onset of an addiction is a terrible thing to behold.
stick with you for life - for instance, they'll get my cola when
they pry it out of my cold, dead hand. Others fade with time;
for another instance, I remember the first, deadly time I held
a McFarlane figure in my hand (the Wetworks Vampire), the start
of a feverish collecting binge. Now, five years hence, I blithely
let entire series of the things pass me by with nary a pang...
nothing matches that sweaty, excited feeling that hits the pit
of your stomach when you realize you've taken the bait, and the
hook is now firmly set. That time I popped the package open on
my first purchase, Viking Spawn (yes, dammit, opened -
toys are meant to be played with!) and what would become the unmistakable,
pungent odor of the fresh McFarlane, a mixture of plastic and
paint, wafted to my nostrils. When my wife wistfully speaks of
the "new doll smell" of Christmas mornings past, I quite
understand what she means.
there was the time, my belly full of dim sum, I idly leafed
through the DVDs at a nearby Asian video store, and found Miracle
see, it's just like my flirtation with action figure collecting
- I wasn't hooked the moment I picked up Dr. Weasel's Vampire,
no, it wasn't until I became a willing participant in my own degradation
that I was an addict, not until I made the
conscious choice to bring not just the Vampire, but the others,
into my house. It's a slow process; it begins small.
look at how we got here.
couple of years ago, Andrew
(or, as his friends know him, Sgt. Borntreger) posted his
review of Drunken Wu Tang, which intrigued me enough
to seek out the movie, give it a watch and eventually write my
own review. It's interesting that I still occasionally drag
it out for entertainment, not something I do with a lot of the
movies reviewed here. Meantime, Keith Allison of Teleport
City was urging me to check out Young
Taoism Fighter, which Arena had just released as Wu
Tang Temple (and Keith has also deconstructed
Xenon's tendency to pump out substandard dubs and change the names
to Wu Tang Dawg Chow far more effectively than I could).
these movies have in common - besides astonishingly fresh (and
goofy) kung fu - is the Yuen Brothers.
Yuen family runs deep in the realm of Hong Kong cinema, and I
wish I knew more about them. We should start with the patriarch,
Yuen Siu Tin (and special thanks to Badmovies.org
for the pic), or as we gwailo tended to know him, the old,
probably smelly, unkempt beggar/drunk who always turned out to
be the master of some incredibly powerful kung fu. He crops up
in this capacity in movies like Shaolin
Challenges Ninja, Buddhist
Fist, the first Drunken Master, and whatever the
hell movie it was Xenon changed to Ol'
Dirty Kung Fu.
Tin's eldest son is a chap named Yuen Woo Ping, and even if you
have only seen movies playing in American theaters for the last
couple of years, you have seen his work, as fight choreographer
for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Woo Ping is a proficient film director in his own right; if Buddhist
Fist and Iron Monkey mean nothing to you, perhaps Tai
Chi Master/Twin Warriors or Wing Chun do - they
can even be rented at your local BlockWood. And he is the director
of tonight's movie. More Yuens as they occur.
Fighters starts with a typical enough opening ploy for a fu
flick, Dastardly Things Done To A Good Guy. The Good Guy in this
case is Kao, the Chief Instructor for "The 8 Banners Army",
who is dressed down by an imperial eunuch for marrying the wrong
woman - or, as the eunuch succinctly puts it, "Manchus do
not marry Hans." Kao is given the typically evil eunuch offer:
if he will execute his wife, he can walk. Kao seems to consider
it for a moment, then decides he cannot. So, naturally, the eunuch
orders his guards to kill the woman immediately, and orders the
execution of Kao's entire clan as "an example to the others".
this, naturally, is the cue for Kao to show why he was the instructor
and everybody else was his student; after dispatching every guard
in the immediate area, he prepares to turn his blade on the eunuch
- and there would be eunuch cutlets on the steam table that evening
were it not for the intervention of (are you ready?)... Sorcerer
Bat (Yuen Hsin Yee) expresses his regrets (so he sneeringly says)
to Kao, but an order is an order; he and the eunuch disappear
in a cloud of smoke to be replaced by what appears to be at first
a funeral urn, though it seems capable of rolling about on its
own, smashing furniture and chasing Kao. Then it sprouts a head
and arms, revealing itself to be a Mime in a Jar! I realize the
makeup is meant to signify a ghost, but I can't help it. I'm an
American, and I hate bad street mimes, so it is simultaneously
chilling and satisfying to me to think of this creature as The
Mime In A Jar. Indulge me.
