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Monday, April 21st, 2008 - 10:11 PM

"Forbidden Kingdom: a Jaw-dropping Juxtaposition of Jet and Jackie"

The Forbidden Kingdom

I'd say it's about time to do another movie review. It's been a while. The crowd goes mad, my faithful readers return... okay, perhaps not. They are long gone, without hope of return (ever since I detached from Blogger and set out on my own).

Jet Li and Jackie Chan brilliantly collaborate in a long overdue movie tag team in The Forbidden Kingdom, released in theaters last Friday April 18, 2008. It's taken so long, it's like waiting for a movie with Batman and Superman together. Jet and Jackie claim they have been close and friendly acquaintances all along, but why the long wait for the team up? Perhaps the delay was to build up the excitement. Both Jet Li and Jackie Chan have worked with countless other Hong Kong action stars, but something kept the two apart. I'm just happy Jackie Chan survived long enough for The Forbidden Kingdom to be made reality. He's notorious for performing all his own stunts, and has evaded death or permanent injury by a slim margin on numerous occasions. A sentiment many martial arts film fans no doubt share is that I hope to see more of this type of cooperative work in the future.

Martial arts film is a truly unique, misunderstood and unappreciated genre in the United States. Most quality (properly executed) martial arts or "kung fu" films originate in Hong Kong. Dedicated fans can immediately see the difference Chinese cast members make on the look and feel of the final product. Hollywood alone simply cannot deliver. American movie makers simply don't "get it". Martial arts cinematography in particular breaks all the rules and puts the most creative cameramen out of play. American movies typically show flashy angles, closeups of random features and change focal length constantly. A good martial arts film will have a much more steady angle for longer periods of time. The reason being fans and directors alike want to realize and take in the entire bodily form at all times. Cut the camera angle a hundred times like Americans do, and you don't get to see the movement of the hands, the hips, the feet - all working together in a flowing unit. Many of the best old kung fu movies record a lengthy fight scene (too much time spent on one element - another "no no") at a relatively wide angle, so all the combatants can be seen, and all the forms and movements captured.

Jet Li

Kung Fu cinema has been popular and a primary focus in parts of Asia for many decades. Martial arts are ingrained in Chinese culture in particular. The average Chinese citizen is more likely to have an appreciation and understanding of the significance and unmatched beauty of kung fu film genre than a typical westerner might - though thankfully in my time, this is finally changing. The import and success of Hong Kong film to America didn't even exist until the early seventies, when Bruce Lee opened up the mostly untapped market. More widespread recognition and circulation took much longer. Stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li had significant influence in spreading the popularity of their specialty to the western world en masse.

Jet Li and Jackie Chan, generally speaking, personify two distinct branches of martial arts film. Jet Li's career has largely followed in a more traditional and epic path. The characters, stories and martial arts styles depicted in his work tend to communicate precision of movement and method. A practiced martial artist or kung fu/t'ai chi enthusiast will jump for glee at seeing Jet's perfectly executed, imaginative, high speed techniques.

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan developed his own style of film and storytelling that fits into the relatively new "action comedy" movie genre. Rather than focusing energy on performing perfect martial technique, Jackie explodes with humor in his movements, lasting expressions, and the use of otherwise inanimate objects surrounding him. No prop is too lowly to be called on for a title role in Jackie's movies. He shows us how ladders, skis, stilts, jackets, ropes, pots & pans, and more can all be transformed into inventive weapons, acrobatic apparatuses or distractions. Much of Jackie's fame and success stem from the fact that his humor and personal charm gain him the attention of viewers that might otherwise be turned off by the limited scope of martial arts film. Since comedy speaks to every audience, Jackie has succeeded in extending the potential audience of martial arts in film exponentially by infusing it with inevitable laughs and outright buffoonery.

