10/24/14

Choy Lee Fut (Sam Wong and Tommy Law, 2011)

Every once in a while, there comes along a genre movie that is either truly pushing the boundaries of its genre or is perhaps not really a genre film, but a film that uses the language of a genre for its own ends. Consider Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time. It’s a wuxia movie, an adaptation of a Jin Yong novel no less. It uses the tropes of the wuxia genre, but it doesn’t look or feel like a typical genre movie. None the less, wuxia fans very often have great things to say about it, particularly if those fans also happen to be Wong Kar Wai fans. Because if Ashes of Time is anything, it’s a Wong Kar Wai movie.

Every now and then there comes along a genre movie that really proves the true greatness that a film within the boundaries of that genre is capable. Consider the greatness of a movie like Drunken Master 2, where smart film making -- camera work, editing, mise en scene, acting -- came together with sometimes innovative, always exciting, and expertly performed fight choreography to make a spectacularly watchable film. Drunken Master 2 offers a tremendous spectacle of the physical mastery that was absolutely worth filming and is still worth watching for that reason alone. It reaches the pinnacle of the genre without doing anything but being a great genre film.

Choy Lee Fut is neither of these things.

It was unlikely to be the first from the start, let us face it. Not too many film makers have the sort of extremely personal focus of Wong Kar Wai (most people, regardless of their vocation, do not, could not). But genre films that are worth watching because they are just so great at what they do are not so uncommon. Never the less, they are difficult to make. So let’s set the bar a little lower.

There are those genre films that would pretty much suck ass except that they give genre fans what they want. There may be no perfect meeting of film making and generic elements, but the fans get what they want. These are the bread and butter of genre fans and film makers. Sure, I don’t have a great deal to say about the worthiness of, say, Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983) as a movie that everyone should see, but it’s a worthwhile time for genre fans. Same for its sequel, and for even some of the less seen films of the genre I have reviewed here, like, say, Big Land, Flying Eagles (Au Yeung-Jun, 1978).

Choy Lee Fut does not even meet this standard.

It stars Sammy Hung, son of the great Sammo Hung, as Chan Wai-Yip. He’s been abroad in England, played here by the English themed Thames town in China, hanging out and with his Japanese friend Ken, played by the more convincingly Japanese Kan Kosugi, and essentially accomplishing nothing. Ok, seriously, movie. Your England is full of Chinese people and white people who speak with heavy Chinese accents. Who do you think you’re fooling here?

So Wai-Yip and Ken get into a fight in the cafe where Ken works because some guy is being chased by a multicultural band of thugs who attack Ken and Wai-Yip when Ken tells them to leave the cafe. That night, Wai-Yip’s dad (Sammo Hung, in a nice bit of recursive casting) shows up out of nowhere, to try to convince him to come home to China and take over the Choy Lee Fut school he runs there. Wai-Yip makes no promises, but the following day, he heads back to China with his friend Ken in tow, because Ken wants to learn Kung Fu. But not any Kung Fu, only Choy Lee Fut will do.

So they go back to the school, which is in a relatively poor part of Southern China, and are greeted by Wai-Yip’s uncle, Tin-Cheuk (Yuen Wah, stealing every scene he’s in), who is smoking a traditionally huge water pipe made out of bamboo. Wai-Yip gifts him a western style briar pipe, which he smokes constantly, and I can say as a former pipe smoker, correctly, throughout the movie. Some more expository scenes follow, introducing Wai-Yip’s cousin and elder student, Si Hai (Lau Wing-Kin), and his wife, who is only there to provide unfunny comedy moments and some flat drama that doesn’t really matter. Oh, and Wai-Yip’s dad is still abroad.

Still here? Good, because the actual plot is about to start here, twenty or so minutes into the movie. There are people who want to buy out the Choy Lee Fut school. They are called the “Pan-American Corporation.” If you are wondering what a “Pan-American Corporation” would be doing by acquiring a martial arts school, or why that corporation is in China rather than America, or why everyone involved with it, save for one of its fighters, is Chinese, you should just accept that it makes no sense and it doesn’t matter. So for whatever reason, the Pan-American Corp thinks they can make money acquiring martial arts schools, and the leader of this project, Ha Yu-Fei (Wang Jia-Yin), shows up at Wai-Yip’s school to make the offer, which he refuses. She then says that his father already agreed to it, and he still refuses.

