The Blind Swordsman – Zatoichi (2003): Characters born of life-altering circumstances

Zatoichi

MOVIE: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

RELEASED IN: 2003

STARRING: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa

WRITTEN BY: Takeshi Kitano (screenplay), Kan Shimozawa (novels)

DIRECTOR: Takeshi Kitano

PRODUCER: Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saitō

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Tatsumi Nikamoto

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Are characters’ fates determined by their own circumstances? It seems that only the more memorable ones are, appealing directly to our subconscious need as an audience to connect with them. And for a few of us still sitting on the couch, reliving the past 120 action-packed minutes, we would sometimes go as far as to start relating to them empathically, pondering the emotions and experiences the characters themselves embody. In other ways we relate to these characters, we also wonder what it would have been like had their circumstances played out differently.

What would have happened if, in Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo (The Bride) never regained the use of her legs after her coma? What if, in The Big Boss, Cheng Chao-an was shrewd in his promise to his mother to never fight again? What if Rocky Balboa lost the fight to Clubber Lang in Rocky III?

Well aside from the fact that our heroes and heroines would be playing the game with a different hand, events would inevitably take a different course in the narrative. Needless to say that, if an anti-hero had more fortunate beginnings, then their remarkable story, as we know it, would never come to be.

Consider Zatoichi in modern jidaigeki film The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. The 2003 cinematic incarnation of the popular 1960s TV series introduces us to the Japanese Edo period, when a blind, nomadic masseur wanders from village to village to earn a living. What’s soon made obvious (aside from the title of this movie) is that he is also a deadly swordsman who, when crossed paths with an enemy, would draw his blade with lightning-fast speed and wield devastating strokes in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it splash of CG blood and gore.

Zatoichi and his adversary

After wandering into a village found to be at the mercy of three rival mob families, Zatoichi unwittingly attracts their attentions and finds himself at the cusp of a dangerous showdown, while the mysterious gang leader Ginzo and samurai ronin-turned-bodyguard Hattori make every effort to pursue him.

After running into trouble with the operators of the mob-affiliated gambling house, Zatoichi and his client’s hapless nephew Shinkichi encounter a pair of geisha when hiding out from the gangs. They learn that the geisha are actually a brother and sister disguised as a maiko duo who were travelling the country hellbent on seeking revenge for the murder of their parents. The four quickly discover that the gang leader responsible for the massacre at the brother and sister’s home was none other than the same Ginzo who had brought his dangerous influence to another village. Zatoichi, Shinkichi and the two maiko siblings agree to help each other take on their newfound enemies.

In what would otherwise be an ordinary plot, the character development adds some serious value. Between the bouts of sword fights and brutal dismemberments, the film works to establish each of its characters’ stories, and each of them as dark and provoking as each other. And it is the same dark, provoking element to these characters that would otherwise serve no purpose if it weren’t for our desire to relate to them.

Zatoichi seemingly comes across as a man with no past, however occasional flashbacks he experiences also point to a dark past where, for reasons unknown, as many as dozens of men at a time had fallen by his sword. At this point, the audience can’t help but wonder what kind of adversity Zatoichi faced not only as a blind man, but as a notorious swordsman. Or whether Zatoichi would be an equally good, if not better swordsman if he was able to see.

The maiko ‘sisters’ offer much of the same to this thematic formula. It might be safe to assume that if tragedy and ensuing hardship didn’t befall the siblings, Seitaro and Okinu would never have grown up to become such a deadly, unassuming pair of vengeance-seekers.

Zatoichi

The characters, and therefore the film overall, is a lot more subdued and serious when compared to the more light-hearted TV series. Though with many of the films Takeshi Kitano has worked on, this is often found to be the case.

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Jackie Chan in Sydney: How did I not know this???

Yesterday I was staring at my computer screen, my mouth slightly hanging open in disbelief. A few seconds ago I was frantically clicking, and now I was sitting incredibly still. My eyes were the only part of me darting all over the place.

I finally swung around in my seat to look at my co-worker and ask what shouldn’t have been much of a rhetorical question: “Why am I still at work?”

Jackie Chan is currently in Sydney, where I live and work, filming scenes for his latest movie Bleeding Steel that is set to be released next year. But it was yesterday when he was spotted by news crews in helicopters filming an action sequence on one of the arches of the Sydney Opera House.

That’s right; Jackie Chan was filming a fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House.

And I was 15 minutes train ride away from witnessing the action in person.

Surely, an extended lunch break was in order!

Below is some news footage captured by a Seven News helicopter:

Now excuse me while I set Google alerts for Jackie Chan + Sydney + other tall national monuments close to my office.

The Raid: Redemption (2011): Authentic fight scenes show why martial arts beats gun play

MOVIE: The Raid: Redemption

RELEASED IN: 2011

STARRING: Iko Uwais, Donny Alamsyah, Joe Taslim

WRITTEN BY: Gareth Evans

DIRECTOR: Gareth Evans

PRODUCER: Ario Sangtoro

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian

RATING: ★★★★★

Showdown in The Raid: Redemption

When discussing plans for a movie night with a work colleague, we talked about the undeniable appeal of watching a film in a movie theatre. Besides the obvious perks of sitting in gold class, or having cinema popcorn and frozen cokes, there was one other brilliant difference between watching a movie at the cinemas and watching it at home.

“Whenever it’s a movie I really get into, I feel different leaving the theatre,” my friend said.

“I know that I enjoyed a movie when I feel like I’m re-entering the real world. But it doesn’t feel real at all. It feels like you left the real world back in the theatre.”

