Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kung Fu Weekend: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Snake in Eagle's Shadow, The Young Master, and Shaolin Temple

I love Films at the Gate. I've mentioned this before, right? But it bears repeating: It's one of the Boston area's coolest events, with the nice properties of being free, specific to its community, and distinctive. The night I saw The Young Master, I think there were about five other free outdoor movies playing at various points around Boston (pretty spiffy in its own right), but all of them were sort of consensus classics that you can likely see with better projection at the Brattle or Coolidge once a year, which can't be said about these.

That said, I kind of wish I'd hit Chinatown on Thursday as opposed to the Brattle; I have yet to see Master of the Flying Guillotine (the Gate film), but was tempted by the 35mm in Harvard Square versus the projected DVD. It turned out to be a bit of a trade-off; the print of 36th Chamber was fairly red, at least for some reels, and Eagle's Shadow looked nice but was dubbed (and not even with Jackie Chan's voice!).

As cool as it is that the turnout for this has become large enough that the vacant lot really isn't large enough anymore, it's kind of disappointing that, in my experience, this sort of crowd doesn't seem to come out when Chinese movies play the mainstream theaters. To a certain extent, I get it - a lot of folks in Chinatown don't have huge amounts of money, and the closest movie theater (AMC Boston Common), while it does pick up Chinese movies every once in a while, is also the most expensive. There's a good chance that they'll be playing two Chinese movies this coming weekend - the Imax 3D presentation of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and the day-and-date release of The Missing Bullet, but matinee price on regular movies is $10, and an evening ticket for Flying Swords is $18! Given that, I'm not surprised that attendance is often sparse, and when something does stick around for a second week, it's often for one show in the cheap $6 "AM Cinema" slot.

You know what would be really cool, though? If next year, one of the companies trying to do theatrical releases plunked down a small sponsorship and included one of their movies, especially if it's something due out on video soon that might not have played Boston as part of its release. I'm thinking specifically of Starry Starry Night from China Lion, although both Indomina and and Well Go have had stuff only play NYC/LA as well. Or we could get really crazy and ask the Weinsteins to let Dragon or Reign of Assassins or the like out of their vault...

Heck, even if China Lion just put together a trailer package for upcoming movies like The Missing Bullet and Bangkok Vengeance, they could help a couple of community programs a lot and get promotion for their fall slate. It's certainly worth thinking about for next year, I think.

Anyway, more about the movies themselves - it was kind of amazing to watch these four movies, which covered roughly five years, and see how radically kung fu movies evolved over that time period. 36th Chamber is a classic Shaw Brothers Shaolin Temple movie, very much following the injustice-training-revenge template, very much a show piece for star Gordon Liu, but often just as much about athleticism and technique as really telling a story with the action. Then come the Jackie Chan movies, with Jackie moving away from both the Shaws and Bruce Lee with his comedy kung fu. In addition to seeming a lot less stagebound than the Shaw stuff, the martial arts here really seems to come from the character rather than shape him. Then after that you get Jet Li, takes the naturalism Jackie Chan and his group (including Sammo Hung an Yuen Biao) introduced and increased the brutality of it

As much as we know what Hong Kong action is, it's amazing how a relatively short period of time transformed it so strongly.

Shao Lin san shi liu fang (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (International Ass-kicking, 35mm)

Shaolin Temple movies just don't care about traditional dramatic structure, do they? Or maybe it's different between East and West, but it's hard not to get the feeling that if 36th Chamber were remade in America, Gordon Liu's San Te would demonstrate more personal growth through the movie, rather than mostly "leveling up". There would be a chance for him to forsake personal revenge even as he served justice.

For better and worse, though, this really isn't that movie; it's much more about martial technique than Buddhist philosophy. That's cool enough, though; Liu and the various monks he spars with are quite good at that, and there's an enjoyable perseverance in San Te's attempts to best his masters. The big fights toward the end are enjoyable too, even if they do involve suddenly recruiting a whole bunch of new characters.

Of course, that's the case when San Te arrives at Shaolin Temple, too; 36th Chamber occasionally feels like bits of three different Gordon Liu movies stitched together. Not such a bad thing, really, especially as long as you're there for the fights.

