BOOK REVIEW: Shang-Chi, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang

Shang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & SistersShang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This five-issue story arc tells the tale of an intra-family battle for control of the Five Weapons Society, a kung fu dynasty that dates back at least to the Boxer Rebellion. With the patriarch deceased, sides form behind Shang-Chi, on the one hand, and Sister Hammer, on the other. While close as young children, Shang-Chi and Sister Hammer grew up separated, and could not have turned out more differently. Shang-Chi (aka. Brother Hand) has been reluctantly drawn into the conflict by virtue of his being the “chosen one,” and by having the support of Brother Sabre and (to a lesser degree) Sister Dagger. Sister Hammer has raised an army and is bent on taking over the dynasty by whatever means necessary.

So, this is one of those stories that’s not about a purely good hero against a purely evil villain, the latter needing to be completely destroyed, but rather it’s about the need for catharsis and reconciliation. But that doesn’t keep the comic from being loaded with action. We also see a protagonist who experiences a change, which is a story convention that is often jettisoned in the action genre. Shang-Chi must move past his reluctance, and embrace his role in the family.

I found this comic to be compelling and worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente, et. al.

Marvel-Verse: Shang-ChiMarvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a collection of issues involving Shang-Chi. The early issues present the “Master of Kung Fu” in cameo / secondary roles within headliner characters’ comics – notably Wolverine and Spiderman. In those early issues, Shang-Chi mostly serves as the invincible master showing quippy superheroes that their kung fu lacks vigor and precision. In the later issues, those in which Shang-Chi is the lead, he becomes more well-rounded leading man material and less of a stoic, exotic Yoda-figure. In those issues, Shang-Chi combats the elusive ninja organization called “The Hand,” as well as “Lady Deathstrike.”


There is one issue, “Shang-Chi’s Day Off,” which is written as one-liner laden low comedy. Its tone stands out as distinct from the rest of the volume, but it has a few genuinely amusing lines, and so it’s not so bad. Those who take their superheroes somewhat seriously will hate it.


This collection isn’t a bad way to gain insight into the character and his evolution over time. Don’t be thrown off by the campy and stereotyped way he’s portrayed in his 70’s Kung fu cinema iteration, it gets more balanced and sophisticated later in the volume. I read found it on Amazon Prime.


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Mantis Kung Fu [Common Meter]

A mantis landed on the rail,
and it put up its dukes
as one might expect of madmen
or drunken Irish kooks.

Why would one seek out a fair fight
with someone much bigger,
I shook my head and started to
engage in a snigger.

But then it did occur to me
that he couldn't stand elsewise.
So, I tried to gauge his intent,
and looked him in the eyes...

and he stomped me in my nether bits -
much to my surprise.

5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

POEM: Kung Fu Calumny

Source: cliparts.co

                                                              Source: cliparts.co

 

I have a particular set of skills.

No, not ones that pay the bills.

While Liam Neeson may kick some ass,

my skills are more in the realm of sass.

My course won’t teach you a spinning kick,

or how to head-butt to a brick.

No, nothing so stoic or taciturn,

for mine is the art of the kung fu burn.


If you wish to unleash the power of derision,

tell them their kung fu lacks vigor and precision.

If that has not the effect desired,

tell them their kung fu is sloppy and uninspired.

If you haven’t yet gotten their goat,

tell them their moves makes vomit rise to your throat.


That’s just a sampler; wisdom ain’t free.

But you can learn more for a nominal fee.


[Disclosure]

Just one thing, whatever you do.

Don’t use against anyone who knows kung fu.

(Even the old ladies who do Tai Chi in the park,

may rip you apart like a school of bull sharks.)

BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji & Du Xilian

Guide To Chinese Martial ArtsGuide To Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a brief guide to the martial arts of China. The bulk of the book (about 150 pages of the book’s 178 pages) tells the reader about three major branches of Chinese martial arts: Chang Quan, Tai Chi Chuan, and Shaolin Kung fu at a general level. (The book devotes space to those arts in the same order–i.e. the largest number of pages discuss Chang Quan, then Tai Chi, and the smallest number to Shaolin. This may be surprising as your average non-Kungfu practitioner is least likely to have heard of Chang Quan—by name anyway. Chang Quan is a general term that encompasses several Northern Styles—some of which might be more familiar to general readers [of martial arts books.]) The book also has a brief chapter that describes the history of martial arts in China from ancient times through the modern era, and one that talks about the many schools of martial arts of China (in no great detail because there are so many of them) as well as the various strengths and purposes of these arts.

The bulk of the illustrations are line drawings used to show typical sequences for each of the three major branches of martial art mentioned above. However, there are some black and white photographs and copies of relevant art works and documents as well.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. There’s a bit too much space devoted to describing techniques for my taste. However, I realize that I may be in the minority in that regard. I don’t believe that martial arts can be taught via books or media, and, therefore, there’s a diminishing value to detailed descriptions of technique. In this sort of book one only needs to get a feel so as to be able to see how the martial arts compare and contrast with others.

