Friday, May 29, 2015

Not a chicken fighting documentary

While Hong Kong is the main exporter of martial arts movies in Asia, many other countries in the region have long been producing entertaining B-Movies. The biggest success in the last decade was probably Thailand with the success of the excellent Ong-Bak (or Muay Thai Warrior) that made Tony Yaa a star. The movie i want to introduce today was directed by the stunt coordinator of that film and it shows.

Born to Fight

(And the prize for most generic cover goes to...)

The movie doesn't feature any well known stars and the plot is a bit like Die Hard, only extremly stupid. Our cop hero arrests a big bad guy and goes on vacation to a village. The henchman then attack the village and take hostages while trying to kill the cop. 
You don't watch a movie like this for the plot but for the action. If one hopes for a second Ong-Bak, this is not it (look at The Protector). Instead it features a bit of hand-to-hand combat and quite a bit of shooting and explosions. 

 (No Fair! .. this is not a kung fu movie?!)

What makes the film great is the insane stunt work that matches the most jaw-dropping and bone-breaking work of Jackie Chan. Wether it is a fight on two moving trucks or a motorcycle driver crashing head-on through a billboard, this movie is an homage to stunt teams everywhere.

(get off my truck!)

Don't let the lack of familiar names and faces stop you from watching this movie, it is one of those see it to believe it movies. 

(currently on youtube)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Chinese dirty dozen

After Bruce and Jet Li/Lee, it's time to cover the great Jackie Chan - at least a bit. The movie i want to cover today is one of the wackiest and most entertaining B-Movies i know (and i know quite a few).

Fantasy Mission Force

(aka Mission Force or Dragon Attack among a dozen other titles) is a Jackie Chan film in the way that Game of Death II is a Bruce Lee film - he's in it alright, but only for short fight scenes and he's more of a side character. It almost seems like a Godfrey Ho movie, but he shares scenes with the rest of the cast. Our main heroes are a bunch of misfits and cutthroats that get recruited to rescue Allied Commanders from the Japanese / the Nazis - yes it is supposed to play during WW2.

(The other expendables)

While the costumes for the heroes are strange, they are almost tame compared to the enemies they have to overcome. On the way through the chinese backwaters (one almost expects them to run into a shaw bros movie by accident), our friends encounter all kinds of random plot scenes.
Amazons led by a chinese Hugh Hefner, Ghosts, random Kung Fu Tournaments and Nazis that look like Mad Max villains all make an appearance, sometimes interrupted by Jackie Chan kicking some ass. 

(Pocahontas'es attack!)

The movie is unbelievably silly and you never know what happens next, but it also boast an amusing cast and the action scenes are actually not that bad - a must see for fans of entertaining B-Movies.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Good World Bias

TV shows are telling stories that mostly try to entertain and in the process, they sometimes even teach you something interesting. But most of the time, you watch to see good guys beat the bad guys over the course of 40 minutes (or maybe by the end of the season) and have fun over the course of the plot.
One of the most common way of getting such a confrontation going is letting some poor sod get into trouble every week and our team of heroes find a way to help them. Beyond cop shows that almost automatically fall into this setup (besides some excellent exceptions like The Shield and The Wire), there are several shows that all involve a variation of this idea that probably started with 80s shows like Knight Rider.

(David approves of this thread)

Contemporary examples include Burn Notice or Person of Interest, but many shows run on this setup to some extent. The problems start when shows start trying to tell more interesting stories or add twists to the formula to make separate itself from the likes of CSI or Law and Order.

In this day and age, writers try to incorporate a little more nuance and depth into their stories and characters but when it comes to network tv shows, these ambitions seem to run into an invisible wall somewhere. Whenever a character is supposed to be morally ambiguous or shady so that we don't know wether he is working with or against the heroes, i like to make one simple check: Is he/she willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals? If not - Good guy! This character may turn out to be morally challenged, but it is always because of circumstances beyond his control etc. and at the end of the episode, his moral compass will point straight to Lawful Good or at least Chaotic Good on the D&D alignment charts.

(This has more nuance than network tv...)

It's nice to see shows starting to distance themselves from this, but very few manage to pull this off. A good example would be Root from Person of Interest. She is a female hacker that is introduced like a future enemy of the team, plotting against them and finally kidnapping one of the heroes. Although we are meant to be afraid of her, from that moment onward we don't see her kill innocent people anymore which immediatly made it clear that she would become at least an ally of the good guys.

(chaotic good)

Rare is the show that lets good guys cross the line to bad guys and even if it is done, Characters usually get a backstory that makes it clear that they were the bad guys the whole time. The most prominent example of this would be Ward from Agents of Shield that is outed as a Hydra double agent at the end of the first season and then goes on and tries to kill several of his old team members, although he is clearly split in his loyalties.
This is great storytelling and the characters gain a lot of depth from the developments. This makes any future meetings and interactions interesting and filled with potential for conflict that arises from the characters common backstory. One can only hope that Tony Starks fall into Darkness for the upcoming Civil War movie will be convincing or if Marvel will be too afraid to make Tony act truly evil.

