NYAFF 2012: “SPL: Sha Po Lang” & “Wu Xia”

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

Time for yet another dose of the New York Asian Film Festival 2012. And not just one, but two whole helpings of Donnie Yen!

SPL: Sha Po Lang

Up until fairly recently, the Hong Kong movie industry was on the brink of? not just ruin, but something much worse: irrelevancy. And this year’s aforementioned program, “Return of the King: Hong Kong Movies 15 Years After the Handover”, contains several key motion pictures that helped brought it back from the dead. If Infernal Affairs was the shock to the system, to get its heart beating again, than SPL (better known as Kill Zone here in America; such a lame name, I know) was the blood transfusion that got it back in fighting shape. It’s also a turning point in the career of Donnie Yen, the martial arts master who is finally getting some long overdue recognition in the West. He’s not quite the household name that Bruce Lee, Jackie Chen, or even Jet Li is, at least not yet. But he most definitely, without question, deserves to be said in the same breathe as those men. Thanks, in large part, to his performance in SPL. Note: I didn’t review Infernal Affairs 1 & 2 since those are older/readily available flicks, and because I prefer to spend my energies on first run/ultra obscure examples that need the attention. But what the hell, right?

The setting is modern day Hong Kong, a city soaked in blood, sweat, and neon. Kwok-chung Chan (played by Simon Yam, who also shines pretty damn brightly in this movie) is a hard boiled police inspector whose entire career has been focused on putting triad boss Po Wong (portrayed by Sammo Hung, in one of his greatest roles of all time as well, plus his very first stab at being a bad guy I think) behind bars. Early on, we discover that Chan has a brain tumor that’s inoperable. Which was discovered when doctors had to pull shards of glass out of his skull, when the car he was in, while escorting a key witness to a trial that would have put Wong in jail for the rest of his life, was totaled by an assassin. The witness and his wife are murdered, rendering their daughter an orphan, whom Chan adopts. Fast forward three years later and Chan is now desperate to nab Wong with something that will actually stick, especially since he’s due for retirement very soon. Enter Kwun Ma (Donnie Yen), an officer from another precinct, who will be replacing Chan and be the new boss to his three ace in the whole detectives, who are just as bound and determined to nab Wong as well. It isn’t long before Ma discovers the lengths that Chan and his crew will go to get their victory, even if it means blatantly breaking the laws themselves. Out of the blue, a mildly retarded person (or maybe he’s just a HUGE nerd, not sure) shows up with a tape in which Wo brutally beats an undercover cop, before a henchman does the actual killing. In order to make sure that their case is absolutely air tight, Chan and his men decide to doctor the footage, so it appears as if Wo was the murder himself. Then they go after the actual guilty person, to make sure he doesn’t talk, by killing him.

Ma is not fond of such tactics; in a flashback, we learn that he once roughed up a guy so badly that he became mildly retarded himself (and whom Ma, out of guilt, now hangs out with at the arcade, to play King of Fighters with him). Still, he decides to help Chan and his guys. Wong is tossed in jail, and it seems like he’s going to stay there for good, but it takes almost no time at all for hell to break loose; he’s able to easily prove that the tape was doctored, which immediately gets Chan in deep trouble with his superiors. Meanwhile, his three boys are all hacked to death by the aforementioned assassin. Each has the all too late realization that perhaps they shouldn’t have played dirty. It’s also revealed that they stole money from Wong, yet another against the books move, to help Chan raise his adopted daughter. Realizing what a mess everything has become, Chan decides to restore some honor to his brothers by returning the money. That doesn’t go so well, so it’s Ma to the rescue. Literally along the way he encounters the assassin in an alleyway, in what is seriously one of the most absolutely magnificent fight scenes of all time. My lame descriptive skills won’t work here; it must simply be seen to believed. Though spoilers: Ma wins. Which means a showdown against Wong, one that’s only half a notch below the brawl that we just took place, but it still blows away 99.9999% of all the other kung fu head-to-heads you’ve seen in other movies. I guess it’s worth mentioning that Donnie Yen was a guest at the screening, and marque special guest for the fest as a whole. Afterwards he spoke about the making of the movie, in particular, the challenges behind the fight scenes.

