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Thursday, March 25, 2010

THE GREAT CHALLENGE -- movie review by porfle

In THE GREAT CHALLENGE, aka Les fils du vent (2004), Burt Kwouk, who played Inspector Clouseau's constantly-attacking butler Cato in the PINK PANTHER series and was "Mr. Ling" in GOLDFINGER, is a millionaire business tycoon named Wong who's also a big boss in the Triad. He's giving an elegant garden party at the foot of the Wong Building in beautiful downtown Bangkok, when suddenly, in one breathtaking shot, the camera pans upward and zooms in on two black-clad figures doing a "Human Fly" routine up the side of the building.

In the next few minutes, one figure will engage three business-suited guards with fists, feet, and swords, while the other steals a priceless Red Dragon statue from Wong's office. Doffing their masks, they are revealed as brother and sister Kien and Tsu. The camera follows their slow-motion escape amidst gunfire as they dash toward a window, shooting holes in it as they go, and then crash through into the rain-drenched night. It's a nifty pre-titles sequence, and barely five minutes into the movie I was already impressed.

Kien and Tsu are half-breeds--only half-Chinese--and are rejected by all except the Yakuza, whose acceptance Kien is struggling to attain. Tsu, however, feels that their mother didn't raise no criminals, and acts as Kien's conscience, preventing her brother from giving himself over wholeheartedly to the dark side. Her rebelliousness, however, keeps them both in constant hot water with Kitano, the Yakuza boss who also just happens to be Mr. Wong's son-in-law and is scheming to take over control of the city from him. It appears that an all-out war between the Triad and the Yakuza is imminent.

Into this volatile situation come the Yamakasi, a real-life group of incredible athletes led by Laurent (Laurent Piemontesi), who wishes to open up a gym for street kids in Bangkok. Their sport involves running and jumping and flipping around the outside of buildings and stuff, often several stories in the air--you've got to see it to believe it--with emphasis on, as Wikipedia puts it, "aesthetics and complete freedom of movement from point A to point B." (This is the second film featuring the group--the first, YAMAKASI:LES SAMOURAIS DES TEMPS MODERNES, was released in 2001.) Their motto, it seems, might be "leap before you look." The title sequence illustrates this beautifully as two opposing groups compete to get from one rooftop to another first. It doesn't take long to notice that these people never heard of stairs, elevators, or caution, and watching them hurl themselves about from place to place over dizzying heights with total abandon is thrilling.

Unfortunately, Laurent has had unfriendly dealings with the Yakuza in the past and his new Yamakasi group is doomed to confront them. In an early scene they're having a workout on some bamboo scaffolding surrounding a building under construction, when Kien and some Yakuza thugs attack This leads to another amazing sequence of stunts, and when Tsu shows up to try and stop the fight, she encounters Logan (Charles Perrière), the Yamakasi she is destined to fall in love with. Their Romeo-and-Juliet romance will provide a lot of the drama between the fights, shoot-outs, etc. that appear frequently throughout the rest of the film.

They're all pretty exciting, too. The Yamakasi acrobatics give a new dimension to the usual martial arts displays and gunfights, and it's all thrillingly staged and performed. The wirework is only occasionally obvious--most of the time we get to see real, amazing stuntwork, and the best thing about it is that it's mostly done by the lead actors themselves. It's almost like watching a movie with an all-Jackie Chan cast. Some of it is tricked-up, of course, since the producers didn't want any of their lead actors getting killed or ending up in traction during filming, but for the most part, what you see is what you get.

Julien Seri directs it all with a great degree of style--some of his dramatic sequences come close to the aesthetic beauty of great anime', and the cinematography is often exquisite. Christian Henson's original score combines driving techno-style beats with lush orchestral passages that remind me of Joe Hisaishi's music for Hayao Miyazaki epics like SPIRITED AWAY. The editing, however, could've been a bit less frenetic in some scenes--the stuntwork and fight choreography are so good here that I'd like to have seen some of it play out without so many rapid-fire shots coming at me. Plus, the dubbing takes a bit of getting used to.

Most of the actors in this movie have interesting faces--they're fun to look at--and the director fills each scene with dramatic close-ups of them. In particular, Châu Belle Dinh as Kien and Elodie Yung as his sister, Tsu, have very expressive faces which dramatically convey their emotions. Charles Perrière is similarly intense as Logan, my favorite character among the Yamakasi. Santi Sudaros as Kitano, the Yakuza boss, is a formidable actor as well. And then, of course, there's Burt Kwouk as Mr. Wong, whose very presence makes the movie more fun to watch.

A plot by Kitano to kidnap Wong's only son and heir sets up the big finale, which will pit the collective muscle of the Triad and the Yakuza against each other in a wild free-for-all of guns, swords, and kung fu, with the Yamakasi right in the middle of it all, trying to fight their way out. It reminded me of The Bride vs. the Crazy 88's in KILL BILL, but without the ironic self-awareness or black humor--just tons of non-stop action. And the ending is pretty cool--everything's tied up nicely, and I felt thoroughly entertained.

Buy it at:
HK Flix

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