Film review – Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)

Two decades before Jackie Chan broke into Hollywood with box office smash Rush Hour, he was making another significant breakthrough in his career. Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master were both released in 1978 by Seasonal Film Corporation. They marked Chan’s first mainstream success as a lead actor and showed him to be a realistic option to fill the gap in the market left by Bruce Lee following his unexpected death in 1973.

Chan had worked as a stuntman on two of Lee’s biggest films: Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. But it took the two action comedy films in 1978 for him to rise to prominence and make the world pay attention to just how entertaining he is on screen.

Drunken Master, which has recently been remastered and issued in HD on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, tells the story of Wong Fei-hung (Chan), a young martial arts trainee with more confidence than ability. A couple of incidents in his local town lead him to be disowned by his father – a martial arts master – and he is forced to train with the great but harsh Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien). Beggar So is a master of the secret martial arts techniques of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wong must train with him to master the techniques to defeat the notorious killer Yim Tit-sam (Hwang Jang Lee).

Once Chan appears on screen for the first time, his charisma and charm are there in plain sight. He commands the screen and plays everything for laughs. It feels entirely effortless and he inevitably carries the entire film.

The plot and delivery border on the ridiculous. There are comedic sound effects added to every single move in every fight, which may take some getting used to for newcomers to the genre, although why they would start here is beyond me.

The martial arts on display is exemplary, with Chan clearly an expert in his art to the point of making his character look completely believable as a poor student. Also notable are Hwang Jang Lee’s Taekwondo displays, which are utilised to great effect.

Inevitably, if you’re seeking out this film you’re probably doing so to see the origins of Jackie Chan’s career. On that level, you won’t be disappointed as it shows a young actor having fun finding his feet in a lead role. An underrated gem.

Drunken Master can be purchased on Blu-ray now. It is also available on U.K. Netflix.

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Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Film review – The Lost Bladesman (Felix Chong / Alan Mak, 2011)

The Lost Bladesman is a historical biopic that portrays the story of Guan Yu (Donnie Yen), a general in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. During this period, the land of China was divided into three main states: Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳).

The kingdoms are at war, and China is in turmoil. Guan Yu has sworn himself to the warlord Liu Bei, but is taken prisoner by opposing warlord Cao Cao (Jiang Wen). Forced to fight for his enemy, Guan Yu leads the Cao army to victory. He is granted freedom but amongst Cao Cao’s supporters he is seen as too great a threat to remain alive. Six of Cao Cao’s most capable supporters embark to kill Guan Yu.

The film is not a traditional telling of the Cao Cao-Liu Bei-Guan Yu story, as director Felix Chong describes in the bonus features: “We wanted to avoid the pre-established image of Guan Yun Chang. We have lots of stories about how he charged into battles, but this time we see him fight his way out of one entrapment after another… The film also concerns itself with his internal struggles and disillusions.” This is certainly something that Donnie Yen pulls off with ease, with the payoff being the drive in the battle sequences – you really believe this is a man unwilling to give up or give in.

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Donnie Yen in one of the more memorable action sequences.

It is, admittedly, a story you either need to know the historical relevance of before watching, or something you need to concentrate on in great detail for the first half of the film. As an English-speaker with no knowledge of the Chinese language, trying to keep up with the names of the characters was nigh-on impossible.

Fortunately, pretty soon we are treated to some beautifully-choreographed battles as Guan Yu rips his way through hundreds of men sent to kill him, driven by his loyalty to Liu Bei and his secret passion for the woman betrothed to Liu Bei: Qilan (Sun Li).

The pairing of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in this film means it is now of great interest to any fans of Star Wars, with both set to appear in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as characters Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively. Certainly Donnie Yen was brought on board for his martial arts capabilities – not only is he regarded as one of the greatest martial arts actors in film, he is also his own choreographer and is an ex Wushu world champion.

Those martial arts talents are shown in abundance in The Lost Bladesman and anyone looking for a masterclass in the variety of styles of martial arts on show here won’t be disappointed.

