DVD Reviews: All-Asian Wrap-Up

DVD Reviews: All-Asian Wrap-Up

Time for another all-Asian round-up. As always, we have a wide-ranging selection—from costume drama to martial arts; anime to the incredibly original—reflecting the wide range of films coming out of the largest continent in the world. Let’s get it going.

FEATURED PICK:

FORBIDDEN KINGDOM: Special Collector’s Edition

Lion’s Gate (2 DVDs)

This film is a lot more than the first cinematic team-up of HK martial arts superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Director Rob Minkoff (Lion King, Stuart Little) decided if you have the best fighters in front of the camera, you also get the best behind the camera. This meant choreographer/action director Yuen Woo-Ping (Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill) and director of photography Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger). Combine all four’s mastery of improvising all-out action with Minkoff’s animation skills with storyboarding and compositing, and what you get is seriously explosive entertainment. You can plainly see it when Li and Chan have their “mandatory” face off scene in the ancient temple. It deserves its reputation as one of the best ever.

There’s a lot more to The Forbidden Kingdom Li and Chan, too. It’s an all-out homage to classic Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest costume dramas. It’s fun seeing Chan perilously stumble through his scenes as a drunk immortal while Li proves what a bad, bad man he is as mostly silent monk. It’s their alternate roles that cinch the deal though. Chan is a wonderfully churlish, ancient Hop Sing. Then Li’s Monkey King is a hoot, wonderfully impetuous and (whodathunk?) incredibly funny. It’s a real pleasure seeing these two playing so out of character for major parts of the film. The rest of the cast do their jobs as well as they can, with Collin Chou in particular holding his own as the main villain, the Jade Warlord.

Still, the real magic is Yuen, Chan and Li’s incredible choreography, Pau’s superlative cinematography and Minkoff’s mindblowing use of effects. The extra content material showing how this team put it all together is actually better than most on the subject, especially when combined with commentary from scriptwriter John Fusco.

So, if you’re going to get one martial arts film this year, this is it. The old war horses prove they still have a lot of kick in them. Let’s hope we see a few more just like this.

BAKUGAN Vol. 1/Battle Brawlers (WB): You’d think the success ratio of game-based cartoons, especially anime-designed ones, would stop organizations like Warner Bros. from ever doing another. Guess again. Bakugan is one of the worst animated and written pieces of tripe to ever foist a card game on a young public. Don’t waste your time, this show, and the forest of trees destroyed to foster its game cards, is completely valueless.

BLACK LAGOON: THE SECOND BARRAGE #001 (FUNimation/Geneon): For bringing this show out of licensing hell alone, we owe FUNimation our eternal gratitude. The sequel to this incendiary Madhouse series continues its non-stop ultraviolence, warped characters and high torque tension. You wanna know why this studio is now the favorite of Marvel and DC? Look here. Modern piracy never was so entertaining.

BLOOD +/Volume 2 (Sony): Wanted to see this Mamoru Oshii-inspired series at its best? Look no further than this volume. Truly an uneven affair, especially when compared to the original Oshii-directed film Blood: The Last Vampire, this is when vampire hero Saya sees casualties mount up with the pressure escalating with the body count. Yes, the central mystery hasn’t been revealed, but the tie-in to the original movie and the Vietnam War are a lot clearer. As always, like anything Oshii puts his name on, the animation is superlative and the dub work solid. Not the best, but not bad either.

BODYGUARD 1 & 2 (Magnet): One can claim misleading advertising here. This Thai production milks a guest appearances of martial arts star Tony Jaa for all it can. Actually, these two shootemup comedies star a buddy of Jaa’s, Petchtai Wongkamlao. He plays the titular strong man who takes a fall when the head of his family is assassinated. Wongkamlao is not Jaa, Kevin Costner or even Toshiro Mifune. He’s like the early, more vulgar Jackie Chan. With that in mind, these two have moments, but not enough of them.

CHARLIE CHAN Vol. 5 (Fox) (4 DVDs): This box collects the last seven Chans Fox did, as explained in the extra content, because of World War II. Sidney Toler is the incredible detective and Keye Luke (#1 Son) has been replaced by Sen Yung (#2 Son). The sets are still wonderfully elaborate and supported by a cast of hard working B-listers. Also constant is the mysteries are solved with logic, not fists. One can also see the roots of film noir, springing from this series. Enjoy.

CJ7 (Sony): With this film, director/comedian/martial arts madman Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer) dared to tread where few of his colleagues dared to go; he made a kids film. A noble attempt, especially considering Chow throws most of his trademark vulgarity out the window. Still, it’s a kind of ET clone that never finds its voice or any real rhythm. The deus ex machina ending is also too pat. As we all know, the man has the ability. Better luck next time.

DEAD OR ALIVE TRILOGY (Kino) (3 DVDs): The ever controversial Takashi Miike (MPD, Ichi The Killer) displays he can push the limits on a direct-to-video series as easily as any other medium. The first ten minutes are packed with enough ultraviolence, blackout humor and short sharp shocks viewers can’t be blamed if they stop right there. That’s when Miike pulls a surprise, there’s some serious method to his madness. Each film pits the same two actors in situations where they or later, go up against each other. With the exception of the Blade Runner-based final film, all push the limit, but never forget the story or psychodrama. Check them out yourself if you want to see what kind of outrage Miike can do.

