In an effort to save my fragile sanity, I binged on Asian movies for several weeks. I do feel a bit better now, but I’ve also been spectacularly lazy in writing about these flicks. So here we go. I’m going to try to clear out that backlog by covering six movies.
Hold my beer and watch this.
The movies I watched can be divided equally between two genres: fantasy adventures, and wuxia films. Let’s take the wuxia first:
We can even pare this down even further, as I was specializing in movies directed by Chor Yuen from scripts by Ku Long, starring Ti Lung. Those names may not mean much to you, but if they do, you know where I’m coming from. Yuen movies are a pleasant departure from a steady diet of the more popular Chang Cheh blood-and-thunder testosterone epics; the plots are never straightforward and are in fact often more than slightly fantastic, thanks to Ku Long, who also wrote a series of pulpy wuxia novels with vivid characters. Ti Lung was a powerhouse in the Shaw Brothers repertory company, excellent in action scenes and a far more versatile actor than he was often given credit for. Together, these guys made some pretty fabulous movies.
So of course let’s start with the one I didn’t like so much, Jade Tiger (1977). Lung is Chao Wu-chi, son of the head of his clan, whose wedding day is interrupted by the beheading of Dad by his own right-hand man, apparently under the direction of the rival Tang Clan, infamous for their poisoned weapons. Chao must of course ride the vengeance trail to avenge his father, and this trail is going to be full of deceptions, betrayals, double and triple crosses, and lots and lots of tragedy. If you’re looking for an overall metaphor for the plot, it’s the fact that practically every weapon used conceals hidden weapons within, down three layers.
The plot is overly-convoluted (even for a Ku Long script) and darker than jet-blackest Shakespeare, with an equal body count. Chao is going to lose every friend he has and two lady loves. When one of the final fight scenes, between Chao and a Tang who earlier saved his life, has dialogue to the effect of “Why are we fighting?” “I have no idea.” you get the range of bitterness in this conflict. This is a feuding clans wuxia taken to its extremes, and wasn’t quite the escapist fiction I was looking for, but it is a nice vehicle for Ti Lung, proving him more than an action star.
It also skimps on the other thing I love about the Yuen/Long collaborations, the offbeat characters. I wanted to see more of The Red Kid, but I did appreciate The Night Watchman, who is blind, but his glass eyes are really bombs. Still not sure how that works.
Much more to my liking was The Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (1982), which is, unsurprisingly, a sequel to 1977’s The Sentimental Swordsman. Ti Lung reprises his role as Li Chin Huan, ranked third in the World of Martial Arts, but who has retired from that world after the tragic events of the first movie (well, that and he is suffering from consumption). The dude in charge of making that ranked list urges him to come back, because, as usual, some evil bastard is trying to take over the World of Martial Arts. This time it is the head of the Money Clan, Shangguan Jinhong and his prime weapon is Ching Wu-ming, “The Left-Handed Sacred Knife” (Alexander Fu Sheng). Li must find his old friend, An Fei, who has similarly retired, but is under the power of a seductive, evil woman Lin Xianher (Kara Hui) who is slowly turning him into an alcoholic.
Lin winds up seducing just about everybody in the villain cast (for some reason this does not count for ranking in the world of martial arts), further ruining An Fei and driving him deeper into drink; he finally sobers up when he realizes Li is going to face Shangguan and Ching Wu-ming alone, and goes to stand with his friend in the final battle. The whole cast is really great here; Fu Sheng shows off why he was going to be a superstar before his untimely death in a car wreck in 1983. Lo Lieh has a memorable extended cameo as mercenary beggar Hu Gu, a charming rogue.
That ranked list of martial artists is quite important to the plot’s unfolding, as fighters test each other and try to increase their postings, resulting in plentiful fight scenes. Li, as number three, is such a badass that he goes into battle with only his fan, administering the final blow with deadly accurate throwing knives. Shangguan is, of course, number two. Have eight minutes of swordplay:
Now, just to confuse things, let’s move on to Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman. This is confusing because it is not a sequel to the two Sentimental Swordsman movies, but a sequel to Killer Clans and Clans of Intrigue. Ti Lung this time is Chu Liu-chang (as he was in those two Clans movies), aiding the marketing department by once more just carrying a fan into battle. Gone are Li Chin Huan’s throwing knives and tubercular cough – if Chu needs a weapon, he just takes it from whoever he’s fighting.
