Monday, January 6, 2014

Mark Ahn Knows Kung fu: 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi

Keanu Reeves is the gateway to Americans understanding kung fu. And he might be the only thing that these two movies have in common.

47 Ronin is based on a traditional Japanese story called the Chushingura, which retells the efforts of 47 masterless samurai (ronin) in avenging their slain master (Strangely enough, a direct mention of the story pops up in 1998’s Ronin in a scene between Robert De Niro and Michael Lonsdale). The Chushingura has been retold in multiple iterations in film, TV, radio, and on stage, and the most immediate comparison in terms of popularity of replication would be Les Miserables. The nearest American counterpart to it would probably be the entire canon of folk legends, or prominent points of history like the Civil War.

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a man of low stature, often referred to as a “demon” by his samurai compatriots because of his sketchy past and his mixed blood heritage. He was rescued as a child by a Japanese noble, whose samurai are led by Oishi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine). When their master is killed by a rival lord with the help of a witch, they rally the troops for a revenge mission. Along the way, they face enchanted forests, giant beasts, and rival clans with swords in hand, which should be loads of fun, if nothing else.

However, 47 Ronin’s primary sin is that it’s boring.
We still don't like you, white demon.
I can’t speak for everyone, but my expectations for enjoying a martial arts film (or really any action film) is to watch a decently choreographed fight/battle, some vaguely relatable characters, and a bit of a narrative to set the stakes; with these, I can enjoy myself for 90-120 minutes with a smile. 47 Ronin unfortunately does not meet these standards. More than a few times I found myself mentally wandering into different movies while watching. There goes Hiroyuki Sanada walking around; I really liked that he was in Sunshine. Hmm, a village getting attacked; wish I was watching The Last Samurai (which isn’t a sentence I say often). Whoa, a huge battle of samurai; I would rather be watching 13 Assassins.

It’s obviously not this movie’s responsibility to be any of these other movies or to necessarily compete with them, but what’s frustrating is that it never is its own thing. The plot lacks any weight or momentum, the characters are uselessly one note, and the movie spends too much time in transitions, with people riding horses to a new destination or brooding grim faced about what happened before. The narrative weight getting split over too many characters doesn’t help either. The hero is either Keanu or Sanada; Reeves because he has the mystical box office draw, or Sanada because he has the most developed back story, but neither is the focus of the story and the movie suffers for it. Even the villainy is split between the rival Japanese lord and the witch, played by Rinko Kikuchi, who didn’t make me drift off thinking about other movies because she looked like she was actually having fun.
Not as much fun as Pacific Rim.  Probably.
The movie lives in a weird middle ground between more realistic martial arts stories and the supernatural but CGI saturated fantasy stuff like The Sorcerer and the White Snake. This is a perfectly decent place to reside, but 47 Ronin doesn’t know how to live in it. It’s got some magical elements (like witches and monks), but there isn’t enough of it. When it stays in the milieu of realistic kung fu, it doesn’t capture the attention with scale, or skill, or novelty, or intensity, although it’s not bad. It would be easy to lay blame at the cooks in the creative kitchen, or the first time director, or the delays in reshoots and 3D conversion, but that all of that might have been fine if they got the recipe right for the movie, but they didn’t.

One of the reported reasons for the delay of 47 Ronin was that Keanu Reeves was working on his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, which is inspired by the background of one of Reeves’s stuntmen, “Tiger” Chen.

In the story, Tiger Chen is the very belligerently named sole disciple of tai chi, a martial art known mostly for its internal health benefits and old people congregating at local parks. Tiger practices tai chi with his master every morning before going off to his very ordinary job as a delivery man, and along the way, decides to enter a martial arts competition, not for glory, but to prove that “tai chi isn’t just for exercise. It can be very powerful.”

Keanu Reeves (the crazily named Donaka Mark) runs a lucrative underground fighting club, and notices Tiger’s performance in the competition; he decides that corrupting a na├»ve and morally decent tai chi practitioner into a killing machine is exactly the new challenge he and his profit margin need. Through a series of accidents, Tiger is forced to enter Donaka Mark’s fight ring, quickly finding his martial prowess improving, but his moral integrity crumbling away.