Get this: martial arts fight scenes in Hong Kong are all done in just one or two takes. That’s it. Multiple attempts simply won’t work, because much of the energy would be lost in each subsequent take. Hence why there’s generally lots of pre-planning involved for each scene, but not here. Due to every kind of resource constraint imaginable, the alleyway confrontation was entirely improvised; Donnie ended up having to give directions to the other actor, Wu Jing, as the cameras were rolling (but they were moving so fast that you couldn’t tell). Another challenge was how absolutely barren the setting was, which meant no props to rely upon. Hence why the exchange is so highly regarded, because it finally drove home the message that a true martial arts master could create a compelling scene without having to use environmental elements as a crutch (no offense to Jackie Chan and all). As for the final clash with Sammo Hung, Yen mostly discussed the equally innovative mixing of styles, especially all the wrestling and MMA moves. He’s currently teaching his 4 year old how to fight in such a style, FYI (and $100 says that he can already keep the asses of anyone reading this). Yen also spoke a little about his previous work, in particular, Ballistic Kiss, which was an uphill battle on virtually ever front. Finances was a constant issue; to get the money to shoot the thing, he ended up going to a loan shark, and to save on postproduction, Yen edited the movie himself (which meant learning how to actually cut and assemble footage, “before the days of Final Cut!”). BTW, it was a huge flop and he ended up having to do 10 movies just to pay it off. He also recently taught himself how to play the guitar in just 2 months for a role, and when asked by an audience member, said that he wouldn’t mind teaming up with Y. K. Kim! Though he’d replace those apples he had a hard time kicking (in his live taekwondo demo the night before) with watermelons… what a burn! Finally, what’s next? Possibly Ip Man 3 in 3D! Oh, there’s also that other 3D movie, the biggest production Yen has ever been involved in, based on the Monkey King, from classic Chinese literature. People who worked on Avatar is involved, hence why I’m already pretty skeptical about it myself?

Wu Xia

Wu Xia, or Dragon as it’s called here (yes, that’s pretty much the most generic name imaginable for a martial arts movie, even worst than Kill Zone), is Yen’s most recent flick and will be released on a wider basis later this year apparently. Many are predicting that it’ll be “the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and I can totally see why; it too breathes new life into classic Chinese martial arts fiction, an equally captivating mix of completely relatable pathos and mind-blowing fight scenes (though each has a totally different approach and feel). Instead of a super cool and ultra stylish cop in modern day Hong Kong, this time Yen assumes the mantle of a meek and modest villager circa the turn of the century China who goes by the name Liu Jinxi. One day, while at the general store, two bad guys show up, looking to score some easy money by pushing the kindly old proprietor around. Liu decides to intervene, and due to his total lack of fighting acumen, he’s tossed around like a rag doll. But thanks to sheer luck, he manages to actually kill both of them, and is thusly hailed a local hero. The local authorities show up to investigate the matter, which looks fairly cut and dry to everyone? except to detective Xu Baijiu (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, both Japan and Hong Kong’s answer to Johnny Depp). Given that one of the bandits was one of the government’s most wanted fugitives, it just makes no sense that he could be knocked off so easily by a total stranger, one who supposedly exhibits zero martial arts prowess. So Baijiu decides to sniff around, and eventually comes to the conclusion that Jinxi is not what he appears to be, and is in fact, one dangerous son of a bitch, He spends a good amount of time, constantly trying to get Jinxi to spill the beans about his past. Investigations reveal that he’s not from the village originally, but a far away land, which he left due to a falling out with his father.

