Thursday, July 01, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival 2010: The Storm Warriors, Bodyguards and Assassins, Echoes of the Rainbow, and Ip Man 2

I had a bit of an aggravating start to Sunday - I had been smart and made plans a couple weeks in advance, getting a good price for the 6:30am Boston/NY trip on Megabus and reserving my tickets. I left plenty of time to find my way to Lincoln Center. I figured I was cutting things a little close when I got to Central Square in Cambridge at only five of six, but I figured that since there were plenty of other people there, a train must be coming soon.

"Soon" turned out to be twenty-five minutes. It made pretty good time getting to South Station - abut ten minutes - but it almost takes longer to get from the subway stop to the bus (up to the train station, across the tracks to the bus station, up two flights of stairs, and then to the far terminal for the discount buses to NYC). I tried to exchange my ticket for one on the 7:30, but they had just sold the last one. I could be put on standby, but I figured that if that didn't work out, there would be no way I was getting to New York by noon for The Storm Warriors. So I moved to the Fung Wah desk next door, dropped $15 for the 7am bus, and took that, grumbling that someone at the T owes me money.

It did at least set up a kind of an amusing situation in that the bus took me into Chinatown, but I would have to take the subway uptown a ways to spend the day watching Chinese movies. Not quite ironic, but amusing. Then I got myself kind of turned around getting from the 59th street D-train stop to the actual building, including a moment when I could see it but not see the way to reach it, prompting a Mainerly "you can't get there from here" to escape my lips.

I did make it, though. Spiffy building, nice stage and screen. They turn the air conditioning up pretty high, so I probably shouldn't have been wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but overall it was a nice way to spend an afternoon at the movies. I got pretty good seats, too, which meant I was right there for Simon Yam's entertaining introductions and Q&A's:

Grady Hendrix & Simon Yam

Honestly, Mr. Yam was a stitch; the movie he was genuinely excited about was Echoes of the Rainbow, and no wonder - he won a Best Actor award for it, and though he was in all four movies, that was the only one where he really had a substantial role. It made for some amusing moments, though, as his answers to the questions festival organizer Grady Hendrix would ask often seemed only tangentially related, swiftly switching over to a plea to the audience to come see Echoes when it played at 6pm. Not a whole lot did (or most of the group had gone to the Saturday show), but it meant that I was able to camp out in a good seat for Ip Man 2, which I watched with some of the crew that runs IFFBoston. I managed not to ask about why, in the dozen years I've been going to Boston area fests, nobody has managed to get Donnie Yen to come to town. There are a bunch of obvious explanations - he's a big star in Asia who works constantly (after a brief sojourn in L.A. that produced nothing but Highlander: Endgame and Blade II, he has done two or three movies a year this decade); the Boston event which would play his films (Films at the Gate) has zero money to do much in the way of guest relations; despite the fact that he spent a good chunk of his youth here, he may not have much affinity for the Boston area.

Unfortunately, the charge ran out on my phone sometime during Echoes - I suspect because I didn't properly quit the maps app after getting to the theater and the GPS drains like crazy. So no pictures of Sammo Hung.

After that... Supper at 11pm, falling asleep just about as soon as I got into the 1:30am bus, and arriving in Boston four hours or so later, just in time to get home and go to work. I think I'm just now back on a reasonable sleep schedule.

(So, no, I won't be doing the same thing this Sunday, no matter how badly I want to see Confessions despite it not being on Fantasia's schedule...)

The Storm Warriors (Fun Wan II)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2010 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center (New York Asian Film Festival 2010)

My monthly pull at the comic shop is pretty international: North American, British, French, Korean, Japanese. No Chinese, though; not much of that has made it to America in translation. Which means I can't say for sure whether or not The Storm Warriors is the closest thing to a faithful translation to the screen, in story and style, that China's martial-arts comics have received. On the other hand, it is pretty much what you'd expect to come of giving Danny & Oxide Pang a bunch of money to make a martial-arts fantasy epic.

In true comic-book fashion, though, we open on a cliffhanger - invading villain Lord Godless (Simon Yam) has captured the legendary hero Nameless (Kenny Ho) and many of his men. A rescue operation is mounted, but Nameless is poisoned and weak; he sends three of his group - Cloud (Aaron Kwok), Wind (Ekin Cheng), and Chu Chu (Yan Tang) to call upon reclusive Lord Wicked (Wong Tak-bun) for help. Given that Godless's son Heart (Nicholas Tse) is rampaging across China, Wicked opts to use a short-cut, teaching Wind to tap into "the evil way" while Nameless transfers his remaining power to Cloud. Wicked opted to teach Wind because he displays more self-control, but his training is interrupted. As Godless and Heart approach the Dragon's Tomb, will Wind's self-control hold, or will Cloud have to stop his comrade?

At first glance, The Storm Warriors doesn't necessarily feel like the place where an uninitiated audience would feel comfortable jumping in; it's not just an adaptation of a story from a long-running comic book serial, but also a sequel to 1998's The Storm Riders (Kowk and Cheng return from the first film). It is, however, fairly easy to get into. Despite having a vast mythology to pull from, the story in Storm Warriors is fairly self-contained and easy to grasp. And as complicated as these mystical fighting universes can be - at least, based upon their Korean and Japanese cousins - the Pangs and their co-writers don't ask the audience to remember a lot of detail: If you can understand that Wind tapping into an evil force is going to have an effect on him - your basic "power corrupts" scenario - you're about 75% of the way there.

Full review at EFC.

Shi yue wei cheng (Bodyguards and Assassins)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2010 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center (New York Asian Film Festival 2010)

Before Bodyguards and Assassins, the festival presented Development Hell, a documentary not about the making of this film, but of the collapse of multiple attempts to shoot it under multiple titles over decades. Unlike many cursed productions, this one made it to screens in impressive fashion, with an all-star cast and extraordinary production values, at least providing the filmmakers with a happy ending.

