Ne Zha and Wu Assassins

Ne Zha and Wu Assassins
Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA

NE ZHA: With an elegantly constructed allegory that mirrors William Ernest Henley's 1875 poem Invictus — which asserts, "I'm the master of my fate; I'm the captain of my soul," — the Chinese animated feature Ne Zha is loosely based on a martial arts legend from the Ming-dynasty novel Creation of the Gods. With earnings that topped $650 million in 30 days, Ne Zha clearly rivals the glitz of any production from DreamWorks or Pixar, and it's appealing to audiences everywhere.

The plot revolves around a god named Yuan, who splits Chaotic Pearl into Spirit Pearl and Demon Pill, then traps them inside a lotus blossom. Since Demon Pill is dangerous and indestructible, Yuan casts a curse that a lightning bolt will kill it in three years. He tells a Taoist monk named Taiyi to make sure Spirit Pearl reincarnates into Lord Li and Lady Yin's third son. When that occurs, the son will be called Nezha. (Note: The spelling used in the film to refer to the character is different from that used in the movie title.) Fate goes awry as Spirit Pearl winds up in the villainous claws of Dragon King and Demon Pill becomes Li and Yin's son Nezha.

The only way to prevent Nezha's evil nature from wreaking havoc and slaughtering folks is for Taiyi to place the Qiankun Ring around Nezha's neck. If Nezha learns how to release the ring, the world is screwed. Taiyi and Li hope that by balancing Nezha's personality, heaven might reverse the curse. Regardless of the outcome, Li swears he'll die by Nezha's side while helping him to the bitter end.

The animation in Ne Zha's fights is exquisite. Virtual cameras move in, out and around, creating martial arts action that's beautiful. In part, that's because the filmmakers pay meticulous attention to ensuring the postures, skills and weapon wielding are flawless. It's an ability that few outside the Chinese movie industry have mastered.

Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA

WU ASSASSINS: In the past, 1,000 monks battled the five elemental Wu warlords (Earth, Water, Wood, Fire and Metal), beings that tried to rule China but were eventually thwarted. In the present, the Wu converge on San Francisco's Chinatown, which prompts the spirits of those monks to enter a human being named Kai (Iko Uwais) so they can lend him their powers to become the last of the Wu Assassins.

Iko's Raid films are renowned for their fierce fights, so as soon as I learned that he's the star of and fight choreographer for Wu Assassins, visions of wild action materialized in my head, with characters that possess millennia of martial mayhem in their blood. Against that backdrop, I envisioned Kai battling to prevent the Wu from disrupting the balance between heaven and earth.

Photos Courtesy of Netflix

Even though early reviews dissed the show for its dull writing, lack of humor and bland personalities, they emphasized the action and the fights. My analysis revealed that each 47-minute episode averages three minutes of combat. Most of the fights are stylized street brawls spiced up with Iko's pencak silat. Legit martial arts stars like JuJu Chan and Lewis Tan throw in a few of their personal skills. They end up looking quite similar, except that Kai's moves are faster and crisper than everyone else's.

That speed disparity is particularly obvious during the casino duel involving Uncle Six (Byron Mann) and Kai. It uses intercut shots of Christine Gavin (Katheryn Winnick) battling various thugs. In contrast, Iko's fights are four- to six-second takes that feature wide-angle, less-shaky camerawork. His character's signature skill of delivering rapid-fire punches for three seconds to show his speed and aggression is shown in a long take. Uncle Six's flame-throwing ability is cool, yet there's a disconnect because the fight always returns to simplified fisticuffs, which makes the superpowers seem pointless.

Winnick's fight, which is standard for most non-Kai action, uses dimly lit spaces, close angles, shifty camerawork, delayed panning movements and quick cuts. These serve to hide things and make it easier to insert stunt doubles.

That's in stark contrast to the scene in which Iko takes on a bevy of baddies using a formula Jackie Chan popularized in the 1980s: blocking, punching, spinning and kicking them at the same time while being shot by a roving camera.

Overall, Wu Assassins could benefit from increasing the variety of techniques and combinations that are used in its fight. It is, however, still fun to watch.

Photos Courtesy of Netflix

Dr. Craig D. Reid's book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors is available at shop.blackbeltmag.com

Up Close: Iko Uwais

As a boy, Iko Uwais lived in awe of friends who would don black uniforms and colored belts in preparation for their martial arts classes.At age 10, he was sufficiently emboldened to begin training in silat betawi. (Betawi refers to the ethnic group that inhabited the region near Jakarta starting in the 17th century.) His instructor was his grandfather. The gym, called School of Tiga Berantai, belonged to his uncle.

Although young Iko was a promising soccer player, he was content to relinquish his cleats so he could immerse himself in the martial art. In 2005 he won first place at the National Pencak Silat Championship, where he was named best performer in a demonstration.

During the ensuing two years, he continued to refine his skills — and then crossed paths with a Welsh filmmaker named Gareth Evans. Evans traveled to Indonesia to scout schools for a documentary he was making about the indigenous art, and one of the chosen ones was School of Tiga Berantai. Turns out the camera loved Iko — so much so that Evans offered him the lead in a feature called Merantau.

When it was released in 2009, Merantau was a hit. The first major Indonesian martial arts movie in more than 15 years, it enjoyed positive reviews and won two festival awards.

In case you missed it, here's the scoop: Merantau tells the tale of Yuda (Iko), a Sumatran country bumpkin who undergoes a rite of passage that entails learning how to survive in the big city. When things go awry, Yuda swaps the "u" in his name for an "o" and transforms himself into a "silat Yoda" who's tasked with defeating the dark side of Jakarta. The plot is moving, and the action is top-notch.

For his next project, Evans wanted to craft a psychotic martial arts grunge epic called Berandal, but because of budgetary limitations, his vision veered a little. The result was 2012's The Raid: Redemption. Inspired by Die Hard, Raid follows a band of Indonesian cops who bring their form of martial mayhem to a drug kingpin's 15-story apartment complex. In that setting, Rama (Iko) uses his silat to pummel the pill pushers. It was another hit for Evans and Iko.

(Trivia note: Five months after the release of Raid, Lionsgate premiered the big-budget Dredd, starring Karl Urban. Although it used essentially the same plot and very similar shots, it flopped.)

With Iko Uwais now a bona fide star, Evans scored financing for the Berandal concept, which now bore the title The Raid 2: Berandal. In the 2014 release, Rama dispenses with all manner of lowlifes, and surprisingly the film doesn't suffer from sequel-itis. In part, that's because Iko manages to exploit his comprehensive combative skill set to create dynamic moves that crush criminals in novel ways. The icing on the cake comes from the plot and acting, which do not disappoint.

Thus was launched the career of a martial arts superstar.

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