‘Alita’ plus Asian cinema

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 28, 2019
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Keenan Johnson as Hugo takes Alita (Rosa Salazar via motion-capture) for a spin in "Alita: Battle Angel."

Owls Head — Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox, PG-13, 121 min.). If “Alita: Battle Angel” does not wholly satisfy, it comes very close. There is a lot stuffed into the film, which is an adaptation of the first four books of Yukito Kishiro’s Japanese manga series. It is an origin story that kind of leaves one hanging, as only the love story gets resolved here. The project was a long time gestating as James Cameron, co-producer and co-screenwriter, was at one time to direct the project, but instead went with “Avatar,” as it involved only CGI-augmented characters rather than a mix of CGI and human as does this film.

According to the extras, Cameron wrote a 185-page treatment, but failed to see how he could trim it. When Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” franchises) asked Cameron if he had any projects, Cameron turned over the “Alita” script to him and Rodriguez came back with a 130-page script, which won him the director’s job. Many scenes and designs in the film mirror images in the manga.

Alita is played, through motion-capture, by Rosa Salazar (“The Maze Runner” films). She is a functioning artificial intelligence that Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz of the upcoming 25th James Bond film) found in a scrapyard and marries to the cyborg body he had built for his wheelchair-bound daughter, only she died. It will eventually turn out that Alita, who has no memories of her previous existence, is a 300-year-old URM (United Republics of Mars) Berserker fighting robot. The backstory is that the URM and Earth fought a very destructive war 300 years ago, with all that remains is the sky city of Zalem and, below, Iron City, whose poor inhabitants grow food and do support services for Zalem. The only way anyone can rise to Zalem is by being the champion of Motorball, the planet’s one violent sport that is an extreme version of rollerball.

Dr. Ido is a robotics expert, as is his ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly as Cherin), and he fixes many of the robots and robot-human hybrids that participate in Motorball. Cherin does the same for Vector (Mahershala Ali of “Green Book,” “Moonlight”), who runs Motorball for Nova on Zalem. In yet another bit of the complex plot, Nova and others in Zalem can sometimes take over control of bodies on Earth in order to communicate directly.

One of the nicest, most realized parts of the film is the budding romance between the teenage-looking Alita and human Hugo (Keenan Johnson of TV’s “Euphoria,” “Nashville”), who scavenges body parts off of robots for Vector, who has falsely promised that he can send Hugo to Zalem if he raises enough money. Also roaming this at-times wild west city ae bounty hunters, who get paid to kill murderers.

Hugo and two of his friends take Alita to the wrecked remains of an URM warship, which only she is able to enter and she retrieves a Berserker body. Dr. Ido refuses to use the body for Alita, until she is gravely injured in a battle with bounty hunter Grewishka (an unrecognizable Jackie Earle Haley, especially when one considers how short the actor really is).

Iron City, which contains a lot of ruins and nearly everything seems chopped off a few stories up, is effectively realized, and much more so than Zalem (probably saved for the next film). The connection between Alita and Hugo is nice, and all the plot strands do come together sooner or later. Many of the cyborgs are a wonder and, while I could have done with less Motorball, it certainly brings action and mindless mayhem to the screen.

There are more than two hours of extras, including three motion comics that give good background details: “The Fall” (5:05) talks about the war and Alita’s early years; “Iron City” (3:19) is a Hugo-narrated tour of the city’s neighborhoods; and “What It Means to Be a Cyborg” (2:28) is narrated by Zapan (Ed Skrein), one of the bounty hunters. Also good is a look at bringing the story from the manga to the screen that includes an extensive interview with Kishiro (20:47). Also explored is the evolution of Alita with Salazar (19:43); Motorball (6:02) and its rules (2:52); a compilation of art for a possible film from 2005 (14:20); and deconstruction of four scenes into the original, animated and final scenes (10:47). There also is a Q&A with producers Jon Landau and Cameron, director Rodriguez and actors Salazar, Waltz and Connelly from the film’s London screening (26:38) and Rodriguez’s “10-Minute Cooking School: Chocolate” (actually only 5:28). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Swindlers (South Korea, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 117 min.). This entertaining film puts some scam artists together with a prosecutor from the Seoul Prosecutor’s Office to track down the man who robbed 30,000 victims of $4 billion in a Ponzi scheme back in 2008, but who has “officially” died since. Not buying the story that Jang Doo-chil is dead is Hwang Ji-sung (Hyun Bin), son of the man who made Jang’s false passport that helped him escape to Thailand. After handing over the passport, Hwang’s father was killed.

Now it is eight years later and Hwang has turned into a scam artist, with one specialty being real estate deals. He comes to the attention of Prosecutor Park Hee-su (Yu Ji-tae of “Oldboy”), who apparently is dirty along with his boss. Park works with a trio of thieves, one of whom is female. Park forces Hwang to work with the three thieves in a scam that will bring them to Jang’s money man and eventually Jang himself.

