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Posts Tagged ‘martial arts’

If you look at a typical episode of a Marvel Comics TV show nowadays, it will likely concern some sort of ninja death cult, or high-tech arms dealing, or demonically-inspired parallel world capers about evil androids. But it was not ever thus, and the most successful of Marvel’s shows from years gone by was usually a little more quotidian in its emphasis – sometimes jarringly so, from a modern perspective.

A Child in Need (written by Frank Dandridge) is an episode transmitted as part of the second season of The Incredible Hulk, late in 1978, although it was apparently intended for the first season (held back for behind the scenes reasons). The past is another country, of course, but given the subject matter of this particular episode, it seems particularly ironic that at its start perennial drifter and serial utiliser of transparent pseudonyms David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) has managed to land a job as groundskeeper at an ordinary school in Everytown USA. Personally I would have said that dealing with dozens of children every day was not a good idea for someone with his particular anger management issues, but this is what the plot requires.

Anyway, Banner befriends Mark (Dennis Dimster), a lonely 10-year-old boy, and notices his arms are badly bruised. The school nurse (Rebecca York) casually mentions that Mark falls over and bruises himself quite a lot, which of course sets Banner with his brilliant medical brain to thinking there may be something unpleasant going on in Mark’s domestic situation – he tracks down Mark’s mother to ask her about this, only to find she shows signs of having been beaten up as well.

It is, needless to say, Mark’s dad Jack (Sandy McPeak) who is responsible (although the episode is painstaking in making it clear that responsibility is a relative thing in this situation). He comes from a rough background himself, likes a drink a bit too much, and so on. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to Banner inserting himself into his family’s business, and various confrontations ensue, some of which turn violent and conclude with Banner being pushed over fences and into closets, and generally finding himself in obscure locations from which the Hulk can emerge a few moments later, intent on doing his somewhat simple-minded bit for child welfare.

You might think the episode itself sounds rather simple-minded, but I would rather describe it as heart-felt and it is, as usual, driven along by an exemplary performance from Bixby. You do question quite why Banner finds himself so driven to help Mark with his problems – it’s not just a case of Banner’s usual incorruptible decency, he almost seems to be taking it quite personally. Anyone savvy with the later years of the comic may recall that the book’s Banner was the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father (it was suggested this was to some extent the root cause of his odd condition) and it would be tempting to speculate that Banner sees something of himself in Mark – however, a later episode focusing on Banner’s own family background would suggest otherwise.

As I say, Banner does seem to let his concerns get the better of him, rather – I’m guessing this is not the episode they show to ancillary school staff as part of their induction training. Banner admittedly has his own very good reasons for wanting to stay off the authorities’ radar, but even so, for him to be doing such a Lone Ranger act, spending so much one-on-one time with a vulnerable minor, and even taking him back to his apartment – I normally tune most of the way out during welfare training where I work, but even I know these are exceptionably unwise things to be doing.

But hey, it was the 1970s, and the episode also makes the conspiracy of silence Banner has to contend with quite clear: the school nurse doesn’t want to get involved, fearing she’ll lose her job, and nobody else in the neighbourhood wants to bring down the wrath of Jack on themselves, either. If nothing else, I suppose episodes like this did a valuable service in opening up serious issues like child abuse to general discussion.

This is a solidly written and well-played episode, with moments of directorial ambition, too (director James Parriott has a damn good go at a trick shot where the Hulk changes back into Banner actually on camera, but can’t quite make it seamless). And the Hulk-out sequences are exceptionally effective, not because they’re especially lavish or inventive, but because they work extremely well on a thematic level.

Kenneth Johnson, creator and overseer of The Incredible Hulk, always said that one of the ideas of the show was that many people have to deal with their own metaphorical Hulk – some weakness or problem that sometimes makes them lose control, with destructive results. And that’s never clearer than here – the first Hulk-out occurs when Banner realises Jack is about to start beating up his son (his alarm and frustration about this is what ultimately causes the change) and it’s just as Jack is about to turn violent with Mark that the Hulk smashes through the wall into their living room. The metaphor could not be much clearer. The same is true of the climactic Hulk-out, in which Jack eventually attacks the Hulk, and it’s clear that from his point of view the monster represents his own abusive father. Catharsis ensues; Jack gets the help he needs, McGee (who turns up for one scene, but doesn’t contribute much to the drama) doesn’t get his story, Banner walks off into the sunset with the piano tinkling mournfully.

As I say, perhaps not the kind of kick-ass thrills you get on Netflix nowadays, but (a few dubious moments excepted) it is an extremely well-made episode which sets out to cover a serious issue in a serious way. In some ways its very earnestness is what makes it so effective as a piece of drama.

