Thursday, July 17, 2008

Movies: The Forbidden Kingdom & Kung Fu Panda

I'm still in Beirut.

One of the perks for being in Beirut is that I can go to the movies.

Singaporeans are avid movie goers. We have the highest movie-going rate in the world. According to a 2006 source, on average, we watch 8 movies a year.* The national average might be more now. If that is true, then after arriving to the MENA region, my annual movie-going rate had fallen below the 2006 national average at about 6 movies/year. When I was traveling in North Africa, I missed out on a lot of movie releases.

In North Africa, I did not have the opportunities to visit the movie theatres out of reasons of personal choice and time.

In Algiers, I passed by a movie theatre in downtown several times although I had never watched a movie there. The movie played there are probably voiced-over in French so I cannot understand. Also, the movie theatre did not look inviting to me.

I did try watching a movie once in Morocco and it was a big turn-off. I watched the Da Vinci Code in Megarama, a cineplex in Casablanca. As expected, it was entirely in French. Plus the theatre didn't have AC that day and the air got very stuffy.

Anyway, I always go to the movies as often as I can whenever I'm back in Beirut.

During the past 2 weeks, I saw two movies in Beirut: The Forbidden Kingdom and Kung Fu Panda. Incidently, both were about kung-fu.

The Fobidden Kingdom

What can I say about a movie that casted Asia's titanic martial arts actors - Jet Li and Jackie Chan?

Suffice to say, I went into the movie with pretty low expectations.

Without a doubt Jackie Chan movies are always awesome in the fight scenes and martial arts choreography but terribly weak in plot. In Chan’s movies, the plot is just an excuse to link all the spectacular fight scenes together.

If you grew up watching his movies like I did, then a time will come when you could not expect anything new.

His roles are always similar (90% of the time, a police hero). Reluctant hero forced to fight by circumstances. There are new death defying stunts every time but his acting never improved. Arguably, his recent stunt scenes had gotten less spectacular when compared to some of the incredible stuff he had done in the '80s.

As for Jet Li, I still think that his best movie role ever was his debut in "Shaolin Temple". He was great in "Once Upon A Time In China" for his portrayal of Wong Fei Hong. It reignited popular interest in the legendary Chinese folk hero and several movie sequels. Then he was again great in his portrayal of another folk hero, Huo Yuan Jia, in "Fearless". In this role, he managed to show another sensitive depth to his acting.

I found his latest role as "Monk/ Monkey god" trite. He looks uninspired, overweight and overage to be monkey god. Forgive me for being bland but his bad complexion showed prominently throughout the movie. If he wants to continue to make it in Hollywood as a leading man, I think he should consider using some of that Hollywood magic, no?

Perhaps now you can understand why I went to the movie without any expectations. And yet I was disappointed even further by the movie.

The story was weak. Basically a coming of age story about an American kung-fu aficionado who got teleported? to ancient China (presumably) on a quest to save the stone encasted monkey god by returning his staff to his statue. During the quest, he found travelling companions in the likes of Drunken Immortal (Jackie Chan), Monk (Jet Li), who taught him Kung-fu 101 and Swallow (Liu Yifei), a potential love interest or to add a feminine aspect. The main antagonist, the Jade Warlord, whose treachery was the reason behind monkey god's imprisonment, is pulling all stops to impede the protagonists.

Beyond the special effects, modern English dialogue, the plot reeks of the stereotypical coming of age and revenge plot elements as popularized in the 70s & 80s kung-fu movies. I get more complex and moving plots when playing Final Fantasy on Playstation!

The names of characters like Drunken Immortal, Golden Swallow and White-hair Assassin are not new. Their characterizations were but pale shadows/ diluted amalgams of iconic heroes/villains in popular Asian movies and novels. In fact, a lot of these characters had so much more depth and backstory that were left undeveloped in the course of the movie due to lack of screen time. It is like putting the Hulk, Spiderman and Batman in a same movie so that you get all the action and nothing of the backstory. Perhaps, spin-offs are in the making? (Think The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King).

Of course, it can be said that kung-fu movies are all about the action and not the plot. If so, the highlight of the movie would be the extended fight scene between Jet Li's Monk and Jackie Chan's Drunken Immortal. For me, that fight scene didn't work so well. The figh scene between Uma Thurman's character and the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill was more memorable than this one. I was actually waiting for it to be over and get on with the story.

Although the film was not a hit for me, online ratings gave it moderate review ratings.

Kung Fu Panda

I had a better time watching this animated movie than the previous movie.

What do I like about this movie?

Firstly, the production quality was great and it showed. According to the wikipedia write-up, the production design, animation and even the music were created after extensive research on Chinese art and culture. Yet, the end result was not a rip-off but a very original movie that pays tribute to its Asian roots.

Secondly, the voice acting was good. Big names like Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman were attached to the voice of the characters. This is hardly new news in the movie industry. What I think worked for the movie was that the voice-actors had a lot of self respect by not spoofing the Asian accent in speaking English.

Thirdly, it was funny. The movie came from the same studio that delivered the Shrek franchise, so I would be sorely disappointed if there were no punch lines in the movie. Granted, it wasn’t hilarious funny but there were some funny moments that helped advancing the plot well. I thought the funniest scene in the movie was the acupuncture scene between panda, tigress and mantis.

I read that sequels are in the pipeline. Yey! =D

* This source, quoting a 2003 Unesco study, put Singapore in 6th place in movie attendance per capita, behind Iceland, US, N. Zealand, Georgia, Australia. Lebanon comes in at 10th place. Morocco in 49th and Algeria in 76th.


Lee Jek Suen (Bejaia) said...

So you're still in Beirut? Guess won't be seeing you in Bejaia anytime then. Anyway, I'm going back to Singapore in a week and will be back only mid August. Have fun in Beirut. Can't say which is better - Beirut or Bejaia. Do Singaporeans need a visa to go to Beirut for holiday?


Sencha said...

I'm going to Algeria at the end of July.

Beirut is definitely more fun than Bejaia.

You need a visa to visit Beirut but it can be bought on demand at the airport. The visa costs 50,000 Lebanese pounds (equivalent to 50 Singapore dollars). You can bring US dollars and have it changed to Lebanese pounds at the bank counter near the visa desk.

Contact me if you need information on how to come to Beirut. Be especially aware of the shameless taxi touts.

Have fun in Singapore!

movie buff said...

still gotta see Kung Fu Panda... Jack Black is classic for sure; he'll be forever famous for his work in School of Rock