Mortal Kombat (Paul W. S. Anderson, 1995)

Well, it was on my mind because of my (relatively) recent review of Robert Tai’s Death Cage, and the new Mortal Kombat X debuts this week, and it’s almost the twentieth anniversary of its release, so I watched Mortal Kombat today.

It’s tempting just to post the Cinema Sins youtube video here and call it a day, but I think there are actually some interesting aspects to Paul W. S. Anderson’s first of many video game movies. I grant that the story and dialog are preposterous, the fight choreography generally mediocre, and that it fails to really bring to the cinema screen what really made the games so entertaining: the absolutely senseless and incredibly silly gore and violence.

It was also that profoundly entertaining element that made Mortal Kombat, in both game and movie form, one of the forbidden fruits from my admittedly odd early years. My parents did not allow me to play the games or see the movie. I managed to play them anyway, usually waiting until they were out of sight when at the pizza parlor arcade to play it, an occasion rare enough that I became pretty good at the Fighting Vipers machine next to it in the narrow corridor that held the arcade games. Kids would gather around to see how far I would get on one credit (usually a match or two away from the final boss), while I would be looking over my shoulder to see if my mom or dad was still watching by the door so I could spend a couple of quarters on a game of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. Helicopter parents. They certainly made some mundane childhood shit seem like an adventure.
And it’s that nostalgia that you have to have in order to enjoy anything in the Mortal Kombat feature film. You have to like that era of awful looking nineties CGI effects and forget all about the Hong Kong movies that were being made at the same time. The aesthetic is very much a product of a time when Hong Kong movies were even less a mainstream thing than they are now, and anime and manga and other Asian media too. So you get this weird mix of western fantasy elements, kung fu movie tropes and imagery -- “Bruce Lee” (scare quotes necessary) and ninjas particularly -- run through a silly ass game of telephone, and American action movie and comic book cliches to make up not only an aesthetic but a diegetic melange.

And this applied then to both the games and the movie and the sequel and the cartoon and the comics and etc. And even now, to the games and to the fan films and licensed media and etc.
See what I mean?
So the movie follows the story of the first game, with the focus mostly on Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), and Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), falling into the titular fighting tournament that will determine whether Shao Khan gets the right to invade Earthrealm. The ruler of Outworld must win ten consecutive mortal kombat tournaments to gain the permission of the elder gods to invade, and his team has won nine. Liu Kang wants to fight Shang Tsung (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, devouring the scenery), while Sonya hunts down Kano (Trevor Goddard), who killed her partner, and Johnny Cage wants to prove he’s not a fake. They get help from Raiden (Christopher Lambert) and Kitana (Talisa Soto, too beautiful to actually matter) as they fight against Shang Tsung’s incompetent guards. They defeat iconic characters from the games, like Goro, Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile. And there’s a handful of incidental characters not from the games, like Art.
Art gets killed by Goro, it’s a big deal to everyone except the audience; we’ve seen him once before, briefly.
And it goes how you’d expect it to. Lots of talk about destiny, about how the characters need to “face the enemy, face yourself, face your greatest fear.” All of it’s meaningless. We just wanna see the fights damnit! Movies like this don’t need a plot or a story. They need a premise. Thankfully Mortal Kombat has it, and mostly delivers.

At least eighty percent of this movie is fight scenes. And I believe it was Seanbaby who first pointed out that in Mortal Kombat, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a backflip. The cgi effects are dated. Characters randomly appear in deserted orchards or cliff sides to duel. There’s some funny death scenes (all of them, really). And the set design is very much that weird blend I went through some length describing above.

If you like this sort of thing at all, it’s pretty glorious. 
And part of why it’s glorious is that the cast is pretty game for it. Linden Ashby, in particular, seems to be having a really great time as a non-martial artist playing a martial artist who makes movies while being accused of being a non-martial artist. “You can’t fake those moves...” Art says in the only scene he figures into before getting killed by Goro. Well no, no you can’t. He’s performing them all right. Doing them on a resisting opponent though...

Ashby gets to deliver some actually funny lines to: “What if the legends were true!” breathlessly exclaims Robin Shou as Liu Kang. “What legends?” Ashby’s Cage responds.

