The Great Wall (2016) Review

"The Great Wall" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“The Great Wall” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Cheney Chen, Huang Xuan, Karry Wang, Ryan Zheng, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Vicky Yu, Bing Liu
Running Time: 104 min. 

By Kyle Warner

In 2008, Zhang Yimou amazed the world with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It was a spectacle for the eyes, ears, heart, and mind. As a fan of his movies and as a stunned observer of the Beijing opening ceremony, I wonder if Yimou ever felt intimidated by his own success at the Olympics. Because, though I’ve mostly enjoyed the films Yimou made post-Olympics, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not up to the quality that we’ve come to expect from the master filmmaker. His first film after the Olympics, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, an oddball remake of the Coen’s debut thriller Blood Simple, was amusing but hardly an essential piece of the director’s filmography. The Flowers of War, for all its beautiful cinematography and important historical content, feels dramatically cool and distant. Coming Home, a drama about lives being torn apart during the Cultural Revolution, bears similarities to Yimou’s masterful To Live but lacks all the subtlety found in that earlier film. So, if you were to tell me a year ago that an aggressively silly monster movie starring Matt Damon would be the film where Zhang Yimou got his groove back, I’d call you crazy. And yet… here we are?

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are soldiers on the run from bandits in the northern mountains of China. They’re in China looking for black powder to take back to their armies but are intercepted by a strange beast in the night. William kills the monster, which falls into a ravine, and he claims a severed green arm as a trophy. The next morning, the soldiers are chased once more, and their flight leads them to the front steps of the Great Wall of China, manned by a thousand Chinese soldiers. William and Tovar are put in chains, led into the Wall, and interrogated. It’s only after Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) discovers the severed green arm in the foreigner’s supplies that they begin to listen to their story more closely. When William tells him that they met the beast only two days ride to the north, a note of fear spreads through the Chinese soldiers. They know what this monster is. They know that there are more of them. And they had not dared to think that they could already be so close.

From there we get a wham-bam action movie with so many moving pieces, so many strange sights, and it’s all – somehow – conducted in a clear, easy to follow manner. Thousands of green monsters that look a bit like inbred, mutant dinosaurs (complete with eyeballs located on their shoulders and vibrating xylophones on their spines) come charging towards the Great Wall like a unified force. The Chinese soldiers go to their posts; they each have a job to do. The soldiers in red are archers. The soldiers in black are infantry who man the wall should a monster make it over the top. The soldiers in purple protect the general (Zhang Hanyu). And women in blue jump over the wall with a spear to stab at the monsters below before they are towed back to the top on a rope and pulley system. Meanwhile, William and Tovar are tied up and terrified, just watching shit unfold like maybe they took one bad turn too many and ended up in the worst spot imaginable. The foreigners free themselves, then join in on the fight, doing enough good work to stay their executions for now.

When everything’s working, the movie can be quite a rush. And even at the stupidest moments, The Great Wall is still good fun. It’s an escapist man vs. monster movie set in Ancient China with a strong cast and a great director at the helm. Is it a less important movie than even some of Yimou’s near-misses, like Flowers of War (which also featured a Hollywood star)? Yes, probably. But it’s a better film because it achieves all that it sets out to do. Mainly: have a good time showing cool actors kill off weird monsters for a little under two hours.

The Great Wall has gotten some heat from critics and filmgoers for whitewashing Chinese history. And listen, I understand the complaint because movies like Ghost in the Shell have some difficult questions to answer. But I gotta tell ya, The Great Wall doesn’t really belong in the same conversation. I don’t think it even belongs in the conversation of ‘white savior’ adventure movies where the American saves the day for a tribe of people different from him. Damon’s William comes to China to steal gunpowder and he has no illusions about being an honorable man. He’s a fine fighter, yes, but the only game changing thing he brings to China’s fight against the monsters is Europe’s whale hunting methods (which, for a modern viewer, may not read as a very heroic thing for our character to know so much about). And sure, William changes his tune as the film progresses, becoming more of a good guy, but he never becomes the savior, let alone the leader. William becomes a valuable member of the team, different background and all, and ultimately I feel like that’s a positive message that both Chinese and American films could use more of. As for William’s comrade Tovar, Pedro Pascal (Narcos) plays the part as even more roguish than Damon’s William. Tovar wants to rip off the Chinese, even when he sees the fight they’re up against. Willem Dafoe (John Wick) has a small part, and he too belongs in the bastard category. So, if you have major issues with whitewashing in Hollywood, I hear you. But I don’t think a film directed by Zhang Yimou, financed with Chinese money, filmed half in Mandarin, and depicting white dudes as thieving opportunists is the movie you should be taking issue with. My advice, watch it before developing too strong of a political opinion against it.

If Jing Tian was more of a star in the west at this point in her career, I do believe she’d share top billing with Damon on the posters because she’s very much the film’s co-lead. As Commander Lin, Jing is the Great Wall’s most fiercely loyal defender. She believes in something deeper than gold or renown, which causes her to clash with William who is more the mercenary, and makes for some decent character work. With parts in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising coming up, perhaps Jing Tian’s star is on the rise in the US.

Hong Kong favorite superstar Andy Lau (Saving Mr. Wu) has a nice supporting part as the Great Wall’s head strategist. It was weird for me at first, having seen Lau in so many Chinese productions, to see him speaking English opposite Matt Damon. And Lau did a commendable job, too, playing the most levelheaded guy in a movie full of characters who are either macho or terrified. I’m not sure if this will lead to more English speaking roles for Lau or not but he did a good enough job to deserve the shot if he so desires.

The film looks beautiful. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) perfectly captures the crazy visuals and Yimou’s delicious use of colors. As mentioned, all the soldier units are decked out in different colored armors and the monsters are green. It’s like a painter’s palette has been weaponized and gone to war. When Strategist Wang works up a potion to put one of the monsters to sleep, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see harpoons dripping with bright yellow liquid; the last major color missing from Yimou’s canvas.

The Great Wall surprised me. I went in expecting some goofy movie with Chinese vs. monsters and that’s exactly what I got, but it was done on a level usually reserved for more prestigious historical epics and fantasy adventures. The Great Wall is a B-movie done with A-talent who refused to slump for a paycheck. Not as eloquent or as dramatic as Yimou’s arthouse action movies like Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower but still clearly made by the same visual artist, The Great Wall is a feast for the eyes and a helluva good time at the movies.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10

Posted in All, Asian Related, Chinese, News, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Kino Lorber is bringing ‘Hell in the Pacific’ to Blu-ray

"Hell in the Pacific" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“Hell in the Pacific” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Kino Lorber has announced that they’re prepping a Blu-ray for 1968’s Hell in the Pacific, a survival/thriller by director by John Boorman (Deliverance) that stars Lee Marvin (Point Blank) and Toshiro Mifune (Incident at Blood Pass).

During World War II, an American pilot (Marvin) and a marooned Japanese navy captain (Mifune) are deserted on a small uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean. There, they must cease their hostility and cooperate if they want to survive, but will they?

Hell in the Pacific is one of three films that share a common theme. The others being Frank Sinatra’s None but the Brave (1965) and Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine (1985).

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A ‘Traitor’ to helm Jackie Chan’s ‘Five Against a Bullet’

"The Mission" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“The Mission” Chinese Theatrical Poster

Back in 2012, it was reported that Bruce Willis was set to star in Five Against a Bullet, a film about a Mexican politician who hires five of the best bodyguards (Willis, being one of them) after his father is killed by a drug cartel.

For die hard Asian cinema fans, the basic premise of Five Against a Bullet sounded a lot like Johnnie To’s 1999 film The Mission, which centered on a Triad boss who, after a failed assassination attempt against him, hires five of the best killers for protection.

In fact, an “official” remake of The Mission has been stuck in development hell for years, which leads us to the question: Is the plot for Five Against a Bullet a mere coincidence or has the The Mission remake morphed into a new, shady idea with a new set of players?

