Film Reviews

"Tin Monkey” Shines

 Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse. All Rights Reserved.

        While many have heard of the Ironman Triathlon, not everyone may have heard of the Tinman Triathlon.  Although this event is one half of the standard triathlon (1.2 mile swim; 56 mile bike ride; 13.1 mile run), it still is a challenging race.  So it is with the Mixamax release Iron Monkey, directed by Yuen Wo Ping, noted for the choreography of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (CTHD), and starring Yu Rang Guang, Donnie Yen, Sze-man Tsang, and Jean Wang.  Although it lacks the iron, or striking visual and aural brilliance of CTHD, the film still has some of the luster of tin, a substance that can be known to both shine and deceive, since it can often resemble a more valuable metal.  Iron Monkey, which gets it title from an iron statue, shines or shows its brilliance in regard to the fight sequences, the simplicity of plot, and the clear delineation of the characters.  However, when it comes to presenting a realistic presentation of the martial arts, the film monkeys around a bit with the true essence of the arts; thus these monkeyshines create an inherent danger for naïve martial arts students and film critics.  For those who may not understand the exaggerated effect of the artistic premise, the film can throw a monkey wrench into their grasping of the essence of martial artistry.  O.K., enough of the monkey metaphors, but I think you got my point. The premise of the film and its style is more than just a case of “monkey-see-monkey-do” (Oops, sorry, I slipped) in regard to CTHD. 

      Iron Monkey, produced in 1993, preceded the newly released version by seven or eight years, and outdoes its successor in many ways, especially in its emphasis on action over plot, its return to the prototypical kung fu film and its lack of pretentiousness.  Although subordinate to the overall effect of the film, there is a story line that can be readily grasped and followed throughout, and unlike in CTHD, I did not have to read the reviews and synopses to get every thing that occurred in the film.  And, unlike CTHD, the title of the film can be interpreted.  The Iron Monkey is a statue in the town and the name of the masked outlaw hero who champions the people by making a monkey’s uncle (I couldn’t help myself!) out of the authorities.  Guang plays a mild- mannered, unassuming physician by day and a masked marauding highwayman by night.  Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  An Oriental Zorro, who leaves a note with a picture of a monkey rather than the sign of the “Z.”  The Iron Monkey is joined by his “ward” (played by Wang), who is also his nurse, and they become a dynamic duo, like Batman and Robinette, appearing under the cover of darkness to thwart the evildoers.  When the authorities observe a great master (played by Yen) hold his own in combat with the Monkey, they take his young son (played by a female, Tse-man Tsang) hostage, demanding that he bring to justice the Iron Monkey.  After discovering that the Monkey is a local hero and after the doctor befriends him and saves his son’s life, Yen finds himself in a conflict when he learns that the doctor is in reality the Iron Monkey.  To complicate matters, the Evil Monk, a deadly emissary from the Emperor, shows up with two assassins (Scar Face and the “Virgin”) to help capture the Iron Monkey.  Yen’s decision leads to a climactic battle on pilings with flames below, chomping at the combatants’ feet. 

      To slow down the fast-paced action and to add a little substance to the film, the relationship between the doctor and the nurse presents a nice subplot.  The feeling that Guang and Wang have for each other is not as understated as that between Chow Yun Fat and MichelleYeoh in CTHD.  Furthermore, the love that the nurse has for her physician benefactor is apparent in the way that she looks at and relates to him.  In fact, there is a moment when the two blend in a moment of togetherness.  When a pile of papers gets blown into the air, the two gracefully float through the air to capture the papers.  The ethereal quality of the scene is symbolic of the oneness that binds the two.  Not only has the doctor helped to cure people of the village, he has also spiritually cured and elevated his nurse from hooker to healer, and she has come to learn how to give herself to her “clients” in a more sterile manner.  The duality of the hero—healer and killer—is symbolic of the dual creative and destructive aspects of kung fu and other martial arts. 

      In the hands of a master, the martial arts can be either force.  In fact, many judo and jujitsu masters are also chiropractors.  If they have the power to dislocate or strangle, they should also know how to resuscitate and how to set a dislocation. The love relationship makes the film a reasonably good date movie because, aside from the shared feeling of the couple, there are some moments where maternal and paternal instincts emerge, not just from the Guang and Wang, but also from Yen, a thematic aspect that should appeal to the gals.  Furthermore, Jean Wang gets to exert “girl power” on the gang of Shaolin “skunks.”  Aside from the macho action, the guys might find Jean Wang fascinating.  However, when it comes to pounding guys into pulp, I would prefer to watch Lucy Lawless, whose acting and physical presence make her combat scenes somewhat more believable than those of Jean Wang, however exquisite and technically proficient her form seems to be.  Also, the film is short enough so that if it is a bad date, it will be over a good half hour sooner than CTHD, and, if it is a great date, you will be able to continue the action more quickly at your favorable night spot or any place else that suits your fancy.

     The martial arts sequences in Iron Monkey, as far as my taste is concerned, are far more satisfying than many of those in CTHD and in those films that tend to overdo the use the use of digital enhancement.  The sequences in Iron Monkey made me long for those Saturday afternoons some 20 years ago when TV’s Kung Fu Theatre and Drive In Movie readily showed such classics as The Master Killer, Five Fingers of Death, and The Avenging Eagle.  While trampoline and wiring techniques are no doubt used in these films, the staging still requires techniques that are most of the time technically feasible and needs performers who can give a convincing illusion of proficiency, without the benefits of state-of-the-art computer tricks.   However, Iron Monkey made me also long for those films that are dubbed, as unsynchronized and as comical as they normally are—simply because there is too much action to take time out to read, and thus some of the subtleties of the acting (which occur so infrequently) can be missed.  The use of sub-titles appears to me to be a pretensions way of pawning off a film as a true foreign masterpiece.  Indeed, it surely must have added to the appeal for those sophisticated critics who frequent the film festivals at places such as Cannes. One could argue that CTHD needed to capture the authentic Chinese flavor and skill of the actors, but such an argument cannot prevail in Iron Monkey.  The acting is so burlesqued in most of the scenes that dubbing would not have affected the acting nor minimized the appeal of the film. In nearly every fight sequence in Iron Monkey, one of the combatants either announces his techniques or acknowledges and recognizes his opponent’s style prior to engagement.  This is much like the heroes in our own folklore, who spend time bragging about themselves before engaging, if indeed they ever get to that stage.  Of course, names such as “The Shadow Kick” or “Flying Sleeves” in this film are meant to be satirical.  Whether there is such a technique known as “The (Ugly) Virgin’s Stance” is questionable, but it leads to this James Bond-type quip, “You may be ugly, but I am sure you’re no virgin.”  Many of the reviewers of this film have humorously attempted to create their own martial arts system, and I would be remiss if I did not follow suit, so here is my stab at it:  “The Triple Punishing Pentium!”  That is a way of boring your reader to death by use of a Pentium III computer.  (OK, I know what you’re thinking.  I must be a master of that system.  Good one.  You got me!) 

       Seriously, though, one thing to consider is that a name of a system is not just a catchy phrase or attention getter or colorful description of the outward form, but, in reality, it should define the internal dynamics, spirit, and philosophy of the system.  For example,  judo translates as “the gentle way,” wado is the way of peace, and isshinryu means “the one heart way,” to name a few.  Just for the record, the name of my style/philosophy is Mushin Maru-ryu, which means The Way of the Mindless Circle.  In the early aspects of the film, the fight sequences are mostly slapstick and no one gets seriously injured. 

      However, as the conflict develops and gets more serious, so does the action.  Even though the villainous Monk gets what he deserves at the end, it the artistry of his demise that is the most satisfying and captivating aspect.  Since this is a martial arts movie, the focal point of the fight scenes in this film, and in others of the genre, is on the grace and beauty of the techniques, and not necessarily on their end result.  If you ever see the South American martial art of copoeria, you will note that in this art form the “fighters” face each other, with or without weapons, in a stylized martial ballet, all action being carried out in synch with rhythmic music that pulsates with the inner dynamics of the combat.  Rather than actually attempting to strike or defeat their opponents, the fighter-dancers seem to attempt to match or outdo the techniques of the other.  In a way, the copoeria masters resemble the expert knife throwers at the carnival.  The latter are masters because they come ever so close to—but never hit—their lovely assistants. 

      What makes a martial art an art is that emphasis is placed on the formal aspects of a technique and not on its end result.   In all martial arts behavior, the rhythm and movement of the body is essential to the proper performance of each technique.  In the practice of non-contact karate and kung fu, this movement or process becomes more important to the practitioner than the actual result or effect of the technique.  It is the essence of Kabuki, where the attacking Flower Warriors fly through the air without actually being stabbed by the hero.  The center of the action is always the character’s pose in this actor-centered theatre.  Bruce Lee understood that technique because during the climactic moments of his fight scenes, the viewers rarely get to see the effect of his devastating attack on his opponents; rather, they view the cathartic release on the visage of the Lee himself. Creation is the essence of all art.  Thus most martial arts styles bear creative labels and not destructive ones, many ending with the term “do” or “ryu,” suffixes that imply a way of life.  In this respect, kung fu can be translated as “working man,” or to be more politically correct, “working person.”  The ideographs that comprise the word can also be read as, “inventive or creative thinking.”  It is the spiritual aspects of kung fu that enable the working person to become the efficient martial artist, possessing the spontaneous ability to combine thought and action in one unified technique.  In a moment when the artist is attacked, the momentary pause to assess the situation or to think about a defense may be the prelude to the fighter’s destruction.  The correct response must flow unimpeded from the unconscious. 

