For the film fanatic, there was an evolution. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Hong Kong cinema came to a prominence because of the great works of filmmakers like John Woo and actors like Jackie Chan. This was the second boom of the industry after Bruce Lee invigorated youths in the 70’s, but died all too young. And from that there was also a loyal following for the Shaw Brothers from some, and an interest in Chan – among others – but you had to live near a Chinatown or have a kick ass video store to find this stuff. Not everyone was so lucky. The crossover appeal was there, but mostly for film nerds willing to watch some shitty ass copies of great films. As time progressed Asain cinema of all stripes made a huge dent in nerd culture, with Japan and Korea following, as filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Chan Wook-Park became well known. My reviews of Legend of Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, Hero and Zatoichi after the jump.
You have to start with The Legend of the Drunken Master chronologically in terms of crossover success. I saw this while in college at a theater running a bunch of Hong Kong films. Back then you had to go with a name player to take a risk, but Drunken Master II was a very easy sell. The 1994 film is very Hong Kong, and with the Blu-ray release, the film has been Americanized. The original ending had Chan still on the mend from getting drunk of gasoline, and so his absence from the final scene is unexplained.
The premise is that Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung is still a student (Chan was 40 at the time, but whatever) and works under his father at his school, but white people want his family’s land, and a sacred Chinese idol that Chan accidentally gets his hands on. His father doesn’t want him to get in fights, especially with the drunken master style, but his step-mother (Anita Mui, who was 31 at the time) thinks it will be good for the school. The white people are oppressing everyone, as it takes place near the turn of the century, so China has yet to declare its independence from England.
Wong Fei-Hung is a Robin Hood-type figure who’s been played for years in Hong Kong cinema, and played by the likes of Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Chan, and many others. Knowing this isn’t essential, but the character is a folk hero. What makes the film is that this is probably the pinnacle of Chan’s kung fu career. Using the drunken boxing, he gets the right mixture of strength, dexterity, and insanity in the impressive nature of the stunts and the right mixture of occasional silliness. His character is at his best whilst hammered, so this should come as no surprise. Even in this dubbed version, the film is unparalleled.
Miramax presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in English Dolby True HD 5.1. Dub city. There’s no Asian tracks on board (just Spanish and French), so for that you’re stuck. Extras are limited to an interview with Jackie Chan (7 min.) which is glowing. The film was released this way in America in 2000 at the tail end of Jackie Chan fever (well, to be fair it was a mild sweatiness), and so the picture is restored, and looks solid. There is that.
Iron Monkey, which was made in 1993, but released in America 2001 was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. So – though Donnie Yen had some recognition for his gifts – the selling point was that the film came from the film being directed by fight choreographer of The Matrix. Throw on Quentin Tarantino’s name, and you might make some money.
The Iron Monkey (Rongguang Yu) is a local doctor who acts like Robin Hood, and helps protect a young Wong Fei-Hung (here played by Sze-Man Tsang) from the local prefect. His father Wong Kei-Ying (Yen) is set about to find who the Iron Monkey is or he and his son will be in big trouble. Fights ensue.
Marginally shortened for the American release, this is a triumph of good action set pieces, and a breezy story line. This would be considered the informative adventures of a young Wong for HK audiences, but the pairing of the doctor and Kei-Ying makes for an agreeable adventure. This film also come with the original audio track with optional English subtitles, so it’s got that going for it as well. The original Chinese audio is 5.1, while the English track is 5.1 DTS-HD. That may make the choice a little harder for audiophiles. The picture quality is excellent, however, with the film presented in widescreen (1.78:1) in a very clean transfer. Extras include an interview with Quentin Tarantino (9 min.), where he talks about the film and Wong Fei-Hung, There’s also an interview with Donnie Yen (6 min.) that serves as an introduction to him.
