Ben Gulley Talks about Asian Movies He Watched On Netflix Part 5

Born to Fight (Kerd Ma Lui).

Another Thai action movie, this one also directed by Panna Rittikrai.  He was the fight choreographer on Ong Bak, and made his directoral debut with this movie in 2004.  I remember seeing previews for this with Ong Bak 2, and I came to know it as “the movie where kids use sports skills to fight people.”  A lot of the actors were actually Thai athletes, and, well, just look at the trailer.

Looks like it should be a bit of fun, right?  Battling a drug lord’s army with the thrill of gymnastics and the kill of, uh…rugby I guess.  That sounds like it would be right up a lot of people’s alleys.  The experience of actually watching the movie?  Not so much.  Again, I’m down with kids defeating bad guys by kicking soccer balls at them or using a balance beam.  I just think if that’s the kind of movie you’re committing to, maybe don’t have villagers getting murdered be 35% of your film by volume.  I’m running out of ways to say, “tonal inconsistency” in these reviews, but it’s an issue that a lot of Asian action movies have.  By the time that people start using sports skills to beat people up, I wasn’t quite in the mood anymore.

Other issues is that in an attempt to include as many Thai olympians and national champions in the movie, you end up with not that many actual characters.  A couple of them get the barest of motivations (is a disappointment to his father, wants to punch dudes), and I’m talking bare by action movie standards.  Also, there’s a LOT of nationalism.  I would say an uncomfortable amount, but I’m pretty sensitive to national iconography.  I’m just saying, I think that you can find reasons besides loving Thailand a lot to fight against the militia that’s captured your village and killed at least half of you AND is aiming a nuke at Bangkok.  I can understand where it’s coming from, because apparently Ong Bak set off a new wave of Thai national pride.

The fights and action sequences are reasonably well done, but there are definitely a few issues that demonstrate Rittikrai is new at this.  Mostly little things like, when you’re having a car chase with 18 wheelers, maybe don’t use long shots that show the audience just how slow they’re moving.  Despite almost all the movie taking place in this one village, there’s not really a good sense of geography and place.  The other issue is one that speaks more to Rittikrai’s preferences rather than his inexperience, and that’s the use of slow-mo.  I kind of want to explain to him that you don’t need to slow every single awesome scene down.  It dilutes the effect and it interrupts the flow of the fight scenes.  It’s also possible that I’m more sensitive to that right now because I’ve been rewatching a lot of Jackie Chan movies recently, and so Kerd Ma Lui doesn’t compare as well.  That’s probably unfair, but most Thai movies I’ve watched have relied a little too heavily on slow-mo.  What is most disappointing is that for a brief period of time, it seemed like the movie would be basically like a rural Thai version of Die Hard, and then we didn’t get that.

Pretty much all of the unique or original scenes in the movie can be found in the trailer.  If you want a Thai action movie, Ong Bak and Chocolate will do you better.

Ben Gulley Talks about Asian Movies He Watched On Netflix Part 3

Ong Bak 2

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Ong Bak (2003), or its breakout star, Tony Jaa.  I actually differed with most people on my opinion of that movie; I thought it was entertaining as hell, but I didn’t think that Jaa had the charisma to be the next big martial arts star.  His 2005 followup, Tom-Yum-Goong (released as The Protector in the US) pretty much confirmed my suspicions.  Tony Jaa can perform amazing feats of physicality, but he still just didn’t have the presence required to be a true martial arts superstar.

I’ve had a lot of arguments with people about this, but my basic argument is this.  Compare him to Bruce Lee (and yes, I realize its a little unfair to compare him to the most legendary martial arts star ever, but stay with me for a bit).  When I think of Tony Jaa, the image that most readily springs to mind is probably him kicking a dude while his legs are on fire.  That’s pretty goddamn awesome, no question about it.  The only problem is, when I think of Bruce Lee, the image is just of him standing, poised to strike.  In my mind, at least, Bruce Lee just standing still and getting ready to do something is more badass than Tony Jaa actually kicking a dude with flaming legs.  Even if I compare him to a martial arts star who’s not Bruce Lee, Jaa just comes up short.  Beyond his big stunts, Jackie Chan has the everyman charm going for him.  Jet Li has the quiet intensity.  Donnie Yen can always bring a lot of natural swagger to his characters.  My point is, I’m not watching Tony Jaa when he isn’t doing amazing physical feats.  I don’t mean that I dislike them, I just wonder if he has any staying power.

So that lengthy intro actually takes us to Ong Bak 2.  There are a couple of differences right off the bat, namely that Prachya Pinkaew is just producing this time around (he directed Tom-Yum-Goong and Ong Bak), and the directoral duties have moved to Jaa and Panna Rittikrai (the fight choreographer of all of Jaa’s movies).  The other main difference is that while the first Ong Bak was set in 2003 Thailand, this one is set in a nebulous historical time that Wikipedia assures me is 1421.  There’s some anachronistic stuff in there that made the history dork in me complain, but no one wants to listen to that guy.  Anyway, Jaa plays Tien, the son of a lord who is killed for reasons that exist only insofar as he needs to be orphaned.  He’s then rescued from slavery by bandits and then trained in various forms of ass-kickery, then he goes out to avenge his parents’ deaths.  It’s kind of like Batman, if Batman were every kung fu film made in the 70s.