       Such an ability is not confined to the martial arts but is the essence of other art forms, such as acting or writing.  One reviewer of Iron Monkey humorously bemoans the fact that he did not continue his martial arts training.  But the art of writing (or any artistic effort) is analogous to the martial arts.  In the moment of combat, the fighter must totally relax and put his faith in that creative force that dwells within and hope that a self-preserving move will generate.  Similarly, a film reviewer, under pressure to get his story in on time, hopes that the correct metaphor or the right allusion will generate from within when he or she needs it.  Whether the reviewer alluded to above would have become a great martial artist is unknown, but at least he has become a competent and expert reviewer.  Perhaps this writer has continued his training (at least on the unconscious level) and has mastered the writing arts, but does not realize it. 

      The unconscious communication between father and son (Yen and Tsang) is one of the most endearing parts of the film.  In some ways, their relationship is reminiscent of the Japanese film, The Shogun’s Assassin, in which a ronin (a warrior without a master) travels with his infant son and fights off numerous ninja dispatched to assassinate him and his son.  The most effective scene in the film is when the father, hesitant to bring his son with him, contemplates euthanizing the baby in order to spare him the horror of combat.  But before this sacrificial action, he allows the infant to choose his own destiny.  The father places the baby between a ball and a sword and has the baby’s fate determined by which object he seeks.  The baby is immediately attracted to the ball, but suddenly the gleam of the sword flashes in his eyes, and he goes for the sword.  He has chosen the path of the warrior and has earned the right to fight and die at his father’s side. 

      The concept of a young warrior leads me to the down side of Iron Monkey, especially in regard to the efficacy of pre-teen or young teen martial artistry.  While youngsters do have some skill and can be effective against other youngsters a year or two older, and maybe some 40 lbs heavier, they certainly do not stand a chance against a grown man.  As theatrically satisfying as the scene is, in reality, the Tsang character could not defeat four Shaolin monks or “punks,” as they are referred to in the film.  While the degenerate renegades act more like “donks,” with their Keystone Cops-like comic antics, they are still trained fighters.  Another of the more exciting yet questionable scenes is where, after beating a group of raggedy larger teens, Tsang takes on a full-grown adult, considerably larger and stronger, who has come to avenge the defeat of the gang.  What makes the victory somewhat believable is that the youthful and sprightly Tsang uses his (her) litheness to full advantage by dodging the bully and by crawling through spaces too narrow for the larger attacker.  Tsang’s coup de grace is a spectacular leap into a canopy to escape an attack.  Foolishly, the larger aggressor attempts the same feat, but the canvass tears, and he falls through and is knocked senseless. 

      Certainly, the essence of the martial arts is to use one’s physical aspects to one’s advantage.  Even in judo, one learns to use one's lack of size to an advantage.  But there is a danger in this principle because young people and the uninitiated seem to believe that the martial arts are infused with some type of mysticism.  While martial artists can “conjure” up an extraordinary amount of inner strength, there is nothing extraordinary about the phenomenon.  All athletes, from track & field to weightlifting, experience and display the same ability.  But the martial arts will never magically infuse a youngster with the power that is displayed in Iron Monkey or other martial arts films.  What is the difference between a 12-yr-old kung fu youth and a 12-year-old Pop Warner QB?  Nothing!  The little footballer, can run, pass, and elude tacklers with the skill of a Rich Gannon, All-Pro Oakland Raider QB.  Against other 12-year-olds, that is.  However, you would not put him up against the Oakland Raiders’ defense and expect him to evade the rush of Grady Jackson, whose right leg alone is larger than the entire body of the average 12-year old.

      The down side of Iron Monkey and the martial arts film, in general, is that young people are inclined to believe what they see.  I asked some of my young judo students how many Chinese athletes have won Olympic medals in the jumping events.  Their eyes lit up as all of them agreed that they must have won quite a few.  What a shock and what a disappointment when I revealed to them that a quick perusal of the Olympic records indicates that in the last 30 years only one Oriental athlete—male or female—has won a medal for jumping.  In the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, Jianhua Zhu from China won the Bronze.  And, contrary to the expectations of my students, no Oriental athlete—male or female—appears to hold any world or Olympic records in the jumping events.

      I also asked them if they thought that there were people capable of kicking a full-grown man through a wall.  About half of them said “yes,” one quarter did not know for sure, and one quarter replied with a hesitant “no.”  And, when it came to kicking, they were equally surprised that there are no Oriental kickers or punters in the National Football League (NFL), where multi-million dollar salaries can be found.  Where are all the kung fu kickers?  Are they all so steeped in martial arts tradition that they would prefer to train and compete in some obscure temple rather than displaying their skills to the world?  In addition, to gaining world fame, an Oriental kicker could buy a lot of rice for some of the starving people in Asia, if he had an NFL contract. 

      The value of kicking techniques in the martial arts has been over-rated, a fact no doubt created as a result of kung fu movies.  Flying and spinning kicks are dangerous, not necessarily to the victim of such an attack, but more so to the kicker.  Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janakowski are two of the best kickers in the NFL.  They are both strong athletes, but why is there a rule that precludes a defensive player from tackling them while kicking?  It is obvious that while in such a precarious and unprotected position, even a high school linebacker could deliver a punishing tackle that could cripple a 255-pounder like Jano.  Think what would have happened to the 140 some-odd-pound Bruce Lee had he played kicker in the 1970s and, in the middle of a punt, was sandwiched between hits by “The Hit Man” George Atkinson” and “The Assassin” Jack Tatum, former Raider defensive backs, who terrorized opposing offensive players in the NFL.  No, it would not be Chop Socky.  Nor would it be Kung Phooey.  Little Bruce Lee would be Chop Suey. 

      Not only are such kicks dangerous, they are ineffective because in many close encounters of the martial kind—in crowded corners or in a phone booth—there is, often times, no room to deploy a kicking arsenal.  Certainly, if there is the space and distance to attack with a flying kick, say from 18 feet, the defender has a long time to defend or get out the way, or to find a better weapon, as Indiana Jones demonstrated unequivocally in Raiders of the Lost Ark when faced with the double sword attack.  Speed is inversely proportionate to distance.  Given a sufficient head start, a 300-pound NFL lineman could beat an Olympic sprinter in the 100-yard dash.  Distance can also deplete a force; that is why the short 12-inch punch of a Rocky Marciano is more forceful than a wild haymaker.  And, of course, do you remember the legendary one-inch punch of Bruce Lee?  That was the one supposedly capable of generating sufficient force to knock down an opponent from the distance of one inch. 

      Finally, although the content in Iron Monkey can lead to a deceptive understanding of the martial arts, there are, however, aspects of the film that do present a worthwhile martial arts philosophy.  The advice of Yen to his son Tsang presents, from a philosophical viewpoint, the most significant idea in the film:  “A strong man sheds blood before he sheds tears.”  There are at least two ways that the statement could be interpreted.  It might be a simple comment about courage.  In other words, before the warrior weakens, he should be prepared to die. Or it could be sound but a more complicated advice from a strategic standpoint.  The horror and the reality of war is that the showing of emotion or the shed of a tear could momentarily distract or create a suki (a mind-stop) on the part of the warrior, a moment of hesitation that could allow the less humane opponent to consummate a mortal attack. 

      However, the most important message that the martial arts can send to young students is that the essence of martial arts training is the ability to make instantaneous judgments, not just in battle but also in life.  It is easy to talk a philosophy, but not always so easy to carry it through.  The irony is that as the boy sheds tears, the warrior father turns away so his own tears will not be seen.  Even the most fearless of fighters is not afraid to show emotion. If more tears were shed and if there were more compassion in the world, there could be less bloodshed.  With the number of attacks on mid-eastern Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, this message is one that the martial arts need to spread.  Zen, which inspires the arts, works to decrease the stereotypical reaction that brings disaster.  If, while flying in a plane, someone sits next to a bearded man wearing a turban, and that man takes out a nail clipper, what would be a standard response today?  How one would react or over-react would be the result of one’s view of mid-eastern people.

       All action is dependent on how you perceive the situation and the behavior pattern exhibited.  In order to demonstrate this during a judo class, I come up from behind and grab my assistant, and then I ask the class what they would do if someone should grab them in such a manner.  The answers vary from all the possible crippling attacks you could ever want to hear to those you would not want to repeat.  After getting there responses, I say, “Well, guess what?  You have just destroyed a Good Samaritan and also killed yourselves.”  As they look in amazement, I explain that a baby grand piano was about to fall from a scaffold and that the person who grabbed them was trying to pull then out of the way.  Of course, since the students were in a self-defense class, they perceived the event as a survival situation.  One aspect of Zen training and martial arts training is to help the student to be able to preclude such stereotypical responses.  Thought and non-stereotypical action must be one.  And very often, an emotional or compassionate response may be the life saving one.

      The Iron Monkey is not as formidable or as iron clad as the ideal martial arts film, and it may cause some misunderstanding of the true nature of the warrior’s way; but it still has sufficient mettle to create a satisfactory action piece, tempered with just enough philosophy and feeling to provide a positive theatrical experience.

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I Believe I Can Fly:  Charlie’s Angels  

                                         Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse. 

                                                All rights reserved.

      You know the song that goes, “I believe I can fly…”?  Well, I hope you do not take the lyrics or the theme literally, because people can’t fly.  Birds and, if you believe hard enough, fairies and angels can fly.  In fact, on the screen, angels not only fly, they soar.  So it is with the Angels in the new release Charlie’s Angels; they reach new heights in the world of movie martial arts, and they do it without wings.  Although state-of-the-art cinematic effects aid the efforts of the stars—Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, and Cameron Diaz—for the most part it seems that the stars perform many of their own stunts.  However, in the real world, the Jordan-esque hang times and Sugar Foot Bill Wallace multiple kicks can be performed only by physically fit and strong martial artists. 