In any case… Willis has since moved on and is no longer attached. Five Against a Bullet ended up being another title in limbo – that is – until last December when Variety broke the news that Jackie Chan would be starring in Five Against a Bullet as one of the bodyguards.

Noted director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces) is associated as the film’s writer (he was brought on board in 2014 to do re-writes by Predators’ scribe Alex Litvak); and depending on your source, he was listed as director. But today, Deadline has revealed that Jeffrey Nachmanoff – a director known for Traitor and the upcoming Keanu Reeves thriller, Replicas – will be helming Five Against a Bullet.

It may be awhile for Five Against a Bullet to gain momentum, but for now, Jackie Chan fans have a string of upcoming movies that are pretty much ready to be released: Bleeding SteelJourney to China and of course, The ForeignerAnd be sure to read our reviews for Jackie’s latest films, Railroad Tigers and Kung Fu Yoga.

We’ll keep you updated as we hear more on Five Against a Bullet, until then, here’s the trailer for The Mission just for the heck of it:

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New Japanese Poster for shoot ’em up flick ‘Free Fire’

"Free Fire" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“Free Fire” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Part John Woo violence, part Guy Ritchie comedy and part 70s exploitation… get ready for Free Fire, an upcoming shoot ’em flick produced by Martin Scorsese.

Official: Acclaimed filmmaker Ben Wheatley (High Rise) propels the audience into quite possibly the most epic shootout ever seen on film as he crafts a spectacular parody of the insanity of gun violence. Everyone’s got a gun, and absolutely no one is in control.

Set in a colorful yet gritty 1970s Boston, Free Fire opens with Justine (Brie Larson) and her wise-cracking associate (Armie Hammer) arranging a weapons deal in a deserted warehouse between an IRA arms buyer (Cillian Murphy) and shifty gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley). What starts as a polite exchange soon becomes a full-on Battle Royale (via A24).

Free Fire hits theaters on April 21, 2017. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the film’s Trailer below:

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Well Go USA has ‘Tunnel’ vision for a disaster thriller

Tunnel | DVD (Well Go USA)

Tunnel | DVD (Well Go USA)

On May 2, 2017, Well Go USA Entertainment will be releasing the DVD for Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel (read our review), a South Korean thriller starring Ha Jung-Woo (Assassination), Doona Bae (A Girl at My Door, The Host) and Oh Dal-su (Veteran).

Jung-soo, an ordinary car salesman finds himself in a most extraordinary event when the tunnel he’s driving through collapses, trapping him. Nothing is around him but wreckage, and all he has is 78% of his phone battery, two bottles of water, and his daughter’s birthday cake.

The initial news throws South Korea into a frenzy and makes Jung-soo a media darling. But once his phone dies, and the days and weeks start to drag on, people begin to lose interest.

Tunnel is a fantastic and fascinating take (in the vein of The Host and Train to Busan) about the role of the media in shaping public opinion, the perceived ineptitude of the South Korean government, and the true character of the general public, this is a disaster film like no other.

Pre-order Tunnel from Amazon.com today!

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Iko Uwais to appear in Joe Carnahan’s ‘Raid’ remake?

"The Raid" Theatrical Poster

“The Raid” Theatrical Poster

Back in 2014, an English language remake of The Raid was announced, but during early stages of development, the film became stuck in development hell. Within the process, director Patrick Hughes (Expendables 3) dropped out for reasons unknown. And Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War), who was also heavily associated with the project, hinted in many interviews that the remake was on again/off again, and finally off again, indefinitely.

Then surprisingly in January, Grillo announced that he and filmmaker Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) were re-launching the remake from a newly revised script by Carnahan himself.

Now news has emerged (via Collider) that Carnahan is not only writing the remake, but also directing it. Here’s what he had to say (via Twitter): “The Raid remake will hew closer in tone and feel to The Grey and Narc. Gareth Evans is producing alongside and has given us his full blessing.” Carnahan continued with his next message: “It’s not a remake. It’s a reimagining of the same scenario. Everybody take a deep breath. We won’t disappoint you, rabid-fanboy-from-Hell.”

Evans (read our archived interview with him), the director of the original, and producer of the upcoming remake, previously expressed interest in having both Scott Adkins (Eliminators) and Michael Jai White (Falcon Rising) as potential leads. Others stars attached included Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Luke Evans, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Hawke and Taylor Kitsch.

Updates: In a recent interview with Collider, Carnahan and Grillo were very vocal about their upcoming Raid remake (they say it’s not a remake, but semantics aside, it’s a remake). And here’s the most interesting tidbits from the interview:

On the feel of the remake…

Carnahan: If our movie felt like the knife fight between Adam Goldberg and the German in Saving Private Ryan the entirety of the movie, then we’ve done exactly what we need to do.

Grillo: You want to look away but you can’t.

On the “assault” pattern in cinema…

Grillo: Many Americans, most Americans, have never seen The Raid before.

Carnahan: By the way, Smokin’ Aces is about an assault on a penthouse with a bunch of crazy people fighting their way up to the top. That was six years before The Raid was made. So it’s not like these are things that don’t interest me. I can show you a pattern. I dig that kind of an idea.

On the film’s exposure…

Grillo: And I’ll tell you something that bothers me. When people say you’re doing to do “The Hollywood Version” of The Raid

Carnahan: Or whitewash it.

Grillo: First of all, we’re not the Hollywood version of anything. We come through the back door all the time. I’m not Tom Cruise. I’m not the Hollywood version. I’m not knocking Tom Cruise, but he’s Tom Cruise. He gets to do whatever he wants. So my point is we don’t have to do this. We can do anything we want to do. We want to do this because there’s something we see that we want to show to American audiences, and audiences globally. Many people have not seen The Raid.

On the film’s setting…

Carnahan: [It’s set in] Caracas. Because Caracas is a madhouse. It’s almost like a safehouse for bad guys, like they built this block in Caracas because this is where you come to do business and no one will f*ck with you. Because it’s such a dangerous place, nobody wants to go in there. Again, it’s heightening elements of The Raid that were already there, I’m taking these story elements and kind of weaponizing them. Just giving them a shot of steroids, because again everything is about zagging—where The Raid zigged, we’ll zag.

On Gareth Evans’ blessing…

Grillo: We’ve had two-hour conversations with Gareth [Evans]. He says, “Go make your version. I want to see your version.”

On Iko Uwais’ possible involvement… 

Grillo: I did a movie with Iko… We became brothers. And he’s my boy. When he heard this, he reached out to immediately and said, “Is there a place for me in the movie?”… So maybe. Joe said maybe there’s a world where he’s one of the other guys. Who knows.

We’ll keep you updated as we hear more about The Raid remake. Stay tuned!

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Deal on Fire! Heroes Two | Blu-ray | Only $5.50 – Expires soon!

"Heroes Two" Blu-ray Cover

“Heroes Two” Blu-ray Cover

Today’s Deal on Fire is the Blu-ray for Heroes Two, a Shaw Brothers classic directed by the legendary Chang Cheh (Five Element Ninjas, Slaughter in Xian) with action scenes choreographed by the great Lau Kar-leung (Shaolin Mantis, Drunken Master II).

This impressive production, also known as Bloody Fists or Kung Fu Invaders, is a true landmark in kung fu film history. The first of Chang Cheh’s Taiwan-produced, mid-1970s Shaolin cycle, Heroes Two is the low-budget beginning of several films starring Fu Sheng, which culminated with the grand Shaolin Temple in 1976.

Order Heroes Two from Amazon.com today!

Posted in Deals on Fire!, News | 1 Comment

JCVD and Lundgren head the New ‘Black Water’ Fan Poster

"Black Water" Teaser Poster

“Black Water” Teaser Poster

Jean-Claude Van Damme (Kickboxer: VengeanceCyborg) and Dolph Lundgren (Skin Trade) will team up once again for Black Water.

