Thursday, December 25, 2008

KUNG FU KILLER (2007) d. Philip Spink

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Impressionism is the painting style that focuses on ever-changing and transient elements of light to create an image that does not evoke a powerful sense of reality. Rather, it is the aim of an impressionist painting to suggest ethereal themes and to be something a little bit different to each person who observes the canvas from different distances, angles and even times of the day. For many art lovers, impressionism is the very apex of artistic achievement, even though such paintings rarely tell a comprehensive story, unlike realism, Baroque or even Renaissance works. In film, having your motion picture compared to impressionism may seem on the surface to be a great compliment, but upon further reflection, there are problems associated with creating such an analogy. Most movies, especially one of the TV variety, needs to tell a cohesive story and have a comprehensible direction, and KUNG FU KILLER, despite having many strong qualities, needed to be more like the realism school of art rather than the impressionists.

KUNG FU KILLER is the story of White Crane, a westerner who grew up in the rural regions of China and during the lawless days of the 1920s, and who sees the Wudang Temple he was raised at destroyed by armed forces under the control of a warlord, gangster and drug trafficker named Khan. White Crane survives the slaughter at the temple and then goes in search of Khan in an effort to exact vengeance for his barbarity and unjust tyranny. Crane’s search leads him to Shanghai, where he makes the acquaintance of a nightclub owner named Bingo and his torch singer Jane Marshall. Crane uses his connections with his new found friends to get closer to Khan, where he discovers that Khan has concocted even more sinister plans for the future of China that are linked to Jane’s brother Peter and that will be tested on Crane’s former home. Crane must navigate waters of treachery and deceit to stop Khan’s plans and save the people that mean the most to him before they end up like his Wudang brethren.

Just like an impressionist painting where you’ll notice elements that are pleasing and others that seem pointless or don’t catch the eye, KUNG FU KILLER is replete with strengths and weaknesses. From the outset, where there are images that are deeply reminiscent of THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and we are treated to scenes with the venerable Pei-pei Cheng, this film has a healthy interest in depicting the past and developing a sense of history. Throughout the movie, one of KUNG FU KILLER’s most endearing characteristics is the spectacular scenery of Shanghai cityscapes, the rural Chinese countryside (especially the gorgeous poppy fields), superb art deco interior d├ęcor in the clubs and wealthy rooms of Shanghai’s criminal elite and the lavish and stylish costumes of city folk. Added to this is a lovely film score, not always well employed, but still strongly evocative of better modern classics like HERO and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. All of this adds up to a remarkable aura and impressionistic feel of an Asian epic, which is startling when you consider this is a TV Movie. Just like an impressionist painting though, as you walk closer and start to look and little deeper, you see that the painting is not one contiguous image, but is rather a lot of little dots or strokes and that same lack of continuity that works so well on the canvas is a problem with this motion picture.

Even though there are many visual elements worth praising about KUNG FU KILLER, there are many others that are problematic. At best, the fight scenes were shot too close and edited too rapidly. Sometimes this was likely to have been done to mask the age of the 72-year-old David Carradine (White Crane) or the lack of skilled fighters like James Taenaka (Bingo) and Kay Tong Lim (Khan), who is no spring chicken himself. At worst, even though it was primarily a Chinese film crew working with an American director, the action, gunplay, military battle sequences and kung fu fight scenes were shot like DEATH RACE and suffered horribly from “shaky cam” disease coupled with needlessly rapid editing and “close-upitis”. As a result, a movie that could have looked fabulous and have reset the bar for how great a TV Movie can and should be produced fell lower than it should have at the test. I would have liked to have seen the TV version of this film for I imagine it was heavily cut down for content. For those looking for a bloody and gory set of fights and battles, KUNG FU KILLER is shockingly violent. There are eviscerations, amputations, beheadings and many a spout and spray of blood, adding a lot more color to an already colorful flick. Sadly, due to the filming techniques, what could have been incredibly exciting was too often hard to see clearly. This too adds an element of awkward impressionism to the film. It has been my experience that most Asian epics handle gory scenes with a degree of class and sometimes restraint. Even though KUNG FU KILLER tries to stimulate a sense of Eastern film making beauty, the bloodiness and grisly moments of shattered bones and shredded tendons felt distinctly Western in tone.

