R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Asian Cinema Explosion – Monster Moms, Short Skirts, and Black Belts!

Another week down and I’ve got another group of awesome Asian movies for you to peruse. The summer keeps digging itself deeper and deeper out there, but I still don’t mind because I know there’s at least a little awesome on the way (Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) and I’ve still got high hopes for The Expendables, so fingers crossed. In the mean time, I’ve got some business to get to, and then my latest rundown of Asian amazement.

First up, I’m saddened by the news of Tony Jaa possibly retiring to become a Buddhist monk. This is pretty shocking news to those of us that love his movies, and while I know it had production troubles, I believed Ong Bak 2 to be his best film yet. At any rate, I know I’ve heard that this may be an elaborate way to get out of a contract, but in the event that this is another sort of breakdown for Jaa, I hope he is able to recover and returns to the big screen soon. We’re short on real action stars as it is.

And now,

Bad Ass of the Month – May 2010

Park Do-won, played by Jung Woo-sung – The Good, The Bad, The Weird

It’s a little disappointing that the Bad Ass of the Month didn’t premiere in theaters during what is typically the biggest action movie month of the year, but instead made his American debut on-demand. If you’re lucky to have caught Kim Ji-woon’s epic Kimchi Western The Good, The Bad, The Weird, then you’ve seen the biggest, no-holds barred action film in a long time, with sequences that absolutely stun you with the impact of a hand grenade to your sternum. Not needing giant visual effects, this is an old-school white-knuckle romp culminating in a 15 minute chase that pins you to your seat then uses you for target practice, and the big topper for the whole sequence is Jung Woo-sung’s Park Do-won (AKA: The Good) riding in by himself on horseback and then absolutely wiping out a battalion of Japanese soldiers armed with giant troop-trucks and machine guns with a single rifle, and then in a display of Indiana Jones-level tenacity and bad-assery, he rides way out and in front of them, circles back and then starts wiping them out again. This is an awe-inspiring level of action, and in a movie full of bad asses, Park Do-won rises above the rest.

Now onto our regularly scheduled program!

Here’s my recent columns if you’d like to have a look.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

And Now…

Monster Moms, Short Skirts, and Black Belts!

Little Big Soldier Starring Jackie Chan, Leehom Wang, Steve Yoo, Lin Peng, Wu Yue, and Xiao Dongmei. Directed by Ding Shengu.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; My love for Jackie Chan and his movies will never die. Now some of you may be out there scratching your heads, especially if you’ve recently caught the atrocity that is The Spy Next Door or you’re not sold on the new Karate Kid reboot on the horizon. Thing is, while Jackie’s Hollywood output has always been suspect compared to his Hong Kong films, the last few years have completely solidified that model while this particular year has seen the release of Jackie’s best work in a decade. The big surprise about these films is though, is that they’re not martial arts movies.

I know it’s hard to think of Jackie in roles that aren’t predominantly about him beating people up with any objects that are readily handy, but the surprise is that over in Hong Kong, Jackie Chan is putting out dramatic work that is absolutely top notch. Similar to the realization that Jean-Claude Van Damme might be a (gasp!) good actor, Chan’s work in Shinjuku Incident earlier this year represents Jackie’s best dramatic work to date, and equally likable is the wonderfully funny and poignant Little Big Soldier. If these films represent the future for Jackie Chan as a star and more importantly as an actor, then I can’t put into words just how excited I am.

The film is basically a road movie, with Chan playing a peasant soldier who uses his wits and a bit of trickery to wind up one of only two survivors of a giant battle. When the other survivor turns out to be the general for the opposing army, the peasant captures him and decides that the only way to be able to stop fighting is to take the general hostage in exchange for land and freedom. Problem is, the general is actually a prince, and the prince’s brother has already dispatched assassins in order to capture the throne of their homeland.

The film was also written by Chan, and while there certainly are plenty of entertaining action beats, with Chan doing some awesome, Buster Keaton-style light action work, this is by no means a kung fu movie. We get some nice little stunts and Jackie’s character has to avoid threats from assassins and barbarians, but essentially this is just a terrific road movie, with the two characters forming an odd bond. There are plenty of hijinks that ensue, but the character work done here is phenomenal, and the movie takes a lot of unexpected turns dramatically. All in all, this went from lighthearted entertainment to a poignant look at class differences without missing a beat. I can’t recommend this movie enough, especially for lifelong Chan-fans like myself. Here’s hoping he has a few more like this one in him before retirement!

Blood: The Last Vampire Starring Gianna Jun, Allison Miller, and Koyuki. Directed by Chris Nahon.

There was a moment early on in Blood where the film kind of lost me, and then about halfway through it sort of got me back, and then by the end of the movie, it sort of lost me again. There’s a lot of talent behind this picture, which is a live-action version of Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s anime short film about a schoolgirl-looking vampire hunter taking on a group of demons. I like director Chris Nahon (Kiss of the Dragon) and lead Gianna Jun (My Sassy Girl), but this movie is a textbook case of how not to edit fight scenes, use CGI or write a screen play.

While there is a high mark in the middle of the film when action legend Yasuaki Kurata (Fist of Legend) shows up to battle a small army of ninja vampires, nearly every other fight frustrates you by persistently not showing you any of its choreography due to over-editing. On top of that, the movie insists on shoe-horning a needless American teenager into its plot, then throwing tons of CGI at you that is SyFy channel movie quality at best, complete with some of the worst monsters I’ve seen in a long time. This movie could have been an easy sell, but kept shooting itself in the foot to the point where I didn’t care anymore.