Jet Li's and Jackie Chan's similar yet distinctive styles of film-making can better be understood by taking a quick look at their upbringing and training. From an early age Jet Li trained rigorously in traditional Chinese martial arts (wu shu). His speed, accuracy and brilliant accentuation gave him quick favor and success as a performing martial artist. For five years straight he was the Chinese martial arts poster child, with numerous medals under his belt. It is only natural that Jet's films express his mastery of the martial arts. Jackie Chan was enrolled in the Chinese Opera Academy, also at a fairly early age. Similar to Jet, Jackie was also disciplined in traditional martial arts styles. However, much of his training was steered towards performance, rather than for the sake of competition and mastery. It was therefore more natural that Jackie kept the audience in mind throughout his career, and his movies reflect this goal to entertain a broad audience. Of course both Jet and Jackie have worn each others' shoes. Much of Jet's work is also quite successful in the humor department, while Jackie certainly doesn't lack a perfectionist eye for detail and well-executed martial arts. With these things in mind, it should be clear how significant it is to see Jet Li and Jackie Chan finally come together to make a movie.

WARNING: The following may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk!

Aside from the obvious spectacle of seeing Jet Li and Jackie Chan together, bigger than life and doing what they do best, The Forbidden Kingdom had all the necessary elements to satisfy the martial arts film enthusiast's appetite. The storyline of the movie, the characters, and the action are all very mystical and imaginative. The Forbidden Kingdom is a wonderful excursion into Chinese legend and fables.

As westerners have their elves, trolls, wizards and unicorns, Chinese tales must have mystical heroes, assassins, emperors and soldiers. The boundaries of reality and science as we know it are not observed in such tales. The main characters exhibit such a high level of skill that what they are able to do either dances on the border of impossible, or simply leaves science and logic in the dust. As the famed Jedi in Star Wars use the mystical force to step beyond the normal physical realm, martial arts masters and villains have domain over more than mere physical prowess. The Forbidden Kingdom makes no mistake in extending into the realm of fantasy while delivering highly believable and mind-bending martial arts choreography fit to be performed by the best in the industry (thanks to no less than the most well-known action director in Hong Kong film, Woo-ping Yuen).

As far as a creative storyline and interesting twists, The Forbidden Kingdom went beyond the call of duty and deserves high marks. Many martial arts movies are admittedly predictable. Scenario One: Clueless and clumsy teen gets beat up by bullies, is rescued by old grimy kung fu master, retrained and sent out to conquer level after increasing level of skilled martial arts villains. Scenario Two: Martial arts super master fights against odd religious martial arts cult leaders who are trying to uncover insidious plots by the British government to seduce the Chinese into blindly giving up their national treasures and resources (or the hero too is fighting against this "foreign evil"). Scenario Three: Instead of fighting against foreign corruption, Shaolin or other rebels narrowly escape extinction and fight against the tyranny found in their own feudalistic and imperialistic society. The Forbidden Kingdom breaks free from these predictable plots lines, compiling a number of mystical and legendary characters and stories together into a collage, something new.

Most of the main characters depicted in The Forbidden Kingdom have had screen time elsewhere in other films. The Monkey King (played by Jet Li), the Jade Emperor (played by Deshun Wang), Lu Yan (aka Lu Dongbin, leader of the Eight Immortals, played by Jackie Chan) and others have made appearances in other films and can also be found in Chinese folklore. It is common for martial arts films to pull from a colorful selection of fantasy characters. A prime example of such a character (not depicted in The Forbidden Kingdom) is Wong Fei-Hung. Interestingly enough, both Jackie Chan and Let Li have played the role of Fei Hung on more than one occasion: Once Upon a Time in China (Jet Li) and Legend of the Drunken Master (Jackie Chan) (note: watch both of these gems for a great sampling of the individual achievements of Jet Li and Jackie Chan!).

