Movie Review -- Warriors of Virtue

It's hard to take yourself seriously when you review a children's movie like Warriors of Virtue (Ronny Yu, 1997). It's even harder when your criticism revolves around such portentous and at times contentious themes as cultural imperialism and genre hybridization. With Warriors of Virtue, the problem is compounded: even with with a Hong Kong director and a screenplay written by Hong Kong expatriates, it's still a great example of how diluting Hong Kong style martial arts film with Occidental fantasy narrative is a compromise that leaves nobody satisfied. That and it's just not a very good movie.

Ryan is some kid who is friends with Ming, a hot shot cook who does some pretty kick ass kung fu while frying up rice and noodles at the local Chinese restaurant. Ryan also has a gimped leg, a crush on a girl, and a desire to impress the quarterback of the football team. After telling the quarterback which play to use in order to win the big game, Ryan and his token black friend are invited to hang out with the cool kids, who apparently spend their time hanging out by a sewage treatment facility covered in graffiti. Grabbing some food from Ming before he goes to spray paint the walls around basically a giant commode, Ryan receives a manuscript of Chinese philosophy from his older friend. When he gets to the... whatever it's supposed to be, the quarterback dares him to walk across the pipe that goes over the giant basin as the deep water below him swirls, threatening to pull him under should he fall. Unsurprisingly, he falls, and ends up in the world of Tao. Of course, there's an evil warlord causing trouble in Tao -- the reptilianly named Komodo -- who is also looking for the manuscript, as it is the key to the spring of life. But there's also a set of heroes, the Warriors of Virtue, who protect Tao for the sake of Master Chung and some chick named Elysia.

Much like Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, Warriors of Virtue seems to take its cues from The Neverending Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984). The difference between the two is that The Forbidden Kingdom was far too lacking in ambition, especially given the way that international audiences have taken to the two stars; Warriors of Virtue has pretense beyond the humble genre it fits so well. One of the things that I strongly disliked about The Forbidden Kingdom is the intimation that the fantastical China-wonderland that the protagonist goes to is actually a China-wonderland, as opposed to metaphysical space created by his mind while unconscious. While that might not sound like a big deal, that single plot point makes China into the oriental magic-land where nerdy white kids learn how to stick up for themselves (it gets goofier still when the protagonist uses his new kung fu fightin' skills to beat the shit out of the improbably awful bullies). Warriors of Virtue avoids this pitfall by making the fantasy world purely a fantasy world, albeit with obvious influences of Asian -- specifically Chinese -- culture. Of course, the screenplay here is smart enough to keep what's going on in the fantasy world roughly within the realm of what might happen in an unimaginative thirteen year old's fantasy -- although I suppose that would make the screenplay less than smart, even if it is a good instinct on the screenwriter's part.

What's the point of the fantasy world though? Why can't this kid learn to stand up for himself and be confident without fortune cookie advice from a Chinese man? The story of a child going to a fantasy world of swords and magic to learn tools for living in the contemporary world has been filmed countless times, and written even more. The only film maker to have done anything interesting with it of late has been Tarsem Singh with The Fall, and even then, it's only because the fantasy sequences are so closely tied to the "real world" narrative that his film works. One wishes that the screen writers hadn't used this scenario again, as it adds nothing and doesn't really require that the characters do kung fu or spout pseudo-Taoism. I still have no idea what the "spring of life" is really for, why the warriors are divided by the elements, or why there are Kangaroo people. They're just there to be there.

And of course, we get the worst aspect of the movie: the one which killed it's chances at the box office. The "roos." Obviously short for "Kangaroo" (because kids can't be bothered to pronounce a three syllable word) the roos are the humanoid kangaroo kung fu fighting warriors of the land of Tao. There are five, each one standing for one of the five Taoist elements. These are worse than the predictable story, the nearly offensive tokenism, the evil little person, the bland over-acting of the villains, the fortune cookie wisdom and bastardized Tao Te Ching references. While all those are bad, the roos are just obnoxious. They immediately remind one of a certain group of anthropomorphic ninjas that were popular in the eighties, and when combined with the predictable story, nearly offensive tokenism etc. the whole thing just wreaks of trying too hard with too little talent. How exactly did they intend to write a primer in Taoism for American children that both made sense, and was fun, and commercial, and provided opportunities for kick-ass fight scenes? The idea alone is awful.