For anyone unfamiliar with Chinese cinema, this is a great example of the kinds of high-budget productions typical of the region. The large-scale battle sequences are truly epic and stand up to anything coming out of Hollywood at the present time. Cinematographer Chan Chi-ying clearly works well with the director pairing to deliver shots that are both true to the setting and appealing to the modern audiences.

The climax of the film is, however, a complete anti-climax. Unexpectedly, a paragraph of text appears to wrap up one element of the story, before a brief clip of Cao Cao precedes a second paragraph of text. I couldn’t help but think the money had run out and they were forced into this ludicrous ending, robbing us of a final stand-off or battle of some kind.

Pacing issues aside, the Donnie Yen action sequences make this a film well worth picking up and are a fantastic introduction to his capabilities as a martial arts expert.

Film review – Zinnia Flower (Tom Shu-Yu Lin, 2015)

I’m going to kick-off before I say anything else and let you know that if you’re looking for a film that will make you feel immediately happy, then Tom Shu-Yu Lin’s latest isn’t for you. If, however, you’re willing to invest the smallest amount of emotional sympathy with the characters then you’ll find yourself on a deeply effective journey as two characters deal with the mourning process of losing their loved-ones.

The film opens with a devastating multi-car crash. Yu Wei (Stone) loses his heavily-pregnant wife and their unborn child but escapes with just a broken arm. Shin Min (Karena Lam) also loses her fiancé in the same incident. They begin their traditional Buddhist mourning period of 100 days. Shin Min goes on the honeymoon to Okinawa she will never be able to have with her fiancé and Yu Wei turns to alcohol and anger to forget his sorrow.

 

The film is boldly intimate in its portrayal of grief, and its success is secured by two excellent performances from the lead actors, whose lives are intertwined but yet are dealing with almost identical situations in entirely different ways.

It is painful to watch at times, though I was unaware on first viewing that director Lin was drawing on personal experiences as inspiration for the story – he lost his wife in a car accident in 2012. Had I known this I would have viewed it through entirely different eyes.

Indeed, the film itself is representative of Lin’s journey through grief. Just as the two leads take their journey through the internal resolution of their losses, it appears as though Lin has used this to rationalise the pain he went through. I summise that each character represents a different part of his journey, neither of which is portrayed as a correct or incorrect way to deal with the death of a loved one. Simply, how can you possibly say what’s a right or wrong way to cope in such devastating circumstances? Lin intelligently doesn’t make that decision for us either; the film he is made is provocative enough to not need to spoon-feed its viewers on such a complex issue.

There is also a starkness in the portrayal of the juxtaposition between the pair attending their Buddhist mourning ceremonies and their mindset behind closed doors. In my opinion, this was done to underline the façade that those in the throes of grief assume in public, perhaps indicating that this defined method of grief is wholly outdated. I certainly didn’t feel like they were at the end of their grieving process by the end of the film. Perhaps Lin is in the same place?

This is essential viewing for anyone coping with grief and loss. A beautiful but heartbreaking picture that deserves wider coverage.

Film review – 刺客聶隱娘 / The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2016)

Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, the film revolves around assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) who has been ordered to murder a variety of government officials by her master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu). After taking mercy on those she has been ordered to kill, she is given a much greater task to take down Ti’an Jian (Chang Chen), her cousin to whom she was once betrothed and now a military governor in the Weibo district.

The story is, apparently, an essential tale in wuxia folklore, unique in that it featured a female heroine. It is clear why this is such an enduring tale in Chinese history, especially given its importance as an early example of women’s literature. In this sense it is perfect for a motion picture adaptation.

 

It would be a great success but for the director losing touch with the flow of the movie. In a recent Variety interview, director Hou Hsiao-hsien said “It’s not easy for people to grasp the film fully the first time around, but you can’t wait for the audience. I can’t help but make films the way I do.” I can’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. In my opinion, it is not outside a director’s job to challenge his or her audience, but this shouldn’t be at the deliberate expense of telling a succinct story.