Some may find the childlike humor in The Forbidden Kingdom to be a weakness of the film. The comedy in the movie is not along the lines of Jackie Chan's prop utilization hilarity. It is a combination of American slapstick and Chinese silliness. Jason, the main character of the film ushers in the American humor style. He is a kung fu movie slinging fool teen from Boston who somehow finds himself in ancient mystical China with a mission of grave importance set before him. The way he enters the world, has his effect on it, and returns with boldness and confidence (and martial arts skills in this case) closely resembles the plot outline of another of my favorite movies, The Neverending Story. The similarities between the movies largely stop there, however. Fortunately for this particular fan, the slight annoyance of seeing a goofy looking American boy thrown in wasn't enough to ruin the movie for me. Michael Angarano put in his due training (like Keanu Reaves in The Matrix, Jason was not a martial artist prior to the film) and contributed a couple decent fight scenes, to his credit. The magic of seeing Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and the believability (and comedy) of their characters in the film created an interesting synergistic dichotomy (I know, polar opposites - that's the point!) when put in juxtaposition with the horribly out-of-place American boy. This was enough for me to overlook any negative feelings of the clear intrusion of culture and unreality. In other words, the writers and director knew the boy was out of his element and didn't fit in at all - that's the point entirely! (and probably why such a boyish faced actor was chosen)

The other side of comedy seen in The Forbidden Kingdom surely to receive mixed reviews was the giddy, childish humor sometimes found in other Chinese fantasy films. An example of this would be the Monkey King's playful fighting with ape-like gestures and facial expressions (ironically monkey style kung fu is a valid martial arts form, one which Jet Li is fantastic at in real life!). Some viewers might find this silliness too much in contrast with the seriousness of the situations depicted in the film. On the other hand, I delight in it. The seasoned fan will not be shocked to see such goofy presentation and awkward counterpoint. Some of my favorite Jet Li films have this aspect of humor in them. The Monkey King's character could be compared to a jester in a king's court, or Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, though with more of an innocence in the case of the Monkey King. The Monkey King, clearly with powers and skills beyond measure, is curious and playful, much like a fairy (what more can be expected from a monkey?). This playfulness gets him in trouble, as it seems he is too good-natured to recognize the deceit of his mortal foe, the Jade Warlord. So in the light of this innocent, playful fun, I embrace the Chinese silliness. Hopefully this explanation lends itself to an appreciation for this type of humor and character contrast to others as well.

All that said, I can't think of one thing I didn't like about The Forbidden Kingdom - even the charming and clever double role served up in the end by both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It was a fantastic movie in nearly every respect. Perhaps for a true Chinese fable enthusiast or one who ascribes to taoist beliefs and practices, the movie could read somewhat like an offensive circus spectacle, with too many oddly intertwining characters (like a Batman movie with a plot that tries to fit in every known villain, or worse yet, twists the plot so that somehow Joker ends up killing Batman's parents or depicting the Penguin as a dirty mutant lunatic who lives in the sewers!?). However, being that I'm not Chinese, and I'm certainly not taoist, I don't get to be turned off by such buffoonery (my new word of the day, apparently)!

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Thursday, March 6th, 2008 - 8:04 PM

"Jugglisk XXII and Jet Li's Beating Stars"

Today was the perfect juggling weather day. I am the broken record without breaking a record. In other words, I'm repeating myself every blog entry because I don't know what else to say other than I juggled. I felt pretty balanced, coordinated and in control today. While I attained no exemplary number of hits, I felt somehow energized to perform with a bit more style. When I'm in that rare form, bits and pieces of my martial arts appreciation tend to surface, with kicks and stances reminiscent of my favorite Hong Kong heroes... well I don't look that cool, but the influence is obvious! When I'm exercising I often remember Jet Li's exercise invention called "Beating Stars". It involves hitting a bunch of balls suspended by cords and poles.

