Blu-ray: Jackie Chan in ‘Railroad Tigers’ and ‘Kung Fu Yoga’

It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.

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In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.

The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Crouching Tiger’ revisited, ‘Kamikaze’ Fassbinder, South Korean ‘Wailing,’ and more

kamikaze89Kamikaze ’89 (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder takes a rare onscreen lead in what would be his last screen appearance in Wolfgang Kremm’s 1982 new wave science fiction cop drama. Based on a satirical science fiction novel by Swedish crime writer Per Wahlöö, it’s a cyberpunk murder mystery in a totalitarian near future, where news and entertainment is controlled by a single entity called the Combine, a corporate monopoly that narcotizes the population with mind-numbing reality TV and upbeat news reports of sunny weather. Lt. Jansen (Fassbinder) is assigned to investigate a bomb threat at the headquarters of the Combine, which is run by a man known as Blue Panther, and given 72 hours to wrap the case (which is classified as a state secret) by his Chief, who is constantly under medical treatment.

This is a cartoon of a totalitarian culture where vegetables are forbidden and the police salute one another with a thumbs up and a smile and the film is filled with comic books both real and fictional (the Blue Panther is the star of his own series, where his nemesis Kyrsnopompas has become an icon of revolution) to hammer the message home. The mystery is silly and confusing but the film is entertaining, with Fassbinder dressed in a leopard-print suit and playing racketball in a police disco in his off hours. You can see the ravages of drugs and alcohol on Fassbinder, who is pale and pudgy and often out of breath in his scenes. He was dead by the time the film was released. This is more curiosity than classic but it is goofy fun and it features Fassbinder collaborators on screen (actors Günther Kaufmann and Brigitte Mira) and behind the camera (cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger) and a score by Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese.

It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in the US with commentary by producer Regina Ziegler and the documentaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year (1982) and Wolf At the Door (2015) directed by Wolf Gremm, plus a booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime.

crouchingtiger4kCrouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Sony, Blu-ray, 4K UHD) – Ang Lee transformed his love of “wuxia pian” (China’s epic adventures of martial arts, chivalry, and melodrama of the past age) into a worldwide smash by creating, in his own words, “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” As much about the tragedy of repressed love and the rebellion of a feisty young princess (Zhang Ziyi) against an arranged marriage as a hot-blooded action film, it bubbles with heart, soul, and sheer poetry in motion. Michele Yeoh kicks up a storm while Chow Yun-Fat relies on poise, confidence, and minimalist movements to make himself the calm master in the center of frenzied fights. The film soars—literally—with high flying action scenes that border on magic, but it’s the romantic abandon and delirious imagery that gives the melodrama it universal appeal. Winner of four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.

It’s been newly remastered from a 4K master for the 4K UHD release, and features a collection of new and archival supplements. New to this edition is the three-part “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger – A Retrospective” featuring interviews with director Ang Lee, screenwriter/producer James Schamus, and film editor Tim Squyres, all conducted by Tasha R. Robinson (runs about 80 minutes all together), and the vintage featurette “The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plus six never-before-seen deleted scenes, two music videos, and a new introduction by director Ang Lee.

Carried over from previous releases are two commentary tracks, one with director Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus, the other with cinematographer Peter Pau, an interview with Michelle Yeoh, and a gallery of stills. The filmmaker commentary is both entertaining and informative. Schamus cracks jokes but is genuinely sensitive to the film; he quips: “And now the exposition: Why are you doing this? I’m repressed and I’m in an Ang Lee movie,” during a conversation between the two female leads, but turns around to praise Michelle Yeoh’s performance as she holds the scene in close-up. Lee is no slouch in the humor department himself, but he’s more concerned with the cultural background, the themes of masters and disciples, and the physical ordeal of creating the film and the effects, especially the stunning martial arts sequences but also the amazing vistas and beautiful locations.

wailingThe Wailing (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD), a South Korean thriller that takes a dark turn into supernatural horror, is the third feature from Na Hong-jin, director of The Yellow Seaand The Chaser, two of the more sophisticated thrillers to come out South Korean cinema. He does a nice job of putting his horror in the material world of modern life with Kwak Do-won as a somewhat dim underachiever cop who is way over his head investigating a double homicide in his little town. Kwak isn’t too bright but he’s a doting father to his smart little girl and there’s still a little spark in his marriage, even if they have to sneak off like a teenager to the backseat of their car to have a little private time. He’s gobsmacked by the bloody crime scene, unnerved by the sight of a silent woman who appears at each crime scene like a demonic spirit, and unsettled by the enigmatic Japanese traveler living in the hills (Jun Kunimura). They are all clearly interconnected and as the body count increases and an inexplicable plague of untreatable illnesses build he puts his attention to the Japanese man with a hidden shrine of incriminating photos. Is he a shaman or a villain, and is this a serial killer spree or demonic possession?

