Another week, and the summer keeps on rolling, but it’s a real challenge out there to find anything truly spectacular to watch. There just seems to be one disappointment after another rolling out, and while I’ve still got Inception and The Expendables keeping my hopes up, if Toy Story 3 ends up not being much better than the new Shrek film or Marmaduke ends up the summer’s biggest movie, I fear for the way things are headed. Honestly, May hasn’t been this disappointing since the third installments of the Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek in 2007. I’ve still got some ’80s throwback to look forward to coming up, but if things don’t pick up soon we could be in big trouble.
Fortunately, I’ve my gravy train of amazing Asian movies still hasn’t stopped, and looks to continue here for a little while. While most of the big releases I’ve been waiting for are still on the horizon, there’s been plenty of terrific cinema to go around, I’ve just had to work a little harder to find it. This week, I’ve got another batch of awesome, piping fresh from the East.
In case you missed them, here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of my recent Asian Cinema Coverage.
Legend Killers and Bloody Revenge
True Legend Starring Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Jay Chou, Gordon Liu, Michelle Yeoh, and David Carradine. Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping.
I mentioned last time out that I desperately wanted to see this movie very soon, but I didn’t think I would actually get to take it in so quickly. So was True Legend able to stand up to the hype that I had built in my mind for it? Absolutely. This movie is 100% in line with the over the top, wire-work epics of director Yuen Woo-Ping’s past and in my opinion is just as crazy and rewarding as Iron Monkey and The Tai Chi Master were back in the Hong Kong cinema heyday of the ‘90s. In fact, The Tai Chi Master and True Legend would be an awesome double bill, showing the mastery of Woo-Ping while also giving us an insight into how he’s tried to evolve his film making due to the proliferation of better visual effects. These are films that in many ways are as old-school as they come, obviously following a lot of the same story-making formulas that have made ‘70s Shaw Bros films so popular and timeless, but still told with the eye of a modern film maker still able to viscerally excite his audience with incredible action.
We follow Su (Vincent Zhao), from beloved general to betrayed and defeated warrior to righteous avenger and beyond. Much like Jet Li’s portrayal of Huo Yuanjia in 2006’s Fearless, we see a man get torn down, and lose everything, and while he tries to find solace in revenge or selfish pursuits, to really find peace he must look within himself. This is a pretty versatile performance from Zhao, who carries this film quite well in both the dramatic and action departments, but most importantly just makes a truly likable hero. This film takes a deft touch from both actor and director to make it work, as despair makes Su go mad in the film’s midsection, but instead of making it depressing, the sections are handled with humor and action, and if you go with it the movie works like gangbusters.
Beggar Su is such a major hero to Woo-Ping and his career that this film needed to be gigantic in scope to get across its significance and that’s the movie we get here. Su battles not only armies of dastardly villains and enemies trying to ruin the name of Chinese martial arts, but ends up also dueling gods and gets divine inspiration in inventing drunken boxing. This is a wildly entertaining film, willing to do anything to excite you. Combat-wise, this isn’t a one-trick pony either, with battles including every ancient weapon imaginable, as well as plenty of fist to fist action from the tops of mountains to snake-filled wells to a battle coliseum complete with man-eating Tigers.
This was a film that only Yuen Woo-Ping could bring us, and what he’s brought us is pretty amazing.
Vengeance Starring Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-Tung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam, and Sylvie Testud. Directed by Johnny To.
After the mass migration of Hong Kong’s best actors and directors to America in the ’90s, there seemed to really only be one great film maker left in Hong Kong that decided to stay, hone his craft and take up the mantle left by the likes of John Woo and Tsui Hark; Johnny To. Never leaving Hong Kong, the man has made dozens of films, moving from martial arts flicks and comedies to crafting one excellent crime thriller after another in the last decade such as PTU, Election, and the awesome Leone inspired thriller Exiled. With Vengeance, the director may have produced his finest work to date, crafting a terrific slow burn character study worthy of Jean-Pierre Mellville while throwing in amazing, nail-biting action reminiscent of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.
Like a stylish, more concentrated version of Edge of Darkness, the movie centers around Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a French chef with a dark past, whose family in Macau has been wiped out by a professional hit-squad. Not knowing why and not trusting the police to get to the bottom of the crime, he decides to act, but how to go about it? With the language and layout of the city both foreign to him, Costello hires gunmen of his own in order to find the killers and search the streets of Macau and Hong Kong in order to enact violent retribution.