For American audiences, Kung fu changed slightly with the introduction of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. By 2002, Zhang Yimou reinvented himself from being an arthouse director of great repute to someone who does colorful action spectacles (as with Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower) and Hero managed to work (though not as successfully) as a crossover hit and something of a serious film, though there are some questions to Yimou’s intentions, more on that later.
Jet Li stars as a nameless assassin who goes to meet the king of Qin (Daoming Chen) to receive his reward for getting rid of three assassins who plagued the King. The first was Sky (Donnie Yen), and the second two were Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). The former Li beats in a straight up sword vs. spear duel, the latter Li manages to break the two apart and then fights Snow in public. But everything is not what it seems when the king figures out that killing the assassins was Li’s way of getting close enough to kill the king.
There is no denying the film is beautiful, no denying that it’s inspired by Crouching Tiger, and there’s no way of denying that Yimou’s career sprang up again by accepting government monies. As such, there’s a slight jingoistic beat to the end of the film. Ironically, when the film first came over stateside in HK DVD’s (for region-free players) the translation of the scroll/grand message of the film was “All Under Heaven,” which suggested that perhaps if the king managed to united China that it didn’t matter, that vengeance and all that was just a fool’s errand. Instead the text now says “Our Land” which makes Li’s wavering in his desire to assassinate more an act of patriotism. But for me, for the nameless character to have the fate he has, it has to be an act of existentialism for it to be meaningful. He dies not because of his country, but because if we’re all under heaven, then revenge is simply an act of transference. This is the reading I got of the film that I am happiest with, and I dislike the interpretation that is now a part of the film, though when I watch it, I try and pretend it stills says All Under Heaven. But the color scheme is so pronounced, it’s hard not to love this movie, regardless of its political intentions.
Miramax presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Chinese 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English 5.1 DTS-HD. The film also comes in D-Box mode. So you can shake your ass whilst you watch it. The film also comes with a digital copy. Extras include “Close Up on a Fight Scene” (9 min.), which talks to Yen and Li about their fight scene, with comments from Tarantino. “Hero Defined” (24 min.) gets Zahng Yimou, along with the fight choreographer, and DP Christopher Doyle, and composer Tan Dun to talk about the film, along with some star interviews. There’s also four storyboard to film comparisons (5 min.). Tarantino talks to Jet Li for a nice interview piece (14 min.), and a soundtrack spot.
Takeshi Kitano is one of the superstars of Japanese cinema. He had Tarantino’s blessings with his 1994 film Sonatine, but Kitano has only made some small inroads. He had his greatest chance at crossover success with Zatoichi (aka the Blind Swordsman). Like Hong Kong and their kung fu films, the Samurai has also been a popular success with the same core audience. And you see a lot of crossover with both in Rap, especially with the Wu-Tang Clan, whose spin-off project liquid Swords quotes from Shogun Assassin.
Zatoichi is “Beat” Takeshi in audience-pleasing mode, and so he makes a blood-stained but hilarious movie about swordplay. Where his gangster films had a fatalistic edge, here Kitano takes the outline of the original Zatoichi film, and grafts some absurdities and some digital advantages on to it. Kitano’s sense of violence hasn’t changed, everything happens in abrupt almost comic actions, but here it’s more fun.
The film is also laden with bizarre Kitano touches, like the town idiot who dresses up like a samurai and runs around houses all day, and a main character who happens to be a transvestite. The film also ends with a musical number. But this is just a fun swordplay movie with none of the great mediation on violence of his earlier efforts, but you can tell the master has decided to have fun, and it shows. The worst element is the CGI blood which looks silly, but you settle into it.
Miramax presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in both English 5.1 DTS-HD and in Japanese 5.1 Dolby digital with optional English subtitles. The transfer? Excellent. Extras include a behind the scenes piece (40 min.) with interviews with the stars and a sit down with Kitano. Also included are interview with the DP Katsumi Yanagishima (4 min.), production designer Norihiro Isoda (6 min.), costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa (7 min.), and master swordsman Tatsumi Nikamoto (4 min.).