Martial arts releases in the U.S. have come a long way since Bruce Lee first graced our silver screens in the early 1970’s. Back then, Hong Kong-made action movies were mostly about tournaments involving opposing schools that touted differing fighting styles. Inevitably, the good guys prevailed over the bad guys who always tried to cheat their way into winning.
Now, some 30 years later, Asian martial arts movies offer more complex narratives. Two new films include intriguing stories based on historical figures while featuring the legendary Sammo Hung — as the fight choreographer in one, and in an acting role in the other.
In “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, a forensic investigator during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) is summoned from prison to help solve the secret of imploding dignitaries. China’s first empress (Carina Lau) is waiting to be crowned while a mammoth female Buddha, 120 meters high, is erected in her honor. But after several men spontaneously combust with their bodies, rendered a heap of bones and ashes, Empress Wu demands that the detective determine why.
The real-life Dee was magistrate Di Renjie, immortalized in books by a Dutch diplomat and a French novelist among many others.
In this wuxia film, Andy Lau stars as the clever and stoic sleuth who was tortured and imprisoned for speaking out against the murderous empress-to-be. His best friend in their failed revolt, Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), is now a bureaucrat minus a hand. Supporting the Court is albino guard, Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), who’s suspicious of the Empress’ confidant, her fierce and beautiful bodyguard, Jing’er (Li Bingbing).
Majestically shot, this film keeps the culprit’s identity at bay while entertaining with spectacular widescreen scenes of fighters swirling and twirling, leaping across roofs and treetops. In true wuxia fashion, it features novelty weapons and stunning special effects including gentle deer that morph into raging beasts. There’s also a tense expedition through the Phantom Mart, or Ghost Market, remnants of a real city destroyed in an earthquake during the Han Dynasty. Here, Dee, Pei and Jing’er chase Donkey Wang, a mystic who shape shifts with acupuncture needles.
A combination of action, alchemy, sorcery and suspense, Detective Dee also features authentic multicultural scenes of daily life in Luoyang when some 25,000 foreigners including Persians roamed the city.
Watch for IE’s upcoming interview with director Tsui Hark. Opens 9/23 at the Varsity theater, 4329 University Way N.E. Call (206) 781-5755 for more information.
A semi-biographical account of Wing Chun master Yip Man, who mentored Bruce Lee, is the basis for “The Legend is Born: Ip Man”.
Opened 9/16 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th St. Call (206) 523-3935 for more information.
In 1905 Foshan, a wealthy father asks a martial arts master to train his son, Man, along with his adopted son, Tin-chi, who wakens from violent nightmares recalling how the Ips found him in the street. As the boys grow up honing their skills, they become unwittingly involved in a love triangle when their friend, Lee Mei-wai, becomes attracted to Man while Tin-chi yearns for her. Meanwhile, the vice-mayor’s daughter, Cheung Wing-shing, is on a mission to couple with Man after they meet at a marketplace brawl. But Mei-wai circumvents Wing-shing’s efforts and both continue to pine for Man while he’s away at school for years. When he returns, Man finds many battles waiting but none more anguishing than the one with a disloyal family member.
Told against the occupation of the British, then the Japanese, this film captures the animosity Chinese felt towards the invading foreigners. But while British racism is merely verbalized, the Japanese are portrayed as despicable, immoral characters in disheveled fright wigs.
A prequel to two other Ip Man films starring Donnie Yen that are already released, this version features Yu-Hang (Dennis) To in the lead role. Reportedly a student of Wing Chun, To is a mesmerizing fighter. His well-crafted punches are fast and furious, and his style is to pummel his opponent with lightning-quick jabs.
Unfortunately, To doesn’t seem nearly as confident nor comfortable when he’s acting in non-combative scenes. His sweet-looking face rarely registers any expression, so his feelings are opaque at times when they most need to be transparent.
Look for Ip Man’s real son, 86 year-old Ip Chun, in the role of Leung Bik.