Friday, October 6, 2017

Triple Feature: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the Big Boss, and Drunken Master

For this post, I will focus on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), the Big Boss (1971), and the Drunken Master (1978).

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a Shaw Brothers' film, directed by Liu Chia-Liang and starring Gordon Liu.   Following the revenge story of a student who becomes a monk, it is a very masculine film, focusing heavily on shirtless, muscular men with a lack of female roles.  That is not to say that this film is bad in any way, shape, or form, but simply a note about the characters present in the film.  Since some of the film did take place on the Shaw Brothers' studio lot(?), I did notice some recurring places, the teahouse/shop in particular, from previous films such as One-Armed Swordsman, but they did a much better job of capturing a more "natural" feel than its predecessor in terms of lighting and setting up props in those areas.

I especially enjoyed the use of the training montage that showcased the titular character's transformation into a monk over a span of six years, as it followed the development from a run-of-the-mill student into one of the strongest monks at the Shaolin temple.  Since this also showed the blood, sweat, and tears being put into this period of time, it also made me as a viewer more sympathetic and impressed at the character's transformation into a seemingly unstoppable force of nature.  I do feel as though the losing battles between the monastery's Justice Officer was the most exciting part of the film, which was a shame since it was placed in the center of the plot since no one was as strong as him afterwards.Though the final battle was a bit... lackluster, in my opinion, in comparison to the happenings at the Shaolin temple, it was still a somewhat fitting end for the film.

The Big Boss, a Golden Harvest film, directed by Lo Wei.  Probably the most exciting martial arts film I've seen to date, it felt more realistic than any of the films before it, probably due to the case that Bruce Lee and Han Ying-Chieh were actual practitioners of martial arts, and it definitely showed through the fight sequences showcasing their abilities, choreography, and varied cinematic shots.  However, the thing that probably stuck the most out to me was the leitmotif(?) for the charm that Cheng Chao-An (Bruce Lee) held, using it as a sort of reminder to not fight. Whenever it would appear, an unnaturally uplifting and happy theme would play, instantly destroying any of the tension that may have been established in that scene previously.  Though it only appeared a few times through the first half of the film, it seemed to break the immersion that the film had earlier.

I also was not sure how to feel about the portrayal of Chiao Mei (Maria Yi) in the story.  It was a bit uncomfortable to watch at times knowing that they were cousins, but moreover, the fact that Chiao Mei was simply a damsel in distress and nothing more than a plot device was quite disappointing, to say the least.   I hoped that she would have a larger role, but alas, she did not in the end.

Finally, we end with the Drunken Master, a very comedic martial arts film starring Jackie Chan.  Probably out of all the films for far, this was the most enjoyable one yet.  Perhaps it was due to Jackie Chan's unique fighting style, taking advantage of whatever is in the environment around him, or perhaps it was the almost nonsensical and generally whimsical plot (with serious elements mixed in at the right parts), while always maintaining interesting fights and training montages.  From an overconfident boy to an... overconfident boy with a drinking problem, it was an interesting and hilarious character arc to watch, while still retaining the fidelity to the underlying serious plot.  I am glad that Jackie Chan managed to develop himself as a comedic performer, since I really cannot see him in many other roles unlike this. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

One-Armed Swordsman

One-Armed Swordsman is the first of many films in the soon to follow One-Armed Swordsman series.  Released in 1967, directed by Chang Cheh, and starring Jimmy Wang, it features the titular character who loses his arm and proceeds to unleash madness upon those who attempt to stand in his way.
Though this is a Chang Chen film, I did see a some parts taking inspiration from King Hu's Come Drink With Me, one of the more notable scenes being the tea-hut (?) scene drawing parallels to the tavern scene.
This is not to say that Chang Cheh's filmmaking style is like King Hu's; it is anything but.  His heavy emphasis on blood and violence is one of the many traits that make it unique, and truth be told, it was quite amusing at times.  Though, sometimes the characters' thought processes on choosing to repeat the exact same mistakes that would lead to them dying over and over, nearly becoming comedic at the end did make the movie somewhat hilarious.
However, that is not to say that this is not an enjoyable film, but one may need to suspend their beliefs for many a plot point in order to do so.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Final Reflections

Before I began learning about King Hu, I honestly knew nothing about him, nor did I ever hear of him or the films that he made.  If anything, i had no idea how much of an impact that he had on the industry, or even that the wuxia genre was actually a genre of film.  However, as I finish this course, I know a whole lot of everything about King Hu’s life, nearly all of his major productions, and most importantly, his impact on Chinese cinema and cinematography that came after his work.  Honestly speaking, now that I know how large and important of a director that he was, I am exceptionally surprised that his name made it under the radar and is generally unknown to many moviegoers, myself included.  
Out of all of King Hu’s films, I enjoyed A Touch of Zen, the Valiant Ones, and Come Drink with Me.  For A Touch of Zen, it was fast and action-filled, had beautiful cinematography, and had a gorgeous setting.  The Valiant Ones had an interesting plot, tactical warfare, amazing skills for the characters, and the cinematography really emphasized the action.  Come Drink with Me had a gracefully strong lead, interesting characters, and decent cinematography.  For me, I enjoyed these films due to the actors present in the film, the action scenes present, and the cinematography made it all stand out.
However, there were also films that I didn’t really enjoy nearly as much.  Dragon Inn, the Fate of Lee Khan, and Painted Skin are unfortunately on this list.  Dragon Inn had a dull and bare setting, a lack of color, and drolled on without much happening.  The Fate of Lee Khan had a nearly excessive amount of deaths, another colorless setting, and easily interchangeable characters.  Painted Skin’s plot was confusing and had a lot of scenes where nothing too important happened, making it feel long.  My main issue with these films in particular were that they felt as if there was a whole of of nothing going on at times, and that the plots were usually abruptly ended without a fairly satisfying ending.
King Hu’s influence is easily seen in a variety of different mediums, not just limited to the wuixa-style martial arts films, but perhaps even present in other genres as well.  I can’t help but feel that this has also influenced a bit of Japanese tokusatsu, but I am not entirely sure about that.  Some of the scenes and the floaty jumps that traverse long distances seems to stem from King Hu’s special effects, but whether or not that is truly the case, I am not positive whether or not it is true.  The fact stands that his very floaty, moon-like gravity jumping is almost a necessary action present in modern-day martial arts films, and it was popularized by him, originally experimented with in Sons of Good Earth.
On the subject of influence, his martial arts choreography is one that is present in nearly every action film, regardless of region.  King Hu himself invented the position of “martial arts choreographer,” and basically invented the martial arts that are now present on the screen today, as they did not quite exist before his creation.  On top of that, King Hu has also brought varying degrees of fame to now well-known actors and actresses, in particular, Cheng Pei-pei, as seen from the dancing, almost trancelike fight scenes that were present in films, like Come Drink with Me.
However, his influence is definitely seen in other filmmaker’s films, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as seen from the whole bamboo grove fight sequence that was originally present in A Touch of Zen.  I feel as if this sort of scene is now almost a staple in most martial arts films, and has even made its way overseas as well, as I swear that I have seen this sort of scene before.  

Now that I have finished the instruction on the director study of King Hu, I am glad that I had the experience to take the class for it.  I have learned much about the martial arts cinema and the various aspects of the history and the influences for the genres/commonly used elements, and now I hope I can spread the knowledge of King Hu and the wuxia genre of cinematography.  Though it is different than the genres present in the rest of the world, it can be just as beautiful and moving as the films released overseas, and one should respect it for what it is and what it can do.  Ultimately, I hope that more people are exposed to the works of King Hu, as it is incredibly disappointing that a director of his stature is virtually unknown to most of the public, so I hope that I, along with the others who took the class, are able to spread the word.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Painted Skin

