IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD (1983)

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HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD (1983)

Chinese period fantasy has brother Yin Tien Chu (Max Mok Siu-Chung) and sister Tan Fung (Yeung Ching-Ching) separated as babies, when their parents are murdered by a pair of evil wizards (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa and Philip Kwok Chun-Fung). Tan Fung is raised by the two villains, while Yin Tien Chu is rescued and raised by good sorcerer Monster Yu (Jason Piao Pai). Eighteen years later, while initially on opposite sides, both siblings are destined to be reunited for revenge. Mix in some mystically powered swords and you have yourself a Shaw Brothers sword and sorcery epic!

Fun martial arts fantasy is energetically directed by Chun-Ku Lu from his script with Kwok-Yuen Cheung, based on a story by Sang Siu. It heavily evokes Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which came out the same year. It doesn’t quite seem to have that film’s budget, or level of SPFX, but does make up for it by being delightfully bonkers, fast paced and action packed. The film is also incredibly colorful with enough lavish costumes and sets to satisfy most fans of these movies. The fights are well orchestrated and the fantasy elements can be quite imaginative and creative, especially on what appears to be a modest budget. The visual and make-up FX can be cheesy, but are always charming. The mix of martial arts and sorcery is typical of these Shaw Brothers flicks and all the magic, king fu, treachery and romance, leads up to a climactic stunt and SPFX filled battle between siblings and sorcerers. Fun stuff!

The cast are all good here with Max Mok Siu-Chung and Yeung Ching-Ching doing a solid job as the separated twin siblings. There is also an array of colorful supporting characters, both good and bad, played just over-the-top enough to be entertaining. Leanne Lau Suet-Wa and Philip Kwok Chun-Fung are delightfully villainous as the evil sorcerers Chief Tsing Yin and You-ming Elder, while Jason Piao Pai is bombastic fun as good sorcerer Monster Yu. There is also actress Candy Wen Xue-Er as “Snake Boy” and Yung Jing-Jing as Yin Tien Chu’s beautiful love interest Chuan Erh.

Overall, this is a silly but very fun martial arts fantasy. It’s production is not quite up to the level of the similar Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but it makes up for it with being delightfully goofy and full of heart. There is almost a constant flow of martial arts and magic, and it moves very quickly as brother and sister fulfill their destiny and avenge their parents, in true Shaw Brothers style. It is currently available to rent on Amazon Prime and the print is in absolutely gorgeous HD!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) martial arts swords.
white-witch-rating

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)

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THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)

The Bride With White Hair is a martial arts, fantasy, romance and is a fairy tale-like story that finds handsome warrior Zhuo Yihang (Leslie Cheung from A Chinese Ghost Story) falling in love with beautiful witch Lian Nichang (Brigitte Lin from ZuWarriors from the Magic Mountain), who belongs to an evil cult Zhuo is tasked with destroying. As the two defy their orders and superiors, forces conspire against them, including He Lühua (Yammie Lam), a woman warrior with eyes for Zhuo Yihang and the vengeful, jealous conjoined twin cult leader, Ji Wushuang (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui).

Flick is one of the best examples of the Hong Kong cinema revival of the 80s and 90s and has all the action, fantasy, love and betrayal one could want. It is a sumptuous visual feast as directed by Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky, Freddy vs Jason), from a script he wrote with Lam Kei-to, Elsa Tang and David Wu. You can see where Yu’s American horror flicks got their stunning cinematography, blood-spattered action and twisted sense of humor, as they are all present here. There are dazzling sword duels, dark magic, gallant heroes, vile villains and a seductive wolf witch to keep one entertained for it’s economical 92 minutes. There is an eroticism to many scenes that the Hong Kong cinema usually reserved for their more intense Category III films and there is quite a lot of blood spurting and severed heads, not to mention the disturbing portrayal of it’s conjoined twin villains. The costumes are lavish, as are the settings, the cinematography by Peter Pau and Lee Tak-shing is sumptuous and the score by Richard Yuen suits the dark fantasy atmosphere perfectly. Sure Zhuo Yihang and Lian Nichang’s love making scene seems to go on a bit too long and Zhuo Yihang’s belief that she may have betrayed him comes a bit too quickly, especially considering his vow to always trust her. Otherwise this is an enormously entertaining dark fairy tale, romance for grown-ups and one of the most renown classics of this era of Hong Kong cinema.

