Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Kungfu For Kung Fools

Hearken, voices calling for the Forbidden Kingdom to be... forbidden. From cinemas.

(I wish I was talking about China, too. But I'm not.)

There were complaints about how rip-offish the set pieces were. Words like "silly", "unoriginal", "irreverent" and "sacrilegious" were waved like Tibetan flags in a Beijing '08 Olympics' torch run protest.

(OK, maybe I do want to write about China. Maybe.)

The indignation from kungfu movie afficionados was so thick nobody ever paused to think that it might have been done on purpose. If the directors were poking fun at martial arts culture - or more precisely, certain perceptions about martial arts - they did so with aplomb.

Consider the plot: kungfu-crazed American teen falls through a wormhole into ancient China; to get back, he must learn enough martial arts to survive and complete a mission scriptwriters say only he could accomplish. Right, make some white kid the hero, with two genuine kungfu grandmasters playing sidekick.

Wrong.

After Jackie's and Jet's characters meet halfway through the movie, it all becomes clearer. The on-screen intensity of their initial rivalry, the friction, the repartee. This was what everyone wanted - a Jackie vs Jet showdown - and they got it. Elated over their first collaboration, they take it over the top. But when the reluctant non-Oriental disciple turns on both masters, they both put their pride aside to dish out a dose of discipline.

They look like they're having fun. Why shouldn't they? They've been doing this forever. Jet's is pushing fifty; Jackie, sixty. Retirement beckons - why not have some fun while you're on the way out, even at each other's expense? (and the audience's as well, but since they got half of their movies through pirates and YouTube, they shouldn't complain) A paid vacation. That's what it is.

It is Jackie's admonishment of Michael Angarano's character, however - an extension of the lesson Bruce Lee gave the West - that is the gist of what the movie is about.

"You've watched every martial arts film, played all the video games. You know the moves and their names inside out. Big deal. You can't even swing a stick properly! You're not learning anything because your head's filled with garbage! 'No-Shadow Kick'? 'One-Fingered Death Touch'? You know jack-shit about kungfu, white boy. Now hump those concrete blocks and gimme a hundred! And no supper till you're done!"

You might think that's rather mean of Jackie, but in case you forgot, he did graduate out of a training regime that would unnerve even the Spartans. Jet's own credentials need no elaboration. With regards to teaching neophyte "kungfu" nerds, there is no one else more qualified.

In the movie, Jackie's animated, impatient and fiery temperament is artfully offset by Jet's mountain-like calm. At the lowest point of the white boy's journey while holed up in a desert cave, he has doubts about his chances of success. "What if I freeze?" he asks the meditating Jet, who replies, "Don't forget to breathe." Ooh, how Zen.

The Chosen One may be Caucasian, but the real stars were the so-called token Chinks - and they stole the show.

All of them.

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