I was amazed. Before this conversation, I was the only person I knew of who could be so emotionally affected by a film’s story. Not necessarily in a flair for the dramatic, but because it was so easy for me to get carried away with escapism.

After watching the Indonesian action flick The Raid: Redemption, the experience was no different. But rather than left feeling inspired like I would be by an adventure epic or contemplative like I am after watching a historic drama, I was fearless as I recounted the incredibly fast-paced but calculated action scenes and brazen violence.

An Indonesian SWAT team is assigned the highly dangerous mission in capturing crime lord, Tama Riyadi, who is hiding out on the 15th floor of a Jakarta slums apartment block. This mission might not seem so dangerous on the outset, but the officers are soon informed that the building they are about to raid also serves as a safe house currently occupied by some of Jakarta’s most notorious criminals. In fact, Boss Tama has leased all the floors of his building to gangs of murderers, thugs and killer psychopaths.

And though the SWAT team is 20-men strong, many of its members are only rookies, including a silent young officer called Rama, played by Iko Uwais. Despite this, the team’s sergeant, Jaka, rouses some of the shaken men into action as they meet up with Lieutenant Wahyu at the building’s site. Other police officers and task forces had been previously unwilling to enter the rat nest in the past, but Lieutenant Wahyu is determined to take down Tama while leading his unit into the derelict premises.

The mission starts efficiently, as the police quickly infiltrate the apartment block. But before the team can even start their sweep through the building’s floors, the cops are spotted by some of its tenants. Suddenly Tama, who is observing the team via CCTV cameras from his own apartment, cuts the lights to the sixth floor and over an intercom, proposes to his building’s residents a deal too good to pass up – whoever kills off the SWAT team will be granted free rent.

The outnumbered cops are almost immediately surrounded by a bloodthirsty mob of armed thugs, which under the cloak of darkness, begins annihilating police officers in heavy gunfire. Any hopes of escape are swiftly dashed, as cops making their way to the floor’s windows were soon taken down by snipers who had surrounded the building, while the SWAT van parked outside was quickly destroyed.

Worst of all, as the remaining team members retreat to a nearby apartment, Sergeant Jaka learns from a petrified Lieutenant Wahyu that no backup can be called, since Wahyu’s mission was never sanctioned by their department.

Now completely outstripped, and low on bullets, the handful of cops who managed to survive the initial violent onslaught will have to carefully navigate the inescapable building floor by floor. But rather than submit to the imminent sense of doom that follows the surviving officers through the maze of apartments, in their almost hopeless attempt to sidestep every danger hidden behind any door, wall and staircase, they eventually prove to be more formidable a prey than Tama and his cronies originally expected.

In fact, it would be rookie cop Rama who would lead the charge by taking on his enemies in close combat, bringing them down in a flurry of bone snapping, flesh ripping and skull cracking in an awe-inspiring demonstration of Indonesia’s traditional martial art, pencak silat.

Aside from a couple of seconds of our protagonist hitting a punching bag at the beginning of the film, there was no real indication that this action film would see any hand-to-hand combat. But only when Rama is quite literally backed into a corner after he and a wounded officer unexpectedly run into more of Tama’s men, Rama springs into action in a whirl of close-in grabbing, heavy striking and speedy maneouvres that quickly (and fatally) incapacitates his opponents in a rampage reminiscent of Tony Jaa’s Kham in The Protector.

What makes these fight scenes so extraordinary is not necessarily the heart-in-your-throat anticipation of running into hidden enemies, nor the shockingly violent injuries and deaths. It is the skill in which the fight scenes are both depicted as well as executed. The choreography, while spectacular, is also meticulously modelled on situational combat. Instead of including erroneous maneouvres, each attack and counter connects and flows realistically and would invite a palpable sense of urgency and thrill whenever the actors are drawn into close combat.

Using Gareth Evans’ screenplay as a guide, Gareth, Iko and Yayan Ruhian, who plays the malicious character of Mad Dog, workshopped each of the film’s fights on crash pads. The writer/director would propose how the fight will be captured scene by scene, as both Iko and Yayan would attempt a step-by-step interpretation of how they would act or react in a certain fight scenario.

In a Wall Street Journal article by Don Steinberg, Gareth described the creative process.

“So in the fight in the corridor, he’s got the knife and the stick,” he says.

“It was in the script that he’s carrying somebody on his shoulder. I told them: Every time somebody comes from a doorway, from any direction, you have to shift his body around to keep him on his feet while you defend against these guys attacking you.

“Then you drop the body down to the floor. Then you lose the stick. Then you lose the knife. They fill in the gaps—what’s the punch, the kick, the slash, the throw?”

Only then would the production team begin considering camera placement and shooting sequences, to ensure the best capture of each fight scene.

“For me, shooting action scenes is the same as shooting drama, in terms of camera movement. We’re guiding the audience’s eyes.”

Mad Dog and Sergeant JakaThough the film can arguably walk that fine line between action and martial arts film because of the amount of gun play, the scenes where the actors are equipped with firepower shows just how one-sided the outcome of a fight can be where two people are pitted together. There’s no measure of skill, strength or intelligence of a fighter, apart from a mere ability to aim a gun or pull a trigger.

Through films like The Raid, it is evident just how much better an action scene resonates with an audience when there is an established level playing field, where both opponents are only reliant on their arms, legs and immediate surroundings in an authentic fight for survival.

I think Mad Dog said it best in the scene where he squares off with Sergeant Jaka, as he chooses to disarm his pistol before throwing it aside.

“I’ve never really liked using these. Takes away the rush.

“Squeezing a trigger … it’s like ordering takeout.

