“Sweet revenge grows harsh,” wrote William Shakespeare in Othello. It can’t get any harsher than what is at the core of what we might label “films of vindication:” the kung-fu subgenre of the action movie, which have been produced in Hong Kong since the Bruce Lee craze began in the early ’70s and now in mainland China itself; and, over the past decade, the streetwise fisticuffs subgenre that is all the rage in Korea. The Chinese do it well in period films. Except for the more precious art-house movies that travel the festival circuit and not much further, those that take place in the present are often didactic and boring.
In contrast, historical films in Korea look like knock-offs of more masterfully styled Chinese and Japanese works. A contemporary milieu functions best for the recent spate of ultraviolent Korean films with nasty avengers that ignited a failing industry with the success of Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” (2003) and Na Hong-Jin’s “The Chaser” (2008). Just as Hollywood has done since the advent of cinema, producers will imitate in one way or another a film that makes an unexpectedly large profit until the market demand goes down. This is why genres come and go, then come and go again.
The New York Asian Film Festival (July 1 – 14), with a 45-movie lineup and several top Asian directors coming to receive awards, has come a long way from when it was called Subway Cinema and based at Anthology Film Archives, where only the fiercely devoted Asian film freak was willing to endure the frequently lengthy films with their tuchuses uncomfortably positioned on old wooden chairs. After a couple of years at the IFC Center, the festival has moved over to the soft seats of the Walter Reade. The tush sores may be have disappeared, but the high-octane enthusiasm of its ringleaders (Grady Hendrix, Marc Walkow, Daniel Craft, and Goran Topalovic), who still call their organization Subway Cinema, is as infectious as ever. (Does anyone else get the audience into a frenzy just before the projection starts by raffling off obscure Asian DVDs?)
One strand of this year’s festival foregrounds wu xia, a form of Chinese action cinema that is lesser known outside of China than the macho slugfests top-lined by such superstars as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Wu xia is difficult to define, like trying to explain the English meaning of a colorful Yiddish word. Hendrix wisely explains it by description rather than translation:
“Everyone knows martial-arts movies, and while the world can’t get enough sweaty, shirtless boys punching each other in the throat, wu xia, the more feminine flip side of the coin, doesn’t get as much respect in the West. Beyond “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero,” there’s a whole world we don’t have access to of soft-spoken swordsmen, blade-slinging female warriors, obscure martial arts manuals, secret sword masters, shining steel, and fluttering silk robes. Mostly based on insanely popular novels and serial adventure stories, they often take place inside bamboo forests, and everyone can fly.”
The best of the wu xia films here take you like no other genre can on a rapid, non-stop trek from the pre-credit sequences until the end credits. In most wu xia movies, a woman, usually with a healthy dose of evil intent, takes center stage. Most are as adept at swinging a sword as manipulating the men. This is a healthier appropriation of feminism than, say, the political ascent of self-proclaimed do-gooder Christians like Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin.
Gender-bending swordswomen/men and a seductive murderess, Michelle Yeoh
John Woo may have a co-directing credit, but “Reign of Assassins” is owned by screenwriter/director Su Chao-pin, subject of “Special Focus: Taiwan’s King of Entertainment.” The film’s artifice is as outrageous as its narrative, comprised of interwoven plotlines that jump back and forth through time to flesh out characters who slip back and forth between life and death, where in this country we would most likely depend on linear vanilla exposition. The line between human and animal is blurred, even breached, as a swordswoman (or swordsman, depending on the moment of morph) is transformed into an oversized deer with ferocious fighting antlers.
Su never stops swooping with the camera: up, down, and all around, echoing the aerial swordplay and sudden, gravity-defying leaps. All of this builds up to a fabulously ironic climax when several of the assassins in the gang, “The Dark Stone,” discover the real reason–and it’s hilarious – they are killing and marauding in search of the mummy of an exceptionally spiritual monk, the possessor of which would gain control of the world of martial arts. In fact, in all of these films visceral battles are inextricably linked with the realm of the spirit, unlike in the West, where the body and the otherworldly are perceived as dichotomies.
Wonderwoman Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) plays the assassin Drizzle, who is master of the too-easily-recognized water-shedding sword move. After a love affair with a monk she ends up killing, she undergoes plastic surgery to change her identity and run away to another town. She meets a simple courier and marries him, not knowing that he is also a martial-arts expert who knows her secret and has a debt to settle. He too has had facial work to conceal his real self from her. (That’s got the mark of John Woo!) She gets no rest: The other Dark Stone members identify her technique when she tries to stop a bank robbery; and her husband is torn between the his desire for revenge and his desire for her. Unconditional loyalty does not exist among these characters, but the ebb and flow of commitment is what pushes the story along. You just have to totally suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride.
Hong Kong idol Andy Lau is featured in two very different wu xia films. In Benny Chan’s “Shaolin,” which is much more tethered to the earth than “Reign of Assassins,” he portrays a ruthless warlord in early 19th-century China, an amoral sadist who reveals his human side only in the presence of his beloved young daughter. He is a genuine transgressor, going so far as to shoot people on the grounds of Shaolin temple, one of Buddhism’s holiest sites and home to hundreds of selfless monks who clean up the mess made at the expense of the common people by feuding warlords.