I mention The Mime In A Jar weilds a paper sword? A paper sword
that can cut through solid wood and bone? And Kao has a very narrow
time of it, barely escaping as Every Guard In The Province descends
upon him? Kao escapes only by taking the young Prince (where'd
he come from?) hostage and threatening to kill him unless he is
allowed to leave in peace... but when he reaches safety, and attempts
to release the prince, he discovers he accidentally killed the
boy in the scuffle. Sorrowfully, Kao consigns the child's body
to the ocean, keeping only the Prince's jade amulet.
there, ladies and gentlemen, is the first five minutes of the
movie. The. First. Five. Minutes.
let's move forward fourteen years, and forget about Kao for a
bit. We have to meet
The Old Spinster and the Dotard Bastard, as the subtitles refer
to them. I've always referred to the woman as Granny and the man
as Quentin Tarantino, due to the slightest of resemblances (and
this will doubtless give rise to many sentences following that
will seem quite humorous when taken out of context! Collect them
all!)(Indulge me!) . Granny is played by Yuen Woo Ping
himself (a special waaaa! to Pete L. Lee for pointing
that out to me)(Future Freex: waaa retracted; it's not Wo Ping,
but another Yuen, whose name I forget. One day, we'll get back
to that), and Quentin Tarantino is played by Yuen Chung Yan. The
two share a compound which is literally divided down the middle;
they constantly squabble with each other. They are both powerful
kung fu sorcerers, students of the same master, whose shrine straddles
the border (appropriately, the portrait in the shrine is of Yuen
Siu Tin in his familiar Drunken Master garb; he had died in '79
of a heart attack).
now back to Kao. In the intervening 14 years, Kao has found and
raised an orphan called Shu Gun (sorry, I've run out of easily
identifiable Yuens); Shu Gun wears the Prince's medallion. Besides
training Shu Gun in the ways of swordsmanship, Kao has also spent
the last decade and a half investing in becoming an alcoholic.
One night, bellowing in a drunken rage, he boasts of being the
imperial kung fu instructor; a boast that is heard by two of Sorcerer
Bat's agents. Attacking that night, the thugs throw lime in Kao's
eyes, but retreat when Shu Gun takes up his master's sword and
begins to fight them - spotting the medallion, they believe him
to be the kidnapped Prince, and dare not harm him. They retreat
and report to Sorcerer Bat instead.
for medicine for Kao's eyes, Shu Gun stumbles upon Granny &
Quentin Tarantino's compound, where he is suitably spooked by
their witchy antics - paintings of candles that actually light,
disembodied hands offering him a lamp; Quentin Tarantino, however,
feels the meeting is destined. He gives Shu Gun medicine and ominously
tells him to return... if he survives the night.
he may not, when Sorcerer Bat comes a-callin' at their hideout.
After paralyzing Shu Gun with deftly thrown needles, Sorcerer
Bat and Kao finally have their showdown, and we discover why he's
called Sorcerer Bat. There are these lacy wings that hang down
from his arms, see? And he likes to flutter them a lot while squeaking.
Like a bat. And fly around. And hang from rafters. Like a bat.
Weird damn kung fu. But it's more than enough to best Kao
(well, the fact that Sorcerer Bat has a sword-on-a-string that
allows you to stab your opponent in the back helps, too), leaving
Sorcerer Bat with who he thinks is the Prince.
he notices that Shu Gun does not have the Prince's birthmark on
the sole of his foot; that is cured by some improvised
tattooing. After all, a living Prince is necessary to Sorcerer
Bat's plans to rule the world, or something. He leaves Shu Gun
in the care of The Mime In A Jar, which proves to be a mistake,
as our hero manages to appeal to the creature's emotions, and
it allows him to escape - an act which will later cause the wrathful
Sorcerer Bat to drop a bomb in its jar.
Gun returns to Quentin Tarantino as instructed, but in vaulting
the wall, he has unknowingly straddled the border, which means
that Granny is threatening to cut him in half with her trademark
Komedically Large Axe. What follows is basically an entirely horizontal
kung fu fight, as the off-balance Shu Gun and Quentin Tarantino
desperately try to avoid Granny's axe and only wind up moving
farther and farther down the border until Shu Gun is kneeling
before the shrine. And it is this act that brings the fight to
an end, as it means he has, unwittingly or not, joined their family
- and now he is the apprentice of both.
the following scenes, Shu Gun is taught the tricks of the fightin'
sorcerer trade by the squabbling sorcerers, either by getting
his ass kicked by Granny or undergoing the usual tortuous training
(Quentin Tarantino, in particular, orders him to study texts while
in a chair studded with nails - "When you concentrate on
the text, the pain will stop."). The constant cartoon character
bickering finally gets to Shu Gun, though, who angrily announces
he's leaving... only to have his way blocked by Sorcerer Bat,
who has come for his Prince. This has the effect of causing Shu
Gun to decide apprenticeship ain't quite so bad, and Sorcerer
Bat and the two sorcerers to exchange heated words ("You
think he's the Prince? You can only fool people, not the gods."
