Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge
Have you ever watched a film that was just so amazing that when the sequel came out, your mind started developing great expectations and that it would be a pip, which has nothing to do with a Charles Dicken's novel, yet a movie that could be a real humdinger?
In 2017, one of the most engaging and exciting elements of the Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao starring God of War is that it was a remake of Jimmy Wang Yu's classic kung fu flick Beach of the War Gods (BWG; 1973). This gave me the perfect opportunity to see how a film on the same subject was handled by two Chinese filmmaking eras 44 years apart and how the fight choreography was used to tell the hero's story.
BWG was inspired by the true legend of the hero general Yu Da-you, who during the Ming dynasty in 1555, killed 2,000 Wokou (Japanese pirates) while defending Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. It was considered one of the greatest Chinese victories of the Wokou Wars.
For the first 32 minutes of God of War II (GOW2), the grotesqueness of the film was disturbing as madman emperor Dong Zhuo was monitoring the development of an army of zombie-like warriors created by an evil, white as snow, female Mao Shan necromancer who tortured and fed children the five deadly poisons, while boiling their bodies in a vat of venomous toxic liquid. At this point, I thought GOW2 wasn't going to be a pip but a pop.
As blood oozed from the bodies of the sorceress' guards and pharmacists being maimed and bitten by the ultra-poisoned and mindless, brainwashed puppet teen named 19 (Charles Lin), who while making his escape became the god of gore with a Hulk-like rage impersonation, for some unknown reason I pictured Moses parting the blood-red strawberry Kool-Aid spill on a kitchen floor…training for his Red Sea miracle. While the bubble of great expectations for combative martial artistry was losing its air, to me, GOW2 was becoming fraught with the spirit of another Dickens character, a real bah humbug-dinger.
Fans of Hong Kong fant-Asia films from the 1990's may be familiar with the black magic ways of the Mao Shan sect of Taoists who were trained to catch ghosts/demons and do corpse herding, where they'd be hired to re-animate a corpse with mantras and spells and walk the body back to its birthplace for burial. This led to a flurry of hopping vampire movies.
Although being hunted down by Dong Zhuo's crack martial vagabonds who kill villagers like two deranged donkeys (ass-ass-ins) who refuse to tell them if they've seen the crazy teen, 19 has no memory of his demonic past and when he stumbles upon the fair maiden Chanyi in the woods, she renames him Yi Lu Bu, based on how he wraps a piece of cloth around his body to cover his naughty parts. The name Yi Lu Bu and the miracle of love becomes part of his mind rebuilding soul.
And that's when it hit me. Though not a sequel, GOW2 is inspired by the story of the real-life Chinese general hero Lu Bu as written in the 14th century, Chinese literature epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which when I was a grad student at National Taiwan University in 1979, it was required reading in Chinese schools. During the late Eastern Han dynasty circa the late A.D. 190s, Lu Bu fought for the most treacherous and cruel warlord, Dong Zhuo, who sadistically enjoyed torturing the common folks. A plot was hatched to kill the tyrant by using the songstress Diao Chan to drive a wedge between Dong and his now adopted son Lu Bu by creating a love triangle with the hope that Lu Bu would turn on Dong and kill him.
Director Mavis Cong creates an elaborate new dimension to the source material by using poison and sex in such a highfalutin way, that you've got to see how she pulls it off. Granted there aren't as many fights as God of War, yet what's important to me is that she gives justice to Lu Bu's martial prowess and his signature techniques.
Historically, Lu Bu, nicknamed the Flying General, was known for riding a powerful steed called Red Hair and that his weapon of choice was the halberd long pole fangtian huaji, which was a spear dagger with a combination of two crescent moon-shaped ax blades that were used for cutting, thrusting, slicing, hooking and blocking. It was an important weapon during the Chin and Han dynasties and was primarily used by soldiers fighting on horseback and foot. Over the next few hundred years it became a defunct war weapon.
One of Lu Bu's signature moves was killing 4-6 people with a single slice. Here's some food for thought, since the film is predominantly about the love triangle, perhaps his slicing skills would be useful in a pizza parlor.
What I like about the minimalist short fight sequences is that they feature strange floating jumping kicks captured in various angles using swish edits in combination with slow motion and speed ramping camera choreography within the same shots, i.e., the result of the poison's effect on his body switching between lax and hyper movements. Smartly, the film doesn't overdo it by having extended wire-fu flight patterns like in what we often saw in early fant-Asia films.
Yet the way GOW2 shows how Lu Bu develops his single slice-killing multiple attackers in one swoop skill is so subliminal that when he starts taking out multiple attackers at the same time, it feels like a natural progression rather than he suddenly and magically knows how to do it. Watch for it.
The love triangle escalating into a full circle of tragedy shapes the film in a way that even Shakespeare might appreciate it.