Ass-kicking With Subtitles
Hello, and welcome to this first of hopefully many articles where I look back at and recommend some movies with regards to what is hitting the box-office at the time. Since the next couple of opening weekends look about as promising as a rectal exam from Freddy Kruger this pilot article will focus on foreign martial arts films in relation to the Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption currently being shown at select theaters across the U.S. So strap in, bring your reading glasses and prepare to watch faces get kicked like crazy.
The (Modern) Classic
Thailand – (2003)
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Suchao Pongwilai
A good portion of the credit for The Raid: Redemption being able to make its way to US cinemas in the first place has to go to Ong-bak, the Thai action movie that showed distributors that a subtitled martial arts film featuring neither Jackie Chan nor Jet Li actually could become a worldwide success. Ong-bak became the big “have you seen…?” movie of 2004 based on the word of mouth about star Tony Jaa’s rather impressive abilities in kick all the ass. For a short period it even made bootlegs of the, poorly subtitled, Hong Kong VCD release the hottest property martial arts movie fans could lay their hands on.
One day a couple of shady guys from Bangkok arrive at a small village to inquire about purchasing a Buddha amulet, but they are refused and instead steal the head of the village’s prized Buddha statue, Ong-Bak. Worried that the disgrace of their Buddha statue will bring bad luck to the village, the villagers collect money and send Ting (Tony Jaa) to Bangkok to retrieve it. Why Ting? Because, as the opening scene showed, he is the best in the village at climbing up a three, really fast. In Bangkok Ting locates his cousin Humlae, who left the village for a more urban life some years earlier, hoping that he can help him locate the Buddha’s head. As luck would have it Humlae is a low level drug dealer within the same crime organization that is responsible for the theft of the statue’s head. Humlae is also a bit of a dick so instead of helping Ting he steals his money and takes it to an underground fight club sort of place. Ting follows him there and the rest is just one jaw dropping display of Tony Jaa’s ability after the other until you believe the man can walk on water. Because at its core, Ong-bak is just a 100 minute long show-reel of Tony Jaa’s skills as both a fighter and an acrobat, but it packs enough story around it to make it worthwhile as more than just a series of (very impressive) stunts. A lot of people seem to dismiss the story as just a bare bones plot attached to make the fights go together, but after seeing Jaa in the tonally uneven Tom-Yum-Goong/The Protector (original version, not the butchered US release) which switches between a revenge plot about elephants and some incredibly annoying comedy bits about a bumbling cop, and the narrative mess that is Ong-bak 2 and 3 I realize that Ong-bak actually has a pretty strong script that most people seem to undermine. The film manages to let me be amazed at the feats Jaa performs and at the same time not make my brain feel like I betrayed it for entertainment from the bottom drawer.
While bootleg was still the easiest way to get a hold of the film, action icon/beached whale Steven Seagal saw the movie and was so impressed that he tried to get his production company to buy it. Had he succeeding in purchasing the rights for the movie Seagal planned to shoot additional footage of himself as Tony Jaa’s mentor and add it to the film before releasing it. I think Luc Besson did everyone a favour by beating Seagal to the rights, and read more about the dangers of editing footage that don’t belong in to a movie later on.
While You’re At It: Check out Jaa and Pinkaew visually impressive, but poorly scripted follow up Tom-Yum-Goong/The Protector (2005) and Pinkaew’s Rain Man-esque Chocolate (2008) about an autistic girl who learns muay thai from watching Tony Jaa movies.
The Hidden Gem
Indonesia – (2009)
Director: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Christine Hakim, Mads Koudal
In the wake of Ong-bak a bunch of martial arts films started to come out of South East Asia, each one wanting to be Ong-bak and all of them starring “the next Tony Jaa”. Most where forgettable, but in my eyes no film came closer to succeeding than the Indonesian Merantau. It also makes a perfect addition because Merantau is the movie that two years ago put Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, respectively the director and star of The Raid: Redemption, on the action movie map. Evans had originally been hired to make a documentary on the Indonesia martial arts style Silat, but when he met Uwais he found himself so impressed with his screen presence that he cast him as the lead in an action film he had written. The result is history, mainly in the sense that everything that happened in the past technically is history, but history still.
Yuda (Uwais) is a young man on his Merantau, a rite of maturity among the Minang people of West Sumatra where the young members have to wander into the world to gain life experience. He heads to Jakarta where he plans to teach children the art if Silat, but things do not work out and he finds himself living on the street when one day a child steals his wallet. Chasing the pickpocket, Yuda ends up encountering the kid’s sister Astri as she is being “thought a lesson” by her boss (or pimp if you prefer) Johnny. Playing the part of the knight in shining armour Yuda intervenes and ends up costing Astri her job. Despite the lackluster response the first time Yuda decides to intervene again when he sees Johnny beating up Astri later on. This time she is a little more grateful, but in the ensuing fight Yuda ends up brutally scarring Ratger, a vicious human trafficker, who vows revenge on Yuda. So now Yuda has to fight for his own life as well as protect Astri and her brother. Merantau is about survival, and so unlike Ong-bak it opts for swift and tense over flashy, with some impressive long takes including a very good fight inside an elevator. Still script-wise Merantau follows in the footsteps of Ong-bak by delivering a story that is streets ahead of what the genre fans seem to require, although it differs heavily in tone. Where Ong-bak kept a somewhat playful tone Merantau is grim. Like Schindler’s List, if it had starred Jean-Claude Van Damme. It is some depressing stuff, and not in a “Cuba Gooding Jr’s career” kind of way. So while Merantau doesn’t deliver the same jaw dropping action it delivers a somewhat more realistic take on it as you see Uwais tire with a bad guy he has to take down and that after all he is just human (something Tony Jaa seems to not believe in), and you can hardly get a better warm up to The Raid: Redemption.
