A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.
Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.Continue Reading
There are some who would say that Bloodsport was the film Ingmar Bergman intended to make when he directed Wild Strawberries. And to be perfectly serious Bloodsport is the better film.
When Frank Dux’s childhood friend and the son of his martial arts mentor is killed in a Kumite, a bloody underground mixed martial arts championship, Dux (Jean-Claude van Damme) goes AWOL from his army post to travel to Hong Kong to compete in the next Kumite and avenge his fallen friend’s honor. Hot on his trail, two military agents (one played by Forest Whitaker) follow him to protect the army’s investment in Dux’s amazing martial arts talents. With the help of a wrestler with a huge forehead (Donald Gibb from Revenge of the Nerds) also competing in the tournament and a plucky and attractive female journalist, Dux enters the brutal Kumite and displays his excellent fighting skills. But can he beat the man-killing, pec-flexing Chong Li or will he end up like his boyhood buddy?Continue Reading
If we lived in a perfect world, Police Story would be the archetypal action film all other action films would emulate. But the world is imperfect and most action films are bloated, $100 million plus productions filled with bad dialogue, aging stars, poorly choreographed fights, and CGI removing any semblance of real threat or excitement. And yet, Police Story is almost thirty years old and still excites in the way action movies should.
Police Story doesn’t wait around to give you tons of unnecessary exposition. Right from the start, it spends only a few minutes establishing who the bad guys are, why the cops are after them, and Chan Ka-Kui's (played by Jackie Chan, also the film’s director) moralistic view of his job. And right when they give you just enough info to get involved in the story, you’re treated to a gunfight followed by cars driving through and destroying an entire shanty town followed by Chan Ka-Kui chasing a bus being held hostage by the escaping villains.Continue Reading
Return To The 36th Chamber
Director Lau Kar Leung is sort of a bridge from the hey-day of Shaw Brother kung-fu films to the new wave, hyper-stylized martial arts spearheaded by Tsui Hark. And I mean that literally, since he worked with Shaw master Chang Cheh and then directed his own films at the end of their era, and then worked with Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and others of their ilk. I also mean figuratively, as his directing and choreography is pretty much solely responsible for moving things from chopsocky to the more modern approach. Unfortunately, he is pretty much only known for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, an undeniable masterpiece, and maybe for quitting Chan’s Drunken Master 2. But just about any one of his films would stand out amongst the crowd were they to be discovered in the West. Even though Return To The 36th Chamber was a cheap, cash grab it remains both innovative and gasp-inducing to this day.
Most likely the reason Return didn’t get the attention the first one received is because it’s not technically a sequel and it’s more or less the exact same plot. Gordon Liu returns, playing a lovable loser whose town is being harassed for money which they cannot afford so Liu pretends to be a Shaolin master in hopes of scaring away these bullies. After being humiliated when his plan fails, he heads to the real Shaolin temple to learn their ways but is only assigned construction duties once they accept him. He finds this worthless but when he returns home he finds he’s acquired skills he did not have before. Beat for beat, this is the same plot as the first. But while Leung still sells the story adequately, it’s in his fights that he really shines.Continue Reading
You call it Inframan. I call it the greatest thing ever made by man or god. I vainly attempted a good way to describe this movie’s overwhelming goodness but, failing that, will defer to Roger Ebert's review of it from way back when:
Within the first four minutes of Infra-Man, (a) a giant flying lizard attacks a school bus, (b) the Earth cracks open, (c) Hong Kong is destroyed by flames, (d) mountains disintegrate to reveal the forms of reptilian monsters with blinking yellow eyes, (e) a Professor announces that a twenty-million-year-old woman is unleashing the hibernating monsters upon civilization, (f) the Science Headquarters is shaken by a second quake, (g) the Mutants awake, and (h) the Professor, obviously shaken, informs a secret meeting of world leaders, "This situation is so bad that it is the worst that ever has been!" I'm a pushover for monster movies anyway, but Infra-Man has it all: Horrendous octopus men, skeleton storm-troopers, a gigantic beetle man with three eyes who sprays his victims with sticky cocoons, savage robots with coiled spring necks that can extend ten feet, elaborately staged kung fu fights, underground throne rooms, damsels in distress, exploding volcanoes, and a whip-cracking villainess named Princess Dragon Mom. It's a classy, slick production by the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong kung fu kings. When they stop making movies like Infra-Man, a little light will go out of the world.Continue Reading
Sword of Doom
大菩薩峠 literally translates to “The pass of the great Buddha” which is a much more evocative and memorable name than the calculatedly generic “Sword of Doom.” Despite being one of my favorite films of all time, I usually get it wrong as it’s so vague and unmemorable. In my (and many others’) opinion, it’s the greatest example of the martial arts sub-genre of chanbara which are Japanese period films focused sword fighting.
The film is based on the serialized, newspaper-published stories written by Buddhist author Kaizan Nakazato beginning in 1913. Over three decades he wrote and published new segments until his death. Sword of Doom isn’t the first time the stories have been adapted for film, but it is the most highly regarded.Continue Reading