Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Forbidden Kingdom

Not everyone knows this, but I'm a huge fan of Chinese cinema. Ever since I first saw Farewell My Concubine at the Tampa Theater in 1993, names like Gong Li, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou have been part of my film vocabulary. It's part of my overall fascination with Chinese art and culture. I have high regard for dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, but I am fascinated by martial arts films. The fact that I like them so much startles me because I have vivid memories of my father watching Bruce Lee films on Saturday afternoons and of me thinking they were stupid, especially with their dubbed English. My interest in Chinese culture is amplified by the intense level of choreographed violence in these films. Yes, believe it or not, I'm a fan of "art of violence" movies (Quentin Tarantino should come to mind). Mind you, I cannot stand movies where violence serves no purpose but to be violent (which was my biggest problem with Fight Club), nor can I comprehend how anyone watches or participates in boxing or cage fighting. Kung fu cinema is different. There is something magical and thrilling about watching a martial arts film. The fighting is about the rhythmic motion of the body. It's akin to dancing. There is always a hero and a villain, but their battle takes on higher levels of meaning, like fighting for the greater good of humankind. Kung fu cinema is violence with a spiritual purpose. Plant the scene in a foggy, mystical forest in ancient China, and I am hooked.

With that preamble, you won't be surprised to know that I loved The Forbidden Kingdom (check out the trailer below). This movie is the first where Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear together, and the fight scenes between them and other characters are strong, in particular because the style of their kung fu is different from one another both as actors and characters. The story is about a youth from Boston named Jason who is a martial arts fan in theory but not in practice, as evidenced by how easily he is beaten up by bullies. When he finds a Chinese staff, he's magically transported to ancient China, where he is told about a prophecy that a Seeker will come from afar to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King, and to end the reign of the evil Jade Emperor. Needless to say, the film is filled with magic and beautiful women who hold their own and kick ass (you gotta love kung fu between women, especially when they have names like Golden Sparrow and the White-Haired Demoness). The panoramic scenery and cinematography of the Chinese landscape are gorgeous. The martial arts choreographer was Yuen Woo-Ping, who has orchestrated fight scenes in the Kill Bill and Matrix movies. He also did the kung fu scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and directed Iron Monkey (one of the best martial arts films ever). Michael Angarano plays Jason, the Seeker. He is young and he comes off as fresh and naive in this film, but he's adorable, he's Italian-American from Brooklyn, and it's apparent he was thrilled to be doing this, so we'll give him higher marks for his role. The one strange thing about this movie is that it is for an American audience so everyone speaks English, which I find a little disconcerting for this genre. Still, I think the movie holds its own against more recent Chinese kung fu films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. If you enjoyed those movies, you'll like this one too.

In one of the DVD extras, screenwriter John Fusco mentions that the character Jason lives vicariously through his martial arts films because they represent a life he's always wanted for himself. I wonder what that says about me. I've done Tai Chi in the past, but maybe it's time I learned Drunken Master Kung Fu...

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