A great cast helps Yu tell his story well. Leslie Cheung’s handsome warrior Zhuo Yihang is a far cry from his timid tax collector from the Chinese Ghost Story movies, but no less a solid romantic lead/action hero. He’s charming, brazen, lethal and sexy, when he appropriately needs to be. Brigitte Lin is beautiful and intriguing as wolf witch Lian Nichang. She can be a fierce and deadly warrior, yet also very sexy and playful, depending on the scene and is very convincing as all of the above. She and Cheung have a great on-screen chemistry and generate some nice heat. When forces pit them against each other, they make good adversaries. Francis Ng and Elaine Lui are really creepy as the conjoined twin leaders of the cult. They exude power and malice, yet their constant bickering and antagonizing of one another really adds a twisted dimension to them. A disturbing duo. The rest of the supporting cast give solid performances, too!

Overall, this is a great film and the type of movie the Hong Kong cinema was so skilled at making during this era. The film looks fantastic, the action scenes are fast, furious and bloody and the romantic scenes generate some real heat. There is a bit of a twisted humor to it and some legitimately spooky scenes as well. Not quite perfect, but close to it and enormously entertaining. There was a lesser sequel released only months later directed by David Wu and a TV series in 2012. The Bride With White Hair is currently streaming free on Tubi!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) swords

 

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: LEGEND OF THE FIST-THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

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LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

Over the last decade, legendary martial arts star Donnie Yen took over the Hong Kong action cinema, with Jackie Chan and Jet Li slowing down their film appearances, and he has certainly become one of their hardest working stars. Yen followed the acclaimed Ip Man series with this 2010 story featuring Chinese martial arts movie hero Chen Zhen, previously embodied by Li in Fist of Legend and before him, by the legendary Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury.

This film adventure of the classic character is directed by Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) from a script by Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan. Chen Zhen is portrayed here as a World War I hero who returns home to find Japan planning to invade mainland China. Zhen becomes a masked freedom fighter, during Japan’s occupation of Shanghai, to thwart their efforts. Of course, there is treachery, femme fatales and legions of enemies in his way. As usual with these films, there is plenty of action, heart stopping stunts and beautiful women, all highlighted by some sumptuous cinematography from director Andrew Lau and Ng Man-ching.

While Legend of the Fist does indeed resemble a mix of Li’s Fist of Legend and his superhero action epic Black Mask, it is also colorful and entertaining enough to let it slide, as we are treated to a martial arts period flick filled with intrigue, action, betrayal and heroism. It’s a film that evokes the Hong Kong glory days of the 90s, one that is hard not to like, despite it’s derivative storyline. Flick also stars Hong Kong cinema beauty Shu Qi as a Japanese spy and legendary Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong as a club owner. A top notch cast. Yen himself choreographed the fight scenes. Familiar but fun.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 (out of 4) swords
white-witch-rating

 

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

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THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

Chinese fantasy romance has a bit of a complicated story as it presents it’s tale of Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan) who is a witch, known to the people in her surrounding kingdom as Jade Rakshasa, a Robin Hood like outlaw who protects the poor. She lives in a mountaintop fortress called Fort Luna and has shunned love until she meets handsome Zhou Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). Yihang is a Wudang priest who has recently become his sect’s leader and is treating the royal prince for an illness. When the prince is poisoned by an ambitious advisor, Yihang is blamed. When Nishang is defending some of her people, she is also framed for the murder of the local governor, who is Yihang’s grandfather…see, told you it would get complicated. Thrown together by fate, the priest and witch fall in love. But their romance is doomed to be a tragic one as murder, betrayal, treachery, witchcraft and an invading army stand in the way of true love.

The Chinese cinema has been churning movies out like this for decades, yet they still have yet to recapture the charm of the great Hong Kong revival of the 80s and early 90s. This flick is based on  Liang Yusheng’s Baifa Monü Zhuan, a novel which also served as the basis for the 1993 Hong Kong cinema classic The Bride With White Hair. This adaptation is directed by Jacob Cheung and credited to five writers, not that it’s a surprise considering how overloaded the story is. But Cheung still makes this a fairly entertaining flick with plenty of martial arts action and actually giving the romance between Yihang and Nishang some dramatic weight. The story may be overcomplicated, which is not rare with these types of films, but it still works to a good degree and Cheung and his army of writers do blend the melodrama, action and fantasy elements well enough that it doesn’t sink under the weight of all the plot details. Like most of these types of films, the action is staged well and the costumes and sets are quite extravagant. There are also some bloody moments as well and Ardy Lam does photograph the proceedings and settings quite sumptuously. Modern Hong Kong films have a tendency to overdo it with the CGI, but here it is used effectively and without relying too much on it as to make it overpowering. Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark serves as a consultant, which may be how the film does manage to juggle all it’s elements so well, as that was Hark’s forte as a filmmaker. Despite an overloaded story, White Haired Witch is still a fun movie, that may not be as charming as something like the classic, and far simpler, A Chinese Ghost Story, but certainly does still entertain.