      Even though Cameron Diaz’s hip gyrations could be the envy of many judo practitioners, a certain amount of power is essential to complete the dynamics of a judo throw.  To say that it takes no strength to throw an opponent in judo is ludicrous.  Otherwise, an expert should be able to throw an elephant.  Say, maybe with a trunkie-guruma!  Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, apparently packed 165 pounds on a 5-foot, 4-inch frame.  At a time when the average Japanese was 5-foot, 4-inches tall, the average height and weight of an All-Japan judo champion was 5-foot, 9-inches tall, and 209 pounds.  (That’s about the size of Emmitt Smith, running back for the Dallas cowboys.)  Finally, the epitome of judo has been exemplified by the 275-300 pound Yamashita, 9-time All-Japan Champion, defeated but once in some 198 matches. 

      Many misunderstand the essence of judo because most instructors attempt in their teaching to de-emphasize strength—de-emphasize, not eliminate.  Physical strength is an asset in every sport, although the types of strength may differ from activity to activity.  Can an athlete run fast with weak legs?  Can a swimmer break records with weak arms?  These rhetorical questions need not be answered here.  But the point to be made is that excessive strength is not a prerequisite for success in judo or any other martial art.  In fact, strength misused—or not controlled— can be a minus.  Unless strength has a base, it is useless.  A 380 horsepower Corvette will be beaten by a 120 horsepower SUV in a drag race on a sandy beach.

       Now let’s focus on the second part of the opening line of the song, “just spread my wings and fly.”  Once again, I hope that you do not take the song literally.  However, if you respond emotionally and inspirationally to the song, you may come to this realization: “if one believes in one’s self, he or she will be capable of great feats,” not just in the world of sports and martial arts but in many other important aspects of life.  The angels in the world, the ones we cannot see but exist in our souls, the human ones that come to our aid in a time of need, or the ones we empathize with on the Silver Screen can inspire us to sprout wings (find that force deep inside and allow it to sprout forth).   

      Of course, aside from the parody of the original Angels, what intrigues and inspires us in this new film is the fact that women are capable of finding that inner strength.  The Angels are—for the most part—in control, dominating men with butt-kicking finality to the chagrin of the male chauvinist circle.  Yet lest the women’s libbers begin their tailgate party, it must be pointed out that the Angels are after all still women, ruled not only by their emotions but, ironically, as fate would have it, by their employer, Charlie—a man. 

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                                          Reviewer Flops, While Eagle Soars

                                         (Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

 

      In regard to the martial arts film Avenging Eagles, it does not appear that Hal Erickson saw the film that he reviewed in the All-Movie Guide.*  Not only does he cite the title inaccurately, but also his commentary suffers from several egregious factual errors, along with an erroneous review of the film, which he sloughs off in a few sentences.  First, the title of the movie is Avenging Eagle (singular), and not plural (eagles).  Secondly, his description of the characters belies the subtlety of both character and plot development not generally seen in the “chop-socky” genre.  He describes the character presumably played by Ti Lung as a martial arts expert.  The character is far more complex.  Ti Lung is an assassin and former member of the vicious and evil Eagle Clan.  A master of the three-sectional staff, he is on a one-man mission to destroy the clan and its evil leader, the father figure who raised him from boyhood to carry out his evil machinations.   

      Erickson goes on to describe Fu Sheng as a swordsman, “young in years but wise in the ways of his craft.”  Relatively the same age as Ti Lung, the character is not a swordsman.  In fact, he never uses a sword in any of the superbly choreographed martial arts combat scenes.  He mainly fights empty handed, but when he uses arms, his weapon of choice is the “double-blades,” which he clamps to his wristbands and uses to supplement his kung fu fighting forms. 

       Finally, Erickson writes that the “dialogue is largely confined to grunts and howls of pain.”  His comments do not do justice to the unique story line, much of which is told via flashback by Ti Lung as he reveals his evil past to Fu Sheng, who for an undisclosed reason accompanies the renegade Eagle and aids him in battle against the clan members sent to hunt him down.  During these flashback scenes, the viewer sees a dynamic character transformation on the part of Ti Lung from assassin to man of compassion. 

In a particularly moving scene, Ti Lung reveals how he was forced to expediently kill a pregnant woman so that the clan would not cause her needless suffering.  When that incident is revealed, Fu Sheng reacts in a strange manner.  Not until the climax of the film does the expression on Fu Sheng’s face make sense.  When Ti Lung and Fu Sheng take on the evil leader of the clan, the true identity of Fu Sheng is revealed.  He is a former police official, and it was his wife and unborn child that were murdered by Ti Lung.  It is now clear why he has traveled with Ti Lung to destroy the Eagle Clan. 

       The evil master then offers Ti Lung a chance to join back with him and together they will rebuild the clan; otherwise, Ti Lung will die at the hands of Fu Sheng.  The errant disciple need only turn on Fu Sheng and help his former master win.  Not only will his betrayal of the clan be forgiven but also great power and wealth will be his. In classic dramatic fashion, Ti Lung must make the eternal choice between good and evil. 

        In conclusion, while the film would not win a Cannes Film Award, it is an industrious attempt to make a relatively meaningful film with a nice ratio between skillful character revelation and weapons delineation.  The film deserved more than its one-star rating and the patronizing and gratuitous commentary of Mr. Erickson.  At least the producers of this film showed some semblance of artistic integrity, which is more than can be said of the reviewer.     

        * Hal Erickson, “Plot Synopsis,” Avenging Eagles (www. allmovieguide.com). The following info was taken from the film’s credits:   Avenging Eagle, director Sun Chung (Shaw Brothers, 1981).

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       The follow essay will be presented in two parts:  Part I will provide a critical analysis of the Sony film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Part II will provide some insight into the ramifications this film may have for martial arts students and sensei. 

                                        Cringing Tiger, Kiddin' Dragon

                                                                Part I

                                      Tigger Meets Puff in the Land of Ang Lee

                                                    (Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

       There I was at an exquisite Chinese restaurant, gorging myself on exotic Szechuan delights.  I eagerly cracked open my fortune cookie and read the prediction inscribed on the paper enclosed, “You are in for a thrilling evening.”  I gazed across the table at my companion.  Reality check!  I recognized the familiar gray hair of my mother sitting across from me.  I had taken her out for her birthday.  So much for fortune cookies; so much for the fantasy of an exciting evening.  But I am not one to get discouraged easily, so I put this fortune away in my pocket.  Maybe it would come in handy on some future occasion.  Well, sure enough.  Several weeks later, I landed a date with a beautiful exotic dancer.  So, of course, I took her to the same Chinese restaurant.  And when it came time to open my fortune cookie, I was doubly excited, since I had my backup fortune tucked away in my pocket.  I quickly read the fortune I found inside.  It read, “You are very perceptive,” whatever that was supposed to mean.  I suppose the sophisticate would explain that the meanings in such Chinese parables are hidden like those in a Zen koan.  

       But I did not have time for reflection; I quickly palmed it with all the skill of a cardsharp and pulled out the one I had been saving for such an occasion.  I casually looked in her direction with all the subtly of an Austin Powers, and then I carefully and romantically read, “You are in for a thrilling evening.”  I gave her a wink.  She smiled pertly, “Yes, I am.  Oh, I forgot to tell you I have to be back early.  My girlfriends are coming over.  We are going to pick out the colors for my bridesmaids’ gowns.  I am getting married next month.”  

      While I still like Chinese food, I have lost my taste for fortune cookies.  I guess no matter how hard you wish for something, it does not mean that it will come true.  Even though that concept—if you wish hard enough, it will come true—seems to be one of the themes presented in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, presented by Sony Pictures Classics.  And just wishing to make a good movie doesn’t always work either.    

       And just as you can’t always expect a good or accurate fortune coming out of fortune cookie, you can't always expect a good martial arts film to come out of China.  Even if the film utilizes the talents of ChowYun-Fat, Michele Yeoh, and intriguing newcomer Zhang Ziyi.”  And just as the meaning of the fortune in a cookie is hidden behind the layers of the cookie crust, so it is with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Like the dragon in its title, the meaning of the film is hidden behind layers of cinematic glitter and incomprehensible platitudes.  And just as when reading a fortune in a cookie and eating the cookie, the viewer might not be able understand this movie or be satisfied with its taste.  But it is not so much that the meaning is hidden; it is the fact that much of the necessary background is hidden from the viewer.  

      Director Ang Lee says, “Every character is a ‘hidden dragon’ in some sense.”1 Hidden is one thing; buried is another.  The essentials of the plot that could help us to comprehend the action and the motivation of the characters are hidden from us.  Thus, it becomes difficult to empathize with the characters.  We are told about their conflicts; in fact, since the film is subtitled, we are able to read about them.  But we never see them delineated cinematically and dramatically, as should be the case in a well-conceived and -directed film. 

       From the very beginning when the Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow) tells his long-time confidante and secret love Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) that he had just come from Wudan Mountain, where he had been in meditation, that the concealment begins.  During that meditation, he had a vision and was so disturbed by what he had seen that he knew that it was time to retire from the warrior’s way.  What was the vision?  What great battles had he fought?  These great theatrical moments are hidden from us.  If both Lee and co-writer James Shamus were members of a sixth grade class playing “show and tell,” the teacher would patiently tell them, “Don’t tell the class; show them!”  

