5 | Varied Celluloid - Page 2

Yakuza Graveyard

Posted by JoshSamford On January - 5 - 2012

Yakuza Graveyard (1976)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji and Hideo Murota

The Plot: Our film begins with a young man being hoisted out of a pachinko parlor after being hustled for some money by the Yakuza managers. While no one is looking, we are introduced to Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari) who grabs the young man’s pachinko balls. When Kuroiwa tries to cash them in, the gangsters start to hustle him in the same manner that they did the previous young punk. What they don’t know is that this is not a man to be trifled with. After giving up his money, Kuroiwa then follows the gangsters and shows them his badge and reveals that he is actually a cop. Kuroiwa places the punks under arrest, but is soon watching them hit the streets due to their yakuza ties. It turns out that Kuroiwa is a policeman with a haunted past. After a raid went down poorly, he found himself firing a bullet into the back of a yakuza after his partner had been shot in the shoulder. This landed Kuroiwa in a ton of hot water and has essentially ruined his career up until this point. Feeling indignant at his role in society, being a honest cop in a world of corruption, Kuroiwa is focused entirely on taking down the yakuza. However, as Kuroiwa ponders his life, he begins to find himself siding more with the yakuza than with the police department that he has swore his allegiance to.

The Review
Kinji Fukasaku is one of those legendary filmmakers that it took me a while to actually warm up to. This may be sacrilege, but when I first watched Outlaw Mobster, many years ago during my Japanese film infancy, I didn’t care for it. The slow pace, lack of immediate-gory-violence and the general maturity found in his films were all things that did not jump out to a teenage version of myself. As with all things though, you live, you learn and then you get Luv’s. When I finally decided to return to Fukasaku’s work a couple of years ago, I found a filmmaker who played some of the same tunes as my favorite contemporary Japanese filmmakers, but in a stripped-down punk rock version. His yakuza films were lean and gritty, but they were packed with rich characters who were far more than just “big glasses and a menacing grimace.” Yakuza Graveyard is the perfect example of what made Fuksaku’s crime tales so alluring, even though it came towards the end of his run in this genre, and it encapsulates all of the previously mentioned details into one tightly edited piece of seventies cinema. Although others may be drawn to different films from his massive list of titles, Yakuza Graveyard has quickly jumped up into my top three from this director’s “criminal” era.

Similar to Takashi Miike’s output, there’s a definite pattern within Fukasaku’s career that shows him focusing on “outsiders” and their place within society. Yakuza Graveyard simply uses the concept of half-blood characters as the main catalyst for finding a universal sense of brotherhood. The character of Kuroiwa is not a man who has found brotherhood in the police force, and he doesn’t see it in the mob, but he does see it in the other half-bloods who have found their way into this black and white/good and bad society that Kuroiwa is trapped within. Such is the case with many of Fukasaku’s leading men throughout his yakuza pictures. A fully developed genre-film director, Fukasaku’s work often resembles the arthouse aesthetic than it does the simple V-Cinema yakuza pictures that flood the markets today. Although his work may prove to be far bloodier than Akira Kurosawa’s, he does often delve into the same sincere character idiosyncrasies and simplistic narratives that the famed Japanese master did. Not that these two filmmakers could be any more different from one another than they most assuredly are, but both filmmakers had a knack for simplifying large situations and making them into a singular or internal issue. Yakuza Graveyard is a fine example of this. Unlike many yakuza films that you may see from this time and era, the characters aren’t simply flexing for the camera and playing up their onscreen bravado. These characters have layers and the subtext is rife within the picture, despite there being dozens of scenes of ritualistic yakuza violence.

Tetsuya Watari, in the role of Kuroiwa, doesn’t so much step onto the screen as he immediately erupts into the audience. A character that is so boisterous and exuding machismo that he doesn’t even have to say a word for the audience to understand that he is “the man.” This character of Kuroiwa is completely unorthodox, but he represents a unwavering belief in justice, regardless of what side of the law he finds himself. It could be argued that Yakuza Graveyard starts off as the Japanese version of Dirty harry, however, this is a cop who isn’t so indignant that he doesn’t understand the world around him. Where films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish both represented a very black and white ideal version of the criminal element, where the bad guys were utterly evil an the good guys were filled with virtue, Fukasaku’s film likes to reside right in the middle ground. Inevitably, as the movie progresses, Kuroiwa becomes one with the criminal world that he has swore to arrest. Through the character of Keiko (played by Meiko Kaji) and her friend who is the leader of the Nishida clan (also a half breed, and played by Hideo Murota), he finds himself becoming a honorary member of the yakuza. Although the instincts that they have tried to teach him through police work tell him to not play these friends too close, he finds with this group the family that he has never had. They are mixed breeds like himself, and together this trio find that they are the only ones that they can depend upon in the crooked Japanese society.

