Kicksgiving is nearly here! I thought I’d do a little rundown of my journey to becoming a kung-fu movie fanatic and offer some recommendations if you’d like to become one too.
I watch too many movies. This has been true for most of my life. I’ll watch just about anything, and exceptions to this tend to be specific. However, action and, by extension, martial-arts movies were a blindspot for me until a few years ago. I never put much thought into it at the time, but in retrospect, I think I avoided them because I had a narrow view of the genre, informed by less-than-stellar representatives. While it still holds that films that act as conservative power fantasies are spectacularly uninteresting to me, now I know for a fact that that describes only a small fraction of what the genre has to offer.
It started with Arnold. Total Recall (1990) is a movie I liked from my childhood. Then The Fifth Element (1997). Yeah, I was that person: I defended my beloved genres all while playing the it’s-not-really-an-action-movie game every time I liked an action movie.
My significant other is an action movie enthusiast but never gave horror films a chance. I am a horror movie enthusiast that never gave action films a chance. We schooled each other. He showed me Commando, Fist of Legend, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. I showed him Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fright Night. I’m now a die-hard Shaw Bros fan. He’s now a Dario Argento devotee.
Then I started watching kung fu movies voraciously at The Hollywood Theater and on the El Rey Network. (FYI: El Rey does a Way of the Turkey Kung Fu Marathon now on Thanksgiving weekend!) Shaw Brothers films in particular captured my attention. Learning the folkloric ropes of wuxia movies was fascinating. (Wuxia means “martial heroes” and usually refers to period stories about martial arts legends of China.)
The theatrical staging, bright and bold costuming, and pacing of Shaw Brothers’ wuxia movies are reminiscent of traditional hollywood musicals. Swap out the songs for sword fights. Not always tho, sometimes there are songs too.
From my perspective as an American, it took me off guard how many woman-led kung-fu movies are out there. There’s so much variety to the women in kung-fu movies and that variety is almost always valued in the film. Women can be powerful, villainous, dainty, coarse, naive, religious, iconoclastic, antisocial, goofy, cunning, horny, and any of combination of the above. In other words, women are people not plot devices. It’s no wonder Cynthia Rothrock went to Hong Hong to be a movie star, while Hollywood slept on her.
Kung-fu movies can be harder to get into for Westerners because, honestly, plot summaries and home-video packaging can be very misleading for a lot of Chinese/Hong-Kong releases. Take literally any Jackie Chan movie from the 1970s or 80s as an example.
Actual Star of the Movie:
So, here’s a few recommendations on where to get started if you’re new to and interested in martial-arts movies. BELOW THE JUMP:
Takashi Miike (1960 - present) is a highly prolific and controversial Japanese filmmaker. He has directed over seventy theatrical, video, and television productions since his debut in 1991. His films range from violent and bizarre to dramatic and family-friendly. He has since gained a strong cult following in the West that is growing with the increase in DVD releases of his works.
Miike has garnered international notoriety for depicting shocking scenes of extreme violence and sexual perversions. Many of his films contain graphic and lurid bloodshed, often portrayed in an over-the-top, cartoonish manner. Much of his work depicts the activities of criminals (especially yakuza) or concern themselves with non-Japanese living in Japan. He is known for his black sense of humor and for pushing the boundaries of censorship as far as they will go. (x)
“The Battle of Algiers is still one of the only works of war cinema that thoroughly understands the architectural character of a city in combat, at once meticulously structured (through checkpoints, barriers, and routine patrols) and conspicuously impromptu (through the increased presence of bombed-out structures, burning cars, and rubble piles). The familiar layout of Algiers, with its automobile-lined boulevards, neoclassical structures, and wide open spaces, begins to readjust before our very eyes into an arena of chaos, debris, and collateral casualties. Watching the film now, after so many other popular films and latter-day television series have faithfully duplicated its look and feel, it is all too easy to take for granted just how revolutionary a filmmaking document Pontecorvo had created, a visual groundbreaker made all the more monumental for the atypical coherence of its storytelling.”
I recognize and appreciate anime’s influence on film culture, yet, outside of the works Hayao Miyazaki and afewothers, I don’t generally enjoy Japan’s often-melodramatic animated offerings. Mind you, I don’t maintain any prejudice against anime; good cinema is good cinema, and it can be found even among the grubbiest of artistic traditions. So, when I find a film that piques my interest, associated, say, with the labels surrealism, Judeo-Christian mythology, and Gothicism, I don’t hesitate to give it due process - no matter it’s nationality or tradition. I’d advise others to do the same because, if it hadn’t been for this open-mindedness, I would’ve never had the privilege of seeing Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg. (Oshii is most know for the much-lauded cyberpunk thriller, Ghost in the Shell, one of the first anime films, along with Akira, to find an American audience.)
In a damp post-apocalyptic dream-world filled with Gothic, Art Nouveau architecture and the remains of primeval Lovecraftian megafauna, a young girl wanders empty streets, collecting glass jugs of water for no particular reason and carrying a large white egg under her dress. She meets a lone soldier who follows her to her home in catacombs under the remains of a giant boat or perhaps a beached leviathan. Neither of them know who they are or why they’re there, but seem nonetheless compelled toward certain unknowable goals. References within the film’s scant dialogue to the story of Noah’s Ark only muddy the waters.
Angel’s Egg is hard to categorize; is it science fiction, fantasy, horror? It has elements of each, but resembles a dream more than anything. Like a dream, it has no obligation to tie its emotionally vivid audio-visual elements into any kind of lucid whole. It’s also uninclined to move at any more than a leisurely, 2001-esque pace. There are moments of shocking surrealistic horror, padded by quiet scenic tours of meadows lined with monolithic structures, primordial burial grounds, and rainy streets patrolled by stone fishermen searching for colossal shadow fish. The films effect is lurking and subconscious - felt but inarticulable.
The artwork by Yoshitaka Amano - known for his work on Final Fantasy - is exquisite and the animation, unburdened by action pieces, is instead focused on the subtleties of water and wind. Yoshihiro Kanno’s score - an eerie mixture of violin, piano, and lyricless vocals - and a great soundscape of bells, whistles, and porpoise-like screeching really takes the film over the top. Thirty years later, it all still holds up.
In spite of its hypnotic atmosphere, creative iconography and many other strengths, Angel’s Egg is probably not a film for everyone. It’s not what you’d expect, as an anime or a film. The pacing may be bearable due to the film’s meager 70-minute runtime, but the ambiguous symbolism and nearly non-existent plot will deter many. It’s challenging - in fact, unbeatable. Though many have attempted to find its meaning through internet research and obsessive rewatching, I consider Angel’s Egg to be almost entirely a subjective experience; it allows you to fill it with whatever you’ve brought along.