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As promised Poongsan Dog (2011).

The movie starts at present day Korean peninsula, the man simply known as “Poongsan” – from the brand of North Korean cigarettes he smokes – makes regular trips across the DMZ to smuggle everything from people to antiques. No one knows whether he is from the North or the South, though from his commando-like abilities he is obviously highly trained. He makes contact with clients via a makeshift memorial bulletin board for divided families along the DMZ. On one mission he smuggles an antique, as well as a young boy, from North to South but when they are caught by the police, the South’s National Intelligence Service becomes aware of Poongsan’s existence. They contract him to bring a young woman, In-ok (Kim Gyu-ri), from Pyongyang to her lover (Kim Jong-su), a high-ranking North Korean official who recently defected and is still guarded by NIS agents. The arrogant official, who is paranoid about being assassinated (and rightfully so because he is), has been holding out on writing a report for the NIS until In-ok joins him. On the journey across the DMZ, In-ok accidentally sets off a mine that almost kills her and Poongsan, and she also has to be revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when she almost drowns.

The mission is successful but In-ok has become attached to Poongsan who saved her life. Suspicious that the two made love during the crossing, the arrogant abuses In-ok after they are reunited and she expresses a desire to return to the North. Meanwhile, Poongsan is tortured by an NIS team leader (Choi Mu-seong) to find out whether he is a North Korean agent, but is rescued by the team leader’s boss (Han Gi-jung). Poongsan is forced to rescue NIS agent Kim Yong-nam, who’s been caught in the North and is under harsh interrogation; in gratitude, and appalled by his own agency’s methods, Kim later helps Poongsan escape from the NIS’ control. But then Poongsan and In-ok are captured by North Korean agents in the South.  In-ok is killed breaking Poongsan’s heart, however, he keeps working and in the last scene his luck runs out as he is shot by a North Korean while pole vaulting over a battier.

One interesting thing about this film is that Poongsan is apparently mute not saying a word throughout the whole two hour film therefore using either the words of others around Poongsan or what you imagine he would say or is thinking when he is alone to know what is going on.  An interesting device/technique to be sure.  The love story between a naturally mute protagonist (what else!?), about who we don’t get to know anything, and a North Korean woman who is abused by her husband, who actually loves her.

The protagonist, about whose motives we don’t get to know anything in the course of the movie either, still remains somewhat interesting. He is a border runner who doesn’t belong on either on this side nor on the other. He is homeless and yet has his home in both Koreas and therefore is most likely also a symbolization of the inner conflict of a divided Korea. He is a wanderer between the two worlds, it seems, and because of this he also has some superhuman powers.

It is fascinating to see Poongsan succeed in doing with the greatest of ease what so many of the best elite soldiers aren’t able to do: to take a walk through the demilitarized zone. No one stands a chance against this man, until the script demands that Poongsan is overpowered.  In such a case it suddenly becomes pretty easy to deal with him.

Poongsan is very good film it has an original, good story and uses unconventional devices.  What was the last American film you remember where the lead character doesn’t say a word throughout the entire film?  Poonsang was a box office smash in Asia—as it should be.  If we had films like this in American theaters I just might go back.  Alas we don’t.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again a little Woo goes a long way: The Killer (1989).

The Killer is a 1989 Hong Kong crime film written and directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee and Sally Yeh.  Chow is triad assassin Ah Jong, who accidentally damages the eyes of the Jennie (Sally Yeh) with his gun’s muzzle flash during one of his hits.  He later discovers that if Jennie does not have an expensive operation she will go blind.  To get the money for Jennie, Ah Jong decides to perform one last hit—and it will indeed be his last.

A police detective, Li Ying (Danny Lee), spots the assassin completing the job but he escapes.  Triad leader Hay Wong Hoi double crosses Ah Jong, and instead of paying him, sends a group of hitmen to kill him.  During Ah Jong’s escape from the Triad, a young child is injured by a stray bullet.  After dispatching the attackers, Ah Jong rushes the child to the hospital while being followed by Li and his partner Sgt. Tsang.  Once the child regains consciousness at the casualty ward, Ah Jong escapes Li and Tsang who becomes obsessed with Fat’s act of goodwill.

