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Legend of a Warrior (2012) ***1/2 dir. Corey Lee
Starring: Frank Pang Lee, Corey Lee, Billy Chow
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There's nothing more exciting on film than movement. Yeah, sounds nuts, right? Movies are movement. Moving pictures. Motion pictures. The movies.
The movement I'm referring to, is when the camera captures a great dance number or chase scene or fight. In recent years, however, all three of those actions have succumbed to supplicating the vile MTV-and-post-MTV generations with annoying ADHD-styled shooting and cutting. You know the kind - the camera never rests for more than a few seconds on some poorly composed shot and is cut montage-like to fake the rhythm. Sound drives the cuts more often than not. Picture is secondary when it comes to conveying information, dramatic beats, emotional beats and/or to provide juxtapositional imagery to convey a thought or idea.
This drives me completely up the wall. It's lazy filmmaking and denies audiences the true power and beauty of an exquisitely choreographed dance, chase or fight.
Luckily, if Legend of a Warrior had nothing else going for it (and it has plenty to offer), it has the distinction of featuring a whole passel of terrific fight scenes (mostly within the context of training action in the gym). And Glory Be To The Mighty Lord of Cinema, the picture is shot the way pictures involving action should be shot - mostly in long, wide or medium shots and only punching in for anything closer when there's a reason to do so. Most of the time, the superb camera work hangs back and the editing is spare in all the right ways.
Given the film's title and the way I've chosen to lead my review, you might think I was describing a new action picture starring Jason Statham. Curiously, I first watched Legend of a Warrior at the previous instalment of the Hot Docs Festival just after seeing Statham's newest fight-fest Safe (which is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray).
Safe featured some spectacularly choreographed action and fights that were almost completely ruined by a boneheaded "director" who had no idea where to place the camera and tried to create thrills by throwing in as many closeups as possible with a ridiculous number of cuts. Legend of a Warrior, however, was a breath of fresh air (though with emphasis on training so well wrought cinematically, one could imagine the air tempered with the olfactory essence of sweat coming off the glistening bodies and raw pounding of fists and feet upon flesh and leather bags).
This is all the more gratifying when one realizes Legend of a Warrior is a documentary - a low budget one at that, though never betraying the meagre shekels and always maintaining first-rate production value within the context of a simple and solid story.
The picture's simple structure, however, yields considerable thematic complexity. I remember that my second helping of Legend of a Warrior happened to fall within the same period when I was immersed in the classic 50s Inagaki Samurai Trilogy from Japan where issues of honour, brotherhood and, most importantly the craft of shooting action was simple, straight forward and as such, very exciting and lodged very appropriately at the forefront. The parallel themes shared by the pictures carried over to Legend of a Warrior with even more resonance than previous showings as I watched the movie alone in my man-cave with a pot of joe and plenty of cigarettes to accompany the on-screen HD action.
With the feature length Legend of a Warrior, director Corey Lee delivers a very personal documentary. Corey was born in Edmonton, Alberta. He's half Chinese and worries that both he and furthermore, his kids, need to discover their ethnic roots while they still have time to do so. The ticking clock is Corey's Chinese father. He and Dad have, for much of their life as father and son, been estranged. Corey decides to not only change this state of affairs, but to document it on film.
His Dad is the legendary Frank Pang Lee, a great master of the martial arts who not only runs his own gym in Alberta, but was the personal trainer to the equally legendary Billy Chow, the reigning world kickboxing champion through much of the 80s and a stalwart actor in over 50 martial arts pictures (having co-starred with the likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Jacky Wu and among many others, Donnie Yen). Frank's world famous self-designed White Crane technique is also the stuff of legend.
Speaking of legends, Frank is 70 years old. I can't actually believe he's 70. This guy is in stunning physical condition and to see him in action is utterly mind-blowing. Corey in contrast, is buff enough, but hasn't practiced martial arts for over twenty years. He decides the best way to get to know his father and reclaim his Chinese heritage is to train with Dad.
The training sequences are absolutely brutal - not in a nasty violent way, but in the visual/aural combination of punishing, almost obsessive physical exertion with the naturalistic sounds of the gym itself. And they are gorgeously shot and cut. (Someone give this director and his team an action picture to make.)
Through the film, we witness Corey getting into better shape and his kung fu seems to be progressing nicely during the weeks of training. What's not quite happening is the father-son thing he's been hoping for. This only starts to happen once the two of them take a trip to Hong Kong together. This leads to a scene in the film's final third which, in a drama, could have been machine tooled to pretty decent effect, but because this is a documentary, it takes on an added power. Suffice it to say that this aforementioned scene is tremendously moving. (I spewed more than a few geysers of liquid salt from my tear-ducts.)
Between training sessions and a glorious tournament sequence in Frank's gym, we get dollops of Frank's own story - his early years as a gang thug in China, the threat of communism and his eventual escape to Canada. Once in the New World, Frank's fighting prowess comes in mighty handy when he works a few local Edmonton dives as a waiter/bouncer. His exploits at tossing innumerable tough customers reach far and wide and soon, tough guys from all over Western Canada and the far north make their way to Edmonton to try their luck at NOT being turfed by Frank. It's like Frank became the gunfighter with a reputation that always needed to be challenged by young turks who thought they were tougher.