The character of Kuroiwa is the definition of a rebel within the system. He spends his offtime sitting around listening to extremely loud English speaking rock music while drinking heavily and wearing sunglasses inside. As a jaded viewer, a part of me wants to question just why this character is so “utterly cool,” and in another film, I probably would. If someone other than Fukasaku were directing such scenes, I would look at this character who is typically non-conforming, but still desperately clinging to stylistic conventions (sunglasses at night, in a dark room), and I would call such a character cliche. However, Fukasaku harnesses a performance from Watari that is so raw and animalistic that this never seems like a character who is full of false bravado. Kuroiwa doesn’t do what he does in order to look cool, he instead seems to be a man on the verge of a total breakdown. He isn’t a flawless character, not by a longshot, he’s a man for whom death and life are important things and living with the death of a man is something that has left him haunted. This, along with his half-breed status (He is of Chinese descent), has him near to a breaking point. This character, who is rife with dramatic tension, seems to be hanging on to his sanity by a thread. As the movie presses along, that thread becomes more and more tenuous.

The Conclusion
There’s so much more to say about the film. Watari’s performance is stoic and over-the-top in one scene, and then quiet and humble during the next. A well-rounded character, he blew me away in this film. Meiko Kaji’s character is a bit more on the dramatic, and shows her shedding her “tough” image in a performance that shows her at her most vulnerable. All around, Yakuza Graveyard is incredible. I had to debate on the issue, but I feel the need to give it my highest approval. It gets a five out of five. This is everything that a yakuza picture can be, but so often is not. If you have not seen it, pick it up immediately.

Jason and the Argonauts

Posted by JoshSamford On September - 23 - 2011

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Director: Don Chaffey
Writers: Jan Read and Beverly Cross
Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack and Niall MacGinnis

The Plot: During our opening credits, a man named Pelias leads an army to take the throne of Thessaly. Once there however, he goes a bit overboard and murders nearly every living person. There are few who escape, but the king’s son is amongst these and his name is Jason. Pelias is told by the gods that it is prophesied that Jason will some day return for the throne which is rightfully his, and that if Pelias should interfere (ie; kill Jason), his life will end. So, as time goes by Jason grows and becomes a very strong and determined young man. As Pelias ages, he one day falls from his horse into the river and is surprisingly assisted by a young stranger. This stranger reveals himself to be none other than Jason who has set out to fulfill the prophecy. Pelias hides his identity and tells Jason of “The Golden Fleece” which will make the soil of the land fertile, cure the sick and surely win the hearts of people of Thessaly. Jason takes Pelias’ advice and begins his quest to find a ship and men to sail with. He finds the most talented and strongest men in Greece, builds the greatest boat the world has ever seen and is protected by the queen of the gods, Hera, who has promised to help him on three occasions if needed. The crew sets out to travel to the opposite side of the world, in a quest full of danger, action and amazing special effects! Along the way Jason confronts monsters of all sorts, fights with statues and falls for the lovely lady Medea.


The Review
To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about the last Rogue Roundtable (cavemen being our last topic, and the review being Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks). I didn’t have many films to choose from and when I found one that was weird enough, I didn’t quite care for it. So, I was fairly anxious to get the “caveman” review out of the way because I couldn’t wait to get to this month’s topic. This month we pay tribute to the work of Ray Harryhausen, cinematic special effects magician. Although I have only seen but a handful of his work, I knew the exact film I wanted to tackle for this special occasion. A film that has held a very special place in my heart for a long time: Jason and the Argonauts. I can’t quite recall how I first saw the film, but I think I might have come across it on a late-night program called “100% Weird” many years ago. The show would broadcast movies that were as bizarre as the title hinted at for the most part, but they would also feature classic horror films or generally forgotten pieces of cinema. They also had a knack for playing many mythological films, including many films featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen. This was my introduction to both Harryhausen as well as the sword-and-sandal genre, and it is still the pinnacle by which all others are judged within my mind.

