martial arts

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說之法海)

sorcerer and white snake

The Legend of the White Snake is a centuries old story that is varyingly about good and evil, religion and superstition, and plain old immortal love. It’s the stuff of movies, and there have been many (notably Tsui Hark’s 1993 Green Snake). This 2011 effects-laden martial arts adventure draws on all of these. In trying to appeal to everyone, however, it fails to truly satisfy anyone. Sorcerer lacks a consistent tone and wraps several films into one.

Parts of this sweeping whirlwind though stir up the emotions with an unsuspecting deftness. I didn’t expect a blockbuster with big box office dreams to turn on the feels, but at least one of the major plotlines resonates with the source material. At the heart of the story are Suzhen (Eva Huang), a beautiful white demon snake, and Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a simple – and human – herbalist. They fall in love after she rescues him from a lake with a deep, almost otherworldly kiss of life. He thinks he’s dreamed the encounter until she reappears to him in human form.

It seems odd that such an enchanting creature would be so drawn to a humble medicine man and the story jerks forward a little too quickly. But Huang has an ethereal presence that wants to belong in an untarnished landscape like Hangzhou’s West Lake, where the story takes place. The setting evokes a distant fairy tale, and Suzhen desires Xu Xian’s love with such purity and earnestness that one feels the story can’t take place anywhere else.

Their romance is set against a bigger, noisier backdrop though, one literally clanging and crashing with gongs. Jet Li plays Fahai, a monk determined to rid the world of demons. He captures them in all their frightening female forms – and it is women who start all the trouble. Disguised as nymphs and enchantresses, they gently pluck their instruments while looking coyly askance or slink out of bamboo forests wearing bed sheets like some fantasy porn, only to reveal themselves as squawking bat demons. Luckily there is a man to catch these murderous creatures. Fahai eventually deposits them into a large stone medallion, a purgatory of sorts, where demons meditate on their evil ways until they sufficiently repent and are released.

Fahai operates according to strict moral absolutes, which makes him feared and effective but which also leaves him struggling to justify his entire belief system after something happens to gray the line. Li, with his stern demeanor and calculated movements, exudes physical and moral discipline. When Fahai is forced to confront his own fundamentalism, there is an honesty that complements Suzhen and Xu Xian’s devotion.

What doesn’t align as well is a subplot involving green snake Qingqing (Charlene Choi) and her playful attempts to win over Fahai’s acolyte, Neng Ren (Wen Zhang). Once again, Choi is cornered into her default role. Despite being an adult woman, she reverts to her Twins act of yore, flirting and giggling like she’s an eighteen-year-old child bride. It’s distracting and discordant and can only be a self-serving ploy to win a younger demographic. It does match some of the jaunty slapstick, like when Suzhen brings Xu Xian to meet her demon family, animals who transform rather poorly into humans (and Hong Kong all stars). But this goofy, New Year’s-esque tone is a confusing artistic choice that just seems out of place.

The film runs into more problems with its subpar effects. Sorcerer thinks it’s destined for great, international things. A martial arts fairy tale, especially one fronted by Jet Li, might appeal to audiences beyond Asia, but not when it’s propped up with cheap effects that don’t match the epic scale the movie is going for. The opening scene features a fierce fight in the snowy mountains between Fahai and a demon played by Vivian Hsu. The two look like paper cutouts flying across static backdrops in puppet show. A later battle with a bat demon involves such a flurry of CGI that it’s hard to tell what is going on. Focusing the effects on a few choice scenes might have tightened the story rather than spreading it so thin.

Hong Kong trailer:

International trailer:

“Promise” (許諾) by Eva Huang and Raymond Lam:

Released: 2011
Alt Title: It’s Love
Prod: Chui Bo-Chu 崔寶珠
Dir: Tony Ching 程小東
Action: Tony Ching 程小東; Wong Ming-Kin 黃銘健
Writer: Charcoal Tan 張炭; Tsang Kan-Cheung 曾謹昌; Szeto Cheuk-Hon 司徒卓漢
Cast: Jet Li 李連杰; Eva Huang 黃聖依; Raymond Lam 林峯; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Wen Zhang 文章; Vivan Hsu 徐若瑄; Jiang Wu 姜武; Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Lam Suet 林雪; Song Wenjia 宋汶嘉; Angela Tong 湯盈盈
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2016

Kung Fu Dunk (功夫灌籃)

kung fu dunk

Jay Chou, kungfu, and basketball sound like decent ingredients for a fun if not exactly award-winning film. But that doesn’t turn out to be the case, and in fact, a high school basketball match in a musty gym has more heart and drama than this turkey. Filmmakers fail to turn its star’s oft-professed love for kungfu and basketball into a coherent fantasy, and it’s shameful how flagrantly it ends up violating all rules of good storytelling.

Chou features as the Shijie the Basketball Orphan, abandoned near a basketball court and raised in a kungfu school. He’s an extremely capable student, so much so that he gets locked out one night for showing up a teacher. An encounter with Zhen Li (Eric Tsang) leads him to a club where the pair ends up conning their way through a darts game. That results in a massive fight, and in a matter of 24 hours, Shijie is again kicked out of the school, this time for good.

Zhen Li won’t let any harm come to his new friend though. Having discovered his talent for accurately throwing any object from any distance, he dreams up another con. He enrolls Shijie into First University and hopes to make bank, presumably as agent to this sure superstar. (There are no NCAA regulations to be broken here.)

But Shijie must get through a few hurdles before he can burst onto the collegiate scene, including a one-on-one with the team captain, Ding Wei (Bolin Chen). It’s the first, and last, climactic encounter of the film, and that’s because the remaining matches never really build up to anything. Even the classic showdown that ends the film, wherein Shijie’s former teachers come to his aid, is so absurd and not in keeping with any actual basketball rules that it feels like someone’s cheating. With no sense of league structure or standards to ensure fair competition, there’s little tension or consequence.

