Are We Not Entertained: Spike’s Gloriously Violent Asian Cinema
I recently watched Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the German original not the remake currently doing the rounds at your local Cineplex. My original plan was to watch the original and then watch the US version, a shot by shot remake directed by Haneke himself. Watching the original quickly dispelled this notion.
Funny Games is not a film you enjoy, it is a film that you yield too, a film you are constantly afraid of admitting weakness too, a film that attempts to completely deconstruct ideas you have established about onscreen violence. In short it is a brilliant piece of work, but a piece of work which is remarkably repellent. Funny Games, through its constant destruction of the fourth wall, is a movie which attempts to reveal innate truths about the viewer.
Feeding a cinematic bloodlust and then pausing for cool introspection at its height. It is a movie which demands people pay attention to their own desires and forces you to study exactly what you expect of films in terms of their violent content. Watching Funny Games got me thinking about depictions of onscreen violence, and particularly the way that filmmakers attempt to generate a need for wanton destruction. As a species we are naturally voyeuristic and as such we are fascinated and thrilled by violence perpetuated against other humans.
Funny Games examines this fascination by making the viewer acutely aware of his own primal desires through a plethora of cinematic devices a great example of this being the wink the main villain gives to the audience as we anticipate the discovery of a dead pet. But what is Haneke commenting on? The audiences desire for viscera or the intellectual desire for violence? His arguments against the subtle use of screen violence only holds when violence is used as a sleight of hand tool, when it is used as punctuation in films which have intellectual merit. Far from putting me off of violence in cinema, Funny Games made me want to rediscover the movies in which violence was entertainment.
My first thought was to look at the action films of the 1980s and profile the work of directors like Mark L. Lester and Paul Verhoeven who would take transgressive screen violence as far as the ratings board would allow. Personally I felt more comfortable detailing films from East Asia and as such I’ll have to deal with American violence cinema in another post at some point.
As such the following films are, in my experience, the films which take the most joy in showcasing sheer destruction. There’s no attempt at subtlety in these films, no real attempts at providing anything other than visceral, bone breaking entertainment.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
Compared to the other four films in this list Riki-Oh has a fairly small casualty list. Roughly a dozen people are killed throughout Riki-Oh’s 90 minute runtime. What the film lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality, well maybe quality is the wrong word to use but you get my meaning. Riki-Oh follows the titular hero as he finds himself locked up in a hellish prison controlled by an evil warden and regulated by his brutish lackeys. So far, so Fortress, but the film stops its slide into mediocrity within its opening minutes. You see the film has a trick up its sleeve, glorious ultra violence combined with slapstick and gooey special effects. The film first showcases its splattery sensibilities in a scene depicting everyday life in the prison, where an old man is harassed by a prison bully and his two comedy sidekicks. Harsh words are exchanged, feelings are hurt, noses are planed off and faces are impaled.
As you can see from the images in the review a working knowledge of physics and basic human biology were not requirement to work on this film. Instead it is a very literal adaptation of a Japanese comic book. Being that Japanese comics are by and large made for sociopaths by sociopaths the film is chock full of the kind of gore which is so extreme that it stops being even mildly disturbing and instead becomes almost farcical. Riki-Oh is endowed with super strength and an unwavering sense of justice which sees him through a myriad of tortures. The film gets more and more absurd as it goes on, the initial fracas leading into a fight between Riki-Oh and a big fat guy who gets his stomach punched exploded. Another fight ends with Riki tying the slashed tendons in his arm together before popping his opponents eyeball out of its socket with a well placed slap. The end of that particular fight, in which Riki’s now eyeless opponent uses his own intestinal track as a garrotte, displays the humour which is the films greatest asset.
