Martial arts movies were not always well represented on Netflix. Basically your choices were a glorified posing contest (Kickboxer) or a disposable American movie by an Asian star (The One). Fans like me who wanted to watch good fight scenes by expert craftsmen giving their absolute best were less than satisfied with Netflix’s paltry offering. Fortunately, the situation has changed in the past few weeks and there are now more than a few great films both old and new to choose from. I hope people who know next to nothing about the genre will read this article and, should the mood for some martial arts action arise, add a kung-fu masterpiece to their Netflix list.
But just what exactly is a kung-fu film? Is it like Enter the Dragon or Police Story? Not really. They are great action films to be sure but I’m talking about certain movies which actually use the martial arts techniques as a driving force for the characters, not just as a means for a great fight scene. A true martial arts movie should acknowledge and respect the very art itself and the masters who perfect it. Which leads us straight into my Yesflix pick.
Yesflix – Heroes of the East
The two biggest movie studios in Hong Kong during the 70s and 80s were Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers. The former made excellent action films with high production values and starring movie icons such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. The latter had comparatively less artistic integrity and did not take as many risks. Shaw Brothers Studios trumped Golden Harvest in the intricate fight choreography which eschewed brawls and street fights in favour of traditional techniques and fighting styles representing centuries of heritage and culture. No film captures this better than Heroes of the East.
Gordon Liu plays a small town martial arts hero who falls in love with and marries a Japanese woman. This mixed marriage causes some concern among relatives from both sides and, through a series of duels, they all learn the strength and value of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. The Japanese characters are not the one dimensional villains portrayed in many Chinese action movies. They are warriors with honour and dignity and respect their opponent no matter where he comes from. This level of respect is carried into the fight scenes which are, without a doubt, the most creative and thrilling examples of martial arts ever filmed.
Shaw Brothers prided themselves on their intricate combat sequences meticulously choreographed by director and all round genius Lau Kar Leung. A single shot in his film could feature up to twenty movements including kicks, blocks and acrobatics all featuring iconic styles from the Shaolin Temple. Heroes of the East manages to do all this with both Chinese and Japanese martial arts. This display of both armed and unarmed fighting techniques is not only exciting in their performance and jaw dropping in their detail but are also educational for those wishing to see many true depictions of weapons and unarmed techniques from two very different cultures. Naturally, being a Chinese film, the Chinese styles are victorious but there is no heroic bloodshed or triumph of good vs evil. It’s the art that matters and Heroes of the East shows us that art exquisitely.
KARATE VS. KUNG FU! EVERYONE WINS!
Noflix – The Grandmaster
Again, I hope those who read this don’t know much about kung-fu cinema. Several items pop up in the Netflix menu regardless of your viewing history and, should one happen to be of those martial arts thingys, it’s important to choose wisely. No doubt Wong Kar Wai‘s 2013 film The Grandmaster has caught your eye. Based on a true story of legendary martial artist Ip Man, it features an all-star cast and is directed by a remarkable man who has mesmerised audiences world-wide with his unique views on life, love and society.
Ip Man‘s life and exploits have been portrayed in many films over the past few years. The Grandmaster was actually green lit before any of them but, in typical Wong Kar Wai fashion, production was troublesome with injured actors, an ever-increasing budget and a director with an erratic work ethic. But the film was all worth it. The choreography by Yeun Wo-Ping is a joy to watch as superstars Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi handle the moves like professionals. It looks fantastic too as do most Wong Kar Wai films and it was a huge hit in presigeous festivals around the world.
So why is such a quality film on my Noflix? Well for us dumb Westerners, The Weinstien Company decided to remove over 20 minutes of footage from the original Chinese version and spliced it together with an expository text telling us what we missed. Seriously, this is what happened. This kind of butchery is archaic, pandering and insulting. They used the same old accesibiliy excuse to defend their actions, but part of the reason we watch foreign films is that they aren’t accessible and we partake in a little thing called learning. This truncated version of The Grandmaster lacks heart and intelligence and is just a series of fight scenes with bits missing. Just guess which version is the only one available on Netflix. That is why I don’t recommend it. If you heard good things about this film or the director you might be tempted to give it a look. You will be severely disappointed if you check it out on Netflix.