This lack of a discernable athletic goal creates an obvious dramatic vacuum that the writers try to fill various subplots. Ding Wei turns out to be a boozy star while his sister (Charlene Choi) is the chipper groupie who’s crushing on the team’s other brooding stud, who only has room in his heart for his dead girlfriend. A better storyline that isn’t pursued with much vigor but that might have been more rewarding is Shijie’s father-son relationship with Zhen Li. But this is also an afterthought, given undue and confusing attention at the end of the film but not throughout. The writers try to convince the audience that Zhen Li really cares for his friend when exploitation seems closer to the truth.

For once, Chou’s presence doesn’t help much. Surprisingly bland in this role, though more the fault of the lifeless script, he fails to give shape to his quiet character, something he’s managed to do in previous films and even music videos. One would expect that the action would make up for these plot and character deficits, but the kungfu and basketball sequences prove less than stunning. Aside from a legitimate fight at the beginning of the movie, the action consists mostly of high wire jumping and dunking. Chou gets a few chances to show off his agility with the ball, but on the whole, the picture doesn’t earn its title.

“Master Chou” (周大侠) – theme song by Jay Chou:

Alt Title: 灌籃, Slam Dunk
Released: 2008
Prod: Yiu Kei-Wei 姚奇偉; Albert Lee 利雅博; Xu Pengle 許朋樂
Dir: Kevin Chu 朱延平
Action Dir: Tony Ching 程小東
Writer: Kevin Chu 朱延平; Lam Chiu-Wing 林超榮; Wang Youzhen 王宥蓁
Cast: Jay Chou 周杰倫; Eric Tsang 曾志偉; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Bolin Chen 陳柏霖; Wang Gang 王剛; Ng Man-Tat 吳孟達; Baron Chen 陳楚河; Leung Kar-Yan 梁家仁; Eddy Ko 高雄; Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Liu Genghong 劉耕宏; Lee Lichun 李立群; Shaun Tam 譚俊彥
Time: 98 min
Lang: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: Taiwan
Reviewed: 2015

Shanghai Noon

shanghai noon

Like its subjects, the movie western is a resilient thing. Its popularity wanes and surges, but it remains ever a part of American culture. Enter Shanghai Noon, a western that does not so much upend things as it does contribute further to American mythology. The pairing of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson might be unusual, but it is still a movie about outsiders persevering against great odds. And it’s pretty damn funny.

Shanghai Noon avoids turning into a novelty act, though clichés abound. They are modified and used to the film’s advantage, both as a nod to westerns of yore and to establish itself within that genre. Chan as Chon Wang, which sounds suspiciously like John Wayne, is clearly a man on the margins. He is an imperial guard and not a particularly good one. When the princess is kidnapped and held for ransom in Carson City, the bravest guards are sent to rescue her; Chon goes as the imperial baggage handler. He is separated from the others shortly after arriving and tumbles into the vast American wilderness, alone, unaware, and very determined.

Meanwhile, Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) is something of a western misfit, and not just because Wilson looks like he’s on break from a surfing holiday. Roy is a genial outlaw, one who prefers a relaxing night in the company of women to the wild unpredictability of thievery. He would rather talk it out than shoot it out. When a train robbery turns deadly and one of his dim-witted bandits kills Chon’s uncle, Roy abandons his gang, which is too bloodthirsty for his taste. He finds himself also wandering great stretches of Nevada all on his lonesome.

Things don’t go well when the two meet again but hardship does a lot to bridge misunderstanding, even the cultural kind. After they break out of jail together, Roy teaches his new friend a few Wild West survival skills. Chon puts some of these tricks to good use when he demonstrates some of the best lassoing you’re bound to see and saves Roy from the corrupt Marshal Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley). It’s an appropriately twenty-first century friendship, one the writers humorously reinforce. Roy fancies himself a bit liberal in his cultural outlook. During an argument with Chon, he says as a testament to his character, “I had a chance to kill you but I chose not to because I’m not a barbarian!”

The barbarians, it turns out, come from both sides of the map. Van Cleef is in league with Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), a traitor who not only kidnapped the princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) but is also a slave driving foreman of the Chinese railroad workers. Pei Pei doesn’t do much and Liu’s character certainly doesn’t have the bark of some of her other roles, but she still fits the mold of a hearty frontier woman. She sneaks out of China to escape an arranged marriage, only to be betrayed and sent to the railroads to do manual labor like a commoner. Rather than hop the first boat back to China though, Pei Pei insists on staying in America where she can better help others and where, dammit, she’s free! That’s how you enculturate, folks.

The us-versus-them dynamic gets an update and in doing so expands the understanding of “us” and “them.” There is funny moment when Chon finds himself amongst a friendly tribe of American Indians. They don’t understand his language, so he naturally speaks louder and slower, because this has always helped. In the end, they find themselves instead bonding over a universal smoke and drink. The script allows for similarly humorous scenes but a lot of credit goes to Chan and Wilson whose chemistry brings about a slow cultural shift, if only for this film. They are united as friends and partners but also brought together by their failures and solitude. The actors are strongest when they are onscreen together; Wilson brings an affable, lazy charm that complements Chan’s tenacity and principle, and his killer fighting skills.

Released: 2000
Prod: Jackie Chan, Gary Barber, Roger Bimbaum
Dir: Tom Dey
Writer: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Roger Yuan, Xander Berkeley, Brandon Merrill, Walton Goggins, Henry O 區亨利, Yu Rongguang 于榮光
Time: 114 min
Lang: English, some Mandarin
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014