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Can flowers be cursed? You bet just watch Curse of the Golden Flower Starring Chow Yun Fat (2006).

China, Later Tang Dynasty, 10th Century.

On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns unexpectedly with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). His pretext is to celebrate the holiday with his family, but given the chilled relations between the Emperor and the ailing Empress (Gong Li), this seems disingenuous.

For many years, the Empress and Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), her stepson, have had an illicit liaison. Feeling trapped, Prince Wan dreams of escaping the palace with his secret love Chan (Li Man), the Imperial Doctor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Prince Jai, the faithful son, grows worried over the Empress’s health and her obsession with golden chrysanthemums. What we come to find out is that she has 10,000 eunuchs working day and night making these ornaments.  The flowers are markers for rebelling soldiers to distinguish them from the normal imperial army i.e. the queen is planning a bloody coup.  Not to be outdone, the Emperor harbors equally nefarious plans; the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) is the only one privy to his machinations. When the Emperor senses a looming threat, he relocates the doctor’s family from the Palace to a remote area. While they are en route, mysterious assassins attack them. Chan and her mother, Jiang Shi (Chen Jin) are forced back to the palace.

Amid the glamour and grandeur of the chrysanthemum festival, ugly, incestuous secrets are revealed. As the Imperial Family continues its elaborate charade in a palatial setting, thousands of golden armored warriors charge the palace.  They don’t long as the emperor has already figured out the queen’s plans and has his own imperial army waiting for the rebels.  The queen and her stepson’s army is routed by the emperor’s forces.  Indeed the emperor has constructed a huge moving wall that literally crushes the rebelling soldiers.  This turns literally into a blood bath as all of the rebelling soldiers are slaughtered the only one taken alive is the prince who is dealt with by the emperor himself.

In one of the last scenes, thousands of eunuchs move to the courtyard where the rebels were slaughtered and within minutes clean up the blood and replace it with rows and rows of potted chrysanthemums making it look as if nothing had happened.

This is one hell of a film.  Chow Yun Fat does an outstanding job as the brutal emperor playing his role to a perfect T.  The costumes and set are also out of this world.  Watching the film you get a peek into the opulence of the Forbidden City and you can almost feel the silk robes through the screen.

The film had a 45 million dollar budget all of which was well spent.  However this movie is not for the faint of heart.  There is some pretty graphic violence and topics like incest arise during the course of the film.  It is also not a short movie but worth watching if you have a couple of hours.  You will never look at chrysanthemums the same way again after viewing Curse of the Golden Flower.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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For a “Silent War” there is sure a lot of noise. The Silent War (2012).

The Silent War is adapted from the novel Listener to the Wind, the first installment of the three-part espionage series “Plot Against” by Mai Jia, a sort of mainland John le Carre. Mak and the film’s screenplay significantly simplifies the plot.  The story is set in Shanghai, 1949, with the Japanese defeated; China’s own civil war is ramping up.  The Chinese Communist Party is gaining ground in the rural parts of the country, but the Kuomintang (the government advocated by Chiang Kai-shek, and Sun Yet –sen), stills infests the urban areas.  Chinese Communist Party Intelligence knows that the key to taking down the Kuomintang is in tapping into their communication channels, but so far they have been unsuccessful.  Secret Agent Zhang Xue Ning a/k/a “200” (Zhou Xun) is assigned to retrieve a distinguished piano tuner to apply his hearing to various inaudible radio frequencies, but the crafty Agent Zhang quickly discovers that the blind assistant, He Bing, (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), like Zatoichi, has greatly enhanced hearing as many blind people do because of their lack of sight.  Bing is brought into the invisible 701 Unit and proves an unqualified success, sniffing out radio signals no one else can.

 

The female secret agent Zhou Xun, is, in my opinion, the best character in the movie.  Sure we’ve all hear that blind people have their other senses heightened as a result of their inability to see—that is an old tale (i.e. Zatoichi, the comic book character Dare Devil et cetera).  However, it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such a smooth female secret agent that doesn’t seem forced—as so often films tend to do when working with such a character.  As a result, the film’s heroics fall to Zhou Xun, who does a wonderful job in a role that should be the main focus of this film.  Part of her charisma is that she proudly puts herself into harm’s way for love of the Communist Party and on more than one occasion Bing.  Zhou is easily the best thing in the film, and impressed me whether she was turning heads at a glamorous Shanghai function or engaging in high-stakes mind games with the enemy during a round of mah jong.  It is a shame that the film isn’t more focused on her exploits as Xue Ning makes a far more interesting subject than the blind cliché He Bing.