The next episode, Another Path, doesn’t quite feature a ninja death cult, but it’s still likely to feel much more familiar to modern viewers. Nicholas Corea’s script gets underway with Banner finding himself locked in the back of a refrigerated truck with an elderly Asian man who is deep in a meditation trance. This is a fairly improbable situation for someone to find himself in, and Corea doesn’t bother trying to be clever about it – indeed there’s something almost admirable about the no-nonsense way he bulls through the set-up.

Well, in a bit of a deviation from the Hulk formula, being trapped in a refrigerated truck is enough to bring on one of Banner’s episodes very early in the episode, and he and the old man bust out. His companion proves to be Li Sung, a blind Chinese philosopher, teacher, and martial arts expert, who has spent the last couple of years exploring the USA. Striking up a friendship, Banner and Li Sung realise that a few meditation techniques might help no end when it comes to keeping the Hulk under control. (The elderly Chinese character is played by Mako, a Japanese actor who was only about 45 when the episode was made. But it was the 1970s, and Mako was one of those guys who seemed to spend most of his career playing much older than his actual age.)

The two men eventually end up in San Francisco, because Li Sung founded a school here some time earlier, and he wants to see how it has been getting on in his absence. However (and here the plot kicks in), Li Sung’s old pupil, Silva (Tom Lee Holland), has fallen to the dark side and the school is now a front for a protection racket. When they realise this, Banner (quite sensibly) urges Li Sung to go to the police – but this has become a matter of honour for the old man, to be settled face to face…

The slight oddness of this episode becomes apparent very early on, with one of the Hulk-outs done and dusted inside the first ten minutes or so. You almost never get more than two Hulk-outs an episode on this show (they’re the single most expensive part of the programme), so this means it’s a very long time between appearances by Lou Ferrigno. This just adds to the sense that the episode is at least as much about Li Sung as it is about Banner. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course – it’s a tack The Incredible Hulk goes for more than once. But it is a bit of a change of pace and tone. (A sequel to this episode was actually intended as a backdoor pilot for a martial-arts themed action-adventure show, and you wonder whether they were thinking along those lines even at this point.)

And, very unusually, the climax of the episode concludes with Li Sung himself taking on Silva and his followers, kung-fu style, with the Hulk himself in a very subordinate role. Still, the martial arts stuff is reasonably good – I’d say it works as well as the fight choreography in Iron Fist, not that this is necessarily saying much – and it’s really just a case of expectations not being met. This is a show called The Incredible Hulk, after all, not The Deadly Hands of Li Sung. In the end it’s all good knockabout fun, with no particular depth or insight to it, and a winning performance from Mako. Not quite a Hulk episode of the first rank, though.

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Cinema is an international art form, of course, and as such most of its forms are, generally speaking, much of a muchness all around the world. Given that we currently live in a world which is dominated by western and especially American culture, it’s not really surprising that it’s Hollywood movies that influence those from elsewhere in the world, rather than vice versa, and that those rare genres which originated outside the Anglophone world tend not to translate well into the English-speaking idiom. No-one makes giant monster movies in quite the same way they do in Japan, for example (although to be fair this genre had its roots in American B-movies).

I’ve written in the past about the difference between American and Asian martial arts movies, too – although the key difference is really that in American cinema, the martial arts action movie is a (usually fairly disreputable) genre in its own right, largely comprising undistinguished movies starring bad actors. Not all of the Asian action stars are necessarily much better, of course, but what seems to me to be the case is that in Asian movies the martial arts content is just one element of the production – they make martial arts comedies, or martial arts thrillers, or martial arts romances, and so on. Even the martial arts historical bio-pic, as in Ip Man, directed by Wilson Yip, and starring Donnie Yen.

Everyone knows of ‘I liked this band before they were famous’ syndrome, and with Donnie Yen recently coming to prominence to a mass international audience for the first time following his winning turn in the last stellar conflict franchise film (the first man to bring kung fu to a galaxy far, far away), it would obviously be a bit pompous of me to point out that I’ve been singing Donnie Yen’s praises for over ten years – I would’ve sworn I said something nice about his fight choreography and cameo in Blade 2, but apparently not. Needless to say, Yen’s star seems to be waxing at present, and this movie shows why.

Here I suppose we are in the realm of the bio-pic based on the life of someone who is very obscure as far as most people are concerned. Ip Man’s fame rests on his role in the history of martial arts, in particular the Wing Chun style of kung fu. Perhaps more prosaically, he is also notable as the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee, a fact which the movie draws attention to (even on its own poster). Quite how close to reality the film actually gets is another matter, of course.