The detectives stakeout Jennie at her apartment and plan to arrest him the next time he visits her.  Ah Jong visits Jennie and is caught in an ambush from which he manages to scramble away.  Li and Tsang explain to Jennie that Ah Jong was the assassin who blinded her at the nightclub. Ah Jong meets with his Triad manager, Fung Sei (Chu Kong), and demands his payment for finishing the job.  Fung Sei brings a suitcase for Ah Jong, who discovers it to be filled with sheets of blank paper before finding himself in the middle of a Triad ambush.  He dispatches all of the Triads, but leaves his old friend Fung Sei alive.  The next day, after Fung Sei’s pleas for Wong Hoi fall on deaf ears, Ah Jong does a fantastic hit-and-run on Wong Hoi’s car, wounding the Triad leader and killing his driver and bodyguard.

Li begins to close-in on Ah Jong after Tsang follows Fung Sei; Tsang is killed after revealing the location of his home.  Because of their friendship, Fung Sei leaves a large stockpile of weaponry for Ah Jong.  The home is another ambush; Li is first to attack followed by a group of Triad hitmen. Li gets caught in the middle of the crossfire between Ah Jong and the Triad.  Ah Jong and Li flee, and while Ah Jong’s wounds are mended, they find themselves bonding and becoming friends– it seems strangers can make good bedfellows.  Ah Jong tells Li that should anything happen to him, Li should try to have Ah Jong’s eyes donated for Jennie’s surgery; otherwise, he is to use Ah Jong’s money to fly her overseas to have her surgery performed by more experienced doctors.

Li, Ah Jong, and Jennie wait in a church for Fung Sei to return with Ah Jong’s money.  Fung Sei arrives with the money, horribly beaten by Wong Hoi’s gangsters who have followed him.  He is mortally wounded when the hitmen barge into the church.  After Ah Jong ends Fung Sei’s misery, he and Li engage in a long and bloody shootout with the Triad all over the church. The battle ends with a Mexican standoff between Ah Jong, Li and Wong Hoi.  Ah Jong manages to wound Wong Hoi, but the Triad leader lands two bullets in Ah Jong’s eyes before the latter dies of his wounds.  When a police squadron arrives in the scene, Wong Hoi begs to be taken into custody.  Frustrated by the outcome of the battle, Li fatally shoots Wong Hoi before he himself is arrested.

The Killer is an important and influential film for both Western and Asian filmmakers.  Film scholars have noted the similarities between Woo’s style and The Killer with the films La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994) directed by French director Luc Besson.  Kenneth E. Hall described Léon as having the similar character configuration of a hitman and the person he protects. In Nikita, the main character’s crisis of conscience after performing a number of hits is also seen in The Killer.  And, not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino developed films that were influenced by The Killer.  In the film Jackie Brown, Tarantino wrote dialog referencing The Killer.  No references to the film are made in the original novel.

The Killer was also influential in hip hop music.  American hip hop artist, and Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon released his critically praised debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. (1995) that sampled numerous portions of dialog from the film.  RZA, the producer of the album described the albums themes by stating that “Rae and Ghost was two opposite guys as far as neighborhoods were concerned, I used John Woo’s The Killer.  You got Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee.  They have to become partners to work shit out.”  Woo apparently felt honored that the group sampled The Killer and asked for no monetary return from them.

Director John Woo has described The Killer as being about “honor and friendship,” “trying to find out if there is something common between two people” and as a “romantic poem.”  The structure of the film follows two men on the opposite side of the law who find a relation to each other in their opposition of a greater evil, Wong Hoi, the leader of the Triad.  The relationship between the two main characters was influenced by the Spy vs. Spy comics from Alfred E Newman’s Mad Magazine.  It is reported that Woo recalled “when I was young I was fascinated with the cartoon–I love it very much…the white bird and the black bird are always against each other, but deep in their heart, they are still friendly, and the idea came from that.”

Though the film received praise and box office success outside of Hong Kong, The Killer’s success around the world made several Hong Kong filmmakers jealous: “It created a certain kind of resentment in the Hong Kong film industry.  One thing I can say for sure is, the American, European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audiences and critics appreciated The Killer a lot more than it was in Hong Kong.”