(lawful evil)

There is a reason for this kind of limit in how grey characters can get in tv show narratives. A clear good guy/bad guy distinction makes building narratives easier and the viewer can identify with the heroes (or at least look up to them). It also fits well with action or adventure themes in many shows, but it can become an dead weight on some shows that try to be more than standard network television. 
One can hope that the success of shows like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy and House of Cards will help push the notion that murky moral waters are also worth visiting.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Links .. come to town, come to save the princess Zelda


Today, i just wanted to give a roundup of some nice little sites with no particular theme.

Boing Boing

An eclectic blog that is mostly great because it doesn't follow the gaming or tv show nerd news cycle that dominates many of the bigger sites (like IGN etc.).
Contains tech stories, book reviews, tv show episode reviews and a lot of stuff you didn't expect.

The AV Club

A review site for movies and tv and very different kind of video game reviews. Not everything is for everyone, but there is also a broad overview of pop culture. Very useful for getting an overview when new tv shows start and if you're not sure if a show is worth continuing if you haven't watched it in a while.

Love Hong Kong Film

The ultimate site for Hong Kong movie buffs, long running and completly in english. Excellent movie reviews and a great source for a quick review of older titles - very useful when you stumble upon them in the streaming service of your choice.

Channel Awesome

A site full of video reviews that border from mildly amusing to absolutly great. Offering better terms than youtube, many great video reviewers can be found here, especially the great Nostalgia Critic and Cinema Snob.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hey Ho, lets Go Ippo

After China and Korea, it's time for an expedition into the third powerhouse of entertainment export in the region - Japan. Home of some of the wildest and weirdest entertainment, japan is also very important for the history of martial arts in the 19th and 20th century (something i will get to in a later post).
While Japan has many homegrown martial arts styles, the show that is in the spotlight today is focused on boxing - so not that much of a cultural barricade (besides the one between Boxers and normal humans).

Hajime no Ippo (aka The Fighting or Lets go Ippo)

("It's the eye of the tiger, it's ..." )

The show centers around a boxing gym and Ippo, the protagonist that you just have to love. Instead of a silly "i want to get stronger" stereotype or something like that, Ippo mostly starts boxing because he's curious. 
Just like our hero, the rest of the cast is well fleshed out and one of the big strengths of the show is the constant joking, bickering and pushing of the guys in the gym. Anyone who has ever trained in a good gym will immediatly recognize the atmosphere and it makes the show at least partially a comedy.

(Charme personified)

The other great strength are the fights themselves. Most fights get a buildup, but never too long. The fights themselves are designed almost like thrillers or chess matches, with strategies, sudden reservals of fortune and a great eye for what makes a fight interesting (This is probably where Naruto copied some of its more well-written fights).

(What also makes the show great)

This anime is also absolutly great when you don't watch sports anime because it works like an excellent action (or shounen) anime. The animation is ok at first and gets better and they also invested the largest amount of the budget into the action scenes.

Friday, May 8, 2015

No fists for old men

Fists of Legend

After the foray into the chronicles of Chen Zhen, there is one other movie that i wanted to mention. Fists (plural!) of legend is a nice korean movie that suffers from a name that is way to close to the Jet Li movie.

(False advertising at its finest)

While the poster looks like any other fighting movie, the actual movie is one of most positive surprises in the genre i stumbled upon in the last few years. In fact, it has much more in common with movies like Rocky I or Warrior (2011)
The idea of the story is that there is a tv show named Fists of Legend. They seeks out middle-aged men that were well known brawlers or street fighters in their youth and lets them compete in an mma match for money. 

(Our action hero)

The main protagonist Duk Kyu is a tired father that runs a noodle shop that is run down and going on broke. The story he tells himself is that he peaked in high school, where he was an ambitious boxer that didn't make it to the olympics. His daughter looks down on him and judges him like only korean female characters can (the look in the picture above really says it all). 
The TV show producers try to recruit him and he meets his two best friends from high school again, one of them now in middle management and the other a smalltime member in an organized crime family. 

The movie tells two stories at once, with the main plot being the slow regain of confidence and pride by the three over the course of the show and the other being the back story about how they became friends and drifted apart in high school. 

(Same guys - in the 80s)

Story and characters are great, especially because the script really meshes the two time periods well, so that there are barely any lenghts. 

The other great thing are the fights. While the fights in the tv shows are well shot and really show the dynamic of the one-on-one (fighters are pressured, exhaustion plays a role etc.), there are a few minor gripes. The grappling isn't as well thought out and filmed as the standup, but that's only because the action choreographer is just that good in the kick/punch-department.

(character development)

What is really quite inspired is the decision to make the fights in the flashback story over the top and usually involve large groups on both sides, like in Crows Zero. The fights are incredibly fast and athletic, involving lots of high kicks etc. While i would usually critique this as breaking my fighting suspension of disbelief, it works here because it seems like we're seeing the nostalgic memories of the characters in which everything is larger than life.

