Saturday, April 5, 2008

Kung Fu Night! Kill Zone

Will wait 83 minutes for Kung Fu.

Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang), directed by Yp Wai Shun. Screenplay by Szeto Kam Yuen and Ng Wai Lun. Starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Simon Yam. Produced by Carl Chang. Abba Movie Company Limited, 2005. 93 minutes. Unrated.

See other reviews here.

And yet another American distributor feels the peculiar need to tack a generic title onto a Kung Fu movie. What the heck is a "kill zone" and what do kill zones have to do with this film? Thanks to these American distributors, we have a plethora of Fists, Red Dragons, and Legends on the shelves. I'm having trouble telling these movies apart, and believe me, that was difficult enough already.

Kill Zone is probably the most unique martial arts film I've seen in my short time of watching martial arts films, mainly because it made me wait until the last ten minutes to see any martial arts. Normally, that would be damning, but Kill Zone is intriguing enough, it gets away with it. The final fight sequences are just a bonus appended to an already solid movie.

Kill Zone, a cop drama (or, rather, melodrama), opens with Detective Chan Kwok Chun (Simon Yam), who's trying to protect an important witness in a case against ruthless mob boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung). Detective Chan has a personal interest in the case, in that the witness's young daughter is his own goddaughter, but in spite of his efforts, Wong has the witness assassinated along with the witness's entire family (except the aforementioned daughter, of course), an event that sends Detective Chan over the edge and starts him down the road of corruption. When Chan discovers he has an inoperable brain tumor, he and his team of cops decide to put Wong in jail at any cost, even if they have to commit murder and forge evidence to do it.

Since Chan is dying, Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen) arrives to replace him. At first, Ma appears to be the good cop, but we soon learn he has a questionable past, and it isn't long before he's sucked into the shady dealings.

As the image of the policemen grows worse, the story brings out the nicer side of Wong's character: he is one of those family-man mob bosses, a doting husband and proud new father whose cell phone plays a lullaby whenever it rings. Nonetheless, he remains consistently vicious when it comes to his enemies, especially those in the police department.

Everything in the film is over the top: characters' faces distort into masks of agony as music swells, lingering shots and still frames depict pining looks, and then, of course, the movie climaxes with two brutal, brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. The first is between martial arts superstar Donnie Yen as Ma Kwan and the less famous but highly skilled Kenji Tanigaki, who plays a nasty, monosyllabic bodyguard who speaks softly and carries a big knife. By the time they're finished, they've managed to spray an entire alleyway with red corn syrup. That's the warm-up for the fight between Donnie Yen and the movie's other famous martial arts giant, Sammo Hung, the aforementioned Wong Po. The combined result of these sequences is a lot of broken glass, a lot of blood, and me in a fetal position.

(Spoilers follow.)

According to David Cornelius with Hollywood Bitchslap, the movie moves in "the grey zones," but to my own mind, this is incorrect; rather, the film deals in stark blacks and whites, but mostly blacks. The family-man mob boss is still a mob boss, and the cops, though they have their redeeming moments, are still relentless and underhanded. By the time the movie is over, none of them has gotten away: most of the corrupt police officers have been gutted (literally), and even though Ma defeats Wong in the movie's final fight sequence, Wong rises up afterwards and tosses Ma out a window--onto a car holding his wife and son. After realizing he has inadvertently killed his family in the process of killing his nemesis, Wong sits over his shattered crime empire and weeps.

Viewed from one angle, this is sick and a little amateurish, but viewed from another, it is an interesting spin on the tropes of the Kung Fu film genre: normally, the most virtuous warrior with the most just cause will also have the best Kung Fu and will defeat the bad guy in a one-on-one battle at the end, just to further prove that, yes, he really is the most virtuous and has the most just cause and therefore has a right to soundly kick the butt of nearly everyone else in the universe in order to avenge the death of his master/sister/girlfriend/third cousin. But what do you do in a Kung Fu movie in which nobody is virtuous or just? Obviously, you punish everybody--and note, too, that the death of Wong's family is ironically symmetrical with the murder of the witness and his family at the film's beginning.