In 1906, the Qing Dynasty still ruled China. Would-be revolutionaries were routinely assassinated, and the man who would later become known as the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, lived in exile in Japan. But in October, he would come to Hong Kong ot meet with other revolutionaries, a golden opportunity for Mainland assassins. Empress Cixi sends her top general, Yan Xiao-guo (Jun Hu), to spearhead the attempt. Security is meant to be handled by former general Fang Tian (Simon Yam), but Yan strikes first, leaving matters in the hands of a ragtag group: Li Yu-tang (Wang Xueqi), a businessman who had been satisfied to merely donate money to the cause; Chen Xiao-bai (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who edits the newspaper Li owns and also tutors Li's son Chung-guang (Wang Bo-Chieh); A-si(Nicholas Tse), Li's rickshaw boy; "Master Liu" (Leon Lai), a once-proud man reduced to vagrancy; Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), General Fang's 16-year-old daughter; and "Stinky Tofu" (Mengke Bateer), a giant of a street vendor who was once a Shaolin monk. The English have told the police to stay back, but one corrupt cop, Sum Chang-yan (Donnie Yen) is spying for Yan, less for ideology than because he still carries a torch for Li's young wife (Fan Bingbing).

Bodyguards and Assassins is a lot of movie; it runs 139 minutes and in that time gives all of its characters time to define themselves to the audience. They don't necessarily grown and change very much over the course of the film - the bulk of the action takes place over a period of less than a week - but director Teddy Chan, the editors, and the four credited writers do an excellent job of balancing the various characters. We learn just enough about each to grow fond of or interested in each one, but we're not smothered in unnecessary soap that unduly distracts us from or delays the action we paid to see.

Full review at EFC.

Sui yuet san tau (Echoes of the Rainbow)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2010 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center (New York Asian Film Festival 2010)

Many filmmakers produce a movie like Echoes of the Rainbow at some point in their careers. It's an autobiographical story set in the place and time of the writer/director's youth, and though I'm not sure whether it's actually better than most or just less familiar (I can go a long time before seeing another New York teenager grow up with the mafia on the periphery), I liked this one. It's a love letter to Alex Law's youth, but a clear-eyed and well-made one.

The Laws live above their shop at one end of a quiet Hong Kong street. Mr. Law (Simon Yam) makes the shoes; his wife (Sandra Ng Kwan Yue) sells them. They have two sons. The younger, "Big Ears" (Buzz Chung), is about seven or eight years old and our narrator; he's a troublemaker in school and likes to nick things out of it. Older brother Desmond (Lee Chi-ting) is an excellent student and athlete at a private English-language school. He's seeing a nice girl, Flora (Evelyn Choi). Money-wise, the Laws don't have much, but they have a roof over their heads. A typhoon threatens that, but it's what they discover afterward that shakes them more.

The street that the Laws live on in Echoes of the Rainbow is a real place; it was actually marked for preservation rather than demolition after the film's success at the box office. What we're seeing in the movie, of course, is a bit of a fairy-tale version of the place, but Law isn't hiding that; he occasionally edits in snippets of home movies that show it as much more crowded and somewhat dingier. It's actually a nice effect, acknowledging that we're seeing the story nostalgically, from the perspective of young Big Ears, but also showing that the reality does not actually contradict his experiences.

Full review at EFC.

Ip Man 2

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2010 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center (New York Asian Film Festival 2010)

When I reviewed Ip Man last year, I was enthusiastic, comparing it to classic Shaw Brothers and Once Upon a Time in China. As I said then, that's pretty good company for a martial arts epic to be in, and Ip Man 2 doesn't stray far from it. Indeed, that turns out to be a bit of a weakness this time around; rather than being reminiscent of those great action films, Ip Man 2 feels more like an imitation of them.

The year is now 1950 (although none of the characters seem to have aged since the first movie, which took place in the mid-thirties). Wing chun master Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has left Fo Shan for Hong Kong, where an old friend allows him to use empty rooftop space for a martial arts school. Students are few and far between, though, until Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) shows up; impressed by master Ip, he soon brings his friends. The kids run afoul of the students of another master, Hung Jan Nam (Sammo Hung), who also runs the cartel of local martial arts clubs, demanding fees. And while Ip is trying to establish himself in Hong Kong, Hung is working on a deal to provide security and exhibit Chinese boxing alongside an exhibition by the Western champion, "The Twister" (Darren Shahlavi).

Let's start with the good: Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung fight, in a set-piece that Hung choreographs and directs. It's a situation meant to test Ip Man's skills, so kind of artificial, but fun to watch. Huang Xiaoming and the other younger actors in the movie are pretty decent as well. Hung, main director Wilson Yip, and company rely a little more heavily on wire work than the first movie did, especially during the centerpiece duel between Ip and Hung (and all of Hong Kong's other martial arts masters), but almost never to the point of people seeming to defy gravity. The fighting is fun to watch, and though the contrast in styles between Wing Chun and Hung Keut it not quite so obvious as in the first film, we are shown some of how it works - the lack of posturing, the simultaneous attack and defense. Toward the end of the movie, when the action moves from sparring to serious business, we're once again treated to Yen doing some amazingly quick, rapid-fire combinations.

Full review at EFC.


Andy said...

I was actually quite looking forward to Ip Man 2. A bit of deterioration from the original is expected though.

Jason said...

It's not a bad movie, and I certainly wouldn't say to avoid it or anything. It's more a case of Ip Man being really, really good than Ip Man 2 being bad.

Unknown said...

I agree, Ip Man 2 isn't a bad movie at all, maybe the expectations are just a bit too high.. I'm curious what these guys think of it