Monday, August 10, 2009

Movie Monday - A Man Called Hero

So I figured I'd start doing the same thing with movies that I've been doing with Out of the Vault, which is looking back at old movies, doing sort of half-review, half-nostalgia. My initial plan was to concentrate mainly on superhero movies adapted from comic books, so of course, my lead-off for the official feature is a kung fu movie, 1999's "A Man Called Hero," directed by Andrew Lau and starring Ekin Cheng.

But it is based on a comic book; in fact, the same comic I talked about in Saturday's Out of the Vault: The Blood Sword, known in China as Chinese Hero (sorry about the poor quality of the framegrabs--I don't have this movie on DVD, only VHS, so I grabbed frames off of Youtube, with the expected crappy quality).

The movie opens in 1914, in the village where young Hero Hwa lives. He is excited, because he is due to try out to become the disciple of martial arts master Pride. Before he leaves, his mother gives him her prized possession, the family heirloom Red Sword. Hero goes off to perform a sword form for Master Pride and his chief disciple, Shadow. The master tells Hero that he will accept him as his student, and that when he returns from an errand in Japan, he will teach Hero the ultimate sword technique known as China Secret.

Hero runs home, bursting with pride, but discovers that his parents have been killed while he was gone. His father was a reporter who opposed the opium trade, and the foreigners dealing in opium have killed him in retaliation. Hero uses the Red Sword to take revenge on his parents' murderers, then hides out in the home of his girlfriend, Jade. In a scene that is lifted straight from the comic, their shoes keep each other company on the floor while they (apparently) knock boots.

The next morning, Hero takes passage on a ship taking coolies to America, while Jade and Hero's friend Sheng cry on the dock.

Sixteen years later, in 1930, Sheng arrives in New York with a sixteen-year-old boy named Sword. Sword is Hero's son, conceived on the night of the shoes (I'm not sure why they land in New York rather than say, San Francisco other than setting up the climax--in this movie, all Chinese coming to America come straight to New York). Sheng and Sword go to China House, a hotel for Chinese immigrants, and ask if anyone knows Hero.

Over the course of the rest of the movie, we see in flashback from several witnesses how Hero battled slavers while working as conscripted labor in a mine, how he was rescued by Shadow (Master Pride's senior disciple), how Jade found Hero in New York before the birth of their child, how Shadow and Hero fought ninjas seeking their master Pride, how Jade died giving birth to twins (a boy and a girl) and how the twins were separated shortly after birth. Sword went to China with Sheng, and the daughter was kidnapped by an enemy. We learn how a fortuneteller told Hero he was born under the Star of Death and everyone around him was doomed to die, after which Master Pride finally taught him the China Secret (just before he died as a result of wounds suffered in a duel with rival master Invincible from Japan). No one has heard from him in the years since.

Just as Sword is thinking he will never meet his father, Hero shows up. Sword is happy to finally meet his father, but Hero is distant, explaining that they can never be close because of his curse. Now that Hero has returned, the folks at China House decide to free the coolies enslaved at Steel Bull Canyon (the mine from which Hero escaped 16 years before, and which is run by the man who kidnapped Hero's infant daughter). The Chinese storm the camp and free the slaves, but the secret of Hero's daughter dies with the boss.

Soon afterward, Invincible shows up in New York, determined to duel Hero. Hero and Invincible battle on and around the Statue of Liberty, cutting it to pieces in the process, before Hero kills Invincible with the China Secret technique he has spent 16 years perfecting.

"A Man Called Hero" is an odd movie. Like many Chinese films, it tries to be a lot of things at once--generational saga, romance, action film--and it falls short in all of them. But it does have pretty high production values for a Hong Kong picture, although the CGI used for process shots and to depict incredible martial arts superpowers looks horribly primitive now. And there are some breathtaking shots, although choppy editing, especially in the Statue of Liberty climax, blunts the impact of those incredible images.

The movie tries too hard to cram years' worth of comics storylines into two hours of running time; the story alternately lurches and drags, and some major characters get short shrift. Big Bad Invincinble, for instance, only appears in one brief scene in the last third of the film before he comes back for the big climax. Likewise, the gang of ninja who cause so much trouble appear out of nowhere almost halfway into the film and disappear just as quickly once their little bit of the adventure is over, with one exception. That exception is the female ninja played by Shu Qi, who went on to play Lai in "The Transporter."

Wow. You can see why they came up with an excuse to give her an extra scene.

So anyway, to sum up: "A Man Called Hero" is about a man associated with the Star of Death, or "Death Star," if you will, who has incredible fighting abilities and uses a glowing red sword that can cut through anything. His wife died giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who grew up without any contact with their father or each other, until the boy was a teenager.

Sounds familiar...

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