Review: Shang-Chi is a Top Tier MCU Film

Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.

Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).

That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.

It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.

It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.

Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.

Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.

At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.

It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.

Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.

Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.

Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”

I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Review: Mulan (2020)

Introduction

I was a huge fan of the Disney animated film Mulan when it came out and was easily drawn into the story that was based on an ancient Chinese folktale. When Disney began making plans for a live action remake of the animated film, it did not take long for strong opinions to emerge. An average sampling of reactions are that it had to not only contain the songs but Mushu the miniature dragon as well. I had been hoping for a more serious take on Mulan. This was one Disney film that could be remade as a grand epic action movie. I was also under the delusion that their live action Beauty and the Beast would not be a scene by scene remake of the cartoon, and I was wrong. The same went with Lion King and Aladdin (which I actually liked). I was all sorts of wrong there.

Chinese and by extension, all Asians, have long been under-represented in Hollywood. And for much of that Hollywood history, Chinese had been relegated to demeaning stereotypes or characters that were humbly subservient to Western male leads. Even as ahead of time and groundbreaking Bruce Lee was, his most famous role in American television was that of Kato, literally the Green Hornet’s valet.

When Mulan came out it was groundbreaking in many aspects. It was a Disney cartoon that featured the heroine being heroic and able to fight as well if not better than her male counterparts. It was through her actions that the day was saved and not that of the male lead. And the romance was not a major goal or theme in the movie. In fact, it could have done away with it without any harm to the narrative.

China made a large scale epic version of their own in 2009. It was a grittier, more grounded version. Though it was entertaining and had a particularly standout performance by star Zhao We, it was uneven and hampered by some clunky pacing. Unfortunately it was not received well at the time.

Mulan and the Curse of 2020

Along comes 2020, and it seems every movie that was supposed to be released for the year suffered the curse of Covid-19. Disney’s live action Mulan was supposed to come out in March. Then a global pandemic forced theatres around the world to shut down. It was delayed until July. Theatres were still shut down. Disney in a move that faced immediate backlash not only decided to finally release the film streaming, but to offer it only on their new Disney Plus service, at a premium cost of $29.99. But if you wanted to wait, it will be freely included for ALL Disney Plus subscribers in December. It would be inline with mass release digitally and physical for all platforms.

But that is the least of Mulan’s controversies. Liu Yifei, the lead actress received pushback for her support of the Chinese government during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. On top of that, the film was partially filmed at the Xinjiang region of China and thanked in the credits. It is region in China that is documented for it’s repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority, including “re-education” camps.

The least of Mulan’s problem is that it’s a remake of a well loved cartoon from the 90s Disney renaissance. So of course no matter how they approached doing a live action remake, it was going to be criticised for either being just a beat for beat, shot for shot remake, or changing too much. The decision was made to not include musical numbers or have animal mascots like Mushu. Things like this divided fans.

But is the movie any good?

So as it’s own entity, ignore the movies that came before it and it’s political baggage, is the movie any good on its own? It’s complicated.

We are introduced to a young Mulan who practices martial arts in a field, watched over by her father, played by the forever Chinese father figure of Tzi Ma. But Mulan is now of an age where she must give up her wild nature and be the dutiful and honorable daughter. That is marry a good husband and bring honor to the family. In order to do do that, she must give off showing how powerful her chi is.

Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as his ally.

Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as an ally. The call goes forth to draftone male from every household to join in the war against the invaders. When it comes to Mulan’s family, her father is the only male and is still determined to fight for his country despite being disabled. Mulan takes it upon herself to take her father’s sword, armor, and conscription letter in the middle of the night and disguise herself as a man to take her father’s place.

Unconvincingly disguised as a man, she joins an army camp and we are treated to obligatory training and bonding montages. She tries to hide her powerful chi from the others at first and trains while holding back her true self, but a moment of anger during training reveals her skill. From then on she is more highly regarded. Because, you know, kick another dude’s ass and you’re all now bros.

Mulan has several great factors going for it. Chief among that is how gorgeous the film looks. The film is awash with vibrant cinematography and costume design. Using locations from New Zealand as well as the aforementioned China locations. the landscape pops with its own personality. The film is dealing with a vague period of time in Chinese history and seems more interested in creating a narrative that is more of a legendary tale as opposed to history or even historical fiction. The Imperial City is vaguely described as being in Central China, as doing otherwise could ascribe a historical perspective. This may not appeal to historical purists. But let’s be honest, tring to make a myth historically accurate is just not as fun.

