As promised, this week I offer you a personal view on the history of the kung fu movie and a review of one of the genre's latest offerings, Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon.
For a long time it was said that the sum total of modern European philosophy was merely a set of footnotes to Plato - in the sense that Plato defined the discipline so fully and explored it so thoroughly that no-one else had anything really significant or innovative to bring to it. And in the same way for a long a time it seemed like the American martial arts movie as genre wasn't much more than a series of footnotes to Bruce Lee, or more specifically Lee's big American production Enter the Dragon.
Enter the Dragon was Lee's, and the genre's, calling card in the west, and one of the biggest hits of 1973. The vast majority of US-made kung fu movies seem to me to be derived from it, one way or another, and this is a shame because Lee certainly wasn't the first actor to make martial arts movies - the genre goes back to the 1940s at least - and Enter the Dragon isn't really very representative of what an Oriental martial arts film is like, being much more influenced by the Bond movies. The upshot of this was that the term kung fu movie got attached to two very different kinds of films, the American-made and the Oriental-made1.
I think the difference stems from the way martial arts are perceived in the east and the west. In the east they're a long established and integral part of the culture, not particularly remarkable. In the west they still retain a certain exotic mystique, exciting and provocative in and of themselves - regrettably, the myth of the karate-chopping superman lingers on. And this difference in perception is reflected in the films themselves. You could probably argue that there's no such thing as a 'kung fu movie' genre in Hong Kong, any more than there's a 'car driving movie' genre in Los Angeles - there are thrillers, and romances, and comedies and horror movies, all of which happen to feature martial arts to some extent. Many Oriental action stars are very accomplished entertainers in other fields - the most obvious example being someone like Jackie Chan, who in addition to his more violent achievements is a broad physical comedian in the style of Keaton and Chaplin.
Compared to the standard US kung fu movie, the difference is huge. The typical American martial arts star - Van Damme, or Chuck Norris, or even (God help us all) Steven Seagal - plays characters who are sinewy and taciturn and very rarely smile. They're frequently in the armed forces or police (or have been at some point in the past) and they always take themselves very seriously indeed. Normally a close family member gets killed or injured near the start of the film and they set off for revenge, crunching their way through legions of goons in order to reach their goal. The emphasis is all on machismo and brute violence and emphasising just how hard the hero (or, very rarely, heroine) is.
I'd choose a bad Hong Kong movie over a good American one every time - well, I would have done, because recently the American side of the genre seems to be becoming more and more like its' progenitor. You can put this down to a number of causes - Quentin Tarantino's enthusiastic championing of directors like Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan finally getting his breakthrough movie in the west, and the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 prompting some nervous actors and directors to emigrate to the US, amongst others. But whatever the cause the result is clear - the possibility of a rather more creative and mature kung fu genre in the western cinema. Already we've had The Matrix, a SF kung fu movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an historical romance, Jackie Chan is still doing his idiosyncratic thing for a much bigger audience, and there are (hopefully) many more to come. The remarkable Jet Li seems to be making films faster than the distributor can release them, with the one most people are waiting for - Matrix Reloaded - due out next summer. It looks like the art of kicking people in will finally become respectable.
All this waffle leads me into talking about Chris Nahon's Kiss of the Dragon, a good example of a case in point. It's a movie with American backing and an American co-star (Bridget Fonda), a Chinese star (Li) and expertise, and a French location, director, and villain. It was co-produced and written by Luc Besson, director of action fantasies like Leon, La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, and his fingerprints are all over this movie.
Li plays Liu Jian, a Chinese cop sent to Paris to help the local police deal with an expat gangster. Unfortunately his contact, Inspector Richard (the hard-to-pronounce Besson regular Tcheky Karyo) is as bent as a corkscrew and murders the Chinese crime lord, framing Li in the process. Of course Li is forced to go on the run from the police until he can clear his name, and of course this requires a quite stupendous amount of ass-kicking.
I enjoyed this movie more than was probably decent, and for some dubious reasons. For example Li's only friend in Paris is an aging Chinese 'sleeper' agent played by none other than Burt 'Hey Little Hen' Kwouk. (Jet Li and Burt Kwouk in the same movie! In the same scene! Surely cinema can get no better!) And Karyo's performance as the villain is so spectacularly over-the-top that it makes Gary Oldman's very similar turn in Leon look catatonically underplayed. The set-piece fights are inventive, witty, and well-choreographed, with very little wire-work so far as I could tell.
Thankfully (and unlike Li's last starring role, in Romeo Must Die) this film doesn't try to turn him into Jackie Chan - there's no shortage of gore, shootings, people getting blown in half by grenades, or anything else a really good family film requires. Li's a better actor, and has a much more intense and physical screen presence, too. (We're also spared the cheerful closing sequence, de rigeur in Chan movies, of cast members being rushed to first aid/casualty/the morgue after stunts don't quite go as planned.)
I must point out a few flaws, however - the plot is reliant on one huge coincidence to function, and it's never really made clear why Karyo wants to frame Li in the first place. Fonda's character is a prostitute from the same grittily realistic tradition as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and some of her early scenes with Li do seem to drag on interminably. And there's the usual Hollywood wussiness that chickens out of presenting a full-on mixed-race romance (one of Romeo Must Die's flaws, too) - is America really still so uptight about this sort of thing?
But on the whole, if you like this sort of thing, you'll probably have a whale of a time in Kiss of the Dragon. Outrageously entertaining.
Anthony Shaffer Remembered
Two leading lights from the days when the UK actually had a film industry to be proud of passed away this week. The first was Roy Boulting, who together with his brother John was responsible for a series of scathing satires on British society in the 1950s and 60s (younger, funkier researchers may know him better as the father of Crispian out of Kula Shaker).
The other was Anthony Shaffer, the lesser-known twin of Peter (who wrote Equus and Amadeus). Anthony was also a screenwriter of some distinction - he was responsible for most of those all-star Agatha Christie movies that get shown every Christmas, but he also wrote Sleuth, a brilliant deconstruction of the same genre. The movie version provided Laurence Olivier with one of his last great roles (and The Smiths with one of their more memorable lyrics).
But his personal favourite script, and one which the regular reader will be aware I've gone on about in the past, was The Wicker Man, in my opinion one of the greatest movies ever made in this country. (I suppose it'd be too much to hope that Shaffer's death finally provokes someone into releasing the infamous 'long version' here.) A great talent, and apparently a gentleman as well. RIP.