seller who needed to defend herself against men. Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who developed the fighting technique, and she used the new form to keep guys with bad intentions at bay. The general legend is preserved in here, and Wing Chun is well known throughout her mountain village as a fierce fighter. She pushes back against unwanted advances and marriage proposals but also against the bandits who regularly attack and raid the village.

One day, a woman named Charmy (Catherine Hung) arrives seeking help for her sick husband. When he dies, her only option is to prostitute herself, but Wing Chun is having none of that abusive, patriarchal bullshit. She tricks one of her suitors, the cowardly Scholar Wong (Waise Lee), into paying for Charmy’s expenses, and later Wing Chun’s aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen), hires the young woman to work at their tofu shop. Things are rolling merrily along, save the occasional banditry, when Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen), appears. Wing Chun’s childhood best friend, he is pleasantly surprised when he spots Charmy at the shop. His heart melts because Charmy is gorgeous, but also because he thinks she is Wing Chun.

There’s nothing like a little cross-dressing to confuse things, and mistaken identity is the source of a lot of the comedy. Wing Chun has taken to men’s attire since it suits her fighting persona and discourages ogling, but Charmy inherits her wardrobe, to the delight of the shop’s male customers and the disappointment of Pok-To, who comes to realize that the Wing Chun he knew and loved before has changed.

The film has a surprisingly strong feminist spirit, and I found this to be the most appealing aspect of the movie. Wing Chun and Abacus Fong alone make a formidable team. Although they differ in temperament, they both take charge and command respect in their own ways. Wing Chun is the first and really only person the villagers turn to when there’s an attack and in one battle, she defeats the bandits singlehandedly. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, is opinionated and blunt, earning her the disdain of men who don’t like that kind of honesty and forcefulness in a woman. However, she knows how to navigate a man’s world and does so because she can and must. Sometimes that means exploiting female sexuality, and while I don’t agree that that’s the best way to go about things, even Charmy is on board. She knows that without Wing Chun’s fighting talent or Abacus Fong’s entrepreneurial skills, she can still play the bashful, naïve Miss Soy Bean in order to sell more tofu and increase business for all three women.

The movie’s feminist appeal is reflected in the fight sequences as well. Cheng Pei-pei cameos as Wing Chun’s master, who prepares her for the final battle in the bandit’s village after they’ve captured Charmy. Now dressed in women’s clothing, she is joined by Pok-To and together they fight it out with Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu). Word on the internets is that there is not much actual Wing Chun in this or any of the fight scenes. I can’t tell, but I do love the tofu fight between Wing Chun and a martial arts master (Xu Xiangdong) who wants to teach this little lady a thing or two. They spar over a large block of tofu, trying to break each other but not it, and it becomes clear that the ever elegant and capable Michelle Yeoh will not suffer these fools.

English trailer:

Tofu challenge:

Released: 1994
Prod: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Action Dir: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Yuen Shun-Yi 袁信義, Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Elsa Tang Bik-Yin 鄧碧燕, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai 黃永輝
Cast: Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Waise Lee Chi-Hung 李子雄, Kingdom Yuen King-Tan 苑瓊丹, Catherine Hung Yan 洪欣, Norman Chu Siu-Keung 徐少強, Cheng Pei-Pei 鄭佩佩, Chui A-Fai 崔亞輝, Xu Xiang-Dong 徐向東, Jin Mao-Heng 金懋恆, Guo Jia-Qing 郭家慶
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogue-one

The first feature of the Star Wars Anthology, a series in but apart from the main timeline that includes Episodes One through Nine, Rogue One is a scrappy but satisfying film befitting of its story and characters. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and directed by Gareth Edwards, it doesn’t have the pedigree of last year’s The Force Awakens and lacks a perfectionist streak that helped tighten, narratively and visually, the better Star Wars movies. Nevertheless, it compensates with some fine performances and a grittier story that expands on universe.