The cast of characters is a near who’s who of Asian and Asian American entertainment. Tzi Ma is perfect as the father, Rosalind Chao, veteran of Star Trek and The Joy Luck Club plays the mother. Hong Kong martial arts movie legend Cheng Pei Pei has a cameo as the matchmaker. One of the biggest action stars of Asia now, Donnie Yen plays the battalion commander. Jason Scott Lee plays Bhori Khan. Award winning arthouse actress Gong Li plays the shapeshifting witch Xianniang. And Jet Li has a bit role as the Emperor. And yes, there is also a cameo by Ming Na Wen.

This should have been a cinematic triumph. Unfortunately, it falls short of its potential. Sure Mulan may have unleashed her true strength when she shed all pretensions of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, but the film just can’t shed the trappings of it being a Disney movie.

As can be expected from a Disney movie, it is a technically well crafted, good looking, and good sounding film. It also plays everything safely and predictably. Rather than completely upset the fans of the 1998 cartoon, they kept many references to it, and unfortunately many of these callbacks fall flat and hold it down. “I will bring honor to us all,” is a callback to the song. “We are going to make men out of you,” says their trainer, another callback. When the warriors are in their barracks comparing what they are looking for in a woman, it is an obvious reference to the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” When the father realizes that Mulan has taken off in the middle of the night, he is next seen in a shrine asking that “ancestors protect her.” This is all baggage that could have been left a at the train station, but the way it is shoehorned in is excessive. And the repetitive emphasis on honor and dishonor becomes tedious after the first five or six times it is mentioned.

Also hampering the movie is the script’s rather oversimplification of how Chi works. George Lucas was influenced by the ideas of Chinese mysticism and Chi and partially based the Force on it. It is as if the writers decided that Lucas’s version was a scholarly treatise on mystical energy and decided to dumb that down even further. Somehow, the power of Chi is the purview of men. Now I know we’re dealing with mystical stuff here so there is no authentic interpretation of Chi, but there is a reason the yin and yang symbols are associated with it. Though Mulan seems to have a spiritual guide in the guise of a Chinese Phoenix, the film doesn’t address the tradition that the phoenix is symbolic of female power and spirit, whereas a dragon is symbolic of male power and spirit.

Though director Niki Caro does a fine job behind the camera, even with the action scenes, they suffer from unquestionably staying safely within the PG-13 rating. The battles seem violent, but as clean as they can be. And we know that none of the supporting characters, let alone the lead, are ever in any real danger.

Now, it sounds like this movie is bad. It’s not. It’s actually good, but definitely not great. Liu Yifei is a very competent actress and she does well in the role, however some lines are delivered a little more wooden than others and that just could be because English is not her native language. Tzi Ma seems to established himself as Hollywood’s Chinese father figure, and he is one of the gems of Mulan. Jet Li as the Emperor is nearly unrecognizable with a beard but bears royalty well. Unfortunately his voice is obviously dubbed in post. Jason Scott Lee, exudes menace as Bhori Khan, which is saying something since there is really not much to the character’s back story.

As I’ve said earlier, the film is gorgeous to look not only with it’s location shots but its set design as well. The Imperial Court interior particularly stands out for its set design. The musical score by Henry Gregson Williams can get epic and while at times it calls back to the songs from the 1998 cartoon, I would have appreciated some references to the magnificent Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. The martial arts action uses quite a bit of wirework for many of its fights and they work effectively in this setting.

I don’t know how history will look back on this film, where it will be forgotten or will it achieve a anysort of memorable status. There is indeed much to like about the film, but so much of it tries to be an appeasement to old fans that it drags what could have made the film better. It doesn’t hep that the script is a cursory interpretation of the complexities of Chinese culture. Will this be a breakout hit in China as Disney hopes? Who knows? China is the reason that Transformers and Fast and Furious movies make money. And it’s not like those movies are great movies either. This could have been worse, but it also could have been better.

But if it were made by China in this day and age, I’m sure it would be filled with a lot of nationalistic monologues and propaganda. So it’s lose lose for us.

Final Score: 7.75/10 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Review: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009)

Amazon.com: Mulan // Rise of a Warrior: *, *: Movies & TV

As an American born Chinese, like may, my first exposure to Mulan was the 90’s Disney animated film. And at the time it was an amazing film. Looking back, some of it is problematic in some of it’s forays into orientalism. but hey, we weren’t used to seeing people that looked like us in anything that came out of Hollywood, let alone Disney in a big role. So Mulan was a major milestone. When I showed it to my mother, in a Cantonese dubbed VCD, she enjoyed it. And of course like all old folks, “back in my day we all knew the story of Mulan.” Funny how I’ve now become like my parents in saying the same thing now.

