Thursday, November 29, 2018



This review originally written for in 2008.

Made in 1993, the Chinese comedy Eagle Shooting Heroes (Dong Cheng Xi Jiu) is a parody of the wuxia genre, the flamboyant martial arts movies that years later would become popular in the U.S. through arty takes on the format like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Classically, these historical kung-fu pictures were less high-brow and more mainstream entertainment and were often based on sprawling prose serials featuring larger than life heroes, impossible quests, and eternal love. In this case, Eagle Shooting Heroes is based on a novel by the master Louis Cha, and it's the same novel that provided the story for producer Wong Kar-Wai's more serious directorial effort, Ashes of Time [review], a year later. Apparently Kar-Wai saw a greater opportunity in Cha's convoluted plots and crazy fighters, going forward with two different takes on the same text.

Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who has helmed various incarnations of Chinese Odyssey over the years, and written by no one apparently (there is no credited screenplay), Eagle Shooting Heroes is as nuts as anything that came out of the Zucker factory post-Airplane and generally as hit-and-miss as those low-brow satires, as well. It's only intermittently funny, and even then probably only if you have some passing knowledge of wuxia conventions. Lau and his cast appear to have never met a silly joke they haven't liked, even resorting to Three Stooges-style eye pokes and rubber gorilla suits. When you press play, buckle up and expect anything.

Plot is immaterial in this sprawling movie. I was never entirely sure who was after what mystical book or royal seal, nor could I always tell who hated whom and why. Dastardly master of the bullfrog school of kung-fu Ouyang Feng (Tony Leung Chi Wah, 2046 [review]) and his lover (Veronica Yip) want to take over China (presumably) and must capture the Third Princess (Brigitte Lin, Chungking Express, [review]) to clear the way to the throne. Along the way, they enlist the help of a bumbling sorceress (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love [review]), while the Princess is teamed up with a naïve martial artist named Yaoshi (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together). Yaoshi has a lover, Suqiu (Joey Wang, A Chinese Ghost Story), who jealousy pursues the pair, while also attracting the attention of the king of the beggars, Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung, Days of Being Wild). Hong Qi teams with Feng, Suqiu teams with the Princess' fiancée Duan (Tony Leung Ka Fai, Lost in Beijing), and everyone gets chased by the vengeance seeking, chubby homosexual Zho Botong (2046's Carina Lau playing a man). Most of the characters change allegiances at least once, several do so while hallucinating, and one even becomes a floating head before ascending to Heaven. This should give you a hint of how crazy Eagle Shooting Heroes gets.

In the course of 103 minutes, Eagle Shooting Heroes covers multiple searches for eternal love, musical numbers, gender bending, comic misunderstandings, and at its best, big fight scenes. Most of the cast were also part of Ashes of Time (and also formed a kind of Wong Kar-Wai ensemble troupe over the years), and most of them are extremely skilled in movie martial arts. It helped that the stunts were all coordinated by Sammo Hung, who also worked with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, meaning that the action is both exciting and funny. Really, it's the fights that are the best part of Eagle Shooting Heroes, when the movie can take a break from the headache-inducing script (or lack thereof) and show off a little. Of particular note is an extended duel between Tony Leung Chi Wah and Jacky Cheung. Hong Qi has decided he would rather die than live without Suqiu, and he enlists Feng to do the deed for him; only, he can't hold back his reflexes, and every time Feng goes in for the kill, Hong Qi devastates him, leaving him a bruised and swollen mess. It also features some of the more fun plays on the various martial arts styles. In addition to Feng's bullfrog system, this movie also has a Tsunami Fist, Flirty Eyes Sword Style, and other strangely named attack techniques.

The big finale is also an over-the-top extravaganza, with the entire cast engaging in one massive brawl. The sets and the costumes are incredible to look at throughout the movie (well, except for the gorilla and his friends the eagle and the dinosaur), but they are particularly bright and colorful in the palace. Eagle Shooting Heroes was shot by the awesome Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger; The Promise [review]), which only adds to the incredible roster of talent that threw standards to the wind and made this goofball adventure. It makes it all the more of a waste that Wong Kar-Wai didn't hire a real comedy writer to whip the material into shape. All of his people are ready to totally go for it, just what "it" is seems to confuse them all.


This review originally written for in 2009.

Princess Wushuang (Faye Wong, Chungking Express) and Emperor Zheng De (Chen Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) are the Royal children of the Ming Dynasty, the descendents of the Empress Dowager (Rebecca Pan, In the Mood for Love), who still rules over the land. Not content with courtly existence, the heirs apparent regularly make escape attempts in hopes of breaking out of the palace and seeing life in the real world. At the start of Chinese Odyssey 2002, Wushuang is finally successful, using the distraction of her brother's capture and her Iron Headbutt martial arts technique to bust through the gate of the Forbidden City. Disguising herself as a man, she heads to a nearby village, where she is taken in by Bully the Kid (Tony Leung, Faye Wong's Chungking Express and 2046 co-star), a local thug and restaurateur who thinks he may have found a husband for his sister. Phoenix (Wei Zhao, Shaolin Soccer) has not yet found love thanks to her tomboy style and also the local fear of her brother. Believing he has a psychic bond with her, Bully knows this makes her heart ache.

