Monday, July 13, 2009

Kung Fu Night! Double Feature: The Swordsman II and Chocolate

I've been sitting on this movie review for too long, so you're getting it as is. Brace yourselves.

Dude looks like a lady!

The Swordsman II (a.k.a. Legend of the Swordsman), directed by Siu-Tung Ching and Stanley Tong. Screenplay by Tin-suen Chan. Starring Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, and Michelle Reis. Film Workshop (1992). Rated R.

See other reviews here.

Based on the wuxia novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha, this movie is the second in a trilogy, each film of which contains a different cast. I've never seen the original Swordsman, but you don't need to see it to understand and appreciate The Swordsman II, an influential film that has inspired others, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which makes references to it.

As far as chop-socky flicks go, The Swordsman II has an unusually well-constructed and intelligible plot. That means I only had to watch it twice to understand it. I was only confused the first time around because I didn't realize Brigitte Lin was playing a dude. Kind of. Once I had that figured out, it all made sense. More details on that below. Watch in breathless awe as I get my personal pronouns mixed up--

As the movie opens, a group of expert Wah Mountain swordsmen led by the easygoing but hard-drinking womanizer Ling Wu Chung (Jet Li) has grown weary of war and constant bloodshed. To end their troubles, they have decided to go into seclusion on Ox Mountain and leave the world behind. Alas, they may never make it, for they discover some of their friends from the Sun Moon Clan, including the clan's leader, Master Wu (Shi-Kwan Yen), have gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Wu's daughter Ren Ling Ling (Rosamund Kwan), who has an unrequited love for Ling Wu Chung, asks the Wah swordsmen for their help in finding her father.

Replacing Wu as leader of the Sun Moon Clan is his brother Asia (Brigitte Lin), who has a wicked plan to conquer all of China by means of a magical scroll that will give him Real Ultimate Power and transform him into Asia the Invincible, with the side effect of (gasp!) turning him into a woman (also Brigitte Lin), thereby proving indeed that men are created equal, but women are created superior. Also, I should mention that Asia has ninjas who've hopped over from Japan apparently for the sole purpose of making sure this movie has ninjas.

Ling, in between bouts of drinking, whoring, and developing a complicated relationship with Asia, who he doesn't know is a former dude, will have to find Master Wu and help him defeat Asia before Real Ultimate Power makes her unstoppable. However, imprisonment and torture haven't been good for Wu's emotional stability, so Ling may find his ally is an even greater enemy. (Cue ominous organ music.)

This movie has the craziest martial arts sequences I've ever seen. Among other things, we have one guy who can use his sword to slice trees in half without even touching them, a guy who can dive underground and travel at high speeds with his sword point sticking up like a shark fin, a woman who can use her whip to make people explode, a guy who can use his bare hands to suck out life force and turn people into shriveled mummies, and, most importantly, ninjas who throw giant throwing stars, jump on them, and ride them through the air like flying surfboards. Besides that, every sword fight includes one or two swords that fly around like crazed boomerangs. Awesome. These things by themselves could make any movie the best freaking movie ever, but what really carries The Swordsman II is, surprisingly, the acting.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing Oscar-quality here, and most of the actors ham it up. Nonetheless, fine casting and a few solid performances, coupled with the above-average plotting, make this a memorable movie. For starters, Jet Li plays Ling with the same good humor he uses in several of his other movies, and it works as well here as it does elsewhere. As his female sidekick Kiddo, Michelle Reis overacts but nonetheless carries her part with tomboyish charm. Shi-Kwan Yen plays Wu as one of those cackling villains who make being evil look like a whole lot of fun. But the one actress who really makes the movie is Brigitte Lin, who plays Asia and has the difficult task of portraying a man transforming into a woman.

Remarkably, in a movie laden with campy special effects, Asia's transformation from male to female--a transformation nearly complete by the time the movie starts--contains none. Early on, Asia speaks with a deep voice and acts more-or-less like a man, but as the story progresses, two quiet scenes set in the midst of the action portray her increasing femininity: In the first, Asia swings a wine jug on the end of her finger and daydreams about an earlier chance encounter with Ling, for whom she has a growing infatuation; later , in a beautifully edited scene symbolizing the completion of her transformation, Asia dons makeup, much to the horror of her beautiful but slow-witted concubine (On-on Yu), who somehow up to that point has failed to realize her lover is not the man he used to be.