Naturally because of Hollywood’s lack of imagination, an American remake of the killer is in the works.  Director John H Lee will be remaking the film which is supposed to take place in Chinatown, Korea town and south-central Los Angeles.  Luckily, the remake will be produced by John Woo and is set to be filmed in 3-D.  Let’s be honest, a remake of John Woo’s The Killer was inevitable.  While this flick may not be as well-loved as Woo’s Hard Boiled it’s still a master class in acting, heroic bloodshed and ultra-violent gunplay.  Unfortunately, US audiences largely refuse to see films created in other countries probably because they can’t read subtitles not to mention anything starring a non-white actor, or, failing that, Will Smith, so it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to decide that the film ought to be recreated with a white lead and an American setting.

My guess is the remake will be a piece of film junk that only insults the original masterpiece created by Woo in the late 1980’s.  With any luck, however, it may be as good as the remake of Death of Samurai released last year.  But I’m not betting on it.

What can you say about this movie?  It was powerful, influential and ahead of its time much like many of John Woo’s films.  One of JPFMovies trademark sayings is “a little Woo goes a long way.”  Now imagine what a lot of Woo does and you’ve got The Killer.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Detective Dee—The latest “wuxia” movie recommended by our woman from the land down under.

Detective Dee—The latest “wuxia” movie recommended by our woman from the land down under.  With guest co-author Bonnie (who has not actually seen the movie but still feels free to offer an opinion and research and who may have imbibed some sense of Detective Dee via osmosis when her parents were reading the Judge Dee mysteries based on this character many years ago).

I am sitting in the Houston airport for the next 9 hours waiting for my plane to  . . . well you’ll read about that later.  Anyways, I asked Dangerous what she thought the next movie we may want to take a look at should be and she said take a look at Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010).  So I did.

Detective Dee is played by Asian movie and pop legend Andy Lau (Battle of Wits—Mozy Warriors and many others) and is a good “popcorn” movie.  Detective Dee is the latest “wuxia” movie directed by Tsui Hark—a pioneer of the wuxia genre.  Wuxia films are particular to China; they blend martial arts with chivalry and tend to have a protagonist who is similar to, but not quite the same as, a Western knight-errant.

Not only does this movie have Andy Lau in it (which always makes it a must-see in my book), but it is directed by the formidable Tsui Hark (who will, incidentally, be helping to judge the feature films category at the Cannes Film Festival this year). Hark also directed Once Upon a Time in China (for a link to our friend Silver’s masterful review of that flick, click here). Standing at 5’9” (it’s amazing what you can find out on IMDB), he is considered a master of the kung fu action genre and, from what I saw (and what Bonnie didn’t see) here, I have to say that he is a master of the wuxia subgenre as well.

The story is about a woman who is about to become emperor and unite China.  Naturally she is getting many people in the kingdom all pissed off because a woman is about to ascend to the throne.  In honor of her coronation a 1,000 foot Buddha is being constructed overlooking the palace.  Officials working on the statue are starting to self-immolate; that is, bursting in to flames from the inside out. (I hate it when that happens!) With the coronation not far off the soon to be empress needs these crimes solved to avoid any taint on her ascension to the throne.

She calls in Detective Dee, the Sherlock Holmes of China.  Dee also happened to be one of the leaders of a revolt against her when he emperor-husband died under mysterious circumstances.  I guess when you need the best you need the best.

Detective Dee starts his investigation which begins to reveal an ugly trail of deceit and murder perpetrated by the Empress to seize power. Her motto is “everyone is expendable in the pursuit of power.” As Dee gets closer and closer to finding the truth, the stakes get higher and higher for his life. However, it is Dee’s old assistant, who was tortured by the Empress to the tune of having one of his hands cut off, who is responsible for the Phantom Flame deaths. His axe to grind is simple: revenge. He was tortured for years and as we know, payback’s a bitch. His plan is to have the Buddha crash down on the coronation ceremony, killing everyone in the palace. Dee figures this out and puts a stop to the madness.

