“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!
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
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 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.
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 13, Executioners 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):
Grab your red “Thriller” jacket and get ready for Plan B, an upcoming martial arts flick fused with comedy and nostalgic pop culture. The film’s cast and crew consists of stuntmen and martial artists from the German film crew, Reel Deal Action.
In Plan B, three martial arts experts (Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon and Phong Giang) embark upon a search for a treasure that will allow them to save a friend from the clutches of a scrupulous gangster. They will soon find themselves immersed in a complex conspiracy that’s aimed at putting an end to the boss of Berlin’s underworld. A bash ‘em up comedy that pays tribute to the eighties and nineties American action flicks.
Plan B is directed by Ufuk Genc and Michael Popescu, and written by Rafael Alberto Garciolo. The film also stars U-Gin Boateng, Henry Meyer, Julia Dietze, Florian Kleine, Laurent Daniels, Gedeon Burkhardt, K1 fighter Aristote Luis and Heidi Moneymaker.
20th Century Fox is releasing the film in Germany on June 8th. A North American release date is still pending. Until then, check out the film’s Trailer below (via FCS):
Ip Man: The Final Fight | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)
Today’s Deal on Fire is the Blu-ray for Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Final Fight starring Anthony Wong (White Vengeance).
In postwar Hong Kong, legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man (Wong) is reluctantly called into action once more. What began as simple challenges from rival kung fu schools soon finds him drawn into the dark and dangerous underworld of the Triads. Now, to defend life and honor, Ip Man has no choice but to fight – one last time.
Judge Dredd emains one of the most perennially underrated action heroes in comic books, particularly when it comes to the United States. The “street judge” is one of the most hard-boiled characters in the world of British comics but has never quite found the recognition he deserves. But thanks to some potential new developments from the character’s parent company, we might be seeing a lot more of him in the near future.
It seemed like things might be changing for the better with the 2012 film, Dredd. The action-packed bullet-fest felt like a comic-book version of Gareth Evans’ 2011 masterpiece, The Raid: Redemption but failed to make an impact at the box office. It was a shame because Dredd has gone on to become something of a cult favorite. Fans have long been clamoring for a potential sequel, but until recently it seemed as though any hopes were dead in the water. That all changed when Rebellion Developments (the owners of the character) hinted strongly toward an announcement later this year for what could be a streaming TV series.
Rebellion, which typically specializes in video games, bought 2000 AD comics back in 2000 and have since worked to develop its cast of characters into a number of games. The company is perhaps best known for the Sniper Elite series and has been receiving a fair amount of praise for the latest game, Sniper Elite 4. Of course, all the time spent on Sniper Elite hasn’t left much for anything else. This is a large reason for the dearth of Judge Dredd games lately.
One of the few games based on the character that you’ve been able to find in the past several years has been a browser-based title that brought the dystopia of Mega-City One to life as the backdrop for an online slot reel. The Judge Dredd game is one of many casino titles licensing popular characters and franchises that are available at a variety of platforms on the web. What these games often lack in gameplay they tend to make up for by bringing the sights and sounds of some of the most popular properties to the slots. Still, it’s a far cry from the kind of hard-hitting action title that fans have been looking for.
With hints of a big announcement for a new Judge Dredd project on the horizon and the news that more people will be able to work with 2000 AD, it could be a great time for some post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Now we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that developers will make the most of the opportunity.
Director: Park Chan-wook Novel By: Sarah Waters Writer: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri, Lee Yong-Nyeo, Yoo Min-Chae, Rina Takagi Running Time: 144 min.
By Kyle Warner
After making his English language debut in 2013 with Stoker, Park Chan-wook returned to South Korea for his next feature film, The Handmaiden. And while obviously a Park Chan-wook film, I feel that The Handmaiden has more of a western-style than Stoker did. Stoker was Park bringing his Korean dark revenge thriller sensibilities to the west. The Handmaiden is based on a Sarah Waters’ British novel, Fingersmith, and though Park transplants the story to 1930’s Korea and gives it his own particular style, the western storytelling is always there, making this an interesting addition to Park’s filmography.
Set in Japan-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden follows the con artist Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she seeks to slip into the life and home of the reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) with aims to claim her vast fortune. Sook-hee will be Lady Hideko’s new handmaiden and closest confidant. Lady Hideko is a hopelessly naïve young woman who’s set to marry her intimidating Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), who she shares her estate with. Sook-hee’s intention is to entice Lady Hideko to marry her conman comrade (Ha Jung-woo) who is posing as the well-to-do Count Fujiwara. However, though Sook-hee pushes Lady Hideko towards the count, it’s the two women who begin an attraction to one another, further complicating the plan to steal Hideko’s millions.
