The Rebel

by Charlie Nguyen (2006, Vietnam)

For the past several decades, whenever someone wanted to find the cream of the martial arts film crop, they (rightly) turned to China and Hong Kong. Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chang Cheh, Gordon Liu, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao—the list goes on and on, stretching back to form an unparalleled cinematic legacy.

However, within recent years, martial arts cinema has spread throughout the globe. Inspired by the aforementioned names, and the many films tied to them, other countries have begun their own vibrant, ass-kicking cinemas which blend together the influence of Hong Kong and China with each country’s own unique martial arts offerings.

Thailand immediately comes to mind, thanks to films such as Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong and people like Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai, which showed Muay Thai kickboxing in all of this bone-breaking glory. France burst on the scene thanks to Banlieue 13, Cyril Raffaelli, and the rise of parkour. Chile has contributed Kiltro and MirageMan. And now, with The Rebel, Vietnam is stepping up to the plate, and showing off some pretty impressive moves.

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Tom Yum Goong

by Prachya Pinkaew (2005, Thailand)

In 2003, a little unknown film from Thailand called Ong-Bak rocketed up the charts of action and martial arts film fanatics the world over, and for good reason.  Unlike so many action movies these days, which make use of copious amounts of CGI, wire effects, stunt doubles, Ong-Bak was, for all intents and purposes, the real deal—no special effects, no wires, just lots and lots of jawdropping stuntwork and cringe-inducing martial arts choreography. 

Not surprisingly, the film’s star—Tony Jaa—was soon being proclaimed as the successor to the throne of both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, due to his incredible abilities and seemingly suicidal risk-taking.  All eyes were on Jaa’s next film, Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector here in the States), and the clips that began popping up on the Web were certainly encouraging.  Tom Yum Goong promised to be Ong-Bak turned up to eleven.  Which, considering that Ong-Bak itself had turned the action movie thrills up to eleven, was something indeed.

But the fact is that Tom Yum Goong is a decidedly inferior film, and proof that Jaa isn’t quite up to Chan and Li’s levels as a martial arts star.  He’s got the bone-breaking chops to be sure, but he’s missing the necessary charisma—and it doesn’t help when he’s backed by a storyline as weak and nonsensical as Tom Yum Goong‘s.

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Curse Of The Golden Flower

by Zhang Yimou (2006, China)

I never thought I’d say this, not in a million years, but here it is: with Curse Of The Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou has become the George Lucas of “wuxia” cinema, and I mean that in both the good and bad ways.

But mostly the bad ways.

There’s no question that, by year’s end, Curse… will have been the most opulent, visually astonishing film to grace movie theatres in 2007.  Compared to the elaborate set designs and costumes that fill every single scene here, Zhang’s previous period pieces—2002’s Hero and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers—look like shabby high school productions.  Thanks to the incredibly elaborate costumes and stunning sets, each frame of Curse… is awash with every color of the rainbow, so vibrant that it’s almost blinding.

Unfortunately, like those Star Wars prequels, visual splendor is about all that Curse… has going for it.  And even the visuals ultimately fail to satisfy thanks to the shallow characters, threadbare-yet-still ponderous plot, and lumbering execution—qualities that I never thought I’d use to describe a Zhang Yimou film.

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District B13

by (2004, France)

One of the downfalls of having so much information concerning upcoming movie releases, especially foreign movie releases, at your fingertips (due to the likes of YouTube) is that it’s entirely possible to see all of the good parts of a movie before you even pop the DVD in your player.  That’s how I felt at first with District B-13 (aka Banlieue 13).  However, to its credit, the movie actually turns out to be a little more than I thought it might be.

Don’t get me wrong—District B-13 is still, first and foremost, a high-octane action movie.  The setting is Paris in the year 2010.  Crime has become so rampant that the government has resorted to walling off entire sections of the city.  The worst of these is B13, which is ruled by a ruthless gangster who has somehow come into posession of a nuclear warhead that he intends to use against the rest of the city.

Enter the two buddies: one is a by-the-books police officer with one helluva roundhouse kick; the other is a former citizen of B13 who has been selected to lead the other through B13 to defuse the bomb.  As you might suspect, the two hit it off right from the start.  Or maybe not.  While the cliches are pretty obvious, as are the movie references—Escape From New York, Lethal Weapon—the movie’s action sequences inject a whole new sort of thrill into the proceedings.

District B13

Of course, it helps when one of your leads is a bonafide martial arts expert who has squared off against the likes of Jet Li and the other is one of the inventors of “parkour”, a sort of martial arts/acrobatic regimen for urban environments.

Using very little CGI or wirework, the stunts and fights scenes have an edge and brutality that you just don’t see everyday, and the men scale buildings and fly across rooftops in a manner that makes Superman look clumsy by comparison.

There are a few unbelievable plot and character twists, but for the most part, the film keeps things lean and mean, becoming much greater than the sum of its parts.  And all of the business about ghettos and government indifference feels strikingly relevant given all of the urban unrest that France has experienced in recent years, which adds an interesting layer of subtext to the film.

Geochilmaru

by (2005, South Korea)

It’s safe to say that, in the annals of martial arts cinema, Geochilmaru will never go down as a classic of the genre.  However, in this day and age where even the smallest display of martial arts on the silver screen quickly becomes a CGI and wire-assisted spectacle, there’s something quite refreshing, and even affecting, about the lo-fi approach that Geochilmaru takes.

The basic premise is as old as the genre: a group of eight martial arts devotees have been invited to sqaure off against eachother in a tournament, with the winner taking on a legendary master known only as “Geochilmaru”.  But the film finds some clever ways to update the tried and true plot.  For starters, this is no period piece.  Rather, it’s set in modern day Korea, where cellphones and Internet access abound.  And in this internet-savvy setting, it only makes sense that all of the combants know eachother, and “Geochilmaru”, via Internet discussion forum.

As the eight men and women travel to the duel’s remote locale (in a battered RV, no less), we get small bits of backstory (though character development is certainly not this film’s strong suit).  Though teachers, accountants, bouncers, and hip-hop dancers in “real” life, they’ve all spent their lives practicing judo, kickboxing, kung fu, hapkido, and boxing.  And as they travel to meet Geochilmaru, we get several displays of martial arts prowess, as the characters decide to work out on-line discussions about the efficacy of various martial arts forms, stances, and ideologies face to face.

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