Special ID by Clarence Fok

Special ID by Clarence Fok Yiu Leung

Special ID by Clarence Fok

Zilong Chen (played by Donnie Yen), an undercover police officer deep within the ranks of one of China’s most ruthless underworld gangs. The leader of the gang, Xiong (Collin Chou), has made it his priority to weed out the government infiltrators in his midst. Struggling to keep his family together and his identity concealed, Chen is torn between two worlds.

The last time Donnie Yen officially put mixed martial arts onscreen was Flashpoint (Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen does not count, that was a superhero movie), which arguably in my opinion was his artistic peak as an action choreographer and onscreen fighter. He successfully made real martial arts combat cinematic. The choreography was shot in a way that allowed the viewer to visually break down why move A was countering move B. So with that said, my expectations of the MMA fights coming into Special ID were high.

To be fair, my high expectations aren’t out of place. Donnie Yen has said he wanted to go further with displaying MMA on film. In Special ID, Yen does this by integrating the urban environment into the choreography. The fights are set in tight spaces and narrow hallways, showcasing the physical precision it required from all the stunt performers. The group fights are convincingly realistic. Everything looks less staged and the moves don’t land as cleanly, giving a gritty sense of realism. On pure cinematic terms, Yen succeeds. The choreography is another story.

The only wee complaint I had about the mixed martial arts choreography in Flashpoint was that Donnie Yen was the only one who fought with MMA techniques. Everybody else was essentially a kickboxer fighting the main character that had groundwork and wrestling skills up his sleeve. I let that go for Flashpoint, but in Special ID it has now officially become problematic.

This makes me think that Yen was solely concerned with making himself look good onscreen. Yen has been guilty of this in the past but this is too blatant. Yen’s fight with Ken Lo, a stuntman popular for being the villain from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, is one such example. There were moments designed in their fight that purposely made Ken Lo look clumsy and stupid. Anybody who has seen Ken Lo in an onscreen fight will know that he is anything but clumsy. Don’t get me wrong, these are good fights. They are are tense and grueling, but it’s too dramatically convenient if only the hero knows Brazilian Jujitsu and all the villains have no knowledge of countering it.

Much of the story problems -and there are many- with Special ID are the common problems I have with current Mainland-Hong Kong co-productions. There’s a penchant for shooting dialogue scenes in a perfectly decorated restaurant or apartment. No matter what happened in the scene before, the actors are always seated perfectly still reflecting upon what just happened. The dialogue is often on-the-nose, stating things that the filmmakers are supposed to be showing. It is television-like and I don’t know why it is the trend. The dialogue scenes in Special ID are plodding and murder every sense of dramatic tension. It’s a narrative mess.

The female police officer character played newcomer Jing Tian was a severe plot contrivance and another example of a bad Mainland film trope. Her character Fang Jing was constantly spewing preachy dialogue about how police work should be ideally done, and acted too naïve to be a convincing policewoman. It’s like her character was written to secure an approval from the Chinese Film Bureau. She had too much screen time and it was like watching Hello Kitty fight crime.

I particularly hated the manipulative choppy musical score. It was in the vibes of “Hey, it’s time to feel this emotion now!” One minute there’s the metal music for the fights, and then the next minute it’s pensive piano music when Jing Tian yaps on about following rules is the key to a good life.

Collin Chou shows up for what ends up being a disappointing role. It’s actually a cheap marketing ploy to tease the martial arts film fans that there is going to be a fight at some point in the story. Collin Chou and Donnie Yen have fought before, so as fans we expect there will be something that will at least try to top the Flashpoint fight. But sadly, that didn’t happen. After that, I was only half awake for the final showdown with Andy On.

I’d recommend people see Flashpoint again. Sure, the plot wasn’t anything new, but Wilson Yip told a proper story. He gave little dramatic touches to the heroes and villains, which created proper stakes and made me care about the characters. Special ID has no developed characters, plot or any sense of flow or consistency. This was a perfectly marketed soulless product designed to take our money. And it was just plain mean-spirited.

I will probably watch Special ID again, but probably only the fight scenes in the form of online Youtube clips. I like these fights, but wished they belonged in a better movie. Special ID was just all flash, but without the “point”.