So Yu-Fei makes an offer that they will have a “tournament” to decide. The Choy Lee Fut school will match three fighters against her three fighters, and winner of two out of three matches will get ownership of the school. Wai-Yip agrees, even though her three fighters, Qian Xing (former Jackie Chan stunt team member and co-director Sam Wong), the ridiculously named X-Man (Ian Powers, the aforementioned sole white guy in the Pan-American Corporation), and Yu-Fei’s boyfriend Cho Cheung-Heung (Steven Wong Ka-Lok).

There’s still a good bit more run-time left, which, in a typical kung fu movie, would be devoted to training montages. There’s some of this here, and it’s actually pretty fun. Tin-Cheuk trains Wai-Yip, Ken, and Si Hai at one point by standing around and waiting for one of them to ask a question. They wait for hours before he tells them he’s waiting for them to ask him something. There are also appearances here from three martial arts masters who help train the Choy Lee Fut fighters, including an appearance by Lau Kar-Wing. This is great for a couple of reasons: we get to see Lau Kar-Wing appearing again in a movie with Sammo Hung, even if they don’t get to share any screen time, and he’s appearing in a movie as a trainer for his real life his son, Lau Wing-Kin.

But most of this time is actually comprised of some extremely silly romantic sequences between Yu-Fei and Wai-Yip. He’s crushing on her almost immediately, and she keeps on showing up at his school (apparently she doesn’t do any real work for her job). She breaks a high-heel and Wai-Yip rubs some dit da jow on her ankle and sends her home with some flat, Chinese style shoes. Then he asks her out, even though it’s her boyfriend Cho’s birthday. She agrees to spend the morning with him so that she has time in the evening for Cho. But they spend the whole day together.

This is the most outright absurd part of the movie. Yu-Fei and Wai-Yip go driving around, feeding each other by hand and taking selfies. Then they go to the library, which is funny for all sorts of politically incorrect reasons, making duck faces at each other as they pull books from the stacks. They eat fast food, and Yu-Fei just adorably (/sarcasm) gets some sauce on her nose. They hang out at a hot spring, where Wai-Yip gets a nice ogle at Yu-Fei’s bikini-butt and receives a splash in the face as a result. 

All this in one day. One single date. All that. And a cheesy Mando-Pop song is playing in the background the whole damn time, with cutaways to Cho hanging out in Yu-Fei’s office, checking his watch and looking bored. It is preposterous. And hilarious.

So Cho confronts Yu-Fei after Wai-Yip brings her home and fails at kissing her. He tells her, in possibly the most beta-male move recorded in a movie, that he doesn’t mind if she wants to be wooed by two men at the same time. She, of course, shows up at the school one last time to tell Wai-Yip that they can’t see each other again, with Cho tagging along. So now they’re fighting over the school and the woman too.

Ok, this whole movie is just silly. But most kung fu movies, regardless of when they were made, or their setting, or their actual writing, are pretty silly right? Right. So why does it not work here?
Choy Lee Fut builds on two pre-fab foundations, neither of which is stable. It is trying to balance between giving the genre fan what he or she wants to see -- training sequences and fight scenes -- and giving the mainstream Chinese movie going audience what they are known to enjoy -- light-hearted pop cinema romance and comedy. This could be done in theory, but in execution, Choy Lee Fut does neither well.

For pop-cinema romance, we get that ridiculous date sequence. But aside from that, we see Wai-Yip spending more time with Ken than with Yu-Fei. And I will certainly grant that Wang Jia-Yin is really very lovely and she and Sammy Hung actually make for a pretty nice on-screen couple. They’re cute. But there’s nothing else there of interest. And Steven Wong seems to be there solely for his goatee and spiky hair; he’s got no personality beyond glowering and then acting like a eunuch when he finds out his girlfriend more or less cheated on him. He’s seems like a jerk and then acts like a wimp. So the love triangle lacks any interest or conflict that the audience could find believable.

