Dragon Blade (天将雄师)

For F*** Magazine

DRAGON BLADE (天将雄师)

Director : Daniel Lee
Cast : Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Siwon, Wang Ruoxin, Lin Peng, Jozef Waite
Genre : Action/Martial Arts
Run Time : 127 mins
Opens : 19 February 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

     

      Chinese New Year movie season is here again and to usher in the Year of the Goat, Jackie Chan takes us on a cross-cultural journey down the Silk Road. In this historical action epic, Chan plays Huo An, commander of the Protection Squad of the Western Regions – a Han Dynasty CHiPs of sorts. Framed for treason, he is sent to a labour camp on the outskirts of China, where he crosses paths with Roman general Lucius (Cusack). Lucius is being pursued by the cruel Tiberius (Brody) who, having killed his father and poisoned his young brother Publius (Waite), wants the 36 districts around the Silk Road to bow to him. Huo An and Lucius form an unlikely alliance against the tyrant, choosing unity over discord as numerous armies gather in the desert to face off.



            Dragon Blade begins with a proclamation that it is based on a true story – it’s based more on fanciful conjecture than anything else. The premise requires heaps of suspension of disbelief to swallow but over the course of the film, most anyone would find it hard to suspend their disbelief. Many viewers might in fact become best friends with their disbelief. Writer-director Daniel Lee has delivered an uproarious celebration of unintentional hilarity. With a USD $65 million budget, the most expensive film production in the history of Chinese cinema is a lavish, ill-conceived mess. While the costumes designed by Thomas Chong are meticulously crafted and shooting on location in the vast expanses of the Gobi Desert lends the picture sufficient production value, this does little to give weight to the hokey story and generally terrible performances. A 15 minute stretch of the film in which Lucius’ and Huo An’s men put aside their differences to collaborate on an ambitious construction project feels like the plot is being put on hold, until one realises that is supposed to be the plot.

            Upon first meeting Lucius, Huo An asks “is there any way no fight?” Let’s break this down: the Romans all speak English – fine, it’s hardly the first movie to do that. Huo An is supposed to have somehow learned English and his halting command of the language is meant to establish a communication barrier. That’s iffy. Finally, the Romans are all shown singing in Latin. Then again, would Jackie Chan mangling Latin dialogue be any better? Because the proceedings are so melodramatic and possess no real tension or weight, this reviewer decided it was more fulfilling to decipher the logic behind why anyone in this movie speaks the way they do. Later on, Huo An gets to deliver the gem of a line “you look down on human”, as if extra-terrestrial invaders have entered the fray – which might as well be the case, given how ridiculous the plot already is anyway.
            Judging from interviews, career choices and his philantrophy, Jackie Chan views himself as a beacon of understanding between cultures and indeed, most of his movies can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of cultural background, the controversy surrounding Chan’s personal politics notwithstanding. Here, this translates into an awkward preachiness, the film’s heavy-handed message of joining hands and singing “kumbaya” around the campfire coming off as equal parts simplistic and pretentious. Huo An is a stoic leader with a tragic past – while Jackie Chan has excelled at more serious roles before, that is clearly not his forte. Points for trying something different and while he still excels at the sword-fighting sequences, he seems ill-suited to the part and his signature childlike playfulness and unique approach to screen fighting is sorely missed.

            After decades of Asian actors struggling to cross over into the American film market, it seems high time we get more Hollywood actors floundering about in Asian movies. John Cusack truly looks like he doesn’t want to be there – he famously divides the projects he chooses into “one for them” and “one for me” and it’s plenty obvious which category Dragon Blade falls into. Adrien Brody doesn’t do much for most of the film, snarling and issuing threats in menacing tones. While Brody has done some good work in smaller films as of late, he still very much is the “Oscar Curse” incarnate. Here’s it’s painfully clear that playing a scary Ancient Roman villain, ala Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, isn’t for everyone. As the young prince Publius, Jozef Waite delivers one of the most awkward, stilted performances we’ve seen from a child actor in recent memory.

            Bad movies are a denarius a dozen. Movies that are bad in as fascinating and novel a way as this one is are rarer. Sitting through Dragon Blade was the most fun this reviewer has had in a theatre in ages, many moments sure to elicit howls from audiences. From the superfluous framing story featuring Vanness Wu as an archaeologist to the United Colours of Benetton moral to the most eclectic cast of the year (which manages to fit in a Korean pop idol, a French singer, a China-based British child star and an Oscar winner), Dragon Blade is nothing if not entertainingly bizarre. It may only be February, but we’re calling this the funniest comedy of 2015.

