Not long ago, Sound on Sight’s editor Ricky D emailed myself and fellow contributor Michael Ryan for the purpose of compiling some of our individual favourite martial arts pictures to celebrate The Raid‘s theatrical release across North American this Easter weekend. I would never consider myself to be a scholar of the genre, but it is true that I do tend to go back to martial arts films on a consistent basis when I have I craving for high-octane action. I think it has to do with the fact that what the performers pull off actually can be done if one practices long and hard enough. You can round-house kick someone in the face or brutally beat up a group of thugs with nunchucks but you could never levitate off the ground on bend metal with your mind, fun as it may be to watch movies in which characters perform those acts. I will never round-house kick someone in the face because I am too lazy to learn how, but it’s fun to think that I could…
Directed by Lo Wei
Hong Kong, 1971
For whatever reason, when people think about Bruce Lee, the first film which springs to mind is Enter the Dragon. I have no idea why since that movie is a sham. The second obvious pick is Fist of Fury, (not Fists) eventually remade in the early 90s as Fist of Legend, the latter which starred Jet Li. That is a great movie, make no mistake about it, but it is The Big Boss, the movie that shot Bruce Lee into stardom which seems to win my heart the easiest. It’s a bit cheaper, a bit rougher around the edges and a bit more on the exploitation side of the spectrum of film genres.
Lee stars as a poor young man from mainland China who, at the behest of his uncle’s council, moves to another town for work in an ice block carving factory. Unbeknownst to them at the start of the film, their boss is using the factory as a front for his drug smuggling operations. Lee gets to know some of his cousins and make new friends who also work at the same plant, but when they start suspecting something is amiss, a few of them die (surprise!). Of course, it is up to Lee to save the remainder of his family and stop the ‘big boss’ from getting away with his scheme.
This movie is amazing, but amazing in that ‘wow, this movie is kind of on the cheap scale but still manages to be brilliant in a early 70s kung fu style sort of way’. You know what I mean, right? It is perhaps the Lee film (among his major films at least) which features the least amount of action, but it is there and it is pretty cool What’s more, The Big Boss is what started the entire running joke about Bruce Lee growling like a dog joke and yelling ‘Whhoooooaaaahhhhh!’ whenever beating the living daylights out of opponents. The first ever appearance of the legendary sound effects occurs about halfway through. Lee is staring off against another man. Slowly, they circle one another, their glares burning. Suddenly, Lee shifts his head ever so slightly (presumably to unsettle his opposite) and the soundtrack booms with ‘Oooah!’, only to be followed with ‘Ggggrrrrrrrr…’ When the kicks and punches start flying, Lee is the quickest of the bunch, a formula 1 car in the shape of a martial artists next to everybody’s ordinary Nissan.
Directed by Lau Kar-leung
Hong Kong, 1978
If this title rings a bell for Sound on Sight readers, that’s because I already published a review for it in the Shaw Brothers Saturdays column about a month ago. But that is inconsequential because Heroes of the East needs to be plugged again, and again and again.
The inimitable Gordon Liu plays the Chinese husband to his Japanese wife (Yuko Mizuno), both of whom practice, love and espouse the virtues of the fighting styles of their respective nations. This of course leads to a marital rift by which the wife heads back to the homeland, makes her sorrow known to her former sensei and all of the latter’s most skilled pupils, each of whom has mastered a specific Japanese style: esoteric arts, karate, samurai sword fighting…you know, the works. Liu has to defend his pride by beating the crap out of each one.
Not only is Lau Lar-leung one of the undisputed masters of action filmmaking, handling his camera with constant graceful control to maximize clarity of the fights, but Heroes of the East literally has about a dozen fighting styles compacted into about 90 or 100 minutes. I mean, virtually everything is here for the viewer’s pleasure. Not only that, but each Japanese opponent is given one memorable character trait, thus making them stand out a little bit more than otherwise could have been the case. It is martial arts film fan’s dream come true on film. It also works because it is a darn good story about how blind pride can hurt more than it can help, about opposing ideologies and eventually, something that is not present enough in films like this, understanding and respect between adversaries.
This is not a film with a terribly good story or characterizations. In fact, even its original theatrical cut (it was somehow trimmed by about 27 minutes for the North American release. Don’t ask me how they pulled that off), the script is pretty much all over the place, with a plot about elephant traffickers who go after the material in the bones and horns, Vietnamese gangsters, the plight of a call girl who used to work for one of the gangsters, corruption in Sydney’s police department, and maybe even something else, I don’t exactly remember all that clearly. The point is Tony Jaa has is elephant stolen back in rural Thailand during a festival of sorts and heads over the Australia to get his pet back and, if need be (and it will), bang the heads of those who stole it.
