Saturday, April 03, 2004

Savior of the Soul (Gauyat sandiu haplui) and Moon Warriors (Zhan shen chuan shuo)

Savior: * * (out of four)
Warriors: * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2004 at the Brattle Theater (a tribute to Anita Mui)

In a twenty-year career, Anita Mui made, according to the IMDB, 46 movies, while also being one of Hong Kong's most popular pop singers. That's not quite so astounding as it would be in the United States; much of what she made was action/adventure pictures, which seem to be produced like factory goods. When she died of cervical cancer at the end of 2003, it was gigantic news in Hong Kong, Princess Di big.

I hear that and I think, she must have been one heck of a singer. As a movie star, at least in what I've seen, she's a mass of contradictions. She's not strikingly pretty, though she does have a certain authority that makes her seem formidable. Though she can handle herself in fight scenes when given the chance, she often seemed to get cast as a crying victim in movies with Jackie Chan. I'm not sure I see her as a movie star; more a familiar presence.

Both movies in the Brattle's tribute to her Thursday night are really Andy Lau vehicles; he and Mui are paired up, but sparks don't quite fly. Though there's fun to be had, I wish the Brattle had chosen movies where she played a more central role, as with last week's Heroic Trio.

Savior of the Soul, for instance, is a mess. It's got a futuristic look to it, with "city soldiers" using futuristic weapons to... Well, mainly to fight the "Silver Fox" (Aaron Kwok), who seems like he'd be more in place in a movie set a couple centuries earlier, a bandit of sorts who is said to be part of some assassin's guild; in the movie's opening, he rescues his mentor only to execute him for his allowing himself to be captured... and then he goes after the "city soldiers", May Yiu (Mui) specifically, to avenge his mentor. I suppose there's some kind of criminal code that allows this to make sense. May, in the meantime, is the object of two of her colleagues' affections, but the Fox kills one just as his sister arrives in town; said sister is taken in by the other (Lau) while May leaves town to draw the Silver Fox away...

It doesn't make any sense. This is before the movie takes a U-turn from its more futuristic trappings to get all mystical with a kung fu competition to find a husband for the "Pet Lady", whom Lau's character thinks is May, and the slain soldier's little sister having a weird baseball motif like a character out of one of your goofier mangas. That's not mentioning Anita Mui's other role, as May's sister, who builds the soldier's tech and has bad luck whenever Lau's character is around. Then there's the thing about Silver Fox turning May into some sort of "Terrible Angel"... It makes no sense, and isn't quite slick enough to cover that up. The fighting is wire-fu, and shot almost Hollywood style with its quick cuts and attempts to camoflage effects work.

Interestingly, like Haunted Cop Shop 2, this movie was also written by Wong Kar Wai, who later became one of the big names in Hong Kong art cinema. I guess you could liken this early work to John Sayles paying the bills with scripting Roger Corman fare like Prianha until he could produce and direct his own movies.

Moon Warriors is much better. Sammo Hung directs here, though he does not appear. Andy Lau plays Fei, a simple fisherman with exceptional kung fu who comes to the aid of Yen (Kenny Bee, who also appeared in Savior of the Soul), a prince on the run from his warlord brother. Yen is protected by Hsien (Maggie Cheung), who loves him despite his betrothal to Yeuh (Mui), a princess who will fall in love with Fei as they return to his village, where Yen is hiding out. Stated in one sentance, it seems like a complicated plot, but it's rather straightforward, and rather sweet for a kung fu action movie, even working in Fei's friendship with a killer whale (this came out soon after Free Willy; Sammo will swipe from anything that's not nailed down). Indeed, those scenes with the killer whale are quite nicely filmed, and they set up a bit in the end that provides great amusement in the middle of a particularly brutal fight scene.

The action is just as over-the-top here, but choreographed well. There are scenes with big armies fighting it out, one-on-one duels, and bigger fights. The fishing village is a neat environment; unlike a lot of movies (especially Hong Kong's quickly-made action movies) set in rural China, it looks like some work actually went into this. The comic relief doesn't get completely out-of-hand either. It's quite an enjoyable action movie, despite the grimness of its final act.

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