Monday, 29 May 2006

The Hard Word (2002) DVD

Forget about Muriel's Wedding or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy. These movies, being quirky and offbeat, will always be more well known among Australia’s film exports, but it is films like The Hard Word that provide a crystal clear and rock hard assessment on how Australian cinema has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. To gauge the development of a national film industry, it’s best to look at how well its filmmakers produce genre films. Yes, you heard me right – genre films. They’re readily identifiable, there’s very few variations to the plot we haven’t seen before, and adhere to several unwritten but iron laws. That’s why genre films are a joy to watch when done by a quality ensemble of directors, writers, and actors.

The Hard Wood is a heist film set in Australia, with the three Twentyman brothers at its heart. Tools of a corrupt justice system the brothers are experts at armed robberies where, as their motto goes, “no one gets hurt”. Engaged by crooked agents of the state, Dale (Guy Pearce), Mal (Damien Richardson) and Shane (Joel Edgerton) make a profitable living. They pull off safe heists, split the proceeds 50-50 with the governor and their criminal handlers, in return for drastically reduced jail terms, where they spend time developing healthy hobbies like reading literature, bodybuilding, and honing their culinary skills. It’s a gravy train where everyone profits, including Dale’s wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths) and Frank (Robert Taylor), the lawyer for the brothers.

But just when the brothers believe they have done their final assignment, Frank sends them word of an ambitious project, one that will enable everyone to retire in security. He wants to pull off the biggest heist in Australian history, to make off with millions of dollars of betting money from the Melbourne Cup bookies. There are some things that the slimy lawyer doesn’t tell Dale, though. For example, the fact that he’s been having an affair over the years with Carol, who is more of a gold digger than a patient and loyal wife who stands by her man. The stage is set for a tangled web of deceit, fuelled by Frank’s greed, Carol’s infidelity, Dale’s brilliance and Shane’s malevolence (Mal’s the nice, harmless brother who just wants to make the best sausages in the world). Or that he intends to kill them once they hand over their hard-earned money.

There are a few things worth looking forward to in heist movies: the double-crosses and triple-crosses, how the robbers have to outwit the security and the traitors within their midst, the execution of the heist, and the inevitable surprise twist ending. Scott Roberts delivers all of these and more. The script is refreshing and well-written, and despite their peculiarities, the criminal brothers are essentially agreeable and interesting characters that the audience won’t find it difficult to root for them or hope that they will get away alive and on top of things in the end. It’s an achievement of the writer-director that at no point will audiences find the story implausible because of its Australian setting. Production-wise, the sets, costume designs, and cinematography are so expertly done that The Hard Word looks and plays as good, if not better than other heist movies from Hollywood – even better than Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven, in fact.

The Hard Word deserves to be watched because of its brilliant execution of the genre, as well as its almost uniquely dark Aussie humour. Together with the recently released The Proposition, a violent western set in Australia starring Guy Pearce, this movie is an example of the towering heights Australian writers, directors and actors have quietly achieved.

DVD Extras

To my dismay, the standard R3 DVD release does not have a commentary track by the director. I’d like to hear Scott Roberts explain and defend the decisions he made to produce this excellent genre film. Instead, the best extra in this DVD is the featurette, which is a longer version of the trailer, with the actors explaining their roles in voiceovers. The cast and crew interview is a welcome feature, but it is too fragmentary and choppy to really enjoy in a single seating.

First published at incinemas on 29 May 2006

Saturday, 27 May 2006

Slither (2006)

B-grade horror good!

There was a time when movie tickets cost less than half as much as they do today. Then, the one thing teens looked forward to each weekend was the B-grade horror movie. They’d saunter into the cinema with their posse with huge tubs of popcorn and kachang, and be entertained by 1950s flicks with titles like They Came From Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Solidly B-grade, what these movies had going for them was a sense of exhilarating fun, kooky dialogue, and despite poor production values, imagination and creativity. That was the Golden Age of American Horror, which sadly gave way to below-par supernatural and slasher flicks, and recently, the lame-American-remake-of-Asian Horror horror genre.

Enter James Gunn, the one man who can put things right once again. Fresh out of his remake of Dawn of the Dead and his long experience as a writer at Troma Studios, Gunn knows how to blend old-school B-grade movies with modern sensibilities – with gore, gross-out effects, and plenty of humour.

Let’s take a look at the plot of Slither. A meteorite from outer space comes crashing down in a forest near a sleepy rural town with no crime, whose inhabitants feel free to walk around the streets at midnight, indulge in line dancing for fun, and get sloshed to commemorate the start of hunting season. Fortunately for the hitchhiking alien on board, Grant (Michael Rooker) is stomping through the forest to work off his disappointment from yet another bedtime rejection from his barely-legal trophy wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks). When he chances on the glowing meteorite and its cocoon-like inhabitant, the first thing he does is poke the package with a tree branch, allowing the inhabitant to invade his body and take control.

From then on, it’s a slippery slope to B-grade comic horror, with Grant mutating into a tentacle monster, spawning cute killer parasite worms that enter their victims from every orifice imaginable and turning them into flesh-eating zombies with a hive mind and ancestral memory. Plot-wise, it feels as though Gunn has raided the larder of 1950s and 1980s horror films, and thrown everything and the kitchen sink into the mixer. Looking at the visual gross-out effects, Slither feels like a cross between Alien, Species, Night of the Creeps, Tetsuo the Iron Man, and a dozen zombie flicks. The result is a surprisingly coherent, respectable, entertaining and funny creature.

It also helps that Gunn’s script is full of smart humour (even though the plot isn’t brainy in the least). Visual gags abound in the movie, as the director mines the inherent humour in rubbery slime-coated tentacles slithering up where they should not belong. Long-time horror fans will also be delighted at the many references in the script to other horror movies, including The Thing, Toxic Avenger, and Predator. I particularly liked the deadpan oneliners by the cast punctuate several gross-out set pieces. TV series like Buffy and Charmed do the same thing, but the difference is Gunn’s characters manage to sound funny and hilarious without being obnoxious smart-asses.

Slither does not set out to scare anyone in the audience. Instead, it aims to gross out the audience while making them laugh at the same time. It does not offer deep musings on the nature of the human condition and the alienation and scapegoating of the Other (we’ll leave that to film critics in universities), but delivers a fun-filled popcorn experience. While imbibing from the shock exploitation tactics of Troma films, Gunn creates a more tasteful spin on gross-out horror that easily makes Slither the best American horror film of the year, if not the decade.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

Friday, 26 May 2006

She's the Man (2006)

Amanda Bynes is unconvincing as a man, but those Abercrombie and Fitch models!

