måndag 20 mars 2017

DRUG WAR (2012)

If possible, I prefer a film that can deliver the visceral and artistical pleasure of action cinema with a more human and highly complex narrative. Drug War sure as hell deliver. It pulls quite a sucker punch on the viewer. Drug War is  a  procedural movie that for the most part only depicts rather than employ a moral point of view for the audiences to identify with.  I really appriciate that. And Johnny To is a film maker that can make it work..

I´ve only seen a few of his works. Fulltime Killer which felt like a postmodern take on the John Woo hitman with-a-conscience/ duality between men formula. Flashy stuff mostly. Election, The Mission and this one all seem to be more realist and procedural, at the same time contain incredible stylistic elements, a fast moving plot and a highly  detailed exploration of the  world of Triad gangsters.

Louis Koo ( Robin B-Hood, Flashpoint) stars as Timmy Choi,  a very unfortunate high level Triad member getting caught by the police during a sting operation. In China there is a death penalty for drug dealers, so he is forced to make a deal with the police and doing some undercover work for them. Choi is struggling with his loyalty throughout the film which brings the film some tension.

The police officers in charged of this operation is depicted as incredibly professional and very good at what they do, so you can see that Choi can not easily blow smoke up their arse. They know the type of person they are dealing with here, someone who is out for themselves when its their own ass on the line. But that can easily change so they have to be wary of him.

Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of melodrama, the film presents us with a very grim world detached of consideration of human lives. The cops don´t care for Choi, if he lives or dies. And at the end nobody else does because of the choices he has made.

I guess the way Choi is presented as someone struggling with the situation, this is a point of view the film takes. As the cops are not really given much personalities, just hard assed professionals not giving a shit about Choi´s situation. They at some points come across as just as ruthless as the Triads.

The climactic shootout is a perfect example of the stylized procedural elements of the film. With very little attachement, To shows us," this person shot this person , and then this person shot this person". With the editing, the sequence becomes an almost rhytmic domino-effect of the conflict resolution. It is reminiscent of the big shoot out from Michael Mann´s Heat, but there is something disturbing about the callousness of all the murders.

I would rank this as highly as Infernal Affairs when it comes to hardboiled cop actiondrama from suutheast Asia and it deserves a wider audience than it probably will ever get.It is an intelligent film with strong central performances, tough action sequences and a gritty tone.

fredag 10 mars 2017

KILL ZONE ( a.k.a SPL) (2005)

Donnie Yen said in an interview regarding SPL (Kill Zone) that people are not used to heavy drama in fast paced actionfilms. He also in that same interview acknowledged that most of the films he has made  during his career, the story usually played second fiddle to the action sequences. But regarding this project he  started to collaborate with director Wilson Yip because he knew him to be able to pull of the dramatic story that gives the action  a  more emotionally powerful context. The result is a pretty potent sort of spectacle.

Most people watch action films just for the sake of the action. And that is fine. But , people, we need to strive forward and produce better stories and contextualize the fights better in order to make better action pictures. This is according to me ( and Donnie) an art form. And there is good art, there is bad art and then there is absolut garbage. Donnies awareness of the lack of focus on plot/story and character in conventional Hong Kong Action-Cinema  shows a determination and an willingness to make better films as well as action sequences. Commendable in  my opinion.

2005´s SPL ( Kill Zone outside of China) is a good example of an action cinema that carries a bit more dramatic weight than usual.. The plot focuses on a cops-and robbers narrative which have been popular in Hong Kong in recent years. perhaps thanks to the astounding success of Infernal Affairs (later remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed).  We have a team of cops so determined  putting  crime boss Wong Po (played by the kung fu legend Sammo Hung) behind bars that they go to extreme lengths to put him there  by framing him for murder. 

