Hello folks, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am laboring under a backlog of would-be essay writing, as my article on Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous In the Mood for Love is proving itself stubbornly resistant to wrangling. As such, I’ve had to sacrifice some of my weekly film viewing writeup time at the altar of Kar-wai, but never fear – my current film writeup backlog has ballooned to over thirty pages, so the adjustment should be complete without any disruption of service on your end. And professional scrambling aside, my house’s instatement of a daily genre-shifting movie timetable has continued to work wonders for our diversity of features, even if we’re still pulling tricks like “Shaw Brothers movies work for action, foreign films, and pre-80s features, right?” Also Gundam! We’re currently barreling through Zeta Gundam, and I’ll surely have plenty to say about that in short order. But for now, let’s run through a fresh collection of films in this singularly frantic Week in Review!
Our Winter of Fists continued with New Fist of Fury, a sequel to the Bruce Lee classic and one of Jackie Chan’s first starring roles. Jackie plays Ah Lung, a thief with no initial interest in martial arts. What he does value is Chinese independence, and as the various kung fu schools of Hong Kong are forced to bow and scrape in the face of Japanese interlopers, he eventually finds himself compelled to fight back. Aided by the granddaughter of a master who refused to bow to the Japanese, Jackie eventually gains the skills to defend the honor of the Chinese schools.
New Fist of Fury is an interesting artifact in the Jackie canon, as it’s so early in his career that the production doesn’t actually prioritize his star presence. Additionally, director Lo Wei was clearly trying to find a “new Bruce Lee” to star in the sequel to his own original Fist of Fury, and thus Ah Lung possesses none of the whimsical comedy that would characterize later Jackie roles – he’s all brooding resentment, and spends most of this film indifferent to its central conflict. The actual protagonist is Miss Lee (Nora Miao), the granddaughter of the dead master, who’s the one who actually leads the resistance against Japanese subjugation of the schools.
As a result, New Fist of Fury feels less like a Jackie Chan feature than a feature that Jackie Chan happens to star in, with kung fu veterans Miao and Wei actually driving most of the momentum. What Chan brings to this feature is the stunning physicality of youth; both his “gotta learn kung fu” montage and final battle are extraordinary, demonstrating the man’s incredible agility at the peak of his powers. Ultimately, I actually found it oddly rewarding to see Jackie given a less central role; it lends him a certain humanity, in contrast with the many films where he’s portrayed as the center of the universe. I quite enjoyed this one.
We then swerved back into franchise horror with Friday the 13th IX: Jason Goes To Hell. I’m gonna have to dock this one some points for false advertising; this film does not in fact center on Jason going to hell, and does not resolve in a Hellraiser II-style battle across the nether realms. It’s mostly just Jason slashing some more folks in the vicinity of Crystal Lake, though there’s at least one twist on convention: with his original body destroyed, Jason has to exploit his newly discovered body-stealing powers, and terrorize his victims in the bodies of their own loved ones.
That inexplicable new twist injects a sliver of life into Jason’s moribund veins, facilitating flourishes that range from The Thing-style social distrust to Evil Dead-reminiscent body horror. The points where Jason is entering or exiting some victim’s body are the film’s highlight; while Jason normally just stabs folks with a machete, his new ability demands some delightfully grotesque practical effects, as old shells are discarded and melt into fleshy mulch. That’s nice, but it’s still not enough to elevate Jason’s ninth adventure beyond a second-screen watch.
We then hopped back to the Shaw Brothers for Five Shaolin Masters. The film opens just after the destruction of a shaolin temple by Qing dynasty soldiers, as five survivors meet to plan their revenge. Joining up with a crew of honorable bandits, they eventually discover the traitor who betrayed their temple, but are each defeated in single combat by an imposing enemy. With nothing else for it but to train, the five then each decide on a regimen that will prepare them to counter their chosen foes, and set to work mastering the skills that will avenge their temple.