We feel that Shakespeare is just a misunderstood bloke, an ordinary homeboy whom the passage of time has done unspeakable evils to, like having the Royal Shakespeare Company perform all his plays in outlandish costumes and accents out of Masterpiece Theatre. Poor Bard. His reputation really needs to be rehabilitated, and who better to do it than the Americans, and what better way to adapt Shakespeare’s light-hearted plays as high school comedies? After all, the Lutz-Smith writing team turned The Taming of the Shrew into the immensely funny Ten Things I Hate About You two years ago.

Imagine the lasting appeal of Shakespeare if he had chosen better names for his plays!

Titus Andronicus - The Roman Chainsaw Massacre
Merchant of Venice - The Ah-long of Venice
Richard III - The Hunchback of England
Hamlet - I Know What You Did Last Summer
Romeo and Juliet - Romeo Must Die
A Midsummer Night’s Dream - A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

We also feel that football movies are embarrassingly painful to the point of unwatchability, with the possible exception of Bend It Like Beckham. So why not save both Shakespeare and football movies at the same time? Indeed, why not cross Shakespeare with football movies (along with high school comedies)?

While Bend It improved the genre single-handedly by having a female footballer, the idea of an all-girls soccer team didn’t seem credible enough to audiences. She’s The Man wisely ditches that idea early, as Viola (Amanda Bynes) finds out her school (Cornwall High) has canned the female soccer team, because “it’s a scientific fact” that women will never be as athletic as men – according to the coach of the men’s football team.

What does a girl need to do to prove herself? On the eve of getting transferred to a new high school, her twin brother, Sebastian (James Kirk), has run off in secret to England to pursue a music career (It sure beats getting shipwrecked. W Shakespeare, remember to take notes), so Viola decides to get a haircut, take on her brother’s identity, try out for the Illyria high school football team, and hopefully exact some poetic justice by scoring the winning goal for the Illyria-Cornwall match.

Now, there can be only one result when you have crossdressing twins: massive hilarity. As with other harebrained ideas, Viola’s scheme is flimsy, and in constant threat of getting exposed. How she deals with hanging around real guys in the dorms, classrooms and shower rooms (after all, she really wants to play football!) is amusing, much more so than when her ineffectual impersonation of a boy actually slips.

Does Amanda Byne look like a boy in her disguise? Of course not – she looks like a pudgy kid in elementary school, and she’s at least a head shorter than the masculine James Kirk, who plays Sebastian. It’s a relief that the script does not require its audience to suspend their disbelief, because the best laughter-inducing scenes in the movie involve how Viola resorts to rather outrageous plots to convince her friends at school of her manliness, and more importantly, how these friends actually get completely suckered, so much so that some of the girls start falling head over heels for her, while Viola starts falling hard for her roommate, Duke Orsino.

Since Amanda Bynes looks nothing like a boy and her feminine curves are no longer seen after the first 15 minutes, this movie will not attract the hot-blooded male demographic. Instead, the real star of the show is Channing Tatum, who stars as Duke Orsino. A model for Abercrombie and Fitch and underwear catalogues, Tatum takes every chance he can to show off his sculpted body and drive the females (and some boys) in the cinema to distraction.

Coming off from a torrent of heavy summer blockbusters, audiences searching for lighter fare will be entertained and tickled by the improbable love triangles involving crossdressing twins and mistaken identities. The only misgiving I have with She’s The Man is its reluctance to leverage more out of the gender confusion mayhem. Here, it appears more strait-laced, prim and proper than a certain bawdy bard.

First published at incinemas on 1 June 2006

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

X -Men: The Last Stand (2006)

In this movie, everyone's a cameo!

The best thing you could do before stepping into the cinema to watch X-men: The Last Stand would be to quickly rewatch X-men and X2 on DVD. Given the 3-year gap between each movie, it’s best to freshen your memory. If the earlier films in the X-men trilogy spent too little time to the background stories of the mutant heroes and villains, the third film assumes its audience have either done their homework or are fans of the Marvel comic book series, and jumps straight into the action when the opening credits fade.

In fact, that’s what I expect a good trilogy to do – leave the introductions, the necessary but tedious explanations to the opening film, the development and build-up to the middle film, so that the final film can concentrate on the payoff. Despite managing to crank up the action (the movie breezes through at 105 minutes, half an hour shorter than its predecessor), the concluding chapter does not gell well with the feel of the previous films, due to the replacement of director and writer Bryan Singer with Brett Ratner.

Signs of the change are apparent as the movie develops: Ratner has a slightly bigger budget, which he largely devotes to scenes that are there to call attention to the expensive special effects and CGI – some of which are gratuitous, jaw-dropping, or even both at the same time. Ratner has made a movie that is designed to engage and impress the eye of the audience, and his decision to focus on visuals is reasonably justifiable.

The death of Jean Grey in X2 segues flawlessly into her resurrection in The Last Stand. The resurrection unleashes Phoenix, the split personality of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Yes, you heard that right. Ratner radically rewrites many characters in the movie even when adapting them from the original comic books. The mentally unstable Phoenix is the most powerful mutant on the planet, surpassing the strengths of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). That provides plenty of excuses for dramatic special effects set-pieces that occur when Jean Grey loses control of her wild half.

Providing the other half of the rudimentary plot is the discovery of a cure for mutants. As a result of a botched operation by Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a pharmaceutical company pre-emptively announces its discovery of a permanent cure for mutants. That’s a intriguing dilemma for all mutants: should they line up in droves to become normal again and to escape daily persecution, discrimination, fear and distrust from the rest of humanity, or insist – in the words of Storm (Halle Berry, still underutilised) – that there is nothing to be cured, that being a mutant isn’t a sickness? Or should mutants rise up, destroy the cure by any means possible because, as Magneto suggests, this is not a cure but a genocidal tool to wipe out mutants?

Alas, Brett Ratner is not Bryan Singer. These moral and ethical themes would’ve been a natural progression from Singer’s use of the civil rights movement, racial discrimination, bigotry and political witch hunts to create parallels between the real world and the mutant universe, but the spectre of a genocide masquerading as a cure for a “medical condition” is quickly glossed over. That’s a major disappointment, keeping in mind how Singer worked these heavy themes and social issues into the first two X-men movies, and showed how their impact on the lives of the main characters. And that’s why the most powerful and best-written scene in the entire trilogy belongs to X2, where Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, who returns for the final film) comes out as a mutant to his parents.

On another note, it’s entirely possible that this movie has even more new mutant heroes and villains that X2. So much more that even the long-awaited appearances of Beast (Kelsey Grammer, underutilised and given no witty lines for a witty character) and Angel (Ben Foster) blur into the storm of cameos and walk-on appearances.