Christopher Lambert and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa are on opposite ends of the awful spectrum. Hiroyuki-Tagawa is well into so-bad-it’s-good territory, relishing lines like “flawless victory” and “your soul is mine” with such hammy delight that it’s hard not to smile. Paul W. S. Anderson even mentions in one behind-the-scenes featurette that the crew was constantly imitating him. Christopher Lambert is just awful. But he’s always awful. He’s even worse in the sequel. Brigette Wilson doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, which makes her perfect.
Some of that great Pat Johnson fight choreography
And Robin Shou? He’s there to be a badass. And he is. And here’s the interesting thing about his presence: this is one of the movies that came out before The Matrix that really tried to capture some of the Hong Kong action magic in a Hollywood package. There’s a handful of these from the nineties which vary pretty widely in succeeding at that goal , but I think it worked out perfectly for Mortal Kombat because Mortal Kombat was never a very good imitation of the kung fu genre that partly inspired it.

Pat Johnson’s fight choreography is pretty staid Hollywood stuff, for the most part. You can see some guys from the periphery of martial arts cinema in bit parts. Hakim Alston (of “WMAC Masters” fame, lol) gets a nice fight scene with Robin Shou, for instance. Pat Johnson’s choreography does shine when performed by these guys though, which probably has far more to do with them than it does with him.

So Mortal Kombat is incredibly silly, badly dated, and just utter nonsense, but if it’s your kind of nonsense, then it’s only gotten better -- more fetid really -- with age. And with the new game coming out and its twentieth anniversary a few month away, it’s a perfect time to enjoy it. And dat theme song!


Kickboxer (Mark Disalle and David Worth, 1989)

At the beginning of my review of the odd Toby Russel/Robert Tai feature Death Cage, I listed off a bunch of movies that I remembered. Surprisingly enough, I failed to recall Kickboxer, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s follow up to his (I assume) biggest film, Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988). Come to think of it, I didn’t even think of Bloodsport, initially. The similarities between Kickboxer and Death Cage are pretty striking, actually. Both feature location shooting in Thailand by non-Thai crews and Thai characters played by non-Thai actors. Even the martial arts choreography featured in both are
less than representative of actual Thai kickboxing.

Kickboxer tells the story of Kurt Sloan (Van Damme), the brother and corner-man of cocky kickboxing champ Eric Sloan (Dennis Alexio, an actual heavyweight kickboxing champ), who learns Muay Thai from Xian Chow (Hong Kong actor Dennis Chan), in order to avenge a crushing defeat of his brother at the hands of Tong Po (Michel Qissi) which has left him a paraplegic. Of course, the Thai boxing promotion is corrupt, with crime bosses exercising control over local territory with threats and violence. They don’t really want to see Kurt Sloan beat their guy, so they resort to underhanded methods, like kidnapping Xian Chow’s niece Mylee (Rochelle Ashana) and raping her, and holding Eric hostage. How this makes more sense than just shooting Kurt and killing him makes little sense (he will later die offscreen by this method in one of the sequels).

Kickboxer is quite risible. Structurally, it resembles its Hong Kong peers, setting up its simple revenge premise early, devoting a large portion of its run-time to training sequences, complicating the circumstances surrounding the final brawl, albeit according to some very Hollywood action movie conventions (raped girlfriends and whatnot were not the go to plot point for the Hong Kong martial arts genre) and ends the whole thing cleanly with a victory for the protagonist.

That’s not what makes it laughable. The humor comes from different sources, mostly related to the writing. There is some incredibly leaden expository dialog from the brothers Sloan, explaining why one of them has a Belgian accent, which resembles a real conversation between actual people the way that Van Damme and Michel Qissi’s fight choreography resembles actual Muay Thai. The acting by non-actors Van Damme and Alexio is, to put it nicely, quite apt for the writing here.

There’s also a typical Hollywood Black Guy named Winston (Haskell Anderson), who introduces Sloan to Xian, and mostly jabbers about how he doesn’t want to get involved. Mylee is eye-candy and designated love interest, who also has the important job of getting raped to provide extra motivation for Slaon, but since she doesn’t tell him before the fight, and he only gets angrier upon finding out, even this seems like it was pretty damn unnecessary. Why let her go after the fact? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep her hostage if they wanted to mess with Sloan’s performance?

