Sunday, July 20, 2014


Last weekend was a martial art mini-marathon. I started with 47 Ronin (2013), kind of an oddball. It's Hollywood samurai film with a great Japanese cast, and Keanu Reeves. It's a classic Japanese tale, and a Hong Kong style action fantasy. It was also a big commercial flop.

It's easy to understand. The idea was probably to apply the new wild action style to the cooler, formalistic Japanese cinema. Chushingura, the story of the 47 loyal masterless supporters, has been filmed many times in Japan (not to mention Kabuki and puppet plays), often in a cold, cerebral, interiorized style, like Mizoguchi's 1941 version. This time, they added an evil fox spirit, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Brother's Bloom, yay!), which isn't a problem - Mizuguchi's most famous film, Ugetsu, is a stone ghost story. It also adds half-Euro Keanu Reeves, who actually does pretty well - repressing all visible emotion like a good retainer. I think the director wanted to go this way, and it shows in some of the court scenes: beautiful costumes, geometric blocking, stately movement.

But then we get these fast-cutting CGI fight scenes. These are also fine - not great, but plenty of fun. They aren't really awkwardly inserted (although I guess the producers did jam them in against the director's wishes) - really they make the more stylized portions awkward.

Still, I rather liked this. It didn't hold up as well as, for example, The Sorcerer and the White Snake, which also made a classic tale in to an action film. But I didn't have a problem with it.

Now, it was nowhere as good as classic Shaw Bros. For example, Legendary Weapons of China (1982). It features an evil cult who are trying to train their warriors to become bulletproof so they can fight the English. You know they are evil because training involves forcing students to gouge their own eyes out and tear off their own dangly bits. And shooting them to see if it worked. One master resigns in disgust, and the cult sends out assassins to take him out. But there are several imposters running around, including a bunch of mountebanks who pretend to have skills. So they go around faking fighting while the masters are faking really fighting (you know because it's a movie). So, a little comedy, eighteen legendary weapons (if you count "bare hands"), cool fights, everything you could want.

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978) is just as good. In this case, our evil cult isn't really evil or a cult - a kung fu master teaches styles based on poisonous creatures. He sends his last student to look up five previous students to make sure they aren't doing evil, like you might expect they would be. Like Legendary Weapons, the identity of the fighters is obscure until you see their patented style. There's some comedy but not as much as Weapons. But is Frog really a venous creature?

In conclusion, Hi-Keeba!

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