I mean, that summary pretty much covers it, right? Five Shaolin Masters is essentially five copies of the same revenge narrative smooshed into one, featuring five leads with five specialties and five antagonists with their own matching powers. After a somewhat circuitous first act spent discovering the identity of their betrayer, the rest of Five Shaolin Masters is pure martial arts comfort food, transitioning from five simultaneous training montages to five concurrent life-or-death battles. Further bolstered by a handful of impressively large-scale fights featuring entire battalions of martial artists, Five Shaolin Masters aims to please and strikes its target without er. Another winner from the impossibly generous Shaw Brothers and the ever-reliable director Chang Cheh.
Last up for the week was Whiplash, the acclaimed 2014 psychological drama about a young jazz drummer who dreams of taking his place among the legends. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Andrew earns his chance at greatness when he’s conscripted by famed instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) into the conservatory’s studio band. However, Fletcher swiftly proves himself a cruel and ruthless tyrant, whose abuse forces Andrew to put his very life on the line in their mutual grasping at eternity.
As a former drummer and faithful acolyte of the church of artistry, Whiplash hit me very, very hard. First off, in a pure technical sense, the film is an utterly absorbing portrait of musical training pushed to the extreme. Director Damien Chazelle ensures the audience is secured tightly alongside Andrew, using consistent partial closeups to articulate the focus of a boy who admits he has trouble making eye contact. Rather than connecting with faces, Andrew admires limbs and instruments, the larger-than-life glory of the studio band revealed through Whiplash’s reverent, closed-in cinematography.
With Andrew and Fletcher at opposite ends of the ring, each performance in Whiplash proceeds like some kind of cruel exhibition match, as Fletcher takes cheap verbal swipes at his students in order to provoke them into greatness. Constantly harping on how his own favorites evolved through hardship, he clearly believes only intense pressure can turn his lumps of coal into diamonds – and in Andrew, he finds a willing vehicle for his heartless project. Andrew fires back with practice and performance and even his fists, but it is impossible to flatter Fletcher’s narcissism, or to make him see his students with anything approaching respect.
If Whiplash were simply a story of a talented student grappling with and then moving past an abusive teacher, it would be an excellent feature. But what makes the film an all-timer and personal favorite is that its perspective isn’t quite so simple. Fletcher is undoubtedly a monster, but he’s not necessarily wrong about the results of his methods – he will burn out countless students, and even drive some to suicide, but his perspective aligns almost completely with Andrew’s own. Both of them see nothing interesting in mundane everyday life, both of them see their lives as fuel to be burned in pursuit of artistic greatness, and both of them would gladly sacrifice themselves if that’s what it took to create a new legend.
And to be honest, I don’t really disagree with them. I know it’s not a particularly popular position, but I’m also one of those weirdos who sees nothing greater or more important than the creation of transcendent art. I wouldn’t impress that perspective cruelly on others like Fletcher, but I would undoubtedly sacrifice myself like Andrew, and consider such a tradeoff an easy bargain. Art is how we paint our humanity on the world at large, creating something that can speak, comfort, and inspire for generations – it is how we transcend ourselves, rising above our contradictory and often petty instincts to prove the greatness of human nature. Art is the potential of people made manifest; it is my life’s guiding star, and what inspires me to get up and work every day.
As such, while I couldn’t condone Fletcher’s behavior, I could easily see what Andrew saw in him, and why our drummer chose to subject himself to such inhumane treatment. Excepting the occasional natural genius, most artists only achieve eternity through abjection, through winnowing themselves into an instrument of focused expression. Andrew and Fletcher’s variable pursuit of that goal almost destroys both of them, and Fletcher rightfully loses his ability to harm more students, but the end result is neither triumphant over the other. Ultimately, their variable attempts at sabotage and revenge give way to their shared pursuit – a moment of transcendent mutual purpose, of perfect understanding, collaboration, and even gratitude. Whiplash rises through inexcusable cruelty into undeniable glory, leaving the audience to decide what they’d wager to make something beautiful.