GENGHIS KHAN (FUNimation): This high art period drama wants to be Kurosawa, but ends up more like mid-level John Ford. Retelling the tale of the mighty Mongol, it covers his life from his birth to when he storms the Great Wall of China. There’s magnificently panoramic shots of the Central Asian badlands, lots and lots of bloody battles (on horseback no less), a fairly straight recounting of Temujin’s history and even solid acting. It starts off pretty well, too. Yet by the end, it gets muddled with too much philosophizing as to why the world needed Genghis. It could have been a contender.

HUMAN LANTERNS (Image): This 70s Shaw Brothers production was when the studio started throwing in a little nudity and a lot more horror into the mix. It stars a sword saint out to stop a ninja demon with a very gruesome way of making candles. Outside speculation of if the film gave Tom Harris inspiration for Silence of the Lambs the sword fights still show their was plenty of sharp filmmaking in the Shaws. The EC interview with Shaw beauty Shawn Yin Yin is pretty informative, too.

KITARO (BCI): Based on a manga of the same name, the title character is a fox demon who helps children in need. Starring the Japanese equivalent of a teen star (Eiji Wentz), this pretty boy in the sad fox fur is probably the worst thing about the movie. On the other hand, the imaginative CGI support characters, the friendly setting and overall pacing has much to recommend to it. Really safe for American kids, just be ready to explain a lot of Japanese mythology, though.

THE LEGEND OF THE SHADOWLESS SWORD (New Line): Now if you want another costume drama to complement The Forbidden Kingdom, grab this. Based on a 10th Century Korean legend, a female sword fighter must get the last surviving and exiled prince to his army, or their won’t be a Korea. Thing is the young prince is a grifting low life with solid reason to not want to come back. Well acted and no detail spared, hunt this release out

THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG (Cinema Epoch): This very strange film is for those who love political thrillers crossed with black comedy. Ostensibly the tale of the assassination of South Korean president Park Chung-hee, it’s packed with as much drugs, backstabbing, lunacy and debauchery as a Hunter S. Thompson book, yet done reminiscent of a film by Robert Altman. One wonders if Oliver Stone’s next film, W, is taking some inspiration from this. He should if he knows what’s good for him.

SEOUL RAIDERS (American Arts Alliance): Long time HK vet Tony Leung wants us to think James Bond, but ends up more in like Derek Flint. Lots of gorgeous girls, wise cracking secret agents, the occasional decent joke or stunt. Ultimately, this sequel to Tokyo Raiders comes close, but gets no cigar. Fortunately, there’s plenty of action. Not one of Leung’s best, but will do in a pinch.

TAI CHI MASTER (Dragon Dynasty): One of Jet Li’s all time best. Li is in top form. He’s also accompanied by the incredible Michelle Yeoh (then Khan). Top it with a great villain in the form of Chin Siu Ho and great direction/choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping. Finish it off with a solid story of young monks kicked out of their temple and going their separate ways, a top notch finale and you have an m.a. classic. If that ain’t enough, DD expert Bey Logan provides superlative commentary. A must have.

TOKYO DECADENCE (Cinema Epoch): This art film set in the 90s tells the tale of a call girl who, like the title says, serves the more exotic tastes of debauched Tokyo ultra rich. A putative morality tale of Japan after the end-of-the-century “asset collapse,” it’s probably closer to Cronenberg’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash but lacks the sharp, shocking edge the Cronenberg has. Pass.

TWIN DAGGERS (Lionsgate): Don’t let the cover art fool you. Lionsgate made this look like a lost Golden Harvest/Shaw Brothers production. It’s really a modern Chinese-American co-production that might have been if it wasn’t done so cheaply. Set in the mid-30s, it posits an assassination squad getting back together for one last job. They are soon set on each other through double dealing and general paranoia. Some decent action sequences but also some seriously amateurish acting. Be warned.

VENGEANCE (BCI): This exceptionally well conceived mix of Village of the Damned and a lost city/jungle adventure posits murderous drug dealers attempting to escape by running through Thai jungle no self-respecting native would set foot in. The pursuing cops have to follow suit. Then the monsters show the natives really knew what they were talking about. A highly original creature feature. The dub’s crappy, but everything else is first class. Hunt it down.

THE WOLVES (AnimEigo): The yakuza film is not limited to modern times. This one, considered a classic by many, is actually set in the 19th Century and primarily in Manchuria. Starring Kurosawa veteran Tatsuya Nakadai (who worked with the great one from 1954’s Seven Samurai to 1985’s Ran), this is dark exploration of gangland conduct during that era. While some call it a masterwork by director Hideo Gosha, I found it way too long, slow and convoluted to ever truly commit to it. That’s a shame, as Nakadai does provide one powerful performance as a just paroled “brother” who only wants some peace. Source out Gosha’s samurai epics for comparison.

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