Black Water is the story of a CIA operative (Van Damme) who is imprisoned in a CIA black site on a nuclear submarine after being framed as a traitor. He has to prove his innocence with the help of fellow inmate (Lundgren) and clear his name before he disappears forever…

Black Water also stars Patrick Kilpatrick (Death Warrant), Al Sapienza (Sopranos), Jasmine Waltz (Poker Run) and Kristopher Van Varenberg (Assassination Games).

Mike Leeder reports that Black Water (aka Submerge, obviously no relation to Steven Seagal’s Submerged) is written by Chad Law (Close Range) from a story by Tyler W. Konney (Blue Line), and is produced by Richard Switzer (Altitude).

We’ll keep you updated on Black Water as we learn new details. In the meantime, we’ll soon be seeing more of Van Damme in Amazon’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson, as well as the forthcoming Kill ’em All, not to mention a possible 2017 release for the long-awaited Full Love.

*Be sure to check out a “Fanmade” poster (via Michael Schubert), which we had mistaken for the real thing. :/

For now, we leave you with the trailer for the brutally underrated Van Damme/Lundgren flick, Universal Soldier: Regeneration:

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The Top 5 Classic Poker scenes from movies

"God of Gamblers Returns" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“God of Gamblers Returns” Chinese Theatrical Poster

They say that tension and conflict’s at the heart of drama so it’s not surprising that the confrontational nature of gambling has featured so heavily in many Hollywood films. After all, it’s also an industry that represents some of the biggest gambles of all with millions dollars being invested in even the lowest budget movies.

Films with gambling in them range from ones in which it’s at the heart of the action like Scorsese’s Casino to more surprising ones like Toy Story 3 that even includes a fun roulette scene. But the one game that really works well on the screen is poker – and these five classic examples show the many different ways that it can be used to create real highs, and lows, for the characters.

Best Bond scene  

Gambling’s an essential element in virtually every Bond film ever made as he makes his way round many of the world’s most exclusive casinos. In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as the super spy, he takes on his nemesis Le Chiffre in a high stakes game of poker. Despite being poisoned and made to go into cardiac arrest mid-game he manages to re-start his heart with a handy in-car defibrillator and go on to win millions.

Most tense scene

Rounders was released 1998 starring the relatively unknown Matt Damon as a maths genius on a mission to repay huge debts with poker winnings. To do this he has to take on the sinister and scary Teddy KGB played with maximum menace by John Malkovich. It’s looking bad for Damon till he spots a “tell” and goes on to clear out KGB with style.

Poker for laughs

In the 2001 remake of the classic 1960 movie Ocean’s 11 George Clooney puts together a team to defraud some of the biggest casinos in Vegas – but first he has to get Brad Pitt to teach many hapless team members how to play. Hilarity ensues as they fail to get the idea at all including believing a hand of “all reds” is the best you can get. Needless to say, Pitt is far from amused!

The king of cool

For a masterclass in poker-faced genius look no further that Paul Newman’s performance in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. In a key scene which takes place in the penitentiary where he is a prisoner a frantic game of poker’s going on around him while Luke is impassive. Naturally he goes on to win with ease delivering the killer line, “sometimes nothing can beat a real cool hand.”

Best drunk scene

Poker and drinking don’t make a good combination but it can have its uses – as Paul Newman also displayed in the highly acclaimed follow-up to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting. The whole film is about the attempt to cheat the gangster Doyle Lonegan, played by Robert Shaw, out of his money and in this scene Newman pretends to be drunk to get him to lower his guard – and it works like a dream.

Of course, there are lots of other examples of poker in the movies that we just don’t have space to mention here and you’ve probably got some favourites of your own. There are also likely to be many more in films not yet made or released – so make sure you also look out for the classics of the future.

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Watch a 5-minute Prologue for Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien: Covenant’

"Alien: Covenant" Teaser Poster

“Alien: Covenant” Teaser Poster

Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created in Alien with Alien: Covenant, the second chapter in a prequel trilogy that began with Prometheus — and connects directly to Scott’s 1979 seminal work of science fiction.

Before it was known as Alien: Covenant, the movie went through a few titles, including Paradise, Alien: Paradise Lost and the obvious, Prometheus II.

Bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, the crew of the colony ship Covenant discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world — whose sole inhabitant is the “synthetic” David (Michael Fassbender), survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace are the only cast members returning from Prometheus. They’ll be joined by some new characters, including Katherine Waterston (Steve Jobs), James Franco (127 Hours), Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down), Demian Bichir (The Hateful 8), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), Guy Pearce (Memento), Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color), Jussie Smollet (Empire), Carmen Ejogo (Selma) and Callie Hernandez (La La Land).

It should also be noted that director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) ultimately decided put his Alien sequel on hold in an effort to avoid confusion with Alien: Covenant. Blomkamp’s sequel would serve as a direct continuation to 1986’s Aliens, but would ignore all other subsequent Alien films. | Watch the Trailer.

Alien: Covenant hits theaters on May 19th, 2017.

Updates: Watch a New 5-minute Prologue below:

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Japanese New Wave director Seijun Suzuki passes away

"Branded to Kill" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“Branded to Kill” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Nikkatsu is reporting that famed action movie and Japanese New Wave director Seijun Suzuki passed away on February 13th, 2017 at age 93.

Suzuki began his career with Nikkatsu in 1956. He made many pictures each year, filming at a rapid pace. As time went on, he began to experiment more, both visually and otherwise, much to the chagrin of film executives. His 1967 movie Branded to Kill, a Jo Shishido hitman thriller which plays like a dangerous fever dream, was so surreal that it played a part in Nikkatsu ultimately firing Suzuki. The director took his bosses to court and won, but was subsequently blacklisted from all the major studios for a decade, when he made his 1977 return with A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. Suzuki reached new heights of experimentation with the bizarre Taisho Trilogy, three arthouse films that mixed dark comedy, horror, and mystery to great effect. In 2005, Suzuki directed his final film, a fantasy musical starring Ziyi Zhang titled Princess Raccoon.

Suzuki’s career included other highlights such as Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy, Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, Underworld Beauty, Story of a Prostitute, Voice Without a Shadow, and Everything Goes Wrong. Suzuki also occasionally took on acting roles, with parts in films like Shinji Aoyama’s Embalming and SABU’s Blessing Bell.

Seijun Suzuki was a one of a kind film talent, creating some truly weird and very cool movies over the years. His films influenced the works of Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Takashi Miike, Jim Jarmusch, and many others.

We here at City on Fire offer our condolences to Suzuki’s family and friends.

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Headshot (2016) Review

"Headshot" Theatrical Poster

“Headshot” Theatrical Poster

Director: The Mo Brothers
Writer: Timo Tjahjanto
Cast: Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Chelsea Islan, David Hendrawan, Epy Kusnandar, Zack Lee, Sunny Pang, Very Tri Yulisman
Running Time: 118 min.

By Martin Sandison

While the world waits with bated breath for the next installment of Gareth Evans’ phenomenally popular Raid franchise, we now have a film that more than whets the appetite from Indonesia: Headshot. Starring Iko Uwais from The Raid, the movie has been labelled by some as Raid-lite. In my opinion, that is complete balls. Headshot delivers visceral, non-stop action thrills from start to finish; and while not as accomplished in ideas or direction as its predessecors, it’s a deliriously entertaining film. Showing in the Glasgow Film Festival, I was lucky enough to see it before it’s official release in the west.

Headshot begins with a wonderfully put together sequence revealing the villain of the piece, Lee (played by Sunny Pang) who breaks out of prison. Then our hero Ishamel (Uwais) washes up on a beach, and is rescued by a Doctor, Ailin (Chelsea Islan). He has amnesia, although he has some flashes of memory. Both plotlines move concurrently, and Ishmael starts to remember his past bit by bit, while Lee is trying to find him. This sets in motion a bunch of weapon, hand to hand fighting and gunplay.