"I don't fear either!"). Sorcerer Bat, however, realizes
that he can't fight the combined might of both Granny and
Quentin Tarantino, and so decides to strategically disappear in
a puff of smoke.
Bat, you see, is the apparent creator of Mission: Impossible technology,
as he devises a mask that will let him look exactly like
Quentin Tarantino. This allows him to sneak into Granny's house
under the guise of improving their relationship, and then killing
her when her back is turned by throwing some sort of spinning,
drill-bit equipped flying top at her head (Damn! he also invented
Phantasm technology!). Then, donning his Granny mask, Sorcerer
Bat walks across the compound to complete part two of the evening's
agenda- but Granny, with her dying breath, sent a wisp of her
gray hair flying directly to Quentin Tarantino, who, snatching
it from the air, realizes exactly what has happened..
follows is a kung fu battle so full of surprises, it is literally
impossible to describe here. Quentin Tarantino seems to sprout
arms and legs as needed, and even withdraws
his head into his robes, like a turtle, to avoid blows; Shu Gun
does one section of the fight doing that old Ed Sullivan show
trick, with his head stuck through a curtain, wearing shoes on
his hands while Quentin Tarantino's hands double as his. A tiny
costume completes the ensemble, and Sorcerer Bat appears to be
fu-fighting with a midget standing on a tabletop (this scene alones
guarantees that Andrew will own a copy of this movie).
Then it all comes down to swords-on-a-string, of which Shu Gun
has become a master. Deprived of his back stabber and outnumbered,
Sorcerer Bat splits, leaving Quentin Tarantino and Shu Gun to
mourn the departed Granny. And Shu Gun decides he will fulfill
Granny's last wish, the feat for which she had been practicing
for years - to enter the once-in-a-decade Sorcerer's Competition
and win the "Supreme Command".
is this Competition that comprises the final half-hour of the
movie, and it's a stunner. The Competition is opened by a delegation
of Peking Opera acrobatic demons, who tell the assembled (and
handcuffed) sorcerers that they must overcome three obstacles:
first, they must retrieve the key to their shackles from a vat
of boiling oil, before an incense stick burns out; second, they
must cross a paper bridge suspended over a pit of poisonous serpents;
and last, they have to divine a proper ceremony to finish up,
or they must face the wrath of a wooden stick man who knows excellent
kung fu (unfortunate thoughts about The Blair Witch Project
are unavoidable, I'm afraid).
to say that Shu Gun is going to have to employ each and every
trick Granny and Quentin Tarantino taught him, because, naturally,
Sorcerer Bat is there in a really bad disguise - I guess he used
up all his liquid latex on the earlier masks - and he wants
the Supreme Command, even to the exclusion of his earlier plans
that required Shu Gun be alive. Wizards. Go figure.
Fighters seems to embody exactly what drew most of us into
the realm of bad movies in the first place: watching it, one slowly
succumbs to the delirious feeling that we are in the hands of
a madman with a movie camera. It's like that first time you watch
Glen or Glenda and find yourself thinking, "What
the f@#k???!!!". It's very entertaining, but
the difference is, Glen or Glenda does not entertain us
in the way it intended - and Miracle Fighters does.
comedies rarely appeal to me, especially comedies done in polytonal
languages like Chinese - any subtlety in the dialogue or wordplay
is going to defy translation (and here in 2001, even more than
my flying car, I want the chip that I plug into my head that allows
me to instantly comprehend Mandarin) - yet Miracle Fighters,
with its slapstick and goofy cartoon humor, appeals to me immensely.
Of course, those two elements alone would simply give us a Hong
Kong version of Dumb and Dumber, and there is far more
on the plate here. The characters are colorful and intriguing,
and the fights highly creative.
Quentin Tarantino character comes off especially well; he has
an entire segment devoted to him in the first third of the movie,
where he employs his magic to break the area's drought while at
the same time fending off the attacks of a larcenous priest who
was extorting gold from the village to do the same thing. The
priest defeated and water raining down from the heavens, Quentin
Tarantino throws the gold into the crowd, returning the village
its life savings. It's too bad that Granny doesn't have a similar
scene, but Woo Ping spends most of his time behind the camera.
Woo Ping, like Lam Ching
Ying, being thin and slight of build, probably played the
female roles in his Peking Opera days, and it shows in his portrayal
of Granny, rendered even more difficult by making her a victim
of the bizarre practice of foot-binding, meaning
he plays all his scenes on tip-toe. This might even be some sort
of stock character - as I recall, Lam Ching Ying effects a similar
disguise in Exorcism Master (unless that was a parody of
Woo Ping's character here - oh, reasoning like this makes my head
hurt!). Granny would return in this movie's sequel, Taoism
Drunkard, or as we know it here, Drunken Wu Tang.