“Now this … this is the thing. This is the pulse. This is what I do.”

King Boxer (1972): Winning isn’t everything. But no actually, it is

MOVIE: King Boxer

RELEASED IN: 1972

STARRING: Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, James Nam

WRITTEN BY: Chiang Yang

DIRECTOR: Chang-hwa Chung

PRODUCER: Run Run Shaw

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Lau Kar-wing, Chan Chuen

RATING: ★★★★☆

1972 King BoxerWhether it was by coincidence, or that my brain subconsciously told me to gravitate towards this film, but either way I recently ended up watching another Shaw Brothers DVD.

Critics, including the likes of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, suggest that King Boxer was the film that broke open the floodgates for kung fu movie releases in the US. Directed by Korean moviemaker Chang-hwa Chung, King Boxer would also be the feature debut of Lo Lieh, an enduring figurehead of Hong Kong action cinema despite having no professional martial arts training in real life.

While I maintain that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of the most iconic films produced by Shaw Brothers Studio, King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death deserves an equal share of accolades, not only because it happens to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies, but because it has managed to stay memorable in each subsequent decade since its release, bringing with it a snowballing cult following.

Fans of Tarantino’s awesomely-gruesome revenge fest Kill Bill could immediately place its sampling of King Boxer’s soundtrack and the instantly recognisable trumpet that would sound during the fight scenes and stare downs, accompanied with the retro tints of colour on screen.

But I would like to think that it was more than a synthesizer and 60s special effects that would inspire Tarantino and the procurement of a loyal fan base. To speak of the true Shaw Brothers style, King Boxer showcases the very elements that make the quintessential kung fu film: slightly dicey wigs, dramatized encounters with enemies, and fight scenes with bladed weapons and requisite hand-to-hand combat. Yet it was the graphic violence never before seen in martial arts films that would shock audiences upon its release in both Hong Kong and overseas, and act as a defining moment for filmmakers of action cinema.

1972 King BoxerI can assume at least that the squirting blood bags, mutilated limbs and even one fighter plucking another fighter’s eyeballs out of their sockets certainly made an impression on Tarantino.

But it was the brutal fight scenes and glorified violence that added a new potency to the film’s action, in the way that audiences soon grasped how hand-to-hand combat could be just as, or if not more deadly than wielding a weapon.

Much like other films of its time, this martial arts movie starts off by introducing a young, promising martial arts student, who will end up overcoming adversity and emerging triumphant in whatever quest he finds himself pursuing. In this case – our hero will be training to win a local martial arts tournament.

King Boxer’s youthful protagonist Chi-Hao is a faithful disciple of kung fu master Sung Wu-yang and an even more faithful suitor to his master’s daughter. Though his kung fu is less than to be desired (more flailing than fighting), he is determined to represent his master’s teachings in an upcoming martial arts tournament, and rightfully earn the hand of his sweetheart.

But before we get bogged down in romantic plot lines, Sung Wu-yang, having seen what a former student has achieved under a new master and realising his own shortcomings when fending off a bunch of street thugs, sends Chi-Hao to study under another kung fu master called Shen Chin-Pei, who will end up teaching him his secret Iron Fist technique.

But unfortunately for Chi-Hao, his entering of the tournament will drag him into a bitter fray with the very same thugs who attacked his master, headed by treacherous tyrant Meng Tung-shan (played by Tien Feng) and his self-important son who are determined to take out the competition at all costs.

The unscrupulous pair even hire the help of three Japanese professional martial artists and the face-breaking forehead of street fighter Chen Lang in their bid to establish themselves as the best kung fu school.

Unrelenting, their methods for preventing Chi-Hao and his new school from competing in the tournament were verging on reprehensible; picking fights with Chi-Hao’s fellow students, to picking fights with his masters, to leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

Chi-Hao’s new adversaries soon prove they mean serious business, as their actions descend from petty criminal to downright murderous. So, like a good revenge film should, the villains were long overdue for a severe comeuppance. And who to deliver it but the new master of the Iron Fist, Chi-Hao.

In terms of kung fu movie standards, storylines either tend to be too simplified or too muddled. For King Boxer, the attempts at creating contiguous plot lines and expanding on supporting characters pushed this film into a new territory, where the storytelling can rival that of a gripping thriller/drama. Though as the plot intensified, unfortunately then would the fight choreography fall somewhat wayside.

However, the important thing to consider at this point is to realise just how commendable of a production this film turned out to be. Apart from the stunt actors, many of the film’s cast had little to no martial arts expertise, and relied on the fight choreography and film direction to pull off what would be convincing action scenes. And while we may be a more discerning audience when it comes to special effects and the impacts of action and violence, in light of today’s more modern, sophisticated productions, the rough-chop editing, overstated make up and costuming, crude or less realistic special effects and, above all, a fundamental knowledge of how a fight scene should be executed all speak of a culture that managed to captivate audiences around the world. The fact that that this film, now 43 years old, can be found on DVD should speak volumes about its ability to still entertain us.

EXTRA BITS:

  • The trumpet synthesizer sound effect that would play during stand offs with Chi-Hao was actually taken from the theme song of US TV series Ironside. In one Ironside episode, Bruce Lee made a guest appearance.
  • King Boxer would be the first kung fu film to be released in the US, only several months before Fist of Fury arrived at their shores.
  • Bolo Yeung makes a short appearance in the film as a street performer from Mongolia.

The Best Story Ever: Jackie Chan gets beat up by Bruce Lee

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I might be a little slow on the mark with this one. But for those of you, like me, who were misfortunate to not know this interview exists in the world … well, I had to share this here.