Although I am speaking with nostalgic blinders on, without a doubt, but for me Jason and the Argonauts has a definite magical quality to it. Everything about the movie seems to emit a “film-classic” shine. It’s the sort of production where it doesn’t seem so cliche to throw out lines like “They don’t make ’em like this anymore”, because that is absolutely true. Few films would have the guts to dare be this imaginative in this millenium. From the get-go, the movie looks to deliver on only one promise and that is: entertainment. The legitimate myths that comprise this story are definitely on the outlandish side, which in essence gave Harryhausen a blank check of sorts. Seen through the eyes of a modern viewer, some might watch Jason and the Argonauts and laugh at how hokey the clay animation seems by today’s standards, but if an audience member feels that way they might be missing the point. Yes, by today’s standards the effects are most certainly without realism, but there’s a greater art at work here than just attempting to duplicate reality. The animation in itself is the real beauty, and what I would recommend viewers keep their eye upon. A tedious and highly detailed work, despite it not looking “real” the claymation is certainly beautiful to look at. The close attention to the minute details that Harryhausen put into his work when creating these monsters and the incredibly in-screen special FX work helped inspire an army of future filmmakers.

With a story as obviously as huge as Jason and the Argonauts is, you would probably expect it to have a relatively relaxed pace and go the usual route of a true epic, but the film doesn’t hold to such standards. Instead it seems to move along at a running speed. At just over 104 minutes it never once proves to be boring, which suits the film and its audience very well. Rather than trying to give heed to every little aspect of the original story, the director instead chooses to give us the juiciest details and always skips to the good stuff. This fast-food approach may not deliver the most emotional resonance, but it is exactly what an action/adventure yarn like this should do. It may not go for the jugular in presenting an authentic Greek tale, but it more than delivers in the entertainment department. After Jason initially sets out on his quest for the Golden Fleece, the film seems to swim from adventure to adventure. It loses only an ounce of steam when Jason is introduced to his love-interest, but it quickly picks back up as Harryhausen delivers some of the most mind blowing claymation work ever seen in cinema.

I will admit to it, the special FX are generally what make the movie. When you recount all of the greatest moments of the film, chances are you’re going to talk about the monsters. Jason fighting with the hydra was a definite standout, but the biggest bit of animation is obviously when the “argonauts” take on a team of skeletons who are awaken from the grave to do battle. The scene is quite famous by now, and for good reason. The skeletons may not be the largest or most mind blowing creatures the “argonauts” fight during the film, but from a technical scale it’s probably the movie’s largest achievement. The claymation and the live action are well placed together and it proves to be the most realistic battle of the film. The skeletons have shadows that dance around them as they fight, and it actually looks as if the swords really do clash. It’s a beautifully orchestrated dance that proves to be one of Harryhausen’s crowning achievements and is a cinematic sequence that will never be forgotten. Jason and the Argonauts will probably be remembered more for this one scene than the actual “film” itself, but the FX are just one part of the whole package.