But the movie really drops the ball on delivering for the genre fan, since the kung fu movie elements are the stronger from the very start. The training sequences are set up well, but they are edited in montage. The training fights against the three masters brought in to help out Wai-Yip, Ken, and Si Hai ought to be genuinely wonderful, pairing up Choy Lee Fut (and Karate, in Ken’s case) against Tai Chi, Hung Gar, and Muay Thai. But these are also done in montage, so we see little in the way of extended fight scenes.

The reliance on montage carries into the final fight sequences. All three fights are edited in montage. And I do not mean that we have a lot of quick-cuts. These are genuinely shot in the style of music videos or maybe highlight reels. This makes the fight scenes so much less exciting than they would be if they were put together in the traditional Hong Kong cinema manner.

The best of the fight scenes is the one between Kane Kosugi and Ian Powers. The worst, sadly, is the finale between Sammy Hung and Steven Wong. This is likely because Steven Wong is not a martial artist. 

Choy Lee Fut tries to work up a lot of themes that could be interesting. We have tradition vs. modernization, represented here with the Choy Lee Fut school’s humble trappings and traditional training methods vs. the Pan-America Corporation (I still cannot get over that) gym, which has some cable/pulley based weight machines. Their styles are still traditional Chinese martial arts though. There is also some talk about “being a man,” which is only mentioned a few times and is best exemplified by showing how not to act with Steven Wong’s character, which I don’t think was necessarily intentional. But it does nothing with these themes. They’re hardly mentioned or developed throughout the movie’s run time.

But for all that, I cannot say that I hated Choy Lee Fut. It’s bad, badly made in parts, and laughable at various points. But I do like how cheesy it is. And it has one of the most hilarious soundtracks of all time, including an astoundingly silly Choy Lee Fut rap by some guy named J-Town. He’s trying to sound all hard and shit, but look up a video of him on youtube or tudou. Really intimidating, that guy. Anyhow, that song made it onto my workout play list. Yeah, I know.
You should re-read this post while you listen to this.

Basically, this movie is on the lowest tier of kung fu movies. It’s hanging around with a bunch of forgotten movies from the seventies and eighties for company. But I actually kind of like those movies too. Because for all that it does wrong, as much as it fails to deliver on its promise, the very real potential that it has with such a great cast and the best bad soundtrack to kung fu movie in the history of ever, Choy Lee Fut will be remembered by somebody (me) as the apotheosis of bad Mainland Chinese kung fu movie making from this era. It’s on that bottom rung, but it’s at the top of it.

2/23/14

Mismatched Couples (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1985)

This movie did something that I never would have expected. It surprised me and made me question one of my long held opinions about the Hong Kong martial arts film genre of the eighties, nineties, even up to recent releases. Hell, it changed a great deal of my feelings about Hong Kong film in general.

To be specific: Mismatched Couples made me a fan of Donnie Yen.

This sounds unfair, and it is. I really failed in giving good ol’ Donnie a fair shake. His physical skills never failed to impress, and he boasts a physique that belongs in a Chang Cheh movie from yesterdecade. I never doubted those things. And Donnie Yen has artistic ambitions, with his directorial efforts, action choreography, and even a good role here and there. And in my defense, I did acknowledge a noble effort from Yen in The Lost Bladesman (Alex Mak and Felix Chong, 2011).
My first exposure to Donnie Yen, his early directorial efforts like Ballistic Kiss (1998) and Legend of the Wolf (1997), colored my view of him, if anything. They came at an odd time in Hong Kong cinema and feature some camera work and editing that I loathe. And Donnie’s action choreography lingered in a sort of odd experimental period here. It’s difficult to describe, but I never liked it, and so I never liked Donnie.

But, wow. Wow.

Mismatched Couples is the most eighties movie ever made. It also marks a shift in director Yuen Woo Ping’s filmography. His previous film and Donnie Yen’s first role, Drunken Tai Chi, was something in the vein of the highly creative and extremely odd cycle of films that began with 1982’s The Miracle Fighters. It’s also incredibly fun.