The Handmaiden is closer to a ‘book club’ sort of drama than any Park film that came before it, but that’s not to say that it’s lacking in chills, thrills, or a healthy dose of weirdness. The film works on a three act structure. Part 1 tells us Sook-hee’s story and we see the film from her point of view. After a shocking twist, Part 2 presents us with Lady Hideko’s story told from her point of view. Part 3 takes what we learned so far and throws it together with an extra dash of wickedness. It’s a sly film, one that keeps its secrets close, and I will divulge as little as possible in my review.
The source novel was made into a BBC miniseries in 2005 starring Sally Hawkins as the handmaiden character. And though I’ve never seen the miniseries (nor have I read the book), I’m willing to bet Park’s film is the more, ahem, mature adaptation. The Handmaiden is a sexy film. The film’s cinematography is gorgeous, the actresses are beautiful, and Park does not shy away from the lesbian sex. I feel tempted to call the film tasteful in its depiction of such scenes because, while obviously explicit, it does not feel exploitational. But the film does have a bit of a pervy streak to it.
At her uncle’s behest, Lady Hideko reads rare, literary pornography for a small gathering of upper-class gentlemen. Lady Hideko’s readings are more like performances. She acts out certain sections of the books with exaggerated performances and even saddles a wooden puppet at one point. It serves a point in the story, showing both the uncle’s perversions and Hideko’s comfort with sex and her power over men. But it’s more than just a subplot for the film. As the gentlemen watch, enthralled by tales of lust and domination, they inch to the edges of their seats in excitement. One man puts a hat over his crotch. Another keeps dabbing the sweat off his brow. The camera does not judge them harshly; it leaves the judgment to the audience. What’s interesting is that the men in the film’s audience (myself included) find themselves in a similar situation while watching the lurid love story. There is no camera to judge us, but one can sense what Park was trying to do. Among many other things, The Handmaiden is a film about voyeur thrills, and we filmgoers are counted among those who vicariously get their kicks through observing feminine sexuality.
The cast is excellent. Kim Min-hee (No Tears for the Dead) has the most complex character and her performance is nothing short of amazing. Newcomer Kim Tae-ri is also excellent, here playing the role which the audience must relate to in order to navigate the world of the film. As Count Fujiwara, Ha Jung-woo (The Yellow Sea) is really good because, like the egotistical Count himself, you believe he’s the smartest character in the room right up until the film throws a twist our way. And as Uncle Kouzuki, Jo Jin-Woong (The Admiral) is that disquieting blend of elitism and sleaze.
The Handmaiden may be a different, more mannered film for bad boy Park Chan-wook, but I take that as a good thing. The film shows the director trying new things, taking risks, and yet managing to maintain his own particular style in the process. By the end, it is impossible to imagine the film being made by anybody else. The Handmaiden is a triple layer labyrinth of sex, secrets, and lies that I consider to be one of the best films of 2016.
A fresh Steven Seagal (Above the Law, Contract to Kill) project, titled Paid on Death, has popped up on the radar. This upcoming actioner will team Seagal with director Shawn Sourgose (Blood of Redemption) and producer Kevin Carraway (Chain of Command).
Here’s what you can expect from the plot (via TE): A man known by his alias, ‘Assassin,’ (we’re guessing Seagal) works as a hired killer for the U.S. government, terminating individuals deemed too dangerous for society. When he becomes a target, he must discover who placed a hit on him before it’s too late…
Paid on Death is most likely in early stages of pre-production, so we expect to hear more about it later this year – but honestly – judging from the track record of Seagal films listed as “in development,” we wouldn’t be surprised if this one becomes vaporware (i.e. Cypher).
Here’s one nobody saw coming. Mel Gibson is in talks with Warner Bros. to direct a sequel to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. According to THR, Gibson is familiarizing himself with the material. But the studio is not being passive and is also looking at other directors, Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) among them.
Ironically, Gibson has been vocally against doing these types of films. While promoting Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson spoke to The Washington Post about the type of action in current blockbuster films, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, saying they were “violence without conscience.”