This movie is interesting because the viewer does not have a clear “hero riding on a white horse” to sympathize with. The Empress and the assistant are each quite a piece of work; the Empress has got a trail of dead bodies as long as the Boston Marathon, while the assistant has been putting beetles into people to cause them to self-immolate (they weren’t really immolating themselves out of anguish over watching a woman ascend to the throne, as it turns out).

Any of you who know anything about me know I am a big Asian movie fan.  So it’s good to see another big budget, big screen Asian movie hit the theaters, though it probably will not get any decent play in the states a la Red Cliff (bastardizing the movie by leaving two hours of film on the cutting room floor).

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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Tai Chi Master [太極張三豐] (1993) By Silver

Tai Chi Master [太極張三豐] (1993)

Starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Siu Ho, Fennie Yuen, Yuen Cheung Yan, Lau Shun, Yu Hai, Sun Jian Kui

Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Expectations: High. Haven’t seen this one in years and remember really liking it.

2 1/2

Wow. I was not prepared for the visual assault provided by Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi Master. I had seen this a couple of times as a teenager, but it’s been so many years and for whatever reason, my mind was a near-empty slate in regards to this film. That being the case there wasn’t as much nostalgia as I had expected, as I remembered only very random things sprinkled throughout the film, making it almost like watching a brand new movie. In any case, Tai Chi Master is a highly entertaining kung-fu fantasy flick with a ridiculous amount of excellent wire-assisted fights.

Your enjoyment of wire-fu is essential to liking Tai Chi Master. Back in the day, I always greatly preferred your standard hand-to-hand fight to an overblown, high-flying one. These days I have softened quite a bit on that and I’ve come to fully appreciate what wirework can bring to a kung-fu film. My recent viewing of the Shaw Brothers classic Shaolin Intruders fully solidified me as a wire fan and Tai Chi Master is another great example of wirework done extremely well.

The film opens with the meeting of Tian Bao (Chin Siu Ho) and Jun Bao (Jet Li). Jun Bao is introduced as the senior student but due to his smaller size, Tian Bao bullies him into calling him senior. The two become friends and do everything together, sharing in chores, punishment and training. Tian Bao’s violent lust for power informs his every action, while Jun Bao’s focus is more on helping others and trying to be good. They are opposites but inseparable, a human yin-yang. As they age and become more rebellious, Tian Bao constantly tries to pull one over on the masters, but one day it all backfires and the two friends are thrown out of the temple.

This relationship is the heart of the film and its story. I’m not going to lie and tell you the emotional depth is anywhere on par with superior Hong Kong films like Once Upon a Time in China, Ip Man or even The Killer. The story may revolves around this brotherly relationship, but it’s all fairly superficial and not a whole lot more than excuses to have crazy fights. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the story and it works well within the context of the film, but it is more akin to your standard blockbuster style of writing that has a tendency to be a bit shallow. But the great thing about Tai Chi Master is that it knows this about itself and never tries to fool you into thinking it is more than it is. In true blockbuster form, the incredible action and sheer number of insane fights coming at you should be enough to keep you entertained. In fact, there were so many fights that I found myself as fatigued as the combatants on screen towards the end of the picture. Tai Chi Master is really a film that demands multiple viewings in order to properly take it all in, as a single run through will leave you spinning like the Tasmanian Devil.

For those not following my website and my occasional Hong Kong film reviews contained there, I have recently restarted my Hong Kong film obsession. Fans of such films are familiar with certain conventions used throughout the industry that just aren’t prevalent in Western cinema. Of course there’s the realistic stunts, the well-shot fight sequences, the oddly placed humor. Tai Chi Master has all of those in spades, but they aren’t what I speak of. The thing that I hadn’t run into in this new phase of my Hong Kong obsession was one that I knew would be inevitable. The eunuchs. Tai Chi Master marks the return of the eunuch to my film vocabulary and what a welcome return it is. The eunuch in this film, played by Sun Jian Kui, is absolutely fantastic and such fun to watch. Towards the end of the film, he has a rather gnarly swordfight with one of the heroes that is easily one of my favorite scenes in the film. Yeah! Eunuchs! I didn’t realize how much I had missed them. My teenage brain was unable to fully comprehend why a castrated man gained supernatural powers, but I accepted it. These days, I welcome it with open arms.