In spite of the fact that audiences and US film makers are far more sensitive about this sort of thing in the 2010’s than they ever were during the 1980’s, these character types are still relatively prevalent. We still get the typical Hollywood Black Guy and still have pretty designated inter-racial girlfriends. We even still have wizened Asian martial arts masters of indeterminate nationality and age. What we don’t usually have is the slope-browed antagonist played by an actor literally against genetic type. Michel Qissi’s character and performance would be accused of being horrifically racist caricature there days. And there would probably be more people describing Kickboxer that way if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing is so endlessly silly that to take it seriously...

Let’s just say you can’t.

I actually really enjoy these earlier Jean-Claude Van Damme films. The fight scenes are preposterous, as are the training sequences. But while the fight choreography and even the shooting and editing might compare poorly to the same from Hong Kong during the same period (keep in mind that Jackie Chan was making films like Police Story 2 and Miracles around this time), the training sequences are definitely fun to watch.

I think the most interesting thing, when comparing Kickboxer to Death Cage, is that Death Cage apparently saw release in advance of Kickboxer. In other words, it isn’t a rip-off, one presumes. And a lot of the similarities can be accounted for by the nature of the productions. Each feature a Thai setting and Muay Thai, but neither utilize the local stunt talent, which, given the talent of Panna Rittikrai's crew even at this point, probably prevented them from being sorely upstaged. Smart move there. And so that may be why each feature so much ersatz Chinese martial arts in the training sequences. But at least Death Cage tells the audience that Mark Long is teaching Robin Shou Chinese Boxing. Kickboxer just throws in some Tai Chi looking stuff and calls it a day.

All said, I liked Kickboxer well enough. It’s hilarious to watch now, so transparent and goofy, that even the cornucopia of politically incorrectness can’t possibly be considered offensive by (the following word is important to read) normal people. As said, the fight choreography, which was once the film’s raison d’etre, is part of its unintended humor. But that's the appeal. And although he's no Roy Chiao, Dennis Chan is a plays a pretty grand martial arts master. And we get plenty of the rest of that dated, goofy appeal that make Van Damme so watchable. Like him doing the splits and dancing. Dancing seems to be a common denominator in movies I enjoy these days. Good times.


Death Cage (Robert Tai, 1988)

Death Cage reminded me a lot of Soul of Chiba (Yukio Noda, 1977) in one particular way: it’s set in Thailand with a totally not Thai cast. It also reminded me of a bunch of other movies, like Mortal Kombat (Paul Anderson, 1995) and Bloodfight (Shuji Goto, 1988), as well as the more recent Shamo (Soi Cheang, 2007). It reminds me of the former two mostly because it was marketed internationally on home video as a sequel to each. One assumes the Mortal Kombat connection is because Robin Shou plays the lead in both films, and home video releases of martial arts movies have never been wholly ethical when it comes to marketing and presentation, a problem that persists to this day, regardless of the size or prestige of the publisher in question. The Bloodfight connection is remarkably tenuous, given that the only similarity between the two is pro-fighting aspect. To be honest, Shamo just plain feels like a throwback to movies like this, which is why I kinda liked it.
Death Cage is a Robert Tai directed (some sources say co-directed with Chai Man Sam) Mafia vs. Ninja (Robert Tai, 1985) and Shaolin Vs Ninja (Robert Tai, 1983). This should be some clue as to what you can expect from Death Cage.
co-production between Lan Tien Motion Picture Co. Ltd. and Golden Sun Film (H.K.) Co. Golden Sun was the producer or distributor for a number of earlier projects involving Robert Tai, such as

Again, the movie is set in Thailand, and it opens with an in-ring fight between the fighters from the Wai Chai gym and Kent’s Gym (yes, that’s the proper name). The Kent’s Gym fighters win nine matches (the first eight happen before the title scroll), and finally Nam See Hon (Robin Shou) goes up against the wild man Lai Chai, who cheats to win with some brass knuckles. Things get worse when Kent’s Gym owner, Mr. Kent (Joe Lewis), buys the property to Wai Chai gym out from under them, forcing See Hon, his godfather, and his adopted sister, Linda, to open a garage on the outskirts of Bangkok, where they are routinely harassed by thuggish lads who train at Kent’s gym.

