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 – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

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 – 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.