Fantastic Fest Reviews: 'Legend of the Fist', 'Ip Man 2', 'Agnosia', 'Bunraku'
Legend of the Fist
One of my great joys at FantasticFest 2010 was getting to see new Hong Kong movies on the big screen. I usually pick them up on DVD long before their cursory theatrical release in an arthouse, so this was like being in Hong Kong and seeing the latest blockbusters. Hong Kong films are so polished now. They no longer feel like the secret world of films you’d have to really love to put up with the dirty, faded copies available. They even do shaky cam just like Hollywood movies.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is another retelling of the Bruce Lee movie Chinese Connection (original title Fist of Fury). Jet Li did it as Fist of Legend and others have too. In this version, Donnie Yen picks up as Chen after avenging his master in a dojo full of Japanese fighters. He goes from World War I to Shanghai in 1925, still dealing with Japanese/Chinese politics. He takes on the persona of a masked warrior to defend Chinese notables, so he can fight by night and romance by day.
More reviews after the jump...
There’s a little more down time than I’d like but the five awesome fight scenes make Legend of the Fist a keeper. Yen in a World War I battlefield kicking ass with some Parkour style moves, basically making his own path, and some MMA style takedowns. He slides over and under the scenery and you see his preparation, winding up for the greatest moves. Chen flips onto an opponent and uses the momentum to flip the opponent again. Wires or not, that’s awesome.
The setting is full of production value, with prohibition era top hat wearing gangsters. Chorus lines dance to big band music. It looks like a Hollywood gangster epic. The postwar underground story is poignant. The Chinese really had to fend for themselves. Political intrigue leads to face offs and standoffs, but that’s only to say it doesn’t suck in between the fighting.
The finale lets Yen go full on Bruce Lee in a dojo fight. He does a mean Bruce and even wields the weapon of choice. This action is certainly bigger than the Li or Lee versions. The camera speed may reveal itself changing a few times, but man it is effective to capture the grace and vitality of Yen’s martial arts.
One thing that still gives a Hong Kong movie away is they still can’t find any white actors who can behave like human beings. The minor Caucasian characters can’t even deliver convincing stereotypes of racist pigs. That’s still a remnant of the old Hong Kong movies.
Donnie Yen is fast becoming the big gun of Hong Kong movies. He always had Iron Monkey but otherwise I think he played second fiddle to the Chans and Lis. He must have been holding back because recent movies like Legend of the Fist are amazing displays of talent.
Ip Man 2
Ip Man is a wonderful martial arts character. The Wing Chun teacher is legendary as the mentor of Bruce Lee. He embodies the best of martial arts with gracious modesty and humility. These are the masters we keep hearing about. Ip Man was one of them, at least according to the movies.
Ip Man 2 picks up with Ip Man (Donnie Yen) struggling after World War II. He finds some students, but they still can’t pay his bills. Local schools pick fights with Ip Man’s students and it gets back to Maste Hung (Sammo Hung). Hung runs the martial arts council so once again Ip Man has to prove Wing Chun worthy.
He’s so friendly. He schools his students without slaughtering them. Trying to not kill his opponents is more exciting than fighting to the death. He still thanks people for letting him win so they can save face when it’s clear Ip Man is the best. He also lets his aunt hang laundry in his empty dojo. What a guy.
It’s a good story about real world sacrifices and compromises. Nothing is free. Even awesome masters need money. Sometimes they have to make deals with the invading military. The story is loaded with philosophy.
Yen has such control over his body. There’s wirework for extra money shots, letting fighters balance on wobbly edges. The film really builds up momentum for the Yen/Hung fight, a battle that incorporates weight, balance and speed.
Then the movie becomes a remake of Rocky IV. Everyone seems to acknowledge this, from the actors in the film to the audience who agree with the comparisons. After all the above story, a western boxer named Twister (Darren Shahlavi) comes to town insulting the martial arts, so Hung steps in to show him a thing or two. Of course it’s finally up to Ip Man to defend the honor of martial arts.
At first I wasn’t down with the movie embracing old sports movie clichés. It was onto something so profound to digress into that, and how random for this element to be brought in. I guess I’ll have to research Ip Man’s biography and see if he really did fight the British Ivan Drago.
Looking back, I’m a little more okay with it. The Ip Man movies must be intended to glorify the legend of a master’s master. The Rocky motif fits that legend. Also Ip Man 1 had a dramatic shift between his local school and the war.