       Bai looks no more the weary warrior then a toy soldier.  It is ironical that one reviewer was so impressed with Chow that he calls him “Cary Grant with a ponytail.”2  Now, that hardly sounds like a battle-scarred and weary warrior.  If we had seen some battle scenes such as those in Braveheart, we might have been convinced that the warrior has had enough.  Even if he could have given an impassioned speech such as that delivered by Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot, it might have been believable.  Of course, as good an actor as Chow may be, he might not yet be able to evoke the inner power of Gibson.  Then again, not too many actors can. 

       Of course, if the character Bai is tired, it is no doubt from all the scurrying along rooftops and springing from treetop to treetop that Wudan warriors are prone to do.  If running takes energy, imagine what a drain flying must be.  Oh!  Did I forget to mention that Wudan warriors have reached the height of martial artistry?  No?  Well, they can fly!  Instead of standing still and facing an enemy mano a mano, most the fighters in this film spend most of their time flying.  What a waste of energy!  It reminds me of the story of the old bull and the young bull who spy some cows on a hilltop.  The young bull says, “Hey, let’s run up that hill and have an amorous fling with a couple of those cows?”  The old bull responds, “Better yet, let’s walk up the hill and have an amorous fling with all of them.”  The essence of all martial artistry in life and in combat is the ability to conserve energy and unify one’s power with maximum efficiency.  It is not only what the old bull understands but what most old warriors know as well.  

       Since the style of the film is part fantasy and the characters are presented with broad brushstrokes, it is possible to accept the feats of the warriors, but the sequences between Yeoh and Chow are handled too seriously; thus, the internal dramatic moments seem to clash with the external style of the film.  Bai also explains that he is giving up his legendary sword, the Green Destiny, and wants Lien to deliver it to Sir Te (Lung Sihung) for safe keeping.  Despite the facial expressions of the two, it is difficult to understand their problem or to empathize with their reasons for never consummating their love.  OK, so warriors are dedicated to a cause and cannot have loyalty elsewhere.  Maybe so.  That might may satisfy us for a while, at least until we later learn the real reason that has prevented them from being together.  Li Shien was promised in marriage to Bai’s brother, who died in combat before they could commence with the nuptials.  Once again, we are told about it but don’t see anything build in terms of their relationship; thus, their feelings for each other are not entirely believable.  Even in the remake of The King and I, (Anna and the King) we see more development in the relationship between Yun Fat and Jodie Foster.  There were more even more sparks between Bing Cosby and Ingrid Bergman in the Bells of St. Mary’s.  We wonder what could have been in another place or in a different time.  If some of the moments between Bai and Shu Lien could have been revealed via flashback, their sequences together would have had more substance.   

       It is through this the use of flashback that we learn about the love affair between Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and Lo (Chang Chen).  This one time cinematic revelation appears out of place in the film.  It seems that the flashback here is a crude method to explain who this intruder to Jen’s bedroom is.  It would have been better to have used flashback throughout the film or work chronologically throughout.  The acting is not strong enough to fill the gaps.  Now, it’s not that the acting is bad; it is just that the good acting or spectacular kung fu cannot defeat a disjointed script.  One critic says, “You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t swoon for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”  3 Being overwhelmed by the cinematography, the surreal quality, the kung fu fiesta, is one thing, but to kowtow to a pretentious script is quite another.  

       The fact that the film features internationally known stars and director and uses subtitles to lend the illusion of a bona fide foreign art film spewing Asian values might account for all the hoopla or kungfoopla raised by the film.  One of the first films to dispense Asian philosophy in kung fu form was the Kung Fu series.  But oddly enough, much of the philosophy and many of the parables in this popular show paralleled the advice found in ancient Hebrew teachings.  What a blow it would be to some naïve critics if they found out that for all its mystical quality, Asian philosophy might be traced to matzo ball soup for the soul.  Arimasa Kubo theorizes that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel might have made it to Japan.4  If a tribe did make it to Japan, it had to pass through China, unless of course the members flew.  But it was not until the New Testament that Christ walked on water.  Even he could not fly.  But, of course, he was not a Wudan warrior. 

       Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is, however, a beautifully photographed film.  Indeed the scene in which Jen learns balance amid the treetops is as lush as the golf course where Rannulph Junuh finds his swing in The Legend of Bagger Vance.  But it is not entirely clear what lesson Jen learns other than she does not have the skill of the master.  It is also curious that so many of the critics who panned The Legend of Bagger Vance and found the Zen philosophy in the film so difficult to comprehend were able to applaud the Chinese enigma and decipher its meaning.  In fact, many critics did not take to the surreal quality of Bagger and found fault with things like a black caddy being allowed in the locker room of a golf course in Savanna of that time andf Charlize Theron's accent.  They were unable to see the fantasy world conjured up in the near-death image of an eighty-year-old man recalling an incident from his ten-year-old youth, some seventy years past.  But the inaccuracies, the implausible actions, the poor character development, and the flying of the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were taken in stride as part of a quasi-historical and legendary time.  And many missed the Mandarin accents of Chow and Yeoh, who are native Cantonese speakers.5  At least in Legend, the lessons that applied to a golf-club swing applied to life.6  I am not sure whether in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the lessons of the sword are applied to life. 

       Why Bai gives the sword to Sir Te rather than to a disciple to continue the tradition and carry out the ethics of the martial way seems to clash with the customary codes of warriors.  Why not create a scenario compatible with other great legends:  the sword must be won by only the greatest hero, as in The Sword in the Stone.  Doesn’t he know that such a sword will be the target of every thief in Beijing?  How he attained the sword is never made clear.  The power of the sword is never totally explained or clarified completely.  We do know that for whatever the sword’s worth, Bai has never been able to avenge the murder of his master at the hands of the villainess, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei).  Also, Yu Jen is ultimately defeated in the film, despite having stolen and using the Green Emerald Sword.   

       One of Zhang’s fight sequences in which she wields the sword against Yeoh, however, shows how sharp the sword is and how keen Yeoh’s weapons artistry is.  But for all her skill, there are dozens or more like her waiting in wings, all possessing the same degree of dexterity.  As far as weapons scenes are concerned, some of the best occur in Avenging Eagle. Ti Lung’s use of the three-sectional staff in this film easily surpasses the twirling exhibition of Yeoh. 

      Newcomer Zhang (Jen) not steals not only the sword but also the show.  She represents fantasy fulfillment at its most elemental level, the femme fatale.  The Black Widow of martial artistry.  Sensuous anticipation heightened by the threat of death.  Life snuffed out in her web of passion at the climactic moment.  But the erotic appeal of female warriors is nothing new.  Before women were banished from the Kabuki, they very well may have played the parts of samurai.  The tradition of sensuous females warriors has been carried on in Japan in the titillating form called Onna Kengeki (Women’s Sword Drama). 

       However, while the restaurant scene, in which Jen defeats a number of rowdy braggarts, is one of Zhang’s scene-stealing moments, this kind of scene has made its way in umpteen thousands of kung fu films made in the past thirty to forty years.  It is choreographed no better than most.  Have the critics who praised Zhang never heard of or seen the exploits of Angela Mao, the exquisite female superstar of the 70’s, who delighted audiences in films like Deep Thrust (Lady Whirlwind)?  Have they never seen the likes of female ninja, especially the deadly but compassionate assassin in Sword of Vengeance, or, as it was known in the US, The Shogun’s Assassin?   

       However, despite being a carbon copy of past female warriors, Zhang is still delightful to watch in the restaurant scene.  At least what is good about this scene is that it is played for laughs, and the audience can see it.  Many of the scenes are staged at night and the darkness of the screen belies much of the martial artistry--another facet of the hidden aspects of the film, I suppose.  Now I know that it is dark at nighttime, but if we can accept people who can fly, we could also suspend our disbelief enough to have a moon bright enough to illuminate the area so we can see what is going on.  

       It also difficult to see what is going on in the mind of the character Jen.  The daughter of an aristocratic family, Jen longs to be a free spirit and to live the warrior’s life.  She has been promised in marriage to a member of another aristocratic family, the Gao.  But she has romantic inclinations and wonders what it would be like to marry and live with a man that she loves.  We learn through the only flashback in the film that she has had a brief romance with Lo, a brigand who roams the Gobi Desert.  Hers is a love that is taboo.  Torn between her obligation as a dutiful daughter and the pangs of true love, she presents  both a comparison and a contrast to Yeoh.  In fact, the best part of the script is the parallel stories of the lovers:  Bai and Lien, and Jen and Lo.  At least Jen unabashedly consummates a relationship.  Since the focus of the story—at least in terms of character development—is on the story of the young lovers, I am hesitant to call this aspect a sub-plot.  Especially since Syd M insightfully points out the story is not so much a battle for a sword but for Yu Jen’s soul.7  (More will be said in part II about the symbolism of the sword in relation to Yu Jen.)  

       The martial arts scraps between the two lovers are a brilliant prelude to the true amorous intentions of the pair, who ultimately continue their grappling while naked under the sheets.  Jen engagaes in love play as scenes as naturally and skillfully as does in sword play.  One wonders how she developed such amorous skill at so tender an age.  Maybe there was more to the secret manual she has stolen than meets the eye.  The lovers hone their skill to the ultimate oneness. Her yin finally succumbs to his yang.  But despite the ecstasy, she is unable and unwilling to stay with her outlaw lover because that would dishonor her family.  However, she has no problem entering into the affair, secretly training with the Jade Fox, stealing the sword, roaming the countryside, brawling like a common brigand, badmouthing the Gao family, and stealing the secret training manual from her teacher.   