Helping to make Brigitte Lin's performance a stand-out are a couple of minor characters whose behavior contrasts sharply with Asia's. First, we have Zen (Shun Lau), the honorable and loyal servant of Master Wu, who, after Wu goes missing, willingly mutilates his own face in order to integrate into the ranks of Asia's hired Japanese thugs. (Why this requires self-mutilation is unclear.) Then, at the end of the film, Zen willingly slices his own arm off in order to protect his friends, a stunning act almost as breathtaking as seppuku with a frisbee. Asia and Zen both make serious and irrevocable physical alterations to themselves, but their motives are strikingly different: Zen mutilates himself out of loyalty and love for others, whereas Asia mutilates himself solely for power and personal gain.

Second, there's Kiddo (Michelle Reis), Ling's sidekick and one point of the film's love-quadrangle. Trained in the Wah sword technique, she is subjected to the usual tomboy jokes as she tries to appear alluring to Ling even though he and the other swordsmen see her as just another one of the guys. Near the film's beginning, she has her own ill-fated experiments with makeup in a scene symmetrical with the scene marking the final stage of Asia's transformation. Kiddo's attempts to lay claim to a femininity rightfully hers, with humorous results, contrasts with Asia's attempts to lay claim to a female body and femininity that are alien to him, resulting in disaster and destruction.

Good action and interesting characters, but let's not forget the writing. I've only managed to see the dubbed version, which has been chopped up by the American distributor and probably translated with a lot of creative license, but I love the cheesy dialogue in this movie. In particular, I'm fond of this little exchange between Asia and Wu during the final battle sequence:

Wu: Bwahaha! Do you use your power to become a warrior, or to seduce men?
Asia: You're jealous. I can have it both ways.

Ahem. As for the gender-bending conceit at the heart of the movie, I'm going to send you next door to The B-Movie Catechism's review of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, to which I have nothing to add. Besides, I figure EegahInc deserves some of that extra traffic I've picked up lately.

Lady looks like a...lady!

Chocolate, directed by Pracha Pinkaew. Screenplay by Napalee and Chukiat Sakveerakul. Starring JeeJa Yanin, Hiroshi Abe, and Pongpat Wachirabunjong. Baa-Ram-Ewe (2008). Rated R.

And now we head to Thailand for another martial arts movie that works largely because of a female character. In this film, rather than the pillar-like Brigitte Lin, we have the slight twenty-something JeeJa Yanin in her first-ever movie.

In the film Ong-bak, director Pracha Pinkaew introduced the world to Tony Jaa. Although Jaa has martial arts and gymnastic skills that could raise even Jackie Chan's eyebrows, he has the charisma and acting ability of a fencepost. Pinkaew's newest discovery, JeeJa Yanin, is no Tony Jaa when it comes to fighting, but she has a million times more charm, and she still kicks a whole lot of trash, thereby proving indeed that men are created equal, but women are created superior.

Let's see if I can summarize Chocolate in one sentence: A Japanese yakuza kingpin with a heart of gold (Hiroshi Abe) goes to Thailand and has an affair with a Thai crime boss's moll (Ammara Siripong), who bears an autistic daughter, Zen, who rapidly grows into JeeJa Yanin; when aforementioned moll starts dying of cancer and needs expensive medicine, Zen, who's obsessed with martial arts, takes her chubby sidekick Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) and uses her mad savant fighting skillz to hunt down all the people who owe her mom money--and soundly kick their posteriors when they refuse to pay.

Yes, you read that right. It's about an autistic girl who's trying to save her mother, who's dying of cancer, by beating people. This movie is too tasteless to live, too kick-awesome to die. It's one of my favorites.

What I first notice here is the poor plot construction: All the story development is in the first third of the movie, and all the action is in the latter two-thirds. The plot is delivered so rapidly it's virtually a montage, a prelude to the endless fight scenes that will fill out the rest of the film. Though the fight scenes are certainly quite good, they are not remarkable when compared to other martial arts flicks on the shelves. What holds up the movie and makes it worthwhile--which is impressive, considering it's her first time out--is JeeJa Yanin.