Black Belt Starring Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki. Directed by Shunichi Nagasaki.

Perhaps the exact opposite of a movie like Blood is Black Belt. I talked recently about Merantau which is the Indonesian film that was the answer to the “Real Fight” movement that started with the Thai films featuring Tony Jaa, including the two Ong-Bak films and The Protector. “Real Fight” movies feature no wires or CGI in their fights, astounding you with physical action in the extreme. In a way, Black Belt is Japan’s opportunity to answer, but done in a very “Japanese” way.

Instead of the insanity that is usually involved in “Real Fight”, with tons of stunts or massive amounts of combatants, Black Belt is a very classic Japanese tale, with formal duels and hard hitting fight, but without much flash. No one fights crocodiles or bears or thousands of ninjas. This is just a really intense look at the nature and principles of Karate and all of the fighters here are real martial artists of the highest caliber.

Black Belt is actually a period film, set in the ‘30s during the military expansion of the Japanese across Asia. In the film the military police is doing the same with local dojos, confiscating the property for their own uses, including turning some into brothels. This is where we come in with the story of Taikan (Tatsuya Naka), Choei (Yuji Suzuki) and Giryu (Akihito Yagi), three students of a dead master, all looking to find their way. Ultimately the film becomes about the struggle between Taikan and Giryu, who each have differing philosophies about the use of karate and the violence it wields.

Taikan believes in using karate to prove himself by defeating other masters by brute force, even joining up with the military’s plans in order to further his own goals. Giryu instead uses the art only for self defense, and instead only uses karate as a last resort. This dichotomy is fascinating and the film’s themes are common to many films concerning martial arts, and karate specifically, including The Streetfighter and the original Karate Kid, and I’m glad to say Black Belt is a film that can proudly stand with either of those films.

With a mood similar to a classic Samurai film, Black Belt is hopefully the start of a revolution in Japanese cinema when it comes to martial arts. Each performer is a master of Karate, but watching them act is also a pleasure here, making Black Belt anything but an empty calorie feast of entertainment. If you’re tired of flash and just want a meat and potatoes martial arts film, this is the one.

High-Kick Girl Starring Rina Takeda, Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki. Directed by Fuyuhiko Nishi.

In many ways, High-Kick Girl is simply the exploitation version of Black Belt, containing many of the same principles and messages, but without the terrific direction or production values. The draw here is Rina Takeda, a 17-year old Black Belt who plays a young female student unable to get what she believes is the proper respect from her sensei (Naka) because she has not mastered the proper techniques. Instead, she decides to “hunt” black belts, challenging them to duels and even falling in with a group known as The Destroyers, an outlaw karate group known for hand-to-hand assassinations. In the end, her master and The Destroyers duel it out over her fate, but will she finally follow the teachings of her sensei, or simply vie for selfish pursuits?

Again, much of the film feels very similar to Black Belt in terms of message, but besides the intent and much of the cast, the similarities stop there. This is a movie that suffers heavily from bad direction, poor production values, and performances that are next to non-existent. I mean, I often don’t mind movies that are simply fight reels and I definitely prefer a film like this to the over-the-top, cheap, sex and gore flicks that have been persistently coming from Japan lately after the success of Machine Girl, but this is still a laughably bad movie at times.

My biggest complaint is that while many of the choreographed moves here are very impressive, this picture is way too in love with the technique of the double-take shot where something is played back in slow motion. While Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa have often used this technique to accentuate a cool stunt or move, this film persistently double-takes over and over, which ended up only frustrating me further and further as the film went on. This is especially bad when the slowed footage isn’t even impressive, uncovering mistakes in technique or form, or highlighting a punch or kick that looks pulled so as to not hurt the performers involved. It all just feels like padding for a movie which ends up barely running 80 minutes long.

High-Kick Girl does have impressive moves at times, but like the character in the movie, it flies off the handle well before it has the proper basics down.

Mother Starring Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin. Directed by Bong Joon-ho.

As is some weird tradition with this series of columns, I end with another awesome Korean movie. Mother is the new film from Director Bong Joon-ho, who is the brilliant director behind Memories of Murder and The Host. Both of those films are two of the best Korean movies I’ve ever seen, and indeed in their own subgenres (Serial Killers and Giant Monsters, respectively), they are indeed near the top of each category. So how does he do in this follow-up?

Well the film is ostensibly about an overzealous mother trying to prove the innocence of her mentally handicapped adult son, who has been accused of murder. Really though, this is a character study about this mother and her determination and love, though sometimes completely wrongheaded love, for her son. Let me tell you right off the bat, and especially speaking as a person that actually has a Korean mother; this film is a work of genius. While to some the performance of Kim Hye-ja as the title matriarch of this picture may seem overly eccentric or maybe even cartoonish, I think this film hits this character perfectly on the head. Roger Ebert in his review called her “a force of nature” and that’s exactly how I’d describe this character also, making me wonder if director Joon-ho could have gotten inspiration for this this character from his own mother.

Yes, this is a Hitchcockian mystery thriller, but at its heart it’s a fiendishly dark comedy, with one amazing beat after another. Sure, the movie will punch you in the face with horrible violence or tragedy every so often, but in the next beat the uncomfortable laugh you’re having evens the whole experience out. By the end, you’re left with a profound feeling of digging into a person’s psyche, and very tough questions about what you’d be prepared to do for the people you love. If you loved The Host, then Mother is definitely worth checking out. This time out though, Bong Joon-ho doesn’t need CGI to show you someone scarier and more determined than any giant monster.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rDeNM-M8p8

Alright folks, that’s for this week. See you next time with some action you need to be checking out!

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