Then along comes Tang Chuan (Mark Long), along with his daughter Tsu Chiu. Uncle Tang, as he’s referred to by See Hon, Linda, and Michael, the other guy at the garage and See Hon’s training partner, is a kung fu master, who demonstrates his ability by sanding the paint off of a car really fast. See Hon wants to train in his style, which he obliges. In the meantime, See Hon is annoyed by Linda running off with Bikin (Steve Tartalia), who she meets when he brings a car in to be fixed.
Mr. Kent finds it hard to put on exciting matches and profiteer off of gambling without Wai Chai gym around to provide competition, so he challenges See Hon to another match with his fighters by spreading posters promoting a fight before he even contacts See Hon or his godfather, with the stipulation that they get their gym back if See Hon wins, which they accept, of course. We see a potentially important scene in which Bikin gives Linda a bottle with some powder that he says was prepared by Tibetan monks to give strength to martial artists. She thanks him and he then tells her that she should show her thanks, which is then followed by the most cringe inducing makeout scene that thankfully cuts out before it transitions its elicited response from “cringe” to “vomit.”
The face of ecstasy
The powder is not a magic kung fu supplement, which should surprise nobody, but some sort of sedative or something, which Linda (of course) give See Hon without telling him or her godfather or even querying them over the subject. So See Hon is fighting Lai Chai, he in his now trademark leather caveman skirt and half-top, while stumbling about in his blue spandex body-suit and going blind. He remembers some words of wisdom from Uncle Tang though, and overcomes the effects of the drug and then beats the shit out of Lai Chai. Then Bikin jumps in the ring, flings the referee out, and starts fighting See Hon, managing to lose.

Gwai Lo actors just don’t have any luck in these movies.

Anyhow, Bikin then gets yelled at by Mr. Kent, and is forced to train. Wai Chai gym is reopened, and, in easily the least believable part of the story, everyone forgives that poisoning slut Linda. So all is well right? Well, no. There’s still plenty of movie left. More thugs show up to fight See Hon, this time with swords. See Hon beats them up a bit before getting stabbed and cut a whole bunch, but Uncle Tang arrives in time to save him. Then they kidnap Linda, so Uncle Tang goes and beats up the thugs handily. Unfortunately, Mr. Kent has dispatched his two female bodyguards, Billy and Jennifer, to fight Uncle Tang. They actually kill him too, using a sheer blouse as a net to tie him up, slashing his face with their sharp nails (again, not kidding), and finally stabbing him.

So See Hon goes inland to train with some monks, of which we see only one scene, where he fights a monkey kung fu guy (again, shades of Soul of Chiba here), while his godfather gets kidnapped by Mr. Kent’s thugs and Tsu Chiu takes revenge on Billy and Jennifer, in what actually turns out to be the best fight scene in the movie. This forces See Hon to return to Bangkok to fight Bikin in the eponymous death cage, an ovoid bamboo fort around a wood platform with sharp bamboo poles and wooden stakes pointing inwards. The finale goes as expected.

Death Cage is actually a pretty odd movie. The story is quite predictable -- we know who is going to win the big fights, for certain -- but it does not always follow the well worn beats of the genre. Who would expect, for instance, that See Hon would actually get sliced up by a bunch of random mooks wielding swords? That question sounds utterly ridiculous in reality. It is wholly unbelievable that anybody could beat up seven or eight guys who have long blades and are ganging up on him. But genre movies are not concerned with mimesis unless they are trying to subvert the generic expectation, or unless the writers and directors seemingly made stuff up as they went haphazardly.

But there are interesting things that don’t seem to be the result of merely “make it up as you go” writing. The training montage sequence gets flipped on its head, as Steve Tartalia’s Bikin is the one who gets the pounding music to scenes of wrestling with John Ladalski dressed as a stereotypical kung fu movie Mongolian and practicing tameshiwari on porcelain vases and performing martial arts forms. For the bad guy to get a training montage is unusual enough, but it’s actually a bit longer than the one given Robin Shou’s Nam See Hon. That training montage is interesting in its own right. 

