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Old-school martial arts films return in style


Summary: Still dominant are traditional themes featuring Sino-Japanese hostility (Ip Man – 2008), western colonial oppression (Fearless – 2006) and even Shaolin Temple (Shaolin – 2011). But these stories flow in a manner that thrills the modern watcher.

Ip Man

Despite his rapid remarkable kicks and particularly his death-dealing sliding side kick, Donnie Yen was always underrated and ignored. But his performance in Ip Man four years ago was too superb to overlook.

Yen plays a legendary Chinese Wu Shu grandmaster and master of Bruce Lee, Yip Man, who keeps a low profile in Foshan despite his unequalled Kung Fu expertise. He restores the pride of Foshan when he humbles a skilled foreign fighter who had publicly beaten and humiliated all Kung Fu masters in the district.

The pride of Foshan is brought to a sad and sudden end by the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation. The Chinese, including Yip Man and his once prosperous family, are reduced to paupers struggling to find food. A Japanese general accomplished in Karate creates a platform for local fighters to compete with his soldiers, giving a bag of rice to every starving local that wins. Ip Man declines to take part until he learns that his desperate countrymen are beaten to death in the pursuit of rice.

Out of rage, Ip Man storms the ring and asks for 10 Japanese fighters at once, breaking the bones of each in next to no time. Far from yielding to the General’s pressure to train Japanese soldiers, Ip Man opts for a fight with the head of the imperialist army at Foshan public square.

The Japanese Karate master appears resolutely unbendable at the start but swiftly becomes the underdog minutes into the fight. By half time the Chinese clearly gains the upper hand, prompting the General’s second-in-command to start tickling his revolver.

In rapid succession punches and fists hit the General like hailstones. For the oppressed to inflict such a glaring defeat on the powerful oppressor was a triumphant moment that the residents of Foshan ushered in like a breath of fresh air. Such heartwarming scenes succeeding moments of misery and despair combine with Donnie Yen’s creative martial arts moves to make Ip Man one of the best movies of its kind in the history of cinema.

The Hong Kong release that also featured Simon Yam and directed by Simon Yip may actually rank as the best martial arts film after Bruce Lee.  

True Legend

The actor of The Blacksheep Affair Vincent Zhao returns in 2010 with what is perhaps his masterpiece so far, True Legend. What’s awesome about this film isn’t its storyline, for it lacks coherence and appears to be two-in-one. Zhao acts Su whose family is killed and his life reduced to ruins by his half brother and governor, Yuan. 

Years later, after mastering a drunken style capable of neutralizing Yuan’s poisonous fist, Su returns to rescue his son taken captive and possibly to take revenge. The rage that drives him and the Wu Shu proficiency he deploys to vanquish his tormentors combine to make Director Yuen Woo-ping’s True Legend a true reminiscent of the glorious days of martial arts films.

After settling his family animosity in a campaign that claimed his normalcy and probably his senses, Su learns that western colonialist boxers are slaughtering locals like chicken. Like Jet Li in Fearless, Su storms the ring and makes the huge-bodied foreign fighters face the force and paramountcy of the drunken fist.

Kill Zone

Donnie Yen’s encounter with Sammo Hung at the close of Kill Zone is one of the finest and most fascinating martial arts fights of the past two decades.

Alerted that he has little time to live given the injury he sustained in a planned accident, police officer Simon Yam dedicates the rest of his life to stopping a brutal crime lord, Hung, who is smart enough to leave no evidence of his criminal record.

Hung’s henchman, Wu Jing, stabs and slices the throats of several police officers at different intervals, with whom Yam had stolen the gang leader’s money to raise the kid of a witness murdered by the same criminal. Yam pretends to return Hung’s money and attempts to kill the gangster at his fortress, but falls captive to the gifted fighter guarded by skillful martial artists.

Yam’s surviving partner, Donnie Yen, receives an ultimatum to return the money to save the life of his colleague. At the entrance of the fortress Yen meets Jing, widely seen as the next Jet Li, with the very knife he used to slay the corps. The duo stage a fight whose outcome is hard to predict given their matching swiftness and skillfulness.

After overcoming Jing, Yen proceeds to meet Hung in a merciless fight that shows no signs of subsiding. Hung is old and fat but still fit enough to deal deadly kicks and fists and to resist his opponent’s offensive. But Yen is too angry, too determined to lose. Yen’s flying front kick lifts Hung by the chin into the air before he’s added to a heap of glasses like a sack of charcoal.

 After minutes of pretending to be dead, Hung raises unexpectedly and pushes Yen through the window of a skyscraper, landing on the vehicle in which the villain’s wife and his baby were waiting. The gangster’s pursuer, along with the gangster’s entire family, perishes.

Kill Zone, otherwise known as SPL: Sha Po Lang, starts in tears and ends in tears. Its unpredictable narrative, its thrilling sensation and its super-fights marked an important step in the resurgence of Hong Kong cinema, thanks, again, to Director Simon Yip.

The Forbidden Kingdom

Jet Li and Jackie Chan – the two most popular martial arts stars after Bruce Lee – meet in the 2008 Rob Minkoff-directed Forbidden Kingdom to constitute extra-ordinary fighting scenes at which any martial arts fan would salivate.

The two engage each other in a furious Wu Shu clash before discovering that their mission is one: freeing their master captured and confined to a fortress manned by accomplished and resolute warriors. Such fierce encounters continue throughout, with each battle featuring greater ruthlessness.  


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