As Riki is getting the life choked out of him the evil assistant warden bellows “you’ve got a lot of guts kid”. It’s a moment which highlights that everyone making the film is on the joke too, that they realise how inherently hilarious everything is. Of course by this point we have already seen the Warden’s pornography filled office and watched him get mints out of his glass eye. But it is this later moment which confirms that the film is aiming for absurdity above all else. The comedy isn’t what makes Riki-Oh a bad movie; in fact the inherent silliness is its one saving grace. What makes Riki-Oh a bad movie is how laughably inept it all is, actors are poor, shots are badly edited, and the FX work whilst nice and squelchy is also laughably bad. The fact that you forgive the bad effects is a testament to just how much fun Riki-Oh is, laughing at an obvious dummy getting its face impaled by spikes is an odd sort of pleasure, but it is a pleasure.
There is also something peculiarly charming about a movie which just so desperately wants to entertain. It is a movie in which a main villain is introduced by exploding some random guys head with his bare hands, where a simple flick of a knife can flense the flesh from the bottom of a man’s face, where the main hero punches an enemy’s fist into mush and where the doddery old villain stabs peoples eyes out with a cane and feeds prisoners who complain about rations into mincing machines.
It is a carnival of the grotesque and the macabre which deep down just wants to be loved.
Tom Yum Goong aka The Protector aka The Warrior King
Whereas Riki-Oh makes this list due to its wonderfully gory FX work, Tom Yum Goong makes it through sheer finesse. The second showcase of the incredible Tony Jaa manages to be far more effective in its brutality than Riki-Oh, and it achieves it all through the sheer physicality of its star and some premiere sound work. But before we continue this thought I’m going to reminisce about Jaa’s breakout film, Ong-Bak for a while, so allow me to pontificate and scroll down a paragraph or two if you’re Ong-Baked out.
Ong-Bak was the kind of film which made you appreciate being a martial arts fan; it was a shot in an arm to a genre that was flagging underneath its own pomp. The Wuxia craze of the 90s and the subsequent ubiquitous of choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (and his countless imitators) had taken the edge off of Kung Fu. Esoteric fight scenes and copious wire work had dominated the scene for too long and were apparently unshakeable, especially with the success of wire-fu films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the west.
It would be a Thai director and star who would ultimately bring martial arts films back to basics. Chud.com’s Devin Faraci would in his review describe Ong-Bak as being “like The Sex Pistols to House of Flying Dagger’s Pink Floyd” and it is bang on the money in terms of what Ong-Bak represented to martial arts films. Devoid of pretence, devoid of wires and tricks and borrowing wholesale from older movies Ong-Bak was the scrappy little film which grabbed your attention through sheer force of will and sheer force of knees. Tony Jaa was a force of nature, his actions and movements being enough to sustain an overly long running time and nebulous plot.
Whilst in Ong-Bak the filmmakers were coy in showcasing Jaa, not staging a fight until an hour into the movie and keeping the main character as pacifistic as possible, in Tom Yum Goong they’re just aiming to showcase as much damage as possible. Jaa’s character in Tom Yum Goong is pissed off for the duration of the film, and he is quite happy to break some skulls (and some arms, legs and tracheas) to get what he wants.
Whereas Ong-Bak balanced its brutal pervasive violence with ideas of spirituality, Tom Yum Goong is a far more mean spirited film presenting Jaa with a group of villains to destroy who could only be more evil if they punched kittens whilst on screen. Throughout the course of the film Jaa smashes his way through 112 opponents and by my count hospitalises at least 40 of them. There are only 5 deaths in the entire film, with only 2 attributable to Jaa, but the style of fighting used ensures behind that death would have been a far kinder fate for the survivors.
Utilising a style of Muay Thai called ‘Elephant Boxing’ Jaa starts the film off with his usual plethora of knees and kicks but soon starts to add grappling to his repertoire. Whilst his kinetic blows are enough to make a viewer wince, when he starts breaking legs and arms at will the film becomes decidedly vicious. It is interesting because the film builds up Jaa’s aggression as it progresses, his kicks, knees and punches slowly giving way to his more hands on stuff. The climax of the movie has Jaa taking on fifty opponents and dispatching them all with vicious bone breaking grapples. For three minutes Jaa acts like a mad chiropractor, grabbing opponents and contorting whatever part he has hold of to a horrifying new angle.
