FROM SOUTH KOREA: I've watched thousands of martial arts movies, but I've never witnessed one like director Lim Kyeong-taek's No Mercy, which recently played at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Throughout the movie and even during the credits, you could have heard a pin drop.
I didn't see anyone leave their seats. When the crowd filed out of the theater at the end, people barely looked at one another. My guess is no one could escape the unspeakable premise presented by the movie's gruesomely uncomfortable plot.In-ae (played by Lee Si-young) is a bodyguard who, because of some previous brutal tactics she used to help a client, gets sent to prison. Upon release, she assures her mentally challenged, high-school-age sister Eun-hye that she'll never leave again. Later, Eun-hye unwittingly falls in with the wrong crowd and gets kidnapped, but the police don't seem to care. Eun-hye is sexually abused by a group of teens, who pass her on to equally evil men. In-ae must then face the question, What do you do when you confront the men who raped your sister?No Mercy is full of such touchy subjects, including school bullying, treatment of the mentally challenged, sex trafficking, exploitation of minors, and complacency and hubris on behalf of law enforcement. Furthermore, it blurs the lines between politicians and criminals.At the Brussels International Film Festival, Lim spoke about the movie: "I wanted to express the woman as a victim without avoiding that real expression of being a victim.
Many films coming out of Korea have sexual inequality, yet this film is about sexual equality."Her comment draws one to the fight scenes. In the snippets shown in the trailer, Lee looks unskilled, the choreography seems pathetic and the whole thing resembles a Holly-wood actioner replete with tight angles, shaky camerawork and low light. The irony is that stylistically the fights reflect the trailer, yet as they're presented in the film, they leave you stunned.The meek-looking Lee — in real life, a competitive boxer who bolstered her combat skills with three months of jiu-jitsu — does her own fights. In all the movies I've watched, I've never seen a female character beaten up so badly. Her head is rammed into walls, and her body is indiscriminately rag-dolled all over. And here's that equality moment: She dishes out punishment that's as brutal as what the men inflict on her. You start to believe that she can take it as well as any man. It's moments like these that make the film legit.You can't help but root for Lee's character to prevail. When you walk away, you're glad that she did what she did to all the villains, who got exactly what they deserved. And you'll likely be wondering, If I had to face similar circumstances, would I do the same thing to the criminals who brutalized my sister?
ONE FROM INDIA: Two recent films out of Bollywood also cover female empowerment yet feature different stylistic approaches to combat, which makes for two unique visual experiences. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and The Warrior Queen of Jhansi chronicle the real-life exploits of Rani Lakshmibai, a kalaripayit expert who refused to bow to the British East India Co. when it attempted to seize her kingdom of Jhansi. Lakshmibai went on to become a legendary freedom fighter who laid down the gauntlet for India's battle for independence from the British.In real life, Manikarnika was born on the banks of the Ganges, well outside the aristocracy. She was raised by Brahmin priests and at age 15 married the Maharaja of Jhansi, at which point she took the name Lakshmibai. When her newborn son/heir died and the Maharaja followed, she refused to cede Jhansi to the British.
At one point, she proudly proclaimed, "Meri Jhansi nahin dungee!" I will not give up my Jhansi. Those words still resonate among Indians and inevitably stir up feelings of pride and patriotism.Manikarnika, which stars and is directed by Kangana Ranaut, provides an Indian perspective on the Lakshmibai legend with a decidedly anti-British flavor. The film features Braveheart-like cries for freedom that engage Wonder Woman sensitivity, and it climaxes with exhilarating 300-esque fantastical fights that are worthy of a legend. It's melodrama and artistic license to the nth degree.This writer, being British-American, found it weird to be on the antagonistic side of the equation, sharing the same roots as the colonial oppressors — which we were. As the movie played out, I felt helpless because I couldn't reach out to the characters and assure them that we're not all that way.In the film, we're introduced to Manikarnika as a ferocious tiger approaches. She calmly walks toward the beast — and moments later, she's in the middle of a sword fight at a posh palace. When teacher Tope is instructing two students, he scolds one: "Don't fight like a woman, or the enemy will kill you." Then Manikarnika appears from nowhere and crosses swords with Tope. She remarks, "I'll show you how girls fight." Moments like that make the movie.Another example: When a minister tells his men that whoever disarms Manikarnika shall have his elephant, she nimbly evades strikes and counters while gracefully spinning toward and then away from them.
The moment she goes airborne and runs atop their shoulders, then rebounds off Tope's shield and spins onto the elephant's back — which is straight out of Hong Kong's Huang Fei-hung films — her destiny is sealed.Although the cinematic combatants use large body movements and their sword blocks seem to arrive a second before the slashes, making many of the techniques look contrived, it's safer for the performers. Ranaut's fights are unique, however, in that they use stances and moves derived from a classical Indian dance that originated in Hindu temples.It made sense for Ranaut to opt for delayed-reaction choreography because during the filming of the aforementioned fight, her timing was off and she sustained a gash between the eyes that required 17 stitches to close. However, for the finale, they use camera ramping and slo-mo freeze frames to hide the delays as much as possible.
ANOTHER FROM INDIA: Warrior Queen is an English interpretation of the same historical person using Indian and British actors to help sell the film to Western audiences. To that end, it inserts white actors into the plot's peril with a partial heroic slant — even though they're still the villains. It is, however, filled with memorable moments such as this one:Early in the movie, as Lakshmibai (played by Devika Bhise, daughter of the film's director Swati Bhise) is teaching women how to sword fight, a skeptical male grunts, "Do you think you can train these women to fight like men?" Lakshmibai confidently quips, "No, I will train them to fight better than men."The fights in Warrior Queen are more realistic than the battles in Manikarnika, and the combative rhythm is faster and smoother, with most sequences featuring combinations of blocks, slashes, spins, more slashes and so on.
It uses medium and tight shots during the battlefield mayhem and features plenty of motion in the background. There are no one-on-one duels because Manikarnika is too busy slaying the British!Devika's fights come across as authentic because she previously studied the Indian urumi, a sword composed of four flexible blades attached to a handle and used like a whip (sadly, not in the film) and because she trained with real weapons under one of India's top kalaripayit teachers, a man named Gopakumar Gurukkal. "It was tough [using real weapons] — it's easy to get injured," she said. "Once during training, I needed emergency eye surgery because a metal shard from a sword [got stuck] in my cornea."In fact, Devika's martial arts ability was so real that she had to untrain herself so she didn't accidently injure others on the set.It seems appropriate that after witnessing Lakshmibai's bravery in battle, the real-life commanding general of the British unit that quelled the uprising nicknamed this historical heroine the Joan of Arc of the East.
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 store.blackbeltmag.com.