While the script and dialogue clearly don’t measure up to the standards of the previous film, The Last Stand still does some things right. Rebecca Romijn returns in the movie as Mystique, with her delicious blue stick-on beads, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has an obligatory shirtless scene, and Ian McKellen raises his eyebrows, waves his hands, and waggles his fingers so charmingly as he fights off soldiers and fellow mutants. Too bad he doesn’t have any wicked lines this time round, though.

On its own, The Last Stand is a perfectly acceptable comic book adaptation, whose only flaw is its over-reliance on special effects and eye candy, which take away some of the emotional impact of the final scenes. It tells a remarkably coherent tale compared to stinkers like Catwoman and Elektra, but considering its place in a movie trilogy, The Last Stand comes as a mild disappointment – it’s better than X-men the movie, but weaker than X2.

The Last Stand will eventually be seen not as a concluding episode of a great trilogy, but as a weak but necessary “middle movie” paving the way for the inevitable Mystique, Wolverine and Magneto spin-off movies.

And one more thing: do sit through the credits at the end for a special scene.

First published at incinemas on 25 May 2006

Friday, 19 May 2006

Over the Hedge (2006)

Creeping suburbanisation is bad, mmm'kay?

In an animation film, when suburbia encroaches on the forest, a struggle begins between the ruthless, out-of-control consumerist values of humanity and the holistic philosophy of nature. Caught in the middle, the cast of characters try to achieve a delicate balance between their home and the alien habitat over the hedge, to find a way to adapt to the inevitable, irresistible, and permanent change in their environment. This would normally be Hayao Miyazaki territory (witness Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, replete with satire, drama, and a bludgeoning environmental consciousness. Dreamworks, however, takes a lighter tack and brings audiences a winsome comedy fit for the entire family.

Over The Hedge is a CGI animation featuring cute, cuddly creatures making various jokes that will amuse its audience, along with dizzying non-stop action sequences that have animated characters careening from one end of the screen to the other. Yes, there are the requisite bodily function jokes (two in total) that are perfect for the kiddies, but there is also clever wordplay from Gary Shandling and Bruce Willis for sophisticated comic strip readers, and an extended Pepe Le Pew send-up by Wanda Sykes, perfect for older audiences weaned on Merrie Melodies reruns. If you can see beyond the CGI, you’ll notice that the cast of characters, the clean dialogue, and their pleasant interaction is a return to old-school Disney animal cartoons, and a rejection of the pop-culture laden taken by Shark Tale.

Over The Hedge is also an intelligent spoof of summer action product placement movies. This movie features an unimaginable amount of generic junk food – to the same degree that humans collect pokemons, the critters in Over The Hedge collect junk food. The running joke is this cartoon looks a well-disguised 96-minute commercial, featuring delicacies like hamburgers, nachos, potato chips, soft drinks and Sony PSP-like devices, while the 3D characters resemble those plastic figurines that come with the Happy Meals sold at fast food joints. Kids will get the joke after a while, and I am impressed with how the writing team has managed to insert their criticisms of rampant consumerism in such a palatable and non-preachy manner.

You get the feeling that the cartoon celebrates, even exults in the junk food it is supposed to critique, that life in the suburbs is portrayed by the animators as far more interesting and manic than life in the great outdoors. Perhaps that is a result of the writers’ deliberate toning down of the edgier satire and alternative feel of the comic strip, but the movie manages to stand on its own terms. At least we get to hear 3 pieces from the subversive and profane Ben Fold, who does a more than competent impression of Phil Collins.

To adapt a disjointed and impressionistic comic strip to film, the writing team has created a smart and somewhat original (for a cartoon) storyline. RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis) the crafty racoon has disturbed the hibernation of the mafia-like Vincent the bear (Nick Nolte), in a failed attempt to steal his food supplies. Vincent gives RJ two weeks to replace all the missing food, but with time running out RJ spots a forest “developed” into a sprawling suburbia and a park, and seizes on a winning idea. What better way to replenish Vincent’s food supply than to raid a suburban neighbourhood, with the help of the encroached scavenger animals?

Adult audiences will pleased with the similarities to other heist movies, while their children squeal in laughter at the sight gags and manic sequences. Because of this, families are advised to flock to Over The Hedge this month since there is no middle ground between the adult-themed MI:3 and the adult-rated Da Vinci Code.

First published at incinemas on 19 May 2006

Thursday, 18 May 2006

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Experience the phenomenon of a poor screen adaptation!

If you care to watch this movie, keep in mind the 3 golden rules of print to screen adaptations:

1. Great books tend to produce disappointing movies
2. Trashy, pulpy, or even bad books tend to make great movies
3. Only with a great director can a great book be made into a great movie

The year-long studio campaign, the media hype, the court cases, and above all, the religious controversy – all these have contributed to an air of expectation for the movie. You expect it to be nothing less than phenomenal, yet audiences will go away with an uneasy feeling of being conned into watching an overlong, dialogue-heavy, dull movie.

It’s worse if you’ve read Dan Brown’s pulp thriller. The book had a strong cinematic quality, its zippy prose and very short chapters bouncing the reader between different characters and locations, all within a 24-hour storyline, without any gaps or pauses between the chapters. Yet the film (a reasonably faithful adaptation) plays like more a book, with characters slowing the action down to a crawl every 20 minutes to explain the intricacies of the plot. Yes, the characters do the same in the novel, but Dan Brown’s throwaway word style make readers forget that the expository quality of his expositions, while Ron Howard’s unimaginative and dull directing, fuelled by lifeless portrayals from the woefully miscast and mismatched pair of Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, hammer in the tedious nature of much of the film’s dialogue. Only Ian McKellen, as Leigh Teabing, adds a zest to the grim proceedings with his dizzy portrait of a 70-year-old Holy Grail and church conspiracy fanboy. I suspect he was the only actor on the set who had a fun time with the script.

Not all the film is like that. In the first 10 minutes, Ron Howard skilfully compresses the first 70 pages of the novel by intercutting between Robert Langdon’s (Tom Hanks) lecture on symbology with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, keeper of the world’s most powerful secret and a master puzzle-maker. I cannot comprehend why the initial spark of innovation sputtered out completely by the time Sauniere’s granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou) appears on the scene to save Langdon from the clutches of a policeman (Jean Reno) determined to pin Langdon for the murder. As a result of Ron Howard’s failure of imagination and nerve, the film feels overlong – it is in dire need of the fast and creative editing we see the first 10 minutes. So overlong that the final third of the movie was actually a chore to sit through, and the final 20 minutes felt unnecessary and anticlimactic.