The movie isn't quite over yet; in the final scene, Detective Chan (somehow still alive) is standing on the beach with his goddaughter, where he finally succumbs to the brain tumor that's been killing him. The girl continues playing in the waves, unaware that her godfather is dying behind her. So, when the movie is over, all the sinners are dead or punished, and only the innocents live on. The movie's prime theme could be summed up with any number of platitudinous but important maxims: crime doesn't pay, the ends do not justify the means, what goes around comes around.

Kill Zone also has a strong sense of the corrupting influence of evil, as portrayed through its policemen who have dealt with criminals for so long that they have become indistinguishable from them. The movie carries a sense that only the oblivious can remain innocent. The young girl on the beach is one example: though she is the daughter of the witness killed at the beginning of the movie, she was so traumatized by the murder that she has no memory of it (I know what you're thinking, but I said this was a melodrama, didn't I?). Another example is a character from Ma's past: Ma had once punched a suspect so hard that the suspect suffered brain damage and, as a result, became good natured but mentally disabled, innocent and unaware.

(Spoilers stop.)

The movie's connection between innocence and ignorance is an interesting one. In the sf community, several authors and others discussed whether or not such a connection exists in a series of essays on Young Adult fiction at SF Signal. (And just so we're clear, "Young Adult" here actually means "early teens.") John C. Wright thinks, and I agree, that the best essay on the subject comes from sf legend Orson Scott Card:

It seems to me that if YA writers want to write about adult stuff, they should change category. Nothing stops young readers from following them into the adult shelves. When the YA label is placed on a book, it's a promise to parents, teachers, and librarians that certain standards are being adhered to. This is not a trivial matter. There is genuine damage to some young readers from being exposed too early to sexual or overly violent material. Other young readers seem to be unharmed. But the writer is in no position to judge the maturity of each reader. [more...]

In other words, protecting the innocence of children (we'll talk about adults in a moment) involves protecting them from some knowledge that they are unprepared to handle. This thinking is in tune with the teaching of the Church as well: in 1995, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a document entitled "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality," which includes a section on "Learning Stages" that reads, in part:

It can be said that a child is in the stage described in John Paul II's words as "the years of innocence" from about five years of age until puberty - the beginning of which can be set at the first signs of changes in the boy or girl's body (the visible effect of an increased production of sexual hormones). This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex. During those years, before any physical sexual development is evident, it is normal for the child's interests to turn to other aspects of life. The rudimentary instinctive sexuality of very small children has disappeared. Boys and girls of this age are not particularly interested in sexual problems, and they prefer to associate with children of their own sex. So as not to disturb this important natural phase of growth, parents will recognize that prudent formation in chaste love during this period should be indirect, in preparation for puberty, when direct information will be necessary. [more...]

A similar principle could be applied to violence or other potentially disturbing subject matter from which it is prudent to protect young children (I wouldn't recommend taking them to see Kill Zone, for example).

Now as for adults, I refer to the Catechism:

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin--an inclination to evil that is called 'concupiscence'. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. [par. 405]

The presence of this concupiscence means that the battle against sin is to a large extent an interior one, and that is why Christians are to avoid what are called "near occasions of sin," that is, avoidable situations in which a person would be tempted to sin. Such near occasions could include the acquisition of unnecessary and potentially perverting information.

However, note also the words of Christ in Matthew 10.16: "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (NAB). Here, we see that Jesus expects his followers to be innocent, but does not expect them to be a bunch of naïfs. This is especially true of those who perform certain necessary functions such as police work; because of the nature of this work, police officers are necessarily knowledgeable of, and frequently exposed to, certain kinds of evil. Such exposure is necessary, but, if not mitigated against with the cultivation of virtue, self-control, and an active spiritual life, can potentially result in lasting damage, even if the damage is not as graphic as that in Kill Zone.

Content Advisory: Contains graphic violence, copious blood, brief nudity, and potentially disturbing themes.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang):

Quality: Medium-High (good writing, good production values, good directing; it works if you don't mind the corniness)

Myth Level: Medium (some universal themes and some twists on the conventions)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (difficult to interpret, but appears to contain a good message about the devastating consequences of immorality)
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