Directed and written by Chang Won Jang, his debut at both, the film has a twisty, complicated plot that plays out well, with very little confusion. Bin is appealing in the co-lead role. It is the type of film that invites a second look once everything is explained. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.25 stars

The Island (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 133 min.). This film features another directorial debut, that of Huang Bo (“Journey to the West”), who also plays Ma Jin, a usually likable loser who dreams of winning the lottery and becoming romantically involved with coworker Shanshan (Shu Qi of “The Transporter,” “The Assassin”). Ma and childhood friend Xiao Xing (Yixing Zhang, a main dancer of the South Korean-Chinese band EXO and the main dancer of their sub-group EXO-M), whom Ma always calls “brother,” go on a team-building field trip with Ma’s coworkers. The owner of the company is about to launch its IPO (initial public offering).

However, as the workers take their “duck” bus, which also is a boat, out to sea, the asteroid the opening news bulletin mention has apparently struck in the ocean, causing a giant tsunami that overturns the amphibious bus. When the survivors wake up, they have been stranded on a deserted island, with the damaged bus left high up on rocks. Ironically, while on the bus, Ma has learned he has won 60 million RMB (renminbi, official Chinese currency; about $8.7 million US). However, he has only 90 days to turn in the winning lottery ticket.

More seriously, the survivors do not know if the rest of mankind still exists, especially after Ma finds a dead polar bear floating by. Bus driver Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang) emerges as the abusive leader in the survival effort. However, as the 29 survivors try to organize a new society, the group breaks into two major factions. Eventually, Ma and Xiao become outcasts from both groups. There is a bit of “Lord of the Flies” to all of this, as most people are not shown at their best. Here, it is the adults who act like children.

The film loses a bit of steam once 90 days have passed, as there no longer is the question of whether the winning ticket will be redeemed in time. However, the discovery of an upside-down half-wreck of a large ship, and the ability to generate electrical power from it, turns the tides. One final big twist raises the question of whether it is better to be a big man on a little island, and get the girl, or to be rescued. Also, Xiao’s character changes late, giving vent to his previously hidden resentment. It makes for a terrific ending.

As a director, Huang offers some amazingly surrealistic scenes, including a rainfall of fish and the submerged amphibious bus doing a sort of underwater dance with a whale during the tsunami. Then, there is the classic upside-down furniture etc. of the half-wreck. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, Nr, 107 min.). The only connection this film has to the previous Ip Man films is the main character, Cheung Tin-chi (Jin Zhang of “Pacific Rim: Uprising” as Max Zhang), lost his secret showdown to Ip Man in “Ip Man 3” (2015). Now Cheung and his young son Fung (Henry Zhang), who get along really well, have moved to Hong Kong, where Cheung has given up martial arts and runs a small food shop.

While making a grocery delivery one day, Cheung is run into by a beautiful woman (Yan Lui as Julia), who has been fighting men controlled by the gangster Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng). Kit has been abusing Nana (Chrissie Chau), who owes him money, apparently for drugs. Nana, an addict who is trying to get clean, lives with Julia, whose brother Fu (Xing Yu) owns Gold Bar, one of the many drinking establishments on Bar Street (a wonderful set, by the way, often loaded with tipsy American sailors). Kit is the younger brother of Miss Kwan (Michelle Yeoh of “Crazy Rich Asians”), who runs the Cheung Lok triad gang. Miss Kwan announces she wants the triad to be totally legitimate within three years, angering Kit.

In retaliation for Cheung helping the two women, Kit’s men set fire to his shop – with both Cheung and his son inside – but Cheung manages to escape and fight the attackers. He again encounters Julia on the street and she takes them to her brother’s, where Cheung gets a job as a waiter and both live with Julia and Nana. Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise) plays another bar owner, Owen Davidson, who may be in league with some dirty policemen (particularly the British cops).

What makes the film stand out is the often awesomely staged fight sequences, particularly one that takes place between Cheung and several men atop street signboards. That fight evolves into a one-on-one battle with “Hitman” (Tony Jaa of the “Ong-bak” franchise). Later, there is a well-done brawl inside Miss Kwan’s headquarters that evolves into two one-on-one battles, with one of those between her and Cheung. Finally, there is a mostly fist fight between Cheung and Davidson that basically destroys his restaurant. Other fights use what is at hand as weapons. All the fights are well choreographed and a couple are particularly physically brutal.

Extras include five brief behind-the-scenes looks (about 9 min.), with a couple showing some of the wire work, including the 12 people pulling on wires during the signboard street fight. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Furie (Vietnam, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 97 min.). Hai Phuong (Veronica Ngo of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) is a single mother, trying to keep food on the table for her school-aged daughter (Cat Vi as Mai) by working as a debt collector. Hai’s reputation is not of the best, both due to her debt collecting but also the fact that Mai was illegitimate. Hai always pushing her daughter to study more, and Mai wishes her mother was not a debt collector.