The cop in charge Chan Kwok Chung( Simon Yam) expericnced once how they were trying through correct police procedural ways by producing a witness that could in a court of law be the final nail in the crime boss´s coffin and the end of his reign. The witness and the family got brutally murdered. The only survivor was the child, which Yam decides to adopt and raise. Unfortunatly the incident made him so determined to put Sammo behind bars, that he neglect her upbringing. This is also a major motif in teh film, in which the more important parts of your life is being swept aside for petty revenge. All the other members of Simon´s team have families or issues that they neglect to deal with until it´s too late.

Simon Yam on the case
Kung Fu legend in unusual form as a villain taking the threats from the cop not too seriously.
Donnie worrying if he is going to kick some ass or not. ( he will, some rather large ass)

Simon Yams character also get the news that he has a brain tumour and just a few days left on the job he is about to be replaced with  Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), but the team is reluctant to let him in, which creates some tension.

Yen is someone who questions the methods of the team, even the boss has his suspicions,  but he himself has a bit of a problematic past, as he once punched the hell out of some guy with his policing fists of fury. Everyone has some shades of grey in this film. Yams determination is understandable, but regrettable. Donnies character is not the clean cut hero either. And Sammo as the crime boss,  at the same being ruthless he is also shown to be a very caring father and husband, in scenes that actually, while being brief, sets things up quite beautifully. 

Being able  to produce a  somewhat complex drama  within a 90 minute framework ,that has to contain a fast-forward narrative with plenty of action, is pretty good job. The film has some hickups in the story/character department.  The central conflict is established through a convoluted in medias res fashion,  An unfortunate by product of this day and age when you have to "grab peoples attention". I would rather have had a slow build up to the explosive climax, where you can feel the tension between the rival central characters build up.

Prolific and legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman said in a very recent interview, that producing films for theatrical relase or for television/home video has different demands. With theatrical releases the restraint on producing , and throwing the audience in the mix early on is not that necessary,as the audience who´ve payed for the ticket usually sticks it out. But on TV/Homevidoe/On Demand the criteria  on the production can be quite harsh from the higher ups, as the audience can switch channel easily if nothing particularly interesting is happening.

SPL enjoyed a limited theatrical release outside of Hong Kong (according to IMDB only Japan and Singapore had theatrical releases), but I think this is still more of a stylistic choice from Wilson Yip. The movie is brimmed with stylistic devices to convey certain elements such as plot and character traits through such means as internal visualiations, flashbacks, split screen and all sorts of tricks, so it is possible that the convoluted opening was just artistic choice that Yip stuck with. Admittedly it makes a pretty powerful impact., so I don´t know what I am complaining about really. I just think it is sad that you have to pull out all your cinematic guns in the first minutes of a film instead of letting the story brew awhile. Maybe because this is the kind of film that ends with the usual explosive kung fu climax, so that it´s still possible for the film to not completely blow its load too early ( ohhh...)

The look of the film must be mentioned. It has none of the  washed out colors these types of "morally grey" cop dramas usually have. The cinematography is lush and full of vibrant colors, especially in the finale in Sammo Hungs gaudy night club.The finale contains a performative spectacle from two legendary kung fu masters, but also as  a scenographic spectacle it works incredible as a backdrop. Here are some shots from the climactic and classic finale between Donnie and Sammo:

I mean, look at that. A lush vibrant colourful cirque-de-soleil-esque spectacle. It (almost) ends with Donnie flipping the heavy set Sammo like this:

Jesus, that is awesome!

I don´t want to spoil the plot or the ending, butr if you call it a spoiler with two rivals dueling it out in awesome martial arts fashion, then you clearly need to see some more movies.

Some final thoughts:

I always love a good  action film that has the "martial arts-cop" trope. And Donnie has done this and several others , like the fairly  recent Flashpoint, but also In the Line of Duty and Tiger Cage 2.  So he has cracked a few cases over the years wth his kung fu skills in the police force.

The original title SPL  ( Sha po lang) is based around chinese zodiac symbolism concerning three stars  which is meant to be represented by the three main characters. This culturally local subtext would therefore be considered as an unsellable title abroad ,as the the people in charge thinks of action cinema as something slightly above porn. Something to sell to testosterone filled teenagers who hates the idea of a smart action film. 