Ah, Alberta! Lotsa beef, lotsa horses and plenty of rough customers straight out of a Randolph Scott western (and in this case, cross-pollinated with some chop-socky).
Many of the early years of Frank's life are rendered via some very evocative animations (still drawings - almost like anime sketches with a few simple moves). These are deftly integrated into the film and even subtly cut into live action moments when necessary.
For the most part, this is a truly compelling documentary, but the two things that, for me, keep it from crossing into the overwhelming scope of a "theatrical" experience is that some of the narration is far-too on the nose (especially in the early going) and secondly, that the movie delivers on the emotional arc of the father-son story, but lacks a good final visceral punch. I was expecting, but never got, a final match between Corey and an opponent of equal calibre. The narration sometimes drove me a bit nuts - often delivering stuff we didn't need to know and if we did need to know it, I think it might have been better to just let the audience piece it together all on their lonesome.
Much of the voice-over was of the "I think this, I think that, I hope this happens, I hope that happens" variety. It often came over dynamic visuals and I'd have preferred a more cerebral approach to conveying these feelings. In a strange way, I'm even more convinced that the narration (though it works somewhat better within a home viewing context) might even be one of the culprits in delivering a wee bit of a letdown when we DON'T get a final match since it often does serve to build conflict that is paid off emotionally, but not visually and viscerally in terms of an expected kick-ass series of kicks and roundhouses.
This, however, is not ultimately going to deter anyone from enjoying the film at all.
It's a terrific story.
Interestingly, if I were the producer of the film, I'd be doing everything in my power to be selling the dramatic remake rights to a studio. There's a great martial arts movie with some heart here. A few embellishments wouldn't hurt, mind you - like a big match at the end of the movie, or better yet, add an underworld subplot requiring father and son to kick some gangster butt together. Or better yet, just try to make the movie without a studio. Get Chow Yun Fat to play Frank and concoct a good villain role and cast Jackie Chan against type in it. Toss Tony Jaa into the mix as Corey. And hey, set the damn thing in Edmonton. There's plenty of Ukrainians there. Toss some Uke mob action into the mix. George Dzundza would be a fantastic Uke mob boss.
Yeah, I know - that's a different movie, and kind of cheesy, but crazier things have happened in this gloriously nutty business.
"Legend of a Warrior" is a gorgeously transferred DVD with a variety of sound and language choices and as mentioned above, the price-point is more than enough to justify adding the title to one's documentary and/or martial arts collections.
There are disappointments, though. The packaging is a very nice "green" recycled plastic that holds the film safely with its covers. That said, the spectacular artwork of the poster and a very nicely designed back cover come (at least with my copy) as a separate slip cover that I presume I must somehow affix myself to the box.
The biggest disappointment is the lack of special features that frankly would have rendered a highly collectible home viewing product. The movie is so beautifully shot that it would have been nice if the whole package had included 3 versions - DVD, Digital AND, most importantly, a Blu-Ray disc.
The possibility for added value features would have been almost limitless and frankly, given the story and the legendary qualities of the director's father, this should have been issued in two versions - the current bare-bones product for cheapies and an amazing extra-packed super-deluxe collector's edition. A moderated commentary track with father and son would have proven amazing and an element much desired by the millions upon millions of fan-boy martial arts geeks, (Yes, Lee and some of the other figures in the film are THAT famous.) A second moderated commentary track with director, producer and cinematographer that spoke to specific elements of production would also have been welcome.
Given that the film is a documentary, the amount of unused footage would have been more-than-available and useful for any number of specifically-themed making of documentaries - not glorified EPKs, but borderline films unto themselves - not unlike the great work Laurent Bouzereau has done for Criterion and Universal home releases. On top of that, I'm sure there are any number of scenes/sequences that hit the cutting room floor would have been superb additional features (and could also have been presented with a specific series of commentaries from the director). Finally, a nice glossy booklet, or even an attacked to the cover mini-book (a la some of the recent Warner and Universal special editions) could have included a director diary of production and post (even if there wasn't one, it's pretty easy to make one up, or at least generate a brief "memoir" piece), but also two additional essays from martial arts aficionados - one placing the documentary in a historical context within the history of martial arts movies and another being a critical analysis.
All this could have THEN been packaged in a limited edition box, numbered (say an initial run of 1000 copies), personally signed by the director and his father and made available to the willing collector market for product just like this. Given that the National Film Board of Canada is uniquely poised to release many of their own titles, I really think this title and maybe a few others would benefit greatly from this kind of geek-paradise packaging. Collectors will always pay a premium price if a product has a collectable quality and given the difficulty (and/or sheer laziness) pirates have with re-mastering full collectors' editions, even something like this - aimed at a market of Asian martial Arts fans - would, especially if marketed properly to the myriad of geeks in the world, been a great seller with considerable shelf life.
Maybe this can still happen. Video distributors double and triple dip on titles all the time. There's no reason the NFB couldn't do so also.