Do note that The Da Vinci Code has been passed uncut under the NC-16 rating by the Board of Censors. Its members feel that “only a mature audience will be able to discern and differentiate between fact and fiction”, surely an admission that Singapore’s world class education system has failed to teach to young children the difference between fact and fiction.

First published at incinemas on 19 May 2006

Love Story (2006)

Delightfully postmodern, smart and intellectual

You are about to begin reading my review for Kelvin Tong’s latest film. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Find the most comfortable position: in an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the bed. Because you’re the sort of person who no longer expects anything of anything, especially movies, the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. So, then, you notice in newspapers and websites the release of Love Story, a new movie by Kelvin Tong, who hasn’t made a non-commercial movie in years. You plan to watch it in a cinema and are now reading the review first. Good for you.

It’s even better if you realise how much Kelvin Tong borrows the concept for this movie from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. It means that Love Story is a string of short romance movies stringed together, or perhaps nestled in one another, occurring either in the mind of a second-rate pulp romance writer played by Allen Lin, freely adapted from relations he has with women he picks up at the library, or in his published books sold on the romance section in bookshops, or perhaps in a movie called Love Story that you will be watching shortly after.

As with Italo Calvino’s effort, Kelvin Tong’s film becomes a warehouse of genre writing. While Calvino showcases a gamut of real and fictitious genres, Tong examines pulp romance in all its flimsy settings, from the political thriller romance to the raunchy crime romance, from melodrama to soft core porn, with the male protagonist, who may be a writer played by Allen Lin, or the self-image of that writer, mouthing one well-worn cliché after another to the various female leads in each short story segment.

The effect is the subtle undermining of reality itself, accompanied with enough whimsy that you’ll laugh along with Tong’s elaborate joke instead of feeling affronted by it. You’ll really need a good sense of humour, a sophisticated intellectual mooring, or a background in postmodern literature to accept that the high point of this movie is its corny lines, deliberately shallow acting and accented Mandarin from its female leads, and its overabundance of clichés. It worked on me, at least.

Yet, as Tong’s clever script tumbles from story to story to the dramatic (or more appropriately overdramatic) final act, you may feel the shift from the first 3 pulp romances to the key plot or the ‘real plot’ has not been accompanied with a real emotional or plot build-up. Herein lies the greatest weakness of Love Story: at its heart, the movie doesn’t present much variety in terms of the genre or subgenres it aims to parody – the protagonist plays the same tacky lines in every segment. While the screenplay is smart and clever, it is far too restrained and a tad academic, lacking the sense of far-out fun that was so crucial in the success of “If on a winter’s night a traveller”.

If Kelvin Tong wishes to dabble in the postmodern and in metafiction, he should have gone all the way with his script, extending his literary joke to engulf the movie itself, instead of just its constituent short stories. The fact that he stops short of doing this makes the film feel safely contained, constrained - an artifice and an artefact instead of an organic facet of the artificer.

There are reasons to be impressed with Love Story. Even with a difficult medium like digital video, director of photography Chiu Wai Yin manages to create a palate of soft visuals, playing with colour and lighting, rendering the familiar Singapore cityscape into something barely recognisable, something authentically fictional. I’d personally rave about how Chiu composes each scene using dramatic and artistic angles, and how Joe Ng layers whispers, raindrops, and moody piano chords into a soundtrack that at times becomes a full-fledged member of the cast. That the crew took just 16 days to wrap up production is even more shocking. How did they spend so little time making something that looks this good?

I really hope that this film will be able to attract a wider audience despite its unconventional theme. Love Story is simply the best local production to date, one that looks classy, professionally made, and is a real piece of cinema – there’s no way you can mistake this for a Mediacorp telemovie. It’s good enough for me to forgive Kelvin Tong for directing the hilarious travesty called The Maid last year. Since Tong has announced plans to direct The Maid: A New Beginning, you’d better pray that he has another winner like Love Story up his sleeve.

Notes: Kelvin Tong won the Best Director for Love Story in the Silver Screen Awards during the 2006 Singapore International Film Festival.

First published at incinemas on 25 May 2006

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) DVD

Yes, Chronicles looks flat and low budget despite its CGI

My wish is that by 2050, the world will come to see the Narnia and LOTR sagas as what they really are: reactionary post-war propaganda. Tolkien and Lewis reacted to the horrors of the two World Wars by retreating into fantasy, to worlds where the good were the beautiful and the ugly were the wicked, where the good and the just, guided by values of loyalty, duty, sacrifice, heroism and leadership, are called upon to wage war and lay waste to their enemies. In the real world, the Nazis believed in the superiority of the beautiful Aryan race and all those values as well.

However, we don’t have to wait 44 years to realise that Narnia can’t hold a candle to Middle Earth. While being close friends, members of the same society, and fellow devout Christians, JRR Tolkien was contemptuous of the work of CS Lewis. He (and a succession of literary critics) complained the Narnia series was blatantly and naively theological. As this movie is a reasonably faithful screen adaptation of the novel, the criticisms still ring true.

For readers who have not read the book, here’s the quick summary. Packed off to a remote country estate during the height of the Battle of Britain, the 4 Pevensie siblings discover a portal in a wardrobe to the magical world of Narnia, ruled by the devious and cruel White Witch, who has smothered the land under a hundred-year winter. The sibs are recruited by the underground resistance of talking animals and mythological creatures to lead the army to reclaim Narnia for its creator and true ruler, the messianic lion Aslan.

Both in print and on screen, the best way to look at The Chronicles of Narnia is to treat it as LOTR for children – a watered down and more naïve LOTR. Take, for example, the call to heroism of ordinary folk (the Pevensie children here, the hobbits there). In the movie, the children fight the war largely because every creature (including Tilda Swinton’s White Witch) addresses them as kings and queens. Morally shallow, their decision is borne out of the escapist fantasy of every child to be a secret royalty in a faraway land.

Perhaps director Andrew Adamson’s biggest mistake is to latch the final act of the movie on a grand battle. Bloodless and whitewashed, the battle lacks the grand feel or the sense of real danger of the battle in Return of the King, which audiences will involuntarily be reminded of. On the screen, the landscape of Narnia lacks the sense of wonderment evoked in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, even though Chronicles was also filmed in New Zealand. It’s just a snow field with a tiny pointy castle, and a field in a valley. After the magical creatures in LOTR and even Harry Potter, the animals here come across as pedestrian and unmagical.