About two years ago now, The Best Story Ever segment on Canadian talk show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight featured Jackie Chan. And the story Jackie had to share would certainly be one of the best anyone would ever have the privilege to tell. Ever.

Before Jackie became a household name, he was working as a young stuntman and would-be martial arts performer in an assortment of martial arts films championed by the Hong Kong film industry. Some of the most notable films that saw his stuntman credit would be those starring Bruce Lee, including Fist of Fury (where in one scene, Jackie was the stunt double for the bad guy Suzuki when he was thrown through a paper door) and in Enter the Dragon (where he plays one of the unlucky henchman who runs into Bruce’s flurry of lightning-fast punches and kicks).

You could say Jackie received the short end of the stick by only landing film parts that would see him get beat up by one of the greatest martial artists in the world. But before this interview, not many knew it would take a fateful encounter with an actual stick to make one incredible story with his idol.

During his spot on the show, Jackie shares a literal blow-by-blow account of his memorable scene with Bruce on Enter the Dragon. For those who are unable to view the video, or for those who enjoy a running commentary, you can read Jackie’s interview below.

“When I was young and doing Enter the Dragon, fighting Bruce Lee … and I was behind the camera, waiting waiting,” Jackie said.

“I just see Bruce Lee – Pa-pow! Pa-Pow! Pa-Pow! Pa-Pow!

“And I just ran up and just ‘aarghh!’, then boom-pow!” Jackie recreates Bruce Lee’s move where he whips a wooden staff over his shoulder and cracks one of his enemies from behind across the face.

“Suddenly, my eyes all black because his one stick [hit] right on my head – Pow! He missed it.

“But I just … I do nothing. I just, ‘Argh! Pow!’ Jackie said, continuing to punctuate his wonderfully-appreciated sound effects with his fight moves.

“And I just felt –y’know – a little dizzy. But it’s okay.

“I look at Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee doesn’t do anything. He look at everybody and keep acting, turned around, back … until the director said ‘Cut!’

“Then he just throw the two sticks, just turned around … ‘Oh my god!!’

“He run to me and lift me up … ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’

“And actually, I’m not [in] pain anymore because [a] young guy – me – very tough!

“But suddenly, I don’t know why, I just pretend [it’s] very painful…

Jackie grabs his head dramatically.

“‘Ohh! Ughh!’ – I just want Bruce Lee [to] hold me [the] longest he can. I’d say ‘Ohh! Ughh!’

“During the whole day, every time he look at me [Jackie would replicate Bruce silently pointing and saluting apologetically] … I said ‘Ohh, [I’m] okay!

“And I think that’s the best moment, and somehow he run to me. He said ‘What’s your name?’, I said ‘My name [is] Jackie’

“‘What style you learning?’, I said ‘Shaolin style’.

“‘Okay!’ And then he would talk to me … [points and nods knowingly] ‘Jackie, eh? Jackieee …. Okay!’

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): The longest training montage you could ever want

MOVIE: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

RELEASED IN: 1978

STARRING: Gordon Liu, Wang Yu, Lo Lieh

WRITTEN BY: Kuang I

DIRECTOR: Chia-Liang Liu

PRODUCER: Run Run Shaw, Mona Fong

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Chia-Liang Liu

RATING: ★★★★☆ 36th-Chamber-of-ShaolinFor years, this film has been lauded by critics as the quintessential martial arts movie for any moviegoer’s collection. The DVD cover alone boasts a glowing New York Times review: that the film was “widely considered to be the greatest kung-fu flick of all time”.

Indeed, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (or otherwise less-tastefully known as Shaolin Master Killer or Master Killer in other countries) is a classic film that is perhaps one of the best in both its portrayal of Shaolin kung fu and showcasing the legend of Shaolin monk San Te.

While the film thoroughly demonstrates the skillful mastery of Shaolin kung fu in its well-directed fight scenes, it is by following San Te’s journey as a student in the temple as well as seeing the unique training methods and body conditioning all of the Shaolin monks undergo that makes this movie so memorable.

A fresh-faced Gordon Liu plays Liu Yu-de, a young ethics student in a village found to be at the mercy of the despotic Manchu government. After witnessing the brutality of Manchu troops against the villagers and those who sought to challenge their rule, the once carefree Liu Yu-de and his classmates were soon drawn into working in a local rebellion. But any form of an uprising fails, and in order to suppress the rebels, Manchu troops descend on Liu Yu-de’s school, murdering all of the students and teachers and even the students’ family members.

Liu Yu-de manages to escape with his life before fleeing to the Shaolin temple, resolute on learning kung fu and seeking vengeance for his family and friends. While Manchu aggressors enforced widespread bans on the learning and teaching of kung fu, the Shaolin temple, though completely closed off from outsiders, was considered the last stronghold of martial arts expertise, and Liu Yu-de was determined to learn how to fight.

Though at first the monks rebuff his pleas to remain at the temple and reject his barefaced efforts to learn the temple’s secrets, the chief abbot decides to let him stay, even christening him with the Buddhist name San Te. But it was only after he begins his pilgrimage as a monk when he realises just how much it takes to become a master of Shaolin kung fu.

While it would be expected of a monk to spend his entire life in dedication to the mastery of martial Zen, it in fact took San Te just about five years of grueling training before maturing into one of the finest students to navigate through each of the 35 chambers of Shaolin. And in a way, audiences can also indulge in San Te’s triumph, having watched the mammoth “training montage” that made up most of the film.