And if it weren't for the obnoxious furry-bait, the visuals might have helped to save the movie. Unlike The Forbidden Kingdom, which looked like the Hollywood idea of what a kung fu movie trying to be a Hollywood movie would look like, Warriors of Virtue kind of looks like the real deal, even if the story reads like a badly written deviation of the two disparate genres it combines. While both movies share Peter Pau as cinematographer, director Ronny Yu also brought with him David Wu (frequent collaborator) and fight choreographer Tsui Siu Ming (director and fight choreographer for the wild 1984 mainland Chinese film Holy Robe of Shaolin) along with stunt men and set decorators from Hong Kong. Reuniting three of the major forces behind the visuals for the impressively wacky The Bride with White Hair, it shouldn't be too surprising that Warriors of Virtue looks like a Hong Kong movie in a very good way, making use of many of the same tricks from their first collaboration (falling leaves, silhouette, weird lighting and color schemes, soft focus). With some impressive wushu performed by Tsui's stunt team in those awful kangaroo costumes and expensive set design by Oscar winning Eugenio Zanetti, this is really very nice looking fantasy film making.

I was pretty young when Warriors of Virtue made it into theaters, and was immediately turned off by the kangaroos. I eventually saw it much later on television, willing to sit through it because it was Ronny Yu's Hollywood debut, and I had to believe that it would be a better showcase of his talents than Bride of Chucky or Freddy vs. Jason. It is in some ways, but the movie itself is just not very good. If the writers had come up with something better than the token black kid ("let's make like Tom and Criuse!"), the giant toilet bowl, the generally nonsensical platitudes and mysticism, and (worst of all) kangaroo furries it might have been a decent generic fantasy film. As it is, it's a bad film with some incongruously interesting elements.

And as much as I've compared it to The Forbidden Kingdom, I have to say that both are far more interesting than DragonBall: Evolution, which didn't manage to do anything right. None the less, Warriors of Virtue is a noble failure. But oh God is it ever a failure.


RIP Jack Cardiff

It's a shame when a truly gifted artist dies. It's even worse when that artist is somebody whose work you actually enjoy.

Jack Cardiff was involved in numerous brilliant films, awful films, brilliantly awful films, and infamous failed projects in a career that started in 1928 -- the silent era. Scent of Mystery for instance, was the first movie to be shown in "smell-o-vision," a system in which odors were pumped into the theater to simulate what the characters on screen would be smelling. Obviously a flawed concept, it's still an amusing idea, although it might have been less so for those who actually had to sit through a film while artificial scents mingled with the natural theater B.O.

There's also the infamous failure of what was to be his directorial debut, the self-funded Errol Flynn vehicle, The Story of William Tell. Sadly, what makes the film so infamous is the stories of the financial ruin it caused not only to investors, but to the aging Errol Flynn, as his co-star Bruce Cabot seized Flynn's property in lieu of his salary.

But there's two things that stand out in my mind about Jack Cardiff. One of them is the brilliant work he consistently put into his films as a cinematographer, and the other is The Long Ships, an impressively over the top and totally ridiculous rip-off of The Vikings (Cardiff was a cinematographer on that film, ironically) that he directed in 1964. It had a cast filled with B-actors among Richard Widmark, clearly enjoying himself as an unconvincing viking captain, and Sidney Poitier, rather obviously lost playing a Moorish prince, and Rosanna Schiaffino, an Italian actress from many a peplum (Italian muscle-man flicks -- usually low budget and awful) and also one of my favorites. It would be a pretty boring movie with an almost inappropriately bombastic and intrusive musical score (the fanfare is played at even the slightest diegetic provocation) were it not for a virtuoso opening sequence shot in silhouette against all sorts of powerful images culled from Eastern Orthodoxy and Coptic church tradition. Granted, the reverent tone is dropped pretty quickly once the vikings get a chance to raid a Persian harem, but it's a brilliant sequence. The other amazing sequence is the "Mare of Steel" which is easily the best (read: most hilarious) torture scene in any film ever.

I don't mean to sound like a jerk -- boiling down an amazing man's vaunted career to one of the silliest movies he directed -- but I just plain love The Long Ships. And it's certain that others love movies like Girl on a Motorcycle, just as surely as they love The Mercenaries. And assuming that somebody has somehow gone their entire lives without watching The Long Ships, perhaps The Barefoot Contessa, The African Queen, War and Peace, The Vikings, Fanny, Rambo, or Conan the Destroyer have provided some degree of amusement.

It's a rare gift to have been so good, that your efforts can so often be called the best thing about a movie. Even if it was because he worked so often with Richard Fleischer, the world will look a little less better without Jack Cardiff to lens it. RIP.


Trailer Analysis -- Storm Warriors

Oh, Brothers Pang, what hath thou wrought?

It was long rumored that their sequel to Andrew Lau Wai-Keung's 1998 film The Storm Riders would feature extensive cgi and blue screen technology, drawing comparison's to 300. But was it necessary to produce nothing but a simple rip-off?