Even the sacrifice of Aslan at the Stone Table is unconvincing. The Christian symbolism in the dialogue (“It is done!” Liam Neeson’s Aslan proclaims at one point) was laid on so thick my head is ringing from the impact. Visually and theatrically, though, the scene was laughable – the messiah’s humiliation by the White White and her minions is rather tame – they merely shaved off his mane. I was hoping for some jeering, spitting, and the throwing of rotten food items. This entire scene should’ve been directed by Mel Gibson instead.

Adamson is so faithful to Lewis’s original novel that he does not inject any modern sensibilities in the movie, or update it for the new millennium. Unlike the directors of Harry Potter and LOTR, when Adamson does make up scenes and details on his own, he fails drastically to improve on the source material. Take for example the final battle between the two forces, where falcons and phoenixes are used to pummel the White Witch’s army with rock and fire. Poor CS Lewis will be aghast at the idea that the British children would employ Luftwaffe bombing tactics on their evil foes. Or the inclusion of a new Badger character, an offscreen friend of Beaver. Mr. Beaver has a secret tunnel leading from his dam to Badger's house (although he has always told his wife that it led to his Mum’s). Mrs Beaver disapproves of the amount of time Beaver spent with Badger, leading us to think there would be a Brokeback Mountain scene somewhere.

The cardboard movie is saved by the acting of Tilda Swinton, who looks like the only actor in the cast having fun on the set. Menacing and palpably evil, she brings the limp landscape to life in all her scenes. Honourable mentions go to Georgie Henley, the lone Pevensie sibling who exudes real wonder in the strange world of Narnia.

I read all 7 of Lewis’s Narnia books as a child. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is easily the best book of the series, which got even more blatantly Christian and hectoring with each successive book. If Adamson intends to make a franchise out of Narnia, I hope this isn’t as good as it gets.

DVD Extras

The blooper reel, showing various production errors and the cast having fun, is the best of the 3 features for the normal edition DVD. Yet the problem is that you’ll have to be very interested to watch the entire movie over and over again to get the full use of the extras. And you’ll be more than reminded of the little imperfections of the Chronicles of Narnia with every viewing.

There are 2 audio commentaries. The director and his stars have some fun recounting their favourite scenes in the movie, but the tykes are silent in the parts that aren’t their favourites. This track is missable. The second one, with the director and his production team, is slightly more interesting, as they explain their efforts to create the sets of Narnia, given some unexpected hitches.

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2006

Monday, 15 May 2006

The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) DVD

Once, a classmate tried to argue that golf is a working class sport. Comfort taxi drivers, she claimed, do pay to play at some golfing facilities. “Look, I don’t understand why you keep saying golf is a sport for elites.” Years later, I still stand by what I said. It’s very difficult to sell golf as a sport for the common man, not the least because country and golf club memberships cost a million nowadays – you can pay an hourly fee for the golf course and club rental, but you’ll never be allowed in the main club facilities.

In 1900 and 1904, golf was an Olympic sport, but was dropped subsequently because the crowds didn’t warm to the game and the elite set it attracted. Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), the British Open champion, won the US Open in 1900. The working class champion was nonetheless denied membership to gentlemen’s country clubs, which saw him as nothing more than a professional golfer, a wage labourer unsuited for entry in Society. 10 years later, Francis Ouimet (Shia Labeouf), an impoverished American caddy and amateur, will astonish the world and defy his father’s wishes to “mind your own place” by becoming America’s greatest hope against Vardon’s second British invasion of the US Open.

Due to its social background, a sports movie on golf will eventually end up talking about the class struggle. It helps that both Ouimet and antagonist Vardon are working class heroes, struggling to be the best, in spite of or because of elitist bias against golf players like them. Both characters, despite their US Open rivalry, are players ruled by honesty, sportsmanship, and compassion. Both are also haunted by the class struggle (in the form of obnoxious Lord Northcliffe, the sponsor of the British team and the snotty father of Ouimet’s love interest) and their own internal fears of not being good enough to belong.

This would be one of the rare Disney sports movies that doesn’t make the opposing team the villains. It is certainly the only sports movie I know of that looks radically different from the rest of the genre. This is partly due to the nature of the sport, which involves no physical contact at all between its competitors, but also the focus on the psychological game. As Vardon points out in a golf primer that Ouimet reads before the Opens begin, “there are only 2 types of players: one who concentrates and keeps his head in the game and wins championships, and those who don’t.”

To keep viewers entertained in what looks really boring on television, director Paxton uses CGI effects to track the trajectory of balls, in order to make the game look really dynamic. If that’s not enough, there’s always moments of zen, where the golf masters must erase all spectators (and hence distractions) from their mind’s eye to visualise an empty field. Moments like that kept reminding me of The Karate Kid, and the old gentleman (Len Cariou) who plays mentor to Ouimet does look like Mr Miyagi anyway. There’s also an improbable little kid (Josh Flitter) who gives Ouimet golfing advice, for the ultimate Disney touch. (To my surprise, Francis Ouimet really did have a 10-year-old caddy during that match!)

These distractions aside, Bill Paxton has created a remarkable but underrated sports movie that deserves to be watched by more people. Its mature storytelling had me cheering for both Vardon and Ouimet, and since when had a sports movie do that to its viewers?

DVD Extras

There aren’t many extras on this DVD, but what we have is well produced. There is the entertaining making-of featurette, “Two legends and the greatest game”, where the director, writer, and various actors give more information about the background and concept of the movie and how they came to be involved with it (look out for Lebouf’s charming tale!). There’s also “A view from the gallery”, which delves into the historical figures of Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet, and how they both changed the face of professional golfing with their innovation and sheer excellence of execution.

If you’re buying considering buying this DVD, do take note that it lacks the basic commentary by the director and writer, as well as the 25 minute feature “From Caddie to Champion: Francis Ouimet”, a 1963 broadcast of an interview with the 70-year-old golfer, where he recreates the match for the viewers.

First published at incinemas on 15 May 2006

Saturday, 13 May 2006

The Tiger Blade (2005)

Tiger Blade is Thailand’s answer to Mission: Impossible

Like horror movies, your response to The Tiger Blade will be in the danger zone should you watch this flick alone in the cinema. Instead, grab your friends for the movie outing, because its trashiness can only be properly appreciated in a large giggling crowd.

The bare basics of the plot – and they remain at the bare basics even as the movie plays out – involve the events following a prison break by a former guerrilla army commander. Fighting for the independence of his subjugated ethnic nation in neighbouring Burma, the commander teams up with government turncoats, crooked politicians, psychotic gangsters, and a bullet-proof crime lord to pull off the biggest heist in Thailand. Trying to foil his plans is super agent Yos (Atsadawut Luengsuntorn), his leading lady Dao (Phimonrat Phisarayabud) and team-mates from his high tech, top secret special agency.

