In the charming world of the gwailo fanboy press, there's at least one modern HK director who's getting attention, and it's not Tsui Hark (we'll get to him later). It's Andrew Lau Wei Keung, (or simply Andrew Lau) and he's likely done more to bring HK movies into line with Hollywood fare than any other director (save Hark). Whether this is a good or bad thing, we shall see. But he cannot, and should not, be ignored, so Marvellous Martin of Radi0active Death and I felt it was time to give him some of our Web space.
Lau appeared on the American video scene in a big way with 1998's The Storm Riders, (click to read Martin's review) a slick, CGI-enhanced film version of a long-running comic book. When it's possible to find multiple copies of a movie in the BlockWood pre-viewed rack, you know something's up. Lau's fame among the gwailo extends even farther back, though, most prominently to his fifth outing as director, the deliriously titled Naked Killer 2: Raped by an Angel.
In fact, if you walk into a video store with even an average martial arts selection (notably mall stores like Sam Goody or Suncoast), you should have no problem finding Lau's current Big Four action flicks: The Storm Riders, A Man Called Hero, The Duel, and The Avenging Fist.
A Man Called Hero is also based on a comic book with a years-long run; the interesting difference here is the average Yank fan has a fighting chance of having read this comic. Back in the 90s, there was a line called Jademan Comics, which reprinted different series of Chinese kung fu books, with titles like Oriental Heroes, Drunken Fist (my favorite) and The Blood Sword. It was this last which is the basis for A Man Called Hero, and it was odd to watch it for the first time and only slowly realize this.
Hero is so close to being a great movie, it's heartbreaking. Let's look at the plot synopsis on the back of the import DVD:
Okay, that was mean of me, but I am a big fan of poor translation. That's pretty much the setup: Hero arrives in 1930s America and goes into hiding; his pregnant wife and loyal friend try to find him. The movie, though, is long on epic sweep and short on action or satisfaction. Several plot lines get dropped entirely. If you watch the trailer on the DVD, it looks like at least one major sequence was cut as well, because you see a bunch of guys wearing Ku Klux Klan robes jumping off the back of a truck, carrying axe handles. I'm very sorry about that. Any movie in which the KKK gets the crap kicked out of them jumps up a level or two in my estimation.
The Duel is perhaps the perfect New Year's Movie (the big movie released on New Year's Day that everyone flocks to see), and that may be its greatest weakness, as it attempts to be all things to all people. The tale of two master swordsman (played by superstars Andy Lau and Ekin Cheng) and their duel atop The Forbidden City to determine who is best, lacks much of the visual spectacle employed in the prior two films I mentioned, and is pretty long on scripter Wong Jing's comic antics.
A lot of the reviews I've read don’t think much of Wong Jing; several critics actively hate him. I rather enjoy some of the films he's directed, like a scruffy little ZU wannabe, Kung Fu Cult Master (also known in the US as Lord of the Wu Tang), and Deadly China Hero/The Last Hero In China, his Wong Fei-hong satire. Both star Jet Li, and the latter possesses not only Gordon Liu as a bad guy, but fight choreography by Yuen Woo Ping – what's not to like? I laughed out loud at least twice. Holy Weapon has enough strangeness in it to recommend three movies, and…
…But we're here to talk about Andrew Lau, not Wong Jing, aren't we? The trouble is, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss one without the other.
Let me cement my standing as a Foreign Devil by quoting, once more, the jacket copy from the import disc of Avenging Fist:
Got that? Good. Cuz it's more interesting than the movie.
First, know that we are dealing with the future, and as far as smoky neon flying car-filled post-Blade Runner futures go, it’s pretty good. The Power Gloves in question tap into what is referred to as "The Forbidden Zone", i.e., that 80% of the human brain that people don’t use.
I’m going to derail myself here to talk about that for a minute. The un-used 80% of the brain is a favorite thing for writers to trot out every now and then – hell, I’ve used it myself. It’s an axiom that everybody knows. The problem is, the guy who first said that was speaking more or less metaphorically – the brain is full of a lot of redundant systems, pathways that are ready to switch on if a part of the brain gets damaged. Or, if you are of a more cynical bent (like me) he meant that most people literally only use a fraction of the sense God gave ‘em. Either way, sorry, we don’t walk around with the untapped power of a god waiting in the gray Jell-o upstairs. Better hope for an old bearded dude in an abandoned subway station to hand you a magic word, if sudden, undeserved super powers are what you want.