I've long disliked Danny and Oxide Pang, whom (along with the Wachowskis) are the very definition of overrated familial directing-duos. Granted, the trailer above looks nice and clean enough. Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok are there, which us nerdy internet denizens would have complained about in 1999. Ten years later, these aging, middle-aged (or very near it) pop-stars turned actors are at least acceptable, if not downright appreciable in comparison to other, younger Hong Kong celebrities who pretend to be musician-actors that could have been casted. You can see a brief glimpse of Simon Yam, who plays a character named Lord Godless, according to the official site. Always welcome, I'm glad to see Yam along with Lam Suet and even Charlene Choi. The brief bit of the Cloud/Wind fight scene doesn't look bad, although I've long tired of the slow-motion/fast-motion filming that every single action movie has usee for the past decade.

I was mildly hopeful after seeing the first trailer, and then this one came along.


What's the point of watching a movie that practically advertises that it's a total rip-off?

The Andrew Lau film was fun because it was using the sort of special effects normally seen in Hollywood films in a distinctly Chinese genre and setting, while simultaneously updating the effects driven wuxia film on a level that it hadn't been since Tsui Hark's 1983 film, Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. But more importantly, the weird experimentation with editing and visual effects in the fight scenes, the cheesy use of Cantonese pop music, the bravura use of Sonny Chiba, and the distinctly wacky approach to cinematography shared by so many Hong Kong movies really made Storm Riders something to watch. Time has not been kind to its visual effects, and some of what Lau tried now seems a bit juvenile. But when it was released, it was not only a huge success at the local box office, but hailed by fans of Hong Kong cinema in the US as a great example of how non-fans were missing out.

This new trailer doesn't look inspired by Zach Snyder's film. Unless the trailer misleads, this film is trying to be Zach Snyder's film, right down to the color scheme of about eight similar tones. Did it ever occur to the Pang brothers that Snyder was emulating Frank Miller's style, and that they might want to try to do the same, only with Ma Wing Shing (and not Frank Miller)? The light, elegant, occasionally pastel look of Ma's macho fantasy wish-fulfillment was one of the more technically intriguing things about the "Storm Riders" comic books. It was one of the best things that was captured by Andrew Lau's movie.

Of course, this trailer could be misleading. There might be something worth seeing in The Storm Warriors that these trailers are not showing us. I'd like to believe that, but I don't. I honestly think that the only thing that Danny and Oxide Pang have made here is yet another bland wuxia movie desperately trying to appeal to the Western market. Apparently, that directive included ripping off 300. Color me unimpressed, and a little bit annoyed if this is the direction they really intend to go.


Movie Review -- Orochi: The Eight Headed Dragon

It occurred to me while I was writing my last post that if I start posting stuff that's all "serious business" on here, along with the amount of snotty disdain I show for so many in my other posts, I'll eventually have to write out my thoughts on things of actual merit or importance.

Instead, I'm writing a review on a movie whose main draw is Japanese guys in rubber suits.
It's not really a secret that the eighties and nineties were not kind to the "serious" Jidai-Geki (Japanese period film). Honestly, the seventies weren't either, and it currently isn't much better, if Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003) and Dororo (Akihiko Shiota, 2007) are any indication. The expectation isn't necessarily fair, and at this point should no longer be an issue. By that, I don't mean that fans of movies that take place in Japan's historical past should stop expecting quality. I expect quality from films with exploding blood geysers and eight headed dragons, but it's quality of a different sort than what I hope to see in films about the reprecussions of the Shimabara Rebellion or the life of the samurai class during the turbulent Bakumatsu period.

So it is with Yamato Takeru, better known in the US as Orochi: the Eight Headed Dragon, frequent "Godzilla" series helmer Takao Okawara's 1994 attempt to bring the legendary prince of Japan's ancient history to life on screen. Of course, it was also his attempt to bring lazer eyes, magic swords, rubber suited dragons and giant metallic bird gods representing Amaterasu on screen, as well as adding a good dash of Hong Kong style wire work, strikingly stylized artificial set design, and a chaste romance between the boring male and female leads. "All things to all people?" That's what it wants, but does adding in a bunch of extraneous and often goofy genre conventions really help any film to reach more people?
In my experience it does not; however, I find that in Orochi, it really works. In fact, the way that it feels like "Ultraman" by way of Shingo's Challenge (Masuda Sadatsugu, 1961) kind of delights that part of me that still smiles when Luke blows the Death Star right to hell.
The story is taken from the legend of one of Ancient Japan's Emperors, who was reputed to have killed his older brother, lost his wife to a sea serpent that she sacrificed herself to, and subdued the leader of rebels after sneaking into his fortress by dressing up as a maid and serving at one of his parties. Orochi includes all of that, but generally ignores much of the less likable aspects of Takeru's personality (he died after needlessly blaspheming a local deity). In the film, Takeru kills his brother by accident after his brother is misled to think that Takeru caused the death of their mother. Takeru's inherent magical abilities kill his brother, making his father send him off to do battle with barbarians in the east. Along the way, he meets with a priestess of Amaterasu, whom he helps to retrieve a sacred relic. Unfortunately for the Emperor, Takeru, his girlfriend, and the land of Yamato, there's an evil adviser to the king who is actually trying to aid in the resurrection of the demonic Orochi, who plans to rule the world. Orochi is heading back to earth in a giant block of ice, and he plans to regain control of the Kusanagi sword that Susanoo fought so hard to deliver to the Imperial family.
Naturally, Yamato Takeru is not going to let this happen (ZOMG spoiler!), and that's a good thing, because as the movie goes on it gets increasingly confusing and muddled. Thankfully, the decently choreographed and staged fight scenes, wacky visual effects and giant robot samurai Takeru contribute quite a bit of morbid excitement that the rest of the film lacks. The characterization and acting isn't particularly strong, and while its clear that the film desperately wants to be beautiful in that carefully composed, classical manner that so many of the best Jidai-Geki were, it simply isn't. The sheer number of unconvincing matte shots, rubber suits and cheesy special effects don't help it to look any more like Kurosawa, even if they're a major part of what makes the movie so much fun. It also doesn't help that the whole thing is played with poker-faced seriousness by the leads. Only the rather dependable genre film staple Hiroshi Abe seems to be having fun with his character, the human incarnation of the eight headed dragon.