So the first question most are going to ask is: What level is the choreography at? As good as The Raid? The answer, for the most part, is a resounding yes. Choreographed by the “Uwais Team” (sh*t, is he turning into Jackie Chan?), a lot of the techniques in terms of filmmaking and martial arts style are present. Yes, at times it feels like we’ve seen this before, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of action on display. This quality hardly dips at all throughout, although there is one duel that I was looking forward to that wasn’t great: the rematch between Uwais and Julie Estelle (who played Hammer Girl in The Raid 2), which takes place on a beach and has some limp exchanges. In fact at times the conviction in moves is lacking, which is a little frustrating, because the next move is on point. Also, the near constant shaking of the camera in long takes is a little off-putting.

Those looking for the brutal violence in choreography from The Raid will not be disappointed; at times this movie is even more violent, with plenty of disgraceful knife wounds, blood flying and full contact hits. There are also some welcome humurous touches amongst the mayhem, which adds depth to the originality of the action. The performers of the martial arts scenes are undoubtedly up there with Uwais and the cream of modern martial arts cinema, especially Veri Try Yulisman (Baseball Bat Man from The Raid 2) and the truly brilliant Sunny Pang. He seemed to come from nowhere, with a limited filmography that doesn’t include any action films. Pang is from Singapore, and is well-versed in kickboxing and MMA, and more than holds in own in the bone cracking final duel. Some of Uwais best handwork comes in this fight, something he is known for and is sometimes lost in modern martial arts cinema. At times the movie almost pays tribute to the already legendary first Raid, with the final battle taking place in a very similar location, to the 2-on-one final fight. Indonesian action cinema was kickstarted again due to the film, so I think it’s more than acceptable to do this.

The two directors of Headshot, dubbed The Mo Brothers (Macabre), have been making a name for themselves of late. Their last film Killers received a lot of good write ups and was again very violent. Some of the filmmaking on show in Headshot is engaging and stylish, the opening especially. Also the soundtrack is superb, with atmospheric electric guitar flourishes and interesting percussion. Unfortunately some of the sentimentality and hefty doses of cheese in the romantic subplot are complimented by very generic mushy music, which didn’t appeal to my eyes or ears.

I went into this film thinking “If this is half as good as the first Raid I’ll be happy.” I came out with a rush of adrenalin, and a knowledge that it’s close to being as good. Indonesian action films are some of the best in the world right now, and I urge fans to catch this movie in the cinema. You won’t be disappointed.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10

Posted in All, Indonesian, News, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Cast details for Ding Sheng’s ‘A Better Tomorrow 4’

"A Better Tomorrow" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“A Better Tomorrow” Japanese Theatrical Poster

If Song Hae-Seong’s 2010 Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow didn’t quite do it for you, then get ready for a couple more variations of John Woo’s 1986 seminal gangster classic. That’s right, a couple of ’em.

Two A Better Tomorrow remakes are in the works: One with Stephen Fung (who is also working on a Once a Thief remake) directing; the other with Ding Sheng (Little Big Soldier) directing. Sheng’s version – curiously titled A Better Tomorrow 4 – already has a teaser poster.

Updates: According to AFS, Sheng’s movie, which is currently filming, stars Darren Wang (Railroad Tigers), Ma Tianyu (Surprise) and Wang Kai (Railroad Tigers), who will be playing Mark “Gor” Lee (the character made famous by Chow Yun-fat in the original).

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First cast photo from Shane Black’s new ‘Predator’ film

"Predator" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“Predator” Japanese Theatrical Poster

While the original Predator may have its share of cheesy one-liners, it’s regarded by most as a modern action classic. It’s a movie that many consider Arnold Schwarzenneger’s strongest effort, a movie that would most likely be called John McTiernan’s finest hour if it wasn’t for a little film called Die Hard.

Still, even more surprising than the fact that Hollywood would touch the sacred cow of Predator is the news that none other than Shane Black will be directing the film. Before he made headlines for writing and directing Iron Man 3, Black was a talented writer who rose to fame on the strength of scripts like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout.

Alongside his meteoric rise as a screenwriter in the late Eighties, Black actually had a small supporting role in the original Predator as the character Hawkins; this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part was apparently a way for the producers to try and coax Black into polishing the script for Predator, a task which he repeatedly refused. All these years later, the Predator story appears to be coming full circle, as Black has co-written – along with Fred Dekker (Iron Man 3) – the treatment for the new Predator, which he will also direct.

Black has confirmed that the new Predator film, titled The Predator, is actually an “inventive sequel” and not a reboot. Now we’re left to speculate if the film will treat the events of Predator 2 (let alone 2010’s Predators) as canon or ignore everything except the ’87 original. Producer John Davis says that The Predator will “reinvent a franchise.” A “genius” draft of the script is complete and was written by Black and his writing partner, Fred Dekker (Iron Man 3).

The real question is: what modern actor could possibly step into the combat boots made famous by Arnold Schwarzenneger – let alone the other musclebound roles ably filled by Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham? Considering that most of today’s stars are cast to be pretty rather than buff, it’s most likely that this new Predator will look and feel radically different than the original.

As of February 2017, Predator has officially started shooting. So far, here’s what we know: The film stars Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl) as a special forces commando and Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse), who’ll be playing a scientist. Also along for the ride are Sterling K. Brown (The People vs. O.J. Simpson), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele).

Despite reports suggesting that the new Predator film would be set in suburbia, Black has since denied those claims, leaving us in speculation. There was also some talk about Schwarzenegger reprising his role as Dutch for a possible cameo, but Holbrook recently replied: “Shane Black has made something totally new, somehow keeping within the realm of Predator [while also being] absolutely new in terms of the story that we’re talking about today, and rooted in something real. It’s real fresh. I don’t think you’re going to see Schwarzenegger. It would kind of make it a gimmick. It’s horror, science-fiction and a western.”

Predator hits theaters on February 9, 2018. We’ll keep you updated on its progress as we hear more. Until then, check out the first cast photo below (via Twitter):

C5HugjjUEAAzWIn.jpg-large

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The latest Trailer for ‘Extraordinary Mission’ is extraordinary

"Extraordinary Mission" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Extraordinary Mission” Chinese Theatrical Poster

The directing duo behind the Infernal Affairs sequels, the Overheard saga, and Donnie Yen’s The Lost Bladesman are back in Extraordinary Mission, an upcoming undercover thriller that’s exploding onto screens in April.

We’re currently clueless in regards to the plot, but considering this film is in the able hands of Alan Mak and Felix Chong (The Silent War), consider us 100% sold for the action sequences alone.

Extraordinary Mission stars Huang Xuan (The Great Wall), Duan Yihong (Battle of Memories), Lang Yueting (Office) and Zu Feng (League of Gods).

We hope to see a North American announcement soon, but until then, don’t miss the film’s latest Trailer below (via AFS):

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) Review

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Martin Baum
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández, Kris Kristofferson
Running Time: 112 min.

By Martin Sandison

Sam Peckinpah’s influence as a filmmaker is undoubted, and his run from The Wild Bunch to Cross of Iron is near-untouchable. Misunderstood at the time, his elegiac, revisionist Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid nearly destroyed his reputation in Hollywood, and was cut to shreds by the film’s producers. Peckinpah, shattered by the experience, decided to up camp to Mexico, his spiritual home, to make the film he described as the only one over which he had complete control, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

While most would call Peckinpah’s movies an acquired taste, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia divides even lovers of his filmography. At turns fiercely nihilistic, darkly funny, beguilingly strange and brimming with his trademark slow motion violence, it’s certainly a wild ride. One that was way ahead of its time and influenced filmmakers all over the world. Arrow video recently released a limited edition 4K remaster of the film on Blu-ray, which is a must for fans.

