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May 06, 2015

Kung Fu Killer


Kung Fu Jungle / Yi ge ren de wu lin
Teddy Chan - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment

Donnie Yen recently won the Hong Kong Film Awards prize for Best Action Choreography. It's an award that is well deserved. And this is one of the few times when I would say that sticking around for the final credits is mandatory. Not only are the various guest stars given credit, but Yen and Chan seem to have crammed in cameos for many of the behind the camera crew. Above all, Kung Fu Killer is a love letter to Hong Kong martial arts movies.

The Chinese language title translates roughly as "Last of the Best", but I also like Kung Fu Jungle because it's more suggestive of the idea of fighting until there is only one clear winner. Yen plays a martial artist doing prison time for causing the death of an opponent. Made aware that someone is murdering various martial arts champions, he arranges to help the police find the killer, based on his suspicions of the identity of the killer and his methodology. The killer is man with one leg shorter than the other, who has dedicated his life to martial arts training. With the death of his wife, and seemingly nothing to lose, the killer sees his only purpose as proving himself the ultimate martial arts master.

To some degree, the setup is similar to Henry King's The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck reflective of his past deeds, while young punk Richard Jaeckel is itching to prove himself the fastest gun in the West. Beyond the discussions of the philosophical underpinnings of martial arts, there are the action set pieces that are worth noting. One very unexpected sight is a rooftop chase, with Yen almost lost in a sea of cloth, rows of laundry lines with blue sheets. It's a painterly image that is totally unexpected. The fight scenes are filmed to emphasize the more balletic qualities of movement. Of special interest is a sword fight that displays the agility of the opponents, as well shifting to a duel involving pole fighting and a knife, so that within this scene, the distance between the opponents keeps changing as they change weapons.

Wang Baoqiang portrays the killer, and it's no surprise that his acting was noticed. The sleepy-eyed Wang usually is seen in more amiable or comic roles. Here, he's a bundle of rage against the world, ready to destroy by fist, foot or weapon, anything or anybody in his way. At the same time he works to overcome his perceived physical handicap, his wife is unable to overcome her cancer. His monomania is never explained, although the flashbacks suggest that this is someone living at the very margins of society, misguidedly attempting to make his mark in the world.

Kung Fu Killer takes place in a Hong Kong where there is always a classic martial arts movie on television. Even if the faces are not always familiar, viewers should be able to recognize some of the names of those making brief onscreen appearances, both martial arts stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers, to producer Ramond Chow and director Andrew Lau. The closing music is of the type from Chinese Opera, with strings and cymbals, a reminder of the genre's theatrical roots.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 6, 2015 07:02 AM