It's all predictable, following along the "Hero's Journey" plot line as it does, with magic swords pulled from stones, confrontation with the self/elder in an underworld, the reclamation of lost authority, and a final battle with ancient evil. With a film that's this much like Star Wars, why wouldn't you expect hokey dialogue and a bland leading protagonist? If all those fantasy and sci-fi films of the eighties taught us anything, it's not that you should expect bad writing and acting, but that that's all you really can expect from movies of this type.

And that's a problem: this is serious stuff, potentially. There are too few films that really deal with Japan's ancient history, and all of them have to fit it into some sort of generic mold -- a case of a round hole and a peg with a shape nobody's ever seen before. Does one try to pass it off as Harryhausen-esque fantasy, as Hiroshi Inagaki did in his film, The Three Treasures? (Toshiro Mifune as Yamato Takeru!) Does one make it into a knowingly modern fable, as Masahiro Shinoda attempted with Himiko? Is it best to strive for unerring period detail and historical accuracy within the necessary narrative fiction, as with Teinosuke Kinugasa's Yoso? All of these methods (and others) have been tried over the years of Japanese film, with varying success. Unlike the western counterparts of peplum and Biblical epics, these films never became a trend in Japan -- never becoming a genre with a set criteria and function of their own -- and thus, director Takao Okawara has an unenviable task in front of him with Orochi. He provides an ancient Japan as shaped by his experience as a director of Godzilla films.

Orochi was initially hoped to be the first in a series, and it feels like it. But it wasn't successful. The further adventures of Yamato Takeru were not to be retold with a giant, gleaming Mega-Zord Yamato bookending each film with a final battle as was likely intended. The Japanese film industry was really not well at the time, and was especially unkind to period and fantasy films (the nineties were like that the world over, except in Hong Kong, God bless 'em). Orochi hasn't received much kindness in the after market either. Reviews on kfccinema.com say that it "ultimately falls flat" and a retarded IMDb reviewer calls it "a rip-off of every genre in the last 20 years." In truth, it is a glorious failure, which obviously didn't do much for Toho, the studio that produced it. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed myself while watching it, and honestly wouldn't mind seeing another Kaiju-kung fu-special effects flick based on Yamato Takeru. Unfortunately, we're more likely to see a crappy anime or miss out on a middling Taiga drama that will never get released in the US. Orochi: the Eight Headed Dragon will do in their stead.

And honestly, how could anybody not like a movie that has a finale that goes from awesome...
...to more awesome...
...to RAD-AWESOME...

Yeah, bitch.


Book Review: Virgin Film: Martial Arts

I honestly never would have guessed that the first book review I would write for this site would be for non-fiction. As a matter of fact, that actually kind of bothers me. Non-fiction work shouldn't need a review from a web-site run by a guy who put off his graduation date so he could spend another semester dicking around with cameras while calling it school work. I mean, non-fiction is simply presenting what is there. Criticism of their work might be warranted in terms of how well they convey the meaning of their thesis, and there might be some room for discussion about the stylistic choices they make in their writing. However, if I - a person who refuses to do anything that would cut into the time I spend watching kung fu movies and playing Japanese RPGs - take such issue with your non-fiction that I'm actually moved to take notes and underline the most offensive passages of incorrect or misleading information, you have officially failed.

Such is the issue with PTJ Rance's contribution to the "Virgin Film" series of genre surveys, examining the oft misunderstood and rather nebulously defined "Martial Arts" genre. I don't mean to spew meaningless invective at the author. Rance is a practitioner of martial arts (White Crane) and has done a good deal of research on most of the movies that are individually reviewed. My objections are not personal animosity.