The movie opens with a montage of Donnie Yen dancing. Just, let that one sink in. And good sweet Krishna those dance moves are epic silliness. He sticks his finger in an electric socket and dance-convulses like he’s getting shocked at one point.

The movie proper starts with Donnie Yen waking up, then going back to sleep after killing his cuckoo clock with a dart gun. Then his radio turns on, the DJ playing some “Disco Rock” to wake up sleepy Hong Kong, and Donnie dances his way into his clothes.

Donnie plays Eddie, presumably a college student who lives above a diner with his Big Sis, Ah Ying (Wong Wan Si) and kissing cousin Stella (May Lo). Eddie doesn’t help out a lot at the diner, for which Ah Ying scolds him. He prefers to hang out with his attractive classmate Anna (Anna Kamiyama, presumably a Japanese actress) and has an ongoing, passive-aggressive dance feud going with “Colorful Punk” (Mandy Chan). He also has to deal with some outright cockblocking from Lynn, Anna’s beefy BFF (a very fit Chan Lai-Win, in her only credited role).

Eddie runs into a down-and-out opera performer named Mini (Yuen Woo Ping) while being pranked by Lynn (if one could call attempted murder a prank). Mini is starving and has no money, so he follows Eddie to Colorful Punk’s outdoor dance party, where we get to enjoy scenes of Mandy Chan breaking. Mini is about to chow down on a whole roast chicken, but Colorful Punk catches him and says he must dance if he wants to eat.

Mini busts out a monkey kung fu form, much to the pleasure of the party goers. Colorful Punk picks up and leaves, so Eddie brings him back to his home, thinking that he could work as his sister’s assistant and teach him kung fu (which he already knows, apparently, so this is not a real plot point). After a bit of very silly not-quite flirtation between Mini and Ah Ying, which goes rather poorly for both of them, a prolonged slap stick sequence in which Eddie and Stella try to hide Mini’s presence in their home, and a vote on whether or not he can stay, Ah Ying relents. Mini is the new employee at their restaurant.


Keep in mind, this is a Hong Kong movie, so all that is just set up for a bunch of loosely assembled vignettes. Donnie fights over Anna with the gwielo, Kenny (Kennny Perez), who treats him like a waiter when he first meets him. They have a tennis match with Donnie using a bicycle as his tennis racket, which is one of the most absurd sequences in motion picture history. Their feud eventually comes to a point when he and colorful punk attempt to give him a laxative at Kenny’s birthday party, which leads to a dance off -- the second most absurd sequence in motion picture history, but also one of the funniest and most entertaining.

The other running non-plot is Eddie’s fight with a “champion fighter” played by Dick Wei. He doesn’t even get a name, from what I remember, but he meets Eddie at the gym, where he displays his physical prowess in an attempt to embarrass Lynn. “If men can do it, so can us women” she announces. Eddie and Mini use a number of tricks to make her look bad and Eddie look good. Why this is necessary is beyond me, but it offers an opportunity for some sexist humor, which is always a good time.

But the fighter played by Dick Wei mistakes Eddie for a top fighter because of the display. So he demands a fight. They have an excellently choreographed and filmed fight scene to end the movie.

What I might have failed to get across with all that description is just how much fun this movie has with pretty much everything. The whole cast looks like they’re having an absolute blast with the all of the silly scenes, and it is infectious. For real, the whole thing is compulsively watchable. I’d say its easily within my top ten Hong Kong movies.

And part of that is because it’s a very sweet-natured movie. Nope, it’s not the break dancing or the fight scenes (there’s really only one, the extended fight between Donnie Yen and Dick Wei) or the pretty girls (May Lo is stupidly cute) or even the physical comedy. My favorite part of Mismatched Couples is the romance between Mini and Ah Ying. Yuen Woo-Ping is totally perfect as Mini. He’s actually a very capable actor for this sort of role, and not just because of his looks, although they help. Yuen manages to hit the sympathy button with his facial expressions more often than he has any right to; Wong Wan Si was a veteran actress who has the fairly difficult job of being something of a ball-buster while still conveying warmth and winning the audience over. She succeeds, which means that the audience can’t help but cheer for Yuen when he’s doing his best to win her over. And it works especially well because these two are not the typical movie couple. These are two older actors who are hardly in their pretty years, if they ever had pretty years to begin with, and they aren’t the leads in the movie. But Yuen allows just the right amount of time for their scenes to play out. It’s spectacular how well he pulls it off, given that it plays out in between some really overblown comedy sequences. Credit.