Except there is no psychic bond. As we discover in voiceover, the deep thoughts Bully believes his sister is having are far more trivial when the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on them. He thinks she is transmitting feelings of deep yearning, she is wondering why he hasn't washed his face. It's a silly joke, and indicative of the kind of broad slapstick style that makes Chinese Odyssey 2002 a lot of fun. Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who also helmed two unrelated Chinese Odyssey movies with Stephen Chow and has a new movie called Kung-Fu Cyborg, wrote and directed this over-the-top send-up of arty wuxia pictures, recreating them for laughs but employing the same exacting (and often very pretty) art direction. Lau mimics and mocks such big budget kung-fu flicks as Hero and Ashes of Time, playing up the metaphysical themes, superpowers, and convoluted plotting. The latter reference is especially pointed, as Lau places Tony Leung in similar shots and situations as ones from Wong Kar-Wai's puzzling deconstruction of the genre. Fittingly, Kar-Wai is a producer on Chinese Odyssey 2002, and he takes his lumps with dignity. References to 2046 and Days of Being Wild pass with a wink, and Lau and cinematographer Peter Ngor (Sex and Zen) play on Kar-Wai's slow-mo style, as well. The jabs are lovingly thrown; in fact, this isn't the first time the director and producer teamed up for this kind of jokefest. In 1993, Kar-Wai produced Eagle Shooting Heroes, Lau's alternate adaptation of the same Louis Cha books that spawned Ashes of Time.

What a difference a decade makes, though. Where I found the slapstick of Eagle Shooting Heroes to be overdone and flat, I found the similarly styled comedy of Chinese Odyssey 2002 to be delightful. A far more sophisticated hand guides us into a script that has much more going on than just an unmannered grasping for yucks.

Once Princess Wushuang gets to the city and we get through the neo-Shakespearean gender-bending set-ups and gags--in one scene, Phoenix, Wushuang, and Bully all cross-dress together, with the other two never realizing that Wushuang is actually revealing her true self--a tender romance starts to develop for real. Bully is drawn to the Princess, mistaking genuine affection for the residue of his perceived sibling bond. When Wushuang is taken back to the palace, she leaves her new friends believing that she is the actual Emperor, allowing them to then be caught unaware when Zheng De comes to town disguised as an actor and inventor who dreams up anachronistic objects like platform shoes and afro wigs. Phoenix falls for the rapscallion, not knowing that to love him fulfills her misconstrued betrothal to the Emperor rather than betraying the person she thought was said Emperor. Sure, it sounds confusing on paper, but trust me, the movie flows along just fine.

Though Zheng De is able to pull rank on his mother and insist Phoenix is the woman for him, Wushuang and Bully aren't so lucky. A superstitious ritual gives the Empress reason to dismiss Bully, who suffered a similar rejection in the past. It's another very Wong Kar-Wai-like subplot, and the movie requires an equally Kar-Wai solution. Things actually get a little heavy as the Princess goes mad and Bully must learn to stop being a Kid and become a man, and the whole theme of switching roles finally pays off in a big romantic way. Of course, what more can you expect from a movie that has Romance itself personified in a metamorphosing rabbit named Solid Gold Love (played by Athena Chu, herself named for a goddess of love)?

It's a surprising turn of events for a film that set itself up as a mere parody of period-piece martial arts dramas--complete with its own well-choreographed action scenes. (I particularly liked the Emperor's fighting style that allows him to draw power from flirting.) Chinese Odyssey 2002, like its many characters, only begins by presenting itself one way in order to have more impact when it throws off its disguise. Though the comedy may be too goofy for some, the love story gives it a good balance. It's light fare, but it's got heart.

It's also got Tony Leung and Faye Wong, a reteaming that should be enough for all the Chungking Express fans out there to give Chinese Odyssey 2002 a look. They are both quite good at comedy, and they are also both gorgeous, which isn't such a bad thing in a film where you are rooting for the two leads to eventually make kissy faces. The scene where they are reunited is as tender as the other scenes are ridiculous, and the exchanges that pass between them are wonderful.

I suppose on one side it's arguable that this film has something for everyone--comedy, action, romance, good acting, a vibrant visual style--but as a bit of fair warning, you should know it's also very much rooted in cultural and cinematic traditions that may not be to everyone's tastes or even completely recognizable. Still, if you enjoyed House of Flying Daggers or maybe even Hot Shots back in the day, there should at least be some access points for you. If you've seen your fair amount of Chinese period pieces or just dig Hong Kong cinema in general, enter safely.

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