I bought his book at a store which was selling them at discount. Always interested in a book on one of my favorite film genres, I picked it up and found it to cover a selection of films which I neither approved of nor objected to: a seemingly mundane selection of the genre's better known and incessantly discussed exponents. Since I had not only seen every movie reviewed in the book, but consider myself fairly well informed about the genre I have spent innumerable hours watching, collecting, and discussing with other like-minded fans, I was ready to pass it up when a tiny passage of text on the back cover caught my attention: "A fascinating must-have read for any kick flick fanatic."

What in the blue hell is a "kick flick?"

Might it be a childish term for martial arts films that is completely lacking in descriptive power and reduces the genre to its most obvious element (fighting)? I think that this would be the only way to understand the term "kick flick," although perhaps it just means a movie where people kick. Who needs poetic terms like "heroic bloodshed" or "wuxia" (martial chivalry) when describing a film genre that started in the silent era and stems from centuries of literature, theater, and cultural expression?

Seeing this, I had to buy it, if for no other reason than to find out if it were truly as awful as those two words lead me to believe. If it had turned out that the blurb on the back were little more than woefully written copy, I would have been quite pleased. Unfortunately, within the first two pages, the term is repeated and the slightly less nauseating term "chop-socky" is used. Even worse, Rance refers to the Japanese science fiction flick Returner (Takashi Yamazaki, 2002) as a "gun-fu" movie (p.13) which is a term far stupider than the other two combined. What is gun-fu? Shooting a gun while doing martial arts? Returner doesn't even fit into the Hong Kong action genre that the term was originally (sadly) applied to.

Even worse is Rance's explanation for the selection of films. Rance cites "each of the movies covered is the originator of a successful series, has a sequel, or at the very least has spawned a number of copycat releases" (p.2) as being a reason for their inclusion. This criteria is flawed for a number of reasons. For one thing, Rance misses several extremely influential and important films in favor of films that not only haven't spawned a series or rip-offs, but are themselves highly derivative. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1969) might be a singular example of personal, idiosyncratic auteur film making within the genre, but it is still has more to offer those new to the genre than something like The Karate Kid (John G. Alvidsen, 1984) or Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/4). The book is structured as a chronological survey of the genre; however, the way in which the chapters are broken will leave the uninitiated with the wrong impression of how Hong Kong and Taiwanese film makers developed the genre and the genre fanatic scratching their head as to how anybody could get it so wrong. Why is Wu Pang's The Story of Wong Fei-Hung -- a 1949 film considered by most to be the first kung fu movie (as opposed to its sister/mother genre, the wuxia film) -- placed under the same developmental cycle as King Hu's Taiwanese wuxia film Dragon Gate Inn(1966) and Chang Cheh's first million dollar hit, One-Armed Swordsman (1967)? Wu Pang's film is important as an early establishment of the martial arts film as the domain of the Cantonese film production in post-war Hong Kong, which Mandarin film outfits like Shaw Brothers, Cathay, and Great Wall would not break into until the mid-sixties, which is when Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966), Temple of the Red Lotus (Hsu Tseng-Hung, 1965), One Armed Swordsman, and The Jade Bow (Zhang Xin-Yan, 1966) were released. These constitute a movement within the genre separate from the one that Wu Pang started, and should be examined in the context of each other as well as that era in Hong Kong's history. I knew I had a winner.

No mention is given to the Cantonese serials, such as the Buddha's Palm (Ling Yun, 1964) series that spawned a Shaw Brothers remake and later a television series, nor to the "Jane Bond" films that such important directors as Chu Yuan spent the better half of the decade filming, nor to stars like Chan Po-Chu and Josephine Siao. Some of what Rance claims is simply wrong. Rance claims that for Wu Pang, "the very idea of the fantasy-oriented wuxia-pian was anathema... and he was determined to make the martial arts film devoid of flying fighters, magic swords, and the ubiquitous knight errant." (p. 32) Oh, really? Why then did he make Ne Zha's Adventures in the Heavenly Palace, Ne Zha's Adventures in the East Sea, and Devil's Sword all in 1957? Each of these is a martial arts film filled with special effects (with a magical creature like Ne Zha, it's a necessity) and knight errantry.

In her review of Dragon Gate Inn, Rance erroneously states that "at the time combining opera and film was a daring innovation..." (p. 42). This is of course incorrect. Had Rance bothered to watch any of the Cantonese language films that the book ignores, she might have noticed that they frequently include music sung by actors who were also students of the opera stage. Even in Mandarin language films, the clanging of cymbals and drums in the likes of Temple of the Red Lotus directly correlate to operatic traditions. And besides that, Huangmei and Cantonese opera films were hugely popular with audiences in the fifties and sixties. Rance then complains that One-Armed Swordsman -- one of the films that established the use of hand held cameras and tight editing in the late sixties era of wuxia films -- lacks aesthetic value while also claiming it as "the real beginning of the gung fu pian" (p. 61). It all makes very little sense.