We don’t see all of the 35 chambers of Shaolin. But of the ones shown in the film, we see how the monks’ training methods are simple but inventive. It certainly creates a lasting impression. Watching the monks work tirelessly and shed their share of blood, sweat and tears on seemingly menial tasks in each chamber’s test is enough to make your own muscles ache and eyes water.

Ringing a massive prayer bell, carrying pitchers of water up and down steps, or following a pendulum with your eyes wouldn’t seem remarkable on paper, but are actually epic trials of skill and endurance. It becomes clear that relying merely on brute strength just couldn’t cut it. San Te had to grow both mentally and spiritually and develop heightened mind-body awareness.

Having graduated from his kung fu training, the senior monks grant San Te the choice of overseeing the training of his fellow monks in any of the 35 chambers he has already mastered. But San Te instead requests he establish a 36th Chamber, in which he can teach Shaolin kung fu to civilians outside of the temple, so they may better protect themselves should warmongering and tyranny return.

Rather than pandering to the typical revenge, eye-for-an-eye plotline or the one-dimensional kung fu movie blueprint most productions released in the 1970s sought to capitalise on, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is almost profound in its depiction of its hero.

Instead of seeing Shaolin as a means to an end, San Te’s journey began as a brash young man before emerging on the other side as a wise kung fu master who will forever embrace the qualities and beliefs of the temple and acts as a true advocate for the people.

EXTRA BITS

  • The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was the number one hit for the Shaw Brothers in 1978, and also won Best Martial Arts Award at the 24th Asian Film Festival (also in 1978).
  • Director Chia-liang Liu and Gordon Liu are brothers. Nepotism or not, his part in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin became the turning point in Gordon Liu’s career in the martial arts movie genre.
  • During his training, San Te is depicted to have invented the three-section staff, improvising the weapon out of stems of bamboo. His makeshift weapon was the key to him defeating his teacher in a sparring match, and later in a final showdown with the Manchu general. 

Do You Know Bruce?: My trip to the US

Last week I returned home from a month-long vacation around the US. It was long overdue, and the itinerary had been set in stone for nearly a year in advance. During my visit, I travelled to five states and more than 10 cities. Los Angeles was first off the bat, and I was soon on a train heading straight for downtown Hollywood.

Though I had visited the US before, I never before had the chance to explore Los Angeles, except if you counted transiting through LAX (which I didn’t). I was a gratified tourist the day I walked down the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the first time, and stopping only in the historic forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre to see how well my hands and feet fit inside the prints left by iconic celebrities. My photos proved a common theme in who and what I thought was noteworthy on Hollywood Boulevard.

John Woo

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Steven Seagal

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Though I was already entertaining the prospect of making an impromptu break from the itinerary to see the Do You Know Bruce Lee? Exhibition in Seattle, it soon occurred to me how important this chance would be to me if I did. So about a week before I was due to fly back to Australia, I booked tickets and a hotel in Seattle for my last few days in the US.

The first night I was in Seattle, I made my way to the Chinatown/International District to try and see the exhibit before the Wing Luke Museum closed. It was such a satisfying feeling once I realised that I was finally able to see this exhibit, after only reading about it for more than a year prior.

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Gratuitous blurry tourist photo.

 

Like many other fans, I was already aware of Bruce’s connection to Seattle. And it was the collection of film memorabilia, personal items, photos and letters in the exhibition’s chambers – otherwise representative of Bruce’s many different selves – that told a story of a single identity born not out of the successes in Hong Kong or the glitz of Hollywood, but in Seattle’s international community. So being there to experience this intimate exhibition first hand was remarkable.

Out of respect for the curators and staff at the Wing Luke Museum, I abided by the no-photos rule inside the exhibit. The only exception, however, being at the very end, where visitors are encouraged to leave messages, anecdotes and favourite quotes on blue strips of paper hung overhead. Surrounded by countless messages from fans from all over the world, I took a photo of the rain.

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After traipsing around downtown Seattle all of the next day, I was sitting in a Starbucks, siphoning some of the free wifi, while I googled how far Lakeview Cemetery was from my hotel. It turned out that already being downtown, I was already a few minutes’ drive away. And as it was New Year’s Eve, I wondered if it was worthwhile to gamble on the chance of visiting Bruce and Brandon Lee’s gravesite by leaving it to New Year’s Day, when taxis were few and expensive and most places were closed. So I bit the bullet, and in the same impromptu fashion that led me to Seattle in the first place, I hailed the first taxi I saw.

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An afternoon I spent to pay respects.

 

 

I don’t know if it was the fact that I was hating myself for not having anything already prepared to leave under their headstones, or just seeing their graves and realising how everything about it was surreal yet so unassuming … but I was overwhelmed. I felt emotional, but in such an unfamiliar way that it was almost confusing.

But mostly, I was thankful to have had the opportunity to visit the site in person. It was something that I never thought I would ever be able to do. I said my own little prayer under my breath and returned to the taxi with tears in my eyes.

Later in the hotel room, my boyfriend (who was on his own vacation in the Philippines) and I were emailing back and forth about the day that was. I felt like the biggest baby admitting to him that I cried at the cemetery.

“Well that’s okay,” he wrote, “That just shows how much he meant to you.”

But I still feel sad, I remembered thinking. So I knew that on my very last day, New Year’s Day, I was going to travel out to Chinatown once more. I wasn’t sure what exactly for, but it felt right to do it. Perhaps I could glimpse the building where he opened his first kung-fu school in Seattle. That seemed like a nice homage to pay.