The most obvious filmmaker that the film influenced is my favourite director, John Woo. Woo has stated the film is one of his favourites, and you can see the influence especially in the lone hero as individualist idea. The opening scene of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is much-talked about; rightly so as it communicates Peckinpah’s greatness as a film maker. A young pregnant girl sits by the side of a lake, to be called in by El Jeffe (Emilio Fernandez, who played Mapache in The Wild Bunch and was a Palme D’or winning filmmaker in the 40’s) and told to vocalise who the father of her child is. The girl, once she is stripped and has her arm broken exclaims “Alfredo Garcia!”, and El Jeffe himself exclaims “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, thus setting in to motion the films plot. The location of Mexico, costumes and filmmaking convey the sense that this IS the Old West, the setting of Peckinpah’s previous films. When the next scene comes with a complete change in all aspects to locate itself firmly as contemporary, it is a shock, even to the viewer, who has knowledge of the film.

Two men attempt to track down Alfredo, and come across a bar wherein Bennie (Warren Oates) is the resident piano player. He doesn’t let on that he recognises the picture that they show him, and in the next scene talks to his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), who was in love with Alfredo. They decide to track him down, and the movie becomes at first a romantic road trip then a descent in to hell.

Those who have seen Peckinpah’s earlier movies will be surprised in the change of scale; the film has a low budget, grimy aesthetic with none of the epic scope of his previous westerns. This creates a world of dark, shadowy strangeness that reflects Bennie’s plight in the second half of the film especially. Warren Oates gives perhaps his greatest performance, communicating Bennie’s at first playful nature then dangerously unhinged state. Many have said that Oates was channeling Peckinpah himself, which adds layers of pathos to an already on-the-edge performance and film. The iconic nature of Oates look (a cool white suit) and depiction of Bennie as a violent but individually moralistic character is wonderful, and the influence on John Woo is clear (especially Chow Yun Fat’s John in The Killer).

Elita is one of Peckinpah’s most interesting female characters, as she holds sway over Bennie and shows her mental toughness in a near-rape scene. That scene features Kris Kristofferson in a cameo role, just after his role as Billy the Kid. One of the greatest songwriters of the 70’s, he became close to Peckinpah and talks candidly about him in the documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, which is an extra on the Arrow release. In small roles, Gig Young (who appeared in the mess that was Game of Death in 1978) and Robert Webber (a veteran character actor who was in the original series of Ironside and The Dirty Dozen) are superbly ambiguous as the men who hire Bennie.

The violence in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is what you would expect from Peckinpah, but on a much smaller scale than say the shootout at the end of The Wild Bunch. This doesn’t detract from its impact; actually in aesthetic construction some of the action scenes are more viscerally powerful than in some of his other films. The hopelessness of the narrative also gives credence to Bennie’s rampage of violence in the second half of the film, and really makes you root for him despite his failings.

At the time of release, a lot of critics and generally audiences didn’t understand the film and labelled it unworthy, especially in relation to Peckinpah’s earlier films. The film to me is almost as era-defining as the film most agree is his best, The Wild Bunch. However the sheer darkness that descends in the second half of the film is so all-encompassing it can be a disturbing watch, but one that is rewarding in every sense.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 9/10

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Cops vs Thugs | Blu-ray & DVD (Arrow Video)

Cops vs Thugs | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

Cops vs Thugs | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

RELEASE DATE: May 23, 2017

Arrow Video’s ever growing catalogue of Asian masterpieces continues with the Blu-ray & DVD for 1975’s Cops vs Thugs, a crime classic directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity).

Considered by many to be director Fukasaku’s greatest single-film achievement in the yakuza genre, Cops vs Thugs was made at the height of popularity of Toei Studios’ jitsuroku boom: realistic, modern crime movies based on true stories taken from contemporary headlines.

Returning to the screen after completing their Battles Without Honor and Humanity series together, Fukasaku joined forces once again with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara (Battles Without Honor and Humanity Vol. 2), composer Toshiaki Tsushima and star Bunta Sugawara (Battles Without Honor and Humanity Vol. 3) to create one of the crowning achievements of his career, and a hard-boiled classic which is still ranked as one of the best Japanese films of the 1970’s.

It’s 1963 in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima, and tough-as-nails detective Kuno (Sugawara) oversees a detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. Best friends with Ohara lieutenant Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), he understands that there are no clear lines in the underworld, and that everything is colored a different shade of gray. But when random violence interrupts the peace and an ambitious, by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) comes to town, Kuno’s fragile alliance begins to crumble. Greedy bosses and politicians alike seize the opportunity to wipe out their enemies, and Kuno faces the painful choice of pledging allegiance to his badge and keeping a promise to his brother.

Echoing the great crime films of Sidney Lumet and Jean-Pierre Melville, in Fukasaku’s world, there’s no honor among thieves or lawmen alike, and the only thing that matters is personal honor and duty among friends. Kasahara’s shattering screenplay and Fukasaku’s dynamic direction support an all-star, ensemble cast to create one of the most exciting, and deeply moving films about cops and criminals ever made.

Extra Features:

  • High Definition digital transfer
  • Original uncompressed mono audio
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Beyond the Film: Cops vs Thugs, a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane
  • A new visual essay on cops & criminals in Fukasaku’s works by film scholar Tom Mes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
  • First Pressing Only: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film

Pre-order from Cops vs Thugs Amazon.com today!

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Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) Review

"Dance of the Drunk Mantis" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Dance of the Drunk Mantis” Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Drunken Master 2
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: Lung Hsiao, See Yuen Ng
Producer: See Yuen Ng
Cast: Siu Tien “Simon” Yuen, Shun Yee “Sunny” Yuen, Hwang Jang Lee, Linda Lin, Corey Yuen, Yen Shi Kwan, Dean Shek
Running Time: 121 min.

By Chris Hatcher

When Siu Tien “Simon” Yuen first stepped onto the Asian cinema scene in 1947 at age 35, one of his earliest roles was as a thug in director Wu Pang’s The Story of Wong Fei-Hung, which featured Kwan Tak Hing in the legendary title role. Having trained in the traditional Peking Opera, Yuen was credited in more than 300 films spanning 30+ years before his untimely death in 1979. He played a variety of roles, from technical turns as stunt coordinator and fight instructor to bandits, cooks, mentors, and kung fu masters. However, none was more memorable than his late turn as the drunkard Beggar So (aka Sam Seed) in Jackie Chan’s 1978 smash hit comedy Drunken Master… a film that brought Yuen full circle by portraying him as the uncle to, none other than, Wong Fei Hung.

I tie the above preface to my review of Yuen’s final completed picture, Dance of the Drunk Mantis, so I can set the stage for explaining why I really love this film. Otherwise, you run the risk of seeing it and coming away with a mixed impression of an “Old Man Yuen” needing an obvious stunt double to perform 90% of his fight scenes, which is true. My hope is to turn this oft-times negatively regarded aspect into a positively endearing point of view that will help you see this film for what it truly is… a comedic masterpiece, rivaling the humor of Drunken Master and displaying some of the most technical, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow fight choreography in the genre. Not to mention, standing as an excellent showpiece for the ultra-talented Yuen Clan.

Reprising his role as Sam Seed, Yuen plays the red-nosed champion of southern Chinese drunken boxing made all the more potent by a good rice wine. His counterpart, the northern drunken boxing king Rubber Legs (Hwang Jang Lee, Yuen’s Drunken Master alum and all-around bad ass), has secretly combined his drunken skills with mantis kung fu and is in search of Sam for an old school smackdown. An early encounter with a Sam Seed imposter shows Rubber Legs and his apprentice (Corey Yuen) mean business in challenging Sam for the drunken boxing title.

Meanwhile, the real Sam returns home after several years away on a bender to find his irritable wife (the great Linda Lin, another Drunken Master alum) has adopted an adult son named Foggy (Shun Yee “Sunny” Yuen). He likes to scrap, but his kung fu is lousy as evident by the beating he takes from a shady banker (played by Dean Shek, the creepy King of Kung Fu Comedy). This prompts Ma Seed to suggest Sam teach their son drunken boxing, a proposition Sam cruelly accepts as a way to humiliate Foggy.