Bear in mind, up until this point, I had not yet begun to take any notes. It was in the second page of her intro to what the author dubs "The Golden Age of Kick Flicks" that I had to get a pencil to underline quite possibly the weirdest error I've seen outside of a Ric Meyers commentary. Rance writes about Jackie Chan's early career that "Cathay cast him in a number of kung fu films (directed by Lo Wei, who made Bruce Lee's first two films)..." (p. 64). Only problem: Cathay had ceased producing films by 1973, and Jackie's first major starring role (barring the Cub Tiger from Kwangtung debacle) was not until 1976. Rance again shows great ignorance of the genre about which she is writing two pages further, asserting that in the eighties, "The [Hong Kong film] industry moved away from the traditional and created cinema that belonged to contemporary Hong Kong, with great success... costume epics disappeared for the rest of the decade."How in the world could anybody write that?

First of all, it was in the early eighties that The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981), Legendary Weapons of China (Lau Kar-Leung, 1982), Killer Army (Chang Cheh, 1981) were being made. These are all fairly traditional films with some outstanding action as well as thematic weight for audiences already familiar with their generic conventions. As for "costume epics," the author has forgotten (if she ever knew) that wuxia films from directors like Chu Yuan were still drawing considerable numbers of people, as were stars like Tien Peng -- a Taiwanese actor who had been making wuxia, kung fu, and action films since the late sixties as a star, a producer, and even as director. And what about ghost films like A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-Tung, 1987) and its many derivatives. These aren't kung fu movies, but they contain martial arts scenes and action direction by such important choreographers like Ching Siu-Tung and Phillip Kwok. This should have been the perfect time to talk about how the influence of the genre's popularity had seeped into other generic traditions. Chinese film makers adapted from Pu Song Ling's Strange Tales from the very start of their film industry in Shanghai, but films like Li Han Hsiang's 1965 effort, Enchanting Shadow, didn't include wildly creative action choreography that could easily fit into any wuxia film. Rather than discuss this, Rance ignores it, as well as the most interesting and least discussed aspects of the eighties: Mainland China's many contributions to the genre.

If I were to go over every single note I have in the next 200 pages of Rance's awful book, this would be well over three or four thousand words. At that point, I might as well write my own book. Mention must be made; however, of Rance's organization. I already mentioned that Rance orders the book chronologically, but she also has three sections that follow her appallingly inept survey of Hong Kong -- covering Hollywood, "The Rest of the World" (Rance's words), and television. It is insulting that films that have been written about so often by so many warrant their own section while Japan, Thailand, and South Korea are each represented with only one entry, in spite of Japan having been greatly influential on the genre, South Korea having provided some of the top villains (Hwang Jang Lee in Drunken Master, Eagle Han in Guards from Shaolin, for instance) as well as having contributed numerous co-productions and provided the natural settings for so many films. Thailand looks to be where the future of the genre will be located, with Panna Rittikrai, Jeeja Yanin, Dan Chupong and Tony Jaa showing high caliber screen fighting talent that China and Hong Kong don't seem to be producing any more. Even worse, perhaps, is that North Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia are barely mentioned. Indonesia's martial arts films are becoming increasingly popular with cult and exploitation film fans, while North Korea is a sterling example of how the genre has been used for propagandist aims and Malaysia's various films about their historical heroes, such as Huang Tuah, were made with the investments of film companies like MP&GI -- better known as one of 1960's Hong Kong's mega studios, Cathay.

Furthermore, there are too many films that are ignored and glossed over to be blithely discussing films that everybody has seen. For that matter, why is Enter the Dragon (Robert Clause, 1973) included in the section on Hong Kong kung fu films? It's an American production, designed more for an American audience than a foreign one. And hasn't enough been said about Bruce Lee at this point? Why ignore more important films in the genres development to prattle about Japanese television shows that were only shown in English in the UK? These aren't important to the genre as a whole, at least not any more than "Ultraman" or "Super Sentai." Why give short shrift to "The Rest of the World?"

I could further elaborate. I could simply proffer a selection of the most egregious or just factually incorrect snippets that litter the book -- although to do so would take me days, and this post has to end at some point. If the issues with Rance's book were that the conclusions about the generic thrust of kung fu, wuxia, chambara, or any other strain of martial arts film differed from mine, or that she considered important films that I simply don't like, it would still be excusable. The incorrect information is unacceptable. And because of the incorrect information, I feel no need to equivocate when talking about Rance's work. Her basic idea of martial arts films is completely off, and on many of the most significant facets of wuxia films in particular (which she describes as being about "antiquated codes of honour" on page 101, and claims that "machine-gun editing [is] common to the genre" p.133. Rance also claims that heroes in these films "often remain unscathed or die in tragic circumstances" on page 97, apparently having forgotten that Jimmy Wang Yu gets his arm chopped off and still survives in several of his films) she has absolutely no clue.