What is great about the scene is that it starts with Jaa getting stabbed and giving his attacker an almost pitying look before folding him into some unidentifiable shape and it perfectly sets the tone of whats to come. We know that Jaa is going to win against these odds, that look just confirms that he is not going to be taking any prisoners. There are some dispatches without the use of grapples, but they mostly involve kicking people’s feet out from under them and forcing them to land neck first onto the floor. What makes this viciousness so impressive is that there’s not much blood on show, and most of the brutality comes from performance and sound editing. The sound of bones cracking being far more effective than the actual sight of bones breaking.
What is frustrating about Tom Yum Goong is that despite it being exceptionally action packed, it has five major action set pieces, it still drags immensely thanks to an overly long plot that serves no purpose other than to pad out the running time. Tony Jaa breaking people who eat rare and endangered animals is a great plot. Tony Jaa helping his friend, the Thai police officer in Australia, investigate the assassination of a politician which may be linked to said dastardly endangered animal eaters just isn’t.
Babycart at the River Styx
Objectively Babycart at the River Styx is one of the least violent films in the Lonewolf and Cub series. Its direct sequel doubles the films body count and the rest of the series expands the death tool from that point, until the sixth and final film has a body count roughly equal to an ethnic cleansing. But the later films in the series sacrifice quality for quantity, and Babycart at the River Styx remains the film with the best pacing and best combat.
Being a Japanese production the Lonewolf and Cub series of movies are manga adaptations. The story follows ex-official executioner Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro as they traipse around Japan looking for people to kill for money. Constantly hounded by the Yagyu clan of Ninjas, who killed Ogami’s wife, the father and son team find themselves constantly warding off attacks.
The essential plot of a Lonewolf and Cub film will involve Ogami Itto being hired to kill some corrupt official or yakuza, setting out to complete his mission and getting swamped by evil Ninja’s at every juncture before a climatic showdown with a) Super Skilled Singular Warriors b) a small army.
Babycart at the River Styx has Ogami Itto being hired to kill an official who knows the secret of a special dye who is rather unfortunately being guarded by the Lords of Death (category a) a trio of psychopaths who look like they fell off of the set of Big Trouble In Little China. Each wields a special weapon; razor sharp claws, a metal fist or a really big stick and are masters of killing people, hence being called Lords of Death rather than Lords of Mild Inconvenience.
Ogami also has to deal with an army of female ninjas, desperate to prove they are equal to their male colleagues. This attempt at feminine empowerment is achieved by attacking Ogami Itto using a multitude of cunning plans. Of particular note is the attempt on Ogami’s life with razor sharp turnips. These attacks however set the basis for what is perhaps one of the greatest action sequences in the series.
Ogami Itto plods along throughout the entire film, pushing the Babycart and looking ahead at all times seemingly lost in thought. In Babycart at the River Styx Ogami shuffles across a road and is consistently assaulted by wave after wave of Ninja, dispatching them with consistent ease. As the sequence goes on he gets more and more bloodied and exhausted looking, weaponised vegetables taking an obvious toll on the man. It is a sequence which works because it humanises the inhumane Ogami Itto, the constant assaults actually show him being driven to the point of defeat. It also allows the staging of mass slaughter as Ogami is forced to contend with attack after attack.
The one thing the Lonewolf and Cub films are famous for is its use of arterial spray. Taking a more esoteric view on human biology any wound inflicted in the film results in geysers of florid red blood. This high pressure blood flow is both morbidly delightful, allowing for rivers of viscera to flow, and stylish giving the films their own unique sensibilities.
If you’re reading what I’m describing and thinking you’ve seen this film, but not with this title, then you’ve most likely seen the widely popular reediting of films number 1 and 2 in the series. Shogun Assassin is a conglomeration of the action scenes of the first film, and the action scenes of Babycart at the River Styx with exposition provided by voiceover from Daigoro. I realise now that the constant blood letting of Shogun Assassin is probably more suitable for this list, but I’ve written nearly 500 words on Babycart and I’m lazy.