This is dark and disturbing and surprisingly long—over 2 ½ hours—and directed with a slow build that churns up the tension as it shifts suspicion around. Na splashes the crime scenes with blood and gore and suggestions of unimaginable violence perpetrated on the victims, and he captures weird scenes of unnerving behavior that could be evidence of dark forces at work or simply fevered imaginations at work. But it’s when Kwak’s pre-teen daughter develops a rash and starts spouting filthy language with a ferocious rage that comes and goes like a fever (recalling nothing less than The Exorcist) that the horror really hits home for Kwak, who tosses aside police procedure and overcomes his innate cowardice to save his daughter. That’s not entirely reassuring, mind you. Where American horrors tend to provide us with earnest cops and wise religious figures, this film (like an earlier, non-horror South Korean thriller, Memories of Murder) offers no such comforting protagonists or confident insights to the supernatural origins of the inexplicable events. And when things get really weird and twisted in the third act, the brakes are off on this ride.

On Blu-ray and DVD. In Korean with English subtitles, with two featurettes and the original trailer.

phantomtheatrePhantom of the Theatre (Well Go, DVD) – The Phantom of the Opera looms large in this Hong Kong haunted theater / romantic melodrama set in 1930s Shanghai, where a grand show palace is reopened for the first time since a troupe of acrobats died in a fire 13 years before. An ambitious filmmaker (Yo Yang) wants to shoot his debut feature, a supernatural romance, in the theater. A series of mishaps plagues the crew and scares the leading man off, prompting the director to step in opposite the lovely ingénue (Ruby Lin), who remains through the disasters. There’s a mysterious, scarred figure scurrying behind the scenes, characters burst into flame and appear to burn from the inside out (the director’s girlfriend is, coincidentally, the police pathologist), and flashbacks reveal that most of the players in this modern drama have direct ties to the fatal fire years before.

The film tries to have it both ways, delivering supernatural spectacle and then explaining it away with pseudo-science that doesn’t quite hold up, and turns into a revenge film and a murder mystery. It’s directed by Raymond Yip (Yip Wai Man), a veteran of popular costume epics and grand action films, and he gives it a lavish, colorful look. The old style melodrama is big and lush and romantic, like the old Hollywood pictures of the 1940s and 1950s with modern special effects. It may seem corny to American audiences but it’s entertaining and visually fun to watch.

On DVD only. In Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

reignassassinsReign of Assassins (Anchor Bay, DVD) is a 2010 costume action drama making its belated American home video largely on the two international names in the Chinese picture: producer John Woo, who has a co-director credit, and star Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonfame. Yeoh is a top assassin for Dark Stone, a criminal organization determined to find the remains of a great martial arts master that is said to give great power to whoever possesses them. The relics are something of a MacGuffin here, an object to set the story in motion as Yeoh takes the treasure and disappears into a new life (thanks to a black arts version of plastic surgery) married to a poor but honest courier (Jung Woo-sung). When she reveals her powers to save her neighbors from a gang of bank robbers, however, the top assassins from Dark Stone arrive to take the bounty on her head. This is a colorful but unremarkable mix of martial chivalry, costume drama, romance, and period martial arts spectacle with swordplay, flying acrobatics, and special effects. Action star Michelle Yeoh is duly enigmatic and Korean star Jung Woo-sung provides the romantic warmth, but it is otherwise routine with little sign of Woo’s action pyrotechnics or his operatic approach to melodrama.

On DVD only. Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s ‘The Assassin’

AssassinThe Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’sRed Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.

Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.

It’s hard to follow, narratively speaking, as Hou abstracts the story into a flow of gentle, beautiful moments punctuated by bursts of violence. But it is lovely and graceful and beautiful to watch in action—Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping shot on film rather than digital video and they create rapturous images, which look amazing on the Blu-ray—and the soundtrack is equally astonishing and enveloping. Not for its flourishes but its dense, layered backdrop of natural sounds running through the film—the birds in the distance, the wind through the trees, the crackle of fires, the chatter of voices in the distance, the soft crunch or wooden clop of footsteps of characters moving through the world—setting the political machinations of the humans within a physical, tactile world.

If you are looking for a classic display of flying bodies and clashing swords and acrobatic prowess showcased as action spectacle, you will be gravely disappointed. For that matter, you shouldn’t go in expecting a grandly melodramatic historical drama of moves and countermoves. But if you want to be transported into a world you’ve experienced before, The Assassin is not like any wuxia you’ve ever seen.

The Blu-ray edition includes four brief behind-the-scenes featurettes and offers English, French, and Chinese subtitles.
The Assassin [Blu-ray]
The Assassin [DVD]

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