"Just call it Kill Zone so they don´t  get confused on what kind of film it is."

Years has gone by and generations of people has grown up on martial arts cinema, People who are today grown up and can appreciate a good story with complexity. People that can choose a film from more than  "how cool" the title sounds. Instead some dipshit decided it would be better to rob the film of its internal meaning by turning it into the most generic sounding horseshit of a title.

I know this shit  has been done for so many years, but I think we can perhaps start to talk about films being distributed despite its local context  rather than what is most universal. That way we can start thinking about stories in different ways. It´s not like the film does not stand on its own outside of China. Quite the contrary. The title-change does little to change the actual film more than from a marketing perspective.  

But,seriously, the title  sound  like a Steven Seagal film shot in Bulgaria. Not a plus.

Anywat, this is a movie that on a second viewing has grown on me tremendously. A fine modern piece of action-cinema that is both focused in its narrative but still highly traditional and innovative in the form of how a kung fu movie should look like. In the years after 2005 we have had more martial arts films coming out of Asia with  examples such as Merantau, The Raid 1-2, Man of Tai Chi, Ip Man 1-3. All films at one level or another has shown that kung fu/martial arts cinema can still thrive in a CGI-heavy comicbook environment  that refuse the spectacle of the human body by replacing it with replicas of humans.

I will always prefer the performative spectacle of martial artists over  CGI wizards.

They made a sequel, that is just as good in my opinion,  and it is called... hold on to your horses.... Kill Zone 2!  They didn´t add the words Redemption or Retaliation in there. At least that is something.

måndag 27 februari 2017


As John Wick Chapter Two has hit Sweden like a ton of bricks, I thought it would be proper to pay respect to the director that influenced the style of action. the director´s name is John Woo and his stylized gun violence has most certainly made an impact  on the Wicks. The directors Chad Stahelski and David Laitch have mentioned in several  interviews how Hong Kong Action cinema and John Woo in particular was inspiration for their action saga.

As an  easily influenced teenager, John Woo was,(followed by  Robert Rodriguez Woo-influenced Desperado), the best thing, that ever happaned to me. The Killer is one of the greatest film experiences I have ever seen ( and that was on a VHS tape, mind you) and even his lesser Hollywood-works like Broken Arrow and Mission Impossible II I have fond memories of watching. Good stuff

John Woo started off working in the highly influential Shaw Brother studios and directing a number of kung fu films. One of those was the early Jackie Chan vehicle Hand of Death, one of the few in which Jackies chacter dies. He made several more films (including the abandoned Heroes shed no tears that was later re-edited and released after Woo became a success)  before his breakthrough hit A Better Tomorrow.

A Better Tomorrow was a milestone in Hong Kong action cinema. Not only was Woo re- inventing a genre. He also created a new style of action sequences. He was the originator of what is now referred to in the West as "Gun Fu", in which the guns are an extension of the feet and fists of the characters.

A Better Tomorrow is also considered the first in asubgenre known as "heroic bloodshed" When crafting A Better Tomorrow Woo sought to re-invent the swordplay movie in modern times, using the same themes of chivalry and heroism in a more poetic urban gangster setting. Swordsmen who lived by a code turned into triad gangsters. The code of honor among John Woo´s heroes in these films and to the extent they follow that path leads to their demise. Tragic heroes.  So Woo transferred a lot of ideas from the swordplay movie, exhanged the swords for guns, hence the heroic bloodshed and later culturally revised into the american actionfilm as  the "Gun Fu".

The story focuses on the friendship and malebonding between three protagonists. Chow Yun-Fat plays Mark Gor, a slick well spoken awesome  Triad-dude with a high sense of dignity. .Ti Lung plays Ho, his best friend but also the brother of Kit ( leslie Cheung) who is a cop ( sounds awkward)

Ho and Kit are brothers very close to one another, despite on different side of the law. Hos loyalty to it and his struggling loyalty to the Triads and his best friend gets in the way. Mark and Ho are a different kind of brothers. They are sworn blood brothers by the code of the Triads. 

