Monday, June 21, 2010

Culture Kills Reviews: Kung Fu Movies

After playing God Hand, I got really nostalgic for the kind of movies I used to watch as a kid, so I went a little nuts at a video store (as an earlier post indicated) and bought some quality kung fu movies.

Now, my definition of what is and is not a good kung fu movie is likely as nebulous as Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography. Basically, I know it when I see it. I've seen some really bad ones over the years, but I got lucky and got a bunch that all fit together nicely.

These reviews are also listed in the order I watched them, and the order I watched them in seemed to increase my enjoyment of each individual movie.

King Boxer: Originally released as The Five Fingers of Death, this was one of the first kung fu movies to be given a decent sized release in North America, and it beat Enter the Dragon to the theatres by a few months. It tells the story of a promising kung fu student named Chi-Hao (Lo Lieh), who must win tournament for the glory of his school and to win the hand of the woman he loves. From the trailer, you can see where Quentin Tarantino got the idea for putting the theme from Ironside in Kill Bill in the same kind of context. It was also one of the first films to use powder/fuller's earth to show the impact of hits, a technique that really caught on with other filmmakers. What I liked about this movie, aside from some of the excellent fight scenes, was the number of identifiable characters who were in play, and the story went in directions I really wasn't expecting based on genre conventions.

Kung Fu Hustle: Taking place in 1930's Shanghai, the film follows the battle between the Axe Gang and the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a semi-slum owned by an loud demanding woman and her lecherous husband in a world where it seems that nearly everyone knows kung fu. In the middle of this situation is Sing (Stephen Chow), a good hearted man who wants to join the Axe Gang to forget the humiliations of the past and repress that side of himself. This is a movie which is very much a comedy, and the kung fu is heavily augmented with CGI often for comic effect. It is a movie that owes as much to Warner Brothers cartoons as the work of the Shaw Brothers. It was a very funny and entertaining, but as I was in the mood for hardcore kung fu action, so it may not have been the right time to watch this movie for that. For the humor, it was pure class though.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: One of the essential "training" movies in the genre, Gordon Liu stars as San Te, a student whose friends, family and teacher are all killed by the Manchus and he plots his revenge by becoming a master of Shaolin kung fu. But to do so, he must conquer the 35 grueling training chambers. And for a movie whose entire second act is entirely training, it is really kickass. I highly enjoyed this, and this was exactly the kind of movie I was looking for in terms of action. When San Te succeeded at passing a challenge, I was super pumped for him, and the inevitable retribution to those that did him wrong in the first reel was satisfying. Gordon Liu shaved his head for the starring role in this movie, and he kept the look throughout the rest of his career. Fun Fact: Both Gordon Liu and Lo Lieh went on to play the infamous Pai Mei (the man who destroyed the Shaolin temple).

Fist of Legend: This is basically a remake of the 1972 Bruce Lee film, Fist of Fury starring Jet Li in the same role. And it was awesome. This film takes place in Japanese-occupied Shanghai and concerns the events following the suspicious death of a Chinese kung fu master and the return of one of his top students, Chen Zhen (Jet Li), from his studies in Japan. What follows is the application of so much foot to ass that the whole thing is an artful example of brutal, elegant beauty. Great pacing, exceptional fight choreography (there were fights that I watched mouth agape) and a story I cared about... that is a triple threat really. This is going to be a hard movie to follow, as I was thoroughly impressed on every level.

I would highly recommend all four of these movies, but if I had to recommend just one, it would be Fist of Legend.


Dan said...

I love Kung Fu Hustle. There was a soccer one too by the same guy which was even better.

MC said...

Watch this and tell me why I compared God Hand to Kung Fu Hustle ;)

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is brilliant. I watched it at the drive-in with 'The Road Warrior' as a kid.

And Kung Fu Hustle is brilliant. That old lady was very funny.

MC said...

See, I wish I would have seen some of these movies at a theatre with a crowd that was totally into them. They seem like very communal experiences.