Since the crime lord and his entire gang are fitted with mystical tattoos and headbands conferring immunity to firearms (surely the Boxer Rebellion people should sue for copyright infringement here?), and even though this is an action movie, Yos decides not to fight hand-to-hand with them, but wastes half an hour of the movie trying to obtain the mystical “Metal Talisman Sword”. This rusty sword may or may not be the Tiger Blade of the title. Due to the deliciously bad subtitling, I had the impression that Tiger Blade is the nickname of super agent Yos. But back to the story. the Tiger Blade makes all of 3 short appearances in the movie, 2 of them anti-climatic, truncated, and unimpressive fights occurring in the middle of the film instead of the final fight scenes.

That’s not to say The Tiger Blade isn’t a good action movie. The movie feels as though director Siripanwaraporn drafted the fight sequences first, then wrote the script around them. As a result, you will feel that there are fights and street or road chases every 5 minutes. You might want to bring a stopwatch to time this, and win some bets with your friends (that’s why I suggested bringing them along).

My biggest annoyance with the fight scenes are the obvious toning down and self-censorship – despite the liberal use of guns, bombs and knives, there is not a single drop of blood on screen. Since the film is already rated M18 due to a sexual assault scene, I demand blood, gore, and decapitations! The fights are choreographed nicely, but one has the urge to scream at the director to hire better stuntwomen for the fight scenes. Or at least cough up money to get Tony Jaa into a wig to perform the fight sequences for the female characters. The chase sequences were serviceable, but I had the impression one of them was a re-creation of the Bangkok street chase from Ong Bak, shot for shot.

The cast is a little wooden, but more than sufficient for the demands of the B-movie script. Yos’s elite team comes across as mostly one-note characters whose deficiency is all the more pronounced outside the fight scenes. The sole exception is Annan Bunnak as the devastatingly witty and fat cop with the code name of “Redbeard”. The villains, though, are brilliantly insane in the typical Bond villain/henchmen manner, their entrances announced with a title card and flashback to their pasts, and well, they just look so much more interesting than the good guys. I suspect they had more fun, too.

The Tiger Blade, despite its solid B-movie status and flaws, should entertain easily. It has almost non-stop action, occasional comic humour, captivating villains, and a good looking lead actor.

First published at incinemas on 18 May 2006

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

The Last Samurai (2003) R3 DVD

Ken Watanabe's dream is to die in the arms of Tom Cruise when the cherry blossoms bloom

The Last Samurai feels like Dances With Wolves so much, I wanted to call it Dances With Kimino. The entertaining yarn tells the tale of a battle-shocked veteran of General Custer’s Indian campaigns. Reduced by white man’s guilt and the bottle into a travelling sideshow performer, Captain Algren (Tom Cruise) is given a chance at meaningful existence – he is invited by representatives of Emperor Meiji of the Empire of Japan to help train the Imperial Army in modern warfare and suppress a samurai rebellion in Satsuma. When the army is forced in a strategic error to engage the samurais too early, the imperial forces are decimated, and Algren is captured by General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

During his captivity, Algren comes to appreciate their culture, gain their respect (it involves taking more frequent baths), and learn the ways of the samurai. In short, he goes native, just short of joining their cause.

History and Japan buffs will complain about the exoticised, romanticised, and wildly inaccurate setting of the movie. I call on them to ignore that for the time being and just enjoy the flick. Tom Cruise is great as a clumsy oaf who manages to master the katana, sufficiently to dispatch 6 opponents in single combat, with an instant replay! Ken Watanabe is perfect as a poet-warrior who longs for nothing more than to die in Tom Cruise’s arms as the cherry blossoms fall!

The script is full of wildly improbable and ridiculously overwrought lines like "They are an intriguing people... I have never seen such discipline" (a nod to appreciating different cultures), "What does it mean to be samurai?" (a nod to intercultural understanding), and in a nod to pseudo-Eastern crypto-religious philosophy, "You believe a man can change his destiny?" "I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed", or even "I am a living god, as long as I do what they think is right." Like Dances With Wolves, Cruise’s white male hero gets to teach Emperor Meiji the ways of the samurai, to save the Japanese from amoralistic American villains.

All this is trashy and laughable nonsense, but it works on some level anyway. It still manages to thrill, excite, and entertain, despite the inaccuracies and poor dialogue. Tom Cruise is at his charismatic best since Born on the Fourth of July, while Ken Watanabe deserves his Best Supporting Actor Oscar award. Kabuki star Shichinosuke Nakamura brings an elegant restraint as the Emperor, while Timothy Spall was deliciously enjoyable as a colonial Brit interpreter.

The whole struggle of modernisation vs tradition thing adds depth to this Hollywood epic. Of course, some liberties were taken – Japan enthusiastically adopted firearms in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese traders, and in the historical Satsuma rebellion, the samurai fought with cannons and firearms, but were overwhelmed by numbers, not necessarily superior technology. And by the Meiji era, the samurai were not much of a warrior class, but an aristocracy steeped in the arts, and serving as bureaucrats and administrators.

In The Last Samurai, Hollywood has remade Dances With Wolves with gleaming Western technology mowing down primitive Japanese samurai instead of Indians.

DVD Extras

History buffs will appreciate the balanced “History vs Hollywood” feature, a mini-documentary that can stand on its own, if it were broadcast on the History Channel. Indeed, the best features are geared towards students of history and historical re-creations, from costumes to weaponry to production design. “A world of detail”, “Silk and armor”, “Production design with Lilly Kilvert” and “From soldier to samurai” will satiate your historical cravings.

The conversation between Cruise and the director is too creepy for words. It’s like these men have a mutual admiration thing that goes too far, while Tom Cruise explains the major themes and his artistic vision of the film in “A warrior’s journey”.

There are only 2 deleted scenes in the DVD feature, but they make a world of difference to the movie. Zwick explains why they were cut even though these were arresting scenes (a samurai beheads an official who openly mocks him in a street) and important (Elgren and Katsumoto discuss artillery weapons in their first conversation). Given the soppy, fairy-tale like ending of the theatrical release, I was expecting an alternate ending that was rejected because it would not appeal to American audiences.

The Japan premiere feature is botched up. While the actors all speak in Japanese, there are no English subtitles available for people who can’t read traditional Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Bahasa Indonesia.

First published at incinemas on 9 May 2006

Friday, 5 May 2006

Bewitching Attraction (여교수의 은밀한 매력) (2006)

Remember to respect your elders and teachers; Korea is more Confucian a society than China.

