Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tai Chi Chuan (aka Secret of Tai Chi)

                                                  Director: Chick I Hung
                                   Starring: Xian Gao, Liang Guo, Hoi Yin Lee
One of my earliest exposures to Mainland China martial arts cinema, thanks to a timely vhs release by Ocean Shores.

An evil general orders an attack on a small clan that had been opposing him. The matriach is killed and only a few survive. These include an ex General and his two sons... who naturally swear revenge. Wrecklessly attacking the a portion of the General's army, the sons watch their father get mortally wounded, but are saved by a Shaolin monk. As he dies, the father explains to one of his sons that he was adopted and that his real father was also a General who was offed by the same baddie. They  swear double revenge, but now are wise enough to go into hiding. They retreat to a secret cave where they can plot and plan. One day while gathering food, the two heroes witness two woman "dancing". Attempting to get a closer look, they are found out. The ladies explain that they are practicing Tai Chi. Their father explains that he too is an ousted General (alot of that going around) and agrees to teach the two vistors this unusual martial art and help prepare to get revenge.

The story is simple and predictable, a little too much so for this fan. But this is how it was for these early Mainland China epics. There was really no originality to speak of. Any fan of the genre has seen this story dozens of times (if not more so) in various Hong Kong and Taiwan lensed features. What does set this (and other Mainland films) apart from it's city dwelling brethren are the breathtaking country side settings and amazing (and plentiful) martial arts sequences, performed by actual lifelong practitioners (as opposed to Hong Kong where many of it's biggest stars where taught expressly for feature films). Although it's flowery Tai Chi and Wushu movements may take a little getting used to at first, ultimately it makes for terrific viewing. Of course as I mentioned in my review of 'Undaunted Wudang', there is a tradeoff of sorts as the very things that make these fighters so impressive also make them less personable. What you'll come away with here is remembering the action scenery, but not so much any one actor (no Fu Sheng or Chen Kwan Tai to be found here) and certainly not the dime a dozen plot (which truth to tell, I needed to rewatch just to remember what the story here was actually about).

Ultimately, "Tai Chi Chuan' will appeal to hard core martial arts film fans and perhaps to actual Tai Chi practicioners as the film is as much a Tai Chi lesson as it is a story bound film. Casual action fans may not be as into it, but for kung fu addicts, it easily serves it's purpose.

                                                                   Rating: 5/10

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Empire on Fire

                                               Director:Maman Firmansyah
                             Starring: Mike Abbott, Atut Augustinato, Nina Anwar
When it comes to perverse action films, few countries can match Indonesia for sheer outrageousness. This entry, 'Empire on Fire' may not feature as much over the top action and gore as say the Jaka Sembung series, but it makes up for it (depending on your taste, that is) with an eyebrow raising display of sexual violence and general bad behavior.

Once again, The Dutch are the enemy as nasty invader, Bogart (Mike Abbott, who made a career out of playing American bad guys in many Hong Kong movies of the '80s including 'Fatal Termination', 'City Hunter' and 'A Better Tomorrow 2' as well as a fair share of Godfrey Ho cut and paste pics) invading the Indonesian countryside with (oddly) his army of local villains. As per the usual pillaging, they kill all the men and rape the women (as one particular shot so graphically demonstrates, showing one soldier leaving a burning hut while fixing his uniform. The following shot shows a woman stumbling from the hut bleeding down her legs!). It climaxes with the beheading of the local leader in front of his surviving people. After the siege, Bogart claims himself king of the land and sells off the survivors as human slaves (what a guy!). Fast forward a few years and the son and wife of the slain village leader break up one particular slave auction in order to rescue one named Mira. They believe that she is the one who can bring down the evil Bogart (exactly why she is the chosen one is not made clear, to me anyway). To 'train' her for this, she is put through all manner of sexual tortures in order to toughen her up so she can withstand Bogart's violent rape sessions. These include laying her on a red hot slab of rock and then pounding her vagina with a slab of wood until she looses feeling in it (I'm not kidding)! After more plot contrivances including another Dutch General whom Mira has had a previous encounter with and secretly wants to kill even more than Bogart, the nasty baddies all get their comeuppance in appropriately bloody and gory fashion.