So the next day, I found myself walking up and down Chinatown, expecting some sort of light bulb moment that will tell me what I was going to do here. Any die-hard Bruce Lee fan would have known exactly where this phantom building was, what street number, how many bricks made up its facade. But I had absolutely no clue. And for all it was worth, I suddenly couldn’t recall any of the “local” information relayed in the exhibit I had only visited less than 48 hours before. Total, utter mind blank.

I started feeling a little ridiculous, embarking on some sort of desperate pilgrimage to find something that could hopefully finish this vacation on a high. Then as I was walking back towards the light rail station, I looked across the road at a restaurant where a family, having had their fill of food, was filing out of its doors. It was a modest building, stark white with a moniker reading TAI TUNG in red lettering. The establishment was in no way modern looking, in fact, it looked like the rest of what Chinatown may have looked like back in the 70s and 80s. It shouldn’t have been a remarkable sight for me. But even though I wasn’t particularly hungry at the time, I soon found myself gravitating towards this restaurant’s green doors with a heightened sense of expectation. Though I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why.

Inside, I was greeted by a smiling waiter and a “Happy New Year”, before being ushered towards a group of booths behind him. He smiled as he took my order of oyster sauce beef and hot and sour chicken hotpot. And it was then when I couldn’t help but ask him, or anyone for that matter.

“Is there a reason why I decided to come to this restaurant today?”

He smiled again and placed a pot of tea in front of me.

“A lot of people come here. I guess it’s because we look more inviting for people wanting to find somewhere to eat good Chinese food … we don’t look intimidating … we make authentic Chinese, with fresh ingredients … we make our own sauces …”

And he waved my menu over his head.

“We’re also very tasty! That helps!”

I smiled and poured myself a drink. It wasn’t exactly what I was digging for, but he wasn’t wrong. It was a cosy place, and the smells from the kitchen were enough to make me feel ravenous. A few cups of tea later, a busboy from the kitchen came gliding out in his apron and presented me with my menu choices. The food proved better than “tasty”, it was actually exceptional. I think it was halfway through my mounding plate of rice and meat that the waiter came back to check on me.

“How is everything?”

“Amazing,” I managed to say through mouthfuls of food, “Thank you.”

We soon struck up small talk as he asked where I was visiting from and how long I had been travelling around North America. And then he asked me if I was enjoying my time in Seattle.

“It’s been so lovely,” I said after a breath, “But I really wanted to come here to see the Wing Luke exhibit on Bruce Lee.”

I blushed, “I’m a big fan of his, and I wanted to see his city.”

“Oh okay cool,” The waiter said, gathering up my first empty dish. “So I guess you know that this was his favourite restaurant?”

My face dropped.

“… What?”

He looked at me with an unfazed look.

“Yeah, you even ordered one of his favourite dishes,” he continued, gesturing to my remaining plate of beef. “Fans would come, sit in and eat his favourites: oyster sauce beef, sweet and sour pork and garlic shrimp.”

After a while he caught my dumbfounded expression and mild curiosity crept onto his face.

“You didn’t know?”

“I had absolutely no idea. I swear to god.”

He smiled at me again, wider this time.

“That’s really spooky.”

“You’re telling me!” He chuckled, his hand that wasn’t balancing a plate now on his hip.

“Yeah, I thought the staff would have mentioned at the museum? They’ve been sending quite a few people from that exhibit down this way.”

“No,” I said half-laughing and looked down at the table. “I mean it may have been written somewhere … there was a lot of info about where he lived, and where he used to work … I don’t remember reading anything about this place.”

I looked up again to find he was walking away, motioning to me to follow.

“You know, he has a table back on the other side of this restaurant. Do you want to see it?”

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The most humbled I ever felt sitting at a table.

 

 

The table was enshrined with Christmas lights, framed photographs, a signed portrait and a cardboard cutout of Seattle’s favourite son. But it was there where I sat with the beaming waiter and the maître ‘d who was eating his own dinner in a moment that I knew was a perfect end to my trip.

Aside from wanting world peace and a billion dollars in my bank account, I would say that if I could have one wish, it would be to have been able to meet Bruce Lee and to have taken the opportunity to get to know him as a person. But after finding myself in Seattle, dining and chatting at a table he once shared with his friends and family, I felt that I already had.

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A happy accident.

 

 

Fist of Fury (1972): My favourite martial arts film of all time

MOVIE: Fist of Fury

RELEASED IN: 1972

STARRING: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Feng Tien

WRITTEN BY: Lo Wei

DIRECTOR: Lo Wei

PRODUCER: Raymond Chow

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Yin-chieh Han

RATING: ★★★★★

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The fabled story about a student called Chen Zhen who exacted revenge against those who killed real-life wushu master Huo Yuanjia was inevitably destined for the big screen, launching an iconic character of Chinese modern folklore into Hong Kong martial arts film history. As it turns out, the first and one of the best interpretations of the tale of Chen’s ensuing vendetta became Fist of Fury, one of Bruce Lee’s most successful films and my all-time favourite flick.

Also known as The Chinese Connection (a name that was actually intended for The Big Boss but was mixed up in each of the US releases), Fist of Fury is a 1972 martial arts film written and directed by Lo Wei and starred Bruce Lee in his second major film role.

Much like in the stories that circulated the real Huo’s life, his death has been portrayed just as dramatically, and in Fist of Fury, the founder of the Jing Wu martial arts school dies from a mysterious illness. The school’s best pupil and the film’s hero, Chen Zhen, returns to the international settlement in Shanghai distraught and grieving on the day of his beloved master’s burial.

Like rubbing salt into an open wound, students from a rival Japanese bushido school from the Hongkou district gatecrash the eulogy, presenting the Jing Wu school with a framed banner in Japanese kanji calling the Chinese “sick men of Asia”, before taunting the students and challenging them to fight.