Se ying diu sau (Snake in Eagle's Shadow)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (International Ass-kicking, dubbed 35mm)

Ah, it's naive young Jackie Chan, working and living in a martial-arts school that treats him poorly because he's inept at fighting, at least until he befriends a secret kung fu master who teaches him the snake style, making him a target because the practitioners of the eagle style want to eliminate it due to some multi-generational feud.

A goofy premise, but let's face it, fans still have trouble with people who enjoy the same thing in different ways. I, for instance, think the people who enjoy dubbed martial arts movies because they like laughing at things that seem low-rent are monsters for a variety of reasons, but I shouldn't begrudge them the fun they were having with this screening. After all, treating the filmmakers' with respect wasn't going to make Eagle's Shadow a particularly intelligent, multi-layered film compared to the excuse for slapstick and fights that it is.

And it's tough to deny that "slapstick and fights" are things that Jackie Chan and director Yuen Woo-ping do very well. Both Chan and Yuen Siu-tien are fun to watch fight; they project personality amid the punching and kicking as well as anybody has ever done. And there are some moments that are just enjoyably bonkers, such as when the Russian missionary (Roy Horan) is just the first of what seem like countless Eagle-clan agents. There's a joyful sense of abandon even while the technical work is very impressive.

Shi di chu ma (The Young Master)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2012 at Chinatown Gate (Films at the Gate, projected DVD)

This is Jackie Chan's first film as writer/director as well as star, and, well, even thirty years later, Jackie isn't really outstanding as a storyteller. He can choreograph and shoot the heck out of a fight, but even for these movies, you need to do a bit more than that. The funny thing is, it's not Chan having trouble with the non-action parts that gives this movie its biggest issues.

Sure, the story meanders in somewhat sitcommy fashion, with Chan becoming a fugitive through a misunderstanding but having more comical misunderstandings with the police chief (Shih Kien), his son (Yuen Biao!), and lovely daughter (Lily Li) than intense chases. Even if The Young Master probably wouldn't work as just a straight-up farce, it's got a fun, pleasant set of characters that makes for a laid-back movie. Chan's not really a bad writer/director here - he doesn't ever forget where the story started as he strings action scenes together - but even for a martial arts comedy, things often feel very lightweight.

In fact, his biggest problem at times to be that he's too reliant on his action skills. Though there are a fair number of entertaining fight sequences here, the ones that bookend the movie both seem very self-indulgent: The lion dance competition at the start seems to need a little more context to justify its length and define the stakes, and the final battle with Whang Ing-sik's character seems like an eternity of Whang beating the crap out of Chan with shoehorned-in comic relief from Feng Tien; as impressive a marathon as the fight is, it kind of dilutes the good stuff.

Shao Lin Si (Shaolin Temple)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2012 at Chinatown Gate (Films at the Gate, projected DVD)

And we finish things off with Jet Li's first film, another take on the familiar Shaolin Temple story, although the storytelling, production values, and action choreography are wholly different and more modern-seeming than 36th Chamber, even if it was made less than five years later. It's an impressive-as-heck debut for Li; he's a fully-formed screen fighter and a decent, charismatic actor from the start.

But, wow, his Chieh Yuan character is kind of a jerk here, isn't he? Gordon Liu's San Te at least seemed to be somewhat absorbing the lessons of Buddhism, putting in the work, and convincing the abbots that there was merit in at least clandestinely/indirectly fighting against tyranny; this guy flouts the temple's rules, comes and goes when it's convenient for him, and brings violence and death down upon his benefactors for what often seems less like principle than his own personal feuds. There's one character constantly berating him for being ill-suited to this life, and the blood-soaked finale seems to prove him right more than proving Chieh Yuan noble.

This is the sort of thing that wouldn't really take that much nuance to fix, but that seems to be in short supply here: The production is focused on doing the fights well (which it does) and looking great. The first martial-arts film in decades to shoot in mainland China, and at the actual site of the Shaolin temple to boot, it's kind of beautiful, more than impressive enough to make up for its flawed characterization.

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