IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING DEMONS (2014)

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 JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING DEMONS (2014)

I’ll admit despite my love of the Asian cinema, I am not a fan of Stephen Chow’s movies. I find his comedy bits to be heavy-handed and annoying far more than funny, his Looney Tunes inspired slapstick scenes wear out their welcome quickly and the tone of his films is all over the place. He’s got imagination and the film’s are colorful, I’ll give him that, but overall I find his humor tedious and grating. That and he loves to overdo it with cheesy CGI. And his latest tale adapted from a Chinese classic is no different, though I think I liked it better then what films of his I have seen.

The story is of monk and wannabe demon fighter Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) who would rather turn the demons back to good then destroy them. Tang must not only contend with a massive and murderous pig demon, but the amorous attentions of female demon fighter Miss Duan (the gorgeous Shu Qi) whose love for Tang goes against his wish to attain enlightenment with Buddha. To reach his goals his master advises him to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo), the greatest of all the demons and convince him to reform and help subdue the pig demon. But with the interference of Duan and three other eccentric demon hunters, can Tang subdue The Monkey King or will he fall victim to the powerful trickster’s deceptive schemes and release the demon back into the world?

Ancient China set fantasy tale in itself could have been a lot of fun with it’s premise of a straight-laced monk being pursued by a fiery vixen of a demon hunter while facing some of the most powerful supernatural creatures in Chinese folklore, but once again Chow, this time with co-director Derek Kok, fills his movie with some really broad and unfunny comedy bits that go on far too long as do his cartoon-ish slapstick set-ups. The man has the sense of humor of a 12 year old. And it’s a shame, because the film has a fun story and some really nice visuals, not to mention, Wen Zhang and Shu Qui have a nice chemistry together, and could have been far more entertaining with a little restraint. But going overboard is Chow’s style and he seems to love to waste running time with really lame comedy routines like the endless prattle between a young couple who are only going to become victims in a few minutes anyway and the opening scene with a fish demon that is over 15 minutes long. It’s just tedious and annoying since it’s not funny to begin with. Thankfully Chow seems to settle down in the last act when Tang reaches the cave where the Monkey King is imprisoned and we get a showdown between demons and demon hunters with Tang’s quest for enlightenment put to the test. I did enjoy the last bit somewhat and it reminded me of some of the far better Chinese film fantasies that I love though, sillier and not as memorable. The FX are a bit stronger, so the CGI wasn’t as obnoxious as it could have been.

The cast all overact, but that is to be expected with such an overindulgent filmmaker at the helm. As stated Zhang and Qi work well together. Zhang makes a decent and noble hero though, it is the beautiful Shu Qi who shows a real gift for comedy despite that most of the bits fall flat or fail to be very funny. Too bad she didn’t have better material. The rest of the characters are all cartoon-ish and eccentric and the actors who portray them are suitably over the top and it works within the context of the type of film Chow is making.

I gave the movie a try and at least it didn’t give me a headache like Kung Fu Hustle. If you like Chow’s overindulgent style or find his juvenile sense of humor funny, then you should love this. For me it was just too silly…and not in a good way…and typical Chow with slapstick comedy bits that go on far too long or stop the story cold. There was some entertainment in the last act that didn’t get on my nerves and it was fun seeing Shu Qi show some comic gifts despite the weak bits she’s given to do. So, I’ll cut this film a bit of slack, but at this point, I don’t think I’ll be becoming a Stephen Chow fan anytime soon.

2 and 1/2 sexy demon fighters.

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: 47 RONIN and THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

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This weeks double feature consists of two Asian set action adventures that feature heroes from the West. One in feudal Japan with Keanu Reeves and the other set in ancient China with Michael Angarano. Both also are filled with fantasy elements and magic characters and plenty of martial arts action and swordsplay, not to mention renown Asian actors such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Enjoy …

 

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47 RONIN  (2013)

I enjoyed this film which, sadly, bombed at the box office and though it isn’t a great movie by any stretch, it was entertaining and had some nice fantasy elements mixed in with all the action. The story focuses on half-breed servant Kai (Keanu Reeves) who, along with 46 masterless samurai, fight against overwhelming odds to avenge the wrongful death of their lord. The vile and ambitious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) has used the power of witch Mizuki (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi) to cast a spell on rival Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) causing him to attack Kira in the presence of the visiting Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and thus dishonor him. Asano commits seppuku (ritual suicide) to save the honor of his people, but Kira is granted control of his clan and the hand of his daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki) in marriage. Asano’s Samurai are expelled and are now dishonored as masterless Ronin. Kai, who is rumored to have been raised by demons and has always loved Mika, is sold into slavery. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the lead samurai, bides his time and one year later, frees Kai and rallies the Ronin to attack lord Kira and free Mika and avenge Lord Asano’s death… all against the Shogun’s orders. It’s only 47 Ronin against a 1,000 soldiers and one powerful witch, but against these odds, the 47 warriors valiantly choose to wade into battle to get their revenge or die trying.