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While Chen’s subsequent encounter with the Japanese school on their turf saw their prideful, openly hostile members receive their comeuppance, Chen realised that in the wake of his attempt at settling the score, the tenacious school had retaliated even more aggressively – ransacking the Jing Wu school, attacking students and even enlisting the local authorities to try and throw everyone in jail.

Reluctant to hand Chen over to the police, the Jing Wu School devised a plan to help him escape Shanghai. But having discovered his teacher was actually fatally poisoned by the school’s cook and caretaker (played by Yien-chieh Han, the film’s fight choreographer and lead antagonist in The Big Boss), who were sent there to work covertly by the Japanese dojo master Suzuki, a newly-enraged Chen seeks to bring the murderers to justice.

However, the overarching influence of the Japanese authorities in the settlement who are baying for Chen’s blood, and the inability of the local inspector (also played by Lo Wei) to hold the Japanese school accountable for anything adds to the sense of foreboding tragedy that no matter what the outcome, it would be Chen and the Jing Wu School who will pay the ultimate price.

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So why does this movie remain my favourite of all time, bar none? It’s difficult for me sticking a favourite label on just about anything, and while it does star the incomparable Bruce Lee, any of the films exemplifying his famed martial arts career are just as praiseworthy.

But it is Fist of Fury that undoubtedly deserves the distinction of Bruce Lee’s most powerful cinematic performance, and serves as an engrossing exhibition of his skills both as an actor and as a martial artist. How could I not love this movie?

Each of the film’s iconic fight scenes easily managed to reach cult status in martial art cinema and even penetrated popular culture. One of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had across the entire genre would be watching the scene when Bruce Lee’s Chen visits the Japanese dojo for the first time and single-handedly takes on the entire school (and its instructor) in hand-to-hand combat.

Even when the Japanese students desperately attempt to grab at weapons or overwhelm him in numbers, Chen holds his own. Throwing down his shirt, he even manages to dispose of multiple, stumbling students in seconds as he introduced his enemies (and the world) to the brutal blows of his nunchaku in an expert, fearsome display of lethal ability.

Fist of Fury is the ultimate revenge film, with many emotions across the spectrum to swallow as Chen carries out his vengeance. There are intense confrontations and fight scenes to revel in, endless scheming on both sides of the conflict, a little subdued, romantic dalliance with love interest Yuan Li Er (played by Nora Miao) in the middle, and then more fighting and vigilante violence before a climatic showdown against Suzuki (played by Riki Hashimoto) and his right-hand man, burly Russian fighter Petrov.

Only a handful of films, no matter what the genre, are considered revolutionary and still worthy of our attention even decades after its release. Fist of Fury is a perfect example of this rarity. Combined with its emotive plot, electrifying fight scenes, as well as Bruce Lee’s own martial arts prowess and larger-than-life onscreen presence, this film is in a league of its own. While his first Hong Kong film, The Big Boss may have made Bruce Lee a star, Fist of Fury was the film that made him a legend.

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EXTRA BITS

[WARNING – SPOILERS]

  • Fist of Fury was actually one of the first of many major films that Jackie Chan worked on as an extra. He was even the stunt double for Suzuki in the scene where he is thrown through a shoji screen (paper door). Jackie would then go on to star in this film’s official sequel also written and directed by Lo Wei, New Fist of Fury (1976). Jackie plays young Taiwanese boy Lung, who would train under Chen Zhen’s fiancée (yep, Nora Miao again) to become Chen’s successor both in skill and in ideology.
  • Jet Li would eventually star in another incarnation of the Chen Zhen story in Fist of Legend (1994) as Chen. The story also continued with Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist (2010). Coincidentally, Jet would then go on to play Chen’s master Huo in the film Fearless decades later.
  • Yuen Biao also made a minor appearance in Fist of Fury as one of Suzuki’s students.
  • I feel how the film addressing such strong themes as race and discrimination across social classes truly makes the central conflict resonate (shedding insight on the consequences of oppressive foreign occupation and suggesting the extent of how other races, considered upper-class citizens, could have influenced law and order). But interestingly the inclusion of this content was in fact a source of disagreement between Bruce and Lo Wei and because of these conflicts, Bruce quit working with him after the film’s completion.
  • Fist of Fury actually features some of the same Golden Harvest contract cast members as in Bruce Lee’s other films: The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon including Maria Yi, Little Unicorn, Chen Fu-Ching, Lee-Kwan, Lau Wing, Kam Shan and of course James Tien – a flagrantly familiar face across a range of martial arts movies from the late 60s to the early 90s.
  • In a poignant and very fitting finale, as well as to uphold the ideology that crime doesn’t pay, Bruce Lee insisted that his character had to die at the end, but die with honour – in a scene that to this day can almost move me to tears. Again! How could I NOT love this movie??

Jackie Chan: The ultimate stuntman

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For many of Jackie Chan’s successful movies, a blooper reel would roll during the end credits. But besides the usual gag or stumbled line, the reels of outtakes were quite remarkable for his action movies.

And no, it wasn’t because Jackie included accompanying tracks of him singing Cantonese pop songs to play during the credits.

For the most part, there would be footage of Jackie’s so-called bloopers when he would perform the stunts that were shown in the actual film. Whether it would be a slip-up in the fight choreography, an accidental kick to the face, or tapings of Jackie being tended to by medics after a highly dangerous stunt, the reel of failed stunt work or technical mistakes made for compelling viewing.