The two worlds clash when a drug affair goes wrong and Kit and Ho´s father falls victim because of Ho´s ties to the Triads.  Mark goes on a revenge spree while  Kit completely disowns his brother and Ho seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of his brother by giving up his life. and  turns himself in to the police, serves time and when he comes out he is hoping his brother has forgiven him. Fat chance. Kit is more determined than ever to bring down the Triads. And Ho with it if possible.

The heightened reality and the strong melodrama of the piece  might be a bit alien to people these days. In the West, restrained emotions are   looked upon as far more genuine artistic expressions. This type of raw emotions may come across as silly and over the top. But the writing is good and the performances are powerful to make it work. And it ws unusual to have this kind of action film have emotions.  The themes of friendship, betrayal and brotherhood are all there in place and the emotions really are worn on the sleeves.

It was at the time when the film was released in the West unusual with a violent actionfilm to have a great story, emotions and deep symbolic imagery in an era dominated with explosions and exaggerated muscular masculinity. The masculinity on display here,  is more concerned with a much higher degree of emotional expressions unlike the American counterpart that was so influenced by the american traditions of stoic emotionless and cynical portrayals of how a man should act.

The film also launched the career of Chow Yun-Fat as Mark. His cool charisma  and charm made action fans fell in love with him. I mean look at this:

Those last shots are from the films most iconic scene , in which Mark enters a restaurant,plants guns in vases. And as he shoots a bunch of dudes he makes good uses of the guns he has placed. Fucking phenomenal.

Chow Yun-Fat made two-gun fisted action cool. Kids nowadays call it dual wielding. For me it has more of a Western connotation. The gunslinger with two guns, like Hopalong Cassidy. This is somethng Chow Yun-Fat as an actor had to deal with for a long time. He became so synonomous with this gangster persona that the jobs he was offered was the type that fitted the Mark character of A Better Tomorrow or the later films he made with John Woo

There were films that tried to break that persona or at least play with it. Ringo Lams City on Fire and  Full Contact  were highlights that tried to work with his gun fu persona in a bit different way. City on Fire has more in common with French Connection, with its more direct cinema approach than the highly stylized world of heroic bloodshed that we are presneted with here. Full Contact however was fullblown heroic bloodshed-style but an incredible revenge film in which Chow Yun-Fat got to show some different strokes as a physical actor as he played a bouncer rather than a suave looking dude in a suit.

A Better Tomorrow is not John Woos best work. It suffers from an uneven style in terms of actionscenes. The shootout in the restaurant is such a classic piece of stylistic editing and use of slow motion that the rest of the action- sequences fall short because of it. Most of the action sequences are just shot without any real stylistic flourishes to them. Watch The Killer. The restaurant scene sums that film up and Woo elaborated on what he accomplished on that sequence in an entire fucking film.

Here is the legdendary scene, pay close attention to the editing.:

lördag 25 februari 2017


John Wick Chapter Two is the second chapter in the highly revered action saga that re-launched Keanu Reeves into a new phase of his action-person and re-invented him into this rugged bad ass mould. His "deer-in-the- headlights"-charisma has transformed into a more gritty version of it with an older more chiseled-face Reeves. We´ve never seen Keanu quite like this in any other role. Quiet, stoic and incredibly intense. More reliant on focused stares and his incredible physicality than on his line deliveries. When he speaks it is mostly a few syllables or at most one sentence.Sometimes he gets to yell. Seldom has a part been so perfectly suited for him as John Wick. 

A lot of stuff has led up to this point. His collaborations with  JOhn Wick-directors/stunt performers/second unit directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski on The Matrix projects, but also on Reeves directorial debut, the criminally underrated martial arts extravaganza Man of Tai Chi. This laid the groundwork for what Keanu Reeves is today, much like the bodies John buried on that day of his most impossible task and how it built the foundation  for the Russian Mob.