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Unbeatable by Dante Lam

Unbeatable by Dante Lam


Hong Kong taxi driver Ching Fai, aka “Scumbag Fai” (Nick Cheung), a former boxer and ex-convict with gambling debts of HK$200,000, flees to Macau and gets a menial job at the gym of old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung). He rents a room in the flat of Wang Mingjun (Mei Ting), a Mainlander who has a 10-year-old daughter, Leung Pui-dan (Crystal Lee). Mingjun suffers from depression, after a nervous breakdown when her husband left them for another women four years ago, and Ching Fai slowly becomes attached to her and the mouthy Pui-dan. Siqi (Eddie Peng), penniless after a biking trip through the Mainland, meets with his father in Macau, who has lost the will to live after being bankrupted by a stock-market collapse. Siqi decides to enter the forthcoming Golden Rumble MMA Championship, which has a HK$2 million prize reward. To learn MMA, he enrols at the gym where Ching Fai happens to work. Ching Fai agrees to help Siqi with his MMA training, even though the championship is only 10 weeks away. Ching Fai, despite being 48, also harbours a secret desire to compete for the prize money .

See how long that setup was? Unbeatable sells itself as a mixed martial arts film, but it’s actually a drama that splits its story between three downtrodden characters: the old boxer seeking redemption from bad life choices, a suffering single mother with a plucky daughter and a rich kid trying to take care of his father. In a typical movie, the latter two story lines would be subplots that would feed into the main story, but instead director Dante Lam spreads them evenly throughout the story. This turns two supporting characters into two main characters, which unfortunately compromises the impact of the A story, namely Nick Cheung’s redemption story as the old boxer. The mother and daughter subplot, while well-acted, ends up hoging a lot of the screen time away from Nick Cheung. There were many scenes where Cheung’s character wasn’t developing because it was focused on the mother and daughter.

Eddie Peng is serviceable as the young rich kid-turned-boxer Siqi. I don’t find his character interesting, it’s like when Daniel Wu played the villain in New Police Story – a spoiled trust fund baby. Siqi is so naive it is head scratching. It’s hard to buy a novice thinking they can learn mixed martial arts within two-and-a-half months to enter a professional competition. Amateur boxing tournaments exist for a reason. To play devil’s advocate against myself, one can say that the film’s point is his character has an unbeatable spirit (pun intended), and that he’s competing to go the distance as a statement to his rich father. I see that’s what the film is telegraphing but it’s not interesting or compelling. It’s almost downright disrespectful to the integrity of the sport itself. On the contrary, I enjoyed watching this would-be trust fund baby being pummeled by truly unbeatable fighters that were level-headed and took the proper time to train. It’s depressing that Peng is playing Wong Fei Hong in an upcoming remake. Please keep shoving him down our throats, as he may win our hearts some day.

Nick Cheung is the heart of the film and gives a great performance. Fai is a character with a lot depth and emotional range, but the script keeps cutting him short by having Cheung do comedy. The comedy is funny, but the problem is it’s funny to the point of being detrimental to the drama.  An emotional scene is quickly followed by a funny scene. The audience is shifted to laughing and immediately relieved from contemplating Fai’s emotional struggle. I found it taxing to follow because the Fai character was the only character I cared about. Nick Cheung’s media-hyped muscled body is hidden for a huge majority of the film. I remember reading an interview with Christian Bale for American Psycho in which he indicated that the Patrick Bateman’s muscled body were intentionally sculpted to be ‘narcissistic muscles’, not functional muscles. There is a case of that going on here with Nick Cheung’s body, because most mixed martial artist aren’t sculpted like Greek statues. When Cheung fights, I was pumped. But there was too little of it.  

The fight choreography is tough and brutal but it’s ruined by odd camera placements and choppy editing. The glossy arena didn’t help either. If the actors really did train for the film, they should theoretically be able to do 1-3 moves before a editorial cut. Andy On shows up to play what he plays best, a cocky video game boss. When On arrived, the fights started to feel more choreographed. Overall I’ve seen MMA action done better in other films and ended up enjoying the training montages more.

Huang Bao Qiang shows up in a cameo role because he’s popular from the success of Lost in Thailand. How is his presence relevant to the story? Nothing, and here’s my point. There is a lot of box ticking going on in this film, like an investor trying to craft the perfect combination of an award-winning drama and a box-office hit. You have the award-winning body-transformation lead performance, the pretty boy to secure the young crowd and the single mother storyline to make sure everybody squeezes a tear. Unbeatable has already won 2 acting awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival, and good for it. For the rest of us who are not looking to win, I refer you to Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a MMA film that had a better story and bigger heart. Lastly, Unbeatable could have been a great film. But by a lack of balance of its multiple story strands, a great film was only telegraphed, not delivered. It could have used more punch.