Summary: A “so bad it’s good” novelty in the extreme, Dragon Blade is a baffling cross-cultural mishmash that has to be seen to be believed. Highly recommended in the most ironic sense.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Blade Runners: Dragon Blade Singapore Press Conference

For F*** Magazine

BLADE RUNNERS
F*** meets Jackie Chan and the stars of Dragon Blade in Singapore
By Jedd Jong
From left: Choi Siwon, Mika Wang, John Cusack, Jackie Chan, Lin Peng, Adrien Brody
                A week ahead of the Chinese New Year release date of Dragon Blade, the film’s cast arrives in Singapore to meet fans, grace the red carpet premiere and speak to the press. It is a Tuesday morning and F*** is at the Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore as Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Siwon, Lin Peng and Mika Wang enter the ballroom for the press conference. Surely one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled, it’s not every day that an Asian action star sits alongside an Oscar winner and a K-pop singer to field questions from reporters.
                Photographers go into frenzy, jostling each other as they crowd around the stage to snap a shot of the actors. “Please, sit down. Let’s have some order, thank you,” Jackie exhorts in Mandarin. They obey. “Ah, now, much, much better!” he says, satisfied.
                Used to wearing many hats, Jackie is the producer, star and action director on Dragon Blade. Jackie plays the protagonist Huo An, a general of the Silk Road Protection Squad who is framed for treason and forced to work in a slave labour camp on the outskirts of China. He explains that he spent seven years preparing the film, which was filmed in the harsh climes of the Gobi Desert. Jackie rattles off some staggering figures: 350 crew members, 800 extras and 200 horses were required to pull the movie off. “It doesn’t matter how difficult the filming process was, if the audience enjoys the film, all the sweat, blood and tears are worth it,” he says.

                The involvement of Hollywood actors Cusack and Brody is unprecedented in the history of Chinese cinema. For both of them, it was a thrill to participate in a martial arts movie, seeing as they grew up on classic Golden Harvest Hong Kong movies. “We were great Jackie Chan fans, Bruce Lee fans, and saw all the martial arts movies so to be able to work with Jackie as an actor but also a visionary choreographer of actions and stunts, all the standards he puts in his movies, it was quite a thrill,” Cusack says. He portrays Lucius, a Roman general in exile who meets Jackie Chan’s character Huo An in the desert. Though initially wary of each other, Lucius and Huo An put aside their differences to concentrate on rebuilding the outpost of Wild Geese Gate.
                Brody agrees, saying “this is my childhood and adolescent fantasy, not only do we get to collaborate in a deeper dramatic capacity, in a creative way, but in a martial arts sense, it is such a thrill, it is beyond a thrill to learn from Jackie and to be able to play together, it was really very exciting.” Brody plays the villain of the piece, the tyrannical, power-hungry Tiberius, who has pursued Lucius across the desert.
                Jackie says that having worked in movies for 54 years, he has gotten used to the pressure of making a movie and that he believes that the old ways are often the best. “These days, audiences enjoy films like the Transformersmovies and Spider-Man, as well as wire-fu action movies,” he says, saying he is adamant about retaining traditional ways of performing stunts, which he jokingly calls “stupid methods”. “Today, in Hollywood movies, there would be a piece of green cloth wrapped around the sword so it would look like the sword is slicing in real close without hurting anybody. Our method is really stupid – we did it for real. I feel that it’s a miracle that I can still be making action films at my age.” Jackie reveals that Cusack hit him twice in the hand by accident while filming a sword fight scene.
                “Well, we had a very long fight in the middle of the desert and sooner or later, you hit each other!” Cusack says sheepishly. Cusack and Brody were able to offer their input on the English segments of the script to ensure the dialogue sounded natural.
                Jackie may not feel the pressure, but actress Lin Peng certainly does. “Working with this director and cast, the pressure was immense. In this film, I’m playing a fierce warrior woman, so it was very demanding in terms of the martial arts. Jackie has very high standards for martial arts, so the pressure was on,” she says.
                Lin Peng has a scene where she is seen nude from behind. Jackie explains that he gave her the option of using a body double, but the actress decided to go the full Monty for real. Emphasising that he didn’t intend on leering at her, Jackie says “only I could see her naked body, but I assured her, ‘I’m not a pervert, I’m not looking at you in a sexual manner’.”
When Lin suggests that this is probably the most challenging entry in Jackie Chan’s recent filmography, Jackie admonishes her, saying all his movies are challenging to make. “Every film I make is challenging, it’s just that you don’t know it,” he counters. He elaborates on coordinating the casting of all the extras, including the actors playing Roman soldiers and the multi-ethnic schoolchildren. “They would say ‘it’s because of you, Jackie, that we’re here’. We had to teach them all the basics of acting. We needed to take care of these extras and create a friendly atmosphere for them. I’d make sure to eat with them and chat with them, because I didn’t want their first experience on the set of a Chinese film to be a negative one,” he says.
                Jackie emphasises that no matter how physically strenuous the shoot was for the actors, the crew had it worse. “I always say, actors have to be considerate of and grateful to all the crew members on set. Actors have it the easiest! They come to set late and leave early. Anywhere I go, I say the crew has it the hardest and we all have to recognise the contributions of those working behind the scenes.”
                Relative newcomer Mika Wang plays the other lead female character, a schoolteacher who is married to Huo An. “This is my first time working with Jackie and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity. Jackie has taught us so much, both in terms of filmmaking and in life,” she says. When she describes the finished movie as “awesome”, Jackie interjects with a rebuke again.
                “Never call your own movies ‘awesome’.” Jackie says in a finger-wagging tone. “Say they’re ‘okay’. You have to be humble always, that’s what I’ve taught you!”