You would expect that training with the traditional Chinese martial artist would involve lots of form work and Chi Kung and whatnot, but it actually is a mix up between the typical kung fu movie training sequence and the sort of thing one might see in a boxing film. Robin Shou even performs squats! With a home-made barbell to boot! Also some totally insane and unbelievable road-work.

Alas, it isn’t all that interesting. The biggest let down in Death Cage is, unexpectedly, the fight scenes. Say what you want about Robert Tai (and some people have), but do not try to deny that he was a genuinely creative fight choreographer. Sadly, that creativity did not translate terribly well from his usual period setting to a contemporary boxing ring. These are not Muay Thai style fights, but some sort of bare-knuckle, catch-as-can fights with undefined rules and a referee who is only in frame occasionally. There’s grappling and elbows and joint locks. It seems a bit like Robert Tai and co-action director Alexander Lo Rei (we’ll have to talk about him some day) saw some of the “shoot” style pro-wrestling taking place in Japan during the 1980’s and tried to replicate it with Hong Kong action choreography. Unfortunately, the grappling is largely silly, and while the striking exchanges are competent, they are not exciting, looking much like what one would typically see in any period set martial arts movie.

Not a brohug, actually. They're grappling.
And it carries on to the finale in the cage. There’s some wire work that looks awfully dodgy, although it is generally reserved for when somebody gets kicked really hard. Truth be told, Robert Tai’s wire work was always inventive, but rarely well realized on screen. It’s neither here.

That said, the editing is the worst during these fight scenes. HK and Taiwanese film makers of this
era did not pay much attention to spatial continuity during fight scenes, but tight editing usually helps to mask this. It fails here, and so we are left to wonder at when fighters made their way ten or fifteen feet across a flat surface in a matter of milliseconds.

But for all that, Death Cage is not terrible. The interesting parts, in my opinion, make for a fun diversion. Squats!

I enjoyed it enough, but then, I am easily entertained by this sort of thing. The simple pleasures of the genre are often enough to make even poorly conceived and sub-par excursions like Death Cage bearable, even enjoyable.


The Scroll of White Crane Wing Chun (Leung Kar Yan, 2014)

Leung Kar-Yan directed a new movie! And it’s on YouTube! It’s got kung fu! And a new star as a protagonist!

But it sucks.

The movie opens with a text scroll which is un-subtitled. So whatever context it provides was lost on me, but it doesn’t seem to be terribly important. We then see the attractive young lady Fan (Zhao Cong) hanging out with her old friend Jerry (Young Jung). She has recently returned from Taiwan, tasked by her grandfather, Chen Gorbon (Leung Kar-Yan) with returning an antique scroll to the village where it was made. Jerry is being annoying. He annoys Fan the character, and the audience, and likely the actress playing her. This will be a recurring theme. Some guys try to steal the scroll she’s carrying on her person, so she chases them in split screen (not kidding here), and they end up getting beaten up by a beefy construction worker. This action scene is not a great start.

Fan hasn’t even contacted her sister or her boyfriend just yet. So she gives them a call and they agree to meet up the next day. Her sister, Xing (Shen Fangxi) whiles the time away hanging out with Fan’s boyfriend, Young (Jerry Liau), who practices Wing Chun and break dances in the park with a guy named Bozzy.

Fan is staying in a hotel for her first night back in Hong Kong, apparently paid for by the town committee to whom she is returning the scroll. She gets attacked, again, by a bunch of random thugs, awaking with just enough time before they barge in to put a robe on over her underwear. Sadly, this is not a straight up cheesecake fight.

The person sending the thugs to steal the scroll is Boss (Tong Zeng Ye) who looks like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers and collects antiques. Why he’s so obsessed with stealing the scroll is kind of beyond me. He appears in interminable comic relief scenes with his right hand man Fei (character actor Wong Yat Fei). These scenes are just awful and will not be mentioned again; they exist solely to provide a reason for why some random thug has come to fight Fan or Young.