The cast are all good and our leads, in particular help make this work. Bingbing Fan, who is known to American audiences for her appearance as Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is beautiful and enchanting as Lian Nishang. She is graceful in her action scenes and can project both a strength and a sensitivity whether she is defending her people or romancing Huang Xiaoming’s Wudan priest. As Zhuo Yihang, Huang Xiaoming is handsome, brave, noble and romantic. He makes a suitable suitor for Nishang and a suitable hero for our story. During a brief plot point of having to appear like he is betraying Nishing, the actor portrays well the pain in his eyes as he does so. The two actors have good chemistry together and it makes the romantic scenes warm and endearing and their relationship seems believable even with all the fantasy elements.

Overall, the film overcomes a very overcomplicated plot to still entertain. It has some beautiful fantasy imagery, some fun action sequences and a good cast to make the characters likable…or not, if in reference to our villains. Film would have benefited from a more streamlined storyline that could allow the centerpiece romance to have a bit more focus. It also could have left out some of the politics and a few extra and unnecessary characters, such as a solider and his little girl who don’t seem to serve a purpose. If you like the Hong Kong cinema or simply Asian martial arts period pieces, this is still worth your time and is never boring, though could have been something more special if not so cluttered.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 swords
white-witch-rating

 

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: DRAGON SQUAD (2005)

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DRAGON SQUAD (2005)

A Hong Kong actioneer with Michael Biehn, Maggie Q and Hong Kong Cinema legends Sammo Hung and Simon Yam that is also produced by Steven Seagal…sounds too good to be true…and sadly, to a degree, it kinda is. The before mentioned stars are not the main focus, only Biehn and Hung have considerable screen time. It’s really a showcase for a bunch of young actors playing a crack Interpol squad out to catch the bad guys. Maggie Q and Biehn are among the villains and Hung is the nurturing veteran cop while Yam is barely on screen as a harried police chief.  But we watch these Hong Kong flicks for action and while there isn’t as much as we’d like, the action there is can be quite bloody, in fact, unnecessarily so at times, but the Hong Kong cimema has always had a tendency for overindulgence and that’s kinda why we like it.

This action thriller is also slowed down by too much over-stylized camera tricks. Director/co-writer (with Lau Ho-Leung) Daniel Lee went to film school and wants everyone to know it. All the distracting camera work hinders the action at times and slows down the drama. Too many grainy black and white flashbacks or jittery hand held camera shots. It really slows down the pace. Scenes seem to take twice as long as they should. And the script likes to stop the story dead at times to focus on sub plots, like Biehn’s relationship with a gangster’s girlfriend (Li Bingbing). It’s important to the plot, but still seriously slows down a film that cries out for a quicker pace. Veterans like John Woo and Tsui Hark knew how to balance the drama and the action perfectly. Lee could take a few tips from those masters. Not to say this tale of Interpol cops vs. a squad of tough as nails bad guys doesn’t have entertainment value, it does, as it tries to be something in the vein of Michael Mann’s Heat. Lee does still succeed in pulling off a couple of strong shoot-out sequences (ex: an alley shoot out about 2/3 through) despite his over-stylizing everything and I dug the blood-soaked final showdown. As usual with Hong Kong flicks, there is some beautiful cinematography, this time by Tony Cheung.

In the end, it still falls very short of some of the more classic Hong Kong action flicks like Hard Boiled or Infernal Affairs. Not great, but there are worse ways to spend an evening and certainly worth a look if you are a Hong Kong Action Cinema nut like me…and the cast is worth watching it for alone, even if it’s far from perfect.

2 and 1/2 bullets.