What I like about Rogue One that also sets it apart from the other films is the narrowness of its plot. The main series concerns itself with great galactic matters, and though its heroes embark on defining missions (e.g. destroy the Death Star, find Luke Skywalker), the movies tend to swell around their own mythology. This one is scattershot, especially the first half hour, but never bloated. Set just before the events of A New Hope, the story simply is about a band of outcasts who try to steal the plans for the Death Star. They are led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a sometimes criminal whose scientist father, Galen (a very noble Mads Mikkelsen), was compelled by the Imperial Army’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help the Empire construct the weapon when she was still a child. Some fifteen years later, the Rebel Alliance gets wind of the project and wants to use Jyn to locate her father, whom she hasn’t seen since he was taken away. After a brief rendezvous with extremist leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), she teams up somewhat reluctantly with Rebel officer and spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind, monkish warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his well-armed protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Together, they planet-hop trying to find the information they are looking for.

At this point, if you’re wondering what the hell the Empire is and who these damned Rebels are, then you may find this movie a little inaccessible and some of its references obscure. Rogue One expects its audience to be well versed in Star Wars lore, and a good working knowledge of the first movie, which is to say the fourth episode, which is to say A New Hope, is highly recommended. If you need to catch up, the Death Star is a moon-sized planet killer created by the Empire to assert its control over the galaxy, one that is far, far away. The Empire is a totalitarian regime, born out of the events from the 1999-2005 trilogy and exerting its full might during the original series. They are opposed by the Rebel Alliance, who want to restore democracy to the galaxy.

Those who grew up with A New Hope will find that this movie does more fan service than The Force Awakens, which was aimed at a broader audience and intended to introduce Star Wars to a new generation. Rogue One has a less glamorous role, filling in a lot of narrative gaps and bridging the first two trilogies. In fact, it leads directly into Episode Four in ways that were more surprising and exciting for me than seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca return to the Millennium Falcon. There were certain “oohs” in my opening night audience that warmed my fangirl soul to the core. Without revealing too much, some of the CGI magic will take your breath away and transport you back to 1977.

Streamlined as the plot may be, however, the film still lacks an elegance one would expect from the franchise. The first thirty to forty minutes require a detailed flowchart just to keep track of all the movement between characters, locations, and alliances. Ironically, once the story settles down, things really begin to take off. It moves light and fast, and one reason is that there are no abstract discussions about the Force or existential meditations on the Jedi’s place in the galaxy to weigh it down.

The dialogue is definitely clunky though, and the writing is one of the film’s main weaknesses. At one point, Galen and Jyn share what should be a moving scene, one of the three they have together. Rather than tender and affecting, it comes across as rushed and mawkish. Similarly, Chirrut’s comic interjections are lobbed haphazardly and land with a thud. K-2SO compensates with some wry humor and impeccable comic timing, thanks largely to Tudyk.

The rest of the talented and versatile cast go a long way to smooth the bumps. Last year, I unashamedly shed tears when a woman, a black guy, and a Latino dodged blasters and TIE fighters to best Darth Vader’s grandson. This time, I got misty eyed when Jyn roused her motley crew of non-white dudes to do their part for the Alliance. Jones is a (ahem) forceful lead, and like Daisy Ridley, who played Rey in The Force Awakens, she exerts an iron will that belies her slight physical stature. In many ways, that determination is emblematic of the whole group. No one would have pegged any of these stars to lead a global franchise, but here they are like their characters, doing their part with sheer wit and resolve.

Of Jyn’s gang, Luna and Ahmed have the most prominent roles and both show off a different kind of hero. Cassian’s commitment to defeating the Empire causes him to act in ways that initially seem indifferent and even amoral, but Luna gives his character a quiet strength that makes him one of my favorites. Ahmed, who is finally getting the recognition he deserves this year, does something similar with Bodhi, but after a promising introduction, his character starts to fade. Yen and Jiang also deliver strong performances and have standout moments, ones that will please home audiences in Hong Kong and China and introduce them to new ones abroad. But they too seem to be constantly searching for their character. Though the film’s strength is in its cast and in this scrappy band of brothers and sister, the script doesn’t do enough to maximize their talent or distinguish their characters. Even the dynamic Whitaker is left hanging in what amounts to an awkward cameo.