I’d recommend this book for someone who wants to learn a bit about the nature of Chinese martial arts. It may not be of much value for an expert, but for a kungfu neophyte it provides some interesting information about the history, tactics, and training methods of Chinese martial arts. It’s originally published by Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, but I don’t suspect there is any more bias than there would be if it was published by anyone else (i.e. it’s the rare martial arts book that doesn’t present the martial art under discussion as the ultimate fighting art.)

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2016 Martial Arts Movies

OUT:



Ip Man 3: The third installment chronicling (movie-style) the life of the legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man. It came out in Hong Kong in December 2015, but wasn’t released in the US, Canada, and elsewhere until January.
Synopsis: When a band of brutal gangsters led by a crooked property developer make a play to take over the city, Master Ip is forced to take a stand.




Kung Fu Panda 3: US release was January 29.
Synopsis: Continuing his “legendary adventures of awesomeness”, Po must face two hugely epic, but different threats: one supernatural and the other a little closer to his home.




The Monkey King 2: Released in early February.
Synopsis: Tells part of the story of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.




Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny: The Netflix released sequel to one of the most successful Kung Fu movies of all time. Released on February 26th.
Synopsis: A story of lost love, young love, a legendary sword and one last opportunity at redemption.







COMING:



The Bodyguard: This Sammo Hung film is set to release in early April in China as well as select other Asian countries. No worldwide release set.
Synopsis: A retired bodyguard suffering from early dementia finds a new friend in a young girl.
TheBodyguard



Never Back Down 3: To be released in the US on April 5th.
Synopsis: Picking up after the events of Never Back Down 2, former MMA champion Case Walker is on the comeback trail.
NBD3



Railroad Tigers: Release date is October 3rd in China but unset for the rest of the world.
Synopsis: A railroad worker in China in 1941 leads a team of freedom fighters against the Japanese in order to get food for the poor.
RailroadTigers



Feng Shen Bang: Set for release in October, but no trailer or poster yet. Only a synopsis.
Synopsis: Based on the 16th-century Chinese novel Feng Shen Yan Yi (The Investiture of the Gods), the story tells of how King Zhou of Shang becomes a tyrant due to the wiles of Daji, a vixen spirit who is disguised as one of his concubines.






UNKNOWN:



Birth of the Dragon: There’s no release date, trailer, or poster–so I wouldn’t get too excited about this synopsis.
Synopsis: A young and up-and-coming martial artist, Bruce Lee, challenges legendary kung fu master Wong Jack Man to a no-holds-barred fight.



Boyka: Undisputed [IV]: There’s no set release, but there’s a trailer and apparently this is the fourth installment, so I give it better odds than “Birth of the Dragon.”
Synopsis: In the fourth installment of the fighting franchise, Boyka is shooting for the big leagues when an accidental death in the ring makes him question everything he stands for.




The Deadly Reclaim: Trailer finished, but no firm release date.
Synopsis: Set in 1914 following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the film tells the story of a group of villagers standing up to a cruel young warlord.




Kickboxer: Vengence: There’s a teaser and a synopsis, but no full trailer or release date.
Synopsis: A kick boxer is out to avenge his brother.




Kung Fu Yoga: No trailer or release date yet for this Hong Kong / Bollywood love child.
Synopsis: Chinese archaeology professor Jack (Jackie Chan) teams up with beautiful Indian professor Ashmita and assistant Kyra to locate lost Magadha treasure.
KungfuYoga



Skiptrace: This Jackie Chan + Johnnie Knoxville MA comedy has been delayed.
Synopsis: A detective from Hong Kong teams up with an American gambler to battle against a notorious Chinese criminal.

2015 Martial Arts Movies

NOTE: I’ve revised this post with up-to-date information. Please see that post here.

My third annual preview of martial arts movies will be presented in two installments. Many of the movies in the latter half of the year do not yet have release dates or trailers by January. Ergo, I’m posting the first part now, and will do a revision in mid-summer.

“Martial arts movie” is a bit ambiguous. Almost every action movie features martial arts. The leaked teaser for Ant-Man was pretty much a sequence of Scott Lang (Ant-Man) fighting his way through a corridor to access an elevator. So, does such a movie get included? I’ve opted against putting every action film with a kick in it into this post. Yet, I don’t want to stick to films that feature martial arts cliches (e.g. they killed my master, an evil billionaire is hosting a death match tournament, they killed me and left me for dead, etc.)  I, therefore, use the admittedly subjective litmus test of whether there would be a movie if one took away the martial arts and replaced it with brawling–not just whether it would be a less slick movie with a diminished “woo” factor.

