One Fist to Start them All – King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death

By Saturday, July 14, 2018 0 , , Permalink 0

(c) Celestial Pictures

My first FantAsia film was a trip down nostalgia lane to memories of renting random Kung Fu VHS tapes with my friend Josh as a kid in New York City, by way of the iconic Shaw Bothers film, “The Five Fingers of Death”, also known as “King Boxer”. This film is famously the first major kung fu film to hit the USA, predating Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon by several months. (It is widely considered something of a test run for Dragon.) Martial arts content had been gaining popularity throughout the late 60s, culminating in the TV series Kung Fu, but no one had brought a wall-to-wall martial arts flick to the big screen yet. Would it have any appeal outside the grindcore set?

Oh yes.

The film was a huge hit, only to be dwarfed later in ’73 by the even bigger hit that was Lee’s film. But Five Fingers of Death came first, a grand guignol pile up of martial arts movie tropes that is still influential today. The opening credits give us a screeching wail which Tarantino used liberally in Kill Bill. The name gave us the band name of “Five Finger Death Punch”. The screeching wail is actually the power up sound of the hero’s secret “Iron Palm technique”, in which his hands glow and he delivers supernaturally powerful blows.

Danny Rand says hi.

The film itself, at least this edit and translation of it, is a bit of a mess. The basic story is clear enough, Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is a martial arts student and in love with his Master’s daughter Ying-Ying (Wang Ping). When thugs attack the master, he is sent to study under a new teacher, and win a tournament to prevent evil martial arts schools from taking over the northern provinces and justify his marriage to Ying-Ying. He goes north, gets trained and struggles with the evil martial arts school led by Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng) and his son Meng Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam looking like a cross between Elvis and Queeg from the Caine Mutiny Trial). How long things take is very unclear (it could be over a year, it could be a couple of months), the character beats are oddly messy at times, with the movie cutting away before anything can land. At times it feels like an ensemble piece that needs another half hour to fill out properly, but they had to cut tot he fights.

And fights there are. There are bar fights, street ambushes, there is a tournament, there is murder, people get their eyes plucked out, bright red blood spews everywhere, the hero has glowing hands. It’s like a distilled concentrate of the whole style of that era of movies.

This is far from my favourite Shaw Brothers film, it lacks a lot of the operatic quality and innovative weirdness that they brought to the table for their best work. But it does have a bit of everything, and for a North American audience that had never seen anything like it, I can see why it took off.

Poking around the internet, it seems that there has been talk of a remake since 2016 (sadly, the name attached it Brett Ratner) and I would love to see a remake that takes some time to breathe and let all the various subplots boil properly and get their moments in. The side characters all have potential to be even better with a little love.

Was it as awesome as it was to an underage me? Not really. But a bit like Casablanca, it is amazing to go back and see something that has been so copied and referenced that it takes you a moment to realize this is the source, and marvel at how mind blowing it must have been.

The Problem of Pearl

By Wednesday, July 11, 2018 0 Permalink 0

Steven Universe came back this week with one of its all-too-infrequent mini-arcs of story, in this case playing out the fallout of the revelation that Rose Quartz – Leader of the Rebellion, and Pink Diamond – Colonial overlord, were actually the same person.

It is a revelation that has been set up since early days, and one that makes sense story-wise, but it is one I dreaded for one reason, and that reason is Pearl.

For those who don’t follow the show, in the universe of the story, Pearls are slaves built for pleasure and service for the high-ranking members of Gem society. The fact that there was a Pearl among the rebel gems on Earth was a source of terror and fascination among the homeworld gems. (“The Terrible, Renegade Pearl.”)

Pearl loved the leader of the rebellion, Rose Quartz. I had always hoped that the backstory was that Pearl had broken her programming, somehow deciding that Rose was more worthy of her devotion than the Gems she had been programmed for. The revelation that Rose was Pink Diamond, and that the Pearl we know was Pink’s assigned Pearl, meant that Pearl had always been programmed/assigned to serve and love Pink, and just followed that on to Rose. She never rebelled, she never broke the rules, she was just a pawn.

To me this was a massive misstep, making Pearl’s story of complicated rebellion into naught.

This week they tried to deal with the fallout of that decision. The theme of the week was clearly that of moving forward, growing out of the shadow of the past and forging a new path. I respect this, indeed I think it is necessary and beautiful, but it still leaves some uncomfortable aftermath to pick through. They did an entire episode dealing with what Rose/Pink was actually thinking, and whether the rebellion was nothing but a game to her, and while I respect that approach, I’m not sure it was enough.

(Note to everyone, the week overall was delightful, with Garnet’s reunion handled wonderfully, and while I don’t think the storyboarders on Steven Universe can handle epic fights at the level of something like the old Justice League cartoon, there were moments of absolute brilliance in the final showdown. My heart to Lapis forever.)

In the Now We’re Only Falling Apart, we go back through Pearl’s memories of Rose’s rebellion, and learn that she really did try everything she could to change the system from within. Rose never realized the consequences of what the choices she made, she chose what made sense to her at the time. And within this we realize that Pearl’s desperate desire to please Rose resulted in Pearl encouraging Rose’s more radical side, understanding that would make Rose happiest. And it becomes clear that Rose loved Pearl most when Pearl was suggesting things beyond what Rose would ever think for herself. The more Pearl self-actualized, the more Rose loved her. This helps, but I don’t know if it is enough. Rose still controlled Pearl, commanded her to hold her secrets (and even then kept more secrets from her). Was Pearl ever free to love for herself? Did she ever have a choice in the matter? And did Rose/Pink ever really love her as an individual, and not as her most cherished pet?

The very ambiguity helps, in that at least they didn’t double down on Pearl as trapped servant. I get that Rose’s ambiguity is part of the point (she is legend and hero, but turns out to be fallible and with feet of clay), and so even the great love that freed PEarl is tainted, but it rankles. I hope that the Steven’s encouragement to Pearl’s soul in the big fight against the Diamonds (reminding her she isn’t just fighting for Rose or Steven, but for herself) is a sign that the intention is to move Pearl forward. But it still feels like the deep subversion Pearl represented – a gem model fabricated to be nothing but decorative and pleasing, who found a way to become more than anyone suspected – an engineer and warrior – has been blunted, because she was just ordered to be more by her master. They haven’t really defused that, and I’m not sure I can forgive them for it.

Perhaps we will find Pearl realizing that she re-invented herself not as orders from Rose, but by finding ways to serve beyond what was ordered, and that means she can always choose a cause beyond what she was given and surpass herself. I’d like to think so, because this show has been so wonderful about the idea the way you are special isn’t tied to what people expect of you. To have so much of it fall back now on “Rose was one of the elite in the first place, and Pearl never rebelled” seems a betrayal the themes.

It really has felt that the last week was a reset… a chance for everyone to try and emerge from the shadows of the past, and embrace the ideals and not the lies. We will see how it spins out. But I think I will always lament the lost chance of a Pearl who redefined herself. There may be a way to thread the needle to show she did redefine herself without noticing, but the burden of proof is much higher than it was before this reveal. Rose may have thought she loved her, but Rose never did give up her power over Pearl, and I’m not sure I can ever forgive her for that.