last_stand rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

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YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame was a fun martial arts mystery and it’s success has inspired Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark to have another go around and this time he goes back to the character’s beginnings and create a prequel which portrays Dee’s first case as a member of the Da Lisi, the law enforcement agency of the city of Luoyang. He also has chosen to add a lot more fantasy elements this time as Dee’s first case involves a sea monster, a merman, a vile plot to poison Luoyang’s public officials, including the emperor, and a beautiful courtesan (Angelababy… which is the real stage name for actress/singer/model Angela Yeung). The movie opens as Dee (now Mark Chao) enters the city of Luoyang to begin work as an officer of the law but, right away he is thrust into a case involving the attempted kidnapping of courtesan Yin Ruijii (Angelababy) which becomes complicated when a mysterious ‘merman’ becomes involved. The case is also somehow linked to a massive sea monster that destroyed Luoyang’s war fleet and is being investigated by Dee’s rival Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) who thinks Dee is not to be trusted and would rather see him behind bars. The plot thickens as the city’s officials have been poisoned and somehow Dee mush earn his rival’s trust and find out how all these elements tie together before it’s too late. Dee prequel is not without it’s entertainment there is definitely some fun here but, it is also a lot more far-fetched then it’s predecessor and a lot longer as it is very plot-heavy despite the lighter nature of that plot. Hark seems to really go overboard with the sillier elements of the movie and equally so with the CGI effects and the film tends to be a bit overblown at times like his 2001 The Legend Of Zu which was in CGI effects overload. The previous Dee had fantasy elements but, they were grounded and restrained, here Hark really cuts loose and we get a film that is a lot lighter and a lot more cartoonish then the last movie. Aside from creatures and gravity defying foes, Dee also seems to have an ability that resembles ‘Spider Sense” as he can deduce complicated and detailed conclusions just by looking at objects and this ‘skill’ is vividly illustrated with CGI fueled sequences which make him appear borderline clairvoyant. It’s silly. The FX this time are mixed with some CGI being weak and some, like the film’s really cool sea monster, are excellently rendered. The film was obviously made in 3D and we get a lot of stuff flying at us and it is really distracting in 2D and the martial arts sequences are really over the top this time and don’t even try to seem somewhat grounded in reality. It just seems Hark went really overboard and at 133 minutes, he also stretches things out far too long and despite all the action and fantasy, the film seems very long-winded at times. The cast all perform well and while Mark Chao gives it his all as young Dee, he just doesn’t quite have the screen presence of veteran Andy Lau though, his Dee is likable if not a touch smug. The first Detective Dee was an entertaining movie and as a fan of this stuff, I did find much to entertain me here but, it is still an overindulgent, far-fetched and sillier step down from the first movie which, in itself wasn’t perfect and and would have been better served by a little restraint. Worth a look for Hong Kong film fans but, it’s a bit of a disappointment and just barely avoids being an overblown mess. Also stars Carina Lau reprising her role as Empress Wu from the the original Detective Dee, the only original cast member to return.

2 and 1/2 swords.

Dee 2 rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

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DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

As a sequel has been made to this 2010 Hong Kong fantasy film and I am going to attempt to catch up to it real soon, I decided to post a review of the original Detective Dee adventure from renown Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark…

Legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark returns to the director’s chair and brings along his trademark sumptuous photography and martial arts action (directed by another legend, Sammo Hung) in a martial arts mystery that evokes the Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s… although never quite equalling it. Phantom Flame tells the story of imprisoned Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a Sherlock Holmes-like crime solver based on a character from Chinese literature, Judge Dee… who is based on a real-life person from Chinese history, Di Renjie. Dee, a former royal detective imprisoned for trying to start a rebellion, is freed from jail to solve a mystery involving the spontaneous combustion of some gov’t officials on the eve of the appointing of a new empress (Carina Lau). And what Dee finds is a devious conspiracy where people and things are not what they appear and his very life may be in danger for uncovering it. Can he expose the nefarious plot or will this become his last case? Hong Kong flick is certainly entertaining and there is enough action and intrigue to keep one involved and interested. Tsui Hark brings his patented mix of martial arts and fantasy to the screen with some beautiful visuals and impressive SPFX but, he never quite gives the film the energy that made his past classics like Once upon a Time in China and the Chinese Ghost Story series so special. This isn’t to say the film is not well made, it is. The production is quite lavish and every shot of the film looks beautiful. And it’s not to say the action isn’t fast paced and fun, it is as well. Some of the action scenes are quite fun. It just seems to be missing something that would elevate it and really make it a special treat. Maybe it just doesn’t quite have the magic of the master director’s earlier classics. The cast under Hark’s guidance certainly do a good job, especially Hong Kong star Andy Lau as the formidable Dee and stunt coordinator Sammo Hung keeps things moving when directing the action but, the film never reaches the intensity or livliness that made Hark a household name among Hong Kong film fans when the new wave Hong Kong cinema hit in the 80s and Hark was at the top of the wave. It’s still a good flick. It is certainly entertaining. It’s just not quite as special as we’d like it to be, considering who’s behind the lens and what he’s accomplished in the past. I still recommend it for Hong Kong cinema fans as even when Hark isn’t at his best, his films are still entertaining and Dee is entertaining. Also stars renown Chinese actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and the beautiful Li Bingbing as Dee’s assistant, a woman skilled in martial arts and possibly with her own agenda.

3 battle axes.

13th warrior rating

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