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Posts Tagged ‘martial arts’

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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One of the issues you get into as soon as you start offering your opinion about films in any kind of measured and thoughtful way (quiet at the back) is that of what your criteria are – and, moreover, whether you use the same ones all the time. Should you base your judgement on a low-budget British film on the same factors as that on a massive international blockbuster? The films are showing in the same theatres, runs one argument, and it’s the same ticket price for both – so the same standards should apply.

Well, hmmm. I’m not convinced, particularly when it comes to genre movies – there’s a set of tropes and expectations involved here which is not consistent. Terrible acting and a ludicrous excuse for a plot would be unforgivable in anything attempting to be a serious drama, but they are much less of an issue – and even perhaps to be expected in some of the more specialised types of film. (And, no, I’m not necessarily talking about porno.)

Of course, if you can meet all the genre requirements and include an interesting story and decent performances and direction, that’s great – even qualified failure can still result in a notable movie. I was thinking about all of these things while watching Prachya Pinkaew’s 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong. This is a movie from Thailand which has emerged in international territories under a variety of different titles: The Protector, Ong-Bak 2, Warrior King, Thai Dragon, Revenge of the Warrior, and so on. Personally, I always think of it as Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant, as this is what the plot to a large degree is about.

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Tony Jaa plays a fine young upstanding Thai fellow from a long line of warriors and elephant-lovers. He and his dad have an elephant which they are terribly fond of, and when the elephant has a baby their joy is very nearly unconfined. Protracted, bucolic, and rather sentimental scenes of elephant-related Thai life make up the first part of the film. However, when they enter their senior pachyderm in the Royal Elephant Display, traumatic events result. Chinese gangsters kidnap both Tony’s elephants and put a bullet in his dad (whether his dad dies or not depends on which version of the film you are watching) – it’s a bit unclear which upsets Tony Jaa more, but the overall upshot is that he is as cross as two sticks.

After administering the first of several spectacular collective beatings to the gangsters when he catches up with them, and then participating in a slightly sub-James Bond-ish boat chase, Tony heads off to Sydney, Australia, which is where his beloved elephants have been sent.

But there is trouble brewing in Sydney. On one level this is fairly typical martial arts movie stuff, involving police corruption and gangland internal politics, where the women are presented in almost wholly passive and sexualised terms, and all normal logic seems to have been suspended (along with most of the standard laws of physics). But in other terms it is rather different, and this is what makes Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant such a distinctively weird movie to watch. Partly because it is, on some levels, quite ludicrously primitive – some of the TV newsreaders working in Sydney very obviously don’t speak English as their first language, and the same can be said of Tony’s regular sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao, who in this film plays a rather preposterous sergeant in the Sydney PD.

In other areas it is just silly – some of this is just down to the genre rules of a martial arts film, as in the sequence where Tony is called upon to fight a capoeira expert, a wushu swordsman and a giant wrestler in a temple which somehow manages to be both flooded and on fire at the same time – the three bad guys form an orderly queue to take Tony on one at a time, which is gallant of them, and one can’t help but picture the other two hanging around outside waiting for their go while Tony sorts out the first one.  Even so, the film seems to be stretching these rules to the limit – the first really major action sequence sees Tony wandering into a drug deal, at which point the bad guy on the scene summons the dreaded in-line skaters of doom and BMX bikers of the apocalypse to sort him out. Er, what?

But mostly this film just comes across as incredibly offbeat. A repeated moment has Tony Jaa appearing in all sorts of unlikely settings, looking extremely angry, and yelling ‘Where are my elephants?’ (At one point you get to see a gang of wrestlers throw a baby elephant through a plate-glass window, which doesn’t even happen in Jason Statham movies.) Towards the end of the movie Tony Jaa is being hunted by the cops, but is able to walk around the city in broad daylight in the company of said juvenile pachyderm without anyone seeming to notice it. Part of the plot revolves around a secret Thai restaurant where people pay top dollar to eat endangered species. The main villain is a psychotic whip-cracking ladyboy gangster (played by Xing Jin). I mean, what? What?!?

Oh well – you don’t really watch this kind of film for the plot anyway (the one here bears a vague similarity to some parts of Kiss of the Dragon), but it’s nice that they have tried to give it its own very weird identity and flavour. What you’re really here for is to see Tony Jaa in full-on knees-in-the-face action, and the film does not disappoint – the fight sequences take a while to arrive, but when they do they are lengthy and frequent. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the biggest fan of Muay Thai as a movie martial art – whenever Tony Jaa ties someone’s arm or leg in a knot, it’s accompanied by a damp crackling noise that really drives home the fact that he’s doing severe physical damage to someone. At least with Jet Li or Mr Statham kicking someone in the head you can imagine them just waking up with a bit of a headache and a resolution to live a better life, whereas anyone who gets on the wrong side of Tony is clearly looking at surgery and a long stint in rehab.

But the movie does all the standards – mob fights, expert fights, boss fights – and does them rather well. Johnny Tri Nguyen, Jon Foo and Lateef Crowder all have featured spots as guest bad guys and their fights are fun and well-choreographed. That said, at a couple of points the fights are distinctive not for the actual choreography but the direction.

The direction of this movie is quite a bit better than the script probably deserves – it’s certainly highly ambitious. The slightly-annoying genre staple of a big stunt being replayed several times from different angles barely features, while in a couple of places Pinkaew goes for insanely long takes during the fight sequences – at one point Tony Jaa runs amok through four or five floors of a building, proceeding to beat up practically every man-jack in the joint, and it appears to take place in a single shot lasting about five minutes (I suspect they may have cheated, of course). Elsewhere he isn’t afraid to go for wacky dream sequences or strange impressionistic effects, although when called upon to do the boat chase, for example, he gets a bit carried away.