The first act of the film is set in Foshan, a noted centre of martial arts culture, in the mid 1930s. Ip Man (Yen) doesn’t run his own school as the story starts, largely (one surmises) because Mrs Ip (Lynn Hung) is rather disapproving, and so he is content to live the life of a relatively affluent gentleman. Needless to say, he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled fighter, and events do keep transpiring that force him to fight. (Other masters insist on sparring with him, something he’s much too polite to refuse, rough out-of-towners must be taught a lesson for the honour of Foshan’s kung fu heritage, and so on.) This is all fairly genteel, as kung fu movies go, and actually genuinely funny in places – ‘Just try not to break anything,’ pouts Mrs Ip, as her husband prepares to do battle with a troublemaking ruffian (Fan Siu-wong) in the front parlour of their lovely home.

Then the story turns darker, as the Japanese invade China and Foshan is occupied by enemy forces. The Ips are forced out of their home and Ip Man has to seek work as a labourer. The general of the occupying Japanese army, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), is a dedicated karate expert and determined to show the superiority of Japanese martial arts over the local kind. Brutal matches between local kung fu fighters and karate experts from the Japanese army ensue, with bags of rice for any Chinese who win, and a beating (frequently unto death) for any who lose. Needless to say this is not Ip Man’s kind of scene at all, but soon enough he realises that the honour of his city, not to mention China itself, requires he stand up and be counted…

The film is somewhat more thoughtful and less schlocky than it probably sounds, not least because this isn’t just another exercise in hyperkinetic butt-whupping but a film which seems to have things to say about Chinese national identity. I’m not a particular expert on the Chinese kung fu movie, but this isn’t the first film I’ve seen which touches on the subject of a foreign-occupied China in the early part of the 20th century, nor the first which equates the mastery of kung fu with the indomitable Chinese spirit. (Here, perhaps, is the key difference between American and Chinese kung fu movies – in a US film, martial arts are always inevitably something slightly foreign and exotic, whereas in a Chinese movie, they’re an expression of an intrinsic part of the local culture.)

Perhaps as a result, the film has that solemn and slightly over-reverent tone that is usually the enemy of good drama: you just know that Ip Man is going to be portrayed as a paragon of virtue throughout, and the struggle of the Chinese against the occupying Japanese is likewise not much afflicted by shades of grey (that said, Miura is a generally honourable guy – enemy scumbag duties are hived off to his sadistic second-in-command). You would think this wouldn’t leave Yen a lot to work with as an actor, but he actually does a pretty decent job of suggesting Ip Man, the man – always assuming he really was as decent, modest, unassuming, and patriotically honourable as the film suggests.

(To be perfectly honest, it does seem like this movie casts loose of the anchor of historical accuracy fairly early on and sails off into some highly fictitious waters for most of its duration – but if I’m going to watch a kung fu movie, I’d much rather watch one where Donnie Yen takes on ten karate experts simultaneously than one which strictly adheres to what actually happened.)

Needless to say, Yen is stunning in the fight sequences which regularly punctuate the film. Apparently he had to work hard to brush up on his Wing Chun for this particular movie (I understand his background is in Tai Chi and Tae Kwon Do), but – obviously – I can’t possibly comment as to how authentic the fight choreography in the film is (the choreography is courtesy of Sammo Hung). Yen makes it all look very easy, of course –  perhaps a bit too easy, for Ip Man’s legendary status means that he’s never going to be seriously challenged at any point in the story.

As a result the movie is less effective as a drama than it could be, but the fight sequences are superb and there are some decent performances too. I suspect the film-makers’ desire to say something rousing and patriotic about Chinese national identity and the responsibilities of being a good citizen are going to leave most international viewers quite cold, but Ip Man is a well-mounted, reasonably well-written movie, and well worth a look if you like people being kicked in against a vaguely historical backdrop – especially if it’s Donnie Yen doing the kicking.

 

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You know me (perhaps): I’m not someone to let a little thing like subtitles or a different cultural sensibility get in the way of my checking out a new movie. Especially at an awkward time of year like this one, with the Oscar bait still floating around but the big crowd-pleasers of the year still firmly under wraps (first off the blocks looks to be hmm-well-let’s-see Zach Snyder’s attempt to not mess up multiple classic characters simultaneously in Batman Vs Superman). Honestly, this is the second week in a row I’ve ended up going to see a subtitled Asian movie simply because there was nothing else on that seemed interesting (the annoying absence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from central Oxford cinemas persists).

However, where The Monkey King 2 was a rare example of a mainstream Chinese blockbuster landing a British release, Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s The Assassin is the kind of film you’re more like to come across: which is to say that it’s a Chinese-Taiwanese co-production, much feted by film festivals, and very comfortable in the world cinema/arthouse slot it’s currently showing in.