Writers/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong must fancy movies about hearing (in one form of another) having made Overheard and then Overheard 2—note these are also the chaps that created the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy.  As some people say, two steps forward and one step back. The Silent War is that one step back for these two.  What kills you are the long, indolent scenes fixated on radio telegraphy; although Morse code is vital to the story, its technical workings are not explained in a stimulating manner.  The suspenseful action typical of this genre is reduced to one well-staged escape sequence in a concert hall and a finale that is a letdown.

 

One area of the film that I particularly enjoyed, though, was the authentic art deco interiors, elaborated by elegant set decorations that are visually striking.  The elaborate upscale party scenes are filled with rich vibrant colors and embody the tone of the art-deco renaissance of the 1950’s.  Even the film’s cars are cool and classic looking, like they were plucked out of a museum.

If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, don’t be afraid to watch The Silent War, but don’t expect Overheard, Overheard 2 or anything on the level of the Infernal Affairs trilogy.  The film’s well-acted female secret agent and great sets are reason enough to watch The Silent War, but that is about it.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Power of Basics: Bonnie Reviews Shaolin Monks in The Wheel of Life

Even though at one point I walked out of this movie, it still deserves a rose. How many movies can you say THAT about?

The plot of The Wheel of Life is simple. The Shaolin monks are invited to demonstrate their amazingly beautiful art for the Emperor. He then invites them to help defend the country as it is invaded. They oblige, but when the Emperor asks them to stay on after the war is over, they refuse, insisting that they must get back to training at the monastery. Vindictively, the Emperor arranges to smuggle a gas-filled statue into the temple, the gas knocks out the monks, and the Emperor sneaks in and murders all but five of them, and their teacher, as they sleep. But the five young monks who survive continue to train with their teacher, develop strong spirits, and continue the work of the temple.

JPFMovies doesn’t usually structure his reviews in the format of an old-fashioned theme. In fact my usage of the word “theme” in the last sentence is so archaic that I wonder how many of you out there even know what I am talking about. It’s what the generation born around the turn of the century – the turn of the 20th century, I mean – called essays that they wrote for school. To use the term “theme” this way makes me feel like I am about 90! However, this movie calls for a theme. Those old-fashioned themes took their nomenclature from the fact that they were structured around a theme. It was what we might nowadays classify as modern, pre-deconstructionist literary analysis. It was even pre-structuralist in some ways. An old-fashioned theme essay, though, is what The Wheel of Life calls out for in spades (well, not in spades – in swords? In staffs? In nuchakus?).

This movie, in fact, has a theme, and it’s pounded into us from start to finish. Most moviegoers, though, will miss that theme – they can’t help it because the martial art presented in The Wheel of Life is so jaw-droppingly awesome. The theme is an old-fashioned, traditional martial arts lesson (yet another reason why my old-fashioned, traditional approach is called for here): basics. More specifically, the power of basics. Fundamentals. The few simple, core techniques that are at the center of this wheel as it spins so brilliantly. It is rare to see basics presented so elegantly and without extraneous adornment – but that is what makes their presentation here so powerful.

Without further ado, in a nutshell, here is the theme of The Wheel of Life: even the most basic movements, even the most basic actions, can be surprisingly powerful. What basics are presented to us as powerful in The Wheel of Life?

o   To begin with, breathing. What could be more basic? Yet wise people from all religions and spiritual backgrounds recognize concentrating on the breath as a powerful and easily accessible path to enlightenment. If you watched The Wheel of Life and were too caught up in the exquisite movements and miraculous feats of these martial artists to notice their breathwork, go back and check out what happens before those movements and feats begin. You’ll find that the more difficult the action, the more meditation and breathwork occurs first. Pay attention to this.

o   Next, the martial arts movements themselves. Watch the following scene from the monks’ demonstration before the Emperor.