And Donnie. Man. Who would have thought that Donnie Yen could look so damn happy? Like the Yuen Woo-Ping/Wong Wan-Si relationship building, it’s freakin’ adorable. Not to take away from the value that some people place on the intense, testosterone fueled Donnie Yen that would later become the Donnie Yen that we all expect. That’s great too. But happy-stupid Donnie is just about the most fun you can get in a Hong Kong movie of this vintage outside of happy-stupid Jackie Chan.

Special mention to the music. The original music in the movie was supplied by an artist named Chyna. I can't find any information on her, but the theme song is as dated as it is fun. 

Mismatched Couples is a substanceless movie. It’s cheap and silly. It has no real plot. And it is wonderful. The perfect sort of movie for a boring Sunday afternoon with a few friends who enjoy things like break-dancing battles and mildly sexist humor and pure sweetness played without a hint of cynicism or irony. In other words, Mismatched Couples is just plain wonderful. I love it love it love it.

And yeah, I even like Donnie Yen, a whole lot, just because of it.

5/5/13

I Should Not Be Proud of This

One of the nice things about unemployment is the free time.

Actually it isn't nice at all. It's boring as hell. So you find things to occupy yourself while you wait to hear back from any of the employers whom you desperately hope will give you a shot at minimum wage part-time work. Anything to get some income flowing.

Anyhow, I managed to log a few hundred hours in the Omega Force developed Samurai Warriors: Xtreme Legends during my few months of no income.


Granted, the 340 hours or so were logged over a period of years (I bought the game at least a year after its initial release), during which I was, for the majority, gainfully employed.

And here it is, the final bonus selection.
By the point that you can unlock this mode, chances are that your favorite character will be so highly levelled, and has such a powerful weapon and items that it won't make a particularly noticeable difference when you can gain additional speed or defense.

But its more of a trophy than anything else. I recorded these videos with the help of RockManXZ21 when the old gang was back together. I actually lost the footage until recently, when I was pleasantly surprised to see that he had kept the whole run-through on his hard drive.

Omega Force's games are pretty silly, and the Gold Rush mode has plenty of silly parts, like Lu Bu appearing at the very end, assuming that one has met the right conditions while playing. What he's doing a millenia or so in the future and in Japan is anybody's guess, but it's a cool moment the first time that he shows up. It's certainly unexpected.

4/17/13

That was an unintentionally long hiatus

Really, apologies to those who were expecting more reviews of movies starring Kong Ban and Lin Hsiao-Lan to be posted here during the last nine or ten months.

I'm not going to justify or try to explain what's been going on, as most of that stuff is personal and not really pertinent here. But I'll be writing stuffs here again. In fact, I had intended to put up several reviews that unfortunately didn't survive the switch I made in computers. This is one of those not-pertinent events that led to my posting anti-spree. Shame on me.

Otherwise not too much has changed on my part. Expect reviews of the most eighties movie Hong Kong ever produced, a likely unwanted amount of writing on the various eighties anime (and their sequels!) I've been watching, and possibly a little bit of redesign to the blog's layout.

All this assuming anybody was reading this thing regularly in the first place.

5/22/12

Does the Auction House Sell a Windows 7 Compliant Diablo 2?

I don’t have to apologize for not having a movie review to post, or for that matter, a real review of anything, but I want to. And since I’m here, I also want to let the few people who care know why they won’t see GoldenPigsy wanting to join their game in Diablo 3.