       Because we see a relationship develop between Jen and Lo, we can believe it; but since we never see the relationship develop between Jen and Jade Fox, we can only imagine it.  In The Avenging Eagle, we get a flashback of the tiny "eaglets" training under the evil master of the Eagle Clan.  We also see the life of crime and senseless slaughter the hero has engaged in as an Eagle assassin.  Furthermore, since we never see Jen train under the tutelage of Jade Fox, ever since she was eight-years old, it is not easy to accept her degree of talent.  We also wonder how she could have spent time training with the evil Jade Fox and not be missed or found out by her family.  Maybe a few quick flashbacks could have helped.  In the Master Killer (also known as The Thirty-six Chambers), a large portion of the film depicts the hero’s triumph through each training chamber until he reaches the pinnacle—the thirty-sixth.  When the Shaolin reaches this chamber, legend has it, he is capable of throwing his opponents without touching them.  He achieves this by the projection of his chi.  (A consummate skill commensurate with the flying of the Wudan.)  There could have been some pretty cute scenes showing the pint-sized eight-year-old Jen leaping from trees, falling short, and landing on her little butt—not unlike those little pixies with souls of warriors—girl gymnasts.  Thus, when Jen wins the gold medal of the Wudan Olympics, she ultimately becomes the Crouching Tiger of the title. 

       Of course, the title itself is obscure.  One critic says that the word tiger is embedded in the ideograph of Zhang’s character’s name.  Jen means tiger.  Lo is the dragon.  Thus, he concludes, “The ‘crouching’ and ‘hidden’ parts make sense as they relate to the characters.”  8  While he does not elaborate, the critic lead us to speculate that Lo has hidden desires for Jen or that he is her hidden desire.  If Jen is a crouching tiger, then she has yet to spring into a fully developed character.  And since she never truly gets to act the tiger and is afraid of her emotions, she is more like a cringing tiger or, as it will be pointed out in part II, she may be more Tigger than tiger.  When she does spring into action, it is only as a martial artist in the physical sense, and not in the spiritual sense.  Of course, I may be reading a little more into this than the creators of the film should be given credit for.  One critic says that she is “an impetuous dilettante determined to challenge” the master Bai.9  She is hardly a dilettante when it comes to fighting.  The critic must have forgotten that she is already a precocious master in her own right.  Now, whether she is a dilettante in the spiritual sense that needs to strengthen her soul is another point that will be taken up in part II. 

       But it is the meaning of the ending that is the most obscure.  When Jen jumps off Wudan Mountain, the meaning of her flight is as nebulous as the clouds she disappears into.  Apparently, she is fulfilling the prophecy of the mountain: “If you believe in something hard enough, it will come true.”  Legend has it that a young person once made a wish and jumped off the mountain, and the wish came true.  Apparently, the lovers were somehow united by this action.  Thus, anyone who jumps, says the legend, will achieve his or her personal Nirvana or ultimate wish.  Before Jen jumps, she reveals that her ultimate wish is to be back in the desert with her lover, Lo.  Does this mean that she and Lo will be united?  Or does it mean that they will be united in some after life desert, and—that if dead—she will be ultimately free of all obligations?  And is she following the advice of Lien—“follow your heart”? 

       What co-writer James Shamus has to say about the film explains it all--maybe:  “The Chinese embedded in every word of this movie has layers and layers of cultures and meanings.  They simply don’t exist to a Western ear.  It is one of the truly delicious ironies of this movie, that although I co-wrote, I’ll never fully understand of all its meanings.”10  He should have added, “including the conclusion.”  So I guess the ending is another of those hidden dragons that, like Puff, will one day be famous for its ambivalence.  Better yet, disappear when we grow up and when we learn to put away childish things—things such as wishing a script will make sense, even if the writer can’t make sense out of it.  With this fact known, it makes me want to say to the creators of this film, “Whom are you fooling?”  Thus, the hidden dragon is hiding the smile on its face.  So we won’t know that it’s not the hidden dragon, but rather the kiddin’ dragon.   

       But don’t be discouraged if you can’t figure out the ending.  You can always hit as many exotic Chinese restaurants as you can; maybe you will find the answer in one of the fortune cookies.  Then again, if you have my kind of luck, don’t waste your money; wait for the prequel and sequel and waste it then!11

 

Notes: 

1Greg Dean Schmitz, http://www.upcomingmovies.com/crouchingtigerhiddendragon.html. 

2Elvis Mitchell, NY Times, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-re-quot.htm.  

3Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press, www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-re-quot.htm.  

4“The Ten Lost Tribes,” http://www.moshiach.com/tribes/ns/5.html.   

5Haozertree, “It pretended to be something,” http://www.epinions.com-652814290. 

6For a martial arts analysis  of the Legend of Bagger Vance, search through "Movie Reviews." 

7Syd M, “Leaps of Faith,” http://www.woodstock.com/movie.htm.  

8 Schmitz, http://www.upcomingmovies.com/crouchingtigerhiddendragon.html.    

9Jack Mathews, Daily News, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-rev-quot.htm. 

10Ross Anthony, http://www.ofcs.org/logon.php3. 

11 Greg Dean Schmitz reports that director Ang Lee may be contemplating a prequel and a sequel, Ibid.

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                                            Cringing Tiger, Kiddin' Dragon

                                                               Part II

                  The Tiger Has No Teeth, the Dragon has no Tail                                         

                    (Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

      Lisa Schwartzbaum says that [at the end of the film] the audience of critics and non-critics enthusiastically applauded.1  However, Haozertree states that he heard that audiences in Taiwan greeted the ending with jeers.2  Perhaps, the audience he is referring to, having been glutted on such films for years, expected something refreshing and new.  Maybe they were all too familiar with what Haozertree suggests is typical of the Chinese tragedy.  If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is indeed a tragedy, then we have the answer to the dilemma posed at the end of part I:  Does Jen (Zhang Ziyi) fly off into the sunset with her lover, Lo (Chang Chen)?  Or does she take a sacrificial nosedive?   

       If this film is representative of the tragic genre, then we must assume that Jen dives to her death in order to resolve her dilemma:  the choice between doing her duty or following her heart.  Rather than fall victim to the social code and marry without love, she takes her own life in defiance.  The latter interpretation may be correct, but the overall style of the film does not seem to be consistent with tragedy.  We need to believe in the worth of the characters and that their deaths present a great waste of humanity.  The values they die for must be of a noble quality.  If, indeed, some Chinese audiences laughed at the ending, their response may give some evidence of its non-tragic effect.  

       At any rate, suicide is merely a conventional ending.  In Romeo and Juliet, it is tragic that the young and inexperienced lovers cannot find an alternate to the false dilemma created by the playwright.  But Jen, the Juliet of this film, is a fearless, unbeatable martial artist.   Surely, for all her skill, she could have found some way out.  In our teaching of the martial arts, we must stress that our martial arts skills are useless if they cannot protect us from the archaic thinking of our respective societies.  We must teach that there is always a way out of every dilemma, whether escaping from a hold in judo or from oppressive laws and codes in life.  The fact that Jen cannot stand up to authority is not tragic but pathetic. 

      Many critics have called the film a fairy tale.  Perhaps the film would have been more palatable in the form of a Disney classic rather than a Sony Classic.  Jen, the tiger, is more suitable to a cartoon character such as Mulan, who, created by the genius of Disney, is far more believable than Jen.  Jen lacks the spirit of the tiger and comes across more like the cartoon character Tigger.  Had she been presented with the magic of the Disney artisans and had the ending of the film culminated with a more positive and uplifting conclusion, it may have very well been a satisfying work of cinematic art. 

      The concept of responsibility, or obligation to a master or a code, is a significant theme in regard to both Jen and Lien (Michele Yeoh).  Lien, however, indirectly advises Jen to deny her filial obligation when she tells her, “Follow your heart.”  Why Lien, who is a master in the Wudan art, does not practice what she preaches is cause for concern.  The concept of following the dictates of one’s emotions is in direct contrast with the Wudan code presented.  While the value of honoring a code and the memory of a dead kinsman is indeed honorable, it is not necessarily right or desirable.  In the Judaic culture, according to the Old Testament, when a brother was killed or died, it was the obligation of another brother to ensure that his widowed sister-in-law would conceive a male heir to the family name.  Now, that is some contrast!  So, which custom is right?  I know that the Chinese in Beijing can’t all be “Wong,” but they can’t all be right.  

      Surely, as martial arts teachers, we want to impress upon our young students the meaning of duty and honor—the importance of fulfilling their obligations.   But we also need to train them to be able to exercise good judgment.  It does little good to train them to have the strength and courage to stand up and face a bully, if they can’t follow the dictates of their hearts and face the world.   History has taught us that parents, teachers, religious leaders, governments have made serious mistakes and have perpetuated customs and rituals that have devastated countless human lives.  How many wars would have been prevented and how many innocents would have been saved had at least one person had the courage to say “no”?   

       The essence of great drama and great tragedy—to include the Kabuki of Japan—traditionally seems to be the conflict between two positive values; the denial and/or destruction of either value ultimately brings about the demise of the hero.  The plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not build to make the family value of honoring a dead brother of any worth.  And since we have not seen the relationship build between Bai and Lien, and since the characters are so ill defined, we don’t feel any great sympathy for the sacrifice they have made.  Would it not have been for the greater glory of China and the warrior world had Bai and Lien consummated their love and raised a whole clan of ultimate Wudan warriors to carry on the fight for justice?  It might have been a more satisfying plot had the two died because they denied the code and fought to be together.  