(Trip down memory lane ... with a vengeance)

A great movie and really shows what can be done in terms of character development in a movie that very much centers around fighting.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Return of the Bat-Zhen

Legend of the Fist: The return of Chen Zhen 

This is the latest movie with our undying hero. This time, Donnie Yen (who already played him in a TV Show in 1994) is playing the punch-dispenser, but this one is not just a loose remake. Instead, it is a kind of alternate take/ reboot / sequel to the original that is actually more inspired by Batman or Iron Monkey.

(The chinese Bruce Wayne)

Our Hero has fought in Europe before returning home and picking up a double persona as a playboy (the Bruce Wayne part) and Kato (Batman as a Chauffeur).

(This isn't the early 90s? What am i doing here then?)

While the story is overambitious, the cinematography, sets and costumes are excellent. Overall, one gets the impression that someone mashed two scripts together, one a sequel to fists of fury and the other a Hong Kong version of a comic book movie. 

The really interesting thing is the fighting, of course. Donnie Yen is using his individual style instead of trying to do a Bruce Lee impression (aside from a few Nunchuk scenes), which means things like chain punches (รก la Ip Man) which is kinda fitting considering that Wing Chun got famous as the basis of Bruce Lees fighting style.

(Chain Fisting ... that came out wrong)

There are even the occasional high speed grapplings, a specialty of Yen that very few other action movies have managed to integrate convincingly into their fights. 

One weird thing that has to be mentioned are the scenes in which our hero moves super fast and runs in curves while leaning extremly to the side with the help of wires, almost like a motorbike. This is probably supposed to add to the superhero flair, but instead it makes the hero feel even more invincible, which takes the stakes out of the fights. 

Not a terrible movie, but attaching the Chen Zhen name to it actually holds the movie back a bit and forces it to pay homage to the old movie that doesn't match the rest.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

More legendary fists

Fist of Legend

Fist of fury is considered a classic, so it's no wonder that it got remade. Jet Li picks up the mantle of Chen Zhen in a remake that is actually much better in many respects. Aside from an unbelievably boring poster (The movie is called fist of legend? Lets put the fist front and center of the poster! What about the legend part? Just add some glowy text effect in the background. Thats it!)

(pure genius)

The tweaks to the story are surprisingly well thought out. Chen Zhen is actually studying in Japan and in love with a japanese girl. This might be one of the few cases where 90s political correctness actually improved a movie. You can see that they made an effort to be more nuanced and not have a scene by scene copy of the original. Not all japanese are bad guys and the villain, while still being over the top, is actually menacing.

(notice the lack of swirlable moustache)

The real upgrade is the fighting. While Let Li is known for wire-fu (think Once upon a time in China), most of the fight cheoreography in fist of legends is much more down to earth. The speed is pretty high and the stunt men actually know what they do. There is still a lot of tough guy posing, but Jet Li doesn't go as overboard as in the original. There is still a lot of one-vs-many fights with people flying through rooms after a simple hit, but the real highlights are the long and brutal one on one fights. The cinematography isn't as good as some Jackie Chan films, but the editing and the very controlled use of slow motion is top notch. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fists of Legend .. so many fists ..and legends

To start off with my little project, I wanted to pick something that encapsules everything i plan to do with this blog. Therefore, i had to find out what i want to do (kinda d'ouh ). So here it is:
  1. Introduce movies / shows / books / games that are special/interesting/terrible but awesome but not that widely known. 
  2. Review / Riff / both them at the same time 
  3. Talk about completely unrelated stuff
Today i wanted to talk a bit about the movies that could be counted as part of the "Chen Zhen Chronicles", the character played by Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection).
The first post is immediatly breaking the rules i set up for myself (great way to go buddy) by including one of the most prolific films in martial arts movie history. 

Bruce Lee is always treated with an insane amount of reverence both as a martial artist as well as a movie star. While movie fighting and real fighting are different worlds, they are also closely linked (something i will try to write about in a future post).
The story (japanese overlords secretly poison master, make fun of school, Bruce/Chen bullies back) is simple and sounds like any other standard kung fu movie plot. Whats strange about it is the amount of ham & cheese, the characters look like cartoon characters and act accordingly. 

(Some of the less silly looking bad guys)

While the bad guys are moustachio-twirling evil guys (in fact a lot of them have one), the "hero" comes off as a bit of an asshole. While the bad guys act like cartoon characters and seem just as capable in terms of violence, Bruce Lee comes off as really threatening and much more serious than his enemies. 
(Guess who the villain is)

The fight choreography is not that great, although the camera work is inspired in some sequences. While the fights have an cinematic intensity that stems from the almost western-like standoffs that are typical for Bruce Lee, the butt-kicking itself is marred by the obvious big ego of the star who wants to look good and cool in every scene and the absolutly terrible fighting abilities of the stunt men or actors that are the victims.
Even worse are the sequences with a russian wrestler in which bruce escapes a badly applied armbar by biting the leg. 
(Grappling in style)

Anyone who has any real grappling experience will tell you that when some idiot tries to bite you in that situation, you would surely stay on the hold, break his arm and maybe break his jaw from the same position. 

The movie is now legendary, but when rewatching it you realize just how bad most 70s movie fighting really was.