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I have to say that the various accolades The Assassin has picked up were less interesting to me than the fact this is on some level a kung fu movie, and even that was secondary to the appearance in the title role of the actress Shu Qi, who is of course best known in the west for her unforgettable (and that’s putting it mildly) English-language performance in the timeless classic that is The Transporter (she is the one of ‘He brew up your car! He brooned down your house!’ fame).

So, along we trotted to the arthouse cinema where The Assassin was showing, arriving very early to be sure of getting good seats (no allocated ticketing), feeling oddly reassured by how popular the showing proved to be (well, the movie only showed once all week, and even then the small screen at the Phoenix wasn’t full up).

The film started – lovely, black and white photography to start with. A brief set of captions explaining the details of Chinese internal politics at the time when the film is set. Two women talking, one of them instructs the other (it is Shu Qi) to kill a man of low character and despicable history. She obliges, but refuses a second killing as there were children in the vicinity. Her mentor is obviously displeased.

And at this point I’m just going to give up and confess that for most of the rest of the film I did not have the slightest clue what was going on. All right: so the story is about a young noblewoman named Yinniang, who has been trained by a nun-princess (according to the subtitles, anyway) to become the most lethal killer in the land. Tensions are high between the Imperial Court and the semi-autonomous province of Weibo, possibly because someone is stirring up trouble between them.

But that is literally all I can tell you with any confidence. The film is meticulous in its composition, its cinematography, its production values, and its art direction. But it is also meticulous in not going out of its way to let the audience know what’s going on, how the various different characters are connected, what anyone’s agenda is, and what it all means.

As a result I found the film totally baffling (but still quite gorgeous to look at). Fight scenes come and go, characters appear and disappear, but for me it was never in danger of resolving into anything resembling a coherent narrative. I’m sure there was one – there are bits of what are clearly important exposition, but bereft of a meaningful context they are even more perplexing than the rest of the movie. At one point we see a new character practising martial arts while wearing a golden mask. This seems to have no connection to the rest of the plot. Later on the same character turns up to fight Yinniang: they clash briefly, then abruptly walk away from each other and – as far as I could tell – the masked fighter doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie. Some odd Chinese voodoo features near the end, seemingly out of a clear sky.

I suppose it may just be that this film is based on a story as famous in China as, say, that of Robin Hood is in the UK, and the film assumes a level of familiarity which I simply don’t possess. It doesn’t alter the result, though, which is utter mystification.

You know how it’s much, much easier to remember even quite a long phrase in your own language, than even a short one in one you don’t speak at all? Without the benefit of comprehension, it’s much harder to engage with and remember something. Well, it’s the same with The Assassin: totally unable to follow the story, I found myself slipping into something rather like a Zen trance, enjoying the craftsmanship of the film but not intellectually connecting with the story at all. This was maybe not the film to see at the end of a heavy week, because I had to struggle quite hard to stay awake. At least I succeeded: snores were drifting around the cinema before the end as one of my fellow audience members failed in their own struggle with Morpheus.

I feel I should point out that this doesn’t even feel much like a traditional kung fu film: there are various fights, and they are as impeccably staged as the rest of the film, but they are also brief and understated: you don’t get the big set piece battles of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in this film.

Do I have to reserve judgement on The Assassin? Well, partly, I expect. It’s a lovely looking film, the acting is not obviously awful, and it has clearly been made with enormous care and skill. But, as I said, I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on throughout. I’m not sure if that was my fault or the script’s, or simply the result of cultural differences, but it did impact on my enjoyment of the film. So there you go. It looks nice, but my favourite Shu Qi movie hasn’t changed.

 

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One thing that people who talk knowledgeably about the film industry seem to agree on is that Asia is, in some way, the future. It’s a massive new market just crying out to be ruthlessly exploited integrated into standard models of commerce, which may be why there’s a bit of a tendency for American blockbusters to avoid including things which may annoy Asian audiences (hence all the Chinese stuff in World War Z getting cut from the film), or, conversely, Asian characters and situations being subtly or not-so-subtly inserted into those same big movies.

Whether anyone has considered the possibility of the Asian film industry trying to take a slice of the Western market is another question. Asian films do have a following in the west, but it’s usually strongly tied to particular genres and individual film-makers. Nevertheless, a crack at the British market was recently (and unexpectedly) taken, in the bizarre form of Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 2, a bona fide Chinese action-fantasy blockbuster, made in 3D no less. (I’m not aware that The Monkey King 1 ever made it to UK multiplexes, only increasing the weirdness of this event.)

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Can we get even weirder? Well, yes: Monkey King 2 didn’t even seem to get a certificate from the BBFC, resulting in it showing unclassified (‘Cert TBC’) at the sweetshop for the one week it was on. This is all very peculiar; perhaps even as peculiar as the film itself.