One day while at the market, after Mai is wrongly accused of theft, she is grabbed by two men and taken away by motorized boat, while Hai is initially attacked by a pair of men. After dealing with them, Hai grabs a motorbike and chases the boat as far as she can. Learning Mai has been taken aboard a bus heading for Saigon, she hops a ride aboard a passing truck. In the big city, Hai learns many young children have gone missing, apparently so their organs can be harvested, and that the police are of no use to her. That is, except for Detective Luong (Phan Thanh Nhien), who shadows Hai’s investigation. Hai’s physical skills as a debt collector/fighter come in good use until she comes up against the main baddie, a female for once (Hoa Trang).

Late in the film there is a good fight scene inside a train and a lesser one atop the train. Again, some of the fighting, especially between the two women, is very brutal. Bonus features are four brief behind-the-scenes looks (about 13 min.), including one of the French team that choreographed the fights and another with the child actor (here it indicates Ngo may have broken her leg during the shooting). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986, Hong Kong, Film Movement Blu-ray, NR, 88 min.). This film was made just prior to John Woo’s breakout film, “A Better Tomorrow,” and is the first example of his hyperkinetic mix of action and violence. The film came after a string of low-budget slapstick farces.

Eddie Ko (“The Mission,” “Lethal Weapon 4”) stars as Chan Chung, a soldier-of-fortune who leads an elite Chinese commando force that has been engaged by the Thai government to capture General Samton in an attempt to break up the drug trade in the Golden Triangle. Chung takes the mission so he can move his family, including his young son, to the United States.

After a brief narration, the film cuts right to the action: a lengthy shootout, including explosions and men burned by flamethrowers. Somehow in all the mayhem, Samton is not killed, but rather captured. As Chung takes the general to the Thai authorities, he stops by his home, only to find his father has been killed and his son taken hostage. Rescue is performed and the group moves on, only to help a woman who is traveling with the French journalist after they are attacked by border guards. During the rescue, Chung shoots through a North Vietnamese colonel’s (Lam Ching Ying) rifle scope, causing him to lose an eye. Now, Chung’s group has both the colonel’s men and the general’s men after them. At one point after a battle, the enemy tries to burn Chung’s son in a field.

The action then switches to a remote home, where Chung is reunited with Louis (Philippe Loffredo), whom he helped save in the war (this flashback explains the scars on Chung’s back). Before there is even more destruction and killing, the film takes time for two brief sex scenes, including a soapy one.

The film contains one bad cannibalism joke – according to Asian film authority Grady Hendrix’s essay in the 16-page booklet, the original script was a mash-up between an Italian cannibal movie and a Vietnam war flick – and a silly side story about one of Chung’s men gambling in a village. The way ends with an excessive number of explosions and a good fist fight. According to the essay, the sex scenes and the gambling scene were shot by other directors and added after Woo turned the film into Golden Harvest.

In addition to the booklet, the film comes with a new interview with star Ko about his career and the film (19:39). The film is presented in a new 2K digital restoration. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, Hong Kong/Taiwan, Film Movement Blu-ray, NR, 105 min.). This film was King Hu’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed “A Touch of Zen,” which did not fare well at the box office. He decided on an action film, with a large number of female fighters, as his next effort. The film also is, in large part, a stage play, with most of the action taking place within the Spring Inn, which has just added four serving girls and allows gambling. The inn is run by Hai Mu-tan (Angela Mao), who actually is part of a spy ring.

The film is set in 1366, during the 22nd year of the reign of Emperor Shun, when Mongols ruled China. Oppression has caused the people to rebel against the Yuan Dynasty. Lee Khan (Tien Feng) leads the Yuan armies. Khan is expected to pass through the desert and possibly stop at the inn any day, as he is to purchase a battle map showing the deployment of the rebel Chinese armies. The revolutionary movement sends two of its best men to the inn to support the rebels – one poses as the inn’s accountant and a cousin to Hai, while the other is an intrusive troubadour. Khan, however, suspects that a plot may be afoot and sends his own spies to investigate the inn. As each new character arrives at the inn, Hai and her supporters try to uncover their motives. Then Lee Khan himself arrives with Princess Lee Wan-erh (Hsu Feng), some soldiers and Lord Suao, who turns out to be a revolutionary agent.

There is lots of humor and then intrigue within the inn. For the finale, though, everything moves outside, with the combat action usually set small against a vast landscape. There are lots of bodies jumping through the screen and the fights are not that complicated. If anything, the ending is a disappointment and less convincing than the rest of the film.

Bonus features include an essay by Stephen Teo in the 16-page booklet and a filmed NY Asian Film Festival discussion on the film (15:54; one of the two is not miked properly and thus is hard to hear). Once again, this is a new 2K digital restoration. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.25 stars

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