Flash forward ten years and the Chinese action film Hua Mulan is released in 2009. It is also known as Mulan: Rise of the Warrior, Mulan: Legendary Warrior. I first saw this film on an imported disc from Hong Kong. This review, however will be for the US released Blu-ray disc of Mulan: Rise of a Warrior released by Funimation. It may be out of print or at least difficult to find because of renewed interest in the story and the release of the new live action Disney version. But it is available to stream on Funimation.com.

In 450 AD, the kingdom of Northern Wei (China is not united at this point) suffers multiple invasions by the Rourans, nomadic tribes that raid and pillage, your standard barbarian horde. The call goes out to enlist men to join in the fight to repel the invaders. Retired, and sickly Hua Hu insists that he is able to fight for his country. but in the middle of the night, his daughter, Hua Mulan (Zhao Wei), takes his armor, sword and conscription letter to take his place in the Chinese army.

Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army. She is recognized by a Tiger (Jaycee Chan, and yes, he is Jackie Chan’s son) a friend she grew up with, but is sworn to secrecy. One thing leads to another and eventually one of her commanders, Wentai (Chen Kun) discovers that she is a woman too. Things could go badly for except they are conveniently attacked by Rourans. Mulan and Wentai both distinguish themselves in battle and her secret is safe for now. In fact, her secret is safe for the next 12 years.

Over time, the two eventually both become generals and lead successful battles against the invaders. Meanwhile, Prince Mendu, of the Rourans disagrees with his father’s plan to retreat back because of heavy losses. Mendu does some Game of Thrones shit and proclaims himself the ruler and plans to continue the war.

There are some big battles. Well, at least a lot of extras to make their battles look big. And this Mulan was made at a time when Chinese movies still used practical stunts and the fight staging is very well done. Ultimately, it is a war movie and not so much a martial arts film. Though what there is is done well.

As a period war film, it succeeds for the most part, but as a story it suffers from an uninteresting villain that himself prefers to lay on a mat like Jabba the Hutt and let things happen around him. Really, he’s not cool enough to do that. The movie also suffers from several unnecessary melodramatic tropes, such as the obvious romance between Mulan and Wentai, but which, for variou reasons is doomed.

Even though the film says that a dozen years have passed, it certainly does not look it as all the characters look as if they’ve only been fighting for a few weeks together. And even though there are great shots of thousand of extras in formation, the actual battles become more close and appear to be more like perhaps a hundred stunt performers.

Throughout this, though is the heavy weight put on the shoulders of Zhao Wei, who as Vicky Zhao, is perhaps best remembered as the female lead in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. Ironically, this is her second role as a crossdressing warrior. She also disguised herself as a man to infiltrate an enemy camp in John Woo’s grander and better period war epic Red Cliff. Zhao Wei is really the standout in the film as she has the most depth of character as time and war takes a toll on her being the witness to death and loss of so many comrades over time. Unfortunately the low hanging fruit of decision to leave, the big reveal to everyone of who she is, and her reunion with her father were done as merely passing scenes that you’d miss if you blinked.

Director Jingle Ma, is a veteran of Hong Kong Cinema, but it seems he may have hedged his bets when given the chance for a sprawling epic. In the end it is a more compact film than it set out t be with a romance angel that is really not needed. But then again, Asian audience love their melodramas and stories about doomed love.

The vast open locations suffer from a purposeful lack of color. The landscape is fifty shades of brown. And costume design leans to drab grays and black, rendering a near monotone cinematography. It falls in line with the more serious and gritty tone that the filmmakers were going through. Perhaps it was conscious decision to not be compared to the Disney Mulan cartoon. Image quality is fairly sharp though. Though there is violence aplenty, it is still very much PG13 violence. To be fair, I don’t think Chinese censors have allowed bloody R rated type movies since their takeover of Hong Kong and their cinemas.

The musical score stands out, and somehow works considering there are five credited composers. There is ample usage of traditional drums and the Chinese erhu.

But it is uneven editing, a clunky script and an unnecessary character hold the film back from being genuinely great. Mulan was made on a $12 million budget. It’s word box office gross was $1.8 million. That is a shame, even though the movie has issues, it is still entertaining.

Though I do advise watching the film in it’s intended language of Mandarin, the English dub is surprisingly serviceable.

