Our entertainment editor casts his critical eye on the martial arts components of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo-ping), The Monkey King 3 (Aaron Kwok) and the new Karate Kid qs series Cobra Kai.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
For the fading remnants of the Resistance, it’s no longer a battle to defeat the First Order; it’s a last-gasp effort to survive. Their continued existence depends on desert bumpkin Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her quest to find and learn the Jedi mysteries from sole-surviving Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Skywalker’s failure to raise a Jedi army for a final crusade against the New Order has made him a lost soul, but he reluctantly accepts Rey as a student. If only he can release his guilt and reconnect with the Force so both can fulfill their destinies. The fight choreography in Star
Wars: The Last Jedi treads new ground. The best battle is when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey face Snoke’s blood-red armored bodyguards — with each guard wielding a traditional kung fu weapon that has a glossy space-age sheen.
The coolest weapon in the movie is a sword-length pole that breaks into solid-but-flexible sections, which enable it to be used like a whip to trap an opponent’s weapon. It’s a transitional tool modeled after the Chinese nine-section whip, which connects slender pieces of steel and places a knifepoint at the far end. This real-life soft whip was originally a solid iron weapon with nine vertebra-like sections fused together.
Also superb is the scene in which Ren and Rey are fighting multiple attackers within the same frame. Like Donnie Yen’s Rogue One pole fight, it uses a low camera angle, a wide-angle lens and a dolly to track the action, and it works wonderfully. Even better, the wide angle allows us to see both actors flowing from one movement to the next.
The final duel involving Ren and Luke is akin to those that happen in
wuxia novels when combatants square off on a spiritual level. It’s been done once in Chinese cinema — Yen vs. Jet Li in Hero (2002) — and the attempt we see in Last Jedi is admirable.
THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA
This Tsui Hark–produced, Yuen Wooping–directed work is a demented fant-Asia film derived from a foundation of wuxia literature that dates from China’s Warring States period
(475 – 221 B.C.). American critics claim Tsui is rehashing Marvel/DC films, in which modern writers create stories from 80 years ago. But that’s not entirely accurate. Tsui, when he was just 13, began writing and drawing comics for Vietnamese newspapers while being inspired by material that was 2,000 years old.
In Chinese folklore, heroes used fantastical physical skills in addition to Taoist necromancy, I-Ching divination and feng shui readings to battle spirits, ghosts, devils and monsters. In this respect, The Thou
sand Faces of Dunjia does not disappoint. The Chinese title of the film is Qimen Dunjia, with the phrase referring to an ancient occult school whose strategy of war goes beyond anything Sun Tzu covered. The plot has an alien monster landing on Earth, and those who would deliver us from evil — the seven-member Wuyin Sect, inheritors of Qimen’s magic — find themselves fighting a giant devil carp. Then they learn that the angry alien has partnered with its earthly counterpart.
Humanity’s only hope is for the sect to find the ultimate weapon, the Destroyer of Worlds, before the monsters do. Furthermore, they must find their sect’s mythical anointed leader, who’s believed to be a young maiden waif imprisoned in a mental ward. Meanwhile, the united monsters get closer to gaining control of the Destroyer of Worlds.
Dunjia quickly becomes a VFX spectacle in which villains fight less with physical skills and more with sophisticated posturing, kung fu poses, and contorted finger and hand gestures that unleash their evil. One feisty fight occurs in a ghost town when a possessed mortal accesses his chi to manipulate an army of hovering circular blades surrounding his body. With martial fury, he sets the rotating razors on the heroes with slicing-and-dicing gore. Thor may throw a hammer, Scarlet Witch may wave a hand and Luke may hold a lightsaber in a simple pose, but none of them commands the coolness that Chinese superheroes do, with their full-body expressions that mesh with their character’s kung fu skills.
The movie doesn’t end with the type of rock-and-roll bedlam we’ve come to expect from action director Yuen. Instead, he introduces a fearless leader and a wayward rube constable to spice things up — and pave the way for a sequel.
THE MONKEY KING 3
If you’ve seen Jet Li in The Forbidden
Kingdom (2008), you may recall that he portrayed Swuin Wu-kong, aka the Monkey King. The character comes from the 100-chapter Chinese classic known as Journey to the West, written in the 16th century. In the saga, Wukong, accompanied by his kung fu brothers Zhu Ba-jie (a pig that wields a rake) and Xia Wu-jing (a sand creature that uses a monk’s spade), sets out to protect a Buddhist monk named Tang San-tsang as he travels to India to collect sacred scriptures.
In the latest incarnation of the story, titled The Monkey King 3, the outrageously entertaining Wu-kong (Aaron Kwok) scraps with giant scorpions and tackles a jilted androgynous River God. He’s also protecting Zhu, Xia and Tang from Asian amazons who are bent on executing them for the crime of being male.
The duel against giant scorpions is ingenious. It reminds one of the man-monster matches seen in old flicks
that featured Ray Harryhausen’s special-effects wizardry. It sounds strange, but this filmmaking technique makes the scorpions’ movements more fantasy-genuine rather than crisp and clean.
When Wu- kong springs into fullfight mode, wielding his golden pole like a tornado, his body spinning like a Tasmanian devil, he blocks the scorpions’ pincers and stingers, then bashes them in the nick of time before his friends get maimed. It makes the action feel somehow authentic.
A recurring issue in superhero films in the East and the West is that you feel the characters aren’t in any real danger. When this happens, it’s even more imperative for the action choreographer to make the fights more visually thrilling by creating never-beforeseen ways for the heroes to wage war and brandish their weapons. In this respect, Monkey King 3 is a success.
What makes it more interesting is that the film’s endgame isn’t about Wu-kong’s transformation or maturation. It’s about how the fate of the world is hanging in the balance: Will Tang fall in love with a woman, or will he choose his love for mankind?
It’s been 30 years since Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) defeated Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) with an off-balance, white-cranekung-fu-influenced, Okinawan goju
ryu jumping front kick at the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament. But just as Daniel- san thought it was safe to walk the shining streets, h-ee-e-re’s Johnny! By now, you’ve probably heard that
The Karate Kid (1984) is getting a 10-episode re-kick on YouTube Red. The new series, titled Cobra Kai, will reveal how the rivalry between the now middle-aged martial artists has evolved. It begs the question, Is it going to be a rematch or a test of who is the better teacher?
Daniel is now a family man who owns the Valley’s top car dealership, which runs smoothly thanks to his wife’s business savvy. Johnny has never quite gotten over his defeat. He’s become a short-tempered, borderline-alcoholic single parent to his street-smart son, who often fends for himself. Spawned by a chance encounter with Daniel, Johnny’s last grasp at finding himself hinges on rediscovering his roots and reopening the despicable dojo.
The man responsible for recreating Karate Kid’s fight choreography but with a 2018 look is Hiro Koda, a longtime yoshukai karate practitioner who began his film career in 1992. Even though it’s touted as a comedy, it appears that Cobra Kai is in good combative hands.