June 30, 2009
According to a recent report from the research group Screen Digest, DVD sales declined by 4.7% in 2008, and that Blu-Ray “barely made a dent in the missing revenue”. They conclude that the new format won’t spur “minimal sector growth” until 2010. It’s rapidly becoming clear that VOD (video on demand) will eventually become the dominant form of home entertainment. In a Wall Street Journal article about Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it claims he is “is quickly trying to shift Netflix’s business — seeking to make more videos available online and cutting deals with electronics makers so consumers can play those movies on television sets.” Hastings sees the DVD by mail business to start declining in four years, and hence his deals to stream movies on the XBox and other set-top devices, like the Roku. Packaged discs will not disappear entirely, but will likely lose a large percentage of their market share.
The benefit to consumers in the short term…sales! I recently talked about my cherry-picking of Battleground from the demise of the Virgin Megastores in NYC, but this new downer of a report spurred me to check out what was left of DVD retailers in Manhattan. I waltzed into a small reseller on 14th Street, which was having a massive sale where you could purchase 2 discs for 10 dollars. I ended up with Wilson Yip’s Kill Zone (aka SPL), John Woo’s Hard Boiled, The Buster Keaton Collection from Columbia, and Gremlins 2 (a personal favorite)…all for a total of $20.
In a bit of serendipity, I had just seen HK action guru Wilson Yip’s latest film, Ip Man (2008) at the New York Asian Festival, always one of the highlights of the year (I also recommend Breathless and Crush and Blush). Viewing Kill Zone(2005) and Ip Man back to back was an education in action choreography. Yip can be crushingly conventional in terms of exposition and character development, but when the gloves come off he’s a real virtuoso. Utilizing the same fast-cutting, restlessly mobile camera techniques of recent Hollywood fare (two aspects of what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity” (click on the link for more detail)), Yip manages to stage fight scenes of greater spatial coherence and physical impact than Hollywood counterparts like Paul Greengrass or J.J. Abrams. The stunning finale of the entertainingly overwrought policier Kill Zone, a much ballyhooed showdown between Sammo Hung and star Donnie Yen, takes place in an empty night club, and the fight literally takes center stage.
Maintaining the quick editing pace, Yip still utlizes the classical setup of a long establishing shot (the two combatants face each other), a medium over-the-shoulder shot-countershot (exchanging blows), and then close-ups to emphasize emotional peaks (or in this case, kicks to the solarplexus). The key to this scene is that Yip does not cut in the middle of a gesture – every blow is landed and registered, and his adherence to the classical style keeps their movements oriented in the space. The stage setting alludes to their battle as a dance, as if Hung and Yen were Rogers and Astaire. I suppose they’re fighting it out to see who will lead the next dance.
Astaire’s routines were always filmed in long shot, with his whole body in the frame, and Yip nods to this technique, added with the camera movement required by the more amped up standards of intensified continuity. After the classically edited setup, Yip cuts to an extreme long shot that slowly tracks in to the flailing players as they toss each other to the floor, the dust kicking up like chalk. He also finds a clever way to make Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (based on ground submissions) look exciting. Yen flings the hefty Hung leftward to the ground, battling for the guard position. Yip, in a strikingly low angle at eye-level to the mat, tracks slowly with the duo as Yen eventually wins out and lands a series of rights. The sequence continues, and ramps up appreciably with small-scale wire work and a dramatic conclusion that wraps up one of the dramatic subplots (Hung’s nascent fatherhood). It’s a tour-de-force.
One excuse given as to why films like Taken or the Bourne series don’t have this same kind of coherence is that the actors aren’t as physically trained as martial arts pros like Hung and Yen, and necessarily need stunt doubles, necessitating even faster cuts and less spatial coherence. However, American action films don’t necessarily have to have nuanced fighting styles – just watch the series of haymakers Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston unload on each other in The Big Country (which can be seen in the video slideshow of Dennis Lim’s excellent history of fight choreography at Slate). It’s a stylistic choice, and right now Hollywood filmmakers are making the wrong one. I was initially thrilled by the Bourne series’ propulsive energy, but the more time that passes, the more its fractured editing seems like a dodge.
Ip Man continues Yip’s pattern. This more ambitious title, an bio-pic about Grandmaster Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee and popularized the Wing Chun style of martial arts (interestingly enough, Wong Kar-Wai’s next project is also a bio-pic about the Grandmaster). The film focuses on his life during the Occupation of China during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Grandmaster Ip Man (Donnie Yen) lives a quiet life with his family before the Japanese Imperialists destroy his small town and reduce his pals to coal miners. Ip Man then commences to beat the holy hell out of evey Japanese person in sight. Yip is not big on subtletly, and one of Japanese Genral Miura’s obsequious assistants tips over into racist stereotypes (big teeth, round glasses, into torture, etc.).
However, once more Yip brings the goods in the action sequences: crisp, elegant, and coherently orchestrated bouts of mayhem. Yen also exhibits a wider emotional range here, his stoic laid-backness tinged with regret and anger. He won’t win any awards, but it’s a solid, nuanced performance. In any case, these two works will have me work backwards into Yip’s career. Next up is Flash Point, the middleman between Kill Zone and Ip, and it promises more fluid Donnie Yen bone-breaking. Ah, the neverending riches of cinema.