I’m frustrated with the whole Diablo 3 situation for several reasons, the most trivial of which is that I’d still rather play Diablo 2 even though Blizzard will not release a patch to make the game stable on Windows 7. Granted, you can get it to run by fiddling with some settings – there are guides that show you how to do it – but I suspect that Blizzard will reissue Diablo 2 digitally sometime down the line, newly Windows 7 compliant, with heavy DRM and minor improvements, hoping to resell the game to customers who bought it twelve years ago.

But the fairly trivial reason ties into the very big problem I have with Diablo 3, which is the DRM. In order to play Diablo 3, the player must connect to Blizzard’s servers. And it isn’t as though this connection is a simple check-in; the connection must be maintained, even when playing single player. During last week’s launch, a seemingly large number of players had trouble actually playing the game they bought for sixty dollars. The servers were down entirely on Saturday.

I honestly cannot think of another industry that has such an adversarial approach to customer relations, and it is not strictly an issue of DRM. Diablo 3 is not designed for single player. Its single player mode is just a desiccated MMO; the game is meant to be played either with a party or with a NPC follower. The insistent solo player will find that the item drops and crafting provide only the occasionally useful item, and that it is far more sensible to buy powerful items through the online auction house, which will eventually implement an option to buy or sell virtual goods for not-virtual money.

In other words, the persistent online configuration is not only designed to prevent piracy, but to force the consumer into playing the game in a specific way, and with the hope that the consumer will continue to feed money to the developer.

Even the game mechanics are tightly controlled. The player no longer allocates stats, as it is done automatically, and the skill trees are quite linear. The “rune system” allows for a superficial amount of customization, but with the way they have structured the skill tree, Blizzard has done away with the whole concept of a unique character build in an attempt to nullify class optimization. The idea is that players no longer have to think about how to make the most efficient character. In practice, it means you can forget about making a unique build, like a singing Barbarian which buffs/de-buffs while hacking through hordes of enemies. From what I can tell, the Barbarian in Diablo 3 is a designated tank, and little else. Others have reported that the classes are poorly balanced – which was a problem even in Diablo 2, to be honest – which is telling of Blizzard’s priorities. They’ve spent several years and much capital in the making of this game and still not fixed a twelve-year-old problem.

And since stat allocation is handled automatically, and the skill system is mostly linear, the most effective decision making available to the player is in equipment – again, much like your typical MMO. And since the drops and crafting don’t seem especially helpful – and since level caps on equipment no longer seem to be a major part of the game – this leaves the auction house as the most viable way of building a character to your liking.

It’s like a free-to-play MMO, but you pay sixty dollars to play it.

So those are the reasons why I’m not interested in playing Diablo 3, at least based on the impressions I’m getting from watching RockManXZ24 while he plays it. As for the game itself, I will admit that it looks like fun. I like mindless hack-and-slash, loot-focused action-RPGs quite a lot, and, mechanically speaking, Diablo 3 looks like a compromise between Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and some of the MMOs that come out of South Korea and Japan. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But I’m not interested in MMORPGs and the attitude that informs the new DRM policy is unacceptable to me. So that’s how it is.

5/1/12

This is not what David Gaider Wants


Last week I received an unusual e-mail from a reader. I call it unusual because its author did not want a) me to tell him or her where to find one of the more obscure movies reviewed on the blog or b) for me to send him or her a copy of the movie for free. (Seriously, people, do actually expect somebody to do that? Stop sending me your addresses.)

A portion:

I'm a BioWare fan. Not even gonna try to hide my fandom here. Relax though, while this email is coming your way because I read your reviews of The Calling and The Stolen Throne, I'm not writing to put your head on a pike. Quite the opposite actually. Basically, I'd love to write professionally. Preferably for video games but hey if I could do prose then I would not be complaining one bit. As silly as this may sound, I've always looked up to David Gaider immensely…

So where's the issue here? Easy. Up until today, Gaider has been... God. Well more or less, I have had several issues with parts of his writing but who can I read without having that? As many writing classes as I've had I'm frankly reading two versions of the same texts as my eyes dance them over - my own version and that of my education's mean eye. This man though has not set off that many red warnings in my head though. He has been who I want to be. Or at least, someone far along the ladder I want to climb, should I be able to go even further. But today I allowed myself to read quite a bit of his criticism, the final pieces of today being your two reviews (sorry, I'm leaving a turd on your doorstep almost by chance, I am really sorry =( ). Everything is changing.