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Bruce Lee: Kung Fu ‧ Art ‧ Life Exhibition

BruceLeeMuseum

Ever since watching Bruce Lee beat henchmen with a pair of nunchukus on TV in Enter the Dragon, I instantly became a fan ever since. Aside from being familiar with all his films, I have read his books, notes, poetry, and even attempted to practice Jeet Kune Do moves directly from his hand-drawn sketches. In my view, Bruce Lee is culturally significant, and the way he lived his life deserves to be continually discussed and studied. Upon leaving this exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, I realized I had a lot to say but nowhere to say it. So I’ve decided to write about my thoughts of the exhibit here…

Bruce Lee’s mind is fascinating and it is the number one thing people tend to overlook due to his accomplished physicality. He was forward thinking, worldly, a great speaker and a good actor. I remember seeing the full version of the Bruce Lee interview on the The Pierre Morgan Show. I was mesmerized by how Lee spoke, that he was perpetually shifting mental states. He would go from being a deep philosopher, to a charming movie star, to a cocky martial artist and then a self-deprecating jokey man within sentences. His eyes and vocal tones would change and he spoke with his entire body. I walked into this exhibit wanting to gain more insight about Bruce Lee’s character, how he lived his life and how Lee’s mind worked beyond his writings or films, of which I’m already familiar with. Fortunately, I got all that.

One noteworthy panel was a letter Lee wrote to his wife Linda from Switzerland. Roman Polanski paid Bruce Lee to train him in Switzerland. It didn’t seem a lot of training was done. In the letter, Lee wrote he detested going out with Polanski clubbing nightly and missed his wife and his kids a lot. The letter was written quite romantically. It showed a man that really valued his time and wasn’t interested in hedonistic pleasures. There’s currently a Johnny Walker commercial playing on Hong Kong television that stars a CGI-version of Bruce Lee on the Hong Kong rooftops reciting his “Be like water” speech. As rad as it was to see a computer rendition of an aged present-day-if-he-lived-on Bruce Lee, he never would have done such a commercial. The man doesn’t even drink alcohol! He would think it’s a wasteful thing to put into his system. The Polanski letter proves this.

Another panel featured an American magazine article that focused on how Bruce Lee married a Caucasian woman and the fact that their children were half-Caucasian half-Chinese. The reporter asked Lee if he intended to raise them as Caucasian or Oriental, with the infinitesimally subtle implication that his mixed children are soon-to-be outcasts in either society (Call me racially sensitive, but where else can that question possibly come from?). Lee gave a very simple answer (I’m paraphrasing), stating that he intends to teach them both Western and Oriental culture so that they can respect and draw the best parts of both. That struck a chord in the third culture child inside me. Even though some of his films had nationalistic sentiments (though I’d argue he was fighting against racial profiling), he was proud to be Chinese but he was never nationalistic. Similar to how he never believed in one set style to approaching a task, he didn’t categorize people by race neither. Everybody was a human being to him. Lee wanted the world to go beyond racial boundaries and he was already the living embodiment of that, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him. The sad thing is, we haven’t caught up yet.

The only geek out I had was seeing the notes Lee made for the final Coliseum fight in Way of the Dragon with Chuck Norris. Every move for every shot was written out in detail. This level of dedication was prevalent in his early years, as displayed in his notebook for Cha Cha dancing, where he too wrote out every single dance move so that he can be totally responsive to his dance partner. Something that stuck with me was Lee’s handwriting, it was in a graceful cursive that was evenly spaced out with no hard stresses, which suggests that he didn’t write in a hurried fashion (I know, I’m psycho).

There are five 20-minute video panels showing interviews with his family, relatives, and people in the Hong Kong movie industry who have worked with him. The videos each focus on different topics, like Lee’s personality, his work ethic and views on martial arts. A stuntman said Lee would personally pay for the hospital bills for their on set injuries, something that no movie star has ever done or has done since. Lee’s student Dan Inosanto tells a story of how Bruce Lee celebrated his birthday by sidekicking him to the ground during a sparring session, brought out a birthday cake and sang him happy birthday. I suggest everybody watch those in their entirety for the anecdotes. My only criticism of the exhibit is how people mystify Bruce Lee’s death in the video interviews (and in general actually). It irks me in a distasteful way. People as a group dealing with somebody’s death together can really go to some odd places, it compounds and becomes a weird social hive-minded thing that’s more about them dealing it more than the individual’s death itself. It tips beyond being mournful or respectful and borderlines on trivializing the event, like bad gossip. Why does it have to be a mythic mysterious end to an epic legend? Why can’t it just be an unfortunate accident?

Finally I walked through the hallway displaying looped excerpts from his 5 films. As I was shuffling by the Way of the Dragon display, I heard a child scream “Wow!”. The child was marveling at a clip showcasing Bruce Lee’s kicking ability, specifically the sheer force that cannonaded the film extra holding dear life on a kicking pad into a pile of garbage cans. That little moment struck me, to witness a mirrored version of how I discovered Bruce Lee years ago as a child watching him on TV. I reflected upon the deeper ways Bruce Lee has impacted me now and looking back I too thought, “Wow! It’s actually possible to admire a person on this many levels.”