K-pop star Choi Siwon of Super Junior fame plays Huo An’s right-hand man in the film, Yin Po. Jackie had requested that he be cast in the film after positive experiences working on charity shows with the singer, who is hugely popular across Asia. Most of the fans at the mall appearance and red carpet premiere later that night are there for Choi Siwon alone. Choi likens learning fight choreography to learning dancing, and hopes he will get to showcase his moves by actually dancing in a future film project. “I love Singapore”, he says at one point.

                “That sounds like insincere flattery,” Jackie remarks.
                East-meets-west films haven’t exactly had a sterling track record – 47 Ronin, anybody? On what gives Dragon Blade its, well, edge in this subgenre, Cusack says it’s that “the quality control standards of Jackie and [director] Daniel Lee are incredibly high so this a very top-of-the-line movie.” He states that the production value was on par with that of the Hollywood blockbuster 2012, which “played here in China.” Perhaps he’s just a little jet-lagged, we’ll forgive the one-off geo-confusion – after all, Singaporeans are pretty used to having their country mistakenly thought of as a part of China.
                Jackie has lofty ambitions for this film and is particularly enamoured with its message. He says the one phrase that jumped out at him in the screenplay for Dragon Blade was “live for peace, turn foes into friends”. “Today’s world is in such dire need of peace that I felt I had to make this movie,” Jackie proclaims. “I felt that I had a mission with this film. With Chinese Zodiac, it was about the conservation of antiques. In Dragon Blade, it’s all about peace. I think everyone must have a sense of responsibility to create peace. My hope is that everyone can watch this movie and be touched by its message – Al Qaeda, the Middle East, the United States, my hope is that everyone can watch this movie and learn the value of peace.”
              Terrorists being compelled to put down their arms after watching a Jackie Chan film? You never know.

Grand Piano

For F*** Magazine

GRAND PIANO

Director : Eugenio Mira
Cast : Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
Genre : Thriller, Suspense
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Elijah Wood trades in his fuzzy feet for dextrous fingers to play pianist Tom Selznick in this suspense thriller. Selznick, a prodigious young talent who crashed and burned after failing to complete an “unplayable” piece five years ago, reluctantly puts on a comeback performance at the behest of his wife, actress Emma (Bishé). Everything is in place, especially the customized Bösendorfer grand piano that belonged to Selznick’s late mentor. In the middle of his performance, Selznick finds a threatening message in the sheet music, and is warned by his would-be killer Clem (Cusack) that one wrong note will result in a bullet through the head. All eyes are on the pianist as he gives the most important performance of his career – and tries to keep it from being his last. 
From the opening titles in which the inner workings of the titular instrument are shot as if they were components of a trap from the Saw movies, audiences will know what they’re in for. Grand Piano is a pulpy thriller that is earnestly Hitchcockian; composer Victor Reyes channelling Bernard Herrmann in his soundtrack. Produced by Rodrigo Cortés, it bears a similar ominously theatrical feel to Red Lights, which he directed. That aesthetic is certainly more overt here, the colour palette predominantly blood red. While it is a look that draws one in, there’s also a degree of artifice exacerbated by the rather out-there premise. 
The film does have a pretty neat logline – “Speed with a grand piano”.  There are also shades of Phone Booth (Box Seat?). It’s one of those things that’s either completely ridiculous or utterly brilliant and, intriguingly enough, director Eugenio Mira bounces the movie between those two extremes with marvellous precision. Yes, there are moments that strain suspension of disbelief and the dialogue is oftentimes quite awkward (the conductor tells his orchestra to “ready (their) weapons”, for instance). It is also expertly paced and effectively taut. In spite of the smatterings of Grand Guignol bombast, there’s a credible sense of danger established and we feel trapped alongside Selznick, caught in the crosshairs and still having to focus on his craft. 
Elijah Wood has picked some quirky films over the last few years and his refusal to be pigeonholed after starring in a successful blockbuster franchise is admirable. Wood makes for an adequately convincing master pianist, his perpetual youthfulness upping the “child prodigy fallen from grace” quotient. Working with coach and hand double Héctor Eliel Márquez, Wood does actually look like he’s playing, and does actually look like he’s good. We wish that the trailer (and the poster) didn’t give away that John Cusack was the villain as it would’ve been a nice surprise reveal. He spends most of the film off screen, present in the form of a menacing voice in Selznick’s ear. While this is yet another case in which the revelation of the antagonist’s motive is at least a bit of a let-down, Cusack is still solid opposition to our heroic pianist. Shout-out to Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame who shows up as a suspicious theatre usher. Excellent, dude! 
Grand Piano is an entertaining affair that isn’t afraid to dip into silliness and thanks to some assured direction, isn’t overcome by its preposterous premise, instead gamely running with it. While far from wholly satisfying, it’s a slickly-crafted, well-acted suspense thriller packed with pizzazz and flourish, Lang Lang-style. 
SUMMARY: Elijah Wood goes pedal to the metal in a slightly different way than Sandra Bullock did in this occasionally silly but consistently exhilarating flick.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong