Martial Arts

House of Flying Daggers

dir: Zhang Yimou
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What a truly beautiful film, in all the senses that the word can encompass. And if you think about just how important beauty is to those of us with eyes and ears and hearts, you might know how it is that I can forgive the shortcomings of a film solely for its sheer visual splendour.

Film, being the most complex of the visual mediums (well duh), needs beauty like homeless drunks need booze: fiercely, deeply, utterly. For those of us that try to watch much of the new stuff that comes out at the cinema, it’s the knowledge or the conceit that seeing a film on the big screen is somehow ‘right’ or inherently ‘better’ than waiting to see it on your television screen that is a driving force. In truth most of the time it’s a complete delusion. My life and my experience of film is none the better for having watched Blade III, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing or Cabin Fever on the big screen, in fact I can say that in some ways it’s probably worse off. I’m sure that watching bad films on the silver screen causes brain cancer or genital warts or something.

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Kung Fu Hustle

Gong Fu

dir: Stephen Chow
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Who? What? What the fuck? Huh?

Easy. Calm down. Breathe. Relax.

So you may not have heard about the so-called follow up to Shaolin Soccer by Stephen Chow. Unless you’re in Melbourne I don’t know if you can even see it yet unless you wander down to the Chinatown cinemas in the middle of the city’s Golden Triangle (Russell, Bourke and Swanston Streets). And since according to my sources it’s the last Chinatown cinema still operating in Australia, until it starts playing in the arthouse cinemas in a few month’s time (since Sony snatched it up), it may seem a bit pointless reviewing it when those few people who might be interested in seeing it don’t really have the option. Unless they get a pirate copy from someone who looks dodgier than the guy behind the counter at a sex shop.

It’s one of the reasons why when I see films at film festivals I mostly don’t review and post about them. It seems both pointless and self-aggrandising, as if to brag about films others can’t see yet just to show how wonderful and nerdy I am. Which I’m not. I swear I’m not, you’ve got to believe me.

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Ong Bak

dir: Prachya Pinkaew
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The main point that’s supposed to be in Ong Bak’s favour is that it’s a brawling action film which rejects the use of CGI and the wire-work that has become (apparently) sickening in its ubiquity. In other words, the fights are supposed to be more grounded and realistic; none of this airy-fairy floating on bamboo crap for our beef jerky munching friends.

When you think about it, on its own it isn’t really that much of a selling point. Are there lots of people hearing about or seeing the ads to flicks that are coming out, who see the edited highlights of people perched atop a mountain top or balancing on top of a lake having-at one another with swords, icicles and passing school buses, see the films and then say ‘Wait one gosh-darned moment: this prancing Asian malarkey ain’t my cup of Bonox?’

Surely if there’s a bunch of people that hate that style of genre filmmaking there’s also at least two other groups of people: a) the ones that are the market for these fantastical delights who are grateful and appreciative and b) people who don’t really go in for these kinds of films, and choose as consumers to exercise their George W Bush-given right to NOT purchase a ticket. It’s basic economics, by my reckoning. Niche marketing, even.

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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

dir: Takeshi Kitano
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Do you remember the 80s? More importantly, before you get all
nostalgic tripping down memory lane remembering ra-ra skirts and dumb
haircuts that seem to be making a comeback, do you recall that classic
of the cinema called Blind Fury? It starred one of the undisputed
kings of the 80s; the multi-talented, extraordinary auteur Rutger
Hauer. He brilliantly played the part of a blind guy who could fuck
shit up old school with a sword. No-one could stand against him, but
then he would still confuse alligators with dogs due to his being
differently visually-abled. Blinded in 'Nam, if I'm not mistaken,
fighting for Truth, Justice and the Iraqi Way.

He didn't let his blindness mess up his life. He still got to be a
bad-ass, make stupid jokes and get laid. In fact he gets to lead a
better life than most of us schmucks. It's enough to make you want to
blind yourself in a rage just so that you too can sample the sublime
delights of what being blind must truly be like.

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Twilight Samurai, The (Tasogare Seibei)

dir: Yoji Yamada
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The Twilight Samurai is a deceptively simple, measured Japanese film about a low-ranked samurai with no ambitions in life apart from looking after his children and senile mother in peace and quiet. If every character aspiring to a life of peace and quiet ever got their wish from the start, these flicks would never get made.

Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyada Sanada) is the derisively-named Twilight Samurai, so named by his workmates because when dusk comes around and their daily labours end, instead of boozing and whoring it up with his colleagues, he scurries home in the increasing dark to see his daughters and mother. Seems like a strange thing to insult a guy over.

Seibei’s wife has recently died of consumption, which used to be the pretty way of saying tuberculosis. As such, he is flat out working and taking care of his remaining family, and doesn’t have the money or time to look after himself or fix up his clothes. In that light, he is unwashed and unkempt, and his kimonos are dirty and torn.

He is loyal to his clan, but plays no part in their interactions and machinations with / against the local Lord. He is of the lowest ranks of samurai, as measured by his miniscule stipend of 50 koku. I don’t know what a koku is. But it doesn’t sound like much.

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Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

And none of them would ever be heard from, ever again.

dir: Ang Lee

2000

This ain't the greatest film of all time. This isn't even one of Ang Lee's best films. This is the best filmed chop socky film to date, but that's only because Ang was given a budget far in excess of what any Hong Kong director has ever been given to make a film of similar ilk look more gorgeous than it ever had any right to be. He isn't even the first "arthouse" (though it is debatable, Sense and Sensibility and the Ice Storm were mainstream fare, and I do consider Ice Storm a masterpiece) director to attempt to make an "intelligent" Hong Kong film, which is virtually what this is.

Make no mistake, though he may hail from Taiwan, and has spent the majority of his life in the States, Lee wanted to make a Hong Kong period piece heroic "epic" which is what he has made, with varying degrees of success.

I mentioned the fact that other directors have tried making "intelligent" martial arts films. Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai (he of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together fame) would know what a dismal failure that is conceptually and in trying to realise it onscreen. It just doesn't work, mostly. It's like getting Arnie to play Iago in a new version of Othello, it's just fucking bonkers, it doesn't work, and audiences just laugh, but not in that "nice" way.

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