Films with cartoon-y aesthetics are gaining more acceptability with the cult success of Scott Pilgrim, but movies have tried to venture on that road twenty years ago. I’ve already written about Riki-Oh but now I’m here to talk about a more Hollywood and less bloody version, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The film includes a rat character – coming with an almost offensive Japanese accent – that I don’t remember in the cartoon’s I’ve seen as a child. This character is a gateway to the film’s origin story that includes his younger self as a small rat puppet doing karate moves, teaching his martial art skills to the turtles’ miniature versions and jumping on a guy’s face and this is already the greatest movie ever made.
Elias Koteas, a younger version of Robert de Niro and the rich man’s Christopher Meloni, is also in the movie, at a time when the world and Hollywood wasn’t so nice to him. How this man can be sexy and be able to pull off long, 90’s grungy long hair is beyond my feeble understanding. He and a love interest of a news reporter join the teenage ninja turtles in a retreat in the love interest’s farm-house for some meditation, for some reason. They’re freshening up before saving the rat from a Darth Vader lookalike of a samurai, ninjas and their ridiculously antisocial minions (Hey look! Teenagers with cutoff faded jeans playing pool!). Cue the slapstick martial arts standoffs that take place in the film’s New York mise-en-scene.
Iron Monkey has a pace that I’m not used to. It’s a story about the titular Iron Monkey (Rongguang Yu) whom a 19th century municipal Chinese government is pursuing because he’s stealing from them and giving the money to the refugees. It moves from drama to fight scenes to slapstick to ridiculous sadism to showing beautiful Chinese architecture all within the same scene. Some of Iron Monkey’s fight scenes have comic interludes on them, throwing rocks at those who deserve it or kicks and stands on them as if slapping or disciplining them. And if this martial arts movie looks like it has enough on its plate, there’s romantic tension and foodie moments in there too.
It isn’t until half an hour into the movie when I realize the film’s moral ambiguities. Wong Kei-Ying, (Donnie Yen) a man trying to arrest the , is trying to buy food only to be turned away repeatedly. A vendor who sells him food in the hush-hush gets stuff thrown at him. Yes, Wong is more fleshed out as a character than the vendors, but it’s not that either’s fully in the wrong. The vendors snub Wong out of loyalty to the mysterious Iron Monkey, who brings them gold and defends them. Wong has to capture the Iron Monkey to get his son back from the government and believes the latter doesn’t help the situation and actually brings animosity between the government and the people. Then everything clicks. The film’s portrayal of early 19th century China is a country where children enslave each other. Iron Monkey, hiding as Dr. Yang, also contemplates surrendering to the police to save the boy even if his time in the dungeons mean that the refugees won’t be protected. These characters, testing our sympathies actually make the film richer.
The film also has an interesting spin on masculinity as both male characters, adversaries and eventual friends as they are, are capable fighting machines who also know how to cook. Dr. Yang, and Wong also have a sense of community with the things I already mentioned. Not to mention that both fight for and against female characters too. This film of great fights, both internal and physical, end in a bigger fight involving bamboo poles and fires that’s both ridiculously lengthy and elegantly choreographed.
The Toronto Underground Cinema is playing this film tonight. They’ve managed to get a print with the original Chinese audio, even if , apparently, the subtitles are inaccurate.
I’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in parts before, watching Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) sharing tea together and talking about their repressed feelings. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi)reminiscing about her lost years in the desert. They make me feel like I’m watching a story from Regency period in England as it is a story taking place probably in third century China. But then this movie has fights in them so I know what kind of movie I’m watching. These characters have already made an impression on me before finally seeing the film in entirety, in layman’s terms, knowing what they’re already like.
So I don’t know what it is seeing Shu Lien skip towards the common room to greet Li that strikes me, her feelings emanating through her face and posture. I’m not even sure if this image from the film perfectly captures a young lover within someone supposedly more mature and controlled, because she goes back to being more formal within a split second. I’m comparing this introduction to Shu Lien’s character with the way the film introduces Jen, a demure aristocrat in disguise. Shu Lien’s introduction, however, is a revelation. I use that word even if it doesn’t feel like the rest of her character is lying to herself. She isn’t, she’s just disallowing herself that bit of freedom other thinks she deserve.
There are other women in disguise – like Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), who trained Jen masquerading as the latter’s governess and a policeman’s daughter calling herself a circus performer while trying to find Fox, Jen hiding her own talent from Fox and from the rest of the world. The social strata calls for the female characters to go into these disguises, at the same time this game of pretend allows them to act out freedom and aggression. When other characters, male and female, allow them some defiance, they take on the chance. An example would be the scene when the daughter tells an inspector of her certain belief that a murderer is living under Governor Yu’s household, letting her father’s blood on her shoulder seen by Sir Te.
In a way, this story is just about these two leading women as it is about the Green Destiny. One wants what the other has. There’s also some delicious passive aggressiveness between them specifically from Shu Lien’s part. She tells Jen that she’s happy for Jen’s engagement, temporarily killing the latter’s fantasies of becoming a warrior. She also invites Jen and her mother in guise of an engagement party to test the latter, giving her faint praise after damnation. Jen of course gives the results Shu Lien expects, and does so either because of carelessness, vanity or both. The differences between them are constant until the end, when one goes one direction and the other chooses drastically different. One presumably moves on despite of the death around her, while the other can no longer accept happiness because of the past.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: No 9 (guardian.co.uk)
So I decided to mix things around by seeing a non-festival thing, although “Rumble in the Bronx was part of the opening weekend for the Underground.
I don’t know why I always compare martial arts movie stars to their earlier dancing counterparts. It’s been said before, and if anything Jackie Chan’s the danci-est, most flamboyant, boyish martial arts guy. The most fascinating parts of his performance in “Rumble in the Bronx,” just like any post-classical work of any genre, has the spirit of being showy and the performer’s ambition to outdo himself.
“Rumble”shows all of physical challenges the same way later Fred Astaire numbers would. There’s a constrained space between him and his opponents that Keung (Jackie Chan) has to work with, an aspect that will be diminished later on. In the first fight scene, he and the urban motorcycle gang hit each other while tugging at each other’s clothes and bags. Sometimes the enemy gets too close. It’s interesting to watch how he survives while being surrounded, and claustrophobic circumstances make way for really precise moves. There’s also the feeling like that of any first fight, when relative peace exists and the protagonist doesn’t wanna leave a mess yet.
Later on he passes through small hallways and spaces between walls and trucks, little interludes between him leaping and flipping all over big parking lots where another fight happens. And of course, the playing field gets larger. I really like the detailed and mise-en-scene, with alleyways, random playground rails, refrigerators and even grocery carts. The whole movie is slightly reminiscent of the Technicolor faux urban stage of 1950’s musicals. Or, a comparison more fitting because of the claustrophobia in some scenes, a grungy, more colourful yet less trippy version of the Bruce Lee hall of mirrors. Every space and object is an opportunity to escape and attack.
This despite the super dated pop culture references. This came out in China in 1995 and it might as well have been out half a decade earlier. I’m a forgiving person.