Ping is willing to parody himself, too - in his more serious films,
like the aforementioned Buddhist Fist and Dreadnaught,
there's a plot device that recurs: an assassin disguised as a
tradesman. In the former film, it's a fortune teller, throwing
deadly yarrow sticks as he divines the I Ching; in the
latter, a tailor come to make folk hero Wong Fei-hung a new suit,
with a strangling measuring tape and whirling shears. Woo Ping
offers a sly riff on this trademark with a traveling barber/beautician
- again, a man dressed and dubbed as a woman (it's one of those
assassins that reported to Sorcerer Bat)- whose fight with Granny
resembles nothing so much as a rough-and-tumble game of cat's
cradle. Between two men in drag.
Hsin Yee, or Sunny, would also return in the sequel, but not as
Sorcerer Bat. He would instead be that picture's villain, Old
Devil (Sorcerer Bat is pretty definitely Raider-of-the-Lost-Arked
when he undeservedly grabs the Supreme Command - oh, like I'm
spoiling anything for you here). Considering that he's
also best known as the psychotic killer White Tiger in the Woo
Ping-directed Dreadnaught, it's hard to believe that he
was once ballyhooed as a new Jackie Chan-type heroic lead - check
him out in (again) The
Buddhist Fist. Sunny excels as a villain, all sneers and
evil laughter, and he's especially good at making the outré
weapons given him seem plausible and deadly.
I especially want to devote some space to Quentin Tarantino, or
more appropriately, Yuen Chung Yan. You're probably more familiar
with his work than you think; even if you are the
type that does not watch fu flicks (and if you are, you probably
haven't read this deep into the review, anyway), he was the fight
choreographer for the 2000 version of Charlie's Angels.
In Tai Chi Master (released direct to tape in America as
Twin Warriors, with packaging that de-emphasized the movie's
period costumes and heavily emphasized the then-current Romeo
Must Die!), he was the ball-rolling priest Ling, trying to
attain harmony; in Once Upon A Time in China, he was the
boastful swordsman who loses a duel with Iron Vest Yin; I even
believe he was Ratface in Taoism Drunkard. The man is a
chameleon onscreen, and you have to concentrate, to peer past
the varying mannerisms, body language, and facial hair (and different
voices dubbing him, when I can't avoid that) to discern the actor
course, in the week following the initial posting of this review,
I re-watched Buddhist Fist and Iron Monkey. I had
forgotten how powerful a protagonist Sunny Yuen could be, and
then he surprised me again when I realized he played Fox, the
slightly crooked but likable (and ultimately righteous) captain
of the guard in Iron Monkey. Fox's kung fu ain't so good,
and Sunny winds up getting knocked around more than he does any
knocking, quite a departure for a guy who so often plays a powerhouse
- so Chung Yan isn't the only chameleon I should be complimenting
this is where the addiction comes in - these madcap movies by
and featuring the Yuen brothers are like a breath of fresh air
to me. Movies seem less and less interested in surprising me these
days, and these odd movies, all but unknown in these parts, have
me gawping in amazement for their running times.
doubt a goodly amount of the surprise factor comes with the seeming
indifference to plot in this movie. You remember how we follow
Janet Leigh for a half-hour in Psycho, and then suddenly
she gets killed? (Oops, sorry, guess I ruined that one,
too) Well, pretty much the same thing happens to the plot in Miracle
Fighters - we travel along with it for over an hour, and suddenly
it gets knifed in the shower and we never see it again. Apparently,
Kao has some sort of plan to pass Shu Gun off as the Prince, but
gets too involved in destroying his liver to do anything about
it; then Sorcerer Bat has a similar plan, and goes through the
whole Ethan Hawke/Falseface thing to get his fake Prince; but
once we get to the Sorcerer's Competition, all that goes in the
nearest recycling bin with a gorgeous shot from mid-court. In
fact, the first blow Sorcerer Bat lands on Shu Gun shatters the
Prince's medallion, as if to demonstrate the filmmaker's discarding
of the rest of the movie. I've been told that quite often, HK
movies are made without any script written beforehand - and I
think Miracle Fighters stands as Exhibit A for that supposition.
that it matters, in the final analysis. I have developed a raging
taste for these things, and I must have more of the Yuens, pure
and simple. And if American movies had this much fun and exhibited
a fraction as much playful creativity (they already have a glaring
disregard for cohesive storylines), I wouldn't have to go looking
on foreign soil for my entertainment, now, would I?
other words: indulge me.