It’s very easy to assume that people who enjoy tie-in fiction are stupid or lacking in self-awareness, but this isn't necessarily true (even if it often is). The young lady who sent me this very much wants to write fantasy stories for video games and fiction, and she feels let down now that she’s realized that her emperor’s ass is showing.

Her reaction is entirely normal – healthy, even. One of the more unnerving aspects of “fandom” is how it disconnects people from the broader scope. I don’t even mean, necessarily, from mainstream or higher brow literature, but from a broader scope of what might be within the fan’s interests. It’s also the sort of attitude that corporate interests try to foster.

It’s almost cult-like in its operation. Fan forums, especially those that are officially operated by the producers of large franchises (Bioware Social, Bethesda Softworks et al), cultivate insularity and reward fanatical obsession. Breaking away from all of the obsession and idolization can actually be stressful for the fan who once sincerely believed her or his favorite game developer or tie-in writer to be "God."

And that sort of cultivated myopia is what I’ve been railing at in the reviews of David Gaider’s fiction, and it’s what the sender of this missive is trying to cope with. She's quite right to be bothered.

David Gaider has done her no favors with his mediocrity, or with his half-hearted attempts to dodge criticism, or with self-important puffery – a trait which is consistent throughout Bioware’s public self-image. If there is one thing that Gaider sincerely does not want, it is for the readers of his fiction and the players of his games to actually educate themselves about decent story-telling and game design. Gaider (and the company that employs him) does not want for the majority of fans to feel the consternation that drips off of this e-mail.

Thankfully, it isn’t up to him. I wish my reader all the best.

4/23/12

Journey to the West (Chang Cheh, 1991)

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big fan of The Journey to the West in its literary form. And I’ve got a pretty wide ranging appreciation for the cinematic adaptations that visualize the story with varying degrees of fidelity. I did, after all, choose an internet handle from one of the principle characters in the story. I even played the part of the loveable porcine man-child in a student theater production in college.

I also love films by Shaw Brothers’ million dollar auteur Chang Cheh. Chang rose to prominence with the 1966 film One-Armed Swordsman, which not only tapped into the generational malaise afflicting Hong Kong youth at the time, but revolutionized Hong Kong’s approach to the wuxia genre, then dominated by Cantonese film makers and teenage starlets, with its combination of heavily masculine themes and imagery. Its cinematographic style was so heavily imitated that the only competition it has for the most influential martial arts film of all time is King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. And aside from being an epochal genre film, it’s also plain fun to watch, and has aged better than many other films of its vintage.

Chang went through various stages in his film-making career. He started as a critic and writer; experimented as a co-director and crafted a legendary lost film, Tiger Boy, before moving on to making the most profitable film in Shaw Brothers’ New Wuxia Century wave of Mandarin language wuxia films in the 1960’s; he worked extensively with David Chiang and Ti Lung in wuxia, kung fu, and historical spectacles before settling into a niche of manic kung fu films utilizing the talents of Taiwanese born Peking Opera stars Phillip Kwok, Lu Feng, and Chiang Sheng. I could go on about Chang’s accomplishments during each of these periods for several more paragraphs.

But towards the end of his career, Chang was no longer the same creative force as he was when he made One Armed Swordsman. His final Shaw Brothers film, The Weird Man, was neither well received critically, nor profitable. It’s so utterly farcical in some portions that the mind wanders from the film itself to contemplate the mental state of the man who made it. After leaving Shaw Brothers, Chang made three films in Taiwan, using many of the actors from his latter period at Shaw Brothers. These five films not only used some of the same actors, but Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng – often the action directors and assistant directors from his Shaw Brothers days – took over many of the directorial duties for films like Nine Demons and Attack ofthe Joyful Goddess.