As usual, there is a convoluted fake-out plot to frame Chu for attempted murder, so he can get into the Ghostly Village, a sort of martial arts El Rey where fighters on the lam hide out. The Village is run by the mysterious Old Hawk, who is always masked and surrounded by five fighters dressed like him; one of the things Chu must discover is his identity. The other is what exactly the Old Hawk might be planning, and it is, of course, taking over the world of Martial Arts, using the combined might of the Village’s current inhabitants.
There’s the usual switcheroos and complications. Lo Lieh is in the mix, and since it’s Lo Lieh, you can be pretty sure he’s not what he first appears to be. And if nothing else, you have the line, “You’re a slut just like your sister, but her kung fu was better.” Overall, an entertaining time. Of these three movies, Return was my clear favorite, though Perils does have its charms.
The other subgenre I mentioned was fantasy adventure, and here once more I find that I need to lay out a bit of pontification.
There was an intriguing phrase/criticism of Jupiter Ascending I read months before actually watching the movie: “We’ve hit peak FX.” This may indeed be true, and I wasn’t sure why that should be considered a bad thing. We’re always going to have simple, straightforward, realistic movies – they are cheap to produce, and they fulfill a deep-seated need to see ourselves in stories unfurling before us, stories that might actually happen. But I rejoice that we are finally approaching the point where artists can actually put what is in their minds onscreen with a fair amount of accuracy, budget allowing.
So you can bitch all you want about bad CGI. It exists, to be sure, but to employ a metaphor calling back to one of my former loves, comics, I seem to be able to regard it as more like the difference between a page drawn by Don Heck and a page drawn by John Severin. One is more realistic than the other, more detailed and to my liking – but both are valid expressions. I can usually overlook obvious CGI if the story is engaging.
Now, having laid that down, let’s start with a movie that’s been on my watchlist for some time, The Sorcerer and the White Snake. First, let’s point out that there is no actual sorcerer in the movie, it’s Jet Li as Fahei, the Abbot of a nearby temple who is heavily into kicking demon ass and imprisoning them in a mirror to hopefully contemplate and reform their wicked ways. The White Snake is played by Eva Huang, a Snake Demon who rescues a herbalist, Xian Xu (Raymond Lam) from a mean-spirited prank by her sister Green Snake (Charlene Choi). White becomes obsessed with Xian, assuming human form and eventually falling in love and even marrying him, much to the disgust of Green.
At this point there are two parallel story lines, but you can be pretty sure that eventually the streams will cross. Fahei’s apprentice, Ren (Wen Zhang) has a meet cute with Green in her human form while he’s hunting for a Bat Demon at a village festival. Ren makes short work of the demon’s assistants, but the Bat itself is too powerful and bites Ren before Fahei vanquishes it. Ren starts becoming a bat demon himself, with the result that Green can no longer totally dismiss White’s love for Xian, because she’s falling for the morphing monk.
A plague later hits the village, and Xian works himself nearly to death trying to find a cure for it. Fahei knows the plague is carried by fox demons which he captures in short order, and meantime White is supplementing Xian’s medicine with her own vital essence to renew the villagers’ strength. It is this act which causes Fahei to let her go when he inevitably tracks her down, but he warns her to leave Xian and return to the world of demons – which of course she will not do. There is a confrontation during which Xian unwittingly mortally wounds her in her snake form, and must steal the legendary Spirit Root from the Abbey to cure her – but the Spirit Root powers the Mirror Prison, and all the trapped demons possess Xian.
Cured, White and Green stage an attack on the Abbey, refusing to believe Fahei and the monks are trying to exorcise and save Xian. The ensuing battle is suitably cataclysmic and fantastic, and the end satisfyingly bittersweet.
Really, the worst thing you can say about Sorcerer and the White Snake is that the movie is completely schizophrenic, alternating between tender love story and ass-kicking Jet Li movie. The good news is that both those sides of the movie are really good, and if one is not to your liking, the other will be back around in a few minutes. Director Ching Siu Tung we already knew could handle the action scenes. It’s gratifying to know he can handle a love story sensitively, too. Jet Li apparently didn’t enjoy making this movie, having first been told there was minimal fighting in it (there’s not) and then in most of the fights he was up against people with no training and had to hold back while they went all out – very tiring. As ever, though, he’s amazing and the movie is frequently beautiful.
