Saturday, May 3rd, 2008
Some thoughts on THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, but first, a couple of housekeeping notes:
Apologies for the gap in between posts, I overextended myself a little bit with the HKFA preview blog post series. Plus, I’m a lazy, lazy man.
Apologies also to the HKFA Prediction Contest entrants. I’m sorry that it’s taken almost as long to announce a winner as it has for Zimbabwe to announce the winner of its presidential election. Without further ado, the winner of the contest is:
Robert Mugabe of Harare, Zimbabwe
For his prize, Mr. Mugabe selected a TWINS EFFECT lanyard from the House Where Words Gather prize vault … Just kidding. The winner be announced in the next blog post.
… And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming …
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
Official Site: http://www.forbiddenkingdommovie.com/
Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Jackie Chan (Lu Yan/Old Hop), Jet Li (The Silent Monk/The Monkey King), Michael Angarano (Jason Tripitikas), Crystal Liu Yifei (Golden Sparrow), Collin Chou (The Jade Warlord), Li Bingbing (Ni Chang)
Synopsis (from the official site): A 21st Century American teenager takes a spellbinding, dangerous journey into martial arts legend in the new action/adventure epic FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Shot on location in China, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM marks the historic first-ever onscreen pairing of martial arts superstars Jackie Chan (RUSH HOUR, DRUNKEN MASTER) and Jet Li (FEARLESS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA), and features the awe-inspiring action choreography of Yuen Wo Ping (THE MATRIX, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON). While hunting down bootleg kung-fu DVDs in a Chinatown pawnshop, Jason (played by Michael Angarano - “24″, “Will and Grace”, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, SEABISCUIT) makes an extraordinary discovery that sends him hurtling back in time to ancient China. There, Jason is charged with a monumental task: he must free the fabled warrior the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord. Jason is joined in his quest by wise kung fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and a band of misfit warriors including Silent Monk (Jet Li). But only by learning the true precepts of kung fu can Jason hope to succeed - and find a way to get back home.
PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: I hate to admit this but beyond loyalty to my people and a slight fascination with Crystal Liu Yifei, there weren’t too many compelling reasons for me to plop down $11 to see THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Yes, it is the first major collaboration between Jackie Chan and Jet Li but the plot synopsis brought flashbacks of that awful THUNDERBIRDS movie from a few years back — where a cool idea was turned into a steaming pile of poo by corporate thinking concerned more with making a marketable commercial product than a good movie.
In fact, had I gone to the theatre on opening weekend, I probably would have seen FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL instead of THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL got a glowing review on AT THE MOVIES WITH EBERT & ROEPER and SUPERBAD was the most fun I had at the movies in 2007. However, snow and freezing rain kept me from the theatre and — in the days that passed — my interest in seeing FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL waned as tepid feedback emerged from opening weekend moviegoers. Moreover, I figured that going to THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was something I could do with the Old Man (my Dad, not Bill Adama) that didn’t involve some form of dim sum.
AFTER THE MOVIE: When a movie combines bending of the space-time continuum with a “rat teaches the art of the ninja to four turtles” type premise, the only way you can measure it effectively is to ask: Is it enjoyable? Fortunately, for the cause of Chinese talent in Hollywood, the answer is mostly yes as Jackie Chan and Jet Li deliver likeable performances that generate enough affection and goodwill to overcome the clumsy plot, clunky dialogue and two cheesy modern-day segments that bookend the film.
Fans of Big Brother Jackie and Jet Li should come away satisfied but kung fu cinema aficionados may feel a twinge of disappointment as they leave the theatre. A kung fu film collaboration between Jackie Chan and Jet Li should have been better than THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. It shouldn’t have been saddled with the goofy “teenager from Boston has to save ancient China from a despot” story. It’s sort of like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally agreeing to collaborate on a mafia film only to see them end up playing crime bosses who settle their differences after becoming friends while coaching their respective daughters through some Lamaze classes. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is well-produced, pleasant, mildly enjoyable entertainment but you can’t help but wonder what might have been.
MORE THOUGHTS (WARNING: contains minor spoilers): A film of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM’s ilk doesn’t lend itself to penetrating analysis so I’ll simply share some of the things I liked about the film and some of the things I didn’t like about it. I liked:
- The way Jackie Chan and Jet Li were billed equally. Kudos to the person who came up with the idea.