This isn’t because we as a species are predisposed to enjoying watching others hurt themselves, but rather because we are made to realise that what we saw throughout the movie wasn’t made with computer graphics or clever camera work. We could appreciate that the action was very much human, and it was evident that the danger was all the more real.

A memorable end-credits reel would have to be from Armour of God, when a small two-second clip from the movie of Jackie falling through a tree saw an outtake of him being carried into an ambulance and nursing a bloody gash on his head.

It was made known later that in the interest of continuity, his hair had to be styled in a certain way throughout the movie’s filming to disguise the newly forming scar on the right side of his head.

But along with the failed stunts came the successes, such as the final scene of the film when Jackie had to leap off a cliff face and land on a hot air balloon. Though he was equipped with a parachute disguised as his backpack, the known fact that Jackie managed to pull off this stunt without a double or computer generated imagery is and should be astounding.

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In the 1999 documentary Jackie Chan: My Stunts, the authenticity of Jackie’s work is made more apparent as Jackie himself walks through various fight sequences and stunts, often employed in his previous films, and even gives quick tutorials on how these scenes are performed. The documentary also visits the sets of the films he was working on at the time, Who Am I? and Rush Hour.

Jackie Chan: My Stunts also served for fans alike as somewhat of an official introduction to Jackie Chan’s Stuntmen Association, aka Sing Ga Ban, aka the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Like Jackie, his stunt team also undergo rigorous body conditioning and regularly hone their martial arts skills; training that proves to be a necessity for high-quality stunt work. The implementation of a stunt team like Jackie’s was unprecedented and since its incarnation has seen more than 40 members work with Jackie on his portfolio of films.

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An honorable mention is needed for (now former) member Brad Allan, an Australian martial artist and stunt performer, who became the first non-Asian stuntman on the team. It was his work as a stunt double on Who Am I? which led him to be inducted to the team and to eventually become team leader.

In Jackie Chan: My Stunts, actual footage from the set of the movie saw Brad step in for Ron Smoorenburg during a particularly fast-paced fight scene. The narrator explains how timing is crucial in action choreography and how easy a misstep can occur. It was only when Brad was introduced when the choreography was executed to Jackie’s satisfaction and the filmed scene was later used in the movie.

Jackie also spoke fondly of the Police Story series in the documentary. I think it was in these movies where he passed a milestone both as an actor and a director. This was perhaps one of the first of several movies where he started to mix gunplay with hand-to-hand combat, and while he would have at the time fancied himself as playing a modern version of a cowboy, the generous use of props and experimenting with his physical surroundings in on-screen confrontations launched a pattern for more creative, complex action sequences and combat situations.

Some of the most memorable scenes from the franchise include Jackie jumping on top of a moving bus and truck in order to crash through a second floor window of an office building across the street (suffering multiple glass cuts after the stunt), as well as hanging off the outside of a speeding double decker bus with an umbrella (a stunt made possible by a metal rod concealed in a wooden umbrella and impressive upper-body strength).

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But it was in the finale of the first Police Story when he performed arguably one of the most dangerous stunts of his career: jumping onto and sliding down a 30-foot chandelier in a Hong Kong shopping arcade.

“I was pretty scared,” Jackie said in the documentary.

“So I was standing there once, I was look[ing] down. Then I was thinking, ‘Jackie, I can do this’.

“Then suddenly I hear, ‘Rolling!’. I said, ‘What? Rolling?!’

“After I hear … the high speed camera go … then I said, ‘I’m going to die’.

“Then suddenly you see on the screen … you can see I’m yelling.”

He obviously survived the stunt, having defied gravity and electrocution in the process.

“Right now, standing here, I look back and I don’t know how I [did] it really,” Jackie said.

Though perhaps fully unrealised at the time, a pivotal moment in the documentary is when Jackie discusses whether he would personally look at using CGI technology in filming future projects, in response to those who have asked why he still felt the need to risk life and limb when a lot of what he films can be created with special effects.

After making numerous movies where the explosions were real, falls from heights were executed with cardboard boxes and fly kicks by non-professional fighters were only possible with wires, Jackie was still keen to represent the simple, budget-savvy style of filmmaking that spelled the success of dozens of films comprising his career. But notably, he did say that he wouldn’t rule out CGI and other developing technologies in the future.

“I think what I want maybe later and later … I want the real set with the real explosion, and the blue background behind with special effects, computer, everything combined with my real action together,” Jackie said.

“I think that’s for the future. But for now, I like to do the real thing.”

After the box office triumph that was Rush Hour, newly invigorated international attention meant bigger projects for Jackie. Films like The Tuxedo, The Medallion, Shanghai Noon, and eventual sequels to Rush Hour managed to adhere to Jackie’s customary style of filming fight choreography and stunt work to some degree. But for me, the gloss of Hollywood, flash bang effects and multimillion-dollar budgets would tend to detract from the actual fights or stunts and mostly make them generic or underwhelming, when this sort of production value should otherwise help enhance them and make scenes standout moments.

The adoption of CGI in movies today can be incredibly merited, and when the technology is used effectively can help create entertaining and awe-inspiring action and martial arts films.

But for me, it could only come second best to the raw energy of a film’s simple but innovative and mind-blowing stunt work or action sequences of the 80s and 90s – innovations that redefined the action movie genre and helped make Jackie Chan the icon he is today. His willingness to perform his own stunts sets himself apart from other action and martial art movie stars and the unique brand of fast-paced action/comedy style he pioneered proves that a martial arts movie could be just as entertaining without the help of high-tech special effects.

And of course when it comes to tricks versus ability, I appreciate ability.