That’s actually not quite true, I just liked typing it, and was unwilling to delete it afterwards.  Anyway, pacing is the major flaw of the movie.  They decide to tell about his parents getting killed through flashback, which apart from telling us who was responsible, doesn’t actually add much to the movie besides slowing down the narrative pace.  There’s also an extended dance sequence that was well-filmed, but interrupted the flow.  All of these problems are also compounded somewhat by the shooting style, which is very slick, but misses out on a lot of the grittiness that I liked in Ong Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong.  They also go a little overboard with the slow-mo sometimes, and if you’ve seen Ong Bak, then you know me complaining about slow-mo here means something.  Also somewhat strange is a 3rd act plot twist that doesn’t really pay off like it should combined with a fairly sudden ending.  That, though, is mostly due to the fact that the story isn’t over until Ong Bak 3, which was released in Thailand earlier this year and supposedly ties the previous 2 together.  (Note:  I actually wrote this review before Ong Bak 3 was out.  I’ve since seen it, and I can barely remember a thing about it.)

As far as action is concerned, the earlier fight sequences are pretty good, though not spectacular in the way that people have come to expect from Jaa.  There’s a part I really like where the bandits are making Tien go through three trials, the trial of agility, the trial of martial arts, and the trial of mind.  The best thing is, the trial of mind also ends up being a trial of martial arts.  What it’s worth watching, for, though, is the final fight sequence.  It’s very well done, and actually has a remarkable amount of subtlety for a martial arts movie (emphasis on the “for a martial arts movie”).  Despite all of the various little complaints I had, the film is pretty good, but even if it were bad, it would still be worth it for this final fight sequence.  As a bonus, it actually pays off on various things established earlier in the film (that’s the aforementioned subtlety).

So, that leaves me with my central question, is Tony Jaa going to be the next martial arts superstar?  I’m still not sure.  I will say that in Ong Bak 2 he showed growth by trying on a new persona, a fierier and angrier one.  He still doesn’t have the raw charisma I associate with martial arts movie stars, but he’s working on it, and it’s getting closer.  He’s starting to do more with less, which is good.  Still, it’s not quite there yet, and nothing in Ong Bak 2 approaches the scene in Tom-Yum-Goong with the extended shot of him running up stairs and just laying waste to, like, 80 dudes.  Now that he’s coming out of his Buddhist Monastery, he’ll be making Tam-Yum-Goong 2 with Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate (which is the movie about an autistic girl who kicks gangsters).  I have higher hopes now than I did before.

Ben Gulley Talks about Asian Movies He Watched On Netflix Part 2

Godzilla: Final Wars

Let me just go ahead and get this out of the way.  Godzilla: Final Wars is not particularly good, even when judged on the scale that I have already calibrated specifically for Godzilla movies.

The rest of this one is long and nerdy, and it’s all basically just reiterations of what I just said, so you can save yourself a lot of time here.

Just to be clear, I actually quite like (some) Godzilla movies, and by that, I mean the 1954 one, and then 1985 and the 90s series.  Hell, I’d even call myself somewhat of a Godzilla nerd (note that there are actual Godzilla nerds who are chafing at that statement as we speak, but sorry dudes, I know the origin of Space Godzilla, ergo I’m enough of a Godzilla nerd to qualify for the purposes of this review).  The point is, sometimes, I’m in a mood where the only thing that’ll satisfy me is the traditional roar and images of Godzilla tearing through a Japanese skyline.  I know that even the best Godzilla movie (probably the original or maybe Godzilla vs. Biolante) doesn’t really qualify as highbrow cinema, but I still remember seeing a Godzilla movie for the first time when I was 6 years old, and sometimes I can still get that visceral feeling of child-like joy from the series.

Despite all of that goodwill, Godzilla: Final Wars just doesn’t cut it on a number of levels.  First and foremost among its failings is the fact that it’s both a 50th anniversary deal AND the last Godzilla move for a while.  I would say “last Godzilla movie ever” but this is Toho, they’ve said that before.  Anyway, the point is, it’s trying to cram too much in.  Remember Hedorah the smog monster?  Even if you don’t, this movie wants you to remember Hedorah the smog monster, and it decided the best way to get you to remember Hedorah the smog monster is by having a 30 second clip of Godzilla killing the ever-living hell out of him.  There’s a lot of this “Greatest hits” style film making, where monsters go by more as a nostalgic shout-out than any real part of the movie.  Hey look, there’s Mothra!  Now she’s gone!  There’s Rodan and Anguirus and King Cesar of all fucking people!  Now they’re gone too!