Final Score: 8/10

A Platinum Review: Ghost of Tsushima

As a fan of Asian Cinema, watching samurai films, particularly those of Akira Kurosawa was a big part of my life. There have been a few samurai and ninja based games over the years I’ve played. But most of them could be almost any game re-skinned from another action game. Sucker Punch studio not only made a samurai era game, but made a loving tribute to the genre that is genuinely immersive, not in the historical world of the samurai, but in the legendary world of the samurai. Based on historical events, Ghost of Tsushima is an action stealth game that immediately grabs the player and drops them into a world straight out of samurai cinema. Whether it is the best game of the year will be debated, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful games of the year and also incredibly fun. It is exclusive to Playstation 4 consoles. For now.

Photo mode in Ghost of Tsushima is the best I’ve ever seen.

Historically, in the later part of the thirteenth century, the island of Tsushima was overrun by Mongols who would use the island as a stepping stone towards the invasion of Japan. The Mongols were repelled at Kyushu by the Shogun’s forces and the Mongol fleet was reportedly lost to a typhoon.

In Ghost of Tsushima, a small force of 80 samurai are defeated defending the island against the Mongol invaders. Only a handful survive the battle, one of whom is Lord Shimura, the governing lord of the island. The other, is his nephew Jin Sakai who is will be the game’s main character. Lord Shimura is captured by the leader of the invasion Khoutan Khan, who wants the lord’s surrender and cooperation to quell any insurgency from the rest of the island. Jin was rescued from the battlefield by a peasant woman who is also a thief and sees in him an ally who can help free her captured brother, a talented smith, from Mongol hands. Jin sees her as a useful ally to help in freeing his lord and uncle from the Mongols in the hopes that he may lead the island against the foreign invaders.

Ghost of Tsushima is an open world game with many sidequests and character based quests along the way to a conclusive story that Sucker Punch wants to tell. As opposed to RPG open world games, what you say or do in the game does not effect how the outcome of the game eventually ends. It has a three act structure where you can take your time finishing each act or rush through the main story to finish the act. After each act, another portion of the map will open up for exploring and liberation.

A major theme of Ghost of Tsushima is the transformation of Jin from an upright samurai warrior to become what the peasants will eventually call the “Ghost,” a spirit of vengeance who slays the foreigners without mercy, fading in and out of the shadows. The conflict comes not only with the struggle between Jin and the Mongol invaders but with his principles as a samurai as well. Face your enemies and look them in the eyes, or sneak up on them and put a knife in their backs. You may try your best to stick to the code of the samurai and are welcome to it, but there are definitely some quests and story driven scenes where you compromise your samurai honor. Either way, there really is no deciding choice to play strictly as ghost or samurai. Within the game you can stealthily go into a camp, clean out lookouts and guards and then challenge the last handful or even the commander to a standoff. Or you can go right up to camps and forts like a complete nutter taking on a dozen guards and archers. How you play is up to you. But since you are playing a narrative, you will end up in the same place in the end.

From the opening screen, you are presented with multiple choices in how to play. Besides the difficulty level you are given the choice of English dialog with or without subtitles or Japanese dub with English subtitles. Please note that since the game was motion captured using Asian American actors, the original language spoken on set is English and in my opinion matches the characters and expressions properly. And as a treat for samurai cinema fans, there is a Kurosawa mode which has the game in black and white, with added film grain and even the occasional film scratches. You can change these options in the menu at any time. Kurosawa mode is fun, but then you would be denying yourself some of the colorful and beautiful art direction.

Gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima is very fluid and is based on combinations of light attacks, heavy attacks, dodge or parry. With these simple sword moves, you can switch to different stances on the fly to adapt to different enemies. One stance is effective against sword wielders, another is effective against spear wielders, etc. Within that framework, you also have access to other weapons than your sword, you can switch on the fly to a half bow, and a longbow, each with the option to ar specialised arrows. You’ll also have access to a range of less than honorable throwing weapons at your disposal which you can use either stealthily or in combat.

Throughout the game, you will unlock perks that upgrade your fighting abilities and armor sets. Each armor set has their own perks and buffs. The main weapon that Jin will be using throughout the game will be his katana and tanto (neither of which are historically accurate for the era). The set he has in the beginning will stay with him throughout the game, they can be improved at a smithy. The armor sets, his swords, as well as his bows can be upgraded as well by visiting armorer or bowers. They can all be cosmetically changed by collecting flowers within the game and trading them for dyes at a merchant for different looks.

As is the norm in modern video games, there are many side paths to take and opportunities to pick up collectables. Some of these are not essential like Mongolian artifacts or records, but they do provide historical context to the game. But you will want to pay attention for certain side paths. Following a golden bird will often lead you to points of interest, either an important quest, a piece of armor, a sword skin, or importantly a hot spring bath where you can recover and increase maximum health. Practicing sword strikes at the scattered bamboo sword strike spots in the map is more than just good practice, they increase resolve which is the gauge that empowers powerful attacks.

