Posts Tagged ‘Sammo Hung’

Sometimes you find yourself basically on your own in a holiday cottage in Hampshire, pondering the fact that the movie from the House of Mouse you caught five interesting minutes of a couple of nights before is not available to watch on the BBC catch-up service, due to them pushing their own streaming service with the usual ruthless implacability. And at moments like this, you ponder the essentially venal and unsatisfactory nature of much of western civilisation, before perhaps turning to the ancient cultures of the east in search of deeper wisdom and insight. In my case this usually translates into watching an obscure kung fu movie on a different streaming site.

On the most recent occasion, the film I wound up watching was My Beloved Bodyguard, a 2016 film starring and directed by the legendary Sammo Hung (the movie is also known simply as The Bodyguard, but that just puts me in mind of the 1993 Costner-Houston movie). The film eschews the usual glittering locales common to martial arts films for a small town in that obscure corner of the world where the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders practically rub together. It is here that Ding (Hung), also known as Fat Ding or Old Ding for reasons you may be able to guess, has chosen to retire following a distinguished career as a civil servant in Beijing. Happy for many years, he is now estranged from his daughter (his only living relative) and leads a quiet and perhaps quite lonely life.

The only excitement comes when some gangsters carry out a brutal stabbing outside Ding’s humble home. Being a good citizen, Ding calls the cops and attempts to identify the guilty party – but at the ID parade he is suddenly hesitant and uncertain. His memory is starting to go! A trip to the doctor (whose name Ding struggles to remember) confirms that he is showing symptoms of early-stage senile dementia.

We then get quite a lot of Ding trying to come to terms with this, not to mention fending off the romantic attentions of his busybody neighbour (Li Qinqin). But for most of the next forty minutes or so it is mainly about his friendship with Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), the young and endearing (if she isn’t, it’s not for want of the movie trying) daughter of local lowlife Ji (Andy Lau). She keeps clambering in through his window. They go fishing together. She puts on his old bemedalled uniform jacket. It is clearly meant to be quite charming.

Meanwhile Ji has gotten into debt with Choi, the gangster whom Ding failed to recognise at the ID parade (he is played by Feng Jiayi) and is packed off over the border to steal some jewellry from the Russian Mafia in Vladivostok. Ji double-crosses Choi and runs off with the loot, however, thus putting Cherry in the firing line of not one but two sets of vengeful gangsters, with only a morbidly obese old man with incipient senility to defend her. She’s in trouble, right?

Well, maybe not, considering this is Sammo Hung, a martial arts legend (he plays Bruce Lee’s opponent in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon, and the rest of his career is equally distinguished) for whom morbid obesity has been a selling point for decades (you may recall his US TV show Martial Law, which one reviewer summarised as ‘fat Eskimo cop somersaulting onto bad guys in Los Angeles’, only partly inaccurately). My Beloved Bodyguard may well be sincerely trying to highlight the issue of the plight of elderly people suffering from dementia in China, but I suspect what most of the audience is waiting for is the moment when swaggering bad guys push Ding too far and he cuts loose with the kung fu (he wasn’t just a civil servant, he was a decorated member of an elite security agency and a martial arts champion). To this extent the film is essentially the Chinese equivalent of one of those ‘bus pass badass’ movies that have started to appear over here, starring people like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – although Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner is perhaps a more pertinent example.

Well, the moment eventually arrives, and not before time, no doubt causing a cry of ‘Hurray!’ from many viewers. Possibly followed very shortly by cries of ‘Eeeegh!’ and ‘Oooh!’ from watchers lulled by the slow-motion gentleness of the plot with Ding and Cherry and not expecting the hair-raisingly graphic violence which ensues. Here’s the thing: Hung was in his early sixties when he made the film and clearly can’t move the way he used to, and so the fight scenes have to get their impact in some other way. So Ding doesn’t just slap people about and kick them in the head until they fall over: serious, important bones and joints are snapped, crunched, and shattered, with a helpful CGI effect highlighting just which bits of the skeleton just broke (at one point Hung flops onto a major bad guy paunch-first, pulverising his spine). Coupled to this are numerous stabbings and throat-slittings.

I mean, this would probably all be par for the course in a Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais film, but it’s tonally wildly at odds with all the preceding business with Fat Old Ding befriending the little girl almost despite himself. It’s as if there are two totally different sensibilities at work in this film – one trying to make a gentle, family-oriented drama, the other a brutal gangland action film. Either of these would have been fine, but they just don’t work together. Late on, the film experiments with what looks very much like a third style, of more tongue-in-cheek action-comedy – an injured bad guy tries to hobble away to freedom, with Ding shuffling implacably after him, resulting in possibly the lowest-speed foot chase in action movie history – which feels much more like the kind of film this perhaps should have been. But it’s not much and it comes very late.

The tonal mismatch is probably My Beloved Bodyguard‘s biggest problem, but the film is oddly plotted overall – major characters disappear without explanation for long stretches of the film, the way the story is set up and the principals introduced likewise somehow feels a little incorrect, and so on. No matter how good the acting is – and Hung, Lau, Chan and the others generally give decent performances, while there are cameos from a plethora of big name martial arts stars and directors, mostly knocking on a bit – the story remains slow and a bit underpowered, with most of the action confined to the last half hour. I sat down to watch this film mostly because of my fondness for Sammo Hung as a director and performer, and he does enough to carry the film – as both a drama and an action piece – for me not to regret that choice. Others may find they have a different feeling come the end of a movie which is many things, just not the ones you’re probably hoping for, nor ones which naturally go together.

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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.)


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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