Talk about a movie for which the story is secondary to the action. At least the director tries to insert some comedy with the appearance of a vile, foul mouthed cop of Thai descent who wouldn’t know how to actually arrest a thug if one pleaded to be thrown into jail. Everything else in the film is supposed to be taken with deadly seriousness. Tony Jaa is what I like to call a maestro of martial arts. Some actors and performers are good, some are very good, some are even great and then there are the few maestros. The Protector is a perfect example of why Jaa skyrocketed into popularity in the early to mid 2000s with precious few yet exemplary action films. This man can seemingly do whatever the bloody hell he wants, physically speaking. The way he dispatches his foes caused my jaw to drop on multiple occasions, which itself is a powerful reaction, but he also made me do something else. Whenever I see something so crazy, so impressive, so cool, so weird, so awe inspiring, my reaction will often be laughter. Not because what a character does is funny in the literal sense, but I laugh because of the joy I take in watching some clever and awesome transpire on screen. Tony Jaa made me laugh hard, especially in that one take when he breaks the bones of about 20 other guys in the span of 3 minutes (I’m talking about the scene after the stairwell sequence, which itself is a wonder to behold), with my personal highlight being when Tony places some poor sap’s arm between his thighs and just twists his hips to his left to break said arm. I mean, what the hell…
Directed by Prachya Pimkaew
The minds behind The Protector came bake 3 years later with another over-the-top martial arts film. This one at least had a slightly more comprehensible story, about a young autistic girl (Yanin Vismistananda) who lives with her sickly mother. Her father, a Japanese yakuza, is not longer around. The girl learns martial arts through, what else, watching television. When she incidentally becomes privy to knowledge about her mother owing some terrible gangsters serious cash, the latter whom are threatening to take action…let’s just say the heroine decides to take action first.
Chocolate may not have as many truly ‘wow!’ moments as The Protector, but it is more than a worthy followup to the previous film. In movies such as this one, it is nice to know that the action is derived out of some sort of plot which makes sense on a minimal level, although after a while, it is natural for the viewer’s interest in the so called drama to wane while his or her thirst for more combat grows. That is maybe the one fault that can be aimed at Chocolate: it does try to go for genuine emotion in the latter stages, just prior to the huge finale, but by then we really want to get to the huge finale right away. That being said, the action is top notch, performing a careful tight rope walk between comedy and hard core fighting .After all, this is but a young girl, an autistic girl for that matter, who is going about, warning big tough gangsters to stay away from her mother, and when the latter laugh it off, she absolutely thrashes them by the dozen. That can’t possibly be taken too seriously, but at the same time a lot of the action is pure bone crunching and intense. The finale of this movie may just top that from Protector in fact, as the protagonist is both chasing after someone through a series of balconies and ladders outside a building and fighting off hordes of thugs.
Directed by Ryu Seung-wan
South Korea, 2006
Watching this movie, it is rather evident that director Ryu Seung-wan was directly inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 from 3 years prior. There is something about the style, the marketing campaign and most certainly about the blood lust induced climax which echoes Tarantino’s film. The story is about a group of four long time friends, now adults, who have gone down different paths. One is a mob leader (Lee Beom-su), one is a former gang member (the director himself) one is a cop (Jung Doo-hong) and another is a math professor (Jeong Seok-yong). After the murder of one of theirs friends who worked for a gang (which is a rather obvious hint as to what is going on), the differences between the once close friends become increasingly stark, forcing them to eventually confront one another once the truth behind the matter is fully revealed.
City of Violence is one of the rare Korean martial arts films to have made it big in recent years. Truth be told, ‘martial arts action’ is not the first thing that springs to mind when asked to think about major Korean cinema of the past dozen years. Director Ryu is known for his action films however, with City of Violence being a wonderful example of his lively, energetic direction and mastery of bad-assery. The film makes some attempts at creating a sense of mystery, although anyone who has seen a couple of films with a similar plot can figure out who the culprit behind the murder is about halfway through, probably even earlier than that even. No, the selling point for this film are the set pieces. There are no intimate fights in City, only 3 or 4 elaborate set pieces, but what the movie lacks in quantity in makes up for in quality, trust me, the most audacious set piece (as well as the funniest) being when the detective and former mobster characters are wandering the streets alone one night and are suddenly confronted by what looks like hundreds of teens and young adults from four clearly different factions (one of which likes baseball! Swing batter, batter!). 2 against a couple hundred. In the world of City, it actually ends up being a pretty fair fight.
– Edgar Chaput