Despite limping far worse than Herr Otto Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo, vocational college lecturer Cho Eun-sook (Moon So-ri) exudes confidence and raw sex appeal. An environmental activist and poet in her free time, the prof charms a succession of men into relationships with her. After conquering her male colleagues in the university, Eun-sook is in the middle of a genuine love affair with a production director (Park Won-sang) from a television station when comics illustrator Park Suk-gyu (Ji Jin-hee) is hired by the college cartoon illustration department. The new arrival disconcerts Eun-sook, whose distress unnerves Mr Yoo (Yoo Seung-mok), a fellow environmental activist who has been carrying a torch for the prof. Will Mr Yoo get the woman of his dreams to reciprocate his love? Will he unravel, then get over the possibly scandalous secret that ties Eun-sook and Suk-gyu together?

Since 2000, Lee Ha has produced and directed a series of short films that have won local and international awards. Even in his eventual leap to commercial feature films, the director retains his arthouse and independent streak and creates a film that engages the funny bone easily, and through its twisted sensibilities, also provides food for serious thought on the hypocrisy of people in real life.

The humour in Bewitching Attraction is deliciously perverse that it qualifies as black comedy. On the surface, the movie merely links together sex scenes of Eun-sook and her lovers with sequences of her meticulously plotted (yet bizarre) seductions, which are often funny in themselves. The key to Lee Ha’s masterpiece is to treat it as a social farce poking fun at strait-laced Korean society. Polite, respectable society (as well as respectable mainstream films in Korea) studiously ignores the bodily self. As Montaigne puts it, “Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses”, and what better way to illustrate that non-rational, untameable part of humanity than to suggest that professors, who are accorded the highest respect by Koreans, are even more obsessed with sex than ordinary people? Or that when they do it, it is just as noisy and messy.

The other half to this movie’s comedy is its subversion of idea of romantic love. Subverting Schopenhauer’s claim that love is merely an uncontrollable, subconscious and non-rational programmatic response of otherwise rational humans to the will to life and the continuation of the species, Lee Ha’s script proposes that these urges, in reality, are more of a cosmic joke that brings people completely wrong for each other together, for all the wrong reasons, with nothing less than disastrous outcomes. That all the players in Bewitching Attraction misunderstand their own motivations in the game of love, their own objective attractiveness to potential partners, put on all the wrong moves - and still manage to get what they want! - provides much situational comedy that at times veers into farce.

In this anti-comedy, the characters are so consistently off-beat, off cue and off colour that they become perfectly on note, and the comic payoff, perfectly timed. It takes great skill to produce a script that delivers the laughs from such a difficult concept. If you watch only one movie a month, save it for Bewitching Attraction. It is a truly entertaining and funny black comedy on sexual and social mores, and movies like this don’t come often.

First published at incinemas on 13 July 2006

Thursday, 4 May 2006

Voice Letter 여고괴담 4: 목소리 (2005)

Beware the Korean Horror out-of-nowhere twist ending!

The horror genre is one of the most resistant to innovation in cinema. So when someone makes a groundbreaking horror film, every other director will follow his lead and for the next few years, audiences will be subjected to diverse variations on the same theme, produced with varying degrees of skill – mostly decreasing. That is essentially the story of Ringgu and the current Asian Horror Wave. As a stickler for innovation and quality in cinema, I’ve been looking forward to the arrival of Voice, the latest instalment in the Yeogo Goedam franchise of horror films set in Korean all-girls’ schools. While Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori set the tone for the series with their serious social commentary on life in Korean schools, Wishing Stairs was a major let-down in terms of story (a muddled mess), thrills (riping off sequences from Ringgu and other Asian Horror Wave films), as well as social subtext (petty competition between friends isn’t as hard-hitting as abusive teachers or sapphism). Voice will either rejuvenate the series or sink it entirely.

There isn’t much horror in Voice for me to play up on its horror angle. Instead, the selling point of the movie is in its twist: budding choral singer Young-eon (Kim Ok-bin) is apparently killed by a ghost when she stays back in school one evening to practise her pieces, and now her ghostly self must work together with her best friend and classmate Jee-myun (Seo Ji-hye) to piece together who killed her and why, before more killings take place, as well as search for her missing body. It’s almost like a Sixth Sense in reverse. Topping up the cast for the ghostly mystery are the school’s resident psychic and psycho Cho-ah (Cha Ye-rin) and Heui-yeong (Kim Seo-hyeong), the creepy but sexy music teacher who appears to know more about the disappearance of her favourite student than she lets on.

Since this is a Yeogo Goedam film, do expect the obligatory lesbian sub-plot and attempts at creating arresting cinematography. These feature nicely in sequences where Young-eon’s ghost steps through a metaphysical gateway into the world of her memories. The effect and lighting is good, but I thought the cinematographer could’ve chosen a different look – the transitions he chooses accentuate the special effects rather than highlight the psychological turn of this horror film.

Indeed, the psychological turn is so important that it replaces the customary Yeogo Goedam focus on serious social problems in schools. Voice invests much of its script to explore the depths of the relationships between Young-eon, Jee-myun, Cho-ah, and their teacher. There is more than sufficient material to create a classic right there, but director and writer Choe Ik-hwan is unable to resist the gestures towards the horror genre. But tell me, why should a ghost be afraid of sudden and ominous noises at all? The attempts to inject horror into a perfectly fine supernatural thriller tend to go off-key and sour. The intimate and psychological drama that the writers took to develop carefully quickly unravels into incoherence as they cannot resist adding last minute revelations that create more plot holes instead of illuminating the viewers, a tragic feature of lesser Korean horror films nowadays. If you can figure out the confused ending and the incomprehensible coda that plays out at the end credits, you are either the writers of the movie or a psychic.

In the story, 3 of the main characters are either talented singers or musicians, but the soundtrack of Voice is surprisingly awful. The instruments are fine, but the actresses (most making their jump from television to the big screen) simply cannot sing at all. Not only do they sound perpetually out of breath, they also seem to be singing from a phonetic script that mangles every possible vowel and consonant in the beautiful Latin and English pieces they perform throughout the movie.

While Voice is clearly an improvement over its disastrous predecessor and a brilliant concept movie, its sometimes weak execution make it a lesser film than Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori. Horror fans itching for a radical twist in the genre may want to look forward to the next Yeogo Goedam instalment (with fingers crossed), or the forthcoming Death Note (a horror-murder mystery from the point of view of the murderer) movies in June and December.

First published at incinemas on 11 May 2006

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I declare M:I3 the summer blockbuster product placement action movie of the year!