I’ve tried to go as international as possible this year, including Bollywood (using the term colloquially if not precisely) and SE Asian releases in addition to the usual Hong Kong & Hollywood fare.

 

Underdog Kids (January 16): Described on IMDb as: “Inner city kids from a poor neighborhood go up against the undefeated Beverly Hills Junior National Karate Team.” I’ve seen no trailer for this, just a poster:
underdogs_2

Wild Card (January 30): This may be a cheat given what I said above. However, it’s a Jason Statham film, and like the “Transporter” films it probably doesn’t amount to much without the ass-kickery. Let’s face it, you’re not going to see Jason Statham for his extensive acting range.

Dragon Blade (February 19): Featuring Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody. This is a period piece, and–as you can tell from the casting–is big budget as martial arts flicks go.

Wolf Warrior (March 1) [China]: This looks like more of a shoot-em-up action film than a martial arts film, but some have listed it as a martial arts film and the close quarters action is definitely reminiscent of a martial arts film.

Skin Trade (April): This film stars Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren as the good guys and Ron Perlman as the villain. As the title suggests, it’s set around a theme of human trafficking.

Bollywood Dragon  (May 15) [India]: The blurb for this one is: “An English martial arts instructor travels to Mumbai to identify her twin sister’s body, discovering she lived a mysterious life among the criminal underworld and decides to investigate by being her.”
There is no trailer up for this movie as of yet.

The Kickboxer: City of Blood: (May 15): This is a different project than the Bautista / Van Damme / Carano film that was originally titled “Kickboxer” and is now going by “Kickboxer: Vengence,” but there’s no graphic publicity out on it yet. It may not come out as scheduled.

The Transporter Legacy (June 19): Another “Transporter” film, but Ed Skrein plays the role of Frank Martin in this one. As with “Wild Card” it may be a cheat to include it as a martial arts film, but car chases don’t get these movies all the way to watchability.
I haven’t seen a trailer, but there are still photos.
TransporterLegacy

The Boy and the Beast (July 11) [Japan]: This also may be a cheat because it’s an animated film, but martial arts does seem to be a prominent feature of the work. (I believe I included one of the Kung fu Panda movies in one of my past posts, so I think this is fair game.)

Brothers (July 31) [India, in Hindi]: An Indian remake of the American film Warriors. In the American movie, two estranged brothers must fight each other in an MMA bout. (Hence the name of the Indian version, Brothers.) There’s not a proper trailer out, but there is this:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend (August 28): Interestingly, this sequel to an immensely popular film will be released on Netflix and IMAX simultaneously. If this were some risky, low-budget film, going straight to Netflix wouldn’t be at all surprising, but this is the sequel to a movie that was (maybe still is) the highest grossing foreign language film playing in America. If this bold move pays off, it could be the beginning of a new paradigm of movie releases. [Also with The Interview going with an unconventional release owing to North Korean threats and intervention, there maybe a great deal learned about alternatives to a traditional film release.]
CTHD2

The Bodyguard (undesignated Summer release) [China]: Featuring and directed by Sammo Hung.
sammo-hung-740x400

Movies with unspecified release dates:

SPL (Sha Po Lang) II / A Time for Consequences / SPL2: Rise of Wong Po [China]: This Hong Kong film will feature Thai superstar Tony Jaa. (Is he in everything? Have they cloned him, or does he not need to sleep, eat, and poop like the rest of us.)
SPL_II_Teaser_Poster,_Apr_2014

The Chemist: A grain of salt on the 2015 release, please. This is an “assasin-who-can’t-bear-to-kill-his-victim-and-ends-up-protecting-her-instead” film.

Pound of Flesh: Jean-Claude Van Damme. The blurb says: “A man’s heroic attempt to help a woman in distress ends up with him waking up the next day without a kidney and plotting his revenge.”
PoundofFleshMovie

Kickboxer: Vengence: Featuring Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Gina Carano.

The Martial Arts Kid: As the unimaginative title (generic knock-off of the alliterative “Karate Kid”?) suggests, this is low budget. It features past martial arts competitors like Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.
MartialArtsKid

Ultimate Justice [Germany]: The blurb on IMDb reads: “A team of former elite soldiers are drawn back into action when the family of one of their own is attacked.”
I haven’t seen any publicity for this movie yet.

The Monk (Summer) [China]:This movie is based on a popular Chinese novel entitled Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain.)
I’ve seen no graphic publicity on this one, and the novel has apparently not been translated to English, so I don’t have much to tell you.

Unlikely 2015 Releases:

Stan Lee’s Annihilator: IMDb has it listed for an unspecified 2015 release. If so, those involved are better at keeping secrets than anyone else in Hollywood.

Showdown in Manila: Featuring Mark Dacascos. It’s supposed to begin filming early in February, so a release this year is unlikely. It’s said to be like “The Expendables.” I assume that means that it’s a big cast of past super-stars, but it might just mean that it sucks badly.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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