This is supposedly a book for beginners looking to get deeper into the genre. Might I suggest a decent book that covers all of Hong Kong cinema, like David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong? Stephen Teo's Hong Kong: The Extra Dimension? Or -- since you don't have to pay for these -- how about Jean Lutkish's blog on kungfucinema.com, Electric Shadows? Why not just check out the HKFA news letters and supplemental material? Any of these would be better options for a new fan looking to better understand the genre, as all are written by competent critics historians, and fans who understand that to write about this genre is to write about Chinese, Hong Kong, Asian, and world cinema. Rance makes some interesting observations on many of the films she reviews, but her book would be nothing but a disservice to genre novice's, who would walk away thinking that no wuxia films were made during the eighties or that Jackie Chan invented kung fu comedy and dangerous stunt work with Project A. This is an awful, awful book. Don't read it.


Pirate Game Review -- The Yang Warrior Family

The world of gaming -- especially "hardcore" gaming -- is a strange and often fickle place. Favored developers are quickly forgotten, and if not forgotten, often maligned. Arguments between fanboys rage all over the internet, debating PC gaming versus consoles, Xbox 360 versus Playstation 3, JRPGs versus Western RPGs, games as "art" versus games as games, and (my personal favorite) hardcore versus casual gaming. One might see a member of youtube or GameFAQs praising Bioware and Bethesda as though they were their first sexually active girlfriend, and then return a week later to find that same user derriding them as if they were their first sexually active girlfriend that gave them monthly sores and violently burning trips to the restroom. Of course, you're still alowed to like Baldur's Gate -- heaven help us should popular opinion ever turn against that game the way it has with others -- but bringing up Jade Empire or Mass Effect is just asking for trouble. And I hate Mass Effect.

Which is why I avoid those discussions, or try to. My opinions on anything doubtlessly annoy somebody, possibly anybody, even more likely everybody. Fact: I don't like Might and Magic. Another fact: I do like Ys I&2. Fact 1 + Fact 2 = somebody calling me "fag," or one of the many variations, like "newfag" or "console fag" or "weeaboo." (I don't know why this terminology has caught on in seemingly every geek-centric hobby that has a presence on the internet, but it has. I blame 4chan, like we all should.) It's inevitable, but that only makes me want to avoid it. Because of this, I've sought out territories of video gaming that are so stupidly obscure that the interested parties don't really have any reason to start inane fights with each other. Some of these are arcade games -- because nobody ever has a major debate on which 2D beat-em-up game is a "true" or "hardcore" example of the genre -- and truly obscure Japanese RPGs -- and I don't mean stuff like Etrian Odyssey, I'm talking about games like Sorcerian. But that's not what this review is about. This review covers pirate software developed by Chinese programmers called The Yang Warrior Family.
A couple of points need to be addressed before I get to the review of the game. First off is the state of consoles and console games in China. It's easy to laugh at the developers of the People's Republic and their attempts to make Final Fantasy 7 into a Famicom game, or any number of the strange and badly programmed games linked to developers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, like the Famicom Chrono Trigger port and the oft-ranted-over Somari. But beyond the weeaboos crying out "Kusoge!" at badly dumped roms on their youtube channels, there are some genuinely interesting, and sometimes even fun games that have been made by Chinese developers. Outside of the badly programmed and designed ports, there have been several very impressive RPGs for both PC and the console. (and even in the sucky ports, brilliance occasionally can be found, occasionally) One of the first unlicensed games developed originally by Chinese developers (ie not a hack, pirate, or port of a Japanese title) was an RPG called Tale of the Holy Flame, released in 1991 and based on a Jin Yong novel (a movie based on it is reviewed here). There are even people devoted to getting these games released in the US. Which is another point that needs to be made: not every Chinese developed game is/was a pirate. The Genesis was released in Taiwan, and that's the origin of Legend of Wukong and Beggar Prince -- the Genesis games now being released on cartridge in the US. All this is to say that while I think The Yang Warrior Family is a pirate, I can't honestly say that I'm sure it is.

The second thing that needs to be explained is the backgrounds in which many of these games are set. Legend of Wukong is a very loose and intentionally weird rendering of The Journey to the West, and there are games based not only on the pulp novels of Jin Yong, but on the classics of Chinese literature, including various RPGs and strategy games adapting The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and The Creation of the Gods. Now, Koei has also made games based on all three of those Chinese classics, but they have yet to adapt anything by Gu Long, JinYong or Liang Yusheng. (A brief aside: we should also be thankful that Koei shut down their "eroge" branch, otherwise we might have ended up with an unfortunate Jin Ping Mei or Yu Pui Tsuen based strategy RPG) What you get when you play a Chinese game is an example of how the Chinese repackaged popular stories and gave them back in a new format. It's one of the few ways in which games legitimately transcend their status as play things and time wasters, and that alone makes these somewhat interesting.

