Martial arts movies are not everyone’s bag. Some are committed fans of the genre, and some think that grouping these films under the term ‘genre’ is giving them too much credit. Yet for all the derision from those who aren’t fans, there is plenty from fans themselves. Hard though it might be for some to believe, not all martial arts movies are created equally, and a good martial arts movie is more than just a well-orchestrated punch-up – though that is a crucial constituent part, of course.
When you look at the roster for this week, it is unsurprising which film is in which camp. One is a historical drama, an epic war film from director John Woo. Next to that, a revenge thriller with questionable casting can’t get close. Still, in bookending one another, these films demonstrate some of the misconceptions about a type of film loved by many.
Yesflix – Red Cliff
Red Cliff (2009) is a historical drama, but the director, John Woo, is on record as having said that liberties were taken for the sake of drama. While watching, you would likely surmise as much. The story is set in China during the Han dynasty and tells of a power struggle involving three states or provinces. A group of warlords seek to expand their territory with no regard for neighbouring provinces.
Getting into the political minutia here is unnecessary and confusing. Yet that does draw attention to an ubiquitous misconception about Kung Fu flicks. Many find the notion of phrases such as political intrigue and martial arts action being used in the same sentence preposterous. Yet Red Cliff does require that you keep pace with the motivations of many people at the same time.
Among these prerogatives is sexual jealousy from one of the warlords of the south. Tension runs high in this drama where public obligation runs in contra to personal affection. In fact, by way of comparison, the film is not unlike an opera with fight choreography in place of song. The music swells when the actors jump and tumble in sequences reminiscent of ballet; an emotional expression in a display of athleticism. It’s a type of choreography that would make for good contrast with that of Oldboy (2003), which features a memorable scene of a man facing off against a corridor full of assailants armed with a claw hammer!
For this, the film does tend toward melodrama, requiring that we take it on its own terms. Yet doing so holds you spell-bound. With beautiful photography with an intricate story-telling, it is an epic in every sense, and thoroughly worth its running time.
Fans of Hero (2002), Fearless (2006), and the Ong-Bak movies will LOVE this!
Noflix – Ninja
Released at about the same time as Red Cliff, Ninja (2009) is another matter. Fronted by British actor and martial artist Scott Adkins, Ninja tells of a young boy called Casey, an American orphan who is adopted into a dojo in Japan. Through dedication, he achieves great skill and with it both the approval of his sensei and the affections of the sensei’s daughter Namiko.
One of the dojo’s fellow students Masazuka is jealous. He attacks Casey. For his violation, he is banished, and leaves disgraced with a scar on his face from his alteration. Latter Masazuka returns to claim the sensei sucession sōke (head of the family/clan). Anicipating an attack, the sensei charges Casey and Namiko to flee to America and protect the Yoroi Bitsu, an ancient chest filled with the weapons and garments of a ninja.
Now, the film is not all bad. The combat scenes, while not all well shot, were impressive to behold, in particular a fight in the New York subway, notable for how it incorporates the set into the action.
The problem with Ninja is simple. Cynicism. The film is cynical, to the point that is has contempt for its subject matter and by extension its target audience. In the film, Casey is seen to follow the Japanese warrior code ‘bushido’ – and the word honour is used frequently. The main character from a film titled Ninja follows the code of the samurai? The mores of a group ninjas existed in contrast to? Woo may have taken creative liberties in Red Cliff but he doesn’t outright lie to you!
Not only did the ninja not follow bushido, if they did, Casey would never have been accepted as a student. One of bushido’s tenants is the notion of racial purity. Any group who followed such laws would have excluded Casey on the grounds of his being a foreigner.
So why then have an American in the leading role in in the first place? Here, the second kind of cynicism comes in. The filmmakers are of the impression that a western audience would be more interested in a movie that featured a white guy up front. In effect, the movie was made by people who don’t know or care for the historical traditions they’re borrowing from and assumes the same of its audience. There are ways of playing with the past, but appealing to ignorance is just lazy and insulting.
Fans of The Blind Swordsman: Zatōichi (2003) and Seven Samurai (1954) will HATE this!
What do you make of martial arts movies? Do you have any favourites? Let us know in the comments!