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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Welcome to RONIN ON EMPTY!

 Sanjuro Logo

Hello, my name is Calvin McMillin, a.k.a. Sanjuro. You might remember me from such film reviews as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Swordsman 2, or perhaps the strangely infamous Flowers of Shanghai. I’m here today to give you the skinny on my new blog, Ronin on Empty. Now, you might be aware that I once had an irregularly updated column on the site called A Man Called Sanjuro or that I most recently maintained a blogger account also called Ronin on Empty. Those previous writing venues have been folded into this brand-spankin’ new blog. I wasn’t sure how or where to begin, so I did a few test posts to start out, which you can read underneath this one. With that initial tomfoolery out of the way, I thought I might use this first substantive posting as an opportunity to reflect on the past, consider the present, and speculate on the future.

Game of Death

 ”Be like water, fool! Be like water!”

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I really got into Hong Kong cinema sometime in the summer of 1992. Before then, aside from the small handful of films Bruce Lee made in his lifetime, the only Chinese films I had seen were those poorly-dubbed chopsocky flicks that the local channels would show on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But in 1992, something truly glorious happened to me. While I visited Singapore on summer vacation, my family was all abuzz about a new Chinese movie that had just come out, and since they were all itching to see it, I tagged along for the ride. And boy, what a ride. As it turned out, the movie in question was Once Upon a Time in China 2. To put it simply, it was a magical time at the cinema. I honestly hadn’t been so fully immersed in a film since watching the Star Wars trilogy as a kid. Now I could go on for pages talking about Once Upon a Time in China 2, but I’ll spare you the frothing, fanboy excitement. Let’s just say I was hooked — BIG TIME.


 Best. HK Movie. Ever.

I just had to know — were there more films out there like this? And if so, how could I see them? The next day, one of my aunties  took me to the local video store, and I was able to watch a few Hong Kong films I’d never seen before. As a result, I had a great time devouring this “new” cinema that was so utterly amazing to me and yet had totally been under the radar for me for so many years. But when I returned to my home in Oklahoma, the my down-home rural locale made access to these films a major obstacle. For those of you too young to remember, the convenience of the internet was years away, and the DVD revolution had yet to occur. Getting to see Hong Kong films — in any form — was a pretty big deal.


“What’d you say about DragonBall Evolution?”

Not to sound like an old-timer, but I remember setting the VCR before I went to bed to record late night showings of dubbed versions of A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow 2, and Hard Boiled (complete with an Aussie-dubbed Chow Yun-Fat!) on Cinemax. Things got a lot better when I got my hands on various mail-order catalogs, which allowed me to order two-tape sets of Hong Kong movies for a whopping $40. Exactly why these movies were cut into two parts over two separate video cassettes remains unclear to me even today.


“Whaddya mean by ‘overcompensating’?”

But the situation improved as time passed. Video stores like Hastings started carrying VHS tapes of HK movies with subtitles, and I’d watch every single one that would show up on the shelves, even ones I probably should’ve avoided. After Rumble in the Bronx and Rush Hour performed well at the US box office, more and more Jackie Chan films were released in the US. Sure, the English dubbing and recuts might not have been the most desirable format for hardcore fans, but you have to remember that these were different times. It was a minor miracle seeing a Jackie Chan movie in an American theatre. And then something even cooler happened — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hit American shores. I distinctly remember the unbelievably surreal quality of watching CTHD in Mandarin and then later Iron Monkey in Cantonese in a rinky-dink six-cinema theatre in Duncan, Oklahoma. To me, this was unthinkable only a year before. When I saw the first Once Upon a Time in China on DVD at Wal-Mart for $19.99, clearly it was a good time for Hong Kong cinema fans in the United States.


My first three post-1997 HK flicks all featured Ekin Cheng. And I liked them. Sue me.

When I returned to Singapore in 2002, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Hong Kongfilms on VCD that I encountered there. Unsure of what to buy beyond the films I knew from 1980-1994, I consulted the internet. I typed in “Hong Kong film,” and I was instantly taken to a little website bearing the name — you guessed it — I thought the reviews were well-written and funny; whoever this Kozo guy was he sure did share my sense of humor and love for HK cinema. I couldn’t believe a site like this existed. I contacted Kozo, who was looking for reviewers, and for reasons I can’t quite recall, I asked if I could join. I think my first review was Swordsman, based off a crappy VCD, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, a lot has changed since I started writing for this site all those years ago. Back then, I was a single, fresh-faced, clean-cut junior high teacher who spent his weekends reconnecting with Hong Kong cinema through a copious amount of DVD and VCD purchases from Yesasia and local video stores. Now, I’m grizzled, long-haired PhD student with a beautiful girlfriend and a workload that just gets piled higher and deeper with each passing day.  I have a tough time finding the time to even watch a HK movie, let alone review one, and unlike Kozo and Kevin Ma, I’m far, far away from the Hong Kong action to be anywhere near the cutting edge in terms of my review output. It also doesn’t help that the heyday of HK cinema is long since gone. Earlier, I likened my experience watching Once Upon a Time in China 2 with my childhood viewing of Star Wars, and I’m wondering what to do with that comparison. I mean, just 8-10 years ago, I used to collect Star Wars VHS tapes, DVDs, tie-in books, graphic novels, toys galore, you name it. Today? I’m totally indifferent to the franchise. But is that how I feel about HK cinema? Not at all. I’m not ready to give up on it. Really, it’s just a question of re-energizing myself.