Still, Rogue One personalizes the war, and war itself, in ways that its loftier predecessors did not. Abstract principles and ideals underlie a story that’s told in small, individual battles. Our heroes aren’t the best fighters or the chosen ones tasked with overcoming Evil against impossible odds. Their main antagonist is, not unlike them, an important but ultimately expendable asset (or as Variety put it, a “mid-rank Nazi functionary”) trying to navigate the larger forces and events around him. The action is much closer to the ground, and even with a final well orchestrated space battle, it’s the dirty, frantic firefights, the ones that might double for images from the evening news, that make the biggest impression. They most movingly tell the stories of those who bear the cost of fighting for our ideals.

This is the trailer you’re looking for:

Released: 2016
Alt Title: Rogue One
Prod: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll (story), Gary Whitta (story)
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Guy Henry, Genevieve O’Reilly, Jimmy Smits, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Jonathan Aris, Alistair Petrie, Valene Kane, Daniel Mays, James Earl Jones, Guy Henry, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, Peter Cushing (kinda), Carrie Fisher (kinda), Angus MacInnes (kinda), Drewe Henley (kinda)
Time: 133 min
Lang: English, various alien languages
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Mismatched Couples (情逢敵手)

mismatched couples

If you buy the Mismatched Couples DVD, you’ll find that distributer Fortune Star markets it under its “Legendary Collection,” which is only fitting because this is a true Hong Kong classic. For what it’s worth, which isn’t much, this is my favorite Donnie Yen movie. His second acting credit bears little resemblance to the severe no-nonsense ass-kicker most people think about when they see his name. Instead, his character in this movie, Eddie, is a mild-mannered college student who wears guyliner and just wants to break dance.

And who knew Yen was a dancing machine? I lament the light comedies that were not made in favor of Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China II, spectacular as those films are. Yen along with costar and director Yuen Woo-Ping start the party off right and never really let up. The first few scenes feature nearly back-to-back acrobatics, making use of both their prodigious martial arts talent. Eddie has probably one of the best wake-up routines on screen and Mini, Yuen’s character, springs to life by waving around a bunch of sugar cane.

Their flexibility opens up a wide range of physical comedy. After Mini loses his job as a street vendor, Eddie invites him home where he lives with his uptight and single older sister Ah Ying (Wong Wan-Si) and cousin Stella (May Lo). Ah Ying doesn’t approve, and this leads to another memorable sequence in which Eddie and Stella try to hide their new friend in their tiny flat.

She reluctantly gives in, and the mismatched coupling storyline begins to take shape. Ah Ying tries to keep her affections for Mini hidden beneath her harsh demeanor while Stella is a little more forward with her feelings for Eddie. He, however, prefers Anna, maybe because she’s rich and can really rock a cherry leotard.

Most of the enjoyment doesn’t come from the plot though, which is pretty generic even if the actors inhabit their roles well. Both Wong and Lo bring out their characters’ personality and temperament in ways that make them more appealing than they are on paper. The real fun in this movie comes from Yen’s boundless energy, resulting in one goofy dance episode after another. Yuen and his action director/brother, Brandy Yuen, end up with something like a long narrative music video, replete with high tops, tracksuits, boomboxes, and sometimes tracksuits with a built-in boombox.

It isn’t until the end that the act gets a little tiresome, with a superfluous fight scene featuring a more familiar Donnie Yen. The only other issue I had was the characterization of Lynn (Chan Wai-Lin), a female body builder who’s used as comic relief and whose own romantic intentions are deemed laughable. Otherwise, this is one not to miss.

Donnie Yen being all kinds of awesome:

Released: 1985
Prod: Brandy Yuen 袁振洋
Dir: Yuen Woo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Peace Group 和平小組; Cheng Man-Wah 鄭文華; Chui Jing-Hong 徐正康
Cast: Donnie Yen 甄子丹; Yuen Woo-Ping 袁和平; May Lo 羅美薇; Wong Wan-Si 黃韻詩; Kamiyama Anna 上山安娜; Dick Wei 狄威; Mandy Chan 陳志文; Kenny Perez; Chan Wai-Lin 陳蕙蓮
Time: 88 min
Lang: Cantonese, some English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014