The film is based on one of the most famous and well-loved legends in Asian folklore, derived (extremely loosely) from the story of how Buddhism was brought to China: the story Journey to the West, originally written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century. It almost goes without saying that most of the currency this tale enjoys in the UK is a result of the BBC buying the rights to the insane Japanese TV adaptation of the story, Saiyuki (retitled simply Monkey), which originally aired in the early 80s over here.

To anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Monkey, much of The Monkey King 2 is unsurprisingly familiar. Despatched to bring the Buddhist sutras from India to China, the unyieldingly pious monk Tang Sanzang (possibly better known to the likes of us as Tripitaka, but played by Feng Shaofeng either way) finds himself all alone and menaced in the wilderness. However, he happens upon the irrepressible Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), who has been imprisoned under a mountain for ages following his rebellion against the Emperor of Heaven, and for widdling on Buddha’s fingers too.

Tang Sanzang releases the Monkey King, who promises to devote his ceaseless energy and golden wishing-staff to keeping the holy man in one piece during the trip. Pretty soon they pick up two other supernatural disciples, the greedy and self-regarding swine-spirit Pigsy (Xiaoshenyang), and the reformed water-monster Sandy (Him Law), and the great journey begins…

Inescapably fond of Monkey as I am, need I even tell you that I only went to see The Monkey King 2 because, for some inexplicable reason, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t showing in Oxford, and there was literally nothing else on that particularly interested me? I have to confess that it was mainly curiosity to see what a Chinese-style blockbuster actually looked like that lured me into the cinema in the first place.

And what does it look like? Um, well. If this film genuinely represents what Chinese audiences are gagging for, then I can only assume that they have many fewer problems with CGI, because the whole film is slathered in it (the fact that it’s 3D CGI doesn’t exactly make it less obvious). Not for one moment does this film ever attempt to be conventionally naturalistic, but then why should it? Monkey spirits with golden staves fight mountain-levelling battles with demons and monsters, armies of skeletons surge across the screen, gods and goddesses discuss theology and metaphysics with each other. The closest analogue to this kind of story in western cinema, I suspect, is a movie like Jason and the Argonauts, where gods and mortals participate in larger-than-life adventures with each other (the skeleton army here may be an intentional homage to Ray Harryhausen), but the stories roots in a different culture mean even this is not a close parallel. (Having said that, I couldn’t help noticing a few moments where this movie is clearly influenced by Marvel Studios’ output in particular: Iron Man and Thor have made their mark in the Middle Kingdom.)

Matters aren’t helped much by a set of English subtitles seemingly provided by liberal use of Google Translate, with a corresponding preponderance of duff grammar and bafflingly unintelligible dialogue (when you consider the climax of the film revolves around some slightly abstruse points of Buddhist theology you will see why this could prove difficult). On the other hand, the basic thrust of the story (Monkey falls out with the others for apparently being too quick to anger and is unfairly punished; as a consequence of this the others get in trouble courtesy of the bad guy Monkey was the first one to spot, and he has to come back and rescue them all) should be very familiar to anyone who knows this particular story.

Watching the opening credits for Monkey King 2 I had a brief moment of gratification when I saw the action-director duties were going to be carried out by none other than the kung fu legend Sammo Hung Kam-bo, someone else who for whom I have a great deal of affection. However, the problem with this film is that the CGI and wire-work is so all-pervading that you don’t really need a choreographer of Hung’s stature to do the fights – most of the action is orchestrated within a computer or an editing program anyway. Everyone is constantly flying around or disappearing or turning into a wild animal, so the amount of conventional martial arts on display is minimal.

So in the end this film isn’t much more than a weird curiosity, although a visually lavish one in a heftless, artificial way. The story isn’t totally unfamiliar to a western audience, and western films are certainly a source for this one in some respects, but the sheer number of ways in which you are reminded that this is a product of a different culture and sensibility just keep stacking up until it’s impossible to totally engage with the film simply as a story. This film isn’t like anything else that’s likely to get a release in UK multiplexes this year, and in some way that’s a good thing, but I have to say the chances of Chinese movies making serious inroads into western markets seem very small for the time being.

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Well, here’s the perfect pre-Christmas treat, a film veritably dripping with cosiness, warmth, compassion, and good humour. Or one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, anyway, based on the track records of many of the principals involved. The director is Prachya Pinkaew, and two of the lead performers are Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin. The film is Tom Yum Goong 2 – aka Warrior King 2 and The Protector 2, but in line with the treatment hereabouts of the film it’s following up, I shall be referring to it as Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant. I was expecting great things from this movie – well, not so much great things as howling rampant insanity – and I’m pleased to say that I was not really disappointed.