Watching Sam make his son fall from stilts or play a one-man game of Twister in the name of “training” is typical old school humor. But in an atypical move, the story takes a brief turn of pathos when Sam berates Foggy for being a stupid kid who can’t hold his liquor. The scene proves effective as Foggy blames himself for Sam’s cruelty and decides to leave home. (For the record, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is the most sentimentally deep old school film I’ve ever seen. And while that entire film is soaked in sorrow with virtually no humor (one of the reasons I absolutely love it), it was nice to see a comedy like DotDM aspire to hit a sentimental note like this.)

When Foggy barely survives an encounter with Rubber Legs and his apprentice after learning Sam is next on their hit list, he returns home to warn his father. This leads to one of the more renowned scenes in old school kung fu cinema… the restaurant showdown between Sam and Rubber Legs. It’s the highlight of DotDM as the duel begins innocently enough with the playful posturing of arm and hand locks over glasses of wine and ends in a full-on drunken brawl to the death (Yuen’s stunt man works overtime as the scene continuously shifts from close-ups of Yuen to fantastically staged fight choreography by his double). Luckily, when Rubber Legs pulls out his deadly drunken mantis fist and overpowers Sam, Foggy steps in to help dear old dad live to fight another day.

And we’re only two-thirds of the way through Dance of the Drunk Mantis by this point, with some of the most dynamic kung fu yet to come when Sam’s brother, Sickness (Yen Shi Kwan), secretly teaches Foggy his sick kung fu during Sam’s recovery. Looking like death warmed over, Uncle Sickness tells Foggy his kung fu can counter Rubber Legs’ mantis fist and the training sequences do not disappoint. They are so good, in fact, as to qualify DotDM with one of the better old school “zero to hero” transformations in Foggy, who displays some serious Chan-like acrobatics during his shift to stud status. He’s great in his rematch with the apprentice and ready for the challenge by the time Rubber Legs arrives to put Sam and Foggy in the ground for good.

The first big positive going for Dance of the Drunk Mantis is its director… the great Yuen Woo Ping, Simon Yuen’s eldest son. Everything he touches is branded with a mark of high quality, and DotDM is no exception. If you only know Yuen Woo Ping for his fight choreography on The Matrix trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Kill Bill films, you’re truly missing out. His direction is stellar, ranging from modern day martial arts classics like Iron Monkey to classics of the old school era like Dreadnaught, The Magnificent Butcher, and the aforementioned Drunken Master (DotDM was promoted as DM’s unofficial sequel).

The second positive is the excellent mix of humor and martial arts skill… some of the best in the old school era. Some scenes sprinkle bits of excellent kung fu amidst a piece of great comedy, like the contentious “welcome home” match between Sam and his wife. The humor takes center stage as Sam dodges an assortment of slaps, kicks, broom strikes, and verbal jabs in a routine reminiscent of a Three Stooges skit. A scene like this could have come off as corny, but Yuen’s sad clown expressions and big toothy grins add an endearing quality to the whole thing. Seeing Yuen barely able to duck a kick in one scene followed by an immediate cut to his stunt double skillfully flipping out of harm’s way only adds to the charm. And there are several other equally funny scenes like this throughout the film.

Other scenes, such as the climactic battle between Foggy and Rubber Legs, showdowns between Ma Seed/Foggy and apprentice, and the ever-excellent restaurant brawl flip the formula and add touches of great comedy to masterful fight sequences. You’ll fully understand this notion when, in the midst of some amazing choreography, Rubber Legs’ mantis fist rips the pants off Sam and a bout of “sexy hips” kung fu takes place! Trust me when I say you’ll want to replay the restaurant scene multiple times just to admire how it builds from verbal grandstanding to technical showmanship to one of the all-time great duels of the genre. And no amount of stunt doubling can detract from it!

Then there’s Sunny Yuen, Corey Yuen, Linda Lin, Yen Shi Kwan, and the amazing Hwang Jang Lee… players who make Dance of the Drunk Mantis shine as a kung fu powerhouse from start to finish. Sunny, one of Yuen’s middle sons, does some of his best work in this one, as does Corey (who isn’t actually one of the Yuen family members); Lin is always skillful with some of the straightest leg kicks in the business; Kwan is a technical master in his handful of scenes; and Lee, who looks great as a Pai Mei archetype, delivers his signature crazy-leg kicks with an added mantis stance that looks wicked as hell!

And, finally, there’s Simon Yuen, who couldn’t have made it through DotDM without the aid of a very special Yuen Clan member… one of his youngest sons, Brandy, who we initially see as the Sam Seed imposter, but who we don’t “see” as his father’s dynamic stunt double. The notion of a son literally working in his aging father’s footsteps ups the endearment factor by tenfold, and helps eradicate any talk about his over-use hindering the film. In fact, Brandy Yuen was a highly regarded stunt coordinator/stunt man in Hong Kong back in his day, and it’s his skill that allows Dance of the Drunk Mantis to soar when other films under similar circumstances would have likely crashed and burned.

Sadly enough, Brandy’s completed work on the silver screen would go unseen by his father, who died of a heart attack five months prior to DotDM’s release while filming The Magnificent Butcher. Simon Yuen reprised his role as Sam Seed for the Yuen Woo Ping vehicle, which required reshoots of his scenes upon his death. He was replaced by Fan Mei Sheng, but the name “Sam Seed” was not used out of respect for the character Yuen had made famous. If for no other reason, see Dance of the Drunk Mantis and know you’re watching a performance by an actor who gave everything to his craft… right to the very end. You may just experience the same affection for the film’s excellent qualities as I did and love it!

Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 9/10

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HBO: The New Home of Kung Fu?

HBO: The New Home of Kung Fu?

When you think of the famous studios responsible for producing some of the most popular kung fu classics, some names that will likely spring to mind are Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers, and Cathay, to name but a few. One name that certainly wouldn’t be near the top of anyone’s list, or even on it at all for that matter, is American cable channel HBO. However at the end of 2016, the networks Asian channel, suitably titled HBO Asia, announced they’d be airing a pair of new, exclusively made for HBO, kung fu movies. Both would focus on famous characters from Chinese history, ones that should need no introduction for fans of kung fu cinema. Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying tells a tale of Wong Fei-Hung’s father, and his battles to rid China of opium, while Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So, tells the origin story of the legendary Drunken Master.

"Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying" Promotional Poster

“Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying” Promotional Poster

While neither tales are likely to break any new ground when it comes to kung fu movie storytelling, the decision for HBO Asia to make these movies at all most definitely is a ground breaking one. Naturally, the biggest question of all is – why? It’s no secret that China’s burgeoning middle class has boomed over the last 10 years, and with it, going to the cinema has come to be one of the countries favourite past times (often regardless of the movie in questions quality). In 2015 alone, China saw 22 new cinema screens opening daily. Daily! While the US continues to wrestle with rampant piracy of new movies, the willingness of Chinese audiences to visit the cinema, combined with a potential box office from a population of over 1 billion, has seen the Hollywood studios keen to ensure their productions have China-appeal.

However as much of a no-brainer as it is, making a movie that can be shown in China isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, with production companies using an increasing number of workarounds to ensure distribution. The most obvious one – China’s quota for foreign productions which can be shown, has largely been circumnavigated by Hollywood making its movies as Chinese co-productions. Throw in some China-specific content, and you’re good to be screened. Now you know why China saved the day in The Martian, and the reason behind the jaunt to Hong Kong in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Remember at the beginning of Looper how Joseph Gordon-Levitt is determined to move to Paris, but then the script simply drops it and has him re-locate to Shanghai instead?  That’s because the productions Hollywood budget didn’t stretch to a shoot in France, so the Chinese co-producer stepped in and offered to pay for location shooting in Shanghai.  A few script adjustments later, and China saves the day.

"Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar" Promotional Poster

“Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So” Promotional Poster

Then you have the culturally (or more specifically, politically) sensitive issues to be mindful of. There were mass accusations of white-washing, when the Tibetan mystic from the Doctor Strange comics was changed to a Celtic woman (played by Tilda Swinton), for the movie. But really, look closer, and it’s easy to see that there was no way a production with a main character that’s both Tibetan, and a practitioner of the supernatural, would be shown on Chinese shores. With that much box office at stake, again, the decision to change things was a no-brainer. However, with a president that’s implemented a renewed push to make the Communist Party relevant again, Hollywood’s rush to please China could be about to come undone. In 2016 alone, in addition to the existing bans on such themes as the supernatural, now time travel, one-night stands, and even cleavage have been given the chop from being shown. Had Looper been made now, I guess there’d be no Chinese producers to step in.

In August of the same year, the national media regulator warned local news programs not to “express overt admiration for Western lifestyles”, and authorities have been actively discouraging broadcasters from adopting imported TV formats, such as The Voice of China. Throw in the governments closing down of both Walt Disney Co.’s movie streaming service and Apple’s, and it seems that the noose is tightening on Hollywood’s attempts to drink from China’s cash coated well. This background of course, makes it all the more interesting for HBO Asia to dip its toes into Chinese waters at such a time. While this may be the first time for the channel to deal specifically with the Chinese market, it’s not the first time they’ve dabbled in the Asian market, with their 2012 production Dead Mine aiming to capitalise on appealing to a pan-Asian demographic.

The movie, which starred Japanese actress Miki Mizuno, well known for her roles in the likes of the Hard Revenge Milly series and Sono Sion’s Guilty of Romance, and a fresh from starring in The Raid: Redemption Joe Taslim, was a complete bomb. Shot in English, the Indonesian productions attempt to throw Japanese, Indonesian, and Western actors together, for a tale of undead Samurai warriors in an abandoned Japanese bunker from World War II, simply didn’t mesh together. Undeterred however, HBO continued on with the Australia-Singapore co-produced TV series Serangoon Road, a 1960’s noir detective series set in Singapore and starring Joan Chen. Again, the series was shot entirely in English, and again, it bombed.

After a double-whammy of flops, HBO Asia Chief Executive Jonathan Spink readily acknowledged that, co-productions made with the intent of pleasing two completely different markets, simply don’t work. So it was time for a change of tactics, if it wasn’t possible to gain viewership by appealing to several different countries with one product, what country was capable of providing a high level of viewership as a single entity? Of course, the answer was simple – China. While HBO Asia is not widely heard of in China, let alone available (it’s mostly limited to high end hotels), the network revealed an ace up its sleeve by partnering with the China Movie Channel, which is, most significantly, a division of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). What that means for the average Chinese TV viewer is that they don’t need HBO Asia, as CCTV will handle local distribution, while HBO Asia can concentrate on marketing both movies across the rest of Asia.

The greater advantage for HBO Asia is that, by partnering with a state-run TV channel, anything they make has essentially already been given the stamp of approval for being shown before the cameras even start rolling. It’s a smart move for both HBO Asia and CCTV, and not the first time the pair have worked together. In the past CCTV has licensed and aired HBO TV movies, such as The Gathering Storm, however this is the first time that they’ve come together to co-produce content. With CCTV’s domestic audience of more than 1 billion, and HBO Asia’s presence across Asia, their partnership has the potential to be a powerful one. For HBO Asia specifically, the fact that CCTV is a state-run entity puts them in a strong position to stay on the good side of the Chinese authorities, and position themselves as distributors of Chinese culture to the world.

The impact of Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Tei-Ying and Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So has already exceeded the expectations of both HBO Asia and CCTV. Speaking in August 2016, senior vice president of new business at HBO Asia, Beibei Fan, had stated there were no plans to show the movies outside of HBO Asia, indicating that the Chinese audience figures alone were enough to justify making them. However as of January 2017, both became available in the US via iTunes and the usual platforms, thanks mainly to a small but dedicated western fan base of kung fu movies who had gotten wind of the productions, and began increasingly asking how they could be seen. Ironically, most of the interest from western shores focused on the involvement of veteran choreographer Corey Yuen, the director of the likes of Ninja in the Dragon’s Den and Yes, Madam! However Yuen’s involvement was only limited to that of executive producer.

Of course like any good marketing department knows, that didn’t stop the promotional posters made for a US audience plastering on top of them – ‘Executive Producer Corey Yuen (X-Men, Lethal Weapon 4 and The Expendables)’ – in a bid to draw in more viewers. Indeed the choice of movies from Yuen’s extensive filmography are indicative of just that, with HBO clearly aiming to draw in not only kung fu fans, but also more casual viewers with references to big budget Hollywood action movies and superhero flicks. Amusingly, it is perhaps the first time a production has referenced Lethal Weapon 4 as a selling point since the 2001 Billy Zane vehicle Invincible, which was, ironically, also a TV movie. Fifteen years prior, the long forgotten cash-in on The Matrix came with the proud tagline of – ‘Executive Produced by Mel Gibson And Jet Li’ – which, if I’m not mistaken, is not even grammatically correct.

The actual man in the director’s chair for both productions is Guo Jian-Yong, a former stuntman and action director in his own right. Yuen and Jian-Yong are well acquainted, with Jian-Yong playing a part in Yuen’s Mahjong Dragon as far back as 1997, as well as action directing on Yuen’s post-millennium efforts such as So Close and DOA: Dead or Alive. Jian-Yong seems well aware of his role as the man responsible for ensuring the movies deliver, with plans already announced that if they’re well received, HBO and CCTV would consider making further instalments. Beibei Fan explained that the approach for both productions was to look at them “almost like pilots”, with Spink further elaborating that the plan is not to be another US studio or network trying to fit into China, but rather the goal “is about taking great content out of China.”

Jian-Yong echoes Spink’s words in particular, explaining that “We have the endorsement of the HBO brand, but it has to be authentic Chinese if it’s going to work, it can’t be half-Western and half-Chinese or audiences will be confused.” True to his word, Jian-Yong has filled both movies with genuine martial artists and stunt performers, with likely the most recognizable face for most kung fu fans coming in the form of Chen Zhi-Hui. The only actor to be given prominent roles in both movies, Zhi-Hui can be recognized for his roles in the likes of Fearless, Ip Man, and Rise of the Legend, usually playing authoritative older figures or masters. This should come as good news to kung fu fans, as while most genres would frown upon made for TV fare, the kung fu genre has had as much action unfold on the small screen as it has the big, with the likes of channels such as TVB producing a large number of martial arts themed serials.

With both productions weighing in at a lean 90 minutes, I decided to watched them back to back, which after the flip of a coin saw Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So being viewed first, and Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying second. It’s the latter movie that caught my attention the most though, as while the plot of ridding China of opium has been covered countless times before, Wong Fei-Hung’s father Wong Kei-Ying has had surprisingly few screen appearances as a main character. Usually taking a back seat to his sons adventures, Kei-Ying has been notably played by Kong Yeung (Challenge of the Masters), Lam Kau (Drunken Master), Ti Lung (Drunken Master 2), and even Adam Cheng (Drunken Master 3). However as far as headlining a movie, the only time that springs to mind is when Donnie Yen stepped into his shoes for Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1993 classic Iron Monkey.

This time around, he’s played by newcomer Sun Hao-Ran. Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying is, as expected, far from ground-breaking, however what it does do is deliver a solid little kung fu movie, regardless of if it’ll likely be forgotten soon after watching. Hao-Ran is a capable lead, and in much the same way as when Jet Li played Wong Fei-Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series, all he’s really called upon to do is to act suitably stoic and upstanding. What counts is that he does it well, and clearly has the moves to back it up. It’s easy to recall Fan’s words of how the productions should be treated as pilots when watching, however Jian-Yong looks to have made the most of the limited budget he was given to work with.

