Killer Imports: Coweb

coweb

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

Whenever I appear on the Film Junk podcast and review a film, I invariably have a negative opinion. And when I write film reviews for the Film Junk web site, I invariably have a positive opinion, even for films that many Film Junk readers would consider bad. The discrepancy has to do with the fact that I don’t get to choose which films to review on the podcast. I find it easier to give reasons on why I like something rather than why I don’t like something. So for me, writing a positive review is easier to write and seems more worthwhile since someone may be influenced by a positive review to watch a film that I feel deserves attention. No one in a right state of mind sets out to make a “bad” film, and I know the task of actually getting a film made is not easy. I prefer not to say anything bad about the result of someone’s efforts. But I thought I should correct the discrepancy between having all my podcast reviews being negative and all my written reviews being positive.

So it is with a heavy heart that I must say how much I disliked Coweb.

To be fair and in the effort of full disclosure, the DVD I have of the film had the audio slightly out of sync with the video. This is really bad for fight scenes when you see someone getting hit and a slight moment later, you hear the sound of the impact. (Have you ever noticed in horror movies with lightning and thunder that you always hear the thunder at the same time you see the lightning? For anyone who has taken a basic science class or who has paid any attention as to what happens during an actual thunderstorm, the sound of thunder can occur after you see the lightning with the duration depending on how far away you are from the lightning. I wonder if any filmmaker has tried to subliminally influence an audience by shortening the duration as a movie progresses in order to build tension. It may seem like that I’m digressing from actually talking about Coweb, but like I said, if I don’t have anything good to say about something, then …)

Oh, I should mention that I couldn’t understand the plot of the film because there were no English subtitles, but I think I understood enough of what was going on. However, I don’t understand the significance of the title, Coweb. Maybe it refers to the corporation that is filming fights that are staged, unbeknownst to the fighters, in various locations for the purposes of illegal online gambling. Basically, the film involves a former woman cop (Jiang Lu-xia) who is hired as a bodyguard, fails to protect her client, and sets out to resolve the situation that culminates in infiltrating the corporation.

The makers of Coweb did try to make the fight set pieces interesting. There are fights that take place in a kitchen, on a water covered arena, on bamboo scaffolding, and on a street with rapper-type, free-style, break-dancing fighters. The editing and the framing of the shots allow you to see the full motions of the fighters, but I didn’t find the fighting to be all that exciting. Maybe the camera angles and movement were lacking. Maybe the fight choreography wasn’t varied or different enough. Maybe the fights lacked pacing with their unrelenting activity. To me, many of the fight scenes seemed obviously blocked out. The music was uninspired as well.

I’ve seen Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies with kitchen fight scenes before, and the kitchen fight scene in Coweb didn’t add anything new. She fights a much larger Caucasian guy (Wanja Götz) for the whole kitchen fight, and the fight seems like it goes on forever.

Maybe some of you can appreciate the fights in Coweb more than I can. To put things in perspective, I’m not a fan of old-style martial arts movies where the fights seem to go on forever. I’ll make an exception for Jackie Chan films only because Jackie is so creative. Perhaps I should also mention for all you purists that besides during the bamboo scaffolding fight, I don’t think much wire-work is used as the acrobatics are somewhat subdued. But I could be wrong.

When she infiltrates the corporation, she fights a mass of men and pulls out a nunchaku! Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the whole sequence.

There is a climactic duel between her and a martial arts expert (Kane Kosugi) in a fighting ring. (I don’t think this is spoiling anything, because many martial arts movies adhere to the Enter the Dragon template. And I suspect Enter the Dragon wasn’t the first movie that had a climactic duel.) Yawn.

For those who have been following my written reviews of films, I have a soft spot for films involving women as the main protagonists who have no problem dealing out punishment. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I tend to develop infatuations with these women. I didn’t find Zhang Ziyi particularly attractive at the beginning of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but by the end of the film, I was smitten. With Coweb, I didn’t find myself physically attracted to the star, Jiang Lu-xia, at the beginning, and unfortunately, she still didn’t do anything for me by the end of the film. Her characterization was no different from Zhang Ziyi’s character either. She seemed to have a blank face with occasional moments of scowling. There was no attempt to feminize her and her clothing was rather drab. Her tomboy-ish haircut didn’t help.

There is one interesting aspect about Jiang Lu-xia that deserves mentioning. She was a finalist in a Hong Kong reality-type television show hosted by Jackie Chan. I don’t know what the name of the show was, but its title probably translated to something like, “So You Think You Can Kung Fu?” (Okay, the show was actually called, The Disciple, but I bet if the show came over to North America, the producers would use my title.) She had actually gained some notoriety by posting on the Internet short films of herself displaying her martial arts skills. I think you can find some of these films interspersed with some making-of shorts for Coweb. To promote herself, she used the name “Kitty Darling,” but if you try searching the Internet for that name, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some risqué stuff. She has studied martial arts since the age of 6 and I don’t believe she has ever acted before.