What is great about the style of action in these films is that they´ve managed to incorporate not only the physical spectactle of the human body in the traditions of Hong kong action cinema, but in a video game-esque environment. Whenever John is shooting his guns his actions reminds us of first person shooters, in when you´ve shot one guy  "BLAM!"you quickchange with the tap of a button to the next target " BLAM AGAIN!". Which is why John manages to get som many crazy headshots. I think it is a quite a unique way of modernizing action cinema in an intelligent way. 

At the same time the film teaches us that the underworld organizations are reluctant to use a lot of modern technology. When they are transmitting information,communicating or storing information, they use bigass books, they keep physical records. They use Commodore 64 computers and a 1950´s esque telephone switchboard operations board for communication.

I  think the build up to the action sequences were made more classy in the first one, but in this one they go a bit crazy with symbolic imagery instead, with mirrors, a modern arts exhibit (Reflection of your soul) and all sorts of interesting stuf that gives the film more weight than you´d expect from a straightup genre-piece like this.

A lot of dry humour, has seeped into this one as well. Stuff that is hard to explain in text form, But trust me. This is also a very funny movie. It is also a movie in which  three people gets stabbed with  a fucking pencil

I noticed a homage to John Woos A Better Tomorrow. In that film Chow Yun-Fat places guns in vases at a restauarant fo uses later on. In John Wick Chapter Two, when Wick escapes he has hidden an assault rifle and a shotgun in seperate places which he access as he makes his esacpe. Good shit.

John Wick Chapter Two is a superlative sequel in every way. More world building, more interesting characters that inhabit it, more exotic environments, and way more violence. The fights are longer this time, the body count is higher, the dry humour is developed further and this keeps becoming a very distinct franchise with many legs that can carry it forward as the film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.

John Wick WILL return!

onsdag 22 februari 2017


An all-female remake of Bloodsport, you say? Directed by Chris Nahon ( Kiss of The Dragon)?
I was  intrigued.  And  I ended up liking it a lot. 

Amy Johnston, plays Jane and when we first meet her, she works as a waitress and unfortunatley is constantly hassled for being a woman who happens to be easy on the eyes. She gets fired from the job because she doesn´t take shit from perverts. Also, her father  disappeared when he entered the deadly martial arts tournament Kumite eighteen years ago  And now that she got time on her hands. Instead of pleasing customers, she might as well please herself for once ( that came out wrong). By finding out what happened to him going to Hong Kong and participate in this exclusive and shady tournament.

At the same time a rivalry between two female kung fu masters ( Shu and Wei) are tasked with taking up prodigees to fight for them to determine which one of them is the best. The fights between them in the last Kumite ended up a draw so it´s  decided to let them fight through proxies be the way to determine who is the best of the best. 

So, there is the Bloodsport formula sprinkled with the kung fu classic The Odd Couple starring Sammo Hung. It  is a pretty good use of formulas, I would say. The rivalry between Shu and Wei  and the reason behind it is explored thorughout the film. It gives the story a bit more layers and it feels like an attempt of making a B-movie with an actual story that is not entirely uninteresting

Jane finds a mentor in  Shu, who agrees to train her. Meanwhile, evil bitch Wei finds another diamond in the rough so the film parallels their development. Shu and Wei will fight using proxies. Kind of like the kung fu masters of The Odd Couple.

It is indeed a Bloodsport movie as several key elements from that film finds itself into this film. We get to see the fights between all the contestants in a montage. 
Though the montages lack a distinct 80´s rocking soundtrack! There is also a female version of Bolo Yeungs classic villain Chong Li and a moment in which the Chong Li character kills  a friend of Jane.

There are small  moments of light humour injected in thefilm that help strengthen the bond between Jane and Shu and details like that elevates it  from your standard productionline action film. It is clearly made by fans of the genre. And it is. Lady Bloodfight is written and prduced by Hong Kong actionfilm expert Bey Logan which gives the film more credit I think.

