R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: Asian Cinema Explosion – End of the Year Blowout, Part 1!

Reflecting back on 2010, it’s been a hell of a year for Asian Cinema. As a guy that’s usually playing a lot of catch-up when it comes to getting to see all foreign imports in a year, I finally felt like I was ahead of the curve these past 12 months, and other than one or two significant releases (namely Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins) I managed to get to see everything I was after. There’s been some highs and lows, but I got to experience a lot of amazing films and got to see where the film industries in the various countries are headed.

So to help closeout 2010, I’ve got the first of a two part column where I cover the rest of my Asian Cinema bounty for this year and hope to even hand out some end of the year awards when part 2 rolls around. So without further ado…

Asian Cinema Explosion: End of the Year Blowout Part 1!

Ip Man 2, Starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Darren Shahlavi. Directed by Wilson Yip.

At the beginning of 2010, there were few movies that I was looking forward to more than Ip Man 2. 2009’s Ip Man was a tour de force effort from director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Yen, surpassing the duo’s previous works by adding an incredible dramatic element to the film that had been mostly absent from Donnie Yen vehicles such as Flashpoint and Dragon Tiger Gate. The acting, combined with Sammo Hung’s incredible fight choreography, and then blended together made an amazing martial arts spectacle, and one of the finest Hong Kong films of the last decade.

Unfortunately, Ip Man 2 can’t quite reach the same level, but still manages to pack quite a punch and send you home relatively happy. Hitfix.com’s movie critic Drew McWeeney said it best in his review of the film, comparing the first Ip Man to the original Rocky where Ip Man 2 feels more like a Rocky sequel, turning the reserved fighter into a bit of a superhero, complete with a societal changing fight and speech at the end of the movie. Also, as opposed to the realistic portrayal of the Japanese heavies in the first film, the movie’s villains this time out are one-dimensional racist British Imperialists, which make for fun villains, but little else. Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially when it comes to the charismatic Yen in the title role and the awesome Sammo Hung, who dramatically steals the movie right under Yen’s nose. This time out you can come for the fights and pretty much stay for them too.

 

14 Blades, Starring Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, and Chun Wu. Directed by Daniel Lee.

If you’ve read any reviews of 14 Blades up to this point, you’ll find that most of them are routinely pretty mixed, and while it would make me pretty happy to buck this trend, it’s got to be said that this is probably the slightest of the Donnie Yen movies I’ve seen this year. The picture starts off well enough, with Yen as Green Dragon, the leader of an imperial secret service unit used to protect important officials or eliminate those looking to usurp the crown of the Ming dynasty. An opening fight scene shows Yen in full fisticuffs mode, and again further proves himself as the most accomplished action star in Hong Kong at the moment.

Unfortunately, the movie around him can’t quite keep up. Green Dragon is betrayed by court officials and must go on the run in order to prove his innocence, even taking the lovely Qiao Hua (Wei Zhao) along for the ride. While the ensuing banter between the two is nice, it also becomes the most engaging element in the movie. Director Daniel Lee is the main culprit, shooting the movie’s fights with the same sloppiness found in previous efforts such as Black Mask and Dragon Heat. Overly edited and lazily put together, 14 Blades is another watchable, but disappointing effort from Lee, wasting a good performance from Donnie Yen and the chemistry between Wei Zhao and the actor.

 

Ip Man: The Legend is Born, Starring Dennis To, Sammo Hung, Siu-Wong Fan, and Yuen Biao. Directed by Herman Yau.

Ip Man: The Legend is Born is one of the oddest and most surprising films I’ve ever seen. Made to capitalize on the staggering success of the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip Ip Man films, but not officially associated with that series, I wasn’t expecting much more than a cheap knockoff from this “prequel.” Steeling myself for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fairly solid movie that only ends up being marred by an ending that just simply stretches credibility a bit too far.

The good news is, is that otherwise this is a perfectly acceptable expansion of the mythos of Ip Man, from his early introduction to the martial art of Wing Chun to a wonderfully engaging love story with Cheung Wing-shing (Huang Yi), who would eventually become his wife. Lovers of old school Hong Kong cinema should also delight in the performances of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, who portray Ip’s Wing Chun masters, coming into conflict with the young man’s attempts to break from tradition and expand the martial art to become more effective. Even Ip Man’s real life grandson, Ip Chun, makes a cameo appearance in the film in a wonderful scene which changes the direction of the movie entirely.

Perhaps most surprising is Dennis To as the movie’s lead, a dead ringer for a young Donnie Yen, who treats the role with the right balance of severity and humor. While not able to completely match the overwhelming screen presence Yen, the young actor does an admirable job here in the film’s dramatic sequences and is no slouch in the movie’s action set pieces as well. While the film does manage to go off the rails a bit in its final moments, fans of the Ip Man series should still find this picture enjoyable and Dennis To a surprisingly good stand in for Donnie Yen’s most iconic character.

Ong Bak 3, Starring Tony Jaa and Dan Chupong. Directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai.

It is with a heavy heart that I report that Ong Bak 3, a direct sequel to maybe my favorite action film of 2009, is pretty terrible. Nonsensical in a very bad way, the cliffhanger that ended Ong Bak 2 gives us a starting point and then co-director Tony Jaa drives us right off of that cliff with reckless abandon. Gone are the jaw-dropping martial arts battles, and in their place a ponderous tale of redemption where most of the films fight scenes are given to co-star Dan Chupong, with Tony Jaa coming in to take part in the final and underwhelming skirmish. I can see Jaa’s good intentions here, but I can also see where this movie made him give up acting to become a Buddhist monk.

Blades of Blood, Starring Hwang Jeong-min, Cha Seung-won, and Han Ji-hye. Directed by Lee Joon-ik.

Being a big fan of the Zatoichi series and swordplay movies in general, Blades of Blood was pretty high on my list of the pictures I wanted to get in before the year was out. While the Japanese have cornered the market on blind swordsman movies throughout the years, Korean cinema is pretty much running at the forefront when it comes to dramatic and action films produced in the region here recently, and to see what they could bring to a tale like this really had me intrigued. Unfortunately, director Lee Joon-ik lets wonderful potential slip through his fingers, and while Blades of Blood is an admirable attempt, it falls short of greatness.

Much of the movie concerns a looming invasion of Japanese forces and the Korean court officials squabbling over how to stop the war from happening. As more and more bickering takes place, one official, Lee Mong-Hak (Seung-won Cha) decides to do something about it and begins a civil war, riding from town to town, and killing all in his path until he reaches the imperial capital, where he will take charge of the nation and supposedly protect its borders. With the power-hungry soldier dividing Korea’s forces only one blind swordsman (Hwang Jeong-min) and the bastard son of one of Mong-Hak’s victims (Baek Sung Hyun) take up arms to bring the villain to justice.

When this movie is at its best we’re treated to some really solid period entertainment.  Hwang Jeong-min is absolutely terrific as the Zatoichi-esque Hwang Jung Hak and his onscreen chemistry with Baek Sung Hyun is engaging, especially when it’s in full master/pupil mode. Also, the movie has some splendidly bloody action, doing away with the CGI spectacles that Korean swordplay is usually known for, deciding instead for a much grittier style. The problems come when the movie is going for political intrigue or during its dramatic finish, both coming off as hollow and unsatisfying. Blades of Blood is a handsome and visceral production at times, but when the swords aren’t flying, this one leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Alright, that’s it for this week, but I’ve got more Asian movies on the way, including new kung fu movies from John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Donnie Yen! Plus a look back at this great year of cinema from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and others…

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