Which brings us to The Yang Warrior Family. Based on the same folk tale as Shaw Brothers classics The 14 Amazons (Cheng Kang and Tung Shao-Yung, 1972) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar Leung, 1984), this game recalls the brave Yang nobles as they defend Sung dynasty China from invading Mongolians. This translates into gameplay that's basically Final Fight, but this time in China instead of America, the future, or Camelot. Much like those Capcom brawlers, The Yang Warrior Family uses only a few buttons: one to attack, one to jump, and one to do a more powerful attack that drains health. The characters are a bit unusual. The main protagonist is a young guy in blue with a sword -- all signs of the "balanced" character. There is a female who wields tiny daggers, finishing her two hit combo (lol) by throwing at a pathetic trajectory that makes it look like the little knife must weigh a good thirty pounds. Still, the range is a huge bonus. There's an old guy who -- by the fact that he's old and that he wields the famous Yang family halberd so often depicted in films and television -- I assume to be the Yang patriarch. He has range, but his attacks are boring. He just jabs. My favorite character is the one that doesn't fit. He's a big brute that fights bare handed and has a pro-wrestler drop kick as his jumping attack. Of all the characters, I've gotten furthest in the game with him.
The game scrolls from left to right and your character beats on fat guys, sword and spear carrying soldiers, muscly Mongolian wrestlers, metal clawed lizard men and bomb juggling, sexy ladies. The AI isn't anything special, so as long as you're capable of controlling your character, you'll be capable of avoiding most of the enemies. An amusing aspect of the combat system is knocking enemies into each other. The second hit of your character's two hit combo (lol) always sends the enemy flying, and you can grab enemies by walking into them while they're not attacking, allowing for a throw. This means you can toss enemies into each other and keep from being surrounded rather easily, and it also means that you can take out enemies quickly if you find them grouping together. At the end of the level, you fight a boss (surprising no? /sarcasm) and while the first one is a push over, the rest have four health bars, making it an almost ridiculous challenge to beat a boss if you don't have full health and all of your lives by the time you make it to the end of the stage. I was also slightly disappointed that there are no power ups. Sure, you can eat food that's lying on the ground to regain health, and there are a (very) few items to pick up to add to your score. These are a paltry pittance compared to the wealth of mounts, extra weapons, magic potions, and miscellaneous score boosters to be found in superior examples of the genre, like Sega's 1989 arcade game, Golden Axe.
The graphics are decent. The Genesis doesn't have the most expansive color palette (at least not compared to the SNES) but compared to the Famicom pirates, these Genesis games look brilliant. The backgrounds are repetitive, and the animation is stilted, which really makes it seem less impressive, almost like a botched arcade port. And that raises another question: why an arcade style beat-em-up? The game only has five sprites on screen at any given time, although that might have been a wise decision since there's rarely any slowdown. The Yang Warrior Family throws enemies at the player like an arcade game trying to eat up quarters, and allows the player three lives and three continues. As far as I know, this isn't an actual arcade port, so I'm flummoxed as to why the developers chose not to take advantage of the console's sit-and-play nature and give a bit more thought to stage design and combat system beyond imitating Capcom's arcade beat-em-ups. Because when you get right down to it, the fun of a beat-em-up wanes rather quickly, especially outside of the atmosphere of a dimly lit, smelly arcade.
That said, this is a decent Final Fight knock-off with a fun theme and mediocre graphics. Since practically nobody owns these games and the only people who play them do so in emulation, it would probably be fun to speed through with a friend over netplay. Still, this is a good example of the kind of quality that Chinese developers were capable of outside of really awful Pokemon and Final Fantasy themed hacks and pirate games and multi-carts.


Carnal Scum Carnal Scum 1994

What the hell, Google?

I was checking Google's projected search queries by which my blog might be found. "carnal scum carnal scum 1994" was among the top of the list. (although it yielded no actual traffic, thanks be) I searched throughout the posts from last month and found that the root of the problem probably came from my review of The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks. Still, the only time I use the word "scum" is in reference to weeaboos, and there's certainly nothing in the way of carnality about them that would make for interesting blogging, although I realize that the entirety of live journal would disagree with that. But that's the only blog post in which all of those words are used, except neither "carnal" nor "scum" is used twice, but 1994 is.

Vexing, no?

Even more disconcerting is that "carnal scum carnal scum 1994" shows up, but none of the following: drunken jailbait lesbianism -- Charlene Choi tits -- amourous kitty gaze -- Evangelical White Republican Boogey Man -- Pinko Commie Bohemian Homo Big Foot -- pubic hair petals -- period blood energy drink -- Penis monologue -- wilting ED man -- penis envy -- vagina discussion -- rape jokes -- fetching Indian boobs -- Christopher Doyle.

The Golden Trough: we're classing it up.