Babycart at the River Styx is still pretty grim at moments though, despite the ropey special effects. Heads are cleaved in twain, feet are lopped off at the angle, women are impaled, many people are stabbed with sharpened claws, and in a standout scene a ninja is cut into bite sized morsels by a pack of female ninja, to prove a point. There is a surprisingly hard edge to the film, typified by Ogami Itto not giving a damn when somebody throws his son down a well, which almost makes it not be mindless fun. Then a Lord of Death stabs underground ninjas in the desert with his metal claw of doom and everything is right with the world again.
Born to Fight
Back to Thailand for a film that invokes the fond memories of nearly killing stuntmen for our viewing pleasure. Directed by the choreographer of Ong-Bak and starring a few of the guys Tony Jaa kicked around, Born to Fight is a blisteringly silly action film which is just desperate to be as entertaining as possible. Kicking off with a deliriously insane fight in and around two speeding Lorries, with stuntmen getting bounced between the two and avoiding a grisly death by the grace of god alone, Born to Fight is eager to please and eager to show off.
The majority of the plot is relayed at the start, with a drug dealer being caught by a city cop who then takes a break from it all by going with his sister on a charity mission to a rural village. This charity mission includes getting lots of professional sportspeople and athletes together for no particular reason. As luck would have it, a group of terrorists invade the village and take everyone hostage in hopes of bartering their lives for the release of the aforementioned drug dealer. This, of course, is all just setup for 40 minutes of awesomely bizarre action.
The opening whilst spectacular is somewhat misleading as it makes the film seem like a pastiche of other movies, notably Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Once the action switches to the village everything becomes nice and unique. After hearing an empowering rendition of the national anthem the villagers rebel against their captors, using their natural skills to mount an all out attack on the terrorists.
When I saw using their natural talents, I really mean using their natural talents, as people use soccer, gymnastics, rugby, and traditional Muay Thai fighting to battle their enemies. You’ve not seen fighting until you’ve seen a man use a hardened ball as a projectile weapon, or seen a one legged man drop kick an armed terrorist, or seen a little girl Muay Thai smash a bad guy. It’s a glorious display of insanity and it just keeps on giving, with the main hero battling foes with guns, flaming sticks, and eventually his fists in an attempt to stop the launch of a nuclear weapon, which is set to destroy Bangkok for arbitrary reasons.
Arbitrary reasons are the only reasons that matter in Born to Fight; the movie really is just about watching people fight. What helps the movie immensely is the kind of bombast you’d normally associate with the 1980s, people are exploded with rocket launchers, bad guys laugh maniacally as they try and run people down in trucks, the hero dashes around on a motorcycle and gains the strength to fight from his dead mentor (generally speaking if I was gonna gain tips on fighting, I’d get them from somebody who wasn’t killed in combat).
What makes Born to Fight work is the sheer lunacy and gusto on show. The film constantly throws new stunts and fights at you and the director seems to have no care at all for his stunt team. Watching stunt men get thrown off of a lorry, onto a pursuing car and onto the ground is incredible purely because it looks like somebody got lobbed off of a lorry onto a car. There’s a highlight reel at the end showcasing just how much damage was inflicted on stunt performers which I’m guessing is to show you how dedicated the stuntmen are, all it does for me is make me want to set up a charitable organisation to save Thai stunt workers.
I actually feel kinda bad for Born to Fight because it is easily the hardest film on the list to write about, largely because it’s a movie you can’t intellectualise. You just have to experience it.
Hard Boiled is the king of Asian action cinema and the reason for many peoples unwavering faith in a director who hasn’t made anything decent for nearly a decade. Purportedly 307 people are killed in this film; making it the 3rd most violent film ever made (just after 300 and Return of the King which are essentially feature length battles).
John Woo was a master of gunplay in Hong Kong and Hard Boiled is probably the pinnacle of his career. Following Inspector Tequila as he takes on a dangerous new gangster, the film barely lets up for breath staging action set piece after action set piece. Gunfights in teahouses, gunfights at chop shops, gunfights in boats, in vaults and in hospitals, John Woo sets up his film as a sprawling battle across Hong Kong even having the audacity to have an execution occur in a library when we all know that the sound of weapons discharging would breach the noise limit.