Usually female on-screen fighting is mostly presented in a way so that the girls doing the fighting stays pretty looking ( Charlies Angels) but here Amy Johnston gets messed up a lot and put through the ringer throughout the film.

It is pretty uncomfortable to watch. But I think it is great to see women being allowed to be presented as ferocious warriors and not just pretty doll faces to look at .

There might also even be some elements of Undisputed in there with the puppetmaster arranger who profits from the tournament through fixed fights. So there are a lot of familiar tropes that has been constructed into a really enjoyable martial arts vehicle for Amy Johnsson. Johnston who has made herself a career doing stunts for big ass superhero movies. Now she gets to act, and does it decently compared to other female martial arts movie-fighters such as Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano. She projects a particular vulnerability , more reminiscient of Uma Thurmans Beatrix  Kiddo, than the other two and as a result is more relatable.

The fights were apparently choreographed by Xin Xin Xiong, a veteran of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. He played Clubfoot in Once upon a Time in China 3 and even though IMDB  fails to mention it, I am fairly confident he choreographed the fights in The Musketeer from 2001

Lady Bloodfight might not revolutionize anything, but it is a solid entertaining martial arts tournament movie. And we need those. Or at least I sure do.

torsdag 16 februari 2017

John Wick (2014)

The upcoming John Wick Chapter Two made me realize I´ve never written a single sentence of this most highly regarded  art film of this generation; a man struggling with his past and whose emotions are taken the shape of gunfights. His internal struggled externalized as physical force. Very exressionistic. Very artful. And the reason why it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, and won thirteen instead. An unprecedented event in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  Over here in Sweden it won the highly prestigous Best Direct-To-Video Award. Well enough, I guess. I still hold a grudge against those c***s***ers in charge who willingly let this gem go straight to dvd and refuse the audience a prime example of A-grade action in a superbly crafted B-movie. 

But let us set aside all the accolades and why this is such a historic milestone in Cinema and look at the mythos of John Wick. It did something new in action-cinema. It actually cared for world building. Something usually reserved for fantasy and/or science fiction.

The plot:

John Wicks wife got sick, died and left a puppy for him to care for. The puppy gets killed duringa breakin by a reckless mob boss son. The mob boss Viggo ( Mikael Nykvist) fuckin hate shis son for doing that, but does what is expected and tries to shelter his son from the upcoming storm that is Wick. The rest is just a tour de force in ass kicking. Wick is a lightning storm of anger. A snow storm of fury. A tsunami of sizzling bullets.  A sharknado of dead bodies flying through the air hitting pedestrians.

Allright that´s enough....

There is not a single moment or frame in this film that does not convey the sense of a strange off beat world. Cops does not seem like a powerful factor. It is almost entirely inhabited by criminals, We do see John use collective transportation, as they stole his Mustang he was left with a fucking Prius in his garage . He must either have felt  himself undignified driving around such a piece of shit car. Or maybe it was his wifés and as a sign of respect or grief he just did not feel comfortable driving his dead ass wifes car. It is very moving and deep and full of possible intepretation. It just goes to show how deep this film goes. It shows us, rather than tells us. We can decide what we are being shown means. As good Cinema should. Writing people on the nose is for pussies. Shooting people in the face however  is for real men. ( well...)

John is a respected citizen by both cops and criminals. Which is a rare thing in the real world. The one that upsets the balance is the dipshit son of the Russian mob boss. Rulers usually get shit sons, which is why it is so hard to create lasting dynasties. And pissing off John Wick who goes under the specifically Russian mythic name Baba Jaga,  is not a good way for your long time family plans. He should have ordered shitson Iosef The Terrible to quickly inpregnate a woman before he got wiped out. In that way Viggo might have saved the dynasty.