       While Bai does die avenging the death of his master, retrieving the Green Emerald sword, and saving Jen from the evil Jade Fox, there are too many underdeveloped aspects of the plot to create a satisfying conclusion.  First, we know nothing about Bai’s master.  Just because he is a master does not mean that we should have any affinity for him.  Second, we do not know the value of the sword and what power it has.  It certainly doesn’t help Bai against the Jade Fox’s poisoned dart “Gatling gun” assault.  Finally, Jen’s character is not developed to the point that we have any great hope that she will ever do great things.  Of course, Bai did want to make Jen a disciple.  Either that or he had a little bit of a “hidden dragon” for her.  But that’s another story!  

       Jen’s potential leads to another problem.  It is not believable that such an undisciplined brat as Jen could have acquired the ability to be better than her teacher and just about every opponent she confronts, in approximately 8-10 years, if that.  We don’t know how old she is.  Some marriages may have been arranged at early ages in those days, so she could be anywhere from 14 to 18, which means, if she had begun training at 8, she has studied no more than 6 to 10 years, hardly enough time to become a master.  Most of us who have been teaching 8-year-olds know that, as enthusiastic and cute as they may be, most of them have the concentration ability of a gnat.   

       Psychologically and physically, the gains made from the ages of 8 to 14 in terms of reaching master potential, let alone the ability to fly (obviously a symbol of the highest level of mastery), are negligible, to say the least.  With the exception of Kano, the Mozart of Martial arts, who created judo by age eighteen, such geniuses are very few and far between.  Such genius comes only once every few centuries, unless of course you live in the friendly skies of the Wudan warrior, where every one seems to have an unlimited number of frequent flyer miles.  How did she get this skill at an early age?  Skill better than her teacher’s!  Oh, that’s because she stole the secret manual and hid it from the teacher.  At eight years old, she had the ability to decipher an ancient manuscript, let alone comprehend the essence of the techniques therein revealed.  And as if a true master needs a secret manual!  But this is all part of the buffoonery that pervades much of the martial arts—the greatest martial arts concepts are contained in a secret manual. 

       It is the empty-headed idea (and not the empty hand) that pervades some Asian societies and some martial arts schools in the USA, and in other parts of the world, that if a system was handed down, especially through a secret book, then that system is definitely better than another.  And unless one has the secret manual and follows it, that one will never become a master and learn the truth. The Bible, considered by many to be the greatest book ever written, was handed down to deliver the truth to all humankind.  The Holy Book has been handed down for generations, but unfortunately it seems only a few have profited by the words of the prophets.  If the Bible cannot instruct us all, we should not put too much faith in a secret martial arts manual written by a “divine” master.  

       Not only is it the character Jen that gets imbued with such uncanny skill, but the actress (Zhang) as well.  The danger is that young people tend to believe that the person playing the part is capable of such feats.  There seems to be a difficulty for even mature and astute critics to separate fact from fantasy when it comes to certain performers of martial arts roles.  In Esquire, one critic is so enthralled with the Zhang’s performance that the writer reports, “Zhang Ziyi is the new Chuck Norris, only with ballet skills and prettier and able to kick Chuck’s creaky old ass.”4  Of course, the writer is adding a little humor to such accolades.  Norris had won six national championships in real competition before Zhang was predicted in her mother’s fortune cookie.  But the danger of many jokes is that there may be an element of truth behind the joke.  And later when the humor wears off, the truth may linger and be believed.  A link for Tiger Schulman Karate can be found on the official Sony website for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.5  Nothing disparaging meant against commercial schools or against Tiger Schulman, but the point is that gullible young people may think that they can be like Wudan warriors by going to a karate school.  Besides, the martial art in the film is kung fu and it is not necessarily real, Schulman’s art is karate (different from kung fu) and it is real; and, furthermore, it takes hard work to get as good as Chuck Norris.  I am sure that Tiger Schulman and other commercial sensei will be able to dispel the myths that the movie perpetuates and teach youngsters the real thing and instill them with real values.  If that happens, then the movie will have had some positive value after all.   

       Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon perpetuates the myth that the fighting of the Wudan warrior surpasses all.  One critic gets so carried away that he says the kung fu fighters are “so zen-pure they . . . could with a flick of a wrist . . . flip sumo wrestlers through roofs. . . .  And these were the chicks sublime.”6  Not too many martial artists in their right mind would seriously consider taking on a sumo wrestler, some of whom can weigh over five hundred pounds.  Besides, the Wudan warriors in this film do not wrestle.  Although sumo does not utilize ground tactics, anyone familiar with the Ultimate Fighting contests will come to the conclusion that a style that incorporates wrestling and grappling tends to prove to be the superior style.  The closest Zhang comes to grappling is when she tussles under the sheets with Chen.   

       The scurrying on rooftops and bouncing on branches, like logrollers, is not martial arts.  It is gymnastics and ballet.  There is no doubt in my mind that any dancer or gymnast could perform the same feats as skillfully and gracefully as the actors in the film, including Chow, Yeoh, and Zhang.  But we would be hesitant to call them martial artists.  I am also hesitant to call the actors in this film martial artists.  Even the scene in which Yeoh does her weapons tour de force does not prove anything.  Many a baton twirler or juggler could be as adept and could perform those same weapons routines, especially with the aide of present day cinematic chicanery.  One has only to view the recent Nike commercial depicting basketball players dribbling and “dancing” to a basketball ballet, amid the rhythmic drumming sounds, to see the resemblance to the martial arts ballet in the film.  What they do with a basketball is just as artistic as what the actors in this film do with swords.  Of course, it is not basketball and what occurs in the film is not martial arts.    

       What bothers me the most, I guess, is that here is another martial arts movie, while it pretends to ponder the ethics of a culture and the responsibility of a generation of warriors, that still—after all is done and said—or should I say sub-titled and done, over-sensationalizes the martial arts.  Any message the film may have gets lost in the fantasy of the fight scenes.  I wonder how many of my young students who may have seen this film left the theatre meditating on the responsibilities they now have as martial arts students and will one day have as mature adults, or how many of them left dreaming of how cool it will be to one day fly and kick butt?   

       If the film wanted to teach responsibility in terms of being a warrior, it would have been fitting for the sword to be given to Jen, once she has matured and understood what it means to be a Wudan warrior.  While the sword may have represented a battle for Jen’s soul, that theme, like many of the dragons in the film, is also hidden from our view.  The concept of having a magic sword or a magic technique that will make one invincible is nothing new in literature or in our imaginations.  But that is the beauty of real martial arts accomplishment.  It is a skill that gives the security of magic, but is built upon the reality of hard work and discipline.  These are the components that make the master, not magic.  We all know that ultimately it is not the magic of the sword but the skill of the swordsman.   

       Jen is beaten by Bai, even though she wields the sword against the master.  Is this the lesson?  That it takes more than just a sword?  Could that be the reason Bai throws the sword away?  Maybe.  But when Bai throws the sword into the water and Jen sails through the air and dives into the water, the meaning submerges also.  It gets even more confusing when Jade Fox comes flying from out of nowhere and, like some kind of a martial arts eagle, scoops up her prey, Jen, and along with the sword, flies away with her.  We are not sure where she is going.  But at this point, we are not sure where the film is going either. 

       It might have been a stronger message had Jen rejected the sword and gone out into the world relying only on the power she can find in her heart.  In a play called The Samurai Sword, a young warrior loses the possession of a magic sword that would ultimately make him Japan’s greatest hero.7  At one of his lowest moments, he finds a message that was left to him by the father he has never known.  “ In this world there is much magic, but not that created by magicians—the only true magic is that which you shall find within yourself.  When all roads are blocked without, seek the path within."  The hero of this play goes on to face life without magic.  As martial arts teachers, we need to impress upon our students that there is no magic and there is no easy route to soar to great heights.  Only hard work and more hard work. Indeed, the Oz never gave to the Tin Man what he did not already have.  Our students must be taught that they will have to reach deep inside in order to soar high outside. 

       When we give a martial arts award to a student, we are not just giving an award, but we are bestowing on him or her an obligation to carry on a tradition, not just of the art but also of all the ethical teaching that has been passed on.  Bai wanted to make Jen a disciple.  It is also dubious what else he may have wanted to make her, but, again, that is another story.  If she had been given the sword by Bai before he died, the sword could have been a symbol of her accepting the obligation that comes with it.  I remember when my teacher promoted me to black belt.  I was forced to leave Japan early and could not remain to complete my training.  Thus, I was not entirely ready for such a promotion, but my teacher insisted.  He used the word gimu (obligation) when he handed me my certificate, implying that I was obligated to live up to the faith he had in me.     

       Finally, rather than having the theme that if you believe in something hard enough, it will come true, it would be better for the film to assert this truth. “If you work hard enough and long enough for something, you will have a chance to be successful.  And if you are not, it won’t matter because you will a have developed yourself into the type of person who will be successful at a number of other opportunities that will present themselves."

        I will conclude with this last thought in the form of a Zen koan.8  “If what you wish for does not come walking through your door, lock your door.”  It is only through the overcoming of obstacles that you will become successful and achieve what you wish for.  And maybe, just maybe, what you have been wishing for is already there in the “room.”  You just haven’t found it yet.  I don’t think this film has found it yet either.  And, you know what?  Maybe I, too, will stop looking in fortune cookies for my destiny to unfold, as I explained in the introduction to part 1 of this essay, and try to make those thrilling experiences in life come true just naturally.

Notes:

1Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-rev-quot.htm.  

2Haozertree, “It pretended to be something,” http://www.epinions.com-652814290/. 

3For a further discussion of training goals for youngsters in the martial arts, search for “Samurai vs. Ronin” in the Martial Arts Stories and Essays section of this site. 

4Esquire, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-rev-quot.htm. 

5Sony, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony_links.htm.  

6Stephen Hunter, Washington Post, http://www.crouchingtiger.com/sony-rev-quot.htm. 