The first half of the movie of this cat and mouse between Yen and Kaneshiro, and it’s simply joy to watch unfold. Yen does a brilliant job of playing a guy who just wants to be left alone and Kaneshiro is equally awesome as a man obsessed with unearthing the truth. Jinxi eventually comes clean, about past indiscretions that he’s paid the price for and wishes to forget about, in order to get Baijiu off his damn back. But despite being a front row witness of how kind and loving a man Jinxi has become, he’s convinced that onces a bloodthirsty killer, always a bloodthirsty killer. An attitude that stems from Baijiu himself being far too forgiving in his past; he was once poisoned by a rotten apple that he believed had turned a new leaf in life, and thusly, must self administer acupuncture to keep himself alive. Plus, Jinxi’s story still doesn’t check out completely. In the end, he concludes that Liu Jinxi is actually Tang Long, the second in command of the 72 Demons, the group of savage warriors that is everyone’s worst nightmares. Baijiu then jumps through all sorts of hoops to get the necessary arrest warrants, to the point that he ends up bribing a judge, due to the simple fact that there’s no actual evidence. Making matters worse is how the 72 Demons themselves catch wind of such chatter, that their long lost family member might still be alive. So two of their absolute worst are sent to where Tang Long is supposedly hiding out, to bring him back home, which is when all hell breaks lose. Backed into a corner, Jinxi has no choice but to reveal his true self, and that’s when the second half of the movie, filled with all the amazing fight scenes, start kicking in. But despite being victorious against the invaders, the village is in ruins and Jinxi believes that he must leave. Otherwise his former clan won’t stop bothering his family. That’s when Baijiu comes up with a plan, to fake Jinxi’s death, via the aforementioned acupuncture. Which, ultimately doesn’t work, so as a desperate act of symbolism, Jinxi cuts one of his arms off, as a sign that he has formally broken ties with the 72 Demons.

Their response? Okay, sure, whatever. But you’re going to have to tell the big boss, to his face. It’s perhaps worth noting that the head of the 72 Demons is portrayed by Jimmy Wang Yu, best known for being the star of the Shaw Brothers classic One-Armed Swordsman. According to Wu Xia’s Q&A, Yen mentioned how he originally wanted the movie to be a One-Armed Swordsman remake/tribute, but director Peter Chan was not super keen on the idea. But the idea of him slicing his own arm off was finally okay-ed at the very end of filming, when they still didn’t have that extra “something” to wrap things up with. Yen also said that it was super tricky, playing Jinxi in the early part of the movie, when his character had to act as if he didn’t know any martial arts (and it was indeed super weird, watching him stumbling around with zero grace or skill). Someone in the audience asked if the New York Times was correct when they said Yen would be was retiring at the age of 50; it’s true, but he’s also currently 28 (and not 48; can’t trust Wikipedia for nuthin). Another person asked why he turned down a role in The Expendables 2; he said, after being asked graciously numerous times, that it just wasn’t for him. But maybe part 3? But the best question was asked by the moderator: what is the deal with the name? Having a kung fu flick named Dragon is like having a comic book movie called Comic Book. To that, Yen simply replied with “Ask the director!” Anyhow, in addition to being one of the best actors working in Hong Kong cinema today, as well as being one of its all-time greatest action starts, the guy’s super nice! Was a real pleasure seeing him in the flesh. Definitely track down a copy of SPL/Kill Zone. As for Wu Xia/Dragon, you can wait for the planned release later this year, or you could head to Lincoln Center this Thursday evening! The previously scheduled screening of Blood Letter has been cancelled ($20 says that the print is being held up somewhere), and its place is an encore screening of Wu Xia. Again, that’s Thursday July 12 at 9pm; it’s definitely recommended.

Next on my list of must see movies starring Donnie Yen is definitely Mismatched Couples, which kept on being brought up in both Q&A’s. It’s an early 80s flick featuring Donnie doing? well? see for yourself!

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