The hotel of assassins I like to think is inspired by Richard Starks Parker novels, whcih are actually a good example of  world building. Stark built a world of rules among thieves and in the process he crafted a unique world. The Outfit is an organization built on criminal enterprizes and resides within a hotel where no affairs can be conducted. There is a similar hotel in John Wick, but built for a league of assassins instead.

You get the sense that the world has been built around John Wick, which is a crazy sense to get, but nonetheless true, which makes this scenario and world so much more weird and stylized as a result. You know that John Wick controls it, as much as Neo controls or shapes the world of The Matrix.

That is what you feel.  One man in control of the  world. Even the cops does not want to fuck with Wick.  Wick is the centre of the world. That is usually the case with every single cookie cutter cut and paste action movies. But here it is so absurdly obvious that it has become self aware and that is what makes John Wick such a special movie.

The fights are fast, ecclectic and has a no-nonsense approach to them. The fights builds upon the legend of John Wick and even though he might not fulfll everything that is being told, you get the clear sense of someone who is single-minded and focused. The fights tell us clearly of who he is and what he is. Few action heroes live up to this. Some great uses of dutch angles conveys this in a couple of scenes. It is a daring stilistic choice but it works and they are used sparingly and tastefully.

If you thought I was done with weather metaphors you are sorely mistaken. I find it interesting how storms works itself into revenge stories. Max Payne (the game) and the Klaus Kinski classic And God said to Cain all have upcoming storms/bad weather scenarios play out in the background accompanying the protagonists trajectory of revenge,  It feels very Old Testament. I like it.

The final fight between Viggo and Wick takes place in downpouring rain. A physical, close encounter that feels  painfully sluggish  compared to the last batches of actionscenes. Wick is running out of gas. And from all the weed Viggo has been smoking he must have gotten to the stage of afterglow, because he suddenly he feels a confidence boost that he could take on John Wick!

Kids, don´t do drugs.

John Wick Chapter Two opens in Swedish Cinemas February 24th and I can´t wait to see the next chapter.

torsdag 26 januari 2017

A Touch of Zen (1968)

A Touch of Zen is one of the first truly great chinese martial arts films. A wuxia, which means a sort of heroic tale of chivalry. Swordplay movie for short. Directed by King Hu, this movie has been canonized by countless film scholars as a groundbreaking film and it was made in an era in which chinese filmmaking was considered lesser artistically.

I recently bought Eurekas bluray version. Up until now I had only seen this movie on a shitty Optimum Asia dvd with poor picture and sound. But now that I got to see it in a new fresh print with correct aspect ratio, I can only say; Wow! This is a breathtaking piece of art. Not only because of its stunning cinemtaography and use of atmosphere and mood. But the narrative and how it is told is beautifully done.

The story starts off off small, opens up and blossom like a flower throughoput the film  in a beautiful way. The plot itself consists of the usual political intrigue one would associate with periodical chinese martial arts pictures. But director King Hu paces it beautifully, framing it as a story around a humble scholar living in a rural village and how he becomes mixed up in a larger national plot , and how he finds a part to play in it.

Visually it even starts out small, with a  fly stuck in a spider web, indicating the central character is part of a larger web. Stuck in a world he has chosen to not be a part of, but ends up in it anyways.

Great, poetic opening to the film. Then we see the web engulfed in mist:

And cut to morning:

Zooms out

Revealing the rural landscape
There are several beautiful vistas established, indicating the story takes place in a desolate location, far from teh capital, where all the political intrigue ,that later on will enter this world,stems from

The village is untroduced a a series of moody shots with mist, creating a sense of isolation and mystery

A lot of mood is introduced before our main protagonist Mr Gu is introduced. A humble man who likes to draw portraits of people. A scholar not interested in the world surrounding this isolated village. but he is soon to be mixed up in a larger narrative.

I love this opening, and the first hour you get to follow his perspective and how this plot develops. It is a violent action film through the eyes of a scholar, a man of peace.

What I would like to do in this text is to establish the influences and the dialogue between Japanese and chinese cinema through this particular film. My overall point is stylistic influences from Japan, but also a mix between the two whn it comes to staging fight sequences.