The film may have been shot on sets and nowhere near the locations that are represented in the film, but Jason and the Argonauts definitely creates an atmosphere that manages to deliver upon some manner of realism. The beauty of the backgrounds around these characters, as well as the classy costumes and stunning cinematography. These things really set the mood for the film and they help to solidify a dose of realism. Sure, it may not follow the original story to pitch perfection, but Jason and the Argonauts proves to be a magnificent display of storytelling. It’s an ever-flowing story and the actors more than pick up their end of the slack. Todd Armstrong, who plays the lead Jason, was perfectly cast in the role. He exhumes a confident charisma, but isn’t just an average superhero. His character is, at the least, a vulnerable man, unlike the gods he often tempts. Armstrong manages to give the character a somewhat naive, but well rounded emotional range. Nancy Kovack, who plays Medea, may not have been chosen for her acting abilities alone, but can you really blame the casting agencies? She’s one of the most beautiful women I think I have ever seen in a classic film. Her character doesn’t really make an appearance until the latter half of the film, but once she is on board it’s hard to forget her face. I said earlier that the introduction of the love interest slows the film down some, and that is completely true. Thankfully the plot continues to move along as well as it does, but the few moments of character development between Jason and Medea felt rather bland for my tastes. Not that I usually have anything against a good romance, but for what seems like such a masculine movie for so long the dependency on a female lead felt as if it sucked some of the the air out of the film. Perhaps that’s just my misogyny talking though. The rest of the cast are for the most part made up of supporting actors, from the Argonauts to the gods. The only character who really matters most is Jason. The one supporting actor I truly notice when I watch the movie though is Nigel Green who plays Hercules, only because I’m not used to seeing Hercules portrayed as such a normal man. I suppose it’s all those years of watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys coming back to haunt me. When I think of the character Hercules, I rarely picture a middle aged man with a relatively average muscle tone and a full beard. However, I guess that’s a personal problem, now isn’t it?

The Conclusion
What else can I say, if you’re an average film fan I’m sure you have at least heard of the film. If you haven’t, then by George get out your door and head to the videostore. It’s a classic of both mythological epics and clay animation. Ray Harryhausen is a name that will be well remembered well into the future, and it is because of the work done on titles such as this one. He was a pioneer in his field and deserves all the reverence he has gained over the years. I can’t stress how much I, and I would like to think the majority of movie geeks, admire and respect his work. Now, everybody go out and pick up one of his films to celebrate along with us Rogues!

MST3K: Manos – The Hands of Fate

Posted by JoshSamford On August - 30 - 2011

MST3K: Manos: The Hands of Fate (1993)
Starring: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy.

The Plot: Joel Robinson and his robotic friends Crow and Tom Servo are stuck in outer space aboard the Satellite of Love where they are forced, by the evil Dr. Forrester, to watch very bad movies. The crew try to make the most of the flicks that are presented to them by continually cracking jokes while the movies play on for the audience at home. This time it seems that Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank have chose a movie so bad that even THEY feel rotten about sending it! The movie is Manos: The Hands of Fate, an insufferable picture that details a “frightening” roadtrip through the midwest as we watch a young family who stop off at a spooky little hotel. When they arrive they meet Torgo, who watches over the establishment while the master is away and before long all three (father, mother and daughter) are fending off a satanic cult lead by “The Master” who has a strange obsession with hands.

The Review
Where does one start with Manos: The Hands of Fate? It could very well be the most well known discovery of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s entire run, and it is a movie that almost defies all conventional description. Many films lay claim to the title of being the “worst movie” ever made and there is no clear consensus for what the definitive number one of all time will ever be, but if you were to ask an audience of b-movie fans who are “in the know”, I have no doubt that on almost every list you would see Manos: The Hands of Fate pop up. Cornering every possible facet that appropriately titles a movie as being “bad”, Manos is the sort of flick that the phrase “so bad, it’s good” was invented to describe. It has a lot of aspects to it that make for a good time amongst b-movie fans, but at the same time it is probably the most dreadfully slow piece of work you will likely ever stumble upon. A nightmarish piece of celluloid, Shout! Factory has re-released the movie in a special 2-Disc collection that gives a new look at an old classic and paints a fresh view at both what this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 meant at the time that it was released and it also helps feed the need for more information on the original film itself.

The claim to fame that Manos has is its title as the “worst movie ever made.” Yet, why do people feel this way about Manos? Is it really that bad? The short and sweet answer to that is: yes, yes indeed it is. Poor in every possible aesthetic value, Manos puts in overtime to assure that not one person possibly has fun or is entertained by its presence. From every possible angle you look at it, Manos is a poor movie. The cinematography is dreadful as the camera consistently zooms in and out of focus without any rhyme or reason. The framing is always off the mark and you’re never exactly sure where the focus should actually be. The colors used in the film are often nauseatingly contradictory and although the filmmakers did find certain sets that actually come across as halfway decent (I’ll get to the few positives a little later on), for the most part the movie just looks really bad. The acting is all of the amateur variety, which is forgivable in some circumstances but in this we aren’t even able to accurately judge the performances due to the poor dubbing. It seems that the film was either shot with no sound or with very poor microphones, because all of the audio looks to have been added after the fact. So, throughout the film the characters speak out of sync at all times or have audio added on top in scenes where they don’t actually open their mouths. Yep, Manos definitely pushes the limits when it comes to tremendously awful cinema.

