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Discover Asian Cinema: Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Sha Po Lang and Flashpoint

Director Wilson Yip and action star Donnie Yen’s Sha Po Lang pumps adrenaline into Hong Kong cinema and into the action genre. Tough, gritty and exciting, the movie produced a prequel, Flashpoint, and a solid partnership that brings promise of more masterpieces in the years to come.

Director Wilson Yip and action star Donnie Yen’s Sha Po Lang pumps adrenaline into Hong Kong cinema and into the action genre.  Tough, gritty and exciting, the movie produced a prequel, Flashpoint, and a solid partnership that brings promise of more masterpieces in the years to come.

Hong Kong Action Movies

Hong Kong cinema has produced a lot of the world’s best movies in the action genre.  When you think of Hong Kong movies, thoughts of kung fu, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee generally come to mind.  In the 1990s, there were Jet Li’s jet-quick moves and the bullet ballets of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun Fat.  In the new millennium, crime dramas and thrillers dominated Hong Kong cinema.  Movies from director Johnnie To such as Exiled and a trilogy from Alan Mak and Andrew Lau called Infernal Affairs have raised the bar and the quality of movies coming from the now one country, two systems Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR).  Though these are admirable films producing a welcome development, action films in the modern-day setting have generally taken a back seat until Sha Po Lang came along like a breath of fresh air in 2005.

Donnie Yen, a Star Under the Radar

Amidst prominent names like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat, one name with comparable talent and charisma has stayed below radar range.  Donnie Yen is a keen martial artist, action star, action director and choreographer.  His name may not sound as big in the west, but in the east, he is just as cool and as respected as the three aforementioned names.  Western audiences have caught jaw-dropping glimpses of him in Hollywood movies such as Highlander: Endgame, Blade II and Shanghai Knights.  Personally, I first took notice of him as Jet Li’s main nemesis who used a wet cloth as a hard clubbing weapon in Once Upon a Time in China II and in that lightning-quick, body-thudding fist-fight between him and actor Adrian Paul playing the immortal Duncan Mcleod in Highlander: Endgame.  That was one long breathtaking fist-fight that he himself choreographed along with the other action sequences in the film.  Sha Po Lang elevated Donnie Yen to a new level from his usual roles because the movie is not only an action film but a moving crime drama as well.  Depth in story and admirable characters mixed with Donnie Yen’s style of action just developed an instant blockbuster.  If Jackie Chan’s fighting style is along the comical angle and Jet Li’s to the quick and fluid, Donnie Yen’s fighting style is more on the brutal level.  Donnie Yen uses mixed martial arts and when he fights, you see his eager intent of obliterating his opponent.  He fights like a baddie even when he is the hero in the film.  This is his uniqueness from Jackie Chan and Jet Li. 

Picture of my Flashpoint DVD with Donni Yen on the left

Donnie Yen’s Emergence

Though not yet on the global level as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Donnie Yen has now emerged with a bigger fan base and is now in the proper limelight he should be in.  He speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin.  He grew up under his mother who was a martial arts expert and his father who was a newspaper editor and violinist of classical music.  From Canton, his family moved to Boston where he learned to play classical music, particularly Chopin, on the piano.  He also learned martial arts from his mother.  Immersed in the world of Kung Fu movies, he learned various styles and as a youth, exuberance got him into some confrontations.  His parents sent him to join the Beijing Wushu team where he trained under the same master as Jet Li’s.  After Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Hong Kong action director Yuen Wo Ping, now of the Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, was looking for the next big action star.  Wo Ping met Donnie Yen when he was in Hong Kong en route back to Boston, and that started Donnie’s path to film-making.  Donnie Yen became an actor and then later, an action choreographer and action director.  He was the villain in the kung fu classic Once Upon a Time in China II and the star of Wo Ping’s Iron Monkey, one of the best kung fu movies ever.  Donnie Yen was also one of the stars of the Zhang Yimou masterpiece, Hero, with Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi.  Donnie Yen played the renegade Sky who dueled with a spear against the sword-armed Jet Li.  However, it was not until 2005 in the movie Sha Po Lang that Donnie Yen worked with young Hong Kong director Wilson Yip.  That team-up would eventually become an adored and exciting actor and director combo both in Asian cinema and in the action genre.  The chemistry is just right, and the partnership must have been destined to be.  Whatever it is, fans would crave for more of the duo’s future projects.