While the fights come frequently, there’s also a surprisingly high level of violence on display, including a decapitated arm, and a throat being cut with a Chang Cheh level of blood splatter. These, and several other instances of bloodletting, play their part to ensure proceedings never feel too much like, well, a HBO TV movie. Jian-Yong also seems to be a fan of old school kung fu movies himself, with the villains Peking opera mask an obvious nod to The Five Venoms, and the revelation that an old master has stitched a secret kung fu manual under his skin (and the subsequent gory procedure to remove it) recalling a similar scene in Shaolin: The Blood Mission.

The fights themselves are well paced, and flow at a nice speed with no signs of undercranking, although purists will no doubt bawk at some of the wire assisted moves. The finale in particular sees inspiration being drawn from Fearless, as Hao-ran has to face off against a Muay Thai fighter, a fencer, and the villain himself. What makes the fights work so well is what’s at stake, with Hao-ran’s acquaintance, aunt, and son (Wong Fei-Hung himself, who does nothing but whine incessantly for the whole movie) all captured by the villains. During the round with the Muay Thai fighter, for each of Hao-ran’s limbs that touches the ground, the corresponding limb of his tied up acquaintance is broken. During the round with the fencer, for every part of Hao-ran’s clothing that gets sliced, the corresponding piece is ripped off from his aunt, resulting in a kind of bizarre game of strip kung fu.

The setup results in a welcome sense of immediacy, and perhaps thanks to the grittier and more bloody version of Wong Fei-Hung that was recently presented in 2014’s Rise of the Legend, the fights finish on a suitably brutal note. It surprises me that I actually enjoyed Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying more than I did Rise of the Legend, despite, in terms of production values at least, Roy Chow’s movie being superior in every way. In an attempt to make Wong Fei-Hung relevant for a modern audience though, for me Rise of the Legend sacrificed too much of what makes Wong Fei-Hung the enduring character that he is, and perhaps more specifically, what he stands for. Here there’s a balance, with Wong Kei-Ying still being the impeccably upright character we know Wong Fei-Hung will become, but when it comes to facing off against the bad guys, he also knows when it’s time to show no mercy.

It’s interesting then, that the elements that make Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying work, are somehow almost entirely absent from Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So. As a movie, it seems to be aware of how easily it could stand in the shadow of 2010’s True Legend, however does nothing to differentiate itself from such inevitable comparisons. The titular character of Beggar So, a character played by everyone from Simon Yuen to Donnie Yen to Vincent Zhao, here has his shoes (or should that be bottle of wine?) filled by another newcomer in the form of Jun Cao. However Jian-Yong seems to struggle to do anything beyond creating a simpler, less ambitious, retelling of Beggar So’s origins, compared to what audiences have already seen in True Legend.

The long hair and spinning on your back breakdancing move are both present and accounted for, however instead of battling Gordon Liu and Jay Chou on a mountain in an alcohol fuelled dream, Cao has an outer-body experience (after being hit by lightning), and drunkenly staggers around with CGI water drops. It all seems very derivative of what we’ve seen before, only on a smaller budget and with more pedestrian direction. Short of simply writing off Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So as a poor man’s version of True Legend, the production also has plenty of its own issues to contend with. While the TV format sees a much less devastating event than his family’s death lead to Cao’s inebriated state, the aftermath, and lack of any interesting supporting characters, sees a disproportionate amount of the run time dedicated to watching him wallow in his own misery.

This is likely due more to the script and direction than Cao’s performance, who at times resembles the spitting image of a Story of Ricky era Fan Siu-Wong, however that doesn’t make it any more tolerable to sit through. The training sequences also feel like a miss, as despite being surrounded by several props, apart from a brief scene of balancing on bamboo poles, Cao’s entire regime seems to consist of staggering around in an open space performing drunken boxing. Training scenes are a grand tradition in any old school kung fu movie, and allow the action directors to get creative regardless of how little the budget they’re working with is. So to see none of the props in plain sight get utilised, in favour of endless scenes of drunken forms, seems like a missed opportunity.

While Cao does eventually get to use his drunken boxing skills against an evil eunuch, it all comes a little too late, and ultimately feels underwhelming. The fight scenes in Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying may not be a significant improvement, however they come at frequent intervals, which allows proceedings to maintain a steady pace and keep the viewers interest. That sense of pacing isn’t there with Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So, with far too much time spent with a character, who most will already be family with, feeling sorry for himself, and not enough on the business of people beating each other up.

The contrast in both movies, despite them being unmistakably made for TV, is a noticeable one – with Master of the Shadowless Kick: Wong Kei-Ying being an example of how to keep a TV movie interesting, despite an unremarkable story and archetypal characters, and Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So suffering all the pit falls that one would expect from such a production. For western audiences in particular, it’s difficult to imagine coughing up the money for both features if Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So is the one chosen to be watched first. Back over in Asia however, as Beibei Fan pointed out, the viewers in China alone, who can watch them for free, are more than enough to justify the cost of making them, so the western market is really just an afterthought.

Most likely HBO Asia’s decision to appeal specifically to the Chinese market is something we’ll be seeing more and more of in future. When Jackie Chan picked up his honorary Oscar in November 2016, he recalled that when he first went to Hollywood to make Battlecreek Brawl, nobody cared for his opinions or wanted to listen to his ideas. But he went on to explain that “Today, they ask me what Chinese people like to see. They need to consider every aspect of China because China has gotten strong, and China’s film industry has gotten strong.” While not everyone may agree, it’s arguably true, and if that means that HBO get to make more kung fu movies on a higher budget and with more time to film, then it’s definitely not a bad thing. Maybe a few years from now we’ll have Master of the Chain Punch: Ip Man and Master of the Iron Skin Technique: Fong Sai-Yuk.

Time will tell, but until then, it’ll be interesting to see if other networks decide to follow the same route of abandoning appeal-to-all co-productions, and instead choose to focus specifically on the Chinese audience. Netflix already abandoned its attempts to launch in China at the end of 2016, due to the government regulations over foreign digital content simply being too strict to overcome, so it seems like a very real possibility. However not every filmmaker is as enthusiastic about working under such restrictive conditions, a sentiment reflected in comments made by Troma Entertainment President Lloyd Kaufman, during a panel discussion held during the Chinese American Film Festival last year. “How are you going to learn from American producers if we have to conform to a system controlled by bureaucrats from the top down?” said Kaufman, indicating that we’re likely not going to get a Chinese version of The Toxic Avenger anytime soon.

Whatever the future may hold, HBO will be remembered as the first network to boldly branch out into Chinese territories, and there are certainly far worse ways to do so than with a couple of kung fu movies. Jian-Yong himself seems to understand the universal appeal of the genre, insisting that he wanted all of the action and stunts to be performed by the actors with no CGI or special effects, adding that “audiences across all cultures can appreciate that.” Indeed, I doubt there’ll be many people reading this article who’d disagree.

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Xu Haofeng has a ‘Hidden Blade’ under his sleeve…

"The Hidden Sword" Promotional Poster

“The Hidden Sword” Promotional Poster

Before we can even think about Xu Haofeng’s Moonlight Blade (his soon-to-be-shot remake of Chor Yuen’s Shaw Brothers classic, The Magic Blade), our attention should be focused on Hidden Blade (not to be confused with the Yoji Yamada film of the same name), Xu’s fourthcoming period actioner that’s currently in production (via AFS).

Very little is known about Hidden Blade (aka The Hidden Sword), other than it’s a “martial arts epic” that stars Xu Qing (Flash Point), Jessie Li (Port of Call) and Shaw Brothers legend, Chen Kuan Tai (Shanghai 13Executioners from Shaolin). But given the fact that Xu is at the helm, Hidden Blade has our full attention.

We expect to see marketing materials (theatrical posters, teasers, trailers, etc.) for Hidden Blade to pop up in the next few months, so stay tuned.

For now, if you want to catch up on some of Xu’s earlier films, the DVD for Sword Identity is currently available; the DVD for Judge Archer will go on sale in November; and the Blu-ray/DVD release for his latest film, The Master (aka The Final Master), is expected to be announced soon.

Updates: A promotional Poster has popped up (via AFS):

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