JJ Abrams is better known as the writer, producer, and director of gripping television spy series Alias. With this experience, JJ Abrams has a deeper understanding and respect of television serials than the previous directors of the Mission Impossible series. You can count on Abrams to deliver a script that is more true to the feel and vision of the original television series, and one that is just as intelligent and complex as any episode in the series, or even a James Bond movie.

Audiences will realise even as the opening credits roll, that M:I3 is not just far superior to M:I2 (John Woo’s music video bulletfest dramatic ballets felt so out of place), or everything the Mission Impossible series should have started out as, but it rivals even the James Bond series, in terms of villains, explosions, and explosive chase sequences involving multiple forms of transport, and a plot set in various corners of the globe. Abrams also sets down what audiences expect to see in future instalments as well: the traitor/mole betraying Ethan Hunt’s entire team, Ethan Hunt hanging suspended by a cable wire, latex masks, and the prerequisite amount of plot twists, reversals, and double-crosses.

Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci begin the movie with great storytelling – in a flashforward, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is apparently captured by cold villain Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is about to extract some valuable information using a most nasty and painful method. In present time, the film begins again with a mission that will be familiar to fans of the original series: Ethan and his team must retrieve an agent who has been captured by Hoffman’s international weapons smuggler. However, the agent possesses a secret that may lead to the identity of the agency operative who betrayed her, as well as Hoffman’s most dangerous arms deal to date.

The rest of the movie is decently plotted, with minimal plot holes, a fine balance of action sequences alternating with slower espionage/mindgame scenes, and for once, Abrams correctly focuses on the M:I team as a collaborative effort instead of just a supporting cast for Ethan Hunt’s superspy character. While Tom Cruise impresses by acting in his own stunts, the rest of the cast really shine in their portrayal of a well-honed and close-knit operations team. Rhys-Meyers is the pilot and driver, Rhames is the tech specialist, and Maggie Q is the explosives expert. In a sly wink to Alias, there’s even a computer nerd (played by Simon Pegg) in headquarters who helps the team out.

Mission: Impossible got off on a bad start by making Ethan Hunt, instead of the team, the centre of the movie, John Woo made it worse by changing the spy movie into a Hong Kong stylised gunfight stuntman show, but finally JJ Abrams brings the franchise to the level it was destined for. Mission: Impossible is to the World Cup as James Bond is to the Olympics.

It’s a sign that the franchise has finally arrived, when MI:3 has as many product placements and cool gadgets as recent Bond movies. I was amazed at the number of cellphones that Tom Cruise used in the movie, as well as the gorgeous sports cars and SUVs featured. Oh, don’t forget the laptop computers, LCD screens, and the yellow DHL van. The only thing future producers of Mission: Impossible movies need to work on is the title song. Kanye West’s Impossible is bad enough to drive away audiences trying to enjoy the ending credits in the cinema. A more memorable villain might help as well – Hoffman didn’t have much material or screentime to work with, poor guy.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2006

Fearless 霍元甲 (2006) DVD

Isn't it time Jet Li thinks of another fight pose?

In an example of cultural misunderstanding, the English language trailer for Fearless claims that this will be Jet Li’s final martial arts movie. The Mandarin titles state that this is his most best performance and most representative work to date, but after watching this travesty of a martial arts flick, one might end up wishing this is indeed Jet Li’s final martial arts movie.

Let’s get the plot safely out of the way first, though. Fearless is the fictional account of nationalist Huo Yuan Jia, whose series of exhibition matches against international fighters captured the heart of a nation experiencing daily humiliations from superior and more developed superpowers. In real life, the fighter founded the Jin Wu Men pugilistic society and died shortly after a match from tuberculosis, and has since been immortalised as a patriot. In popular culture, though, his fictitious disciple Chen Zhen (played by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury) takes the limelight as he avenges the master’s poisoning by the evil Japanese judo team.

Fearless focuses not on Chen Zhen, but on the development of Huo Yuan Jia from an arrogant and scrappy fighter (in the mode of Mike Tyson) surrounded by lackeys and flatterers to a mellow warrior-philosopher. The transformation begins with a fatal duel with an opponent that results in reprisals that claim the lives of Huo’s family and drive him insane, and completed by the gentle care of a blind girl in a village that takes him in.

The plot is serviceable, even though the international exhibition matches bear more than a superficial resemblance to Jean Claude Van Damme’s The Quest. The action sequences, however, go against all that is natural and good in martial arts movies, and show that Jet Li is indeed an aging athlete standing on his last legs.

The Rules

No wire work – this is a martial arts movie, not a wuxia fantasy
No slow motion or mixed speeds in camera work
No cuts in fighting scenes – fighting moves should be shot in one continuous sequence, and no single move should be filmed in 2 discontinuous cuts.

No matter how good it looks, once you break these rules, you are no longer shooting a real martial arts movie. These tried and tested rules were worked out by Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow when their newly established Golden Harvest supplanted Shaw Brothers as the premier martial arts movie studio in the 1970s. When a martial artist resorts to breaking these rules, it’s a sure sign of reduced athleticism due to the aging process. Jet Li breaks not just one but all of them, a sure sign that his time as a leading martial arts actor has come and gone. To add insult to injury, Jet Li’s “killing blow” in the penultimate scene of Fearless is broken with a flashback to an earlier scene in the movie. A flashback.

True fans of martial arts movies will realise that Tony Jaa is the real deal now, and until Jean Claude Van Damme returns to the big screen in 2007 with Bloodsport: The New Beginning, Jaa is the only martial artist worth watching.

DVD Extras
One would’ve thought that English subtitles would be an automatic feature to include in any Region 3 release. Not here, though. Furthermore, the extras have only Mandarin subtitles. The paucity of language options suggest an indifferent release.

The most interesting extra on the disc would be “Jet Li’s world of Wushu”, where the actor expounds on the self-defense and moral philosophy of martial arts. “Searching for the world’s top martial artists” is entertaining, especially since a bevy of pro wrestlers and muay thai boxers ham it up for the camera for their casting trials. The Asia Pacific trailer is way too dark and appears as though someone filmed it with a handycam in a cinema hall.

If you pay attention to the extras, you’ll realise the casting of muay thai boxers. The fight scene between Jet and the Thai boxer were deleted from the theatrical release, although the scene was reinserted for Thai cinema audiences. Michelle Yeoh’s role also got cut on the editing floor. My impression is the extras on this DVD offer very little in terms of deleted scenes (the original cut of Fearless ran 150 minutes) or extras. Buy this DVD if you are unable to wait for a special edition, but this is worth renting.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2006