When one thinks of martial arts, and specifically movies centering around the ancient skill set, the graceful and powerful moves of the actors remain primary in one’s mind. Indeed, as the years have only increased the profile and proficiency of these films, the intricacy of the movement and the visual opulence achieved through same have elevated the genre to a Zen-like zenith. But fans often forget that there’s more to cool kung fu fighting than roundhouse kicks and the touch of death. Indeed, weaponry is as important to a combatant as his or her own discipline. Yet we rarely get to see our champions defined solely by such a talent. Unless you look at period pieces where feudal times demand more swordplay than side sandal action, it stays all swipes and blocks. Thanks to two new DVDs from Magnolia Home Entertainment, however, we can witness a more diverse version of Asian action daring do. In Dynamite Warrior, a well meaning vigilante uses rockets, gunpowder and other forms of explosives to destroy a local despot. In Yo Yo Girl Cop, a favorite Japanese heroine is reinvented, her trusty armored child’s toy ready to wreak some excellent post-modern havoc.
When he was a young monk, Jone Bang Fai saw his family killed by a water buffalo rustler named Sing. Ever since that fateful night, he’s sworn to seek out the criminal and kill him. Fast forward a few years and local Lord Waeng has frittered away his money on a collection of steam-driven tractors. He wants peasants to abandon their beasts of burden and buy his pricey technological marvel. When they refuse, he hires a ruthless band of thieves lead by a crazed cannibal giant to force the issue. A grown Jone, on the other hand, has been doing his own bit of ‘stealing’. He takes herds of missing livestock and returns them to the poor villagers. When Waeng discovers this, he wants the rural Robin Hood stopped. When he learns that Sing plans on reporting his deal with the criminals to government authorities, he also wants the mythic mobster destroyed. When all discover that Sing is blessed with magical powers, it seems like a lost cause. But then Waeng comes up with a plan. He will discover Sing’s weakness (thanks to an old ‘demonic’ friend) and send Jone after him. If the secret won’t stopped him, maybe the hero’s many rockets and bombs will. Seems Jone has mastered the art of gunpowder, and it will take all his skills as a Dynamite Warrior to stop Sing, Waeng, and the evil wizard once and for all.
Wongpim obviously owes a debt to Kung Fu Hustle’s Stephen Chow, especially for how he mixes the cartoonish and the mystical into this narrative. When Jone Bang Fai is chased by two of Nai Hoi Sing’s henchman, one acting as a monkey, the other acting as a tiger, the direction accentuates their otherworldly abilities in brilliant fashion. Similarly, when Sing and his nemesis, the evil Black Wizard, begin their supernatural showdown, the pantomime punches and pratfalls that shouldn’t work actually do. Granted, there is some substandard CGI here, especially whenever our hero has to employ rockets to win the day, but there are also sequences of real resonance, as when we follow Jone Bang Fai during his explosive’s training. With pitch perfect performances that walk the always fine line between reasonable and ridiculous, and a plot that’s heavy on the alchemy and anarchy, Dynamite Warrior may seem like safe chop sockey lite, but it’s a wholesome and hearty trip nonetheless. It’s safe to say that audiences who wouldn’t normally find themselves perusing the martial arts section for a movie night’s viewing would be delighted to stumble across this excellent example of excess. After all, it isn’t everyday that your cinematic champion rides his own makeshift missile to save the day, or requires the menstrual blood of a virgin to aid in his success. It’s the little tweaks like these that make this movie so much fun.
When one of their secret agents dies in the middle of a crowded crosswalk from a bomb strapped to her body, the Japanese government becomes concerned that another terrorist attack is imminent. They’ve been following a website code named ‘Enola Gay’ (get it?), and have linked it to a local high school. Unfortunately, the case is going nowhere. They need someone to report from the inside. That’s where “K” comes in. Brought back to the East from the streets of New York, she’s blackmailed into assuming the identity of Yo Yo Girl Cop Saki Asamiya, and discovering the truth behind the anarchy inside Seisen Academy. She soon finds that an enigmatic Internet leader named Romeo has the student body preparing for a massive meeting – and one explosive self-destructive protest. And there seems to be a connection to a depressed girl named Tae and a snobby sect dominated by mean bitch Reika Akiyama. Of course, it could all be a smokescreen for something much bigger – and it’s up to our heroine, and her metallic toy – to save the day.
Because of the history here, and the full blown mythological subtext the subject matter incorporates, newcomers to the Deka narrative may be lost at first. Unless you know the character, her first meeting with nasty rival Reika Akiyama will appear rather disconnected and strange. Similarly, only those familiar with the television adaptation of the material will understand the significance of Yuki Saito playing the mother. Still, this is not some kind of unfathomable franchise. J-Horror has introduced us to the clique-oriented nastiness of Eastern education, and the continuing fixation with Hong Kong crime films gives the stunt work a sense of balance and place. It’s odd, though, to see two attractive Japanese pop stars turned actresses going at each other with yo-yos, and the toys seem to be such ineffectual weapons (save for an example with retractable knife blades) that you wonder why they were chosen. Of course, symbolism and iconography has a lot to do with the visual decisions made – school girl innocence, represented by the uniform, technology run amuck as shown by the everpresent cellphones/laptops – yet the elements of friendship and loneliness remain universal. And with the terrorist angle bringing the stories right up to date, whatever old fashioned fantasy fodder these films provided seems distant and lost. An excellent example of breathing life into a creatively idle concept, Yo Yo Girl Cop is a certified cult phenomenon just waiting for international fans to find it. When they do, they won’t be disappointed.
So you see, there is an element beyond fisticuffs when it comes to Asian action. Certainly, the skill and stamina required to forge a believable mano-y-mano match up with nothing more than your own physicality is worth celebrating and mythologizing. But just like the unusual individual who ends up the master of the Flying Guillotine, or the drunken old coot who turns out to be an expert at wielding a samurai sword with exquisite ability, a weapon remains a legitimate – and sometimes, legendary – foundation for fighting. Dynamite Warrior and Yo Yo Girl Cop are perfect illustrations of this kind of inventive kung fu fun. They stick to formulas founded on decades of good vs. evil combat, but tweak the particulars toward ideas outside the standard stuntman on stuntman showdown. As they broaden the horizons of the genre, they continuously harken back to the basics that made the cinematic category great in the first place. Meshing old with the new, classic with the creative, both movies argue for the effectiveness, and the energy, in the martial arts medium. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, films like these disprove that adage. No matter the tradition, these excellent releases make it all seem brand new.