Again, this is a slow burn, but never feels long or ponderous, like Gibson’s film tended to do earlier this year. You should also come for the amazing gunfights (of which there are many), but stay for the terrific discussions and questions that To brings up about the nature of revenge. Hardly any characters here are black and white, and situations come up, such as when you find men that are responsible for your pain, but what about the families of their own? Situations like this are hardly ever explored, and here add a fascinating layer to this incredible, shootout-filled movie.
Ichi Starring Takao Osawa, Haruka Ayase, Shido Nakamura, and Yosuke Kubozuka. Directed by Fumihiko Sori.
I’d like to say upfront that I do think that Ichi, a modern reworking of the blind swordsman saga Zatoichi, is a good film. Making the main protagonist in this film a female (Haruka Ayase), as she searches for her father is an interesting move, and as a film itself I think this retelling works, but the problems here don’t necessarily relate to Ichi as a standalone picture. My problems with this movie seem to exist with this being a Zatoichi film.
First and foremost, while Haruka Ayase is good in the movie, I’m not completely sold on her take as the blind swordsman. Through Shintaro Katsu’s reign of 26 films as his version of Ichi as well as Takashi Kitano’s turn as the character in 2003, there has always been a sense of fun about the character. Like James Bond, you came back to this blind swordsman because his adventures were full of humor and Ichi always tried to stay positive and find the best in people, even when those people had dark sides that only he could see. Ayase’s Ichi is perpetually dour and humorless, seemingly full of indifference toward life, and while I know this makes sense with the hardships of this character in this particular movie, it just doesn’t help with your enjoyment of this film. Ichi should never be the weakest character in your Zatoichi movie, and that’s what happens here.
My next big problem is with the film’s action, which is heavy on slow motion and CGI blood. The blood I can deal with, and I think in most scenes it doesn’t look too bad, but the slow motion drives me a bit crazy. Thing is, with a Hong Kong film, slow motion can be used to accentuate the grace or style of a martial art. Samurai sword duels are about accuracy and speed, and by slowing the film down over and over, you lose that visceral thrill. It seems like a cheat to hide that perhaps Ayase couldn’t hold her own in the film’s action. Not all of the fights are filmed this way, but there is an overuse of it here, and it’s a big detriment to the film overall.
Now again, I’m sure it sounds like I didn’t like this movie, but that’s not actually the case, and if you’re a fan of the series, I recommend checking this out, for nothing else but to see the oddity of it amongst the rest of the Zatoichi movies.
The Chaser Starring Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jeong-woo, and Seo Yeong-hee. Directed by Na Hong-jin.
I tell you, I love Korean cinema, but a lot of times after watching a Korean film I feel like I’ve been in a fight. Not that it’s a struggle to get through these pictures, because they’re often well-made, engrossing movies with acting that is as compelling as I’ve ever seen, but it’s so often the case that I watch one and just get absolutely emotionally devastated. Oldboy, The Host, Memories of Murder, Joint Security Area, and Lady Vengeance are all movies that are certainly worth seeking out, and they are movies that you’re likely to never forget, but they also take a toll that is not easy to shake off. On that note, I can say unequivocally that if you have not see Na Hong-jin’s serial killer thriller The Chaser, then please seek it out because it’s an incredible movie, but be prepared to get the crap kicked out of you in the process.
The premise is pretty simple: a man named Je Yeong-min (Ha Jeong-woo) is a killer who targets prostitutes. A pimp, Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) has been losing girls and thinks that Je Yeong-min might be responsible for kidnapping and selling them, unknowingly already sending another girl to meet up with him at the film’s onset. What follows is an absolutely incredible clinic in suspense. Director Na Hong-jin stages his movie with expert precision, and knows exactly when to frustrate his audience and when to bring down the hammer on you, so to speak. Both of the main performances here are top notch, with Ha Jeong-woo playing a callous, emotionless figure, and Eom Joong-ho going the opposite route, a determined, flawed anti-hero trying to make up for his awful life by trying to find a girl he might have sent to her death.
Just as The Good, The Bad, The Weird, filled me with absolute glee, The Chaser is a film of near the same excellence, but with the impact of a punch to the gut. I absolutely want people to see this movie, but just be ready, because it’s not a pretty ride. This is a movie that would make Hitchcock proud.
Alright, so again we come to the end, but worry not because I’ve got at least one more batch ready to go. So take it easy and see you guys next time.
Robert Sutton feels the most at home when he's watching some movie scumbag getting blown up, punched in the face, or kung fu'd to death, especially in that order. He's a founding writer for the movies section of Insidepulse.com, featured in his weekly column R0BTRAIN's Badass Cinema as well as a frequent reviewer of DVDs and Blu-rays. Also, he's a proud Sony fanboy, loves everything Star Wars and Superman related and hopes to someday be taken seriously by his friends and family.