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The story opens with a degree of peculiar backstory concerning the fictitious Republic of Katana and a degree of structural fluff, but soon settles down to show us Tony Jaa enjoying his life in rural Thailand, where he passes his time looking after his beloved elephant and teaching the local children insanely violent martial arts.

However, all this changes when some gangsters turn up and attempt to force Tony to part with his pachyderm. Tony, naturally, says no, but all that happens is that the gangsters come back and steal the elephant as soon as he pops out for a bit. This makes our hero very cross indeed and he goes round to the chief gangster’s house to make his feelings clear in time-honoured bone-crunching style, but – much to his surprise – the crook has already been beaten to death by someone else. However, he is discovered with the corpse by the ex-villain’s doting martial arts fiend nieces, Ping Ping and Sue Sue (Yanin and Theerada Kittisiriprasert), whose response does not suggest they are pacifists.

…and at that point you may as well forget about anything remotely resembling logic, a coherent plot, or indeed reality as we know it, as Tony and Jeeja plummet into a world where… well, there’s a lot of fisticuffs, but that’s about all I’m certain of. Also returning from the first film is Petchtai Wongkamlao as Tony’s hapless mate Sarge, who is at least issued some pithy dialogue critiquing the premise of the proceedings: ‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost your elephant again! Is this an elephant or a kitten? How can you keep losing him?’ Sensible questions one and all.

Sarge, whom viewers of the first film may recall spends his days as the most preposterous cop in Sydney, is in town to help with a peace conference connected to the Republic of Katana, which dark forces are trying to interfere with. Charged with bringing about this act of premeditated beastliness is gangster LC (the noted rapperist RZA), who also runs some sort of fight circuit where the participants have numbers rather than names. It is LC and his top man Fighter Number 2 (Marrese Crump – I tell you, the names in this film…) who have ensnared Tony and his elephant in their web of bafflement, though whether this is because LC wants Tony to be Fighter Number 1, or just needs the elephant for his evil scheme (suffice to say the climax includes the dialogue ‘There’s a bomb in that elephant!’), or perhaps both, is unclear – one gets the impression they wrote the script as they were going along.

As you may have gathered, Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant is completely nuts, although perhaps not as flamboyantly and soaringly so as the first one, or indeed Chocolate (Pinkaew’s previous film with Jeeja Yanin) – it doesn’t include any of the really weird stuff like dream sequences about elephants or whip-wielding transgender bad guys, it’s just very, very comic booky, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some absurdly extravagant action sequences – at one point Tony finds himself pursued by a literal army of people on motor scooters, while at another there’s a scrap between Tony and a bunch of goons, all of whose feet are on fire – but that’s really all the film has.

And, while the movie doesn’t have the most inspired or varied fight sequences – there’s nothing as jawdropping as the five minute travelling shot from Tom Yum Goong – they are solid stuff. Tony spends most of the film fighting Crump, if we’re honest, but the two kick lumps out of each other with aplomb. The real shame, if you ask me, is that we never really get the sequence where Tony and Jeeja face off against one another at length. To be honest, Jeeja Yanin’s contribution to the film feels a little bit dispensable – she just rattles about the edges of the plot not doing very much. Pinkaew introduces the character of a female fighter called Number 20 (Rhatha Phongam), and you naturally assume that come the climax she will be fighting Jeeja while Tony sorts out RZA. But no. In the end this just feels like a regular Tony Jaa movie, albeit one with an extended cameo by Jeeja Yanin, rather than a proper team-up of the duo.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tom Yum Goong and Chocolate are both such boldly nutty films that it would have been very difficult for this film, whatever you want to call it, to push this particular envelope any further. By conventional standards this is not a good thriller or action movie. But as a headbanging piece of martial arts nonsense it fits the bill admirably, even if it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

 

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There’s a moment in the middle of The Raid 2 where an elegant young woman, sitting on a subway train, casually checks her mobile phone and then gently reaches into her handbag and extracts a pair of hammers. Well, the punchline is slightly quirky, you might think, but that’s nothing very unusual. Nevertheless my own reaction was to cringe back into my seat with a rictus mask of horror and alarm on my face – because, by this point in the film, you know that when anyone pulls out that sort of implement, it’s not because they’re planning to do up their spare room.

So it proves, and bloody havoc ensues. But, as I say, it isn’t really a surprise: The Raid 2 is bookended by characters taking shotgun blasts to the head at point-blank range, and in between features pick-axes, machetes, baseball bats, hammers, shards of broken glass, broom handles, and restaurant hotplates being put to inventive uses possibly not envisaged by their inventors. The Raid 2 is a colossally violent film; it may be the most violent film I have ever seen. If you have a problem with screen violence, run in the other direction. But, if you can stay the distance, this is quite probably one of the outstanding films of the year.