So the movie proceeds. Fan, Xing, Young, and Jerry all hang out together, acting silly and flirting. Young and Fan have been a couple for seven years and haven’t gotten married yet, while Jerry and Xing obviously like each other but can’t be arsed to just get together and be done with it. Fan repeatedly remarks that the two are immature, but there’s little difference between their behavior and Young and Fan’s. The whole thing eventually leads to a weird moment where the four track down Grandpa Chen’s long lost love, Jen (Cheng Pei-Pei), and she tragically cries to him over skype. No joke. This lights a fire under everyone to take their relationships seriously. 

So its getting closer to the day where the scroll gets handed over, and Fan has it hidden really well, so now the people who want to steal the scroll are just outright attacking. Xing gets kidnapped, and Jerry chases down the van they pack her into on his bike. It conveniently runs out of gas, and Jerry attempts to intimidate the thugs with some Bruce Lee-ish nunchaku play. He and Fan are saved by that same beefy construction worker, who then performs mouth to mouth resuscitation on Jerry after he hits himself with his own weapon. Lame.

Then Fan gets attacked by a big group of thugs, which she takes out handily and without any tension to draw the audience in. Finally, Young gets attacked by a white guy (Roberto Gilabert), and they have a drawn out, really decent fight scene. It’s easily the highlight of the movie.

It ends with a photo montage of the four handing over the scroll, then a final scene of them acting silly. This time they have “old makeup” and a couple of cute kids to join them, letting the audience know that everyone ended up together and apparently grew really old before they finally decided to reproduce.

So why does this movie suck? Based on the above summary, it sounds like fight scene after fight scene. But, in the same tradition as 2011’s Choy Lee Fut, there’s a lot of talking, a lot of pouty faces and flirting and nonsense. This is another attempt to marry some lightly delivered romance with typical kung fu. This has happened to the genre before; in the 70’s and 80’s there was concerted effort to make kung fu comedies. Some of these were great, most of them really kind of sucked.
I’m still waiting for the good examples of kung fu romantic comedies coming out of China and Hong Kong. Recommendations are entirely welcome here. The Scroll of White Crane Wing Chun is unfortunately much heavier on the romantic comedy than Choy Lee Fut was. And that romantic comedy is painful. I’ll say this: the four leads are all terribly cute. Obnoxiously cute. I want to say rude things to Shen Fangxi and hear her squeak out “ewwww.” Instant.

But you can only take so much annoying and not especially well acted flirty behavior. It wears thin so fast, and the only thing that keeps you watching is the fights, but before every fight, you get an even more annoying sequence with the Big Boss and Fei. These are even worse. I don’t fault Young Jung for his performance; he’s playing the material he’s given and he isn’t obnoxious himself. He even manages one or two funny expressions, and his dancing (as well as Jerry Liau’s) is amusing, shades of Mismatched Couples. I have similar thoughts about Wong Yat Fei’s performance. The problem is the writing here.

It takes a really strong script to merge such disparate genres. Think something like Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), which has characters that are so well drawn (and acted) that they’re interesting whether they bicker about relationships or are getting mauled by zombies. The whole kung fu romantic comedy idea could work, if the characters are as interesting when they flirt or bicker as when they bust out the kung fu. The characters in The Scroll of White Crane Wing Chun aren’t even interesting when they fight because there’s so little to them. They’re endlessly cheerful and silly, and that’s it.

Jerry Liau does get to bring some personality to his character in two fight scenes. The first is a fight with a Japanese fighter who wears a gi and fights with karate and katanas. Liau’s character is drunk during their confrontation and is cocky and obnoxious. Then in the climax against Roberto Gilabert, He rips off his shirt, busts out some dance moves, Bruce Lee screeches, and a cocky attitude. This is great, and the movie needed more of it. A lot more, and for the other characters too. The only thing that impressed me about Zhao Cong as Fan, for instance, was that she looked pretty good in her panties.
Enjoy :)
Anyhow, this was awful. Watch it on YouTube, if you must. 

The one thing that I do think was good about this movie, with its tv-serial cinematography, weird weepy scene with Cheng Pei-Pei, and obnoxious script and characters, was Jerry Liau. He was a contestant on Jackie Chan’s reality show, which looked for new talent for making action movies. He’s got a really good look to him, and he can move. If he can get into a real movie, he’ll have people following him pretty closely, I would be willing to bet.


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.


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.


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.