Gibson added the following about Batman V Superman: “I look at them and scratch my head. I’m really baffled by it. I think there’s a lot of waste but maybe if I did one of those things with the green screens I’d find out different. I don’t know. Maybe they do cost that much. I don’t know. It seems to me that you could do it for less. If you’re spending outrageous amounts of money, $180 million or more, I don’t know how you make it back after the taxman gets you, and after you give half to the exhibitors… What did they spend on ‘Batman V Superman’ that they’re admitting to? And it’s a piece of sh*t.” (via CB)
But hey, everyone has the right to change their mind, right? Whatever Gibson decides, Warner courting him for a blockbuster film like Suicide Squad 2 is proof that he is no longer blacklisted in mainstream Hollywood, probably thanks to Hacksaw Ridge receiving numerous awards and nominations, including six Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards. Welcome back Mr. Gibson.
We’ll keep you updated on this story as we learn more.
Since Kenny Lin (Rise of the Sea Dragon) is the only confirmed returning actor so far, a “sequel” to the latter is our best bet. Of course, there is still the possibility of a time paradox-infused script, featuring both incarnations, according to a 2014 interview with Hark.
Detective Dee and the Four Kings shoots in 2017/releases in 2018.
Updates: In addition to Lin, AFS reports that Mark Chao, William Feng and Carina Lau will return for Detective Dee and the Four Kings.
Director: Lee Il-hyeong Writer: Lee Il-hyeong Cast: Hwang Jung-Min, Gang Dong-Won, Lee Sung-Min, Park Sung-Woong, Kim Eung-Soo, Joo Jin-Mo, Kim Won-Hae, Jeon Bae-Su, Shin So-Yul, Park Jong-Hwan, Kim Hong-Fa, Lee Suk-Joon, Kim Byung-Ok, Park Ji-Hwan Running Time: 126 min.
By Paul Bramhall
More than any other film industry in the world, it’s the Korean one that arguably reflects its countries current tumultuous state. 2016 delivered a president that’s pending impeachment, shady religious figures exerting their influence from behind closed doors, and the upper ranks of companies such as Samsung being investigated for corruption. Understandably, public trust for those in authority is at an all-time low. The current social climate has seen a slew recent titles take aim at those in power, productions that have used such subject matter as an outlet for cinema going audiences to see their frustrations vented onscreen. From political thrillers like Inside Men and Master, to disaster flicks such as Tunnel, to social commentary disguised as a zombie movie with Train to Busan. All of them paint an ugly picture of those in positions of authority.
The theme continues with A Violent Prosecutor, the directorial debut of Lee Il-hyeong, who’s also working from his own script. While it may be his first time going solo in the director’s chair, Il-hyeong is no stranger to working in the field, having served as an assistant director on the likes of 2007’s The Moonlight of Seoul, and 2014’s Kundo: Age of the Rampant. The shoes of the violent prosecutor in question are filled by Hwang Jeong-min, who has steadily worked his way up to be one of Korea’s A-list stars. To some degree I feel that Jeong-min has almost been over-exposed, as in 2014 – 2016 alone he’s headlined 6 movies. From the ridiculously sappy Ode to My Father, through to the energetic action flick Veteran, he’s an actor who rarely puts in a bad performance, although he could perhaps pace himself a little better.
For those not paying attention, many could likely mistake A Violent Prosecutor as a thematic sequel to Veteran, à la the Public Enemy series. Jeong-min plays a veteran prosecutor who always gets the bad guys, even if it involves occasionally having to beat seven bells out of them, but his intentions are good. Basically, the same character as Veteran, but a prosecutor in court instead of a detective on the streets. Thankfully the similarities stop there, with his violent streak being brought to an abrupt end, when a suspect being kept in his custody is found dead the next morning. With his reputation for dishing out beatings, and the suspect being unsupervised at the time, Jeong-min finds himself being made an example of, and is handed a 15-year sentence for murder.
Of course, something fishy is afoot. The suspect had a serious case of asthma, although an inhaler was never retrieved as evidence, and although Jeong-min’s boss (who has aspirations of moving into politics) asks him to plead guilty with the promise of an early release, once the verdict is announced he’s left high and dry. From here on in, the title could be more suitably switched to The Heavily Beaten Ex-Prosecutor, as he gets regularly brutalized by those inmates he was responsible for sending to prison in the first place. However Il-hyeong has clearly watched The Shawshank Redemption, and after an overheard discussion that has one of the prison officers mentioning their legal trouble, soon Jeong-min has himself positioned as the go-to guy for legal advice.
It’s an interesting switch, as the script does an about turn on the titles implication of A Violent Prosecutor, and instead sees Jeong-min resort to his brains in order to make his seemingly inescapable predicament tolerable. Skip forward 5 years, and we’re introduced to a new inmate played by Gang Dong-won (who’s worked together with Il-hyeong before, as the villain in Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and started off 2016 with a role in The Priests). It’s when Jeong-min overhears Dong-won regurgitate word for word the same ecological spiel that the dead suspect had told him 5 years before, that his infamous temper is reignited once more, and he embarks on a mission to prove his innocence from behind bars.
