Weekend Retrospective - A Wizard Did It

THE MIRACLE OF DYNAMATION

There are a vast number of fine old school movies to sit through on a miserable wet Sunday afternoon. But even today it remains a treat to watch a few of the swashbuckling adventure stories that feature the creations of effects wizard, artist, and all round genius Ray Harryhausen. Harry who? I recall asking as a youngster -- but realising it was the classic film with the Cyclops battling a fire breathing dragon, I would undoubtedly spend the next few hours being mesmerised.

For one reason or another the realistic look of physical models and maquettes hooked me instantly, the kind of movement, the detail and textures. He worked in a recognisable kind of personality to even the most brutal monsters, imbuing them with real character. This style of hand animated effect has great appeal to me, a lasting charm. In some ways I kind of feel bad for the directors involved, but it's also great to know that an artist got such recognition. They remain his films in the memory of anyone reminiscing about this stuff.


Martial Arts Mix - Little Fortunes

PART 3 - YUEN BIAO MOVIES

If you've ever sat watching any number of Jackie Chan movies from the late 70s through to the early 90s, as well as the other action movies and comedies from Hong Kong in this period, a few faces will start to become very familiar. Not only because many of them are part of the JC stunt team but also the fact that so many actors and stunt performers were taught in the same opera schools as children. They had to make a living on the silver screen when demand for traditional entertainment died out.

If you ever have time to check out Jackie's biography (which is well worth reading) he talks about some of his 'brothers' from those days such as Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao who both went on to become stars in their own right. Here I'll be taking a look at the latter, the younger of this trio. As the acrobat of the group he often can be found doing hair raising physical feats alongside Sammo (Eastern Condors, Millionaires Express) Jackie (The Young Master) or even both (Project A, Dragons Forever) which are all worth seeing as genre classics in their own right. But for now I'll try and stick to the features where he gets to show his stuff and have top billing.


Martial Arts Mix - In the line of Duty

PART 2 - MICHELLE YEOH MOVIES

During this latest Hong Kong cinema marathon, I took time out from the usual Jet Li and Jackie Chan vehicles to look at a few of the best adventures from Miss Malaysia herself, Michelle Yeoh. Sometimes credited as Michelle Khan or Michelle Kheng possibly because of studio interference (and overseas marketing) I wish there were more of them, as many of those with her as the lead are very good. She has the acting chops and enough screen charisma to match her male contemporaries, as well as doing plenty of her own stunt work. Her screen debut (as the lead) is a typical example of this, as she takes on gangsters with Cynthia Rothrock in Police Assassins aka Yes, Madam. It's a fun buddy cop feature with a lot of silly humour and plenty of painful looking stunts, a staple of the HK action genre. It would prove to be the first of many successful outings.


Martial Arts Mix - A Man of Determination

PART 1 - JET LI MOVIES

'If you want to kill somebody use a gun... 
...Martial arts is about maximising your body's energy'

Is it blasphemy to consider Jet Li's Fist of Legend a better film than Fist of Fury? Perhaps not. As remakes go it's certainly amongst the better ones, retaining the original spirit while adding a lot of added extras. It certainly has some more progressive attitudes, and presents a more educated central character. It remains my personal favourite from the Wushu champions extensive back catalogue, though there are a lot of high points. The story provides more balance in terms of the Japanese characters; both heroes and villains are shown having varied personalities regardless of which side of the occupation they're on.

They also add a few extra layers in terms of romantic sub plots. Even the guy who poisons the master whose death kicks off the story has a more sympathetic cause for doing so here, rather than it being simply race related. Of course, it helps that the hand-to-hand action set pieces are also excellent. The standout moment is the big showdown with General Fujita with all those high kicks in stiff formal outfits, and the great improvised belt-come-nunchaku. It's a film that holds up to repeat viewings.


Martial Arts Mix - Die Harder

MELTDOWN (1995)

Tonal shifts and hard cuts from comedy to extreme violence are often an issue with action films from Hong Kong in the 1980s and early '90s. You don't have to look far to see this sort of thing occurring, and it often feels like a cultural difference; something unique to this period and region in cinema. The earliest progenitors in the kung fu comedy genre showcase this to some extent, for example the serious feel of the opening death from Drunken Master (1979) effectively introduces the villain, but is quickly dropped in favour of wacky teenage hi-jinks and disobedience.

Later it can be seen in something like Armor of God II: Operation Condor (1991) at a time where it's evolved into a far more extreme version of this trope and an unarmed group of desert travellers is brutally killed by mercenaries, immediately before a series of incredibly juvenile gags involving Jackie Chan and his female companions. There are examples all over the place, but in some ways the kind of tonal incongruities from Jet Li's Meltdown (aka High Risk) are among the most jarring and absurd.