7 For a copy of the play and/or permission to produce it, contact Paul Turse. 

8For more meditation exercises, search for “Meditation” in "Martial Arts Stories and Essays" in this site.

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Finding Forrester: A Two-Way Search for Self

 (Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

       One key moment in the Karate Kid is the scene in which Miyagi lifts the Kid from the “skeleton’s burial ground” and carries him to a new life, where he is resurrected like some kind of a martial arts Lazarus.  Miyagi, Master Po, Yoda, Bagger Vance—all are elements from the same formula.  Master interacts with disciple, and eureka:  the chemistry works, and the lost disciple finds not only his hidden talent but also his lost self.  Columbia Pictures’ Finding Forrester, directed by Gus Van Sant, follows the time-tested formula.  Crusty recluse (Sean Connery) combines with street-wise disciple (Rob Brown) to shape not only the disciple’s writing but his personality as well.  Finding Forrester, however, adds one new element:  the development and change within the master are as profound as that of the disciple, if not more so.  Not only does Jamal, the young aspiring writer, find Forrester (Connery), but also Forrester ultimately finds himself.    

       Jamal is a victim of prejudice.  He’s just sixteen, black, and a basketball player.  So when he submits his literary work for an essay competition at his highbrow school, his English teacher, Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) is, quite naturally, suspicious and charges the young writer with plagiarism.  Because the disciple has promised never to reveal his association with the master, he is unable to defend himself at the hearing.  When Forrester finally leaves his hermetically sealed world and comes forward to take responsibility and defend Jamal, he not only saves his disciple but also gives himself one last chance at living before he succumbs to cancer. 

       One important theme of the film is that writing is a search for self.  While the disciple is able to discern the fact that he plays basketball to be accepted by the outside world, but writes to discover his own inner world, Forrester has lost himself as a result of his own literary pursuits.  The one-shot Pulitzer Prize winner has not published anything since his famous work; he has been writing but not publishing.  At the end of the film, he not only returns to his native Scotland to rediscover his roots and to die but also leaves a manuscript with his disciple to be published.  While writing solely for oneself can be a worthy art for art’s sake concept, unless there is a reader outside of the writer, the writer can never truly discover himself.  It is perhaps by influencing the reader that the writer comes closer to self-identification.  Just as Forrester comes to learn that he needs a family, he comes to learn that his writing must be shared.  The need to learn and the need to teach are part of an endless circle.  

       In Finding Forrester, the fact that the hero is both basketball star and literary star highlights bias in two different worlds.  It is not just Crawford who is prejudicial.  The young hero keeps his writing skill and intelligence hidden from his peers.  He coasts through his studies, earning only passable grades.  When his academic ability is discovered and he is offered a scholarship to an exclusive high school, he becomes alienated from the boys in the hood.  He still is an outsider at the new school.  It is his basketball ability and the desire for the school to win the championship that ensures his precarious acceptance at the school.  When he learns that all he has to do is win the big game and all charges will be dropped, he deliberately throws the game and chooses to face the disciplinary board.  It is perhaps this decision—not to take the easy way out—that causes Forrester to realize that he too must make a decision to emerge from his self-cultivated forest of disillusion.  The easy way has been to not face the world and hide in alcoholic oblivion.  When Forrester faces the administrators at the school, he faces himself for the first time in many years.  He finally faces death by living out his last years as a complete individual.  

      The fact that Forrester learns from his student is what distinguishes him from Jamal’s English teacher.  And it is one aspect of the film that can be applied to the teaching of martial arts and teaching in general.  The teacher refuses to understand one fundamental principle of the teaching-learning process.  The circular pattern whereby student learns from teacher, who, in turn, learns from student.  When Jamal challenges the teacher in regard to a moot grammatical point, the pedant misses a great teaching opportunity to discuss language and the function of words in context.  When to use “farther” or “further” is not so easily discernible or as patently simple as the film makes it out to be.  To say, for example, that Jamal’s “interests go farther than basketball” would of course be incorrect if depth or degree is meant, but if one is speaking metaphorically and the meaning is that Jamal has endeavored to travel from the world of basketball (the gymnasium) to the academic arena (the classroom) than “farther” might indeed be correct. 

       The teacher also misses a golden opportunity to admit to his students that he is human and to add a degree of humor to his otherwise bleak teaching atmosphere.  When I was a teacher, one of my favorite tricks, after inadvertently making an error during a lecture, was to say to the class, with as straight a face I could muster, “That was one of my sophisticated teaching techniques whereby I purposely make a mistake to see which of you will be perceptive enough to catch it.”  That remark would be greeted with mock gestures of belief on the part of my students.  Teachers should take genuine pride when their students begin to surpass them.  The same is true in the martial arts.  If, as teachers, we give all we can to our students and teach them to be able to beat us, then we have done our jobs.  And we may even be forced to reach deep inside and find new techniques to keep ahead of our progressing and challenging students.  It should not wound our pride to acknowledge that sometimes our students know more that we do in certain areas.     

       While the notion that young black men can jump—but not write—might be current in contemporary America, the idea that an athlete could be an artist was not alien in early Japan.  The greatest swordsman of Japan sought to become one with their swords.  A rusty sword meant a tarnished soul.  Thus, swordsmanship as an art form became a way to perfect the self as well as the skill.  The concept of skilled swordsman and artist was embodied in Miyamoto Musashi, who was as adept with a writing tool as he was with his instruments of death—his search for self precariously balanced between artistic introspection and overt martial action.  Unlike many of our American athletes, samurai were trained in artistic pursuits.  In fact, they were required to take an artistic view of both life and, especially, death.  While the longer sword that hung at their sides symbolized their unique ability to dispatch an enemy with one lightning fast strike, the shorter sword, used for self-immolation, was a constant reminder of the impermanence of things and the frailty of man.  

       Besides the two swords, the samurai carried brush, ink, and scroll, in order to write the customary jisei (death bed poem) at the time of death.  He was prepared to view death as just another part of life.  And to still see the beauty that was apparent even at that moment.  I recall the day that a hospice nurse informed me that my mother was dying. She said, “Try to enjoy the end of life.”  While the import of her comments were difficult to discern at that moment, I was soon to discover that my mother’s death would lead me to new insights about myself and my martial arts.(1)   

       It is this circle of life that gives Finding Forrester one more martial arts interpretation that should be of interest to all sensei.  Forrester bequeaths to Jamal his unpublished manuscript and obligates him to write the forward.  This action will now force Jamal to understand, once and for all, that there is life after basketball.  Too many coaches in America lose sight of the fact that they should be training their students for life as well as for sport.  In judo, for example, too often we strive only to teach our students how to discover a new way to throw an opponent.  But we fail to realize that our young students may not actually be seeking a throw but in reality seeking an identity. (2) Unless their search for a throw or for success in judo helps them to know themselves and to be prepared for all of life’s situations, we will have missed our role as teachers.  We should never miss the opportunity to make a parallel between the accomplishment of a judo technique and success in life.  For example, in working to secure a hold with kesagatame, students will often, after clearing an opponent’s legs, go right for the head.  This kind of impatience sometimes leads to the opponent’s being able to duck under the attacking arm.  This occurs because there is too much space to cover from the legs to the head.  Before securing the head, the attacker must learn to control his opponent’s body in smaller units then gradually work toward the head.  Youngsters often attack life’s goals the same way they attack kesagatame; that is, they aim directly toward the goal, impatiently expecting to have immediate success.  The sensei can call attention to the fact that, like securing a hold in judo, securing success in life could be the result of gaining control by patiently mastering smaller units.  Explaining to our youngsters that they need to demonstrate more patience might cause us to reflect on those moments in our own adult lives when we have not exercised the same discipline that we have expected of our youngsters.  Hopefully, we will then find that elusive Forrester that dwells within all of us and go on to live life more completely and adequately. 

       (1)    For a personalized account of how the deathbed can become a classroom, see essay “My Mother, the Sensei,” in the “Martial Arts Essays” section. 

 

       (2)    For more on the relationship between self-identity and judo, see essay “Judo as Drug Therapy,”  in the “Martial Arts Essays” section.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Don't Kiss Off the Dragon 

After the smoke clears, the Dragon breathes a little fire

 Copyright c. 2001 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved. 

  

       Kiss of the Dragon (produced and co-written by Luc Besson) joins a long list of films with either the word “kiss” or “dragon” in the title.  Not only does the film use a copycat title, it steals just about every cliché that can be found in the secret agent, contract killer, and the martial arts genres.  By all rights, I should not have liked this movie.  Wasn’t I one of the few ronin voices kiai-ing in the wind and making sushi out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, considered by many to be a martial arts masterpiece?  So why am I not going to carve this turkey, obviously not of the artistic quality of the winner of 4 Academy Awards?  Believe me, I did not want to like this movie; in fact, I went into the theatre, samurai pen unsheathed, preparing to hack away.  But I soon found myself pleasantly engrossed in the action.  So, as far as “kiss-titled” movies go, on the kiss-o-meter, this film registers a little closer to kissing Britney Spears than to kissing one’s grandmother.  As far as “dragon-titled” movies go, after the smoke clears, this film does breath a little fire.   

       Aside from the hackneyed script and predictable plot, the non-stop action blitzkriegs the sensibilities of the viewers with such a barrage of visual and aural stimuli that they do not have time to ponder the illogic or the inconsistencies of the plot.  It would seem to me, that no one could conceive of, let alone have the audacity to present, such a cornball film, unless it was done on purpose.  In fact, the parody of certain elements in Besson’s The Professional and La Femme Nikita might lend credence to my theory.  I think this blatant use of Besson’s old bag of cinematic tricks is what appealed to me—the unabashed delineation of just about every timeworn sequence, without pretension and without a lofty martial arts philosophy set forth in a Ninja Never-Never Land—just a hardcore kung fu fantasia, definitely not recommended for children or pacifists.    