Visiting Shinto shrines and bowing before them allows Jin to obtain charms that will give many different advantages such as increased attacks, healing, or better stealth. And most importantly, following foxes to a fox shrine will increase those charm slots where you can equip more charms, even stacking them for increases in damage. Most importantly, you can often pet the fox afterward. Sometimes they don’t stick around though, and that distresses me.

A true warrior always pets the fox.

Though there are many side quests in the game, none of them are “fetch quests.” You won’t find yourself looking for someone’s lost pet or carrying a letter from point A to B. There are character based quests that follow the storylines of the game’s supporting characters. Completing their quests will reward you with perks, so do those for sure. You will also encounter what are labeled as Mythic Tales, quests that Jin first hears from a storyteller that is based on Japanese myth but will lead to him learning a legendary attack, armor, or weapon. The end of these quests will usually result in a one on one duel that once won will award you with said reward. These duels are set up like classic samurai films with the tense standoff and the draw of weapons.

While playing Ghost of Tsushima, Jin will often encounter peasants who are under distress and will as for his help in either saving someone or ridding a farm of invaders. Often this doesn’t have a happy ending and you’ll sometimes end up being the bearer of tragic news.

And of course there are also random Mongol patrols to challenge. There is also the opportunity to liberate Mongol forts and camps so that they may be re-occupied by the citizens. Killing leaders will unlock upgrades to Jin’s stances and also learn new ones. So there is very little filler in the game and it doesn’t feel artificially padded out to stretch out the length of the game.

The acting really works well and suits their characters well. Character animation and fine detail may not be on par with that of games such as The Last of Us, though. But don’t let that turn you away as this is an absolutely beautiful game to play, and play with. I’ve spent a great deal of time using photo mode and recording some duels. Sucker Punch really shows off what they can do with particle effects as the screen is often filled with falling leaves or even burning embers from fires. The backgrounds are without a doubt works of art.

The sound design is top notch and in the game’s options you can choose various ways you listen to the game from a soundbar (like me), home theater, headphones, 3D headphones, etc. The music by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi is award worthy.

Despite that, there are a few things I wished they included in the game. Samurai may be best known for their swords, but they were also supposed to be adept at using the naginata, the Japanese spear. He does not get to use one in the game. And although their are instances of dialog choices, whatever you choose doesn’t effect the game in any way. And as of this writing, there is no New Game Plus mode in it or announced which many online, including me are clamoring for. However, Sucker Punch has announced a free multiplayer element that will incorporate more supernatural elements to the game and will be separate from the main story.

Honestly I was looking forward to the game for some time after seeing the original trailers and picked it up on the day of release. I fell in love with it right away. It is one of the only games I received a platinum trophy (it’s actually not that hard to do) from and even took the extra step of completing every collectable in the game.

Highest Recommendations

Final Score: 9.5/10

Review: Ip Man 4 The Finale

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There is a certain amount of leeway I give to Hong Kong cinema, especially for martial arts films. The history of the genre is not filled with the most grand scripts or original stories. Historical set martial arts films delve into historical fiction most of the time if not outright fantasy. A dead giveaway is that any movie with the word Shaolin in it is probably pure fiction. Any movie that features a character named Wuang Fei Hung is pure fiction other than there was a real Wong Fei Huang that existed in real life. Well, Ip Man, the real life grandmaster of Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee’s instructor, has now joined that pantheon of legendary martial artists immortalized as absolute fictionalized real life martial artists like Wong Fei Hung.

There is no such thing as an official Ip Man franchise since we are dealing with a historical figure, but the films that are used as reference are those starring Donnie Yen as Ip Man. Much like Jet Li’s portrayal of Wong Fei Hung, he will probably be synonymous with that character a.forever despite a multi-decade long career. Simply called Ip Man, the films have become a high standard in martial arts action. But let me be honest. While portraying titular character as a national hero, he has become a symbol of Chinese honor and virtue. That is all well and good. The downside, however, is casual, hopefully unintended, racism and and stereotyping towards non-Chinese. In the case of Ip Man 4:The Finale. there is a definite sense of Chinese spiritual pride in the face of xenophobia.

Through the last three Ip Man films, we’ve seen him fight against the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai (probably the least cartoonish portrayal of non-Chinese); an over the top British boxer in the Hong Kong colony who insults Chinese Kung Fu; and an American land developer trying to take over a grade school. Mike Tyson turns in a surprisingly decent performance as the leader of the real estate gang. The portrayals of white Europeans and Americans have tended towards stereotypical tropes of blatant racists.