In the end it all boils down to a very fit and dangerous young man taking off his shirt and beating dozens of people up, but because it’s so interestingly directed, and the stuff draped over the basic requirements of the plot is so bizarre, Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant comes across as a bit of a departure for the genre. I don’t think it will convert anyone to either martial arts films in general or Tony Jaa in particular, but it’s strangely enjoyable, and enjoyably strange.

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It’s nice to have a varied diet, and here in the UK we are lucky in that the fare of many nations is widely available. In some cases this sort of thing has become an accepted part of the culture – pop out for an Italian, an Indian, a Chinese, or even lately a Thai, and eyelids will go unbatted. Beyond this, however, things do get a little bit niche and specialist, despite the fact that what’s on offer isn’t necessarily that different from what we’re used to – it’s more a case of unusual seasoning than anything else, I suspect.

Indonesia is currently mounting an assault on the mainstream of a slightly different kind (the metaphor is an appropriate one), although if this was an Indonesian restaurant things would be slightly odd, in that the head chef was formerly based in Pontypridd. However, he is not a chef, he is a film-maker: his name is Gareth Huw Evans and his new film, The Raid, does more to further the cause of astounding, relentless, brutal, insane violence than any I can recall for as long as I’ve been writing about movies.

Our hero is Rama (Iko Uwais), an inexperienced young cop. We first find him about his prayers, then see him working out. Finally he kisses his heavily pregnant wife goodbye and sets off to work. All this, of course, is basically leading us to expect that Rama is about to have an utterly hellish day at the office, and so it proves.

Rama is part of a police assault team attempting to penetrate the headquarters of vicious crime boss Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) and capture him. Riyadi has based himself at the top of a tower block, the rooms of which he has thoughtfully leased out to every headcase criminal in Jakarta. Riyadi’s own deputy (Yayan Ruhian) has the somewhat-ominous nickname of Mad Dog, but prides himself on having the personal touch and being a tactile sort of person. This is because he doesn’t really enjoy shooting people and enjoys murdering them with his bare hands much more.

The strike team enters the building and gets as far as the fifth floor undetected – but as the tension mounts, mistakes are made and the gangsters realise the police are in their midst. Riyadi gets on the tannoy and announces that everyone in the building who assists in exterminating the unwanted judicial presence will be able to live rent-free in perpetuity.

This is bad news for the cops, who find themselves trapped, rapidly taking casualties and forced onto the defensive. Even worse news is the revelation that this operation has not been officially sanctioned and there is no hope of backup coming to their rescue. Separated from his comrades and responsible for an injured friend, Rama realises that if he wants to survive he has only one option – to fight his way out to freedom, bare-handed if need be…

As you may have gathered, the script is not by Sir Tom Stoppard, but this is not really a problem as it is really just there to facilitate the carnage and mayhem which makes up the meat of this film (and pretty raw meat it is too). It’s not quite as straightforward as I may have made it sound – but the police corruption and intrigue angle which is fairly key didn’t quite hang together for me, while there’s some soapy family melodrama involved too – which while a bit of a staple of the martial arts genre, still felt a bit hackneyed.

However, this is all basically immaterial compared to The Raid‘s action sequences, which are like a syringe of epinephrine driven straight into the heart – compared to anything I’ve seen at the movies in years, anyway. There’s some pretty impressive full-auto gunplay early on, but it boils down to Rama and Mad Dog displaying their mastery of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Now, this doesn’t look all that different from many of the other martial arts styles people have been making films about for decades – the rawness of it, together with practitioners’ fondness for making use of knees and elbows, reminded me a bit of the sort of thing Tony Jaa gets up to, but I digress. And the script certainly does not shy away from such genre staples as the hero taking on mobs of people in vaguely industrial settings, or the chief bad guy in a slightly more mano-a-mano fashion.

So it’s not dazzlingly fresh or surprising – but the real achievement of The Raid, which is stunning, is to make it all feel like it is something genuinely new and different.  The credit must go to Evans, for whom this is an astonishingly confident major debut. He really knows how to shoot a fight sequence, keeping the camera moving without indulging himself in eight cuts a second. Even more impressively, he understands the value of stillness and silence when building up to a piece of major action: there are a couple of really electric moments where people are being completely reasonable and civil – but you know this is just because they’re preparing to go utterly berserk at each other. Evans himself has said that Die Hard was a major inspiration, but I can see much more of John Carpenter’s early movies here, to be honest (something else he’s acknowledged). He also shows something of Carpenter’s mastery of music, adding cues to the fight scenes that really add to their impact (the fact that the soundtrack includes tracks with names like ‘Quaking Old F*ck’ and ‘Machete Standoff’ should tell you the sort of thing to expect).

The Raid is one of those films that comes out of nowhere and isn’t released so much as detonated. Yes, it’s raw around the edges; yes, the story isn’t fantastic; and yes, the actual performances are unlikely to trouble the Oscars (having said that, the main villains are properly terrifying) – but none of this matters. I went in to see The Raid in a fairly good humour, comfortable in myself and with the world – I emerged two hours later as a trembling, staggering, exhausted piece of human wreckage. If I’d been to a restaurant, this would not constitute a recommendation – but The Raid is not a restaurant (stick that on the DVD cover as a quote), it’s an action movie – and it’s an absolute blitz of one.

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