[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Donnie Yen had always been a solid action performer going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly with his breakthrough roles in Once Upon a Time in China II and Iron Monkey. He’d always had the dashing looks of a leading man as well. In 2010’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, for instance, Yen wears that Clark Gable mustache with remarkable class. And yet no one seemed to take special notice until SPL: Sha Po Lang, known in America as the far less elegant Kill Zone.
Yen was roughly 42 years old when SPL was released in 2005. There was just something about it — the infusion of MMA into the fight choreography, the pathos and honor to its old school Hong Kong crime story, the final battle between Yen and Sammo Hung, or the penultimate duel against Jing Wu, which is a masterpiece of action direction.
You can’t always predict what movie will launch a career into superstardom, but in retrospect, SPL was a perfect storm.
Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang | 殺破狼)
Director: Wilson Yip
Country: China (Hong Kong)
SPL is very much in the tradition of the Hong Kong crime dramas of the 1980s and 1990s. Those works of heroic bloodshed and bullet-riddled camaraderie were often tales of gray morality. Parallels would be drawn between organized crime and the police force, the crooked cop and the Triad member, the assassin and the noble knight. In some ways they’re related: tight-knit families or principled individuals, both prizing honor over the system. SPL re-emphasizes those ideas, even reviving the same melodramatic feel of those earlier crime films.
Yet SPL is much grittier and more accomplished than its forebears. It’s essentially taking those genre trappings and seeing how they can be reinvigorated through a contemporary lens. (Something I’ll also discuss next week when I review Dragon aka Wu Xia, Donnie Yen’s recent period martial arts film.) The film also feels much more fatalistic than the crime films that came before it. The three words of the title refer to stars in Chinese astrology capable of good or evil depending on their position in the heavens. There’s an implicit sense of fate, predetermination, and destiny to all that happens in the film; perhaps an attempt to transform the melodramatic into the operatic. (There’s also one moment of intentional or unintentional comedy involving a baseball bat. It’s so absurd that I can’t really categorize as opera or melodrama. Whatever it is, it’s just sort of awesome.)
What anchors SPL (if you’re into the Cantonese crime dramas of the past) are the performances by the core group of crooked detectives. It’s good people doing bad, bad things out of honor — supervillains that think they’re heroes of the story. They’re led by Simon Yam, who brings determination and dignity to the role even when his character undermines the law. The crime boss he’s trying to bring down, Wong Po (Sammo Hung), has been one ruthless bastard for years. Perhaps it’s worth being just as ruthless. Your handy dose of the melodramatic and the operatic: Yam’s character has an inoperable brain tumor, and he’s about to leave his team (essentially his family) in the hands of the goodie-goodie supercop played by Donnie Yen.
There’s a lot of smoky, neon-lit stylishness piled onto the production courtesy of director Wilson Yip. He’s able to get information across expediently without undermining the narrative flow. There’s a drug bust that happens concurrent to Yen’s first lone walk through the empty office. We crosscut between the desks of the detectives (and the biographical details on the desks) and the detectives in action. SPL became a game changer for Yip as well, catapulting his profile. Yip would work with Yen on four other films, including Ip Man, Ip Man 2, and the spiritual sequel to SPL, Flash Point (Dou Fo Sin). (The Americanized title is also the spiritual sequel to the similarly generic and uninspired name Kill Zone.)
But it’s Yen who’s really the star of the show, and he gets to show it off in his action direction. Yen had been choreographing fights and staging action since the late 1980s, but SPL brought something new to the table in the form of mixed martial arts fighting. There was grappling and joint locks and throws and practical moves, and it looked unlike any fighting that was committed to the screen at the time. It’s far more brutal, and the moves look like they tax the performers from shot to shot. In fact, you look at the fights in SPL or Flash Point (especially the last fight with Collin Chou) and there is still something fresh about them even though they’re 7 and 5 years old, respectively. They’re shot well, they’re well choreographed, they’re finely edited, they move briskly. But it took years for Yen to achieve this level of craft as an action director. (Maybe this is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in practice.)
Gone are the 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures so prevalent in many martial arts movie fights. (Listen to the pattern of swoop and kapow in some martial arts movies and you’ll hear what I mean.) The rhythms are syncopated, staggered, broken. This results in fights that feel more realistic and dangerous even though the fighting is obviously stylized. The way they’re shot makes them look fast rather than unnaturally undercranked (a problem with many of those early Yen films, and even many Jet Li films).
Maybe there’s a little too much powder for emphasis in that last fight with Sammo Hung, but it’s still ferocious for what it is. The fact that Yen was able to shoot these scenes, use doubles for Sammo, and mask doubles in composition and editing is a real testament to his growth as a martial artist, an action director, and a filmmaker. The final fight has the feel of a symbolic passing of the torch from one of the premiere action filmmakers of his age to the man who will move the genre forward. (And to think they’re only a single generation apart.)
Yet the Jing Wu fight just before the Sammo Hung fight is a marvel of weapon combat. Wu plays Wong Po’s right-hand man, who slashes the hell out of everyone with his knife. He’s a machine with it, a thresher, and makes short work of his targets. When it’s Yen and Wu one-on-one, it’s absolutely badass. Done mostly in medium shots, Yen’s got a baton, Wu’s got a knife, and there is a sense of awe in every blur and clang. Supposedly Yen smacked Wu a few times with the baton, and he encouraged Wu to try to cut him so that the fight would seem more realistic. That might have been the key to breaking the traditional rhythms of a fight scene — the threat of actual bodily harm.
In a way, it’s a blessing and a shame that SPL came along when it did. It obviously brought Yen the superstardom he’s so richly deserved for years, though it did come in his early 40s. Yen turns 49 at the end of this month. He’s still in great shape, and he won’t look a day over 35 until he hits his early-50s, but he won’t be able to push himself like this for too much longer. In fact, he probably couldn’t do the same punishing MMA-style fights today. Chances are he’s adapting his style for the next phase of his career. I just hope that next period of innovation results in even more quality work.
[Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang) will be screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Sunday, July 8th at 5:15 PM. Donnie Yen will be in attendance, and there will be a discussion about his career after the film. Tickets are sold out, but you can visit the box office the day of the screening to check for additional availability.]