       The premise of the film utilizes the theme of government agent sent to a foreign country to stop a drug connection.  Set in France, Liu Jian (Jet Li) comes from Beijing to help the Parisian police catch the French connection for a Chinese drug dealer, Mr. Big.  (How original can you get!)  But unknown to both Liu and the Chinese government, the French police inspector is the connection.  In order to preserve his identity, the Inspector plans to assassinate Mr. Big and to put the blame on Liu, but things go awry and the hero escapes, but not before he steals the incriminating tape showing the Inspector killing both a hooker and Mr. Big in a hotel suite.  

       During the hotel sequence, we are briefly introduced to Jessica, played by Bridget Fonda, who was cast as the addict forced into the life of an assassin in Point of No Return, the American re-make of La Femme Nikita.  In Kiss of the Dragon, she plays (what else!) an unwilling hooker and drug addict, whom we later learn is under the control of the evil Inspector, played by Tcheky Karyo, who (and perhaps not so coincidentally) was the Svengali-like control operative in La Femme Nikita.  (Is this original casting or what?)  The Inspector uses Jessica’s hostage daughter as insurance to keep his control over her as a hooker. 

       From Fonda’s opening sequence in a hotel bathroom, where she vomits out of disgust, to her final scene in the hospital, where she emits motherly devotion, she does Aunt Jane proud and is a complete joy to watch.  The versatility of this dramatic actress is apparent in her portrayal of Jessica, as she presents a deluxe combo of La Femme Nikita and Irma La Douce or, should we say, Suzie Wong, a performance guaranteed to whet your appetite for more.   

      Eventually, with the help of Liu, Jessica escapes from the forces that control her; only this time, it’s Liu who escapes down a laundry chute.  Fonda mixes a street-smart savvy with a hooker-with-a-heart syndrome.  Part of the charm and fun of this movie is watching such a talented actress cope with the cliché lines and stereotypical scenes that occur.  In one of the escape sequences, she says she is not used to walking so far.  Of course, she wears boots with at least 6-inch heels and is not the usual streetwalker.  In fact, she conveniently stands in front of a shop owned by Uncle Tai (Burt Kwouk).  It is here where Liu is hiding out from the French police, and thus their chance meeting occurs. Not only does the character of Jessica overwhelm Liu emotionally, but also physically.  The discordance in height in one close-up is comical and cute at the same time.  Although Li does not reach Fonda’s physical stature or her acting ability, he does a plausible job in the role he portrays—especially when he offers a variant of his signature line from Romeo Must Die, “You have made a big mistake!”  List this one with other classic action hero one-liners, such as “I’ll be back,” “Make my day,” and even “Yo, Adrian.” 

      Anyway, I did not go to the picture to see him act.  I wanted to see this Asian of diminutive stature demolish larger and stronger foreign opponents, unlike, say, Steven Seagal in Marked for Death, where the imposing aikido practitioner wipes out a gang of Lilliputian Jamaican drug dealers. Elements of the secret agent, contract killer, and martial artist themes are abundant in the film.  Liu is the dedicated public servant policeman and fighter whose dangerous job and life style preclude the usual love relationships and family ties that bind.  He is loyal to his profession and to the way of warrior.  Although he is confident and calculating when it comes to facing his nemeses, he is shy and bumptious in the presence of Jessica, who exudes a playful, kitten-like coyness that belies her obvious sexual allurement.  He is uncomfortable in her presence, especially when she offers him a freebie, and thus he tries to get rid of her.  However, when she is pushed around by her pimp, our hero intercedes.  However, adhering to true martial arts philosophy, he finds an alternate route other than fighting and pays for her time, but the pimp persists in inflicting pain on Jessica.  Yes, that is a really big mistake!  In the ensuing battle, the pimp and his bodyguards are destroyed by our hero.  Since the shop is no longer a viable hideout, Liu must go on the run and is forced to take Jessica with him.  Now they are bound together and must flee through the streets of Paris faster than a couple of celebrities escaping the paparazzi. 

       The remainder of the film concentrates on the couple’s flight from the police, their attempt to rescue Jessica’s daughter, and their effort to clear Liu’s name by retrieving the tape that has been regained by the inspector.   When Jessica shows Liu the reason that she is a hooker (the picture of her daughter), something happens to the hardened fighter, who has rejected love and family.  The fatherly instinct emerges, and he vows to save the child.  In this respect, he resembles Leon (Jean Reno), in The Professional, who is softened by the love he shares with the daughter figure he protects.  When the sadistic Inspector, who nearly out-Herods Gary Oldman’s psychopathic killer in The Professional, threatens to turn the child into a hooker, another mistake is made—this one mortal—for now Liu will stop running and go on the offensive, with the predicable devastating results in the form of the dragon’s kiss.   

      But the martial arts clichés are what make the film.  Li duplicates the exploits of Jackie Chan, minus the comedy, in his ability to find a means of defense or offense based upon the environment or logistics of a situation.  Even when out-armed by superior weaponry, our hero manages to find an improvisational weapon—everything from chopsticks to burning hot clothes irons—to frustrate and devastate his attackers.  The beauty of the scenes is the ability of the actor to transition from the normal hand-to-hand combat mode to the use of the improvisational weapons without a lapse in the formal aspects of the techniques or kata.  Indeed, the nunchaku and tonfa (which inspired the PR 24 police baton) were originally farming tools used by Okinawan peasants.  While the fighting techniques in Kiss of the Dragon are stretched for dramatic appeal, they do represent the resourcefulness that the martial arts attempt to teach.  Indeed, since a weapon is only an extension of the artist’s hand, any implement can become a weapon, and thus the martial artist must be ready to achieve victory by becoming one with the environment. 

       In the scene where Liu attacks the police station, he is deadlier than the Terminator, and classier than the Bruce Lee look-alike in Game of Death, who travels from room to room to find the villainous boss of an evil organization.  In one scene, when Liu escapes rapid gunfire by locking himself in what he thinks is a safe part of the building, he turns to find himself in a dojo filled with police karate experts wielding batons in both hands.  This scene is an obvious steal from The Chinese Connection, where Lee wipes out an enemy school using nunchaku.  Although the double baton lacks the flailing ability of the stringed or chain linked weapon, it can be more versatile, and Li demonstrates this by orchestrating the defeat of the entire dojo with the precision of a maestro, even though he does not mug, strut, or flex muscles the way Lee does.   

       The ethical dilemma that the martial arts present is that the practitioner can use the skills for both constructive and destructive ends.  Thus, the most intriguing cliché utilized in the film is the use of acupuncture, applied by Liu, using a collection of needles stored in his wristband.  The use of needles, darts, or finger techniques to paralyze has been employed by action stars from Bruce Lee to Lucy Lawless.  What makes this use different in Kiss of the Dragon is that the hero (somewhat like Xena) can use the needles for constructive purposes, such as when he relieves Jessica’s emotional and physical pain at the hospital, putting her gently to sleep by the insertion of a needle in her neck.  This application is grimly contrasted near the conclusion of the film when the “Kiss of the Dragon” technique is revealed in all its devastating glory—or should I say “gory.”  The “kiss” is foreshadowed early in the film when a hooker uses a needle from her geisha hairstyle to stab Mr. Big during the hotel sequence.  This technique is one that traditionally had been used by the female ninja of Japan, who, while being attacked, would kill a molester at the peak of his passion, giving a new meaning to the word “climax.”   

       Finally, there are even platinum-topped twin bodyguards, reminiscent of the lethal assassins that crop up in the Lethal Weapon series.  This less-than-dynamic duo meet their demise in the final fight scene in Kiss of the Dragon, a rumble that resembles the concluding battle scene in Enter the Dragon, where Bruce Lee smashes through the mirror images to reach the villain.  What is refreshing in Jet Li’s fight sequences is that all the fighting is done somewhat realistically, in that all the hi-tech optics and high wire trickery, which audiences have become accustomed to, have given way to actual techniques done, however, at an accelerated speed and presented with a montage-like effect.  Thus, not all the action is shown; only certain frames and the conclusion of each fight segment are presented.  The viewers are left to create the in-between images in their imaginations.  Most of the techniques appear to be legitimate, but it is the conclusion or the end-all of the techniques that is exaggerated for theatrical effect.  The fighting scenes are so intense and pulsating that the slow-paced scenes with Fonda and Li are a welcomed breather. 

       The overuse of the hi-speed montage effect is my only real criticism of the film from a martial arts perspective.  The action scenes are done too quickly to actually see what techniques have been utilized, or to always see who has done what to whom; although to a non-martial artist, this would not be important.  Perhaps when it comes out in DVD, I will be able to check the techniques out in the slow motion and pause modes on my VCR.  In fact, I would like to have seen a few slow motion sequences in this film focus in on some of the key moments.  In other words, in the martial arts symphony, along with the staccato, a few dulcet rhythms might have been appreciated. 

       While there will no doubt be many more Jet Li martial arts films, there is no guarantee that there will be another as entertaining as this one.  Nevertheless, it will definitely be the “last dragon” of the summer.  So despite many of the perhaps well-deserved negative reviews the movie has received, you may still want to catch this dragon before it flies from the circuit.  Just as the martial arts take advantage of weakness and turn it into strength, you might be able to turn some of this film’s negatives into a positive viewing experience.  So, don’t be too eager to kiss off the dragon.      

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