Twenty years ago, Rumble in the Bronx proved an unexpected hit in the US, and Jackie Chan, a star everywhere but here, saw his Hollywood fortunes rise. Jet Li followed in his footsteps, and in 2008 the two were paired in The Forbidden Kingdom. On his own, Chan would have one more success, in the remake of The Karate Kid (2010), and Li joined The Expendables. As they aged and the market shifted, however, their careers mostly returned to Asia–the two excellent Raid movies, from Indonesia, and films starring Thailand’s gifted but erratic Tony Jaa, didn’t see much mainstream action here.
Enter a new dragon–Donnie Yen. Ip Man 3, which goes into release today, isn’t going to command the thousands of screens Chan and Li did in their prime. And, at age 52, with a long and distinguished career behind him, Yen is hardly “new.” (He was in Hero, with Li, and Chan’s Shanghai Knights.) But he’s about to blow up big in the States. Sword of Destiny, the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), bows on Netflix on Feb. 26, and he’s part of the cast of a little something called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which you may be hearing about come Christmas.
Last seen in the fun bone smasher Kung Fu Killer, Yen makes a more than favorable impression in the highly entertaining Ip Man 3, continuing a saga begun in Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), also directed by Wilson Yip. These films are very loosely based on the exploits of legendary martial artist and Wing Chun teacher Ip Man (see also The Grandmaster), with this one taking place in 1959. One of Ip’s illustrious pupils was Bruce Lee, and the cocky, headstrong Lee is a character here, played by Danny Chan. (The future megastar’s then-status as Hong Kong’s reigning Cha Cha champion is amusingly referenced here, and an early bit, with Ip Man throwing water at Lee, is another part of his biography.) Ip’s relationship with Lee is threaded into a storyline that sees his beloved wife (Lynn Xiong) fail from cancer, scenes that Yen handles with clear-eyed stoicism. What we’ve come to see plays out in two other strands, as the lowly father of one of his son’s classmates (Zhang Jin), jealous of Ip’s success, starts his own rival Wing Chun training center, and the peaceful Ip is forced to duke it out with mobsters planning to take over his boy’s school, led by a “foreign devil,” Frank (Mike Tyson).
Yes, the Mike Tyson. There is precedent for this, as Lee fought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his last, unfinished film, Game of Death (1972). Tyson’s role in the movie is very much an undercard, with his pugilism pitted against Ip Man’s Wing Chun in their one scene together, after which he disappears with a cute little flourish. That the entire movie, including his softly lisped performance, has been subtitled in English, with the subs not always matching what Frank is saying, undercuts him with unintended laughs–I pity anyone seated in his immediate vicinity during a screening. Still, he’s up for it, and while I don’t know what market Tyson’s supposed to appeal to, his appearance shakes up a rote plot. (I was as interested to see co-star Kent “Fatty” Chen, a staple of Hong Kong cinema, as a helpful cop.)
Breaking no new ground, the production, as polished as something made in its period, does break a few heads, with the style only the great martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix) could bring to it. An elevator confrontation and the lengthy battle at the school (marred only by the constant, nagging crying of Ip’s kidnapped son–Man up, little dude) bring the “wow” factor, while the training sequences (love those wooden dummies) and the matches between rivals give the movie some philosophical weight. This is my kind of thing, and I highly recommend Ip Man 3 on a big, wide screen, where you can be the “first” to spot Yen’s star (or Star Wars) potential.
Well Go Entertainment is fighting the good fight with Ip Man 3 (which, given the absence of the first two installments here theatrically, might have been given a different, more audience-friendly title) and two new Blu-ray releases.
The distributor did okay business with The Assassin, which should find a receptive audience at home, provided that you’re not looking for any butt-kicking thrills. The film of Hou Hsiao-Hsien are all about tone, mood, and atmosphere, and while The Assassin does have moments of excitement they come and go very quickly, so have the rewind button handy. I’m not sure the plot is as complicated as it’s been made out to be, but it isn’t an entirely straightforward telling, so glancing at a summary is advised. (You can figure out the rest from there.)
The film is for drinking in beautifully composed images, including a black-and-white prologue, something Blu-ray excels at. 2015 saw something of a revival of the boxy Academy ratio (presumptive Oscar frontrunner Son of Saul also uses the narrow frame) and The Assassin follows suit, except when it doesn’t. (Shot on 35mm film, the movie expands to 1.85:1 for one shot, simply to accommodate the length of a musical instrument, Hou explained.) The audio is as clearly rendered as it was at the New York Film Festival as well, making for a stimulating presentation if you’re in the mood for something more cerebral. The behind-the-scenes snippets offered as extras don’t lend all that much insight into The Assassin–best to let it wash over you, then absorb it.
Park Heung-shik’s epic Memories of the Sword has its own complications, thanks to all those memories being doled out by lengthy flashbacks until the movie comes together and rouses itself. In olden days a young, literally high-flying woman (Kim Go-eun) is fated to avenge her slain parents by her adoptive mother, but the mother herself (who’s blind) may be at fault, a military commander (Terminator: Genisys co-star Lee Byung-hun) is involved, and there’s a lot of swordplay and wirework involved. The structure’s a mess and the whimsical touches to give it some humor don’t come off but expensively produced movies like this one are like feeding candy into your Blu-ray player, so indulge in a Korean treat.