In Ip Man 4: The Finale, Sifu Ip finds himself in 1964 San Francisco. After his wife passed away, he is left with a rebellious teenage son who is estranged from him (of course). At the behest of his student, Bruce Lee, Ip decides to visit him in San Francisco. This will set the table up for tensions between bigoted Americans and the community of Chinatown.

As a born and raised San Franciscan, it is absolutely obvious that the locations of Ip Man 4 look nothing like San Francisco. There is not much to recreate the look of the city from that time period other than maybe the correct look of our street signs. The main tensions arise from two fronts, a racist Marine sergeant and extremely pro-Karate exponent (Scott Adkins), and Walters, an Immigration officer who has it out for the local Chinese Association. There is no Marine training camp in Northern California, let alone the Bay Area. And I highly doubt immigration officers in 1964 wore black leather bomber jackets.

But, as I said earlier, no one comes to see a martial arts film for compelling scripts or spectacular acting. Though the Chinese cast is full of veterans and all do well, the same can not be said for the cast of Western actors who either stiff and unemotionally recite their lines or are over the top in their cartoonish villainy. Scott Adkins treads the line in between. Even though his character is over the top, he come across more emotionally believable.

There are, of course, plenty of spectacular fight scenes not only featuring Donnie Yen but also Danny Chan Kwok Kwan as Bruce Lee. Chan has almost made a career of playing Bruce Lee. He’s played lookalike homages to Bruce Lee in such films as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu League. He has also played the legendary star The Legend of Bruce Lee television series, and  in Ip Man 3 and 4. By this time he fits in comfortably in the role. It is a faithful and close dedication to Lee, as we have know him on screen. Chan does well in that regard and carries it off well. The real Bruce Lee in non-screen fights would not have fought like we see in this film. Like I said, this is historical fiction.

But in the end it all comes down to the the one on one showdown between Donnie yen and Scott Adkins. Scott Adkins has, for years, been making a name for himself as not only a great martial arts actor, but has also impressed as an actor as well. With no wire or computer trickery, the fight is a a kinetic hard hitting battle between wing chun and karate.

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Returning as director is Wilson Yip as well as action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. Yuen Woo Ping is a legendary choreographer, and he has worked with Donnie Yen throughout Yen’s twenty-five year plus career. The team manages provide plenty of glorious action set pieces. The same ca not be said for the scripting. However beneath that, either intentionally or unintentionally, lies a subtext of the treatment of immigrants. Though the comments from the Americans seem more at home to a show like Warrior, which takes place a hundred years before Ip Man 4, the xenophobia somehow seems relevant in light of how the world perceives America talks about immigrants today. And as I write this, we are seeing an uptick in xenophobia against Asians and specifically Chinese. Yes, some of the messaging can be over the top, but now it’s unfortunately too topical.

Ip Man 4: The Finale goes out with style and is proud entry into not only the franchise but as it closes out the series, it is also one that will stand as one of the better martial arts films to come out of China and Hong Kong. It concludes the saga on a high note, and if we can believe it, it genuinely is the last of these films. Now, that is not to say that such quality will be over with as there has already been a spinoff movie titles Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy released to very good reception.

Ip Man 4: The Finale is distributed by Well Go USA and comes to digital services on April 7th, 2020, and on home video, including 4K UHD disc on April 21st.

Final Score: 9/10

Parasite vs. The Oscars So (Mostly) White

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Oscar season has come and gone and in what seems to be a ongoing problem with the Academy is the lack of diversity in their nominations. Yes, once again the major categories showed a lack of people of color. Only one Black woman was nominated for a major award,  Cynthia Erivo for Best Actress in Harriett. Akwafina may have made history and wowed the Golden Globes voters for her performance in The Farewell, but apparently she did not make the cut for the final list of nominees for Best Actress.

No female directors were nominated this year despite Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women making the list for Best Picture. Tom Hanks was acknowledged with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, yet it’s director, who used very unique techniques in filming to recreate the feel of the sets and the show, Marrielle Heller, did not get such acknowledgement. Lulu Wang, who directed one of my favorite films of the year, the aforementioned The Farewell, was passed over for all categories including her screenplay.

I recently saw a comment on social media to mention any other good films by female directors. So along with the above mentioned ones, we can add Alma Har’el (Honey Boy), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet), and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers). It is very shortsited to think that no women diretors had directed anygood movies all year. and it just onfirms an inherent bias.

Now, let me be clear about the films that were nominated. I did manage to see a good portion of the major nominees and none of them I felt were undeserving of acknowledgment. However some of the films that I felt were slighted were just as deserving or even more so. But the Academy once again shows odd ways of nominating films.

