• The Grandmaster / Yi dai zong shi (2013)

    *** This review may contain spoilers ***

    Let's get one thing straight. This movie isn't historically accurate. It is much more a movie about the relationship between a grandmaster and his respected opponent's daughter than a biography of Ip Man. That being said, if you know that's what the movie is going to be, it isn't a bad film after all. There have been countless movies about Ip Man and it's refreshing to get something else than more worship for a historical character whose legacy is bigger than the character really was. I'm not saying Ip Man wasn't a fascinating character with a strong moral compass who had an important influence on martial arts cultures, but after Ip Man, Ip Man 2, Ip Man 3, The Legend is Born - Ip Man, Ip Man: The Final Fight and The Legend of Bruce Lee, the world doesn't need another blockbuster that tells us what great guy he was.

    The problem of this movie is something completely different. It has a shallow story partially based on fiction and partially based on facts that could be described in four sentences. Southern grandmaster starts to care about Northern grandmaster's daughter despite being married. Northern heir apparent collaborates with Japanese invaders and kills his master. Northern grandmaster's daughter vows to take revenge instead of getting married, having children and teaching martial arts. After getting her revenge, she meets the Northern grandmaster in exile and they talk about what could or couldn't have been if fate had been gentler to them.

    Wong Kar-Wai's movies always had a slow and philosophical touch but they had a mysterious and even slightly supernatural touch that made Ashes of Time so profound and 2046 so dreamy. The Grandmaster is slow and philosophical but is missing the unique atmosphere and content of the other two movies. If the film were seventy-five minutes long without unnecessary flashbacks and side stories, it would be a very good movie. Clocking in around two hours, depending on which of the versions you might have come across, this movie loses momentum and turns out being slightly above average.

    The fact that this movie is still slightly above average and not a complete disappointment is related to three reasons. First of all, the movie's cinematography is gorgeous. Images and words are carefully chosen, the change of seasons and weather is portrayed perfectly and the fight scenes are particularly elegant and almost poetic by honouring the essence of the wu xia genre. The director might at times overuse the natural symbols and the slow-motion camera effects but these elements are still beautiful to watch. Secondly, the movie has a slightly gloomy atmosphere from start to finish that keeps it together despite the at times random time-line. The film shows us examples of resilience despite severe hardship. On the other side, the movie also keeps a different message for us: you have to see beyond the boundaries to become who you deserve to be. Thirdly, the acting performances are solid. Tony Leung is authentic as calm and wise grandmaster who still has his minor flaws and weaknesses. I really liked his balanced portrait of the character which is a welcome change in comparison to the numerous movies worshipping Ip Man. The most stunning actress is Zhang Ziyi in this film. She convinces as ambitious, proud and smart young woman who progressively becomes bitter, nostalgic and tired. This gradual transformation is absolutely haunting to watch and would have been even more efficient without the use of flashbacks. That being said, it's difficult to escape her genuinely beautiful and elegant appearance on screen which makes the character's fate even gloomier. The fight scenes in the movie are very poetic but so are Zhang Ziyi's costumes, face and movements and she remains credible as her father's skilled avenger. Nobody could have played this role better than her.

    In the end, if you are familiar with Wong Kar-Wai philosophical and poetic wu xia movies, you will also appreciate The Grandmaster. The acting performances are very good, the cinematography is beautiful and the movie has a gloomy vibe while still delivering a hopeful message. If you are looking for a historically accurate portrait of Ip Man or if you are expecting a vivid martial arts flick as the movies starring Donnie Yen, you might not get what you want. In the end, this is a martial arts movie that really focuses on the second part of its expression: arts.

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  • Iron Protector / Chao ji bao biao (2016)

    Iron Protector is a fast-paced and spectacular martial arts flick. It might not reinvent the genre but it's very well-executed. Despite some technical overexposure and illogical sequences, this movie isn't too overwhelming because it focuses on traditional martial arts fights and a few chase sequences. Those who need a change from franchises like Die Hard and The Fast and the Furious with countless exploding buildings and vehicles will get a vivid action movie that goes back to the basics of martial arts flicks with a modern twist in form of settings and directing. 

    The shallow plot and its final twist are very predictable for genre fans but still offer some welcome breaks from all the action. It also helps that the lead actor is a grounded hero with a strong moral compass while the lead actress portrays a sensitive character behind an arrogant facade. In a Chinese society controled by greed, individualism and money, it's almost refreshing to witness a character who cares for his convictions, duty and family.

    Iron Protector isn't memorable or revolutionary but a bona-fide martial arts flick. It was obviously made by martial arts fans for martial arts fans. The film offers a dynamic ride and never gets boring which makes it good for what it is. The fight sequences are particularly intense. Genre fans can't get around this film, everyone else should just pass.

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  • Gong fu yu jia / Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

    Kung Fu Yoga is as stereotypical as its title might suggest but despite average acting performances, artificial special effects and a weak plot, it's an entertaining, fast-paced and quirky movie that mixes stunning fight choreography, exotic settings and an intriguing mixture of Arab, Chinese and Indian cultures.

    The story revolves around India's lost Magadha treasure in Tibet that is searched by three different parties: Chinese archaeologists, descendants of Magadha royalty and a ruthless group of mercenaries led by another descendant of an Indian royalty. The plot has a few minor but overall predictable twists. While the story is overall of an average quality at best, the movie focuses on fast-paced action- adventure elements in the key of the Indiana Jones movies. Short humorous passages and mythological elements add to the genre potpourri. 