You can see that the martial techniques used are fairly simple and basic – kicks, punches, blocks, stance work. You could see these same techniques (except for the breathtaking gymnastics and smattering of yoga that accompanies them) demonstrated in thousands of beginning martial arts classes all over the world. But these are not beginners. What makes them different? These basic movements that all beginners learn are executed here with such fluidity, grace and power that a layperson would not even recognize them as the same movements. What makes them advanced? The addition of exciting complex elements? No. What makes them advanced is the masterful juxtaposition of relaxation and focus, yin and yang, push and pull that is at the foundation of all martial arts. That, and the most basic – yet ironically the most advanced – technique of all – total and utter commitment. Utter commitment to relaxation when it is time to relax. Total and absolute throwing one’s whole body into the movement when it is time to move. Watch an older monk teach this utter commitment to a young student in the clip below. See the difference? Same movements. Different body commitments.

If you are interested in martial arts, take note as well of the use of dynamic tension (slow speed, seeming to resist an invisible force) in some of the movements. I haven’t watched as many martial arts films as the rest of you and certainly not as many as JPFMovies, but I’ve never seen dynamic tension in a martial arts movie before.

o   The theme of basics is carried through theatrically as well. Do we need an expensive movie set and weeks of filming to make a movie? No, it turns out all that is needed is the London Apollo, a willing audience, a few simple adornments for the set, and an amazing group of martial artists. Do we need a complex plot? Not really. Do we need a lot of characters? No. We essentially have three main characters in this movie: the head of the temple, the monks collectively acting as a unit, and the evil Emperor. Do we even need a script? Not really, only a little short narration here and there. No need for dialogue when we have the most basic method of communication in existence at our disposal: body language!

But there is another reason for the simplicity of the set and film method, in addition to the joy of pounding into our heads the beauty and power of basics. That reason is what got me to walk out at one point. The latter third of the movie is dedicated to a series of spirit challenges – challenges so amazing that they had to be filmed in precisely this way, or moviegoers would likely think they were just special effects. I refuse to choose a clip of any of the spirit challenges. But I want you to see the meditation that precedes them (see below). Why won’t I show the spirit challenges? Frankly, they are intense (I couldn’t watch the whole section myself, as noted at the beginning of this review), and I don’t want to be responsible for some idiot going out and trying some of this stuff…these challenges go a few steps beyond simple board breaking.

I didn’t research the making of this movie. JPFMovies says this review is long enough already! Let me just say that this movie is as simple as Red Cliff is lavish – and yet both movies are exquisite. They define the range.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2011 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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Our Woman From Down Under Looks at “Valiant Ones.”

As you may recall, our woman from the land down under, Dangerous Meredith, won any DVD of her choice and she happened to choose “Valiant Ones” (a/k/a Zhong lie tu).  Directed by King Hu, with action choreography by Sammo Hung.  So let’s see what Dangerous has to say:

Valiant Ones

Directed by King Hu, with action choreography by Sammo Hung.

Cast and crew  found here:

http://www.hkcinemagic.com/en/movie.asp?id=2572

Final fight scene:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF_gDlm0SyU

The overall look to this film is elegant and spare. It is mostly set in a forest, with some interior shots of headquarters and tents. Some of the action also takes place on a sea-shore, and the first action scene happens in and around an inn in a poor fishing village. The costumes could be considered as being tasteful rather than glamorous, and feature scholars’ robes, peasant dress and soldiers’ uniforms. Even the high officials’ rich robes feature somber colors. The palette for the art direction in this movie sits harmoniously with the greens of the forest and the blues of the sea against which it is set: blues, grays, beige’s, browns and whites predominate. The occasional red of some soldiers’ uniforms is a nicely judged splash of color.

The performances could be called elegant and spare as well. Although the actors all use the ultra intense eye focus and graceful and stylized placement of gestures, limbs and bodies that is (to me anyway) a hall mark of kung fu movie acting, there is no really ‘big’ or extravagant acting here. The simple plot and action choreography do not seem to call for it. Our heroes are a band of fighters that have been called together to take on a troupe of pirates that are threatening to colonise part of China’s coast. The fighters are experienced and adept martial arts veterans. They are taciturn, dignified, cunning and of serious intent. Outrageous shenanigans are not their bag. In keeping with the austere overall tone of this movie, even the villains are not as over the top as in some chopsockies.

It is as if director King Hu has done away with anything that could be a distraction to the forward motion of his plot. There are no tizzy costumes, no fake tiger skin rugs, no bizarre and gurning villains in this film. The one female warrior is nicely dressed, yes, but she does not wear a pastel coloured costume or fake eye lashes. Instead the intentness of the Valiant Ones, the build of tension as they wait for the pirate attack on their forest camp, the ploys they use to outwit the pirates, are presented to us in a steady unfolding of plot.

