Sunday, June 27, 2004

Dance Of Death (Chuan Lu)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

One of the main influence Jackie Chan had on martial arts moviemaking was an infusion of comedy. He doesn't appear here, but did choreograph the fights (credited on the print screened as Chen Yuan-Lung). Angela Mao (credited as Mao Ying) takes the lead in this 1980 movie, and it's something of a transitional work between the "battle of the martial arts schools" movies of the 1970s a Chan-style martial arts comedy. Indeed, it goes beyond being merely comedic all the way to silly.

By silly, I mean Three Stooges silly. Many of the villains speak in silly voices, and smack each other around over their disagreements in a Stooge-like style. Similarly, Mao's character Fei Fei studies under a pair of aging masters, one of whom favors the bottle and one of whom likes the pipe. They've got silly voices and trail after Fei Fei, counting how many moves she uses that each of them taught her, in an effort to see which of them has the best kung fu, since they have been fighting each other to a standstill every five years for the past twenty.

Oh, and apparently Fei Fei is supposed to be a guy. Or maybe a girl disguised as a boy; all the subtitles refer to Fei Fei using masculine pronouns, but it's not like Ms. Mao looks manly in any way. One would be tempted to just dismiss it as screwy subtitling, except for a weird scene in a brothel. I wondered if this script was originally written for someone else, with Angela Mao brought in at the last minute, too late to rewrite the script even if this genre's writers were inclined to go much beyond first draft.

The result is a thoroughly mixed bag. There's no denying the athletic ability of Mao and the other participants; they jump and dodge and roll with great skill. Often, though, the end result often seems to emphasize the "choreography" in "fight choreography". Blows with sound effects indicating that they connected occasionally appear to miss by a wide margin. With the way combatants yell out and seem to co-operate on moves, it often winds up looking more like a dance than a fight. It's impressive dance, but it's stuck into the movie in combat situations.

The performances have a great deal of ham in them. That's not unusual, but it's frequently more obnoxious than amusing. Angela Mao is pretty charming, though. She also has more chemistry with the characters she's paired with in the film's opening flashback (though it takes a minute to realize it's a flashback) than with the characters she appears with in the bulk of the movie.

An irritant not connected to the movie itself was the group behind me who acted as though they were at home watching the movie on their TV. Folks, I know I said the midnight-movie crowd getting into it was fun last week, but you've got to get the sense of the room. If you're the only ones talking, then shut up!

Overall, this was far from the best show I've seen at the Midnight Ass-Kicking. Too often, it sits on the wrong side of the campy/dumb line.

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