Chang Cheh had always, if those who worked with him are to be believed (and there’s no real reason to doubt them), been a fairly hands-off director. By the mid-eighties, however, Chang’s eyesight was deteriorating. But even so, I think at least two of Chang’s films from this era, Shanghai 13 and Attack of the Joyful Goddess, are worth seeing.

After this brief excursion in Taiwanese film making, Chang Cheh headed to the Mainland, where he continued to “direct” in the capacity that he could. He found a stable of Peking Opera talent, dubbed by Western fans as “the New Venoms,” and set about either remaking or retreading his old films (Hidden Hero is a remake of Life Gamble; Ninja in Ancient China is like a remix of both The Weird Man and Five Element Ninjas).
Chang Cheh’s Journey to the West is new territory for him, although he was no stranger to fantasy films tinged with Operatic visual cues. It certainly takes the same tack as other low budget, low ambition adaptations though. The film covers the episode in which Princess Iron Fan attempts to kidnap the Tang monk with the help of her step-son, Red Boy, only to be foiled by Sun Wukong and company. In Chang’s film, the Bodhisattva Guan Yin sends her emissaries (including Na Zha), to aid in the battle against Red Boy and his magic.
The film starts with a synopsis of the story thus far, with the imprisonment of Monkey, his journey with Xuanzhang, the Tang monk, meeting Pigsy and Sandy, etc. Then there are some hijinks with a demon who accosts the travelling crew, followed by Monkey and company meeting with Princess Iron Fan. She’s annoyed with Ox King, her husband, who has taken a second wife. After a failed attempt at seducing Monkey (and a thorough rebuking of Pigsy, who is happy to fill in for Monkey after he abjures Iron Fan’s advances), Princess Iron Fan begins scheming to kidnap the monk.

But before that, Monkey and co. must help a small outpost which is besieged by demons pretending to be the Emperor, who has raised taxes to an unreasonable rate. This is where the film indulges in the long tradition of having Monkey disguise himself as various other characters with his magic, although none of the actors portray unique enough personalities make this fun, and only the inevitable jump cut between one actor and the other gives away the game.
It’s also where two supporting characters are introduced, who are in love and betrothed. One of them will later be killed by Princess Iron Fan, and the other never mentioned again.

Finally, the film meanders into the major fight between the Red Boy and the heroes. Monkey, Sandy, Ne Zha, and two other characters whose names I can’t remember (if they were ever mentioned) have it out in a ten minute brawl with Red Boy and his demonic cohorts. We get to see Monkey use his magical hair, which turns into monkey fighters, along with a bevy of pyrotechnics, poorly done wire work, and some genuinely good fight choreography.
Although credited to Chang, much of the direction was likely on the shoulders of Dung Chi-Wa, Du Yu-Ming, and Mu Li-Xin, who also handled action direction and play Monkey, Sandy, and Red Boy, respectively. The camera work occasionally resembles Chang Cheh’s better films from Shaw Brothers, utilizing slow motion and overhead angles when large crowds fight in formation, but very often looks utterly awful with people flitting in and out of frame, or the frame being too close to capture all of the movements during one-on-one fight scenes. Lighting equipment makes a split second cameo in one shot.

So it isn’t the best looking film. Locations are re-used; there is little visual continuity – how exactly can the heroes journey through a desert and somehow come across the same leafy outpost time and again? But it does have nice fight choreography. And the finale threatens to wander into Yuen Clan territory with fighters on rocket propelled roller skates and bladed, flame throwing go-carts.
There’s also some of Chang Cheh’s trademark gore on display, including visible intestines.
This was the penultimate film of Chang’s career, with the much better Ninja in Ancient China premiering two years later in 1993. In some ways, it’s a shame to see the once brilliant creative force stamping his name on such a lacking product. At the same time, you almost have to respect Chang for cranking out a movie when he was nearly blind. A lot is made of the sexual politics and sanguine aspects of Chang Cheh’s films, but the man loved making movies – he made them as long as he could. That’s pretty awesome, even if most of the later films are not, or are for unintended reasons.

And that finale is worth seeing at least once, if only to get a glimpse of Dung Chi-Wa in action before Stephen Chow rediscovered him and cast him as the spear wielding master in Kung Fu Hustle.