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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Is THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM the Jackie Chan / Jet Li pairing I've been waiting for?

Pardon the lack of updates, been busy writing a 400-word short story, having a MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA marathon, pondering the ending of my new script, and, well, some other stuff. So, here you go, a review of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM I watched this morning.

The Forbidden Kingdom

With all the negativity directed at this film from its pre-production to its release few months ago, one would have thought that THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is an abomination as horrible as PEARL HARBOUR or VAN HELSING. It was an easy target to hate on.

Jackie Chan vs. Jet Li. This is the film event that many Hong Kong film lovers had been waiting for ever since they both rose to superstardom during the 80s and early 90s. To hear that it would be a Hollywood-produced 'family film' based loosely on 'Journey To The West', with a white boy as the protagonist instead of the two martial arts legends was BLASPHEMY. To hear that it would be directed by Rob Minkoff, some guy who did the two STUART LITTLE films and the totally forgettable HAUNTED MANSION (I wanted to say 'horrible', but I can't remember anything about the film, so I used 'forgettable' instead), oh nom nom nom nom! (Actually, Minkoff directed a little Disney animated film called THE LION KING as well)

When I first saw the generic trailer with its generic martial arts scenes, I immediately dismissed it as another film that would probably make me want to shove chopsticks right into my own eyes like most of Jackie Chan and Jet Li's Hollywood films (THE TUXEDO, MEDALLION, CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE, THE ONE and the recent MUMMY 3, anybody?)

For a normal HK film lover with sky high expectations, they lamented the fact that this film wasn't produced by Hong Kong (or Mainland China), that it wasn't a hardcore bloodbath that pit the two against each other and have them do nothing but fight to their deaths in a 3-hour epic. Why wasn't this made ten years earlier when both stars (especially Jackie) were still in their physical primes and didn't need wires or CG effects for their martial arts scenes? Yeah, frustrating. If Hong Kong had done something earlier, we wouldn't have to see two of the greatest living martial arts film stars play second banana to... a white boy.

I never caught the film during its cinema release (it was released on the same week I came to Tokyo, and while this film only came to Tokyo late last month, I'm rational enough NOT to spend my yen on it), but I was mildly surprised by some of the positive reviews it received (63% on Rotten Tomatoes). And my sister, after watching the film, gave a most apt description about it.

"It's like a fantasy film (Narnia, Golden Compass, Stardust etc.), but with martial arts, and a mixture of Chinese legends and films."

That totally gave me a different perspective. So, after watching the film just now, I have to say that my sister was right. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is really a fantasy/adventure film, and a homage to martial arts films. Sort of like, er, KUNG FU PANDA. Nothing offensive because said white boy isn't some snot-faced, obnoxious invincible American kid who ended up becoming more powerful than Jet and Jackie, nor did it ever try to become more than what it really is.

So in the end, despite some flaws, I still find the film pretty entertaining. It's not a wuxia epic in the vein of HERO or CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, so comparisons with those films are pointless. But if I have to compare FORBIDDEN KINGDOM with mediocre post-LOTR trilogy fantasy films like THE GOLDEN COMPASS, STARDUST or ERAGON, I think THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is way better. In fact, I may actually enjoy THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM just as much as I did with the Narnia films, if not more. It could be because of lowered expectations. Or maybe because I'm partial to martial arts and everything this film pays homage to. It's self-aware, so ultimately it's more fun than heavy-handed.

Here's the synopsis of the film from IMDB:

In Forbidden Kingdom, American teenager Jason (Michael Angarano), who is obsessed with Hong Kong cinema and kungfu classics, finds an antique Chinese staff in a pawn shop: the legendary stick weapon of the Chinese sage and warrior, the Monkey King (Jet Li). With the lost relic in hand, Jason unexpectedly finds himself transported back to ancient China.

There, he meets the drunken kungfu master, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan); an enigmatic and skillful Silent Monk (Jet Li); and a vengeance-bent kungfu beauty, Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), who lead him on his quest to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King - imprisoned in stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) for five hundred years. Along the way, while attempting to outmaneuver scores of Jade Warriors, Cult Killers and the deadly White Hair Demoness, Ni Chang (Li Bing Bing), Jason learns about honor, loyalty and friendship, and the true meaning of kungfu, and thus frees himself.

For example, the extensive fighting scene between Jackie and Jet when the two first meet is actually really good and (appropriately) inconclusive. The white boy played by Michael Angarano isn't annoying, but then, I did like Angarano in the enjoyable SKY HIGH. He doesn't turn into an all-powerful badass in the end and remains enough of an underdog to attract audience sympathy. What he is in the film with Jet and Jackie is just like what the late Jonathan Brandis was with Chuck Norris in SIDEKICKS. (I'm sure this reference is going to fly past everyone)

Jackie is likable as Lu Yan the drunken kungfu master (I initially thought he was playing Ji Gong) Jet Li is Jet Li as the silent monk, but a little different as the Monkey King. Collin Chou's baddie is generic, and I agree with Lovehkfilm's review that it would've been so much cooler if Donnie Yen plays the bad guy.

I really like Liu Yi Fei as the Golden Sparrow, especially the way she speaks in 3rd person like The Rock. The filmmakers made the right choice by having some nice shots of her looking pretty and playing the pipa. She's supposed to be playing Cheng Pei Pei's character (Jade Fox in CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON) in the Shaw Brothers classic COME DRINK WITH ME, I haven't seen that (but dad has the DVD), so I'm curious to know whether that character really speaks in 3rd person or not. But man, I want to see more of Liu Yi Fei. (am I the only one who thinks that she really looks like Huang Shenyi in KUNGFU HUSTLE?)

Liu Yi Fei as the Golden Sparrow

Liu Yi Fei as the Golden Sparrow 2

Lee Bingbing plays the the Bride with White Hair, a role made iconic by Brigitte Lin. While I feel that her make-up is a little too 'polished', I think she did pretty well in the film too. And was surprised to see that she speaks English rather well (... better than Jackie, actually). I almost wanted to see her appear earlier into the film and do more stuff.

A surprisingly likable film. Swifty enjoyed it and Swifty really really want more Liu Yifei.

Mayonaka no doa
(Yes, it's a Japanese song. Apparently she's fluent in Japanese.)

(took this photo from Simon's review)


Oh, er, oops, here's the trailer.

What do you guys think of the film anyway?