Some films were almost automatic because of the names behind it like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both were fine films but neither of them is a reflection of the best work by their directors.  The Irishman was a very good film but it is inevitable that it will be unfairly compared to Goodfellas yet it was Scorsese’s most ambitious film. I believe it got default nomination out of sympathy. As plodding and boring at some points that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, The Academy loves films about itself and about the good old days in Hollywood. These two films were going to automatically suck up some air as far as nominations, especially with two nominations for supporting actors going to The Irisman actors Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Sorry ,Tzi Ma (The Farewell), no room for you on the bus.

Yet somehow amidst the no surprise nominees, there  somended up some surprising winners. Bon Joon-ho won an Oscar for his original screenplay of Parasite. Taika Waititi was the first Maori to win an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. You could feel something was in the air as the Academy audience was clearly cheering Bong Joon-ho and Parasite on during every category it was nominated for was mentioned. It was without question the favorite and eventual winner for best International film. The best screenplay win for Parasite was a nice surprise especially since it is a script originally in Korean. Winning International Film Oscar was probably the safest bet of the night.

When it came down to Best Director, I don’t think anyone was as surprised to win as Bong Joon-ho. Afterall, the other nominees were the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes (1917), and Todd Phillips (Joker). Like I said, I can’t argue with the choice of nominees, despite the lack of female representation. Yet history was made that night as Bong Joon-ho became the first South Korean director to win Best Director.

Parasite’s mark on Oscar history was sealed when the ever elegant, and not at all looking 82 years old, Jane Fonda announced that Parasite was the Best Picture of the year. Bong Joon-ho ended up tying none other than Walt Disney as the only person to win four Oscars in one night. Parasite was the first Korean film to win a screenplay award. As stated before, Bong Joon-ho was the first Korean director to win a Best Director Award. It was the first Korean film to ever be nominated for an International Oscar, and it won. Parasite was not only the first Korean film to win Best Picture it was the first film foreign language film in the entire 92 year history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture.

The significance of Parasite’s success is hard to say at the moment, but it will definitely not be forgotten. Hopefully the Hollywood machine won’t grind up Bong Joon-ho like it tried to do with John Woo. Bong has already had some critical success with American productions such as Snowpiercer and Okja. He seems savvy and is genuinely loved by the Hollywood elite. We are also in a great era for many filmmakers to make films the way they want to despite the flood of remakes and tentpole blockbuster comic book franchises. Bong Joon-ho also knows he doesn’t need to make $200 million budgeted films to convey his vision.

One thing for certain, despite the Oscars so White Strike Back, people of color still managed to overcome the lack of diversity. Hair Love which took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short, is a beautiful animated short about an African American father trying to style his daughter’s hair for the first time. It comes at a time where natural Black hair is coming under fire by unfair and frankly, bigoted, discrimination.  One of the latest examples is of a Texas teen who was told that he would not be allowed to attend his own graduation if he did not cut his dreadlocks.

Am I saying that race and gender should be considered in the nominating process? Absolutely not. That would really not make sense. The problem is that in some ways the Academy has not considered many films featuring people of color  in their nominating process because they probably had not seen it or were uninterested in seeing it. The buzz and previous awards (Cannes Palme d’Or, The Golden Globes) given to Parasite certainly provided momentum to the Academy and especially the voters. Perhaps the nominating committee were uninterested in a movie about strippers drugging and rolling rich Wall Street bros for their money (Hustlers). Or perhaps they were uninterested in seeing, yet alone nominating a personal film about a Chinese family lying to the family matriarch about her cancer (The Farewell).The Farewell was also mostly in Mandarin. Maybe Academy members were confused whether it was an American film or an International film.

I myself was certainly rooting for Parasite for the best film of the year but having recently seen 1917 I absolutely thought it would win. But perhaps why Parasite is so popular and so loved is that even after watching the film, days later you are still thinking about it and the layers of messages within it. 1917 is a brilliant film from any standpoint and Roger Deakins hands down deserves the Oscar for Best Cinematography. But it does not have you thinking about the social economic implications of it weeks later and looking for and examining hidden messages. Parasite sticks with you long afterwards. And that is great example of the effectiveness of cinema to tell a story.

The Academy should not take the blame for the lack of diversity. Hollywood, for decades, has relegated persons of color in front or behind the camera to second consideration. Certainly some strides are being made, yet without fail, when a female director or a person of color is announced for a major project, especially a tentpole blockbuster product it is inevitable that “fans” pile on about the wokeness of Hollywood and agendas of Social Justice Warriors. Since when has being an advocate of social justice and being aware of disparities been a bad thing? It’s time to own and take those terms and wear them proudly as a badge. Eventually Hollywood, as well as the most prestigious awards given up will genuinely reflect the world they are trying to portray .