So, who do we blame in a situation like this? Well, apparently you blame fertilizer salesman Harold Warren. A small figure in the El Paso theater scene, from most sources it seems as if he financed Manos on a dare but the circumstances behind the situation aren’t readily apparent. However, from the interviews supplied on this disc, it does seem that he was a filmmaker with delusions of grandeur. In the tradition of Ed Wood, he seemed like a filmmaker who anticipated many great things from his small film but ultimately his own self assured positivity kept him in denial despite his very apparent lack of knowledge when it came to creating his own motion picture. Hearing horror stories about the debut of the film, which even saw the mayor of El Paso showing up at the screening, shows the kind of local notoriety the feature had taken on likely due to Warren’s self aggrandizing. Still, the feature kind of stands out as a “how not to” for any would-be filmmaker who sits down to watch it. From the atrocious editing, which segues into strange valleys that have nothing to do with the main plot (such as a police officer who continually breaks up a young couple who are making out on the side of the road), to the dreadful script, Manos definitely holds itself up high on any list of really bad movies.

Still, for all of the horror, I won’t be that guy who stands on a podium to point my finger and laugh. These people did their best and that’s more than a lot of us do. Also, to be quite honest there are some things within Manos that almost work. The painting of “The Master” that is used throughout the film truly is legitimately creepy and had the filmmakers been a little more subtle, they could have built a creepy atmosphere off of that. The character of Torgo unfortunately kills any attempts at subtlety, but even he has some interesting traits. His wardrobe is great for this type of character and the guy looks and acts genuinely creepy. If he had been reigned in a bit and been a little less over the top… who knows? “The Master” too kind-of works. His robe, which he shows off to no end (as Joel and the bots say in unison after he displays it for the millionth time: “Seen it!”), is actually very well made. The hands in red on his black uniform is quite slick and the makeup on the actor really works. Yet, this for me basically marks the end of great things to talk about when it comes to Manos: The Hands of Fate. It is a title that suffers from one of the worst features any movie can, and that is “boredom”. Similar to the Hamlet episode, Joel and the bots have to fight hard to entertain but somehow they ultimately save this movie from itself, which is the polar opposite of what happened with Hamlet. When there is absolutely nothing left to riff on this time out, the guys ultimately make a joke out of the fact that there’s pretty much nothing left to riff on! Long stretches of boredom are expected during any viewing of Manos, but with the MST3K crew around thankfully they make everything work.

The Conclusion
It’s one of those episodes you really have to recommend to all MST3K fans. It’s a title that they introduced to the world and made movie history while doing so. The quality of the riffing and host segments are through-the-roof and this 2-Disc set from Shout! Factory is absolutely amazing. Features include Manos without commentary, an interview segment with the cast and crew reflecting on how the Manos episode came about, a intriguing documentary on the creation of Manos and much more. I think if you’re looking for a first step into the world of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you probably can’t go wrong here. I give it the highest rating we have: a 5 out of 5.

Come and See

Posted by JoshSamford On August - 25 - 2011

Come and See (1985)
Director: Elem Klimov
Writers: Elem Klimov and Ales Adamovich
Starring: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova and Liubomiras Lauciavicius

The Plot: Come and See tells the story of a young boy named Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) who in 1943 is drafted into the military of Belarus in order to fight in the second World War. The young boy pines for warfare and hopes to become a great hero, but when he arrives at the forest base-of-operations he is left behind by the commander Kosach in order to look after the camp. He soon finds Glasha, a beautiful young girl who is in love with Kosach, and the two share their grief about being left alone and are soon enough spending a great deal of time together. What seems to be the start of a romance is quickly distinguished when German paratroopers and heavy artillery starts crashing down around them. Florya is deafened by the artillery rounds crashing around him, but the two children are able to escape and quickly run back to Florya’s village. Once they arrive they find that the war has spread throughout their small country and the stench of death now dominates everything.

