“Hardcore fans display innocent mania, but aesthetes are the dandies of fandom. They relish not merely chases and fights; they treasure peculiar spectacle and piquant ruptures of tone. Steeped in Camp and other alternative pleasures, they often subscribe to J. Hoberman’s notion of “vulgar modernism,” the possibility that mass cinema’s off-center products parallel the avant-garde in the high arts. The good things in popular art, according to this postsurrealist view, are the moments of radical dépaysement, absurdly farfetched plot twists, violations of taste and logic. The fan’s spontaneous “Whoa, where did this come from?” becomes a self-conscious principle, a connoisseurship of radical weirdness.”
— David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong
An early supporting role for Sammo Hung as he and Angela Mao (the film’s alternate title is the somewhat awesome Lady Kung Fu) travel from Japanese-occupied Korea to China in 1934 to establish a martial arts school, teaching the newly invented style of “Hap Ki Do” which looks like a melding of kung fu punching and kicking with judo flipping. Of course, once in China, they immediately run afoul of the local Japanese-run martial arts school, leading to many bloody encounters with Japanese students and the Chinese and Korean turncoats who have joined the enemy. Eventually the metaphor becomes even more blatant as the evil Japanese Master (who sports a Hitler mustache, naturally) decides he’s going to annex the Hap Ki Do school and make it a part of his own school. Once they’re all under the Japanese umbrella, there would be no reason for fighting; they’ll be one happy family.
Sammo plays the youngest, most hotheaded Hap Ki Do brother, brave but always getting into trouble by defending the weak against the Japanese bullies. The one word their master gave them, the one warning, was “Forbearance”. Not to strike out against the enemy but to endure and outlast it. His students, but most especially Sammo, repeatedly fail to follow this advice (despite Sammo going so far as to write the character on his hand as a reminder), and the film, more than it is about the peculiarities of early 30s Japanese aggression, is about the conflict that lies at the heart of many a kung fu movie: that between the Confucian ideal of filial piety, respect for one’s elders and the Buddhist/Taoist ideal of withdrawal from the material concerns of the world on the one side and the demands of social and political justice on the other. This is often expressed in anti-colonial terms, whether against the Manchurians (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Fong Sai Yuk), Europeans (Once Upon a Time in China, Drunken Master II) or Japanese (Fist of Legend and this film).
Director Huang Feng keeps the plot moving briskly, if occasionally at the expense of cutting out some, probably tedious, connective scenes. He films the fights with an eclectic mix of POV shots, shaky handheld camera, overhead shots and standard Shaw Brothers-style head-to-toe framing, with fairly long takes that show off Mao’s impressive kicking abilities and the manic intricacies of the stunt choreography. I haven’t seen any of Huang’s other work, though he did co-write Sammo’s directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk. The only thing I’d seen Angela Mao in before this was Enter the Dragon (she has a brief but memorable appearance as Bruce Lee’s doomed sister). She’s terrific, easily holding her own against the ridiculously good stunt team Huang and the Golden Harvest studio had assembled: Sammo (who also served as stunt coordinator), Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, Billy Chan, Lam Ching-wing and Jackie Chan. Mao has a palpable look of desperation when she fights, rather than the placidity of a Gordon Liu or the cool intensity of Bruce Lee, she really looks like she’s scared but determined to keep fighting regardless. Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei-pei sometimes seem afraid to show too much emotion when they’re fighting, as if people will take them less seriously because they’re women. Mao apparently has no such qualms, and her emotionality adds depth to her action sequences. Sammo, on the other hand, plays his fights straighter than he would in his own later films, with less acrobatics (a casualty of the film’s chosen fighting style) and less humor. He does give a fantastic double take after being hit in the head with a metal pole, a brief blank look at the camera that doesn’t oversell the comedy (like he and Jackie Chan would become prone to do later on). As an actor, this might actually be one of his best performances.
The end of the film has a nifty twist on the compromised ending of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me. In that film, Cheng Pei-pei, who’d played the hero throughout, is unable to defeat the final villain and must be rescued by a man (this is reportedly not how Hu wanted things to end, but rather a Shaw Brothers imposition). In Hapkido, Mao brings in a ringer for her final fight, the male head student of the Korean school. Tall and powerful, we think he’ll be the one to defeat the Japanese Master, but he fails. In the end, the woman gets to come to his rescue.
I inadvertently became a source for the biggest story of the week, as my tweet about the imminent closing of Landmark’s Egyptian Theatre in Seattle was the first to break the news. It’s weird being cited as a source in a newspaper, even an online version of one, especially since I don’t really know anything about the story. I was at the Neptune Theatre when Landmark failed to keep it open, and left the Metro Cinemas (where I had spent 11 years, not counting my brief tenure at the Neptune) just months before Landmark lost it as well. When lamenting the state of the arts on Capital Hill, or speculating on what exciting things can be done with this new space, try to keep in mind the dozen or so people who genuinely love the movie theatre business who just lost their jobs with less than two weeks notice.
I was back on They Shot Pictures this week, with the first of two episodes we’ll be doing on Akira Kurosawa. This one focuses on No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard. I’ve got two more They Shot Pictures coming up this week, one on Sammo Hung and the other on Jane Campion. I may have some other podcasts in the works as well.
I only managed to finished one Summer of Sammo review this week, on his directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk. But I did post two more VIFF reviews, on Amour and Emperor Visits the Hell. That leaves only one more (on The Unlikely Girl) and I’ll be done with the film festival that ended nine months ago. Surely there’s plenty of time to finish that before VIFF 2013 comes around.
Here are the movies I watched and rewtached over the past week, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to comments at letterboxd, where applicable.
Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir) – 12, 1946
Ruby Gentry (King Vidor) – 9, 1952
Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping) – 6, 1978
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Yuen Woo-ping) – 10, 1978
Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung) – 15, 1978
We’re Going to Eat You (Tsui Hark) – 10, 1980
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark) – 6, 1983
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung) – 15, 1985
My Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung) – 19, 1985
Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung) – 22, 1988
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark) – 5, 1991
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark) – 19, 1992
Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-ping) – 15, 1994
The Mummy (Stephen Sommers) – 49, 1999
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) – 8, 2012
After a two month baby-related hiatus, I’m back on They Shot Pictures this week to talk about Akira Kurosawa. This is the first of two episodes we have planned for him, focusing this time on his non-samurai films: the more obscure, perhaps for good reason, No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard. I liked all of these movies, though each are flawed in different ways. Hopefully discussing those flaws brings us closer to an understanding of Kurosawa’s work and his somewhat lesser critical standing than his rough contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Nagisa Oshima and Kenji Mizoguchi, the Kinks to Kurosawa’s Beatles. We’ll be back again to talk about his samurai films in August.
You can listen to or download the show at the They Shot Pictures website, or on iTunes (where you can also give us a rating or a review). There you can find links to all our past shows. You can also follow us on twitter @TSP_Podcast. Over at letterboxd I’ve made a list of all 46 movies that have been discussed on the first 15 episodes. There you can also check out my ranked list of the 23 Kurosawa movies I’ve seen.
Coming up in the next week or so I’ll be talking Sammo Hung movies (Magnificent Butcher, Wheels on Meals, Pedicab Driver) with Jhon from Cinema on the Road and Seema and I will be talking Jane Campion movies (An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady, Top of the Lake) with Melissa from A Journal of Film. Check out our Upcoming Episodes page to see what we else have planned for the rest of the summer.