Lau plays Hou, and his chief assistant and acolyte in this somewhat homoerotic father-son scenario is a handsome younger man named Tsao, who reveals himself to be as hungry for power and material success as his mentor. Tsao betrays his boss with a cadre of soldiers. Besides providing viewers with an exceptional chase scene, the treachery sends into the countryside a now-penniless Hou, whose wife has disappeared and whose daughter has died during his escape. In a brilliant digression, martial-arts phenomenon Jackie Chan plays the cuckoo man who saves him; he also just happens to be the Shaolin monks’ chef. “All I can do is cook,” he says, fully aware that half the world recognizes him even past his prime for his kung fu skills.
A humbled Hou returns to Shaolin, this time to cleanse his soul by becoming a monk. He and his fellow devotees fight off not only Tsao’s men, but also the imperialistic English who want to kill off both sides so they can build a railroad for their own financial gain. Tsao employs poor laborers to lay track, but it’s a ruse to get them to dig up salable relics. To suppress evidence, he massacres all of the workers. The character of Tsao is way overdrawn, but Hou’s mission is to make him see the error of his ways, just as he had done.
Lau is the title character in “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” by veteran director Tsui Hark (recipient of the festival’s Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award). Even the artifice is… artificial. There is no effort to mask the fact that the beards, makeup, hair, and all props are fakes. Tsui isn’t interested in verisimilitude. He is drawn toward f/x and the enlargement of models into impossible structures.
Dee investigates the murders of two government ministers who, in fantastic scenes, implode by fire. Both became ill in the 60-yard-high statue of Buddha under construction that faces the palace, where Princess Wu is about to be crowned the first female empress of China, much to the consternation of certain clan leaders with militias. Once it is revealed who the guilty party is – someone seeking revenge, naturally – viewers discover that the plan is for the gigantic statue to fall directly on her during her coronation, and the cause of the lethal internal fires are tiny sea turtles that smell like phosphorus. This is NOT a documentary.
Wu is three-dimensional, her motives ambiguous and malleable, part Mother Teresa and part Cruella Deville; only Dee understands her multifaceted nature. Her beautiful young first servant is great with a sword and a flying rope, but turns out to have more personas than Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve.” Dee decides to clear the path for Wu’s succession, trusting her to honor her oath after he saves her to follow the path of goodness and to ultimately hand over the crown to her brother the prince. He takes on the Zen-like countenance of his Hou in Shaolin after the latter has become a monk. Most of the characters melt in the presence of such purity.
Testosterone-filled street fights
The two best contemporary Korean films centered on vengeance are slick but gruff, more undisciplined rough stuff than graceful martial arts. They contain street fights in the midst of urban decay rather than swordplay on the sumptuous grounds of a palace or temple. No women here: These are fully testosterone-driven.
Superficially, the screenplay of Ryoo Seung-wan’s rapid-fire “The Unjust” resembles an episode of “Law and Order.” The search for the rapist/murderer of little girls is tossed aside, giving way to a battle of wills between the cop in charge of the investigation, Choi (a Clint Eastwood-like Hwang Jun-min), a loner who exudes confidence and fear simultaneously, and Ju (Ryoo Seung-Beom, the director’s brother), the backscratching, opportunistic public prosecutor. Each is tied in with rival corrupt CEOs; equating the protectors of the people with the slimiest of corporate honchos is deliberate.
The fighting here is done with limbs, punches and kicks, effective but far away from the choreographed bloodbaths in the wu xia films. Yet these scenes are powerful, imaginative in a different way. In this world, everyone is culpable. Even the seemingly most innocent of the policemen is accused of taking bribes. Anthony Weiner should have seen this film way back when: The evidence against all of them, public servants and biz tycoons alike, is relayed through social media. Like reals cats and mice, the two government-employed antagonists become entangled in traps of their own making.
Lee Jeong-Beom’s “The Man From Nowhere” is much more violent, although its pacing is more regulated – probably because the focus is less on rivalries than on one man tracking down the guys who kidnapped the little girl next door. He is not just any man: He is Cha, a former secret agent, a drill instructor for military intelligence who has retreated into a life of solitude after the payback killing of his pregnant wife. (Here, as in the Chinese films, temporal leaps come fast and loose; flashbacks are frequent, and the order is not always readily apparent.)
Cha is portrayed by the breathtakingly handsome and agile actor Won Bin, who singlehandedly takes on the gang of organ harvesters who have the neighbor girl and a bunch of other children ready to slice and sell. The owner now of a little pawn shop, Cha proves that he has not forgotten his deadly skills, much as anyone remembers how to ride a bike or to type. Probably on account of his beauty and graceful movements, he carries off the wearing of the latest designer suits while brutally taking on an entire gang, dispatching each member separately in scenes that are sometimes difficult to take. His reclusiveness catches up with him: His files are locked, so that neither the police nor the gangsters know who he really is.
“Our line-up of revenge movies from Korea offers a safe place where Americans can come to live the dream and vent some steam,” says Hendrix. “If these movies have anything to teach us, it’s that the revolution next time will be delivered with power tools.”
[For a complete schedule and film descriptions, check out their website.]