Finally, we finish with King Hu’s final film, Painted Skin, released in 1993.  For me, out of all of his films before, Painted Skin in particular felt extremely different and distant from those that came before it, almost reminiscent of older Japanese tokusatsu series, in terms of action, special effects, and sequences as a whole.  Though it was different, it was an interesting approach to storytelling, with elements of horror that were occasionally frightening at times. It was an interesting direction than just the styles that he had experimented with previously.
I really appreciated the contrasts of color in this film, in both scenery and characters.  Everything was fairly easy to distinguish between the “villains” and the “heroes,” so I thought that was pretty interesting.  
The special effects for the film as well, talking about the smoke in particular, was also very well done, in my opinion.  It really added a mysterious, surreal feeling to the film, which really aided in the ambiance of the experience as a whole.  It was creative of him to rewind the smoke effects that were expelled from the actor’s bodies/clothes, giving the impression as if they were being possessed by spirits. That, and the color play with the villain being portrayed as red smoke was also a creative choice.

Though in the end, I feel like King Hu could’ve added more of a conclusion, as it felt pretty abrupt and was quite confusing, the first time around.  Otherwise though, it was a fairly enjoyable experience and I would recommend King Hu fans to see it at least once.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

A change of pace from the normal King Hu films, this time we watched Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,  a film made in 2000.
After watching so many King Hu films, or rather, pre-2000 wuxia style films, seeing extremely choreographed fight scenes combined with state-of-the-art special effects made me really appreciate what the whole wuxia genre has finally become after so many years of experimentation and refining.  On top of having an interesting story and cast, the cinematography was also really beautiful and left me in awe with some of the scenery/sequences.  
With this film too, I realized that I had indadvertedly become a fan of the whole wuxia genre, if not being able to appreciate it a whole lot more.  The fight scenes in here, though some of them really did have like moon-like gravity sequences, were all really well done, and I sat in awe watching the warriors on the screen fight.  It was so well done, I could nearly mistake it to be real.  My favorite scenes were probably the chase in the castle walls and the large fight scene that came before it.  Both were really well done, and I was not able to tear my eyes away from the screen.  None can forget the unforgettable bamboo grove fight scene either, that too was amazing.
If anyone is a fan of a good story with a wuxia twist, or even someone interested into getting into the genre,  I would definitely recommend Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Raining in the Mountain

Raining in the Mountain is a film written by King Hu in 1979, a film with heavy religious undertones.  Unlike many of the films that came prior, this film in particular seemed to focus mostly on the interactions amongst the characters and the scenes with action were only sparingly sprinkled in, breaking up the large amounts of character-building.  
Though the action in comparison to his other films was noticeably less, I enjoyed the particular themes that the film portrayed.  The characters were particularly well-fleshed out, in my opinion, as their wants and needs were easily seen and understood to the audience.  It was interesting how none of the villains were traditionally “evil,” and in this film, they only had different goals and mindsets, which led them to do the things they did.  However, the fighting scenes were as good as ever, so that is always nice.  
I really enjoyed the scenery of this film as it was incredibly nice and gave the film a very specific atmosphere limited only to this film in particular.  The temple architecture and the surrounding area gave the film a very spiritual feel, highlighting the themes that were present in it.

Enjoy religious scenery and an interesting, generally narrative-based plot with elements of wuxia mixed in?  I would recommend Raining in the Mountain, if that appeals to you.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Valiant Ones

The Valiant Ones is a film done by King Hu in 1975, and as the films continue to roll out, the fight scenes get better and better.  Unlike his earlier films, King Hu seems to have experimented with many different subject matter that he didn’t use before, such as tactics in war or large armies of people.  Though it was almost unexpected, it did not feel out of place and I personally thought it was extremely entertaining to watch the protagonists outwit their enemies.
Though the final fight scene at the very end was, well, in some ways, drawn out with excessive editing, it was extremely exciting in comparison to the films that came before.  There was a large amount of enemies, creating a very unique and action-packed film, becoming closer and closer to the wuxia-style films that are released today.  Though the ending was almost disappointedly hilarious, the rest of the film was done exceptionally well. I especially enjoyed the “test” scenes that were held for the two protagonists in front of the owner of the island.  Though their feats were ultimately due to their skill, choreography, and editing, I was still wowed by the feats that they were able to accomplish.

If anyone enjoys a good wuxia-style film with amazing, nearly superhuman feats, with a dash of political strategy, the Valiant Ones is a must-watch.