May 5, 2015


The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars.  Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA, it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.

In the English-speaking world, direct-to-video (or now, direct-to-VOD) films are the lone remaining source of action with more practical stunts than CG. So I took a chance on Skin Trade solely based on the cast: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, and Michael Jai White. Lundgren and White are stalwarts of the DTV cinematic universe, while Jaa is the popular Thai daredevil from Ong Bak, The Protector, and, making inroads into Hollywood, a small role in Furious 7.  Indifferently directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham on what was undoubtedly a tight budget and tighter schedule, this Thai-Canadian co-production has the feel of many DTV films where all the money went into paying the stars and acquiring explosives, with little left for the actual movie in between kabooms (it is receiving distribution from Magnet, Magnolia’s action imprint). If you skip past the first hour of exploitative sexual trafficking drama there are some formidable fight scenes in Skin Trade that pit the smaller and quicker Jaa against lumbering powerhouse Lundgren and the nimbler giant Jai White. Plus there is the pleasure of Ron Perlman, as the main mobster heavy, chewing into his Serbian accent with brio. But it’s no Kung Fu Killer.


In recent months Donnie Yen has mentioned that Ip Man 3, now in production,may be his last action film. Now fifty-one years old, he is in a retrospective mood, and may be ready to ease the beating his body has been taking since he started as a stunt double in the early 1980s. Kung Fu Killer (aka Kung Fu Jungle) has the feel of a greatest hits routine, and the fight scenes are all killer no filler. Donnie Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and former police instructor who was imprisoned for beating his opponent to death in a duel. In jail he follows the story of a serial murderer who seems to be targeting fellow martial artists and slaying them with their own specialty: whether it’s strikes, kicks, weapons or grappling. Hahou detects a pattern in the killer’s targets, and begs Detective Luk Yuen Sum (Charlie Yeung) to release him to help the investigation. She does, of course, and together they track down Fung Yu-Sau (Wang Baoqiang), driven mad by his wife’s sickness. One of Fung’s legs is shorter than the other, and through brutal training has overcome his physical limitations to outfight the greatest kung fu masters in the country. Wang nearly limps away with the movie in a sneeringly emotive performance that reminded me of Lon Chaney in The Penalty.


The story is a delivery system for the fights, and they are all spectacular down to the slightest detail. When you get to a close-up of Yen or Wang’s knuckles, they are bruised black-and-blue. Whether this is makeup or achieved the hard way is irrelevant, but they are established in a world where flesh is vulnerable, and that is enough to heighten the stakes of each battle. To get the attention of the prison guards, Hahou initiates a brawl against seventeen inmates. Against such a large group, Yen employs the Chuy Li Fut martial art, which involves a whipping of the upper body. According to the infallible Wikipedia, Bruce Lee said it was “the most effective system that I’ve seen for fighting more than one person.” Teddy Chen has a penchant for using too many swooping master shots that blur the action, but when he gets closer to the fight itself each impact registers with clarity.


Fung Yu-Sau’s second murder is against the kicking master (Shi Yanneng), which occurs atop a massive art installation of a fictional dinosaur. This quick imaginative bout starts on top of the animal’s spine and travels through its ribcage before it’s neck snapping conclusion. For the grappling expert (Kang Yu) fight, you see the Eagle Claw style of gripping and attacking pressure points, which here occurs in a modern apartment, smashing through aquariums and windows. There is a lot of jockeying for hand position here, and Chen does a good job of matching the close-ups of the grips with the general flow of the action as Fung eventually fells another master. Fung’s fight against the weapons master (Louis Fan) occurs on a movie set as they are preparing a motorcycle stunt. Fung arrives with a saber, stabs an extra through the shoulder, and the director (Joe Cheung, a character actor from In the Mood For Love and dozens of others) skedaddles. This leads to a beautifully orchestrated fencing duel goosed by wirework by exaggerate impacts.


The film uses CG too much for purists, especially in the awesome final showdown between Hahou and Fung, which takes place on a highway at night, as the duo spars with bamboo reeds in between rolling under semi-trucks. I was too wrapped up in the physical feats to ding it too much for lower rent CG. The Hong Kong studios just don’t have the money to get the processing power of Hollywood FX outfits, but I’ll take Donnie Yen with some CG blood spurts if it saves him from injury and on my screen.


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 BoiledThe 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 Zonea 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.