Qi Sha, Po Jun, Tan Lang… Sha Po Lang

Sha Po Lang or SPL are three stars in Chinese astrology which may make or break one’s life.  Qi Sha (Seven Killings) is the Power Star, Po Jun (Army Breaker) is the Ruinous Star and Tan Lang (Greedy Wolf) is the Flirting Star.  Chung, played by one of Hong Kong’s finest actors, Simon Yam, is a Hong Kong police lieutenant in command of a team of three police officers out to nail triad boss, Wong Po played by Sammo Hung.  Yes, you heard it right, Sammo Hung.  Sammo Hung is well known as Jackie Chan’s chubby comical partner in several of his movies, and as a baddie, Sammo is just downright effective and intimidating.  The hate between Chung and Wong Po is so intense that it oozes out of your TV screens.  With his retirement in just two days and his life nearing to an end because of a brain tumor, Chung is forced to the edge, bending the law, in order to get Wong Po.  Donnie Yen plays Mah, who will soon be replacing Chung in command of his men.  After an extra-judicial incident made by Chung and his men, Mah is driven to make a crucial decision that will decide his fate.

Picture of the jacket of my SPL DVD

The Favorable Elements of SPL

SPL uses minimal wire-works and Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI), and Donnie Yen’s choreography made the fight scenes gritty and brutal.  His showdown with Jack, Wong Po’s white-clad, demented, knife-wielding killer played by four-time martial arts champion Jing Wu is probably the best fight scene in years.  Donnie Yen in black armed with a baton and Jing Wu in white armed with a knife charge to one another in the middle of a deserted but well-lit alley… of death!  This scene is actually viewed lots of times in You Tube, and western viewers have wondered and inquired what movie this is. 

After this bloody and exhilarating combat, the audience, still out of breath, is brought to the monumental confrontation between Mah and Wong Po.  Lumbering Sammo Hung and feisty Donnie Yen give each other an emotionally-charged beating using various fighting styles only to be interrupted once by a phone call from Wong Po’s sweet young wife.  Yes, that is one of the elements I love in SPL.  Guys are all tough, but when our wives and daughters call, our stonewall exterior suddenly melts like butter in a microwave oven. 

Picture of Sammo Hung in the special features DVD of my SPL DVD set

Jack’s relationship to Wong Po is reminiscent of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel Daredevil, the Man with No Fear.  In the story, the Kingpin is surrounded by his own private army or Gestapo, but his most feared henchman is the solo and obedient Lars who Kingpin picked up from the streets when he was young to be trained into a one-man killing machine.  Like Kingpin, Wong Po is surrounded by his street goons and only utilizes Jack at the most crucial time.  That is when Jack acts as the grim reaper with his throwing knife and the scales automatically go back in favor of Wong Po. 

SPL is also not just an action film but a crime drama and cautionary tale as well.  Sometimes, we commit to do the wrong things and mask them up as something noble and necessary.  This brings our lives to a terrible fate we could have avoided in our choices in the beginning.  The acting and the score of the movie is likewise superb and engaging, and I like the cover design of the DVD I bought in Hong Kong. 

The cover of my SPL DVD

Flashpoint, the Prequel to SPL

After the success of SPL, the Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen tandem came back with a third collaboration in the movie, Flashpoint.  Flashpoint is a prequel to SPL in a pre-Hong Kong handover setting with Officer Mah as the main character.  The story of Flashpoint, however, is in no way related to SPL and involves Mah’s confrontation with three ruthless Vietnamese brothers and drug-dealers.  Though Flashpoint was not as successful as SPL, it has great fight scenes.  Notable of which is that long match between Donnie Yen and Collin Chou.  Like Donnie Yen, Collin Chou also appeared in Hollywood movies and speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin.  He’s from Taiwan and is a former stuntman.  He was also the nemesis in Forbidden Kingdom with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and a good guy in the femme fatale-filled DOA: Dead or Alive.  However, his most notable appearance came from the two Matrix sequels as Seraph, the white-clad bodyguard of the Oracle.  In The Matrix:  Reloaded, he sparred with Neo played by Keannu Reeves.  The climatic fight in Flashpoint between Donnie Yen and Colin Chou is almost ten minutes long, brutal and worth it.  This scene is also viewed lots of times in You Tube.  The DVD store manager in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong recommended Flashpoint to me when I bought my copy of SPL.  Flashpoint proves to be a good appetizer for SPL.

Picture of my Flashpoint DVD

 

 

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