January 23, 2014

Mercenarios de la Muerte (1983)

With the release in 1973 of "Enter the Dragon", the world was introduced to the great talent of martial artist Bruce Lee. His tragic death, only six days before the film's release (it would had been Lee's first film for an American studio), turned him into an icon, a real action films legend. The enormous worldwide success of "Enter the Dragon" would result in a fever for anything related to martial arts which would be reflected in the vast amount of martial arts films produced not only in Hong Kong, but in every corner of the world. Nevertheless, those attempts to get into the genre often resulted in bizarre films: in England, Hammer FIlms would produce the hybrid of gothic horror and kung fu "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires" in 1974, while in Spain the comedic duo of the Calatrava brothers would add their comedy to "Los Kalatava contra el imperio del karate" (1974). In Mexico, famous masked wrester Santo would star in "La furia de los karatekas" and "El Puño de la Muerte" (both released in 1982), but the wackiest mexican kung fu movie would be released the following year with the title "Mercenarios de la Muerte".

In "Mercenarios de la Muerte", the story deals with an ancient sect of asian monks belonging to the temple of Shiolang, whom after a great war against the Black Dragon sect they were forced to travel far away from their lands, to a small town in northern Mexico were they took their relics and traditions. Years went by and the monks lived peacefully in Mexico, becoming an important part of the community and establishing a martial arts school. However, at the turn of the century, a new threat appears in the horizon for the monks, as mercenary Sung Ya (Armando Silvestre), the last disciple of the Black Dragon sect, has gathered a gang of warriors from all over the world with the intention of destroying the monks in order to steal the ancient relics of their new temple. The venerable master Tata (Emilio Fernández) knows of this great danger, and asks master Jin Ho (Aries Bautista) to pick amongst the temple's most advanced students a warrior to defend the temple from Sung Ya. This mission will be given to two youngsters, Mai Ko (Gregorio Casal) and Chang Piau (Jaime Moreno), who will have to face the mercenaries of death.

As can be see give its plot line, "Mercenarios de la Muerte" (literally "Mercenaries of Death") pretends to make a mix of Westens and kung fu movies. While the idea sounds bizarre, it isn't that strange given the way that the modern martial arts film as devised by Bruce Lee and Wei Lo was very influenced by the archetypes and stories from classic Westerns (Bruce Lee's own "Meng long guo jiang" is the perfect example). The screenplay for "Mercenarios de la Muerte", written by Avinadain Bautista, not only borrows Western elements, but in fact sets its plot in a small wild west town. The story has the intention of being an epic of gran scale, with the arrival of Sung Ya forcing the monks to prepare themselves to fight for the town that gave them shelter. However, while creating this hybrid of Western and martial arts writer Avinadain Bautista opts for exploiting old cliches from both genres, diluting whatever epic was intended to be put in the film in favor of long training sequences, supposedly philosophic dialogs that doesn't say a thing, and poor saloon fights, forgetting to develop his characters' drama, leaving them as walking stereotypes.

But even if the screenplay is of a mediocre quality, the film could still have been resulted in an interesting (if odd) martial arts film if it wasn't for the disastrous work of directing from filmmakers Manuel Muñoz and Gregorio Casal. From starters it's clear that the film was lacking in terms of budget and production values, as it seems to had been shot in forgotten sets from Estudios América's old Westerns. Still, this wouldn't be too much of trouble if it wasn't for the simplistic camera set ups chosen by the filmmakers to tell their tale, set ups that only make notorious that the scenery is fake. In the same way, the craftsmanship of the figts (which should be the highlight of any kung fu movie) is deficient, not only because of the poor execution by the fighters (Aries Bautista is perhaps an exception) but also because of the way the fights are filmed, as it's impossible to cover the fighter's lack of skill and it becomes apparent that the fights are fake. The cinematography, in charge of veterans such as Fernando Colín and Ángel Bilbatua, ranges from regular to pretty bad, as the poorly lit climatic fight can exemplify, a final fight where it's hard to see what's happening.

Acting is another big negative element in "Mercenarios de la Muerte". The fact that legendary actor and director Emilio "el Indio" Fernández takes place in a project such as this one is perhaps symptomatic of the poor state in which the mexican film industry was submerged in those times. Fernández' performance as Tata (a venerable Shiolang monk unexplainably dressed as a cowboy) limits basically to recite his line with a certain severity, though at times one can see glimpses of the talent and charm of the old filmmaker. The protagonists, Jaime Moreno and Gregorio Casal, make what's probably the word job in their careers. Moreno, who is arguably the lead character, limits himself to look nice for the camera and trying to look gracefully at moving like a kung fu fighter. Casal's character is relatively more complex, but the actor is unable to establish this supposed depth and fills his act with clichés. Armando SIlvestre is probably the only cast member that understood that the only thing that could work in this debacle was to ham it up and exaggerate a half-baked impersonation of Fu Manchu.