Tai Chi Master is a lot more comic than I remember it being, so initially it was sort of off-putting, but after I got into the groove I really enjoyed myself. Jet Li is great in his role as Jun Bao, and gets to show off his wonderful martial skill at the absolute highlight of his Hong Kong career. The scenes when he loses his grasp on reality and talks with the ducks are funny and completely different than any other role Jet has ever played. If that’s not enough to sell you on the film, Michelle Yeoh busts in with a fiery performance and proves why she is one of the top female martial artists of the silver screen. Director Yuen Woo Ping does a good job with the camera, complimenting his inspired fight choreography well. My favorite moment of choreography in the film is by far the fight between Tian Bao and Jun Bao on the log structure. I greatly enjoy fights where the stakes are constantly ratcheted up and the fighters must compensate, and this fight completely fits that bill.

I do wish that there was more actual Tai Chi in the film called Tai Chi Master. One of the few things I did remember was when Jet circled the water with his hands and noticed how it deflected the hard ball by being fluid and using the ball’s energy. These moments of martial creation are fantastic, and while I realize they happen when they do for a reason, somehow I think I would be more satisfied if they happened earlier and we got to see more on screen Tai Chi. Oh well, a minor complaint for an otherwise pleasing film. Highly recommended to wire-fu fans, as well as Jet Li fans. I wouldn’t start here if you’ve never seen a Hong Kong film though, as I think this one might be a bit too weird to win a new fan over.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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Final Look At the B-Movies: Four Brothers.

This film only has a handful of main problems, which I shall outline below:

1) Terrible storyline 2) Terrible script 3) Terrible acting.   But that is why it is a B Movie I suppose.

Often a bad movie gets a bad rap after time passes.  However, too often this is not the case with some bad action movies, especially the movies that contain some decent action but besides that are completely worthless. This is the case with Four Brothers, the storyline is thin, and the acting is poor. Frankly, if I didn’t have guest over that wanted us to review it I would not have watched the who thing.

The clichés are all over the place in this plot. The two-bit hustler turned crime boss, the dirty city councilman who appears to be trying to clean up the neighborhood while he’s secretly in cahoots with said crime boss, the dirty cop killing his partner, the one good cop who really seems to care, the plot twist that leads them to wrongly suspect one of the “brothers,” the weakest brother dying because he was a little too brash, the boxing match to settle all scores ad nauseum.

The acting in this movie is just plain terrible. The best example is the Bobby Mercer line, as their running from the bodega to look for the guy with an afro who says something to the effect of, “that wasn’t a holdup, it was a contract killing. Let’s go!” They all take off at a brisk jog.  Clearly the writer/director/producer believes that a lot of stupid people are going to watch this film so they need the characters to spell out the plot “twists.” But why are they running? And why does Mark Wahlberg have to deliver each line like he’s reading a comic book? Honestly, that line should have been followed by the horn section doing the original Batman theme.  Moreover, given the different accents the characters all have, if this movie was to be in Detroit, the least they could have lead us to believe that the characters might actually be from Detroit.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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Our Winner Silver E Picks: Tai Chi Master a/k/a Twin Warriors!

The winner of the first of two JPFmovies give away contests picked Jet Li’s 1993 classic: Tai Chi Master a/k/a Twin Warriors.  Good choice Silver E–there are those who say Twin Warriors is without a doubt Jet’s Li’s finest Shaolin movie and I don’t necessarily disagree with them.  Li does some of his finest martial arts sequences in this flick and manages to make them look effortless.  Twin Warriors also turns what could be a depressing film about two friends who take opposite paths and lightens it up with a segment where Li goes crazy and partakes in some hilarious shenanigans.  First he believes he is a duck and hides underwater in a fountain.  Then he believes a pillar that holds up a building is his long-lost Shaolin master. He even get mad when at a weeble-wobble `Mr. Tao’ doll when it will not answer his questions.

But I shall say no more since Silver has tentatively agreed to review the movie for us after he gets a chance to watch his new DVD.  I know we are all looking forward to it.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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