And now let us speak of The Monkey King. I have a fascination with the Chinese epic Journey to the West and its many filmic interpretations, ever since a chance viewing of Alakazam the Great when I was a child. Stephen Chow’s 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was one of my favorite movies that year, and I threw a bunch of people into chairs to make them watch it. The Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey/Monkey Magic is also tons of goofy fun, and I drag it out every few months for my own entertainment.
The last few years have seen a ton of Journey movies besides Chow’s, and it was way past time to watch two of them, I decided, especially since the first one, The Monkey King, has Donnie Yen in the title role – Sun Wukong, The Monkey King.
Unlike a lot of the Journey movies, which start with Wukong’s partnership with the monk Sha Seng, Monkey King is truly an origin story, showing how Wukong was born in a magic crystal left over after a war between the Demons (led by Bull Demon Aaron Kwok) and the Celestial City ruled by the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). As Wukong grows up, he is mentored by Master Puti (Hai Yitian), who finds him a powerful but undisciplined and unfocused student. Meanwhile the Bull Demon is scheming with a dissatisfied Captain of the Celestial City (Peter Ho) to once again attack the Heavenly Palace and overthrow the Jade Emperor – but he needs the power of Sun Wukong, and so begins a plan to beguile and trick the vain, silly monkey.
The Uproar In Heaven, which will eventually cause Wukong to be imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years by the Buddha to meditate and improve himself, is usually glossed over, but here it is front and center, as the Bull Demon convinces Sun Wukong the Jade Emperor killed all his monkey subjects and his best friend, a fox demon (Xia Zetong). It’s a pretty amazing sequence, actually living up to its buildup.
This is one of the movies where people are going to bitch endlessly about the CGI, and phooey on them. A lot of this is like a children’s storybook come to magical life, and I don’t expect photorealism from that. Hell, I have no idea what a dragon horse really looks like, and neither do any of the people complaining.
Donnie Yen of course absolutely rocks the action scenes, but he also puts in sterling work on the lighter side of the character. He is a playful, cheeky, often utterly infuriating but still endearing Sun Wukong. The movie is apparently pretty faithful to the opening chapters of the source material, so I’ll forgive it the slow spots.
The Monkey King 2, however, is a different creature. Sun Wukong is freed by the monk Sha Seng (Him Law) and tasked to aid him on his journey. Those 500 years under the mountain have changed Sun Wukong – for one thing, Donnie Yen was booked and he is now played by Aaron Kwok (ironic considering his role in the last movie). He’s a lot surlier, too. We do miss the sillier aspects of Yen’s portrayal.
In short order, we have also added river demon Tang Seng (William Feng) and pig demon Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shen Yang). Wukong has the power of the “fiery gaze”, which allows him to see through demons’ disguises (which results in him beating the hell out of his two future comrades). That’s going to prove handy as they approach a city where they are told the White Bone Demon (Gong Li, luminous as ever) is stealing away children. It’s going to turn out to be not as simple as that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the demon wants to eat Sha Seng, which will make her immortal.
The story backs over itself annoyingly a few times, the worst offense being White Bone using her shapechanging powers to drive a wedge between Sha Seng and Wukong, using the same trick twice. The others can’t see demons as he can, and assume he’s just a murder monkey, eventually causing Sha Seng to send him away. The Monkey King is gone perhaps five seconds before White Bone carries the monk away from the comparatively ineffectual river and pig demons.
Nevertheless, Tang and Zhu will mount a brave attempt to rescue Sha Seng – eventually joined by Wukong, of course – as the FX kick into high gear. Dave and I used to think that the Giant Flying Skull Made of Hundreds of Regular-Sized Flying Skulls in Legend of Zu was the Ultimate Metal Effect, but this time we will get a Giant Skeleton Made of Hundreds of Skeletons. It would make many stoners say “Duuuuuuuuuuude” if they ever got this far.
Honestly, most of the time I spent watching this I was thinking, “This is the movie Snow White and the Huntsman wanted to be, but couldn’t manage.” It maintains a nice storybook reality, and the FX are excellent and in service to the story.
So this “short piece” is approaching 3000 words, and I want to get it online so I can concentrate on the holidays without guilt. Please have the Happy Holiday of your choice, and though I probably won’t see you until next year, have a happy new one, and above all: Have a Kung Fu Christmas.
The Retrun of the Sentimental Swordsman is available on Amazon Video
– free if you’re a Prime subscriber!
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