47 Ronin is a fictional story by Chris Morgan and Walter Hamada based on real events from Japanese history. As directed by commercial director Carl Rinsch, from a screenplay by Morgan and Hossein Amini, the film is moderately paced, but I liked that it took time to tell it’s story and didn’t rush into it’s climactic battle. Rinsch handles the large scale of the film well for a first-time feature director and seems to have a nice visual style to go with all the fantasy elements and the exotic setting. There is plenty of well-staged action peppered throughout and the heavy fantasy elements…as there are demons and a powerful witch involved in this story of honor and revenge…are mixed in well with the drama. Character development is a little on the weak side. We get to know the characters a little, but with 47, only a few get proper attention and even some of those we could have gotten to know better. Despite star billing and a central role, Reeves’ Kai is not the only character focused on and that helps make this more of an ensemble piece to a degree and less Reeves’ show. The cast are all quite good including star Keanu, who plays a noble character who just wants to be recognized fairly by the samurai and will do anything for the woman he loves, despite that she is out of his reach as a Lord’s daughter. The film is in English and the Japanese cast are all well spoken, perform well and there are many recognizable faces from current Japanese cinema. The budget is lavish as are the settings and SPFX and the action scenes have some nice energy and are excellently choreographed. I’ll admit the story could have used a bit more dramatic strength and the end conflict is exciting though, over a little too soon, but it is still an enjoyable action/fantasy with some nice old fashioned charm.

So, in conclusion, 47 Ronin is not a masterpiece and maybe not something all that memorable, but it is a well-made and entertaining enough adventure with some fun fantasy elements and exotic locations to give it a little something different. The action moves and while we could have used a little more character development and the story could have used a bit more weight, it was an entertaining 2 hours and I had a fun time with it. Go in with moderate expectations and it can be a pleasantly surprising flick and an entertaining watch. Certainly nowhere near the disaster it’s poor box office would lead one to believe.

Rated 3 (out of 4) samurai swords.

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THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (2008)

Sure this flick has a heavy Karate Kid vibe, but we get Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the beautiful Li Bingbing as a villainous hottie so, why complain if we have seen this kind of story before. Charming and fun fantasy adventure has martial arts movie nut Jason (Michael Angarano) buying his favorite movies from old shop owner Hop (Jackie Chan) and finding a peculiar staff in his shop. When thugs force Jason to help them rob Hop’s store, the injured Hop tells the mortified and regretful Jason to take the staff and return it to it’s rightful owner. Jason is thus transported into a fantasy world in ancient China where he meets a drunken martial artist named Lu Yan (also Chan), a noble monk Sun Wukong (Jet Li) and pretty Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) who all agree to help Jason return the staff to The Monkey King (also Li), who is the staff’s rightful owner and is being imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). But to get the staff back to The Monkey King, Jason and his new friends must battle the powerful Warlord, his army and a very deadly witch (Li Bingbing), who all wish to see that the staff never sees the Monkey King’s skilled hands ever again.

Despite the cliche’ story and some very familiar plot elements, Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) crafts a really entertaining martial arts fantasy that is loaded with charm and filled with martial arts action. There are plenty of fantasy elements too, in John Fusco’s script, from a story by Wu Cheng’en and Minkoff really captures the look and style of one of the martial arts fantasy films that Hong Kong cinema is famous for. Aside from numerous scenes of hand to hand combat, we get characters imbued with magic, who fly and cast spells, all presented with some very solid SPFX and fight choreography. Obviously, the main attraction is seeing Chan and Li working together and the two do have a great on-screen chemistry and camaraderie that goes a long way to making this flick so much fun. Their scenes together really crackle with energy and they seem to really enjoy working together, which I hear they did. Both are a lot of fun in their dual roles, especially Li’s whimsical Monkey King. Lead Angarano holds his own as the naive outsider who learns not only martial arts, but to believe in himself. Cliche’, yes, but it still works. Yifei is pretty and proves a resourceful heroine as the vengeful Golden Sparrow who seeks to destroy the Jade Warlord, but succeeds in catching Jason’s eye too. Chou is a solid villain though one stereotypical of these kind of films and Bingbing is having a blast as the evil and powerful witch Ni-Chang, who is as beautiful as she is deadly. The fun cast also helps make this a treat.

All in all, I like this film a lot. I am a hug fan of Asian cinema, and that certainly includes Hong Kong martial arts fantasy epics and this film captures the spirit of those movies very well. It mixes the traditional format with a underdog/fish out of water story for a really fun and colorful fairy tale-like movie, of a meek boy who becomes a heroic man. Sure we know he’ll eventually face those mean thugs from Hop’s store again, but we still eagerly anticipate it, despite it’s familiarity and the film is so charming and fun, we can forgive the age old story and oft-told story elements. When all is said and done, we get two martial arts living legends together on screen for the first time and, if that’s not enough, a couple of very pretty Asian actresses who are as easy on the eyes as they are dangerous with their fists and feet. That’s more then enough to get me in a seat! A fun martial arts fantasy flick.

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

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