Jugglisk XXII Chalcord

Jugglisk XXII Chalcord
179 68 160 353
166 286 313 83
282 30 105
Total Recorded Hits: 2025 Average Hits Per Volley: 184.1

[ pause ]... Okay, so during that massively lengthy pause in writing (feel free to sit there and do zip for 2 hours to get the full effect), I made this pointless graphic. I think it is the official Beating Stars Graphic because I couldn't find one anywhere else. Certainly no one before me put all the effort into the logo and everything :) I couldn't find a single picture of Jet Li's exercise on the web, and it took me a long time looking through my movies to remember which one has the footage in it (Dragons of the Orient and The Master). Originally I intended to pull a frame just so I could illustrate the exercise I'm talking about... but then I went overboard, as you can see. But now the internet has a feature that was missing before. Yippee! Almost as cool as DaColas: T'ai Chi and Wu Shu Fruit of the Day.

The Semi-Official (One and Only?) Jet Li's Beating Star Graphic

Jet Li's Beating Stars Graphic

I have to admit that Jet Li looks kinda like a goofy young punk in this footage of him hammering on the poor [volley?]balls affixed to his hand-made apparatus. I think it is a pretty cool device though. I wonder if he can still be found doing this exercise, now that he's super famous and quite a bit older. I'm guessing not, but you never know. It'd be fun to juggle with Jet. I bet, even though it's not one of his many physical disciplines, he could pick it up fairly well. I have always attributed my heightened awareness, focus, discipline, balance and speed to my [long] past martial arts experience. I suppose anyone with significant training in such things would be a decent juggler.

If I could see a diagram of the shape and configuration of Jet Li's apparatus I could make a better, more suited logo. I'm not really sure how "stars" fits in. I wonder if he sets it up the same way each time.

Closeup of the Logo Portion

Jet Li's Beating Stars Logo

And just when you thought that was the end, THERE'S MORE!!! Since I like monkeys in general, and we need something to balance/complement all this overuse of blue, here's an orange image for your enjoyment (or bewilderment). Ironically, this is indeed an image of Jet Li - though I think it's a photo-editing job, not a photograph of him in costume (but why spoil the fun?!). Even more, he will be playing a mythical Chinese character called the Monkey King in the upcoming (awesome) movie where he teams up with Jackie Chan - The Forbidden Kingdom. By the way, didn't Jet Li already make his last martial arts epic film? Just wondering... I guess this one doesn't qualify to be placed in that very narrow and specific genre (nor Warlords - while epic and a period piece with fighting, it seems to read more like a more generic action/drama - haven't seen it yet). Sorry Jet, I didn't mean to make fun... in fact, keep making them, PLEASE! PLEASE!! PLEASE!!!

Jet Li as a big orange monkey?

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Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 - 1:44 AM

"The Best Movie Ever Made - The Forbidden Kingdom"

The Forbidden Kingdom is going to be the best movie ever made in the history of film-making. Well for those interested in martial arts films, it will definitely be the highlight of recent memory. I haven't been keeping up to speed with all the gossip since I first heard about the project quite a while ago. I stumbled upon the trailer just now (with eyes welling with delight), and it looks better than I could have possibly imagined. Seeing Jet Li and Jackie Chan in the same frame is a thrill beyond words. The only thing cooler in this respect would be to meet them in person. The Forbidden Kingdom is a film of destiny. I'm just glad the two genius artists finally decided to come together to make a film. They are not exactly spring chickens. I only wish they didn't wait so long. They could have been making dozens of brilliant movies together, like so many famous Chinese actors collaborate. I suppose the delay makes the film seem all that more epic and worth the wait. April 18th can't come soon enough! Too bad Bruce Lee - the first major martial arts legend - isn't around to make an appearance - to complete the set (pardon the pun).

From the preview, it looks like both Jet Li and Jackie Chan reprise their signature martial arts styles (general, not specific) - ones that have both made them famous and that compliment their personality traits and skills. This is likely thanks to Yuen Woo-ping, who knows how to bring out the best in both of them, having worked with them both extensively. Jackie Chan uses his more loose, freestyle drunken boxing (Legend of the Drunken Master and more than a handful of others), while Jet Li uses his precise, composed master style with perfected motion and posture (as seen in Once Upon a Time in China and a host of other titles).