I mentioned in my last review that talking about the plot and characters of a martial arts movie was like talking about the plot and characters in a porno.  The thing is, it’s not entirely similar.  While plots in martial arts movies (or kaiju movies) are often just a perfunctory means of getting people to fight, characters actually matter.  They matter because you the viewer needs to want to see a badass fight, and interesting and badass characters are the things those fights are built on.  In the case of this movie, there are some pretty decent fights, but it’s mostly just Godzilla destroying chumps until (gasp!) King Ghidorah shows up at the end.

This might just be me, but I really don’t like King Ghidorah.  I knew we’d see him, because he’s the closest thing to a nemesis that Godzilla has, but I’ve always found him boring.

Also, while I’ve mentioned the need for at least a basic framework of characters, the human element has always been one of the traditionally weak of Godzilla movies.  Simply put, they’re just not that interesting.  There’s something about mutants and aliens, but none of it really matters.  The people exist, plot wise, for the purpose of unleashing Godzilla, after that, they’re useless (though we still have to see a lot of them).  The only character I remotely liked was Cpt. Douglas Gordon, and that’s because of the mustache.

Also jarring in the human department is a scene set in New York with a cop and a black pimp that has all the racial sensitivity of an Amos and Andy bit.  Again, it’s pretty much just there to waste time, and reveal that Toho apparently still thinks that Manhattan is a place in 1970s blaxploitation films.

Christ this is taking too long, and I haven’t even gotten to my other grievances.

a).  The return of Minira, aka Godzilla Jr.  I hate that guy.
b).  The apparent need to include Sum 41 on the soundtrack.
c).  The inclusion of the American Godzilla.

That last one I can kind of understand.  The American Godzilla (or Zilla as it’s called in this movie) shows up to just get destroyed by the real McCoy.  Yeah, it makes sense as a kind of “Take that!” moment.  The only problem is, the only people losing here is the audience, because you reminded them that Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla existed.

So yeah, Godzilla: Final Wars is kind of bad, even for a Godzilla movie.

Ben Gulley Talks about Asian Movies He Watched On Netflix

Part One: The Legend of the Shadowless Sword

There’s one big question that I have to answer first:  Why The Legend of the Shadowless Sword?

I mean, 2011 will eventually be one of those years like 1066, 1215, 1492, 1588, or 1776.  Sure lots of goings-on probably happened during those years, but we really only remember one decisive historical event from each.  Future scholars will look back upon this year as the one that birthed an era, the start of “Ben Gulley Talks About Asian Movies He Watched On Netflix”.  The reviews will be a cultural juggernaut at that point, having inspired at least two dystopian police states, four major religions including at least one new Abrahamic faith, and dozens of holy wars and uprisings.  The one common thread in all of their writings, though, will be how they all address the humble beginnings of the source of their beliefs.  And they’ll all wonder, “Why did he start with such an average movie?”

Well, future followers and zealots (who apparently read enough of my writings to form a religion, but somehow skipped this first one) it was what was on my Netflix queue at the time.

So, onto the actual movie.  It’s a fairly standard sort of plot, swordswoman (Yoon So-yi) has to find exiled Korean prince (Lee Seo-jin) so as to restore him to the throne so he can fight an invading army.  Oh, and there’s also assassins after him, at least one of whom has some bitching cornrows (Shin Hyeon-jun).  If you want, you can just go to the wikipedia page, which will recount pretty much every detail (and brother do I mean every detail) of the plot to you.

But then again, you aren’t going to watch The Legend of the Shadowless Sword for its plot anymore than you’d watch Logjammin' so you can see Karl Hungus fix the cable.  Really, you just want badass characters fighting each other.  In this regard it is okay, but not great.  The fight choreography is very wuxia inspired, though often the camera work interrupts the flow.  The pacing of the fights is also off, especially a fairly lengthy, poorly cgi-ed underwater scene in the middle.  If you've wasted a good portion of your life watching martial arts movies, then this is nothing you haven't seen before, but it's still reasonably well-executed.

That being said, there a few good and bad things that I don’t want to write into a coherent paragraph.  The movie makes use of one of my favorite action tropes, (Spoiler warning) where the villain betrays and sacrifices his sexy female lieutenant/lover so as to try and kill the hero.  I always like that commitment to villainy.  Also, there’s apparently a sword technique where if you cut someone, they will literally explode a few seconds later.  I can’t say anything about that other than it is rad.

As far as the less good things, this plays into my feminist side.  Typically speaking, martial arts movies starring women will be relatively cool, but will generally falter at the end, and this one is no exception.  Hey, we have a hyper-competent swordswoman, and she’s saving the prince in distress!  Only by the end he’s also hyper-competent and basically takes over!

Ultimately, give this a watch if you can get it on Netflix, but I wouldn’t put it super-high on your queue.  It was a nice change of pace for me, since usually my martial arts movies are Chinese and my Korean movies are dramas and/or goddamned insane.  Overall though, it just doesn’t stand out enough.

I hope the coming baptism of fire is worth it.