For more information about the way Hollywood has treated minorities read The Hollywood Jim Crow which I reviewed last year.

There is also Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism by Nancy Wang Yuen which I will be writing a review f down the road.

Review: Parasite

South Korean Cinema has really grown in its ability to cross on over to western consciousness. Their films are celebrated for their action films, and crime dramas. K-dramas have become a sensation online and K-pop has taken its share of the US pop music charts. Director, Bong Joon Ho has been at the forefront of the Korean wave. He gained notice with The Host, a Korean monster movie that was unique in that it had a good monster along with a good story and acting. He crossed over into Western films with the science fiction dystopian film Snowpiercer which had some moderate success. Unfortunately not all his films are easily accessible to the West like the brilliant Memories of Murder. With Parasite, Bong Joon Ho has achieved what no other Korean film has ever done, and that is to win the Palme d’Or, the grand prize at the Cannes film festival.

Parasite is a dark comedy that gradually becomes darker and less comedic as it unfolds over it’s narrative. The Kim family is a family living in abject poverty, that somehow manages to get by in life by doing odd jobs, and leeching wifi from neighbors or nearby cafes. Their apartment is below ground with their only window to the outside world is a gutter level view to a the street at gutter level view to an alley where drunks o to pee. And in a symbolic piece of set design, their toilet occupies the highest elevation in their abode. This family is a giant “your family is so poor” joke.

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Opportunity comes knocking when a friend of Ki-woo, the Kim’s only son, asks him to take over the job he had tutoring English for the attractive daughter of the rich Park family since he will be studying abroad.  Ostensibly it’s because his friend doesn’t want other college brats fawning over her while he gone. (Yeah, you know bro-code is gonna get broken) Ki-woo, isn’t really qualified as he’s never been to college, having failed the entrance exams several times, but he does have experience. His sister Ki-jeong just happens to a Photoshop whiz and easily forges college documents for him.

He manages to get the job and while there discovers from the mother that their young son is very interested in art but had gone through several art teachers who could not handle the boy’s wild nature. He recommends a highly praised art therapist who is a friend of a friend who is highly sought after but not cheap named Jessica. Jessica is, of course, his sister.

The Kim family is a family of hustlers. And the Parks are the perfect marks, rich and gullible. The Kims quickly adapt to whatever they need to adapt in order to achieve that hustle. And bit by bit, the rich Kim family finds that the entire Kim family is under their employ, even displacing the currently employed driver and housemaid.

Much of the film is darkly comedic, but is also a commentary on the differences in the class differences between the haves and the have absolutely nothings. The differences between the two families is mainly money. Both are quite likable and both are closely bonded together. As poor down and out that the Kims are, they are still a loving family. True, they are a scheming family of grifters, but there is no doubt that they are closely knit and  they truly care for each other. The Parks, for all their riches and are also a loving family. It is evident that the parents truly care for their children. The Park’s true feelings about social class is revealed most tellingly when Mr.Park keeps mentioning how much he dislikes it when people, meaning the help, cross the line.

The dark comedy soon gives way to just plain dark and enters into near grand guignol territory as dark secrets are revealed and it turns out that the Kims are not the only ones in the house running a hustle.

Parasite is filled with great performances from a cast that finds itself in a combined with a great story and direction. The film is also shot incredibly well. The cinematographer was Hong Kyung-pyo who shot the gorgeous dreamlike film about the artistic muse, M. Even the lower class sections of the city that the Kims occupy has beauty to it as bright neon lights up streets shops and golden warm lights illuminate the streets. Director Bong Joon-ho knows his craft and draws out great performances and is able to craft a story where every characters is memorable.

Song Kang-ho, who seems to be in every Korean film, turns in an exceptional performance as Kim Ki-taek, the father that leads the grifting family and has the bearing of the common man, a man who has been through much in life and deals with it as it comes along the best he can. Jang Hye-jin is Chung-sook, the mother of the Kims who wavers from her lower class upbringing to the matronly act of refined housekeeper with ease.

Parasite is wickedly funny and engaging. You’ll find yourself caring for every character, especially when things eventually turn tragic. It also has subtle messages that you will think about later as it pertains to class. And the ending may be ambiguous, but if you really pay attention, it is ultimately tragic as certain things in life won’t ever change and if they do, it’s only in dreams.

Final Score: 9/10