Tiger Chen, a sprightly 5’9”, is not as short as some other martial artists (Jet Li is 5’6”) but every fighter he battles in this movie is either taller or bulkier, so it is genuinely impressive when he defeats his physically more imposing opponents.  The story seldom drives toward moments which require varied emotions from him, so Chen’s stoical face comes off as a man going about his business, rather than awkward emptiness. He is quicker and smoother in his movements, and he adapts to the fluid, deflective movements of tai chi as well as the more powerful and frenetic martial arts forms he adopts as his character arc darkens further into the movie.
It's not just exercise.
The fights are arranged capably by Reeves’s and Chen’s Matrix fight coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping. The fights in this movie are characterized by their duel format; it’s always one man versus one man (there is a fantastic exception to this, however). The fights also focus on the skill and particular martial style of the combatants; there are no other weapons involved, just the fists and feet of the combatants. I am no martial arts expert, but my own novice eye can detect that Chen’s style becomes more violent and designed to maim, and his demeanor changes to be more fierce and animal-like. Regardless of where he is in the character’s arc, Chen’s action talent is not up for debate; he is lots of fun to watch.

Although Reeves’s character is the one pushing the action in the movie, it is little more developed than the unremarkable empty vessel he is in 47 Ronin. In both movies, his presence is counted on to bring in an audience, but where 47 Ronin tries to tack him onto an already established story to bring in American dollars, Reeves smartly steps aside from most of the spotlight in his own Man of Tai Chi, and that movie is better for it. It also helps that Man of Tai Chi has some competently choreographed action, some relatable characters, and a bit of story with stakes involved. I’m happy to see that creators of martial arts movies continue to want to market their films for American audiences, but wondering when they’ll stop thinking that slapping a well-known American name will help them break into new markets. Or even worse, in the case of the The Grandmaster, that dumbing down the content into a markedly different cut will make it more palatable. The unexpected success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon taught some bad lessons along with the good about martial arts cinematic success in the U.S., but it did show that a martial arts movie with foreign, unrecognizable faces dubbed in a foreign language can still be compelling storytelling.

14 comments:

  1. Fantastic column, Mark. I thought I remembered hearing an interview with Ray Park (Darth Maul) where he talked about his devotion toTai Chi as well, but I can't recall the details and a google search revealed nothing.

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    1. Thanks Heath! I don't know a ton about tai chi, and this is really the only movie in memory where it's showcased at all. I will be on the lookout for that Ray Park information, but for now, the thought of Darth Maul or Toad in a park with old people makes me giggle.

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    2. Okay, I have more information. I heard him in an interview talking about how when he was on the convention circuit he would take a bunch of willing participants out into the park or some nearby open area and they'd have meditation and tai chi. Daniel Logan, the young Boba Fett, seemed to idolize the guy. Which I totally understand. It's crazy...but also kind of awesome.

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    3. That's actually really great. Probably beats taking questions for hours on end.

      One can only hope that Ray Park and PBromley favorite Scott Adkins are friends.

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  2. As always great column Mark. I however have to give a friendly counterpoint to Man of Tai Chi. I thought Reeves's performance was ridiculously over the top. Every time he appeared on screen it totally pulled me out of the movie. The character is played like some villain from a 80s cartoon. That performance dragged the whole thing down for me. Maybe I was not getting it, maybe that was how it was supposed to be, some crazy Gwai Lo for the audience to laugh at etc. Perhaps ham as his aim and I missed the boat.
    I did however enjoy Tiger Chen. The action was really good. It's great to see action sequences shot with wide angle so the audience can see all the choreography and stunt work; rather than all whip pans, shake cam, and close-ups to hide any real technique/choreography.

    I have not seen the new 47 Ronin movie yet, too bad it sounds like it missed the mark.

    For those interested in the story of the real 47 ronin check out Hiroshi Inagaki's 1962 "Chushingura". Probably the best retelling of the story since Kenji Mizoguchi's 1941 "The 47 Ronin". As a jidigeki it is heavy drama with strict adherence to historical accuracy and a great retelling of loyalty of Lord Asano's retainers. Those without the interest in Japanese history will most likely find it boring however.

    Also Mark, what do think of the current state of martial arts films from the old countries? Part of me feels as though the quality has dropped. Too much CGI and adoption of western film techniques/styles. The original cut of Grandmaster was good, but I am not wowed like I was when compared with Zhang Yimou's work from the last decade or old films.