Jet Li in Forbidden Kingdom

Forbidden Kingdom Movie Site

Jackie Chan in Forbidden Kingdom

P.S. For those who have problems with Chinese martial arts films where the characters fly and have mystical abilities... why is that? I respect your view, but I challenge you to think in realms of fantasy, not realistic combat, gravity, and other natural laws. You don't criticize Superman's flight, Gandalf's wizardry, or the characters in X-Men, Spiderman, Chronicles of Narnia, mice and rabbits that walk (on 2 legs) and talk, etc. All these western movies and characters have mystical and magical powers (or gross personification). There is no difference between those and the powers imagined for eastern characters (except eastern is much cooler in my opinion). There is no need to know how or why a master martial artist can fly or skip on water. Just enjoy the imagery, the fantastic dream! It's magical, legendary and epic. It's beautiful, exciting, vibrant and peaceful all in one. Think of these characters like Chinese superheroes. What could be better? The imagery and culture is a million times more rich than most American fantasy. It's like watching a painting in motion. So what, they can fly through the air and control dozens of projectiles with magical accuracy? It's imaginary, make-believe. It's not meant to be "realistic". That is exactly why I enjoy it so much! This genre of film is so far beyond the rest to my taste, that I could hardly care if the rest disappeared. I hope you can enjoy it a little too, even if it's not your type of movie. I know several people who don't like this style of film and have their minds made up already... that's the best argument and defense I can offer to explain my reasons for enjoying it :)

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Wednesday, November 8th, 2006 - 1:08 AM

"The Untitled J and J Project: The Ultimate Movie"

Jackie Chan vs. Jet Li

News broke last month (rumored for a while) that Jet Li and Jackie Chan will finally meet on the big screen. Apparently Jet and Jackie have no intention of writing Wu Shu Poetry together because Fearless was Jet's Final Martial Arts Epic. I guess as long as each subsequent movie he makes can be classified with a new and obscure genre title, Jet's fearless statement is forgivable. This new film, allegedly telling the mystical story of The Monkey King, is toted as a "family film". As much as I respect what appears to be a conscious decision toward a change of focus, I'm glad Jet isn't disappointing his fans by giving up on film altogether. Maybe we can all help him out by coming up with new genre titles for him to use. For example, Twin Warriors was a "Tai Chi Discovery Workshop", and the Once Upon a Time in China series can be grouped under the new genre, "Untouchable Mystical Skill Master Extravaganza". Let's just hope Jet continues to Wu and Shu us all in one way or another.

I have always respected both Jet and Jackie for their intentional avoidance of projects with copious amounts of trashy and immoral content (for the most part). The fact that this new project is being labeled a "family film" intrigues me. Perhaps it will be more of a comedy than anything else. If only Bruce Lee was still alive: sometimes I wonder what sort of movies he'd be making now. What a trio that would be!

I'm glad Jet Li and Jackie Chan are finally realizing what incredible results their collaborative genius can produce. No matter what the final product is, I am jumping in anticipation. It will be interesting to see what influences and styles will emerge from these starkly different yet equally talented artists. Not to mention that one Yuen-woo Ping will be the stunt choreographer! Is there a martial arts movie made in the last 5 (30) years that he isn't involved in? Can you say "Matrix", "Kill Bill", "Kung Fu Hustle", "Fearless", "Unleashed", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Once Upon a Time in China", "Drunken Master" and a host of others? I just hope the three great minds don't do real world battle, while ironing out the intricate details. Jackie especially must be getting used to choreographical freedom, as he is a noteworthy fight and stunt coordinator. Oh boy, the possibilities for this movie are borderline ridiculous. Eat it up fans!

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