First, let us look atv motion. Here is how Kurosawa creates motion in Seven Samurai:

Using a telescopic lens, the foreground with the grass, swishes and contributes with the lack of depth to create a higher sense of speed and motion than it would have had without the use of the foreground with a particular lense like this.

Look at how King Hu stages motion in a scene, a battle in a forest:. he uses the bamboo forest brilliantly with the mist contrasting the trees to really make them stand out. In a similar style he creates a sense of speed through movement, although it might be hard to tell from these particular images.

I am not sure this comes across very well, through still images, but the bamboo trees enforce the movement in a way that would not have been as visually striking if she had run unto a plain. It is not as blurry as the Kurosawa film, which could be attributed to the poor dvd copy of Seven Samurai.

Kurosawas use of movement in that example is highly dependant of a particular rhytmic editing pattern and is also a very short sequence in which the samurai rush to the rescue. Unlike this scene, which is an entire action sequence. But the use of mise-en-scene to develop speed I think is important to emphasize. And the influence of Kurosawa I think can be noticed here, even though the sequences and the purposes are different.

I also like to compare the two different editions I own, and why this is such a marvellous improvement

Earlier dvd::

New release:

It is certainly richer,more sumptuous, with the beautiful shot of two warriors in the background, shrouded in fog battling. I am not sure you can tell from these screen shots though. Trust me, it is poetic.

The fights are built  using analytical and constructive editing in tandem*(see appendix). The fights usually have a master shot, to establish the scene then cut to medium shot, but in between when there my be supernatural feats to be performed, it is created through  constructive editing. Nobody can fly for real, so usage of trampolines are used together with close ups to stitch together the illusion of flying. A primitive mode by todays standards. but is effective here.

The fights seem to work as a combination of the staccato pattern of chambara films and at the same time contain the particular brand of chinese fighting, with longer takes and a larger emphasis of exchange of blows than singular strikes.  Both the start/stop and  build up/release pattern of a samurai fight exists along the balletic movements of chinese fighting.

What I like to point out about this dialogic exchange between japanese and chinese culture is that this movie was made in an era when Japanese Cinema was considered much more developed than the chinese in Hong Kong.  Chinese production companies often hired janpanese filmmakers to make sure their products got better. And so  the influence of japanese culture on the development of chinese cinema  is one way to approach this movie.  King Hus more japanese approachh could be an indicator for chinese filmmakers to  try to elevate chinese filmmaking by using japanese standards as they were thought of as more artistic than chinese. Bruce Lee certainly thoughts so. His fights were entirely constructed through the staccato  pattern. But later the chinese developed a style through the creative filmmakers like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping that would create a "Wow-factor" that no film industry in the world could compare themselves to, through sensational use of spectacular bodily movement through balletic motions, more akin to the visual spectacle from the silent cinema than through narrative driven conventions of the modern day. And through taht delvier a cinematic experince that was dynamic and unique. And still to this day can be felt.


*analytical editing is the mode of how to clearly visually communicate the space between characters and their positions to an audience. Usually in classical Hollywood cinema a scene opens with an establishing shot. For instance, if you are in Paris we establish the environment by an establishing shot of Paris, with  the Eiffel Tower. in centre frame.  Then cut to an indoors master shot to clearly show where the characters in the scene geographically belong to one another. . .

*constructive editing  relies on the audince being able to geographically tell what is going on without a master shot or establishing shot.  Constructing a  geography through editing without the use of a big master shot.  Insert shots are also a way of constructive editing, something that a lot of HOng Kong action cinema relies on, for visual impact, like a close up of a foot hitting a face. Constructive editing is in Hong kong action cinema used for visual impact, to enhance a sequence.

Also look at the openingsequence of Shaun of The Dead for a great use of constructive editing in a comedic way. No master shot is used, and the space between characters are purposefully hidden to be comically revealed to the audience.