It would be hard to find something to praise in this weird martial arts flick where incongruence and incoherence are a constant thing. And while one could put the blame for this chaos to the low budget, poor production values and mediocre script, it's actually a matter of bad directing what generates the vast majority of the film's problems. On one hand, there is not a clear definition of the space in which the story is set, so at times the temple seems to be near the town and at times it's too far from it (conveniently for the plot). As mentioned before, there isn't any care for the film's visual narrative, as if the camera had been placed in a random place without thinking about what would be on the frame. Finally, the sound design is another big problem in the film, as given the lack of sound recordings, the film is dubbed in the worst possible way: no synchronicity, no dramatic continuity, and even some actors dub characters they weren't playing at all. This can only be seen as a sign of problems during production and postproduction, and perhaps that's why there are two directors and two cinematographers credited in the film.

Despite being one of the greater disasters in mexican filmography, "Mercenarios de la Muerte" still has a bizarre charm. Maybe it's the fact that's so unusual to see a martial arts film made in Mexico, or the mixed emotions at seeing great actors of old (Fernández and the Junco siblings) getting involved in a mess like this. Maybe it's the great naiveté and ignorance that seems to have existed in the mind of the film's makers given the lack of verisimilitude the film often has. Whatever it is, the only certain is that involuntarily, "Mercenarios de la Muerte" makes for a great comedy of errors in a very surreal way. Amongst the many martial arts films done after Bruce Lee's great success (and there were quite a lot), "Mercenarios de la Muerte" is without a doubt one of the strangest of all time.


January 17, 2014

Yi dai zong shi (2013)

Ip Man (or Yip Man), legendary Wing Chun master, was born in a wealthy family in Foshan, China in 1893. Having trained his art since he was 13 years old, Ip Man developed his Wing Chun technique to a high level of perfection, but while he did teach his style to friend, he wasn't interested in opening a martial arts school. This changed with the Chinese Civil War, when political reasons forced Ip Man to leave Foshan for good in 1949 and settle in Hong Kong. Living in poverty, Ip Man finally opened a Wing Chun school in Hong Kong (his students would include a very young Bruce Lee), that soon made his martial arts famous in the city, and later in the world. This status as grandmaster of Wing Chun, along the time period he lived through, have turned Ip Man into an almost mythical figure (similar to Wong Fei-hung), and his life has inspired numerous films beginning with "Yip Man" in 2008 (directed by Wilson Yip). That very same year Hongkonger director Wong Kar-wai announced his own film about Ip Man, but the project faced constant delays and couldn't see the light until 2013, when finally "Yi dai zong chi", "The Grandmaster" was released,.

The story in "Yi dai zong chi" begins in the first years of the decade of 1930s, when Ip Man (Tony Leung) is living a peaceful life in Foshan as a respected martial artist along his wife Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). The grandmaster of the Northern region, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) arrives to Foshan announcing his retirement and the appointment of Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his heir. He is also looking for a heir in the Southern region: whomever can defeat him will be his heir. The Southern masters asks Ip Man to represent them, and he manages to defeat Gong Yutian, who now respects him as the winner. Gong Yutian's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), decides to challenge Ip Man herself, as she pretends to recover her family's honor. After their duel, a deep friendship begins between them, a relationship that's interrupted by the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. During the war, Ip Man will face poverty and hunger in Foshan, while in the Northern region, a vindictive Ma San murders grandmaster Gong Yutian. As times are changing in Chine, a generation of masters of martial arts will try to survive.

While "Yi dai zong shi" begins apparently as a biopic of Wing Chun master Ip Man, the literal translation of its title, "Generation of master", is perhaps the best description of what it really is: a meditation about a whole generation in Chinese martial arts history. So, taking Ip Man as its starting point, the screenplay (written by Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng and director Wong Kar-wai himself) gets into reflections of a more philosophical type regarding the Chinese Civil War, making a parallel with the expansion of martial arts through the country. Grandmaster Gong Yutian's dream of unification between Northern schools of martial arts and the Southern masters ends when political forces divide the country in the middle of wars, events that will divide the characters and force them to make decisions they may later regret. And this melancholic lament of regret, a lament of tragic loss (familiar themes in much of Wong Kar-wai's cinema) echoes through a story in which knowledge of martial arts is a precious heritage, and its perpetuity in memory, a matter of life and death.

