Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jet Li and Jackie Chan not fighting: Ocean Heaven and 1911

Has Donnie Yen got a new romantic comedy that can be fit in this category? Yes, but it's not out yet, so we'll stick with these two action stars and their new, less physically intense movies.

There's no denying it; the big action heroes are getting older. Jet Li and Jason Statham were the younger guys in the cast of The Expendables, but Li has actually stopped doing certain kinds of martial arts in his movies because they're too intense for a guy his age, and he's not alone: As nice as it has been to see Yuen Biao popping up recently in Ip Man: The Legend Is Born and My Kingdom, he's not doing amazing acrobatic feats any more. Jackie Chan's skeleton must be held together with super glue by now, from all the injuries we've seen him take in his movies' outtakes.

With all that wear and tear on their bodies, it's not surprising to see these guys throwing in a few more movies where they spend a little less time getting beat up. The question is, are they up to that challenge? After all, their action flicks are often judged solely by what sort of physical displays they feature - I've certainly gotten email and comments after dinging a movie part of a star for lackluster acting, telling me that sort of thing doesn't matter. And on a certain level, the people saying that are right; they're paying their money to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li punch and kick things. But now, when the acting really does matter?

It turns out they're pretty good. This really shouldn't come as a shock; it's not like Ocean Heaven and 1911 are these guys' first roles where they've had to show more than their fists: Jet was quite good in Warlords, and Jackie has done movies with minimal fighting before - The Shinjuku Incident and (I think) Crime Story, with Little Big Soldier resting as much on him creating a character as throwing down. Plus, they've endured in the business for twenty-five to thirty-five years, and either making dozens of movies back to back teaches you a thing or two or you had a little something that all the other good-looking young guys who knew some kung fu didn't. Which happens to be the case doesn't matter at this point, the end result is that they've got the skills now that they need to call on them.

The movies that they're calling on them for are an interesting pair, though, in that both are propaganda pictures of a sort. Ocean Heaven actually has that word pop up in the end credits as part of one of the many companies and agencies involved with the movie, while 1911 is a more traditional "here is our glorious history in which our founding fathers are noble and pure" picture. Heck, the text scroll at the end of that one even includes a gratuitous bit of extolling the people in power, saying that while Sun Yat-sen had the right idea, it would be the Communist Party forty years later that would really get it right. I guess Ocean Heaven and its clear message of how love and effort can work wonders for the autistic is propaganda, too, but it seems much more palatable from here, especially since Jet Li's "Old Wang" is allowed to be imperfect and impatient at times, which is just not the case with anybody in 1911.

Oh, and apropos of nothing: Ocean Heaven contains the saddest piece of product placement I ever recall seeing. I don't mean the use of Qingdao's Ocean Park as the main setting, but I sort of wonder if McDonald's looked at the script and said "yes, use our mascot as a wholly unsatisfactory substitute for the girl you like" or whether it looked different on the page and just wound up playing out that way when the cameras rolled.

Haiyang tiantang (Ocean Heaven)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2011 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screener DVD)

Jet Li's accomplishments as an action star are well-known around the world, he's so good that his skill as an actor is often masked, if not considered entirely irrelevant. His good works are somewhat less well known, but he has made a point of sharing his good fortune. The latter two traits are what are on display in Ocean Heaven; not only did Li feel strongly enough about the movie's subject matter to take the job on for just a dollar, but he acquits himself quite well even though there's not a fight to be found.

Li plays Wang Xincheng, an electrician at a Qingdao aquarium. His autistic twenty-one-year-old son, Dafu (Wen Zhang), is with him all the time (he swims as well as the fish), and both Xincheng's neighbor Chai (Zhu Yuanyuan) and boss Tang (Dong Yong) are fond of the pair. Still, when "Old Wang" is diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, his initial reaction is despair. And no wonder - teaching Dafu to be self-sufficient is a tremendous challenge, while it's proving almost impossible to find a care facility that will accept somebody Dafu's age.

Writer/director Xue Xiao Lu knows this territory; she has spent years working with autistic children, and her depiction of the Wangs' challenges have the ring of truth without sensationalizing things. There's an impressive lack of melodrama here; Xue doesn't feel the need to either inject some sort of obstructive bureaucratic villain into the proceedings or have the characters wring their hands or make teary speeches about their situation. Everybody is doing the best he or she can in a tricky situation, and Xue has a nice habit of cutting away from scenes a bit earlier than others might, letting the audience chew on the situation as the next scene as opposed to milking it.

Full review at EFC.

Xinhai geming (1911)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2011 in Regal Fenway #4 (first-run)

Jackie Chan's hundredth movie commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the revolution that brought down the Qing Dynasty, and both of these events seem to deserve something better for commemoration than this lifeless history lecture.

1911 and 1912, for those of us who didn't know, is when when a series of rebellions and battles ended the monarchy in China. The spiritual and intellectual leader of the revolution, Sun Yat-set (Winston Chao) did most of his work in exile, raising funds from overseas Chinese; more often than not, the commander on the ground was Huang Xing (Jackie Chan). Sun's Tongmenghui group may not win many battles initially, but the victories prove costly enough for Regent Long-yu (Joan Chen) and the Qing Dynasty that General Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun) sees an opportunity to be the last man standing.

1911, the film, seems like an odd choice for a near-simultaneous U.S. release, especially considering that distributor Well Go has generally marketed to a broader audience than the expatriates who would seem to be the ones most interested in this picture. If you don't speak Mandarin, your attention will frequently be divided between the text identifying each new historical figure that appears on screen and the subtitles for their dialog, and you should choose the dialog, because many of these characters will be in and out of the picture so quickly that their names are not really useful (another hint: "Sun Wen" and "Sun Yat-sen" are the same person, and we should be thankful that the subtitles do not also refer to him as "Sun Zhong-shan"). The movie is definitely made for those who are already somewhat familiar with the history, and like a lot of recent Chinese movies, it hits the nationalism pretty hard at times.

Full review at EFC.

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