At times, the film feels like an extended advertisement for the tourist board of the Hubei Province in which it was filmed. There are some truly beautiful shots in there that instantly transported me to thoughts of traditional Chinese paintings. It is a triumph of cinematography at its absolute best, courtesy of Mark Lee Ping Bin.

The way the camera lingers on some of the actors and actresses long after they’ve finished what they are saying is also striking and feels deliberately daring. For this reason it should be seen as a success, at least in terms of artistic beauty. 

However, the overarching feeling that the film itself didn’t really have much substance can’t be excused. It’s tricky. The source material is well-loved and recognisable and could hardly have been altered drastically, but it really needed it to achieve greatness. Most notably, the lead character Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin, doesn’t actually kill anyone. True, this is the whole point of the film and is central to the plot, but there’s something wholly unsatisfying about having a continuous string of disappointing battles where people get their clothes sliced a little or a couple of hairs trimmed, especially when each shot looks so stunning.

It’s almost a wonderful experience, but falls just short.

世界 / The World (Jia Zhangke, 2004)

Time for another Masters of Cinema review, this time for Jia Zhangke’s 2004 Chinese film 世界 / The World. Originally screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival, it soon found its way onto the Eureka label on DVD and subsequently again on a Blu-ray/DVD dual-format release.

 

The story covers a short period of time of two workers at Beijing World Park: Tao (Zhao Tao) and Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) Tao’s boyfriend and a security guard at the park, whose relationship becomes increasingly strained throughout the period of the gloomy film. The theme park (a real park in Beijing) recreates famous cities and landmarks from around the world but in reduced scales, mainly for tourists. The story delves into the emotional and financial instability of the two lead characters and their colleagues, and how these two factors go closely hand-in-hand in modern China.

 

At 135 minutes long and with an extremely slow pace, The World is a tough film to sit through and maintain focus. The dialogue isn’t very focused, with the effect of making the characters feel wholly depressed. Unfortunately, whilst it’s fine to do this, when you’ve not really getting very far along the characters’ journeys your mind does start wonder. I had to take a couple of breaks to get through it, and that’s doesn’t really indicate a story that has me gripped.

 

There were some clever techniques utilised. Lead character Tao continually lost herself in her inner thoughts, removing herself from her own depression into a world represented by brightly coloured animation. This is something I saw more recently in Giovanni’s Island, probably to much better effect, but it doesn’t detract from the solid concept.

 

By the end of the film, I didn’t really feel emotionally involved in any of the characters and was quite relieved when it was all over. It’s not a film I will be revisiting any time soon.

 

世界 / The Worldis available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release now.

Black Coal, Thin Ice / 白日焰火 (Diao Yinan, 2014)

Black Coal, Thin Ice was screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, eventually winning the prestigious Golden Bear award. Whilst it wasn’t in competition at the London Film Festival, its proceeding reputation still created a degree of interest amongst the cinema goers at this year’s LFF. So did it live up to the hype?

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The thriller centres around a police investigation into mysterious murders, where people’s body parts are found scattered across a large area of China in, amongst other places, coal transportation centres. Quickly the deaths are linked to one woman: Wu Zhizhen (as portrayed by Gwei Lun-Mei). It is up to the film’s eventual main protagonist – Liao Fan’s Zhang Zili -to get close to her and solve the riddle.

It is a gripping police thriller with some highly memorable and shocking scenes. The pacing is fantastic, and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. Stylistically the cinematographer Dong Jinsong has worked well with director Yinan, and between them they’ve done fantastic job with some great framing that made use of the surplus of snow on offer on the shoot.

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With strong performances from the two lead actors, it was clearly a justified winner of the Golden Bear. I highly recommend seeking it out if you get the chance.

白日焰火 is released in cinemas in the UK in 2015.