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All the key personnel from 2012’s The Raid return for this return engagement, principally writer-director-editor Gareth Evans and fight-choreographer-star Iko Uwais. Uwais again plays young cop Rama, who had such a tough time of it in the first film. To be honest, the connections between the two films are just a tiny bit tenuous, but: realising what’s gone down may put him in trouble with the corrupt cops at the top of the Jakarta PD, Rama joins an elite undercover unit in order to identify the bad guys. This involves doing some serious jail time while he befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), the heir to the city’s biggest crime syndicate , all with a view to infiltrating the organisation as a footsoldier.

It all sounds a bit like Infernal Affairs (or The Departed, for that matter), but then again neither of those films includes a twenty-against-one fistfight in the prison toilets or a brutal prison riot in the middle of a sea of mud. Gareth Evans’s achievements in The Raid 2 are numerous and significant, and not least amongst them is his ability to balance the gangster drama elements of the story with the martial arts thriller requirements.

There is a sense in which the crime drama storyline of The Raid 2 is just a sort of substrate on which the extensive and numerous action sequences are founded, but that’s not to say that this plot isn’t engaging and tense in its own right. The story is actually pretty complex for a martial arts film, involving personal and gang relationships, and while none of this is hugely original, one gets a real sense that time and effort has been taken to flesh out the characters. Certainly the performances are uniformly strong, eyecatchingly so in some cases, and even minor characters are just little bit more rounded and quirky than you might expect.

Iko Uwais gives a perfectly respectable performance as Rama, even though it’s pretty clear he’s on board for his proficiency in pencak silat rather than his thespian ability. Yayan Ruhian, who played Mad Dog in the first film, has an extended cameo as a different character, and mysteriously manages to make a machete-wielding sociopath borderline sympathetic. Rama’s main opposition this time around, though, consists of a trio of charming characters known as Baseball Bat Man, Hammer Girl, and the Assassin, and his climactic confrontation with them in a pair of epic fights is one of the most viscerally exciting things I’ve ever seen. Bones crunch and blood sprays but you simply cannot take your eyes off the screen.

It’s not just that Gareth Evans is a brilliant action director and editor, blessed with a pair of genius fight co-ordinators (Uwais and Ruhian), though this is of course the case. It’s that he really understands how to pace and structure the rest of the film so the fight sequences have maximum impact – he’s not afraid to include a moment of stillness and silence just to set the scene for a coming clash, or throw a stylistic curveball like sticking some Beethoven on the soundtrack for a particular significant moment of bloodletting. This is a long movie and he basically doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout it.

The Raid 2 isn’t the greatest crime drama ever made, and I don’t know enough about martial arts movies to say for certain that this is the best of the lot, but as a fusion of the two it is surely unparalleled: it is, at the very least, an instant classic. Hollywood must surely be breaking down these guys’ doors, but apparently The Raid 3 is still definitely on the cards. The Raid was a superb movie – this sequel is a quantum leap further on in terms of complexity and style. Quite how Evans and his associates will be able to improve on this film, I can’t conceive, but I am really looking forward to seeing them try.

 

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There aren’t many films in which the discovery of a severed and putrescent human toe in a tube of Smarties constitutes a significant plot development, but then there have been regrettably few films from the Thai director Prachya Pinkaew. I first discovered the great man’s work through the 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong, distinguished by its combination of full-on sentimentality, bone-crunching martial arts violence, and bizarre peripheral plot details. A beautiful mutant of a film, I thought, but unlikely to prosper as the start of a new lineage. Then I saw Pinkaew’s follow-up, from 2008: Chocolate. This makes Tom-Yum-Goong look very humdrum indeed.

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The film opens in a style bordering on the impressionistic as it recounts the first flowering of love between two beautiful young people, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and Zin (Ammara Siripong). Their romance is somewhat impeded by the fact that they work for opposing criminal gangs – Masashi is in the Yakuza, she is in whatever the Thai equivalent is. Their affair reaches a bittersweet conclusion when Zin insists that Masashi clear off back to Japan for his own safety. She herself gives up her affluent gangster lifestyle and retires to the Thai equivalent of suburbia to raise the daughter Masashi has inadvertantly left her with. This itself would be the basis for an interesting drama, but Pinkaew and his writers have other things in mind.

Unfortunately, Zin’s daughter is born with autism and needs a lot of looking after. Zin’s life in this regard is not made easier when an attempt to contact Masashi results in her former employer (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) popping round and chopping off one of her toes (he has the foresight to retain the digit for the purposes of the coming plot). However, as is well-known, when a character in a movie is autistic, it is extremely likely to be the kind of autism which also provides them with superhuman faculties in some other respect. And so it proves here, for Zin’s daughter Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) turns out to have uncanny reflexes and the ability to copy any movement she sees – which is fortuitous, seeing as their flat overlooks the local Muay Thai school’s yard.