The Review
Come and See isn’t so much an exploration of the tragedies of warfare as it is an opportunity to crawl inside of the mind of human being torn apart. It just so happens that the trauma is inflicted due to the immense horrors of warfare. With our lead character Florya we are shown at first the optimistic glory-seeking view of battle from a youth’s perspective, but as the film progresses we quickly see the real life trauma of such a situation. While this concept is anything but new, the way in which director Elem Klimov manages to throw us into the film via a near-first-person-perspective is something not often seen in war-cinema. Certainly in 1985 it would be hard to find another film dealing with the topic of “war” that could come close to this level of realism. Come and See puts the human element inside of this war film and crafts something so heart-breaking that it has the capability of mentally scarring its audience for the remainder of their days. You cannot and will not forget a film such as this one.

Although Sean Penn describes the film as one of the very best anti-war films of all time, I think simply lumping Come and See into that category is a bit unfair. It’s because the term “anti-war film” brings to mind any number of Vietnam based pictures that tried to follow along with Apocalypse Now and ultimately created a pattern that would unfortunately become the standard. Come and See may feature many aspects to it that have been covered before in films previously, but it’s a feature that never casts itself as being a copy of any other film. Come and See is a survivalist tale about the nightmares of war, but through its beautiful use of steadicam and the brilliant performances from the main cast – it manages to be more than just that. While watching you are absorbed into the environment, you fear for the innocents who will perish and a knot is developed in the lower part of your gut. Things will turn out bad and we know this, but we still hold out hope… and that is where director Klimov really gets us. That hope for sympathy that manages to go unfulfilled keeps the audience tuned in for what may be the most harrowing 150 minutes that they could have ever imagined.

You can only say “war is hell” so many times before it loses its punch. Saving Private Ryan showed us the gritty realism of combat and even though it had a more digestible message and theme than Come and See, both films make their point in brutal but honest ways. Come and See isn’t the four hour torture-fest that Philosophy of a Knife was, thankfully, and it doesn’t feature a great deal of onscreen violence, but the ever-imposing threat of violence and the unmerciful and faceless destruction of war creates an atmosphere of chaos and violence throughout the entire picture. It is for this reason that you will often see it landing on any number of “most disturbing” lists out there. However, this is certainly a film that doesn’t rely heavily on nastiness, but instead looks to do a service in providing both a voice for those affected by the inhuman tragedies committed at the behest of the German war machine during the second world war, as well as all who have been effected by the destructive aftermath of war in general.

There is another side to Come and See however that will certainly leave some upset from an entirely different position than just those who are offended by the disturbing content. There is no question that the film is rather unfair to the German people, as it at no point ever tries to give a differing perspective on the German population other than that they are all inhuman monsters. After the film, its easy to imagine those who are easily persuaded feeling a new animosity for the German people. Yet, part of my respect for the film comes from the fact that it doesn’t dare attempt to play up to the politically correct viewpoint that only the highest echelon of the German military were actually members of the Nazi party. Still, the monstrous portrayal of the soldiers in the film certainly reflects the anger that this film comes from. In sequences such as the much-talked-about burning-of-the-church, the villains are broadly drawn in such a way that they can no longer be considered human. They are laughing beasts drunk from blood and carnage. Even though there were likely Germans who were more reserved than this, hated the situation that they were in and quite simply had their hands forced in order to commit these atrocities… Come and See comes from the direct focuses of a young boy who has everything taken from him and in his eyes: no one committing these acts are without sin. His world isn’t a polite or genteel place and ultimately neither is this film.

The Conclusion
A startling, horrifying and brilliantly crafted piece of cinema… Come and See blew me away. If you have any interest in war on film, then this is a must see. However, it isn’t a polite or particularly “nice” movie, so be prepared. I give it our highest award, a five out of five. Definitely a must see piece of film.

Once Upon a Time in China

Posted by JoshSamford On June - 4 - 2011

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Leung Yiu Ming, Tang Pik-yin, Tsui Hark and Gai Chi Yuen
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Yuen Biao

The Plot: Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is a legendary Chinese folk-hero who looks after the well being of the people. After his master is ostracized to Vietnam, Wong Fei-hung is left to form up the local militia within Hong Kong in the face of a tremendous number of foreigners stepping into China in order to take advantage of slave labor and local commodities. Wong Fei-hung is soon left in charge of 13th Aunt (Rossamund Kwan), who he begins to develop a relationship with. At the same time, Leung Foon (Yuen Biao) is searching for Fei-hung in order to become one of his students after being harassed by the Shaho gang who rule this small coastal town. This gang soon becomes the enemy of Wong Fei-hung after Foon is chased into his school, and it turns out that this gang has been hired by the foreigners. Soon Wong Fei-hung is attacked by this gang as well as city hall who are also in cahoots with the foreign invaders.