While You’re At It: Throw yourself either a Vietnamese double feature with Johnny Nguyen in the Vietnamese The Rebel (2007) and Bay Rong (2009), or a Chilean double feature with Marko Zaror in Kiltro (2006) and Mirageman (2007)
The Rightfully Obscure
TOWER OF DEATH
Hong Kong – (1981)
Director: Ng See-Yuen (with un-credited help from Corey Yuen and Sammo Hung!)
Starring: “Bruce Lee”, Tai Chung Kim, Jang Lee Hwang, Roy Horan
Few, if any, movie sub-genres work as a textbook definition of ‘bad taste’ as well as Brucesploitation, a series of movies made to exploit the tragic death of Bruce Lee. You see when Bruce Lee was alive you needed to have him appear in your movie to call it Bruce Lee movie, but after his death you just had to grab the nearest Asian guy who could throw a kick, give him a “clever” artist name like Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, my personal favourite Lee Bruce. You get the point. Bam, you had your very own Bruce Lee movie. Unofficially of course, but the money they brought in was the real deal and so we got around thirty of these fake Bruce Lee movies. However two of these stand out (okay, three, but Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power stands out for completely different reasons) because they actually star the real Bruce Lee, to a certain degree, and those are the ones we are taking a closer look at.
When Bruce Lee died he left behind around thirty minutes of footage that he had shot for a film that had been put on hold while Lee shot Enter the Dragon. Five years later director Robert Clouse thought it would be a great idea to write a movie around the footage and then incorporate Lee into the rest of the film through archive footage and look-a-likes shot at odd angles and such. It wasn’t. The result is the awful mess known as Game of Death, a movie that uses footage of Lee’s actual corpse as his character fakes his own death to escape assassins. That’s not just bad taste, that is the worst taste. No wonder Chuck Norris threatened to sue to have his name removed from the film. In Japan, however, the movie went over really well and three years later, armed with nothing but a deleted scene from Enter the Dragon and pure insanity, Ng See-Yuen set out to exploit the apparent Japanese market for shoddily put together Bruce Lee movies. The result was the other stand out movie of the sub-genre; Tower of Death (released dubbed as Game of Death II)
Tower of Death follows Bruce Lee as Billy/Chiang (depending on whether you watch it dubbed or subbed) as he has to investigate the death of his friend, kung-fu master Chin Ku. The fact that Bruce Lee only appears through the magic of editing (and questionable ethics) becomes very clear in some downright hilarious scenes where the close-ups obviously don’t belong together with the established shot.
Then a half-hour into the movie something happens that sets Tower apart from Game. Lee is attending Chin Ku’s funeral when some guys in a helicopter swoop in and steal the coffin, which for some reason has a swastika on it. Lee grabs onto the coffin-grabbing-devices determined to get to the bottom of it, but instead gets a dart to the neck and plummets to his death. That’s right, thirty minutes in and Bruce Lee is dead. Some obligatory footage from Lee’s real funeral later we are introduced to his brother Bobby/Kuo and the move can finally embrace its own insanity. Bobby is played by Tai Chung Kim, a South Korean taekwondo expert and the world’s least versatile actor. On screen he played Bruce Lee’s double in Game of Death, Lee’s brother in Tower of Death, Bruce Lee himself in Fist of Death, and Bruce Lee’s ghost in No Retreat, No Surrender. Bobby follows the clues to South-Korea and The Palace of Death, the home of crazed martial arts expert Lewis, a man who feeds his opponents to wild lions, trains peacocks to follow his command and drinks deer’s blood for breakfast. Lewis tells Bobby about the mysterious Tower of Death, a tower built down into the ground by an Arab abed long ago. After avoiding an assassination attempt by a stark naked lady and fighting of a lion with kung-fu Bobby decides to seek out the Tower of Death, and from there on out Tower of Death is just half an hour of some of the best fight scenes recorded for the screen, and it also looks like it takes place aboard the USS Enterprise for some reason.
Instructed and coordinated by Yuen Woo-Ping, with assistance from Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen, and action-direction courtesy of Biao, Yuen and Sammo Hung, and with Biao also doubling for some of the more acrobatic parts, I almost shouldn’t have to tell you that the finale of Tower of Death is crazy good. Tai Chung Kim takes on what has to close to fifty men and delivers one amazing combo after another. Buried under the reputation of its own genre Tower of Death is a movie that simply needs to be seen to be believed.
While You’re At It: Check out Robin Shou in a rare starring role in Death Cage (1988) and go full circle by returning to Thailand with Raging Phoenix (2009)
Hope you enjoyed it.
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