You may be thinking that Zin has had a hard life so far. But things get even worse when she develops non-specified movie cancer and requires a lot of expensive medicine. The act that Zen has been performing with her friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee, basically playing a junior version of the Petchtai Wongkamlao character from Tony Jaa movies), where she catches things the audience throws at her, is not making enough, and things look bleak. But then Moom discovers a book detailing outstanding debts owed to Zin from her days as a top gangster. All he and Zen have to do is go round to all these minor gangland figures and persuade them to cough up the money for Zin’s drugs. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and there’s no chance at all that Zen could be called upon to display her astoundingly precocious martial arts skills…

When I first heard about ‘the autistic teenage girl debt collector martial arts movie’ I have to admit my first response was ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’ And part of me still wonders if, perhaps, Chocolate isn’t on some level an extraordinary spoof not just of the genre but of foreign attitudes towards Thailand. Zen picks up some of her chop-socky wizardry from watching movies on TV, and they are, of course, other films Pinkaew has directed – either this is a wink to the audience or a cost-cutting measure. Perhaps making the protagonist full-on autistic is a sly comment on the depth of characterisation usually to be found in the heroes of martial arts films. And this is the second film from this director (following Tom-Yum-Goong) to feature an evil ladyboy: in fact, at one point a gang of gun-toting evil trannies turn up in the service of the bad guy. I’d’ve said that the automatic association of ladyboys with Thailand was nothing more than gross cultural stereotyping, but either I was wrong, or Pinkaew is playing games with the way his country is perceived. I honestly don’t know.

If Chocolate is on some level a spoof, it is a mightily deadpan one, opening with an apparently-heartfelt dedication to the special children who inspired it and the transcendent power of human movement – I’m not quite sure what gets transcended when you kick someone repeatedly in the head and then throw them off the roof of a building, but no matter. Certainly, Zen’s autism is played very straight – or at least as straight as possible, given the kind of movie this is – and there’s something very, and probably intentionally, disturbing about the moments where she reverts from being an unstoppable dispenser of brutality and becomes an awkward, inarticulate figure demanding ‘Money for Mummy’. No punches are being pulled in either sense.

Yanin is a revelation in this movie, both as an actress and a martial arts performer. Though apparently in her mid- twenties when the film was made, she can easily pass for a girl a decade younger, which makes the lengthy sequences in which she beats the living daylights out of gangs of men much older and bigger than her even more startling. Once the debt-collection plotline got going properly, I found myself in two minds – on the one hand this is a brilliant plot device for a martial arts film, allowing lots of fight scenes without the need for too much exposition, but on the other the film seemed to be squandering this potential ever so slightly – the first three big set pieces all involve Zen wandering into somewhere vaguely industrial (a factory, a warehouse, an abattoir) and having to fend off all the employees in the place: basically, just gang fights. But good gang fights – inventive and funny, with Yanin fast and fluid and surprisingly plausible. Nevertheless, I need not have worried, for as the climax arrives the film becomes much more ambitious.

Not content with a two-on-one all-girl fight on a rooftop and a mass battle with katana, Pinkaew throws in one of the weirdest, most remarkable expert fights I’ve ever seen, as it is revealed that the villain’s own household conceals another teenage combat prodigy. The film itself doesn’t quite make clear what’s going on with the lad in question, but either he is also autistic or – and I think this may in fact be the case – he is epileptic. Yes, taste barriers are shattered like the collarbones of stuntmen as the autistic girl and the epileptic boy engage in ferocious, acrobatic hand-to-hand combat. It is the jaw-droppy-open moment to crown all jaw-droppy-open moments and no mistake. Even here the film isn’t quite finished, concluding with an exuberantly original final battle up and down the side of a four storey building.

I suppose it is possible that Chocolate is the phenomenally bad taste spoof that I’ve been suggesting – but the earnestness of the thing, together with the apparent seriousness of the performances and the script, really make me doubt it: in between the fight scenes, the stuff about Zen and her mum and her mum’s illness seems heartfelt and is actually quite moving, as if a serious social drama has had some tae kwondo action spliced in just to draw the crowds. Any way you cut it, this is probably one of the weirdest martial arts films ever made (and I’m saying that as a connoisseur of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) – but it’s also an extremely accomplished and highly enjoyable one. I am excited to learn that 2013 promises the release of Tom-Yum-Goong 2, in which Pinkaew and Yanin will team up with Tony Jaa. I literally cannot imagine just what realms of strangeness that film will doubtless take us to, but I am eager to find out.

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