Pictorial Representation of Sanjuro Re-energized

So how do I do it? Well, I came up with two ideas. I recently calculated the number of DVDs that I own that I haven’t watched, and the number was somewhere in the 100s, depending on how you count TV shows. Of those, probably 80 are relevant to this website and 50-60 of those have never been reviewed by anyone at Thus, my goal for the year is to slog through the remaining titles in my collection, and review every relevant movie. My collection runs the gamut of pan-Asia stuff from Japan, Korea, and Malaysia, as well as a number of Hong Cinema films, especially from the Shaw Brothers most prolific era. There are even a few gems that Kozo, Kevin, and I haven’t touched yet (Centre Stage, anyone?), and I’d love the chance to remedy those omissions real soon.

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

I promise to review this movie someday.

The second effort to rejuvenate things is this blog. And at the risk of looking like the site’s resident curmudgeon, I’m doing to dip back into the archive from time to time to spotlight movies from “the good ol’ days.” This blog, however, won’t be about my personal life, so don’t worry about weepy blog posts entitled “Sad” or “Desperate Cry for Help.” Instead what I want to do is simply talk about Hong Kong and Asian entertainment in a format that can’t be given adequately treatment in a review. I might want to focus on an unsung film, an underrated performance, or a really great action scene. This blog is very much a work-in-progress. What I suspect you might find most consistently is a blog that’ll provide some US Blu-Ray and DVD news on HK and Pan-Asian movies, as well as some short essays on Hong Kong cinema from time to time. I’ll try to surprise ya.


Unlike Chow Mo-Wan, I never write in a suit. Hell, I don’t even smoke.

The other thing that I may want to do is serialize some of my fictional work. This is a tricky issue due to a) rights issues, b) relevancy to the site itself, and c) your interest as readers. I’m a writer – or at least trying to be – and I was lucky enough to get two stories published; one was a little ghost story called “Raffles Place Déjà vu” that got picked up (and re-edited quite embarrassingly) in a Singaporean horror anthology, and the other was a short story called “The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever,” which finally got published a couple years ago in The Hawaii Review. Anyway, if I do decide to serialize some of my stuff, I want your comments, your criticisms, your suggestions. Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, and even Stephen King have been successful with the serial format, and while I know I’ll never be as popular as any of those fine fellows, I’m intrigued to experiment with the form and challenge myself to make it interesting for all of you. I’m not doing this for the fame (although that would be great); I’m more interested in telling stories, and I’m sincerely hoping people like them. If you’re interested in me posting stuff like that, let me know.

* * *

In the words of Shakespeare (or was it Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa?): It has begun.

4 Responses to “Welcome to RONIN ON EMPTY!”

  1. TheGoldenRock Says:

    Whoo-hoo! Welcome to the LHKF blog family, Sanjuro!

    By the way, the reason those tapes were split in two was for the rental market. Someone had the genius idea that since rentals were based on a per-tape (or per laser-disc, in my experience) basis, a film were charged as a two-tape rental to crank up the revenue.

    Or I guess they thought the film would look better split on two tapes or something. Who knows?

  2. admin Says:

    Glad to be aboard. Thanks for the info. I always thought the two-tape thing was odd.

  3. Sanney Leung Says:

    Greetings Sanjuro,

    Welcome to the blogging division of the Kozo Entertainment Group. I hope you didn’t sign a 18 year contract like I did.

    TheGoldenRock is exactly right about the two tape system. It was particularly annoying when the movie was less than 90 minutes long and it wasn’t that great to begin with. I honestly think it’s chinsy crap like that contributed to the current problems with HK cinema.

    Love the captions you’ve put under your photos. The Kelly Chen one really cracked me up.

    Best of luck with the blog and everything else.

  4. mike johnson Says:

    Yes, you are right. That’s not my real name. I am at work right now and not doing anything productive, so I thought it would be nice to leave you a note…hmmm looking forward to your reviews, and yes the two-tape thing was really annoying and such a rip-off. Back then, the only way I could watch the latest Hong Kong movies was to rent them from a chinese grocery store but the movies were in mandarin instead of cantonese..strange, isn’t it..ok..take care

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