Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Next Generation of Martial Arts Movies

The following is an excerpt from an article in the San Francisco Gate. For the full article, pictures, etc., click on the title of this post, and you'll be directed to the proper page.

ASIAN POP A Hero Gets The Call
- By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 31, 2006

With the heavyweights beginning to fade, it's time for a new contender to step into the ring. Jeff Yang explains why "The Protector"'s Tony Jaa is preserving martial arts cinema for a new generation of fans -- and why its survival is so important.

I saw my first martial arts movie the way they were always meant to be seen: in the armpit-like confines of a Chinatown double-feature grind house, surrounded by the faintly libidinous odor of cigarettes and dried squid (not to mention the musky tang of Drakkar Noir wafting off the guys with dark sunglasses and hyperactive beepers sitting directly behind us).

As I vaguely recall, the film was "The Three Avengers," a better-forgotten swatch of celluloid featuring one of the more interesting Bruce Lee clones, Taiwanese actor Ho Chung-tao (a.k.a. Bruce Li), alongside Jackie Chan-wannabe Chin Yuet Sang and token white dude Michael Winston.

Even to my 12-year-old self, it was apparent that the plot and acting were rubbish, but for a first introduction to the medium, this was almost a virtue: The lack of narrative merit eliminated any distractions to the giddy comic pratfalls and intricate choreography taking place on the Music Palace's stained and dented silver screen.

I'd seen "The Empire Strikes Back" earlier that summer, the movie that sealed the deal on the new era of blockbuster cinema (given that the success of the original "Star Wars" was a shocker to everybody -- it was Episode VI that proved the tide had really and truly turned). As much as I appreciated TESB's technical wizardry and epic scope, this low-budget smackfest had a mysterious allure that no amount of SFX could replicate.

By the time the last scratchy, dust-spackled reel went dark, I was hooked. And with each martial arts film I've seen since, most of them far superior to my initial dose, the hook has sunk deeper. That's why it's been such a heart-wrenching experience seeing the giants of the genre, the ones who brought it into its golden age, entering the twilight of their careers.

After his forthcoming epic, "Fearless," Jet Li has stated that he'll no longer make martial arts films (though he's since hedged that statement, indicating that he won't give up all action film -- just those that focus on hand-to-hand combat). And late last year, Jackie Chan made another of his seasonal musings about retirement -- suggesting that, given the arrival of his 50th birthday, he expected to spend less time getting kicked in the head and more time behind the scenes and behind the camera. He, too, quickly issued a retraction of sorts, announcing to his fans that he'd continue making martial arts films "for as long as he can" -- which, given the horribly battered state of his body, is a far from optimistic statement.

In fact, it's safe bet that a few short years from now, neither of these stars will be making the kinds of films we've come to want and expect from them ... and the "farm team" behind them is sparse, to say the least. Wushu standout Donnie Yen has never had the temperament or cinematic presence to rival the Big Two -- and at 43, he is already of an age with his more famous rivals. Western screen-fighting aspirants like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme jump-kicked the shark long ago. Most of what's left is a motley assortment of wired-up and CGI-supported sex symbols more familiar with the marital arts than the martial ones.

With one singular exception.

Unassuming, plain-spoken and almost painfully humble, in the space of just two movies, the Thai phenom named Panom Yeerum has kneed, punched and elbowed his way into the screen-fight spotlight, generating accolades from the likes of "Rush Hour" director Bruce Rattner (whose obvious man-crush has reduced him to gushing phrases like "I want him! I love him!") and rapper The RZA ("He's as fast as Bruce Lee, with the agility of Jackie Chan ... he's a sensation").


Anonymous said...

"One singular exception"? Surely Wu Jing is worth mentioning.

Rick Matz said...

Well, the article is a promotional piece after all.