Dong-won’s appearance is a welcome one, having been briefly glimpsed taking selfies as a disguised activist in one of the initial scenes, his supposedly Pennsylvania educated conman steers the movie into prison buddy comedy flick territory (that notably the productions marketing material sold it as). It may seem like a jarring shift after the poker faced opening 30 minutes, but the transition is handled well, with Dong-won’s frequently outlandish outbursts in accented English delivering the desired laughs, regardless of how cheap they may be. Il-hyeong’s script also makes the wise decision of switching the focus to Dong-won, whose character feels like a breath of fresh air compared to Jeong-min’s archetypal Korean tough guy. With an almost effeminate air of confidence, even from behind bars he continues to swindle the clueless rich girls who come to visit him, targeted due to none of them being the brightest tools in the box.
The unlikely pairing of a framed prosecutor and an unrepentant swindler is a winning one, and Jeong-min and Dong-won have a likeable chemistry together, one which carries the movie along at a brisk pace. When Jeong-min figures out he can easily get Dong-won released thanks to a legal loophole, the agreement is made that Dong-won will essentially act as Jeong-min’s avatar on the outside, gathering enough evidence to prove that he was setup. In case it isn’t clear already, A Violent Prosecutor covers a lot of ground, both with its plot but also with its genres. From crime thriller, to buddy comedy, to by the time Dong-won is wining and dining with Seoul’s elite as a lawyer in disguise, it almost feels like we could be watching a caper flick by The Thieves director Choi Dong-hoon.
Thankfully, it all works, with the structural setup deriving a sense of underlying tension thanks to the interaction between the pair. Jeong-min may have everything planned out in his head, but in the hands of someone that’s a compulsive liar, the margin for things to go wrong is a wide one. Of course, said margin is what results in the tension being cranked up to suitably high levels of danger in the 2nd half of A Violent Prosecutor, as the bigger the lie Dong-won has to tell the higher the stakes become. Like any Korean movie that covers this genre ground, the comedic proceedings are sometime offset by sudden outbursts of violence, and Il-hyeong shows that he’s not one to break the trend. In one particular scene a character gets hit across the face with a steel kettle which has just boiled, and in another a character is beaten within an inch of his life. If there’s one thing that Korean’s know how to do well, its violence.
However the constant swaying from extreme violence to comedic hijinks is certainly not something that’s new to Asian cinema, as anyone who’s seen a Sammo Hung movie from the 70’s or 80’s can attest to, but somehow A Violent Prosecutor finds the right balance. Korea has certainly come a long way since the likes of similar productions which attempted to balance violence and comedy, such as 2001’s My Wife is a Gangster, which saw such scenes as a cat being given mouth to mouth resuscitation next to a female being repeatedly kicked in the chest. While such setups left a bad taste in the mouth, the violence here is integrated into the story, serving to move it along, and as a result in never feels as jarring as it perhaps does when being described on paper.
While A Violent Prosecutor certainly doesn’t break any new ground, it succeeds largely in part to both Jeong-min and Dong-won’s pairing, and the genre hopping nature that the plot steers us through. By the time proceedings round off in the form of a courtroom drama, it’s easy to forget that Jeong-min and Dong-won have in fact spent most of the movie apart. With a brisk pace and a welcome sense of humour, Il-hyeong certainly doesn’t feel like a first time director. Whether that’s largely down to the winning chemistry between its leads, or indicative of a new talent that’ll be worth keeping an eye on, time will tell. But for now, I’d like to say it’s both, and for fans of Korean cinema A Violent Prosecutor delivers the expected high production values backed up by an engaging plot and characters. My only hope is that we get slightly more breathing space before the next Hwang Jeong-min flick comes along.
Ultimate Justice, tells the story of a team of former Special Ops elite soldiers, whose friendship was forged in battle and years after they thought they had lain down their weapons for good, they are drawn back into action when the family of one of their own is threatened, friendships and loyalties are tested, battlelines are drawn, and Ultimate Justice will be served.
Joining Dacascos will be Matthias Hues (No Retreat, No Surrender II), Matthis Landweher (Kampfansage) and Mike Moeller (One Million K(L)icks), who will also be handling the fight choreography. The film also stars Sandra Bertalanffz, Wolfgang Riehm, Wing Tsung Sifu Henry Mueller, Yasmeen Baker, Martin Baden, Brandon Rhea and of course, Mike Leeder (Pound of Flesh) himself.