Although once again there are no Oscar-winning performances here, Yanin's portrayal of an autistic girl is convincing and sympathetic. Both in the movie itself and in the all-too-brief interview in the DVD extras, Yanin oozes likability. She has the same youthful energy and charisma that make guys like Jet Li and Jackie Chan bigger than the dorky movies they star in. Besides that, Yanin is cute and slight of build, looking as if she couldn't weigh more than a hundred pounds; her appearance contrasts sharply with the Muay Thai beatdowns she delivers, yet her fight sequences are entirely convincing, undoubtedly because she underwent intense martial arts and gymnastic training in preparation for this film, and because she does her own stunts, mostly without wires.

Even though her autistic character doesn't give Yanin opportunity to display her dramatic range, the movie effectively portrays her as an unstoppable force, constantly fighting because she's a fighting savant, probably largely unaware of what she's doing, and certainly unaware of the potential consequences, but unable to stop. The grandeur of the fights escalates steadily until, in the movie's final sequence, the Big Bad attacks Zen with wave after wave of apparently limitless henchmen in a blood-soaked battle that moves from a restaurant to a training hall to the facade of a seedy motel, which gives plenty of opportunity for bone-crunching multistory plummets. The fights involve a lot of slo-mo midair spins and a lot of wince-inducing contact, especially in that sequence where Zen battles an epileptic whose seizures make his attacks unpredictable, a sequence that raises the tackiness to unprecedented levels.

Observed in rapid succession, these two movies make for interesting contrasts and comparisons. Both films, of course, tell us that girls kick butt. One is a straight-up fantasy film with exaggerated fighting, depicted through camera tricks and obvious wirework. The other, set in contemporary Thailand, claims that its sequences were done without wires (though that's not entirely true). The one makes no serious attempt at realism because it is an escapist film. The other is attempting to be gritty.

Plotwise, the films are on opposite sides of the chop-socky spectrum. The Swordsman II eschews, or perhaps subverts, the standard revenge premise; though he's certainly a flawed character, Ling genuinely wants to help people, to protect the innocent and vanquish evil, and to find peace and tranquility. The only character who's out for Kung fu-style revenge is Wu, a villain as nasty as Asia, if not moreso. With the innocence common to campy story formulas, The Swordsman II says, in the end, that greed, revenge, and skirt-chasing will get you in trouble, and that peace is good, even if nobody in the movie manages to find it. But in Chocolate, almost every character is a mobster, and extortion drives the plot. Zen is endearing anyway, since she's both powerful and adorable, but none of the characters come across as good people, and on no occasion I can remember does anyone do a noble deed. There is perhaps a thin moral in that Zen and Moom's free-for-all extortion enterprise gets them tangled up in bigger underworld dealings than they can handle, but it hardly helps.

These movies are also on opposite ends of the spectrum for another reason, and it concerns me because I worry there might be a potentially large market for more movies like Chocolate. I have no idea how many people, if any, were hurt in the making of The Swordsman II. Shoestring martial arts movies always carry a risk of injury, but at least in The Swordsman II the action is done largely with tricks.

Chocolate, on the other hand, advertises itself with (I kid you not), "real fighting" and "real injuries," as if getting his actors injured is something for a director to boast about rather than a dishonor. In its attempt at realism (but who could call such a crazy movie realistic?), Chocolate steps over the line: without the wires or nets or safety precautions that ought to go into the making of a high-flying action flick, especially one like this with a higher budget, people get hurt. And people were indeed hurt in the making of Chocolate; the movie brags about it. Its end credit sequence is similar to one of those Jackie Chan outtake reels, only it has paramedics and hospital trips, and it's not funny. Any athletic activity necessarily carries some risk of injury. Martial artists, like other athletes, have the right to display their skills, either in competition or in the choreographed dance-like routines typical of martial arts films, but reasonable precautions must always be taken to protect the people involved. Graphic violence in the cinema is already an oft-discussed concern, but it's even more frightening to imagine audiences might start demanding real blood in their movies.

Content Advisory: The Swordsman II contains fantasy violence, some gore, and a nongraphic sex scene. Chocolate contains action violence, frequent gore, some coarse language, and a moderately graphic sex scene.
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