    There are a few truly memorable scenes in this movie. The opening animated history sequence is quite unusual and starts the movie on an original note to give the audience some background information. The closing dance choreography as well as the vivid soundtrack are also quite entertaining. The best part can however be found in the middle of the movie and consists of a spectacular chase through the streets of Dubai involving a vomiting lion. Despite the ridiculous idea, I haven't laughed that hard in quite a while which means that the makers of this movie have accomplished their mission.

    Kung Fu Yoga doesn't take itself too seriously and that what makes its charm. It's an entertaining movie that works best when you switch your brain off and try to enjoy the ride. It offers a colourful, exotic and explosive change from your everyday life. It also marks one of the few major collaborations between Chinese and Indian cinema and I hope to witness more occasions where these two countries join their forces. Kung Fu Yoga isn't an essential movie but an entertaining action- adventure movie for young adults and teenagers in particular.

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  • Gongjo / Confidential Assignment (2017)

    Confidential Assignment is a very entertaining humorous action- thriller from South Korea. The story itself isn't very original if you are familiar with classics such as Shiri but the movie's execution is really gripping from start to finish. The actors do a convincing job, the action sequences are explosive and professional and the story has a tense and vivid pace with a few welcome amusing breaks. The camera work is precise instead of shaky and a special mention goes out to the vivid soundtrack that suits the movie perfectly.

    The story revolves around a North Korean investigator who gets betrayed by a colleague who steals expensive printing presses, kills the investigator's wife and escapes to South Korea. The two countries set up a special meeting and the North Korean investigator has three days to arrest his enemy and retrieve the printing presses. Obviously, the skilled investigator isn't allowed to do this investigation on his own in a foreign country. Since nobody is eager to take on this dangerous job, a colleague convinces an officer who has recently been suspended from office to team up with the North Korean. The two investigators couldn't be more different. The North Korean is quiet, professional and cold while his South Korean colleague is loud, clumsy and sociable. In the beginning, the two investigators aren't getting along at all and hide important information from each other. As the situation gets more and more dangerous and the three-day collaboration is about to come to an end, they must trust each other in order arrest a ruthless criminal who is ready to harm both countries.

    The movie finds the right balance between brutal action sequences, tense investigative parts and a few doses of situation comedy. This film might be too intense for younger audiences but older teenagers and adults might appreciate this vivid genre mixture. If compared to similar Asian movies, the humorous parts aren't silly slapstick comedy but rather quirky situation comedy. If compared to similar movies, the action sequences aren't always overtly exaggerated but quite brutal, fast and technical. The suspenseful elements are much more expanded than in similar movies and there are a few quite sinister sequences. This pitiless approach makes the serious moments much more gripping and the smoother parts much more relieving. Confidential Assignment employs each genre element very efficiently.

    While the story isn't surprising and this kind of movie isn't anything innovating, Confidential Assignment is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that is on the same level as Lethal Weapon and other movies of this kind. If this movie were released in North American cinemas, it would be one of this year's blockbuster as it was the case in South Korea where the movie broke several records and received numerous well-deserved awards.

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  • Sabaibaru famirî / The Survival Family (2017)

    The Survival Family is a very intelligent movie that mixes dramatic and humorous elements in a balanced way. The film tells the story of a slightly estranged family consisting of a busy father, a lonely wife, an overtly sensitive daughter and an isolated son who has a crush on a popular girl at school. The first half hour of the movie shows us the everyday life routines of the four characters before a worldwide blackout drastically changes their lives. In the beginning, they believe that the power cut will be fixed within a few days but due to mysterious circumstances, this won't be the case. The four characters have to change their routines as their schools and workplaces get shut down. They ultimately decide to travel south in hope to find a place that isn't affected by the blackout and to join other members of their family who are living by the coast.

    There are several elements that make this movie one of the very best of the year. First of all, the initial idea of the movie is inspiring and mysterious. The audience will constantly ask itself what it would do if it were in a similar situation. The film also remains unpredictable until the very end which adds some tension to the potpourri of dramatic and humorous elements.

    Secondly, the acting of the four main characters is excellent and each character has its very own flaws and strengths. You will see each character change due to the unusual circumstances and you will witness an estranged family get closer to face challenges of all kinds. The movie gets a profoundly philosophical touch and discusses the values of family, nature, resilience, wealth and life in general in an inspiring way. You will end up rooting for the survival of each member of this refreshingly normal family.

    Thirdly, the family meets numerous interesting characters on its journey through Japan. The most interesting characters are the ecological cyclists and the tough pig farmer. These encounters introduce the audience to diversified characters with very different philosophies which leads to some situation comedy.

    A fourth strong point was the movie's final third that accelerated the pace and adds a lot of action and tension. The family has to deal with challenging, heart-breaking and miraculous incidents that will change the lives of everyone involved.

    A fifth and last strong point was the movie's conclusion. I felt it ended in a profound way that does the rest of the movie justice instead of trying to conclude with a misplaced bang or twist.

    If the scenario of a world without technology intrigues you as much as it does me, you have to give The Survival Family a chance. This movie is a very interesting alternative to the usual type of survival movies involving brutality, conspiracy and the supernatural. Despite its unusual settings, the film remains as human and realistic as it gets and despite having a message, the film doesn't try to preach anything. Fans of intelligent dramas might have found their highlight of the year already with this movie.

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