The director is a first time director, Xiong Xin-xin. There was no major sponsor financing this film, so much hardship was endured in order to complete this film. Before becoming a full director, Xiong was a wushu martial artist and stunt performer (sometimes doubling for Jet Li) who eventually became an action director. His Hollywood credits include action choreography for The Musketeer and Steven Seagal’s Half Past Dead. He did win a Hong Kong action choreography award for Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords.

Apparently, the feeling in Hong Kong is that there have been no fresh martial arts actors being given a chance to take over from the aging stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the international market. Studios in Hong Kong and China won’t finance movies with complete unknowns and the actors who can cause movies to be financed have not been able to penetrate international markets. Years ago, even Donnie Yen failed to succeed with a push from Quentin Tarantino in marketing Iron Monkey. And I’m wondering how many of you reading this know who Jacky Wu Jing is. Xiong has taken upon himself the task of trying to introduce some fresh talent. And so we have Jiang Lu-xia in Coweb.

As I said earlier, I hate writing negative reviews, but another reason why I hesitated posting this review earlier was that I thought I should wait for this film to become widely available and to see if a buzz developed over this film. (I had seen “Coweb” back in the summer.) I was afraid that if I wrote a review too early, then many of you would simply ignore the review. But I have yet to see this movie available anywhere with English subtitles. Perhaps you’ll never get a chance to see this film for you to make up your own mind.

The main advertising image is sort of abstract with yellow lettering on top of Jiang Lu-xia in a red hoodie, her hair covering most of her face, with a background of red splattered on black. It’s not obvious to me that this is a martial arts film. Maybe the producers should be commended as well for choosing a non-traditional title for this martial arts film. But choosing an action film based on its title given the choice of Coweb or Ninja Assassin, which would you choose?

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  • joe

    I’m glad you keep this column going, Reed.

    Another reason to write only good reviews on foreign movies is because people may not have heard of them before. If you tell someone that there is a good movie they haven’t heard of, they may watch it. If you tell someone there is a bad movie they never heard of…. well, who cares? It’s not like you’ll go track it down now. I guess the only reason to write a bad one would be to show the reader that your reviews are not trivial (i.e. everything gets 3 stars minimum), and also to give the reader a sense of what you do/don’t like, giving them a better understanding of whether they agree with your tastes.

    The trailer for Ninja Assassin looks awesome. I hope it’s good.

  • I’m glad Sean added the Coweb teaser trailer link. It shows some clips from what I mention in my review. The teaser trailer doesn’t seem to me to be very exciting, but maybe that’s because I’ve been jaded by the full movie. What do people think of the teaser trailer? I think I would have seen the film based on the teaser trailer’s hype of a new action star.

    joe, Ninja Assassin does look awesome, but I’m afraid I might get bored with the fight scenes. The Matrix fight scenes frankly bored me after a while. And I didn’t find the fight scenes in the Kill Bill films to be that interesting either. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

  • Nick Robertson

    Hey Reed,

    I had also heard this was pretty bad from numerous friends. You’re not alone in your negative rating.

    The subsequent Matrix fights bored me but you have to admit Neo vs Morpheus is brilliant.

    You should review ‘Election’ x

  • projectgenesis

    Reed, what’s your favorite martial arts fight scene of the last 10 years?

  • Nick Robertson, I haven’t read a good review for Coweb, so maybe Coweb is a case for a movie being so bad that even I have to admit that it’s bad. :-)

    Yeah, the Neo vs Morpheus fight was interesting because of Morpheus spouting Bruce Lee philosophy.

    I haven’t seen Election, but I’ve seen Election 2. I don’t quite get the interest people have for these Chinese Triad movies. Then again, I’m not a fan of The Godfather. Ha ha.

    projectgenesis, I was going to pick a fight scene from Hero, my favourite movie of all time, but after more thought, I’ll have to go with the fight scene in the tavern towards the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I loved how everyone underestimates the ferocity of the diminutive Jen Yu, and then to see the fluidity of the action as she takes the offensive and moves all over the place (with a clever stunt double replacement at one point). And then the fight ends with the silence, and subsequent collapse of the staircase and balcony. Truly sublime.

  • Nick Robertson

    That fight at the end of Crouching Tiger always reminds me of the fight in the tavern in Shanghai Noon, set to ZZ Top’s La Grange. Weird :)

    Bruce Lee’s philosophy is something I always seem to remember – did you like Dragon: The Bruce Lee story?