But in The Avenging Fist we do possess Big Unclaimed Power. So this Power Glove can turn you into Marvel Girl, but at a price. As an experiment, it is issued to 100 elite policeman, and things - naturally - go bad from there. One of the drawbacks, it is found, it that it can leave a user susceptible to outside commands, so the aforementioned War 21 – in the subtitles, Combat 21 (Roy Cheung) - takes over another cop, Thunder (Yuen Biao) and attempts a coup; it takes a battle royal between one of the few surviving Glove users, Dark (Ekin Cheng) and the combined might of Combat 21 and Thunder to put things right. Dark is forced to kill Thunder – his best friend – and Combat 21 goes into hiding.
Twenty years later – like I've said, it’s always 20 years later – We meet Thunder’s son and daughter, Nova (Wang Lee-Hom) and Belle (Kristy Yang) who like to go out to an open-air ultimate fighting thing where a guy named Iron Surfer (Stephen Fung) is successfully taking on all comers. This means Nova just has to fight him, finally resorting to a martial arts style called The Avenging Fist. This pisses off Mom (Cecelia Yip) to no end, as she doesn’t want Nova drawing attention to himself – especially since Thunder invented the Avenging Fist style, with Nova learning it from holographic tapes his father had left behind.
Too late, as Dark, now an Inspector (not to mention becoming Samo Hung!) crops up, and leaves Nova his father’s old Power Glove, since he knows Combat 21 will also be looking for the boy. The big surprise, though, is that Thunder isn’t really dead – he’s been completely brainwashed by Combat 21 and keeps breaking through walls and doing stuff like killing his wife and stealing away Belle, who has psychic powers that the bad guy needs.
Somewhere in there, Belle has fallen in love with Iron Surfer and vice versa, and Nova has fallen for a model named Erika (Gigi Leung). In any case, it’s up to Nova and Iron Surfer to save Belle, put on and master the power gloves, and whip Combat 21’s butt. They do. The end.
You know, normally when I provide a sketchy plot summary like that, it’s because I really like the movie and would like you to seek it out, too. Not this time, though. I’m giving you the short version because I can’t bring myself to care. This plot and the characters inhabiting it aren’t just cardboard, they are index cards. Index cards jotted down when the filmmakers saw other movies, or read books, or…
This can be okay. There are lots of unoriginal movies out there that are saved by good acting or an intriguing twist or two. There are some original ideas here, but precious few of them are associated with the main characters - you know, the ones we are supposed to care about? It’s the secondarys that get all the memorable details. And even when the mains get something chewy, it gets snatched away from them.
Take for instance a tale told by Iron Surfer, how his homeless mother froze to death one night, trying to keep him warm. This is the stuff of high tragedy, the sort of past trauma a character must overcome, usually in order to ultimately triumph; here it is instead short-circuited by a bad joke from Nova, and then not even referenced later, when Combat 21 captures Iron Surfer and has him thrown in a cryogenic chamber. Instead another tragic thread is sticky-taped onto the situation, as Belle must – for some inexplicable reason – merge herself with Iron Surfer in order to thaw him out. She’ll be Obi-wan-ing him through the rest of the movie, until after the final fight scene (once again, shamelessly – and somehow dully – aping the climax of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain), when she seems to vanish completely, so that the characters may howl her name to the heavens.
In fact, that seems to be Nova’s major character trait – he howls every so often. Now, admittedly, it’s usually after a family member dies, and he does go through an entire family in the course of 24 hours, but damn! Is this guy a Klingon or what? Overwrought drama is all very well and fine, but if it’s the only thing in evidence, how do we know it’s overwrought?
The older performers fare better, most notably Samo Hung and Yuen Biao. Hung as the grown-up (and out) Dark, the only cop still using a Power Glove, is, as ever, a consummate professional and comes through this unscathed. If anything, his character is more interesting than any of the youthful stars'. One of the side-effects of the Glove is that Dark knows the exact time of his impending death; he wears a watch that shows not the actual time, but instead counts down to that fatal moment. He also wears a chrome fedora, which remains my most indelible memory of the movie. And when a character’s hat remains the most memorable part of a movie, you know the flick is in trouble.