Updates: According to SD (via Mike Leeder), Vision Films has picked up Ultimate Justice for worldwide sales. The same source adds that a sequel is being planned with Mark Dacascos returning to the lead role. Stay tuned for a solid release date.
Cityonfire.com and Well Go USA are giving away 3 Blu-ray copies of Cold War 2 to three lucky City on Fire visitors. To enter, simply add a comment to this post and describe, in your own words, the video below.
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Cold War 2 will officially be released on March 7, 2017. We will announce the 3 winners on that date
CONTEST DISCLAIMER: You must enter by March 6, 2017 to qualify. U.S. residents only please. We sincerely apologize to our non-U.S. visitors. Winners must respond with their mailing address within 48 hours, otherwise you will automatically be disqualified. No exceptions. Contest is subject to change without notice.
Black Society Trilogy | Blu-ray & DVD (Arrow Video)
Director: Takashi Miike Writer: Ichiro Ryu Cast: Show Aikawa, Samuel Pop Aning, Takeshi Caesar, Yukie Itou, Michisuke Kashiwaya,Kazuki Kitamura, Dan Li, Ryuushi Mizukami, Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Naoto Takenaka, Koji Tsukamoto, Hua Rong Weng Running Time: 105 min.
Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy kicked off with a lurid and offensive bang in 1995 with Shinjuku Triad Society. He followed that up with Rainy Dog in 1997, a quieter, more reserved crime drama. (That’s not to say that Rainy Dog is a tame film—it is violent and shows no pity for childhood innocence—but compared to the sexual violence and seedy darkness of the first film, Rainy Dog feels almost elegant by comparison.) 1999’s Ley Lines, the final film of the trilogy, is something of a blend of the two previous films. Miike pushes the extremes like he did in Shinjuku Triad Society, but the interest he showed in cinema as an art in Rainy Dogcontinues to grow.
We enter the film with a hyper stylized glimpse of our main character’s childhood in the country, when he was bullied by Japanese kids for his Chinese heritage. The stylization of this scene—the upper half of the frame is crimson and the lower half is green—returns to the film at a few key points, and serves to signify the almost supernatural bond between our main character Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) and his younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya) when the one of the two is in distress. Fast forward to the present and Ryuichi is a punk with priors who’s desperately hoping to escape his country town and move to Brazil. That dream is put on hold when he’s denied a passport. So, Ryuichi decides to flee to Tokyo instead, taking with him his dimwitted friend Chang (Tomorowo Taguchi), with little bro Shunrei unexpectedly following close behind.
Once in Tokyo, the rough but naïve Ryuichi ends up getting pickpocketed, so they must work at selling toluene on the streets for a drug dealer (Sho Aikawa). With hope for an official passport dashed, the Chinese trio plans to buy forged passports, which in turn puts them in the sights of another Chinese immigrant, the loan shark with a short fuse Mr. Wong (Naoto Takenaka). All of these competing interests—money, drugs, revenge, and childhood dreams—build slowly before ending up on a collision course in a tense and unpredictable final act.
Until that action-driven finale, Ley Lines is a peculiar character drama with an ensemble cast. There are some things I personally would’ve cut (the Chinese prostitute Anita meeting up with a pervert comes to mind), but nothing necessarily feels out of place in Miike’s film. His vision of Tokyo in Ley Lines is one where outsiders are stepped on, women are used, and the powerful do as they please. Ley Lines goes off the rails at times, ignoring the central plot in order to explore perversions, bizarre character quirks, and minor revelations, but even these strange, side alley deviations serve to enhance the character development.
Ley Lines is a sad film. In the director’s career, and especially in this trilogy, Miike tries to tell the stories of the immigrants and outsiders. Shinjuku Triad Societywas about Taiwanese Triads in Japan. Rainy Dog was about a Japanese hitman in Taiwan. And Ley Lines is about Taiwanese youth trying to escape Japan. Miike regular Kazuki Kitamura (Killers) plays the bigger brother Ryuichi as a young man lashing out at all that would hope to confine him. And as younger brother Shunrei, Michisuke Kashiwaya (Kids Return) plays the more innocent of the two, one who doesn’t like how things are but is hesitant to go to the extremes in order to change his plight. Even the villain Wong played by Naoto Takeneka (Tokyo Fist) is a sad character. Though he claims to think that Japan is the land of opportunity, Wong forces women from his hometown of Shanghai to tell him old Chinese folk stories in order to find some kind of peace.