The fights with Twister are intense and it actually makes western boxing look way more formidable than martial arts. Hung and Yen get some good moves in, though nothing compares to their tabletop battle in the martial arts council. The bottom line is there’s so much fighting in Ip Man 2 it’s awesome. The character remains a classic and I hope there’s more story to tell with him.
Agnosia was a favorite of the 201 Fantastic Fest, both by audience reaction and the enthusiasm of Fantastic Fest cofounder Tim League. I just wasn’t into it. The film asks a profound philosophical question that is worth exploring, but getting the story there requires mechanics that are so uninteresting that I can’t care by the time it explores the question.
Joana (Barbara Goenaga) has a rare condition where her brain cannot process all the stimuli around her, so she sees and hears blurs of the people and surroundings around her. The condition first manifests itself when she’s a little girl and her father’s company is demonstrating the lenses they built for rifle scopes.
Her father’s mansion has an elaborate setup to help Joana get around, along with a full time staff. When her father passes away, an evil conspiracy concocts a plan to get Joana to reveal her father’s secret lens formula. Her doctor devises a treatment that requires her to be isolated in a blackened, soundproof room for three days to remove all stimuli. Vincent (Felix Gomez) will impersonate Joana’s fiancé Carles (Eduardo Noriega).
Got all that? Now the issue is: if you remove any superficial identifiers, would you know the difference between your lover and an imposter? That’s deep, but honestly, who cares about a lens corporation and a cockamamie medical treatment that sounds fishy before it’s even revealed to be a scam?
I suppose if you’re going to make a movie about scamming an agnosiac for her lucrative lens franchise, this is the way to do it. It’s got high production value with the period sets and costumes, particularly the elaborate contraption they build to isolate Joana.
Joana is a sweet, lovely girl. Goenaga is bright and luminous as an innocent, happy despite the limits imposed on her. She’s sexy and modest, in shots where we see her body without exploiting her, and in full on full frontal sex scenes. Let’s call is sensual. Perhaps the film’s biggest fault is that Joana isn’t in the movie enough. She’s the heart and the only hook into this bizarre plot and they spend a lot of time on the workings of the lens company and the conspirators.
You definitely don’t want anything bad to happen to Joana so by the time the film gets into the resolution of this conflict, you feel bad for her. But if you think about it, it’s still so stupid. It’s not even really evil. It’s just silly.
Bunraku is an ambitious movie that has a lot going for it. It ultimately doesn’t quite work but it’s still worth seeing once for the attempts it makes. Of the indie movies at Fantastic Fest, it seems a candidate for some kind of distribution, so you’ll probably be able to see it at some point.
In a post-war world where guns have been banned, a man with no name – well, they call him The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) – wanders into town looking for Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman). He teams up with a samurai Yoshi (GACKT), who’s after Nicola for stealing his clan’s talisman. Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd), Nicola’s, uh, number two, keeps the city in fear.
The plot is familiar but this crazy world looks like nothing else. The sets are like paper diorama, only large enough for human sized actors to walk through. Single colors fill in the backdrops like a living comic book, even more so than Sin City. It’s kind of like how I think Dick Tracy wanted to look. Costumes change colors as the character walks through different light.
A few little fourth wall breaks add to the surreal world. An off screen chant might signal the appearance of a villain. On screen identifications pop up sometimes, but not other times. The bartender's (Woody Harrelson) version of Spider-Man uses satire to convey the differences between this world and ours.
The fights are a huge letdown. After setting up such a visually striking world, the combat looks like stage fighting 101. They move really slowly and only consist of basic hits. A tracking shot following The Drifter through several levels of a compound, taking out guards along the way, is a waste because the fights it captures are boring. One fight on a trapeze still only hints at ideas that could have made inventive battles.
The idea is that they’re more like dances, but they’re not really very graceful dances either. Killer #2 may tip his hat or sway once or twice, but he doesn’t rock any real moves. So it’s not a dance, it’s not a fight, it’s really slow. I have no doubt that the actors trained for months to get this down, but when Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman trained for months, we got The Matrix and Kill Bill.
The most impressive thing about Bunraku is the look. Director Guy Moshe creates a fascinating visual world. It’s too bad he couldn’t fill it with more interesting action. The basic revenge story would be fine, but it’s not even an entertaining revenge. Maybe this one will do well and they’ll be able to make a sequel and hire a better fight choreographer.