I recommend people go see this exhibition if you’re in Hong Kong. However much you know about Bruce Lee, it doesn’t matter. He poured deep thought and passion into everything he did, whether that was shooting a movie, training himself to throw a faster side kick, writing a touching letter to his wife or chatting with a friend. There’s something deeper for everybody to discover because he is somebody you can admire on multiple levels. Bruce Lee is forever inspiring to me and I believe he will be for anybody of any age from anywhere.

 

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

Warrior (2011 film)

Warrior by Gavin O’Connor

I have a confession to make: I love martial arts. I love martial arts movies. There’s nothing more primal than watching two people beating the shit out of each other. Warrior is a movie that understands this but earns that fun legitimately through the three lead performances. It works on these two levels.

Joel Edgerton brings genuine goodness to the film. His character Brendan Conlon is formerly-failed MMA fighter turned school teacher, the bank is taking his house and now he is fighting in the cage to keep his family together. And through being motivated by family, he becomes a better fighter. You root for him. You want him to win.

I’ve never seen Nick Nolte so raw and completely naked playing this broken old man trying to repair his regrets. The Nick Nolte-isms do not shortcut him. He’s earned that Oscar nomination, though I don’t think he’ll win this year.

Here’s why I think Tom Hardy is a great actor: he acts with his entire body. No, I’m not talking about his deltoids (though “Tom Hardy’s deltoids” completely earn another independent credit in this movie). It’s an fine-tuned, equally internal and external performance. Notice the way he grunts, the weight in his walk, how he speaks under his breath and the way he glares his eyes like he’s going to lose it any second. He’s not even human in this movie. He is a mythic beast. Let’s just say, the bat will be broken.

The fights themselves are exciting to watch because of four aesthetic reasons, 1) The drama works. We care. 2) The actors are doing it. The camera doesn’t do anything to hide a stuntman. 3) The fights happen in film time, not real time. They’re editing on dramatic beats. They’re not sticking to how real MMA fights play out, which most of the time is people hugging each other on the ground. (If you’ve seen Never Back Down, you know what I’m talking about.) They’re presented in a realistic fashion with the boring parts omitted. 4) You feel the pain of these fights. On a side note, I also enjoyed the dual training montage sequence. They’re acknowledging the origin of the DNA strain (uh.. Rocky, anybody?) and trying to evolve it into something of their own. I appreciated that.

This was probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this year. I have a soft spot for it.

That said, I’m a little jealous that Joel Edgerton pulled off a flying armbar. That took me months!

Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Haywire Movie Poster

Gina Carano holds her own as the lead and actually is the most interesting thing about the film. Along with how the fights are filmed, she brings much gravitas to the film. You never doubt her fighting ability for a second. And most importantly, we feel the pain of these fights. Even given that  she’s probably padded underneath her clothes and is pulling the punches, the force of the hits look real. Often, she is being knocked against objects, which cannot be faked. I’m all for more martial arts films filmed in this way.

Much of the film’s style takes from the Ocean’s 11 movies: the jazzy, snappy music plays along as people go inside and outside of buildings, scoping out an environment and hatching up plans. There is something very cinematic about seeing something being assembled (i.e. like a sniper rifle being assembled or a team of thieves hatching a plan for a heist). And there is nothing Steven Soderbergh likes more than filming people opening and closing briefcases or car trunks, picking up bags and moving along to some other place with a plan to do something.

I believe this Ocean’s 11 heist film style works against the film. It brings too much lightness, which is antithetical to the reality of the world that it is set in. And also the reality of what the fight scenes are bringing to the table. There is a really subtle moment where Gina Carano, escaping from capture, trips over and hurts herself. It’s a small moment that brings a lot of reality, A) she’s not invincible B) she makes mistakes. But all that ultimately is unbalanced because those other heist-like scenes are filmed too slick. It takes away the tension and the pain, and you feel that she will get away with it with the finger-snapping soundtrack playing in the background.

Oddly, all the thespians are sidetracked because they’re not really given anything interesting to do. The film seems to slow down when it’s just the actors as there is no real scenery-chewing to be done. I wish they would replace one or two of these actors with other real-life mixed martial artists so she would have someone challenging to fight with in the film. Like in Ong Bak (or what I call Look What Tony Jaa Can Do!), as many henchmen Tony Jaa took down, they still build up the end fight with another martial artist (the one on steroids, for those keeping track).

Though being a massive martial arts fan, I really look forward to seeing more of Gina Carano. If they ever make a live-action Wonder Woman movie, she would be the ideal choice. Heck, at one point in the movie, they even called her Wonder Woman.

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