- The opening title sequence — which featured poster images of kung fu film icons like Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, Chen Kuan-Tai, Lau Kar-Leung, Cheng Pei-Pei and the “Five Venoms” among others. Not only is it a nice tribute, I think it serves as a signal to kung fu film fans that the filmmakers recognize the rich heritage of kung fu cinema.
- The affable performances by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Taking on the divergent dual roles of The Monkey King and The Silent Monk, Jet Li shows flashes of his HKFA Best Actor skills by being playfully puckish while as The Monkey King and stern but warm-hearted while as The Silent Monk. Jackie Chan, meanwhile, gives an energetic effort that brings back fond memories of his Lunar New Year film glory days and serves to highlight how lethargic his performance was in RUSH HOUR 3.
Things I didn’t like include:
- The modern-day South Boston segments that bookend the film. Since I am a sap, the only thing I liked about it was the appearance of 21st Century Golden Sparrow. The rest of the modern-day stuff was painfully cheesy. The street gang — complete with horribly-done Southie accents — is so cliche, the guys in WEST SIDE STORY snapping their fingers and singing “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” end up having more “street cred”. To make matters worse, the gang leader (played by Morgan Benoit) is so over-the-top, it’s hard to take anything that happens seriously. I’m not sure if the fault lies with Mr. Benoit or with production. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the latter because even 1980s movie bully William Zabka in his prime would have looked bad in the cornball modern-day sequences.
- The way the film had Lu Yan do the basal exposition. Lu Yan, Jackie Chan’s character, is given the responsibility of explaining the situation in ancient China to Jason (the Boston teenager created to expand the marketable demographics) and, by extension, the audience. As is widely known from the DVD extras of past Jackie Chan films, Big Brother Jackie learns most of his lines phonetically so his delivery is shaky at best. Combined with the clunky “the naughty Monkey King thrice repelled the Jade Warlord” type dialogue, some audience members may have difficultly getting into an already far-fetched story.
- For the sake of my fellow ham sup lo, I feel obligated to say a few words about twenty-one year-old Crystal Liu Yifei. Known primarily to Chinese audiences as a TV actress, Liu spent part of her childhood in New York City before returning to China to study at the Bejing Film Academy in 2002. She burst onto the scene in 2003 with a captivating performance as Wong Yu-Yin (王語嫣) in HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE (CCTV’s adaptation of Louis Cha’s DEMI-GODS AND SEMI-DEVILS). In 2006, she cemented her status as a rising star after she received much acclaim for taking on the role of “Little Dragon Girl” (小龍女) in THE RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES (another CCTV adaptation of a Louis Cha novel). Both series received high ratings and allowed her to expand her career with opportunities in music and film.
Playing Golden Sparrow, Liu gives a solid performance in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM but prospects for further opportunities in Hollywood appear doubtful. While it was the top earner in North America on its opening weekend, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM did not catch fire like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. In addition, there’s been very little buzz about Liu. When he reviewed THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM for AT THE MOVIES WITH EBERT AND ROEPER, Richard Roeper did not fawn over Liu or co-star Li Bingbing like he does normally with the likes of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Instead, he referred to them generically by praising them for their “fabulous kung fu babe-ery”.
Liu, however, does have the ability to be a crossover talent. She has screen presence and she speaks English adequately (there’s even a slight hint of “Valley Girl” in her English). It will be interesting to see if Liu or Isabella Leong Lok-Si (who has a role in the upcoming THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR) make a dent in Hollywood. My guess is that neither will make a significant splash but it will be something to track over the next few years.
To those who’ve seen Liu in both HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE and THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, is it my imagination or does Liu seem younger in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM even though she is five years older? I remember being intrigued then horrified after watching Liu in the CCTV drama. Intrigued because she looked fabulous as Wong Yu-Yin then horrified when I learned she was only 15 when she shot the show. To this day, just making eye contact with her stills from HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE makes me feel like a pedophile. Now that I’ve seen THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, I can reassure myself by rationalizing that her costuming in the TV drama made her look like she was in her early-20s. Isn’t that right? Please, somebody, agree with me.
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Image credits: Universal Pictures (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL poster), The Weinstein Company (THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM poster, Crystal Liu), Columbia Pictures (William Zabka), CCTV (Crystal Liu)