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    2. Be warned if you check out Kenji Mizoguchi's 1941 "The 47 Ronin" its very good but the climatic action happens offscreen through dispatches being read and its quite long ... like 4 hours. Shall-we-say if someone is expecting an action flick you will be disappointed.

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  3. My last question was not meant to be addressed or answered only by Mark. Anyone with opinions on the current state of martial arts pictures please I would love to hear them as well as picks for recent good ones.

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    1. Tom - Always great to hear from you. Thanks for the info on the Chushingura films.

      I agree with you about Keanu's cartoonishness; like you, it definitely took me out of the movie. On a second viewing, I was better able to put it in the background. My guess is that he was trying to play some ultimate incarnation of evil, rather than just a guy with evil intentions, and that gets into the moral struggle of Tiger's character, but that reading could be a stretch.

      As for the state of martial arts films out of Asia, I agree with particularly with your point about overuse of CGI. Part of it is that is a ravenous demand for movies with CGI effects in the Chinese and Russian markets, so a movie like MAN OF STEEL that didn't do as well as expected in the States is exactly in the wheelhouse of what's going to kick box office ass over there. With that type of demand, it's easy to see why martial arts films have bent in that direction. I don't have a problem with martial arts movies using CGI, I'm just not sure if I've seen it used a lot and the movie still work. Perhaps it's just a matter of getting better at it, too.

      A more insidious problem is that the potential ease of CGI eats away at creativity of filmmakers, which is an issue in moviemaking in general. Part of what I love about older martial arts movies is the hand-made feel of everything, especially the practical effects. Those people got really creative because they made so many movies in a year and had shoestring budgets to match, and that magic cocktail gave birth to some amazing sequences, and I would hate to see anything make that kind of imagination and creativity go away.

      The good news is that the creativity is still there, even with movies like THE GRANDMASTER, which has been growing on me. Gareth Evans is giving us RAID 2: BERANDAL this year, which I'm excited about.

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    2. I agree with all your points, your analysis on global markets is also very interesting and I had not considered that.

      I also wanted to add that I did not mean to dismiss all use of CG/wire work. If it is in the sub-genre of Wu Xia, than by all means load it up with CGI and wire work. It is fantasy after all. But for straight up kung fu films, it is just that when CG it is absent we really get to appreciate the prowess of the artist. I think of Jet Li's "Fist of Legend" and Sol brought up Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" as showcases of were the audience is watching, and consciously becomes aware that the techniques are really being performed. That awareness of realness often makes the film more enjoyable. (It does for me at least.)

      Additionally, I noticed something cool regarding Tiger Chen's performance. His Tai Chi transitions from mostly circular to mostly linear technique as his character descends into the chaos of the fighting ring. Circular techniques (at least in Chinese kung fu) being seen as harmonious and mostly defensive/reactionary in nature and linear as discordant, direct, and aggressive/offensive in nature. (Funny, Korean and Japanese martial arts are mostly linear)

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    3. "Aggressive and offensive in nature" were exactly the comments in my grade school report card. Small world.

      I did not take your comments as dismissive of all wirework, but I'm with you in regards to an increased enjoyment when I know the person is ACTUALLY performing these difficult physical feats. That's why THE RAID movies are so exciting, and I find myself gravitating toward the gritty crime thriller martial arts rather than the fantasy stuff.

      Thanks for the mini-education in martial arts; even as a novice, your observations about circular rather than direct movements make sense, and now I'm running over past scenes in my head where those movements match the narrative.

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  4. Great, informative article Mark - I'll put Man of Tai Chi above 47 Ronin on my to-watch list!

    I've been enjoying the ensuing discussion too and am far too much of a neophyte to contribute much other than to say that I recently watched Enter the Dragon (F! This Movie!) for the first time and can attest to the fact that a great martial arts movie doesn't need ANY CG - the experience is diminished for me when I know it's not the real thing and though more over-the-top CG is probably the future, the amazing shit these guys can do really doesn't need the help.

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    1. Hey, come to think of it, maybe Enter the Dragon is worthy of an official F'ing?

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    2. That'd be pretty cool, actually. I've been a little gunshy to write about Bruce Lee, but if there is a movie of his that can generate a lot of discussion, it'll probably be that one. We'll keep it in mind.

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