Drunken Monkey (Lau Kar-leung, 2003) — July 8, 2013
Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu together for the last time, passing the torch to a new generation. Lau ends his final fight by grabbing a sword with his bare hand to prevent the killing of the villain. He spends so much of this film wounded and sick, it’s hard not to read it as the film of a dying man, though he still had another decade to live.
Wolf Warriors (Wu Jing, 2015) — August 12, 2017
Sweaty work in this PLA propaganda film from Wu Jing. Scott Adkins is a natural in the Richard Norton role, and there’s lots to dig for the armchair military tech geek. Too bad the plot, and, well really everything else about it, is all kinds of inane.
SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang, 2015) — October 14, 2015
One aspect of 2010s Hong Kong cinema that I’m particularly enjoying is the repeated and obsessive destruction and piecemeal deconstruction of Louis Koo’s body. That side of him as a performer was always there (see for example Love for All Seasons or Throw Down), but the Overheard series really kicked his disintegration into high gear. Here, his lifelong organic failures drive the demented scheme of the plot, drawing together the various characters in a web of (meta-)physical connections.
Also, why did it take so long to get Tony Jaa in a Hong Kong film? He has more lines here than in all the Thai films I’ve seen him in put together. He can actually act, more or less.
Added April 26, 2016:
The two most physically-gifted martial arts actors of their generation (Wu Jing and Tony Jaa) vs. Zhang Jin, who was Zhang Ziyi’s stunt double in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Also: Soi Cheang getting metaphysical, Simon Yam being old and tenacious, and Louis Koo physically disintegrating, again. One of the top three or so martial arts films of the decade thus far.
Call of Heroes (Benny Chan, 2016) — December 3, 2016
Almost definitely the best martial arts movie of 2016. Eddie Peng and Wu Jing prowling around the edges of a kind of High Noon remake with Lau Ching-wan as the abandoned sheriff and Louis Koo as the captured psychotic villain. Sammo Hung choreographs some of his best action scenes in years then rides in at the end at the head of a victorious army. Director Benny Chan overstuffs it a bit with Morricone-light and sweeping vistas and profound speeches about living on ones knees or dying standing up, but the movie looks pretty good, with what appear to be some nifty 3D effects and some truly cartoonish CGI.
A Chinese Odyssey Part III (Jeffrey Lau, 2016) — February 25, 2017
If any director deserves the “visionary” label, it’s Jeffrey Lau. A reshuffling of the Journey to the West story, where Tiffany Tang, as the twins Zixia and Qingxia uses the time-travel device Box of Moonlight to glimpse the future, where she sees herself die to redeem the Monkey King. To save herself she tries to manipulate the future, inadvertently uncovering the Jade Emperor’s scheming to cover up a mistake in the Sealed Book (the repository of fate and destiny). With her trying to change the future and his trying to change the past, everything gets crazy and causes chaos in the lives and romances of the Demon Bull King, his sister White Snake, his wife Princess Iron Fan, Joker (who because of the mistake in the book won’t become the Monkey King for 500 years), the Longevity Monk (Xuangzang, who has been time-traveling himself and makes his first appearance dressed as Smooth Criminal Michael Jackson), and Six-Eared Monkey (enlisted by the Jade Emperor to impersonate the Monkey King).
It’s kind of related to the first two Chinese Odyssey films (Karen Mok briefly returns as Pak Jingjing), I think. But one of these is hard enough to follow, let alone three. It is, I’d guess, half a reboot and half a remix, with Zixia/Qingxia fooling around the with the fundamental premises of the 1995 version, while revealing the incompetence and manipulations of the all-powerful authority behind everything. There’s a message there about lunatics from Hong Kong gaining access to the resources of the Chinese marketplace sneaking critiques of the State into a whirlwind of flash and nonsense.
Regardless of whether the film’s plot makes sense (and I think it does, emotionally at least, though not as much as the 90s films and certainly not as much as Lau’s masterpiece, the unrelated A Chinese Odyssey 2002), it’s stunning to look at, from crazed cartoon CGI battles to gorgeous costumes and sets to simple, impossible landscapes (a purple sky bursting with fireworks is a particular favorite). The first two films had Stephen Chow as Joker/Monkey King, and mid-90s Chow was an incomparable special effect unto himself. None of the new film’s performers are close to that interesting, and even the best ones (Wu Jing, Tiffany Tang) don’t get much to do, as everything moves so fast they’re consumed by the spectacle. Chow’s own Journey to the West films are much more profound, while Soi Cheang’s occupy a kind of middle-ground, not too deep, not too confusing, not too beautiful.
Guardians of Martial Arts (Wen Zhang, 2017) — November 18, 2017
Jack Ma, one of the richest men in the world, daydreams about fighting all the best martial arts stars, and because he’s so rich, they actually go along with it. Neat to see Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, etc all together, with Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Ching Siu-tung doing the choreography. They do a respectable job of indulging the money.