Ley Lines also has a fun (and dark) sense of humor, though. Tomorowo Taguchi, who played the coldblooded villain in Shinjuku Triad Society and a different, wild dog sort of bad guy in Rainy Dog, is nearly unrecognizable as Ryuichi’s goofy buddy Chang. Watch the trilogy and admire the actor’s range. And Rainy Dog’s Sho Aikawa has a fun role as the drug dealer who thinks that he could make the world a better place if everyone had a sample of his toluene.
It’s not important to watch the Black Society Trilogy in order of release, as the films are only connected in theme, but if you do so you can clearly see Miike improve as a filmmaker. Shinjuku Triad Society has rough, poorly lit visuals, and no off switch. Rainy Dog shows Miike exploring more artistic qualities and a more leisured pace. And Ley Lines has Miike coming into his own as a visualist, setting scenes with creative shots or extreme colors.
In addition to Miike’s larger cinematic interest in the outsider and the immigrant, Ley Lines has much in common with one of the director’s other most common reoccurring themes, that of the dangerous youth. Miike has repeatedly told coming of age tales, often doing so with a flair for violence. Ley Lines feels like a not-so distant relative to the director’s other violent youth pics like The Way to Fight, Osaka Tough Guys, Crows Zero, and his two Young Thugs films. Fans of those films may be interested in Ley Lines, and vice versa.
The Black Society Trilogy hits Blu-ray in the US and the UK from the good folks at Arrow Video. The first two films share Disc 1 and the majority of the special features join Ley Lines on Disc 2. New features include commentaries on all three films from Tom Mes, an interview with Sho Aikawa, and a 45 minute interview with Takashi Miike. All the new features are excellent and are recommended for fans looking to learn more about the movies and their stars. Also included is a booklet with essays on the films from Samm Deighan, Tony Rayns, and Stephen Sarrazin. The Black Society Trilogy movies were never the sort of movies that film collectors dreamed of seeing in high definition. But even so, the Blu-rays are a noticeable upgrade over the old DVDs. It’s a really good release, full of nice extra features for fans of the films and Takashi Miike in general.
When I first saw Ley Lines years back, I remember thinking that it was the weakest film of the trilogy. No longer. Now I think it’s second best, ranking below Rainy Dog and a step above Shinjuku Triad Society. It’s an interesting blend of the themes and the attitudes of the first two films. And though occasionally I found it tested my patience, the final 20-30 minutes of Ley Lines are fantastic at playing with your emotions and defying your expectations, so I’m giving it an extra .5 in my rating. Plus: that final shot. I’m still thinking about it. The final shot of Ley Lines remains one of the most memorable images of Takashi Miike’s prolific career.
Whether you loved or hated it (read our review), there’s a strong possibility that a sequel to Kung Fu Yoga is on its way. Not only is the film dominating box office charts in China, but Indian film star Sonu Sood (Arundhati), who plays the movie’s lead villain, had this to say (via TTOI):
“I would love to take the venture forward. I remember that I was talking to my director Stanley Tong in China and he was very happy”. “He said, ‘We are planning to have ‘Kung Fu Yoga 2‘. I agreed with him.”
Kung Fu Yoga, which was was recently released by Well Go USA this past January, is noted for reuniting Jackie Chan with Tong (the two created magic in films like Rumble in the Bronx, Police Story 3and Police Story 4).
In Kung Fu Yoga, Chan plays a world-renowned archaeology professor on a mission to locate the lost ancient Indian treasure of Magadha when they are ambushed by a team of mercenaries and left for dead. The film also stars Lay Zhang (of the K-pop group EXO), Miya Muqi (Tomb Robber), Aarif Rahman (Bruce Lee, My Brother) and and Ileana D’Cruz (Happy Ending).
The film is a remake of Chor Yuen’s Death Duel, a 1977 Shaw Brothers film that Yee starred in during the height of his acting career.
In this wuxia epic, a swordsman is haunted by the destructive impact his deadly talents have on others. Weary of the bloodshed from the martial arts world, he banishes himself to the humble life a vagrant, wandering the fringes of society. But his violent past refuses to let him go quietly. The swordsman must regain the ability to wield his sword and fight those disrupting the peace he so desperately craves.
Hero revolves around a nameless soldier (Li), who embarks on a mission of revenge against the fearsome army that massacred his people. The film features fight choreography by the legendary Tony Ching Siu Tung (Duel to the Death). Be sure to read our reviews for Hero.
It’s been off and on for over 5 years, but Universal is still on a mission to bring back another remake of Scarface, originally conceived by Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) and reimagined by Brian DePalma (Carrie). This time around, Scarface will revolve around Mexican drug cartels.