In terms of style the film is also a journey through familiar terrains for Wong Kar-wai: there's poetry in the dialogs, an extremely beautiful work of cinematography (courtesy of Philippe Le Sourd) and a disjointed narrative. Unfortunately, this last aspect becomes problematic as in the attempt of capturing the spirit of a whole generation, Wong seems to ramble, leaving unexplainable plot holes and underdeveloped subplots (the character of "Razor" Yixiantian could be removed and nobody would even notice). Since the film lacks a solid structure, the movie feels incomplete. But "Yi dai zong shi" isn't merely a recollection of Wong Kar-wai's thematic obsessions, it's also a martial arts film, and in this aspect the remarkable fight coreographies staged by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping are a highlight of the film. Truly getting to the origins of the portrayed martial arts, Yuen manages to make a relatively faithful portrayal of the diverse styles employed by the masters, focusing not on fantastic exaggeration, but in the inherent beauty of the correct execution of a technique. This is certainly one of Yuen Woo-ping's best jobs.

Tony Leung, a familiar face in Wong Kar-wai's cinema, manages to truly get into the role of Ip Man, making him an arrogant yet disciplined man. Leung's Ip Man is a martial arts aesthete who knows he is fortunate, but that doesn't take advantage of his privileged position. Leung's work gets better as his character grows older, as the arrogance of youth gives place to wisdom and serenity after a life of hardships during the war. However, while Tony Leung makes an effective performance, it is really Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er who truly steals the show in "Yi Dai zong shi". As a woman obsessed with revenge to the point of sacrifice, Zhang Ziyi delivers one of her best performances ever, creating a character of complexity and beauty. With elegance and strong screen presence, Zhang Ziyi manages to express more with a single look than with the film's poetic dialogue. Finally, Chang Chen appears as "Razor" Yixiantian, character whose plot is sadly forgotten latter in the movie. The interesting things is that, in spite of that, Chang Chen manages to create a character with greater impact than Tony Leung's Ip Man.

Maybe the most remarkable aspect in Wong Kar-wai's film is the great beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's work, who manages to capture the melancholy of the romantic view of Wong Kar-wai on the time period in which the film is set, as well as the beauty of the portrayed martial arts. A perfect complement to choreographer Yuen Woo-ping's work, Le Sourd's cinematography enhances the style and technique with great aesthetic beauty. Quite appropriately for a story about characters that value technical proficiency above all things. However, it's unfortunate that the beauty of the cinematography and the excellence of the performances get lost in a narrative that at times seems to lose the direction where it's going. The stories of these masters, Ip Man, Gong Er and "Razor" Yixiantian are extremely interesting, but there's a moment where it seems that the movie decides to focus exclusively on Gong Er and forgets entirely the other two, which end up in a rushed manner. The sensation the film leaves is that for some reason, "Yi dai zong shi" is not a completed film, despite that there are three different cuts of the film.

Despite this big problem with its narrative, "Yi dai zong shi" is a movie of great visual beauty and impeccable cinematic technique. Wong Kar-wai manages to create a martial arts film that's reflexve and philosophical without sacrificing the genre's inherent spectacle. It would be unfair to expect a proper biography of Ip Man when what Wong Kar-wai pretends is to get into the memory of a bygone time: the end of Chinese Civil War. As famous filmmaker John Ford once stablished: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Wong Kar-wai gets into the modern myths that are the old martial arts masters and finds a group of fascinate characters that struggle to survive in a world that seems to have left them behind. Unfortunately, "Yi dai zong shi" fails to become the great work it could had been.


January 12, 2014

Black Narcissus (1947)

During the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted a series of films in the United Kingdom under the banner of The Archers, their production company. Working in tandem, Powell and Pressburger developed an unusual method of work in which both shared the credits of writer, producer and director, gaining a full creative liberty regarding the visual style and themes they wanted for their movies. Beginning in 1942 with "One of Our Aircraft is Missing", Powell and Pressburger quickly established a pretty unique style that would be polished with every film made by the duo. By 1946, The Archers were releasing their romantic fantasy classic "A Matter of Life and Death" and were ready to begin a new project of a significantly different nature: a psychological drama based on a 1939 novel, "Black Narcissus", written by popular British author Rumor Godden. The story, set in an isolated valley in the Himalayas, would be the perfect frame to show the mastery of cinematographer Jack Cardiff at using Technicolor. However, "Black Narcissus" is a lot more than just a beautiful photography.

As mentioned before, the story in "Black Narcissus" is set in a remote region in the Himalayas, the palace of Mopu (near Darjeeling), where a little group of five Anglican nuns must travel with the mission of establishing a convent to serve as school and hospital to the inhabitants of that remote place. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), is a young Irish nun with a strong character that has been sent to lead the mission as the superior in the convent. The other nuns in the mission include sister Philippa (Flora Robson) in charge of agriculture, the kind sister Honey (Jenny Laird) and the strong sister Briony (Judith Furse) to work as teachers and nurses, and finally sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who has been sick. At the convent the nuns meet Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a British agent living in the region that becomes their contact with the local government. The governor, the Old General (Esmond Knight), is happy to have the nuns opening a hospital, but soon the tensions within the walls of the convent arise, tensions that young sister Clodagh may not be ready to handle.

