Thursday, December 10, 2009

NINJA ASSASSIN: IT SADLY “RAINS” ON THE ASIAN TALENT PARADE


I enjoyed NINJA ASSASSIN (NA), but based on the facts, figures and gripes of many critics, the film has not done well and the question on many a mind, at least based on the rambling, mumblings and grumblings on the blogosphere and many cinema sites is…

…WHY?

Certainly it is one of the bloodied martial arts films ever made. This of course could be a skewered statement, because I could be making this observation based on only a couple of hundred films. Fortunately I can share with you all that this conclusion is derived from a lifetime of watching martial arts films, which at this point numbers well over 4,200 films (the number of martial arts films in my personal film collection).

What are the facts and figures?

This past weekend (Dec. 5th, 2009) the domestic box office saw NA ranked eighth in the country with a weekend box office of $5 million, bringing its total cume since Thanksgiving Day to a lowly $29.4 million. Its current worldwide tally as of December 7th is $42.2 million, which should just about cover the salaries of the five main actors, South Korean pop idol Rain being the headliner.

Most Internet sites have complained that the action was shot too tight, too dark and with too much excessive camera movement, which all makes it hard for the audiences to see what was going on. This is of course true.

However, whether it’s THE DARK KNIGHT, THE BOURNE films, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE or even THE TRANSORMERS movies, this has become an almost standard way of shooting any kind of action in Hollywood films over the past decade.

Furthermore, I’ve just finished writing my first book, a more than 500,000 word treatise entitled, The Ultimate Guide to the Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s (to be released in Spring 2010), of which part of the book includes in depth discussions on the fight choreography and directing on over 65 Japanese made chambara (sword fighting), ninja and karate films made during that decade.

How is the action shot in most of these films? Too tight, too dark and with too much excessive camera movement (earthquake cam), so in a peculiar sense, the fights in NA were shot the same way old-style Japanese ninja and/or samurai films were shot.

It seems to me one of the main problems of the action is that for a film with a title like NINJA ASSASIN, one would expect ninja or samurai sword action.

Yet instead, what we got was basically Chinese martial arts and Chinese martial arts influenced fight choreography, where a series of techniques merely ended up in a samurai or ninja-like pose.

Ignore the fact that Rain swings a samurai sword like a thin, six-ounce baseball bat and does double katana (Japanese long samurai sword) like Chinese twin-broadswords, it is clear that he has worked hard to get in shape and learn how to move like a Chinese martial arts film star from about 25 years ago.

The problem is that although his drooping hair and standing postures (not martial arts stances) look like something out of manga (Japanese comic and print cartoons), his movements and fights look nothing like a Japanese samurai or ninja.

The freaky thing is that Tom Cruise’s fights from THE LAST SAMURAI (2003) looked more like Japanese samurai sword action than Rain's, who is portraying the ultimate ninja, which of course these warriors used sword skills similar to the samurai.

Although that may not be bad, but if it was a Japanese stylized film with great samurai sword style action you were expecting, you really did not get it. I think this is one of the things, besides in the eyes of many martial arts film buffs a bad story, that audiences are upset about.

Yet on a historical note, the Japanese ninja are descendants of the Korean sulsa assassins that successfully fought Japanese warriors in Korea circa A.D. 663. In turn, the sulsa are descendants of Chinese Tang Dynasty assassins that arose sometime probably 30 or so years earlier.

So in a sense it might be historically correct that the fights in NA look like Chinese martial arts. Although I'd be willing to bet that the filmmakers did not have this in mind as part of their fight logic.

Yet regardless of everyone that hates, likes or doesn’t give two hoots about the film, what NA’s box office figures do is give racially stereotypically minded Hollywood executives fodder to say that having a lead Asian actor in a major Hollywood Blockbuster movie does not sell in the West, which gives them the excuse to further ignore using Asian and Asian American talent in front of the camera.

This is the ultimate travesty of what essentially is not a bad film.

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