There are other traits of this cinematic painting that struggle with an impressionistic bent. The story feels more like an episodic plot in the first one-third, tries hard to gain a sense of direction, takes on a series of subplots and as a result becomes far to convoluted by the end. What emerged as a result were characters and their stories that were under developed as such they were not as satisfying as they could have or should have been. White Crane’s vengeance on Khan is shouldered aside at times for the secondary tales of Jane and her brother Peter, Bingo and his struggles with Shanghai criminal and political forces and even the tertiary stories of villagers Lang Han and his sidekick Wei. The impression that is created is one of profoundly crimson splashes of violence that dominate the film but don’t always add a lot to the story, blazing azure streaks of drama effected by stories like Crane and his past and present associations, and less intense dabs of pale yellow melodrama centered around circuitous story lines like Jane (Daryl Hannah) and Peter (Nic Rhind), whose story would seem to be essential but in the end doesn’t carry as much weight as it could. I found myself far more deeply drawn to the story of Lang Han (Osric Chau) and Wei (Rosalind Pho) and their fight to save their village and each other than I was the deeply contrived narrative of Jane and Peter. Many of the emotional attractions and attachments between characters felt forced at times, but that is likely to just as much a failing of the acting as it was of the screenplay and the directing.

There has been a little bit of buzz about the reunion of KILL BILL stars David Carradine and Daryl Hannah in this film, but just as we’ve seen in other parts of the movie, there are opposing forces and elements creating an impressionistic feel to KUNG FU KILLER. Despite age and a very busy schedule now that he is a “hot commodity” again, David Carradine plays his role well. He is calm, cool, charismatic and enigmatic in a lethal sort of way. It works to have an aged former student of the Kung Fu arts who has turned assassin and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve his end for the good of others. What doesn’t work is Daryl Hannah, both from a visual and performance standpoint. While not even 50 years old yet, there are times she looks far more “mature” than Mr. Carradine and she brings considerably less energy to a role that needed vibrancy. A laconic portrayal may work if you are playing a languorous blond beachgoer or suntanned surfer girl, but as a supposedly seductive and yet sadly sorrowful torch singer trapped on a chess board beyond her scope, her presence and performance seemed badly out of place. Normally, I am the first to vote for older adults to be cast in film roles so that the kid actors can go back to their high chairs to gain the time necessary to aid in their acquisition of experience and talent. In this case, a younger, sexier and far more vibrant actress may have worked better. Casting a young actress like Izabella Miko would have been a far more effective choice as her energy and intensity would have added a great deal more impact than the listless and less engaging Ms. Hannah produced. Then “Jane” could have been searching for her older brother in the shark-infested world of sin and have come under the protective wing of David Carradine’s character in such a way that an “uncle/niece” relationship could have been forged, just as a similar “uncle/nephew” air was thinly developed between White Crane and Lang Han. Such a course would have added depth to White Crane’s character, and made him even more compelling due to a mix of his appealing kindness and assassin’s brutality. Kay Tong Lim had a stately savagery to his look as Khan, but his performance many have been even more understated than Daryl Hannah’s and as a result he didn’t exude the kind of menace that was needed. For the rest of the cast, they seemed to be reasonably well placed. Some of the actor’s delivered their lines clearly and with passion, while others mumbled or slurred their way through their assignments. One thing that didn’t help was the audio mix of KUNG FU KILLER, which seemed to wrestle with the modern problem of blending dialogue, music, foley effects and other auditory attributes in such a way so that it all can be heard. When I am constantly manipulating the volume controls of my television as sound levels soar and plummet, I know that someone has dropped the ball when it comes to sound mixing or dvd authoring.

As has too often been the case with Genius Products/RHI TV discs, there is nothing to be had when it comes to a bonus features menu. There are three auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu and at least they are three interesting trailers I hadn’t seen before, unlike the ubiquitous “Maneater montage” that seemed to be a part of each and every Genius disc for a while. However, three auto-play trailers is NOT an extras menu. When you’ve got luminaries like David Carradine, Daryl Hannah and the very experienced Pei-pei Cheng in your cast, an interesting set of interviews should be a slam dunk. Even though the crew was Chinese and the director, producers and writers were not terribly well known, their recollections and anecdotes about working with the cast and shooting in some of the exotic Chinese locations that were used would have been a good choice. As I have said FAR TOO OFTEN, dvd extras create a sense of good faith with the consumer. KUNG FU KILLER is a better film than NATURE MORTE or SLASHERS, two very low budget films I have recently reviewed, but I salute both for having extras and I am deeply disappointed with KUNG FU KILLER for having none.

If KUNG FU KILLER had been like a Renoir or a Monet, I doubt if anyone connected would have minded the impressionist comparison, but that was not the case. When you walk through a doctor’s office, there are often times many quasi-impressionist paintings hanging on the walls, some of better quality and some that are not so finely executed. KUNG FU KILLER is a lot like those lesser known impressionist prints. It has some worthy components and leaves me feeling like I spent my time well when watching this film. In the end though, this is not a masterpiece, not even a painting that will engender interest among small museums or lesser known collectors. It is what is known as “an essay in the craft” as opposed to a “tour de force” and while KUNG FU KILLER may appeal to some, it just doesn’t have what it needs to really shine.

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