As you may ascertain from the above plot rundown, 'Empire on Fire' is not a film that's recommended to children... or adults with scruples for that matter. It's depiction of rape (and the heroine's training to withstand it) is so outrageously matter of fact that my brain eventually became numb to it, much like Mira's vagina (yeah I went there... I don't care anymore). What makes the proceedings even odder is the way everything is portrayed. The action (which includes a fair amount of entertaining martial arts battles) are as gory as one may expect, yet the 'violent rape' sequences (there is no nudity in this film, btw) are portrayed as little more than flowery romantic encounters worthy of a love story!

Though the plot gets overly complicated in the second half with at least a couple of characters too many, 'Empire on Fire' still adds up to bizarre, action filled and head shakingly wrongminded entertainment. When it comes to culture shock for this New Jersey native, Indonesian exploitation films can 'shock' like few others can.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I Love Maria (aka Roboforce)

                                           Director: David Chung, Tsui Hark
        Starring: Sally Yeh, John Shum, Tsui Hark, Tony Leung Chui Wai, Lam Ching Ying

Producer/Director/Actor Tsui Hark at the peak of his creative output, tackles this oddly lighthearted variation of Paul Verhoven's much darker 'Robocop' with a nod to Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' (which also featured a robot duplicate of a female character named Maria).

The film follows the ironically named Hero Gang, a villianous organization that threatens to send it's giant transformer robot out to reek havoc on Hong Kong if the city doesn't fork over a ton of cash. With the police helpless, a trio of bumbling heroes go into action. They are an eccentric inventor (John Shum), a newspaper reporter (Tony Leung Chui Wai) and an ex-gang member determined to right his ex-mates wrongs (Tsui Hark). The Hero Gang in the meantime have created another decidedly different robot. This one is patterned after female gang member, Maria (Sally Yeh). This robot is sent after our goofy protags, but it malfunctions and is reprogrammed to go after it's creators instead.

'I Love Maria' is a film with a particularly troubled production history. How troubled? Well the film was originally to be produced by Tsui Hark and directed by David Chung. However at some point near the end of filmmaking, meddling Tsui took over director's reigns and reshot chunks of footage. Exactly how much is uncertain, but it must have been extensive as in the original cut, Tsui's character is not in it! That's right, a major character is wriiten into a film just as it was near completion, yikes! That this is scarcely noticeable in the final cut is admittedly a tribute to Tsui as a director, but it begs the question as to why this was done in the first place. Was the original film that bad or was this yet another case of Tsui the producer forcing his will on one his young director's works (a common theme for Tsui at this stage of his career which for better or worse, must have been utterly maddening for whichever director he placed his stamp on). The end result, is (as would be expected) a pretty uneven affair. The early portions of the film are dedicated to our mismatched heroes through a series of subdued 'Lucky Stars' like misadventures. As usual, I could have done without much of this, but at least the three leads are charismatic enough to make it watchable. Things pick up in the second half however and feature some impressive action setpieces and fun low tech special effects. There is also a good natured feel to the overall film (belying it's problematic production) and this helps make it very rewatchable.

Of the cast, the film belongs to Sally Yeh who turns in a incredible dual performace, possibly the best of her career. Utterly and wonderfully ruthless as the female gang member, she is completely charming and believable as the reprogrammed fembot. (and looking extremely chic as both). She also gets to briefly show off some great martial arts moves which made me realize that she could have had a successful career in the 'Girls With Guns' subgenre if she had chosen to go that route. It also makes me lamment further that her standout martial arts battle sequence in 'Peking Opera Blues' was mysteriously cut out (it can be glimpsed over the end credits).

Overall, 'I Love Maria' is far from perfect. As a comedic robot adventure, it isn't as much fun as 'Aces Go Places 2' and as a superhero adventure, it falls short of 'Super Inframan'. Still it is an enjoyable little sci fi action comedy, just one that feels like it could have been even more. I'll take it as is, though I'll admit that I'm very curious to see David Chung's original cut. But that's unlikely ever to surface.

                                                                      Rating: 6/10