Friday, January 29, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Kung Fu Killer

Quick editorial note; the onscreen title for this film is Kung Fu Killer, and can be found on netflix as such. However, some sites and guides list this movie under an earlier English title; Kung Fu Jungle.

In 1997 the British returned soveriegnty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. In anticipation of this handover, many Hong Kong filmmakers, fearing censorship under the new regime, emigrated to American shores. John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li were just a few of the more high profile names to make the jump to American films, with varying degrees of success. Donnie Yen wasn't part of that initial wave, but he eventually made it stateside in the early 2000s, though he was exclusively relegated to mostly-mute henchman roles, someone who appeared ready to kick major ass, but would be disposed of quickly by being shot, or, worse yet, dying offscreen. This was hardly the best showcase for his skills as a martial artist, and he quickly went back to Hong Kong. Most of these filmmakers did; the feared censorship never really manifested in any serious capacity, and Americans could never figure out what to do with their talents.

It may have taken awhile, but it looks like the western world is finally catching on to just how great Donnie Yen is, thanks to the highly successful Ip Man movies, which have inspired a small boom in films about that man's life. Those who ventured beyond the Jackie Chan movies that filled American theatres in the late 90s, or at least those who paid attention to the names below the top line of the credits, have been well aware of Mr. Yen's talents for at least two decades now. I first noticed him in a pair of wuxia films, Wing Chun and Iron Monkey, where his cheerful, boyish demeanor belied an assured and elegant fighting style. As the years have gone on, and Yen's features have become more lined with age, that fighting style has evolved to become more brutal, less balletic, but still incredibly visually engaging.

Which brings us to Kung Fu Killer, a high octane genre mashup that plays everything completely straight, while also expecting that the audience will recognize and accept the silliness running underneath. The film is pretty much a mix between a slick, stylish serial killer movie and an old school martial arts tournament film. Think David Fincher's Seven mixed with Master of the Flying Guillotine, or any other martial arts film where the hero has to fight a series of masters with their own distinct fighting styles. In this film, the serial killer is targeting Kung Fu masters, each one representing a different discipline or style. One is a master of grappling, another known for his kicks, another known for his use of weapons, and so on. Donnie Yen plays the only person who can stop him; a martial arts master who is serving time in prison for accidentally killing a man during a duel. The killer has fixated on Yen as the pinnacle of Kung Fu perfection, and desires only to fight him to the death.

As I said, you have to brace yourself for some straight-faced silliness in this film, which is never presented as jokey and is therefore too easy to take seriously. Some of this, like the recurring scenes of policemen and forensics units investigating the aftermath of epic Kung Fu battles like normal crime scenes, is pure hilarious brilliance. Some of it, in particular the placeholder backstory for the killer, can be incredibly earnest and schmaltzy. But really, the plot is just a skeleton on which to hang a bunch of cool fights and setpieces. And the fights in this film are truly great, as each one features a new style of fighting and a new unique backdrop. One fight in a giant warehouse takes place on and around a giant skeleton statue for an upcoming art exhibit, another takes place on a busy highway and becomes a fistfight variation of Frogger (it should be said that the green screen effects for some of this, particularly when the fight moves underneath the passing semi-trucks, is laughably unconvincing).

One thing that's great about Hong Kong cinema is its use of space and camera movement. In America our action films evolved around cars and guns, and guns in particularly do not make for interesting cinema. The act of firing a gun leaves an invisible area between action and reaction, and a lot of action films can devolve into someone in one shot firing a weapon and people in another shot trying to avoid squibs. In Hong Kong action films evolved around martial arts, which is more like dancing than the fighting in American films. In a martial arts film, action and reaction are incontovertibly connected, which immediately seems more dynamic. This lead to a natural inclusion of the space in which the scene takes place, and a tendency towards longer shots where the characters are framed full body. What good is putting dancing on screen if you can't see anyone's feet? I'm not saying either style is better overall, but I do wish more western filmmakers took that lesson of space usage.

My Alternate Title: Kung Fu UPS-Guy Prison
For those not already attuned to what is going on, the end credits are preceded by a 'thank you' from the filmmakers to all the people who have inspired them, and it reveals that almost every onscreen part in the film was filled with a luminary from Hong Kong martial arts cinema. It's a fun, touching moment, and shows where this film's true ambition lies. Not to outdo the classics of the genre, but to just throw as much cool shit at the audience as possible. On that front, it succeeds.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

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