Overall, I find the most compelling character, the one the movie should have been about, is Biao as Thunder – a character who, at the moment his brainwashing is broken, must deal with the fact that he has murdered his own wife, kidnapped his own daughter and delivered her to the bad guy, and has been doing his best to kill his son. That is high drama – but then Thunder dies almost immediately afterward (and, needless to say, Nova howls to the skies).
Thunder spends most of the flick being abused and generally humiliated by Combat 21. Given that the last time I saw Biao, he was relegated to a very minor role in A Man Called Hero, one wonders if this isn’t some sort of comment on the condition of his career. A double dirty shame, as Yuen Biao is likely the most accomplished martial artist on display here. Not that this seems to matter any more.
And this may be the most depressing thing about Lau and this new wave of slick, FX-heavy films. The fight scenes of The Storm Riders were exhilarating in their freshness. The first time Wind and Cloud fought, it was impossible to suppress a "Whoa!" But more and more, the FX seem to be taking the place of genuine skill in the performers. Actually, I can't attest to the leads' skills or lack thereof, because they are never truly given the chance to display them.
Even when the standards of a swordplay drama crossed the line from the fantastic to the ridiculous (think the aerial sequences in Crouching Tiger), there was a level of coolness there, as you knew that not only were there three or four guys pulling like Trojans on the lines suspending the actor, but that the actor him-or-her-self was doing a hell of a lot of work, too. Just watch the extras on the Charlie's Angels DVD to witness the rigors experienced by the actresses (and, one assumes, Crispin Glover) just to get limber and strong enough to work in the rigs.
That seems to be increasingly a thing of the past, thanks to movies like this (though there is, admittedly, a fair amount of wirework in evidence). Returning to that video box, among all the bold yellow Chinese blurbs is one statement that is easily readable: 123,600 CGI.
As I said, this is a slick, beautiful view of the future, a world of digital lipstick, hover board hooligans and street corner kiosks where you can order a hologram of anyone you want saying or doing anything you want (so, of course, Nova can curse out Erika, not realizing the real woman is standing among the holograms).
To give credit where credit is due, Avenging Fist does have one of the most out-and-out funny and downright perceptive bits I've seen in a science fiction movie: cellular phones are broken down into two rings, one worn on the thumb, and the other on the pinky. Thus, when making a call, you hold your own hand up to your face in the universal hand gesture for a phone. That is bloody brilliant.
But it's a small moment in a length of celluloid which has (to crib an observation from my co-conspirator, Martin) absolutely no soul. Like I said, it feels like cardboard, it tastes like cardboard – it must be cardboard (even though it doesn't look like cardboard). It doesn't even have the bit of identity that could come with ethnicity. Unlike, say, Tsui Hark, who created an equally CGI-laden movie in Legend of Zu, but also a movie that is still identifiably Chinese in flavor and content – Lau has made what could easily have been an empty Hollywood vessel, full of expensive effects but possessing no spark of life or true creativity. Like Square's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, this movie makes a far better technical achievement than it does a piece of entertainment.
The blame for this cannot be put totally on Lau – Corey Yuen is the co-director, and he has some pretty entertaining films on his resume… So an extra-large portion of blame I have to put on Wong Jing, whose usually deriviative scripting here seems to have folded in on itself until it has created a tesseract to another dimension, where there are no new stories or new twists, just better technology. And it is with a sinking feeling that I report that Wong has also written Lau's latest movie, Wisely's Mysterious File. Like I said, it's getting difficult to separate Wong Jing from Andrew Lau. I sigh, I should know better, but I'm know I'm eventually going to own that movie, too.
The final strike against the movie is that it started out as a film version of the Tekken video games, but Namco refused to grant permission for use of their characters. For what it's worth, our two main characters are still ringers for two of the characters in the game… but prior to this movie, I could count the video game movies I have actually enjoyed on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough fingers left over to order ales for myself, Martin, and whichever of our significant others was along for the ride (hi, Shazza!). And after viewing The Avenging Fist, all three of our brews are still safe.
They shoulda CGI-ed a better plot.
- August 21, 2002