The action scenes break out as a necessary expression of the tension and contained energy that builds during the film. The action scenes are embedded skillfully in the narrative, as they are in the best kung fu movies. In one way, the dialogue scenes could be seen as setting the scene for the fights. But in another way, the plot developments and expression of character and feeling that is contained in the choreography seems to initiate and make sense of the atmosphere in the dialogue driven scenes. The libretto of this film has a nice balance between dialogue and action, and these 2 components have been skillfully integrated.

The lovely choreography in this film is interesting. One the one hand it is by far the most flamboyant and fanciful element of this movie. But, compared to other kung fu movie choreography, it is (as with all other aspects of Valiant Ones) pared down and more austere. There are no balletic, acrobatic, wire fu inspired fantastic flights of fancy here. The movement is elegant but not in the least bit quirky or whimsical or baroque. The fight scenes do their job – they serve the plot – and then they contribute just enough beauty to ensure the aesthetic appeal of the film (but not one jot more). I have just finished blogging about the fight in the White Lotus temple in Once Upon A Time in China 2. Choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping, this fight scene does a grand job of supporting its host movie’s themes and narrative but could also stand alone as an independent piece of performance art. None of the fight scenes in Valiant Ones could quite do that. The intention behind the choreographing, directing and filming of the action here is quite different.

Editors Notes:  Dangerous always writes almost metaphysical reviews of movies which are a welcome change of pace from your run of the mill recitation of the facts.

Thanks Dangerous!

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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We take a look at Once Upon A Time In China

My new partner in crime at http://silveremulsion.wordpress.com and I have decided to collaborate on some of the finest Asian movies we’ve seen and give you, the reader, our thoughts on these films so you can make an informed decision on whether to view them or not.  Also, if you have seen any of the movies we decide to collaborate on we would love to hear your comments on the matter.  Again, this is one in a series we are going to do together so stay tuned for some great Asian movie reviews from two movie connoisseurs.

China has had a very tumultuous history, including hundreds of years of civil war, a humiliating defeat in the opium war and a bloody occupation by Japan.  It was during the dark times between the opium war and the Japanese occupation that a Chinese folk hero, physician and martial arts expert was to emerge — Wong Fei-hung (1847-1924).  Wong Fei-hung, a legendary figure, would, among other things, later inspire his countrymen to endure even bigger ordeals in the last century.  The legend of Wong Fei-hung has also inspired dozens of films.  In my opinion the best is Once Upon a Time In China, a 1991 Hong Kong kung-fu epic directed by Tsui Hark.  This film had five sequels and was among the first to introduce Jet Li as its main star to Western audiences.  Li as Wong Fei-hung provides the viewer with a fine performance especially given that role was played very early in his career.

The plot:  On the surface the movie seems simple enough, as my colleague said, almost Shaw Brothers simple, but in reality the story is very complex and transcends the many martial arts films whose plots can easily be summed up in a single sentence.  Wong Fei-Hung, like his countrymen, is forced to endure the humiliation of American slavers, local gangs, a renegade martial arts master and even his own wayward (but well-intentioned) students.  As if these problems were not enough, he has to contend with his growing affection for Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) which is important as to movie is set around the end of the 19th century when there were great social changes in China.  This is typified with his relationship with his “Aunt” Yee (who is not related to him by blood), as she would be taboo to marry.  The fact that this is a series of films allows the relationship to develop slowly also setting it apart from many Hong Kong films where romances are very fast-moving and unrealistic.

The action sequences are superb, which is unsurprising considering that they are choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, though dim-witted critics who can find fault in anything point to the wire-work and use of doubles.  The final showdown is a stunning success of editing as Jet Li was injured and had to be doubled for many of the shots that weren’t above the waist, but his extraordinary  fist techniques make up for this.  The film has a long running time for a martial arts movies so for once there is plenty of time for story and action.

Hong Kong movies don’t come much better than this.  Anyone who is a fan of wire-work and/or the likes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon should hold this movie in high esteem—either that or they are a communist.  I could not agree more with my new partner in crime at Silver Emulsion.  You must check out his take on Once Upon a Time In China at http://silveremulsion.wordpress.com — you would be a fool not to.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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