Previously, director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) was considered for Scarface, but according to Variety, the filmmaker is dropping out and putting his focus on an Equalizer sequel instead. David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) are two other names being considered.
Other updates include the involvement of Diego Luna (Star Wars: Rogue One) to star. David Ayer (End of Watch) has been attached as screenwriter, with Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco), Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton) and Terence Winter (Vinyl) have added their input to the script, followed by a re-write by The Coen brothers (Fargo).
At one point, Pablo Larraín (Jackie) was rumored as a possible director – and Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street), Sofía Vergara (Machete Kills) and popstar Rihanna (Battleship) were rumored for roles. At this phase of development, anything is possible.
Scarface has a scheduled release date set for August 10, 2018.
Director: Chad Stahelski Writer: Derek Kolstad Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan, Lance Reddick, Thomas Sadoski, David Patrick Kelly, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero Running Time: 122 min.
By Paul Bramhall
As a stuntman, it’s not every day the opportunity comes along to direct the actor who you’ve been doubling for the last 20 years, but that’s exactly what happened to Chad Stahelski, when he took the directorial reigns for the 2014 Keanu Reeves action vehicle John Wick. Stahelski first doubled for Reeves on 1991’s Point Break, and has continued to be his stunt double ever since, featuring in the likes of The Matrix trilogy, The Replacements, and Constantine. The pair have maintained a close working relationship, so when Stahelski founded the 87Eleven Action Design group (along with David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick) after his experience of working under Yuen Woo Ping on The Matrix, Reeves was the obvious choice for the leading man of their directorial debut.
In a market saturated by action movies intent on resorting to how many pixels can be destroyed onscreen, John Wick was a revelation, a lean and mean production that relied on bullets to the head and bones being broken rather than CGI spectacle, with Reeves delivering admirably. It wasn’t without its faults though, the brain numbing repetition of the Marilyn Manson track ‘Killing Strangers’ over an original score, and a rather limp finale, both made it fall short of being a certifiable classic in my opinion. But what it certainly did do, is give audiences an appetite to see more of John Wick, and in 2017, their wish has been granted.
Sequels are always a tricky proposition, and considering the originals wafer thin plot, which revolved around Wick seeking revenge for his murdered (is that the correct phrase?) dog, stretching the story of a retired hitman for a second instalment has plenty of room for error. Should the filmmakers go for (a) the Taken approach – have another one of his pets killed and have him seek revenge, or (b) go the Tom Yum Goong approach, and simply have the gangsters kill the dog he adopted at the end of the original, and recycle exactly the same story. Thankfully both Stahelski (this time minus Leitch) and original writer Derek Kolstad are back on board for Chapter 2, and while the plot is still flimsy, it does its duty perfectly well.
Essentially it can be boiled down to this – it’s revealed that when Wick left the hitman world behind, he did so with the help of mafia boss (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), and as per the hitman code of honour, he owes Scamarcio a marker – basically an IOU. What this event was and when it took place is never revealed, however when Scamarcio visits Wick out of the blue to claim his favour, Wick’s stubborn refusal to adhere to the rules quickly sees him in a world of pain. After a visit to the Continental, the hotel from the original which acts as a luxurious refuge for the hitmen of the world, the hotel manager (played by a returning Ian McShane) talks him around. It’s the code of honour after all. So Reeves sees himself on a plane to Rome, on a mission to fulfil his obligation – to assassinate Scamarcio’s sister.
Before we get to any of that though, John Wick: Chapter 2 gets straight down to business in a blistering initial scene, taking place even before the opening credits have rolled. In a sequence that fits in more action than Steven Seagal’s whole post-2000 filmography, Reeves lays waste to an endless stream of attackers in an old warehouse, breaking bones and cracking skulls like they’re going out of fashion. Reeves is beaten, knocked around, hit by a car, thrown out of his own car (which is the purpose of the scene by the way, to retrieve his stolen 1969 Mustang) and generally ends up on the receiving end of impacts that would put the average human in hospital for the rest of the year. But Stahelski uses the scene to put his cards on the table early on, much like the route that The Transporter 2 (successfully) took, Chapter 2 is going to give us super-John Wick. The action is going to be more exaggerated, more bloody, more brutal, and more lengthy. Take it or leave it.
For fans of action of course, this is a dream come true, but there is also an audience out there who won’t appreciate the ramped up action quota. Those same voices that didn’t appreciate Jason Statham having a fight in a free falling plane, probably will be the same ones that don’t appreciate Reeves ability to keep getting back after being beaten half to death. However, my voice is not one of those, and while John Wick: Chapter 2 is definitely more pulpy than its predecessor, it’s arguably the only direction to go in. Writer Kolstad wisely decides to expand on the idea of having a hotel that caters to hitmen, here revealing it to be an international organization with branches across the globe. The hotel even has its tailored-to-the-hitman’s-every-need set of facilities, from a gun showroom (where Reeve’s goes for a “tasting”) to a Kevlar lined suit bespoke tailor service.
