I went to see this film at the cinema last night and left feeling… a little underwhelmed. That’s right, I said it – Jackie Chan and Jet Li fighting it up in a crazy movie of fightingness and I was a little underwhelmed.
I don’t know if it was because I just wasn’t in the mood (possible), or, despite everything, I expected too much (probable). I think Zhang Yimou has ruined me for martial arts movies. I guess most of all, the film lacked subtlety. Like in the premise – kungfu-obsessed American teen finds ancient artifact in Boston Chinese pawnshop that transports him back in time to feudal China, the Middle Kingdom – somehow I thought there might be a classier way to do it, but it was pretty Narnia meets Never Ending Story. I liked the guy they chose for the American protagonist though. Jason Tripitikas was played by Michael Angarano, who I liked mostly because he didn’t look like… well, like most leading young men in Hollywood these days (although I was kinda reminded of Shia LeBeouff a couple of times near the begining, but that coulda been the hair).
Other main characters included the drunk travelling kungfu master Lu Yan, played by Jackie Chan, and the not-so-silent “Silent Monk” played by Jet Li. Jackie was cute in his dreads and did his thing well – he can do a pretty good ‘drunk’. The great surprise for me though was the other character played by Jet – nobody told me the Monkey King was coming to the party!! Oh yeah. That’s right. Monkey King! On the way to the movie I was just saying that I love seeing Jet Li in a Chinese role, like, speaking Chinese etc, and this kinda felt the same, like here is a really Chinese character. When I was in China we’d watch the Monkey King every morning while we had breakfast. I think it was an old HK version with great old animations and acting. I couldn’t understand how Jason, a supposed kungfu freak could a) have zero Chinese and b) have never heard of the Monkey King! I love that Jet really got into it and it was the Monkey King! Monkey King ftw!
Other elements that felt really Chinese for me were the wigs and costumes, which reminded me of all the dramas that you see on Chinese TV. I loved the really mythical scenes with the Monkey King and the Jade Emperor, etc. I was really surprised to see in the credits that practically all the names were Chinese. I thought it was an American production? Maybe I was wrong. It could explain one really big problem I had with the film — the accents. I’m not being racist or whatever, it was really hard for me to understand a lot of the dialogue. It’d take me a few seconds to try and figure out what had been said, and sometimes I just didn’t get it. Like in one scene where Lu Yan said something about a secret and it took me a few minutes of trying to figure out what the secret was to realise that he must’ve said “seeker”. I think this could have been overcome really easily… It is a Chinese story, set in China, with an almost entirely Chinese cast…. why isn’t it in Chinese?? There was some subtitled Chinese in places, which makes it even more confusing about why in ancient China Chinese speak Chinese to each other sometimes, but mostly opt for English. In the first half of the movie I found Collin Chou as the Jade Warlord easier to understand, but that could’ve been because he generally spoke slower. By the second half I was really in trouble. On a personal note, it was exciting for me to hear the Chinese and be able to understand some of it, even without the subtitles, like the old song playing in the pawnshop at the beginning of the film ^-^
Jason I can’t understand you.
Lu Yan That’s because you’re not listening!
Yan zi, Sparrow, is another character who is pretty romantic in theory. The beautiful orphan out to kill her parents’ murderer. Something that bugged though was that when I first heard her name, Yan zi, in Chinese, I thought of 燕子, Swallow, but in the film it was translated as Sparrow. Maybe ‘Swallow’ didn’t sound like a suitable name for a girl in English. She was really beautiful, though it took me a while to understand her speech – she has a quirky way of speaking in the third person, always referring to herself as “she”. Weird. I found the climax of her arc to be pretty anti-climactic, although apparently there was a reference to an old 1968 鄭佩佩 Pei Pei Cheng film called 金燕子, The Golden Swallow (not “sparrow” :P) in there.
The “White Haired Demoness” was a character who I was quite looking forward to seeing. The bounty-hunter witch “born of wolves” was fierce. Fierce looking, anyway. Girl was hott. Still trying to figure out why the Jade Warlord needed her, maybe he was just lazy. She fights with a whip, but handles it less well that Indy, if you ask me. Pretty mean on the ol’ feathery bow, though. And she is very pretty. Oh, and in close combat she goes into hawk-mode, twink-covered talons out and complete with eagle-cry sound effects. Striking, if not effective.
I feel obliged to say more about Jackie Chan and Jet Li, because, well, they’re Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Um, their characters were interesting, but as I mentioned I found it hard to understand what they were saying a lot of the time. Their fighting was great, but I actually found myself sort of looking at my watch in their first major fight scene together. I guess ‘cos I didn’t really understand who they were (especially in the case of Jet) or why they were fighting or who I wanted to win and why. The fight scenes in general were good (probably great, I’m not an expert), but some scenes felt really contrived, like in the blossom orchard thing, I just kept imagining all the poor props people assembling the trees out of sticks then sticking on each of the blossoms. I just felt there was so much opportunity with Jet Li and Jackie Chan in a movie together for there to be more comedy and light moments – they can be really funny guys! One thing’s for sure, though, Jet Li’s laugh is infectious! I dunno what it is, I guess the way that when he smiles, it’s his whole face that’s smiling. There were lots of annoying, mystical, martial-artsy moments in the dialogue for me, a few punchy in-the-midst-of-the-fray one-liners that I got after the fact, but a couple of pretty amusing comments too. Hee hee, “walking monk”.
I think that ultimately, the film didn’t feel “rollicking” enough for me. More rollick, people! More rollick! But the bits that stuck in my head were the best bits, Jade Emporers, Five Elements Mountain, The White-Haired Queen, the Monkey King!
Director: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Michael Angarano, Jet Li, Jackie Chan