The screenplay, written of course by Powell and Pressburger, is a real psychological study on its characters that, living in isolation and facing a diametrically opposite culture, become an easy prey for fears and anxieties that they thought had been left in the past when they became nuns. Sister Clodagh, determined to have success with the mission, finds herself in the middle of everything, trying gallantly to handle the diverse crisis that take place in the convent, as well as her own crisis of faith, tempted by Mr. Dean's flirting words. Sister Clodagh is an extraordinarily complex character, brilliantly developed with a tempestuous sensuality that she tries to contain with the armor of her own discipline. The interesting things is that this armor is not some religious hypocrisy or an uptight moralism, but simply the desire for triumph of a woman that no longer wishes to be defeated. And while sister Clodagh could rightfully be seen as the protagonist of this story, the rest of the characters are not there just for mere support, as they truly experiment their own crisis of faith through the story.

The work of directing done by Powell and Pressburger is simply impeccable, with a superb use of the camera that enhances the tension lived within the walls of the convent at the Himalaya. Despite the fact that "Black Narcissus" was mainly shot on a studio, there's a sensation of majesty about the cultural shock lived by the Anglican nuns upon meeting the culture of India. Without a doubt this is a theme that couldn't go untouched by The Archers (specially when India's independence would become a reality within months from the film's release date), and in "Black Narcissus" the image shown is one of a rich exotic culture that marvels enormously, but still can't be tamed or understood by the sober British civilization. Something remarkable about Powell and Pressburger's film is the subtle eroticism that permeates through the film, as even when the latent sensuality is one of the most important themes in the film, this remains always contained, growing little by little as the wilderness of the environment begins to enter the lives of the nuns, only exploding in the film's powerful climax.

In a film like "Black Narcissus", based entirely in the relationships between the characters, the success depends a lot on the quality of the performances done by the cast, and fortunately, this is one of the movie's most notable aspects. Leading the cast is Deborah Kerr in the role of sister Clodagh, making one of the best jobs in her career. As mentioned before, sister Clodagh is a complex character that has not only a repressed sensuality, but also a terrible fair of failure and a strong determination. With a role full of so many facets, Kerr makes a solid and unforgettable job. Kathleen Byron, whom as sister Ruth takes the role of being a counterpart of sorts to sister Clodagh, makes the best performance in the movie as a disturbed nun with a serious emotional conflict. This is a character that easily could had ended up as the caricature of a histerical nun, but Byron manages to gift her character with great deepness in a thrilling, yet restrained performance. The acting duel between Kerr and Byron is one of the many elements that make of "Black Narcissus" a real gem.

As a whole, the rest of the cast keeps the same quality level, shining above them David Farrat as the charming Mr. Dean, and Flora Robson as the lovely sister Philippa. Also in the film appear Indian actor Sabu and a young Jean Simmons in a subplot that works more thanks to the wit of the screenplay than to their performances, as theirs are probably the worst in the film. However, those problems do not demerit in any way the quality of "Black Narcissus", film that seemed to be ahead of its time not only in terms of themes but also in the spectacular work of cinematography in Technicolor done by Jack Cardiff, that truly make the film look like no other movie of its time (with the exception of course, of "The Red Shoes", also by Cardiff for The Archers). The brilliant of the Technicolor in "Black Narcissus" isn't only the beautiful colors that Jack Cardiff puts on the film, but the highly expressive use that Powell and Pressburger give to them. Color is not just an effect devised to impress, but a complete narrative tool used to great effect in the contrast done between the plain whiteness of the nuns' uniforms and the region's colorful landscape.

Director Michael Powell once said that he considered "Black Narcissus" to be his most erotic film, and probably he was right in that statement. In the microcosm that is the convent in "Black narcissus", what is implied by glances and silences is way more important than what's actually said, and this is something that Powell and Pressburger truly understood, making of subtlety a key piece of the film. The masterful way in which the filmmakers use it in their narrative is a testament of the directors' great talent, and proof that without a doubt this duo of filmmakers earned their place in the history of British cinema. Film of great aesthetic beauty and tremendous energy, "Black Narcissus" is a movie where every element of cinematography are combined to make a masterpiece. Normally, melodrama is accused of being a populist and low brow genre, but Powell and Pressburger show in "Black Narcissus" that melodrama can be true art.