When I first watched John Wick I’d noted how it was essentially an early Steven Seagal movie for the post-2010 generation. Just like Out for Justice, it even ended with Reeves taking care of a dog, a sign from above if ever there was one. I maintain that statement for Chapter 2. Here Reeves roams around the globe, but no matter where he goes everyone seems to know his name, such is his reputation for being the baddest ass on the planet. The difference of course is that Reeves has the moves to back up the huge respect the characters he bumps into silently bestow upon him. For the second round Reeves also shows the character to be adept in a variety of languages, happily conversing in both Russian and Italian without batting an eyelid. Maybe Seagal doesn’t bat an eyelid either, but it’s hard to tell behind those orange tinted glasses.
The action itself is a joy to behold, and is choreographed by J.J. Perry, another member of Stahelski’s 87Eleven Action Design group, heavily incorporating the use of Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu. Several action sequences show both influences and nods to other action classics, with one particular scene in the catacombs having Reeves plant guns along the way to use later, clearly referencing Chow Yun Fat’s similar scene in A Better Tomorrow. When the weaponry is called upon to be used, there’s an influence of the Scott Adkins one-man rampage in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, as Reeves weaves in and out of the cave like structure, rarely taking his finger off the trigger. Perhaps the most recognizable nod of all though is the finale, which takes place in an art installation that includes a hall of mirrors. As Scamarcio taunts Reeves out of sight, the reference to Bruce Lee stalking Shek Kin in Enter the Dragon is a worthy one.
The supporting cast also provide plenty of action talent, with Reeves having two wonderfully protracted fights with rapper turned actor Common (they also notably played enemies in Street Kings), delivering some wince worthy impacts and falls. Current actress-of-the-moment Ruby Rose also gets a one-on-one against Reeves in a hallway, playing a deaf mute bodyguard to Scamarcio. Yes, Ruby Rose is to John Wick: Chapter 2 what Julie Estelle is to The Raid 2, only fails at coming across as either intimidating or dangerous. Away from the action front, Reeves and Laurence Fishburne reunite for the first time since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions, meeting on a rooftop to share such lines as “So I guess you have a choice”. The nods to The Matrix may be obvious, but they come across as playful rather than cheap like in The Expendables series. Plus, as the expression goes – when in Rome, cast Franco Nero in an extended cameo.
If there’s any detractor for John Wick: Chapter 2, it’s that Reeves’s acting performance pales in comparison to his action talents. With a remarkable number of his lines relegated to the likes of “yeah” and “sure”, rather than coming across as brooding, he instead feels a little flat. Indeed while we learn a lot about the world John Wick lives in, we don’t actually learn anything new about the character himself. He still watches videos of his wife via his phone and looks sad, and still treats his dog better than anyone else he meets. It would have been nice to add some additional characterisation, but as it is Reeves delivers a performance which mainly feels like filler to bring us to the next action scene. In this case, the action is so good that the wait is always well rewarded, however I do wonder how much it will stand up to re-watches. Minor gripes aside, there’s no doubt Reeves will get to announce “I’m back” for a third instalment, and when it hits, I’ll be there.
The public will soon see Donnie Yen (Ip Man 3) play real-life gangster Ng Sek-ho (aka Crippled Ho) in Chasing the Dragon (aka King of Drug Dealers), a remake of the 1991 Hong Kong gangster movie To Be Number One. The film will be released in North America by Well Go USA.
Deadline reports that Yen will play an immigrant in Hong Kong who is caught in the underground world of corrupt cops and ruthless drug dealers, and he becomes determined to become the sole dictator in the drug empire.
According to a reliable source (via Toby Wong from Hong Kong), “Chasing the Dragon is a purely dramatic role for the cast, so don’t expect Donnie Yen to do the martial arts he’s known for. Instead, expect hack and slash action. Donnie is rough housing it. Remember, it’s a triad drama, not Ip Man 3. Don’t worry, action fans will still be happy!”
One of the first set photos (another set) to show Andy Lau and Donnie Yen in 70s fashion has emerged. Also, we have learned from Mike Leeder that the Kowloon Walled City, which was completely demolished in 1994, is being rebuilt for the film.
We’ll keep you updated on this film as we learn more. Stay tuned!
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