The Review
Every film critic or writer has to have a select number of films that generally intimidate them when it comes time to give some kind of a critical review. There are those films that have been so heavily praised amongst film critics for such a tremendous amount of time that any coverage seems like it will undoubtedly come across as old-hat material. How does one comment on a film when some of the best writers who have ever lived have already wrote entire books on a particular film, or filmmaker? There are those, which are more excusable due to our own fear of inadequacy, but then there are the titles that we grew up on as well. The movies that have left a tremendous impression on us, that we know we likely can not and will not remain objective with. Once Upon a Time in China is a film that truly lives up to that concept for me. Beloved by a limited but devoted group of fans, Tsui Hark’s magnum opus could very well intimidate any author due to its impact and due to the praise it has received in years past.

Once Upon a Time in China was, certainly during its time, a very important and game-changing title in the realm of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. The influence that Once Upon a Time… would have on the industry is something that is still felt throughout Hong Kong cinema even to this day. An “epic” that mixes everything that Kung Fu cinema had established up until that point, but does so with a touch of class and a revelry for folk lore that had not been seen in such an established manner. The film marks an important and interesting step forward in the word of martial arts cinema. Larger in scope and production values than most martial art films of the time, Kung Fu cinema would shed its simplistic past and enter into a new direction with the release of Jet Li’s worldwide breakout role.

What Once Upon a Time in China does differently from the films that came before it is enormous. There are elements from all of the varying offshoots of Kung Fu cinema that had been alive since the earliest days of cinema in Hong Kong, but the way the film mixed them all into a bag is what created this new and unique vision. You start things off by looking at the choreography. Taking the use of wires to exaggerate “flying” movements, this technique was primarily reserved for swordsman films and general Wuxia titles from back in the day. This sort of exaggerating was popular due to its root in Chinese folk lore, but the mix of this along with a more rooted tone was certainly a new concept. You never truly believe that Jet Li has the ability to fly whilst watching Once Upon a Time in China, but at key moments he is able to defy the laws of gravity for only the tiniest of instances. Then you have the very Chinese-centric sense of nationalism that pervades every frame of the film. Although we had seen this before, more often than not in Kung Fu titles that also focused on the turbulent years around the turn of 20th century where China had to deal with such a Western influence, it had never seemed so militarized. Wong Fei-hung had been represented as a national icon in years previous, but here he truly is the Chinese version of Superman. Truth, Justice and the Chinese fighting spirit.

The use of “wire-fu” is actually quite sporadic throughout the film, to be honest. This turns out to be a good thing and with the use being so subtle, it creates a new use for the concept. Many of the fight scenes are actually grounded in reality and not just a series of acrobatic “flying” sequences. The fights that break out between Wong Fei-hung’s students and a gang chasing Yuen Biao near the beginning of the film are handled very well and require little to no excessive physics-defying action. The few moments that really seem to break free of logical thought are handled very well, including the infamous “ladder” fight which may well be one of the impressive fight sequence in Hong Kong film history.

Part of what makes the movie so special, aside from the blistering choreography and the inventive new cinematography, are the performances from the all star cast. Jet Li had already made a name for himself within Hong Kong but this film along with some others would help solidify him as an international star. It would also introduce a great number of Kung Fu film fans to an entirely new generation of martial arts cinema. However, these are just contextual issues that make the movie great and I must assure you from the point of general film entertainment: it is one of the very best.

The Conclusion
Clocking in at two hours, something not entirely common for a Kung Fu title to be sure, the film retains a high quality pace that doesn’t relent throughout its running time. Fun, innovative, genius from a technical standpoint and certainly action packed… I really can’t recommend it higher. If you haven’t seen it, then you have waited too long to enter into one of the great trilogies of Martial Arts cinema.




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