    As for Election, the triad aspect wasn’t what appealed to me (It’s probably the only triad film I’ve ever seen…) I just liked it.

  • The best thing I liked about “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” was the music. I think it appealed to the Hollywood types as well because for a while, a lot of film trailers were using the music.

    One of the things I didn’t like about Dragon was the supernatural element although I realize that Chinese culture is steeped in superstition. Dragon went for the entertainment angle rather than the factual, I think.

    Jason Scott Lee was OK, but I guess the problem is that it would be hard for me to accept anybody in the role of Bruce Lee.

  • projectgenesis

    I always liked Dragon. As a kid browsing the video store with my parents, it was one of the only Bruce Lee related videos that wasn’t rated R so I would rent it repeatedly. I loved the bus boy fight scene and a young Lauren Holly, rarrr.

  • Nick Robertson

    I think Jason pulled the job off well – I saw that film SO often as a kid that when I finally saw who Bruce Lee was (in my small town in Australia at my mum’s video store there were no Lee movies) I was like HE LOOKS NOTHING LIKE BRUCE LEE – even though he was the real Bruce Lee…

  • That’s interesting, Nick. It’s funny how as kids or even as adults that our perceptions can be skewed based on the limited resources supplied by our environment.

    As a totally unrelated memory, I used to collect postage stamps and in the 60s, there was a postage stamp to commemorate Einstein. The stamp was all purple and the image was an older Einstein with his scraggly white hair. Well, I used to think that Einstein was a movie monster related to Frankenstein!

    Back to Jason Scott Lee and his non-resemblance to Bruce Lee, you might even notice that Jason’s stomach muscles are different in that they are vertically striated! I don’t know of any other person who has developed stomach muscles like his.

  • The first 11 minutes of this movie is probably one of the best Romantic movies I’ve seen all year with an ending that rips your heart out and it’s all done without much dialogue.

  • The first 11 minutes of this movie is probably one of the best Romantic movies I’ve seen all year with an ending that rips your heart out and it’s all done without much dialogue.

  • passerby

    Well, I have to say it’s funny that people think ziyi zhang as a action star and use her as a comparison just because she is well-known. ziyi uses a double in many of her scenes in crouching tiger hidden dragon. She is in fact dancing and not fighting in crouching tiger hidden dragon. There’s no power in her hits at all.Yeah she got my attention too because of her youth and her beauty . Many in the west naively like to quote her duel with michelle yeoh as the best in martial art which is actually nothing compared to what that is always seen in Chinese films. Yes michelle yeoh is very good in that scene using different Chinese weapons and she does all the attack, her moves are much more more difficult and required tremendous skills than her opponent.Ziyi zhang is simply not a action star at all. Just because the west have only seen crouching tiger hidden dragon and later because of the popularity bought by this film, hero and house of flying daggers. They “believed” ziyi zhang is a action star.LOL.

    THE FACT IS IN THE HISTORY OF CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY MANY FEMALE CHINESE STARS HAVE STARRED IN MARTIAL ART FILMS AND THEY HAVE DONE WAY BETTER THAN ZIYI ZHANG. SO THEY ARE ALL “ACTION STAR”???? LOL…of course there are female action star, michelle yeoh no doubt is one and there are others but many have retired, go and watch a REAL action movie by michelle yeoh,moon lee and Cynthia Khan.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    passerby, stop being a douche.

    Screen martial arts is a completely different skill to real martial arts. Screen martial arts is all about timing and rhythm. Just because you are a good real life fighter does not mean you will make it as a screen martial artists. This is why Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal movies suck. Yes they can fight in real life but they have no agility or sense of timing – things Hong Kong action choreographers and directors prioritizes over martial arts skill.

    Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are not trained martial artists. They are Peking Opera performers and all they learned all the martial arts moves on set.

    Michelle Yeoh is not a trained martial artist either. She was trained in ballet just like Zhang Ziyi.

  • @TheAllKnowingGod, I think you were being kind of harsh to passerby although I think I understand your criticism of his or her view. I agree that anyone “athletic” can fake martial arts. And that real martial artists can make bad films, but I wouldn’t blame the martial artists’ skills necessarily. Contrary to what you say, I think good martial artists should have agility and rhythm. I think you underestimate Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal with regards to their agility and rhythm. Also the Peking Opera taught martial arts, so Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are indeed martial artists.

    passerby seems to be interchanging “action star” with “martial artist,” which causes confusion in what his or her argument is. I agree that Zhang Ziyi isn’t a martial artist, but I would say that she’s done roles that would qualify her as an action star.