Holding the film together is a central performance from the ever awesome Chow Yun-Fat that gives a lot of humanity to a character who really shouldn’t have any. Tequila is the standard cop on the edge, shooting gangsters by day and playing a mean Jazz clarinet by night. There is enough charm and charisma to the performance to flesh out what is essentially a cipher and it gives the film that added edge.
Playing against Chow Yun-Fat are Hong Kong legends Anthony Wong and Tony Leung who play Tequila’s nemesis and undercover partner respectively. Anthony Wong is given very little to work with and is left to chew the scenery as a hysterically evil gangster, whilst Leung gives a great conflicted portrayal of an undercover cop in a little too deep. But enough about petty stuff like acting, lets talk about how the way in which John Woo destroys stuff.
Hard Boiled is an ode to the automatic pistol, and a sonata to the shotgun, there was a Requiem to the Grenade but it was cut for budgetary reasons. It is a film designed to restore confidence in the police force, a move away from the usual antiheroes and gangsters of Woo’s older films. Tequila is a super cop, dual wielding pistols, sliding down banisters and always getting his target. He’s an almost unstoppable force of nature, pitted against a gang who are almost as powerful and deadly as he is.
There is a clear distinction between good and evil in the flick, a line of honour and ethics that the villains continually flout. At least 50 of the 307 corpses in Hard Boiled belong to innocents who are gunned down by the villains of the piece. Indeed, in the climatic shoot out Woo enforces the innate evil of his villains by having them shoot crippled patients and babies. In any other film this would be almost laughable, but Hard Boiled is so spectacular in its action that you barely notice that the villain is a guy who even Charles Manson would cross the street to avoid.
John Woo’s aesthetic is still impeccable, and even after sixteen years of the style being in the public conscious it still works. The countless homages and pastiches mean nothing when they can’t even approach the bat shit insanity of the films best set pieces. The chop shop sequence, where the villains mount a raid on a warehouse and literally explode the place is still a fantastic piece of work. There’s energy and vitality to the scene that has yet to be matched and the sheer inventiveness and acrobatics on display are mind boggling. Watching bits of the set explode as a motorcycle skids into an office, the rider taking out four guys with a submachine gun; can still cause an adrenaline rush.
The other thing which makes the scene work is Woo’s blatant disregard for the reality of weapons, his patented ‘John Woo Shotguns’ causing anything they shoot to explode even the disused shells of cars. Once again, despite sartorial imitations no director has ever quite matched the sheer balletic grace of Tequila leaping over one motorcycle and exploding another in mid air. It’s pompous and overblown, but it’s the tone of the film.
The major set piece of course is the finale in a hospital, which is essentially a 30 minute shootout against a small army of gangsters using all manner of weaponry. From a modified flintlock pistol to a grenade launcher, with a tour of automatic rifle alley for kicks, every type of weapon you can imagine is exploited in a half hour orgy of destruction. The iconic moment is of course Tequila cradling a baby in one arm, whilst wielding an automatic pistol in his free hand, but for me the scene which stands out is the extended gun battle captured in one long continuous shot. This gunfight zigzags around rooms and even up floors and it’s a masterstroke in a film which is already bursting with genius.
I’ve now written 4000 words on violence in Asian Cinema, which makes it sound like a dissertation. More than anything else I hope these are films which people enjoy because they are great, great pieces of work (well apart from Riki-Oh) which are just there to be entertaining. Of course I’ve missed a lot of films off, I could have included any number of Wuxia movies, or Ichi the Killer, or A Bittersweet Life. But I’m hoping to approach the Ichi and Bittersweet in a more analytical light later on, and I think Wuxia doesn’t fit in with the stylisation I’m going for.
These films REVEL in their destruction and I think there’s an inherent guilt in that bloodlust in a lot of Wuxia. If you disagree or agree, feel free to leave a comment.
I’d really like that.