Killer Imports: Kung Fu Cyborg

kungfucyborg

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.

Kung Fu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction opens with a promising title sequence. On a plain white background befitting a technologically sterile environment, a headless robotic body performs various human movements like training on a Wing Chun dummy and playing an erhu, a Chinese musical instrument. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie was rather disappointing although it does have a certain amount of charm.

I had not heard or seen anything about this movie when I noticed its clunky title on the DVD cover. Since the images on the cover were rather indistinct, I imagined either a martial arts Terminator wreaking havoc or an Ultraman-like hero dispatching evil-doers. What I got instead were Transformers in a meandering mess of a plot meant to please everyone. For the action fans, there are Transformer-capable cyborgs that use kung fu. For the comedy fans, there are some genuinely goofy, slap-stick comedic bits that kids might laugh at. For the intellectual fans, there are philosophical implications to contemplate. And for the sentimental fans, there is a love quadrilateral to be resolved.

Before I go any further, I should explain that I think this movie incorrectly uses the term “cyborg.” A cyborg is a human enhanced with robotic elements. The cyborgs in this film are more like androids. That is, completely mechanical beings that resemble humans. However, in some cases, it appears that the cyborgs in this film may actually incorporate human DNA. Anyway, the film doesn’t pay much attention to scientific plausibility, so I guess it’s pointless to debate terminology.

An incorruptible supervisor, Dachun (Hu Jun), of a team of cops is assigned to monitor a cyborg cop, K-1 (Alex Fong), by its creator, Lin Xiang (Eric Tsang). Sumei (Betty Sun Li) is a competent, nerdy team member who becomes the focal point of a love quadrilateral between K-1, Dachun, and a computer expert, Xiao Jiang (Ronald Cheng). Dachun’s animosity towards K-1 intensifies when he suspects that there is an attraction forming between K-1 and Sumei. Added to this mix is a rogue cyborg, K-88 (Jacky Wu Jing), who thankfully doesn’t involve himself in a love pentagon with Sumei, but rather is experiencing an existential crisis and must be dealt with. The denouement will determine the fate of cyborg-kind.

Sumei’s intelligence and self-assuredness comes across when she gives a police briefing. She sports a no-nonsense hair-do and unattractive eyeglasses. I bring these points up because it’s somewhat enlightening that the three male characters of the love quadrilateral have fallen for her without her having to go through some transformation. She does eventually dispense with the eyeglasses, but I won’t say anything more about this. I found Betty Sun Li’s facial expressiveness very attractive, and she was able to draw me in to her emotional states. Her acting at the end of the movie really touched me. I even watched the ending twice and she touched me both times.

K-1’s physical appearance reminded me of Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe android in A.I.. I don’t know if there is significance to the name. Could it possibly be a reference to the combat sport K-1? Maybe in Chinese, K-1 sounds like something that has some relevance. You know like how Dr. Who had a robotic dog named K-9. (Canine. Get it?)

Jacky Wu Jing is sort of wasted as the formidable K-88. Since K-88 more often than not transforms himself during battle, we hardly get to see Wu Jing’s martial arts skills. We do see him perform a fluid kata. For those unaware, Wu Jing is being groomed as the next Jet Li. He seems to get cast a lot as a villain. (This might not be so bad, since Jet Li did make an impact on American audiences with his role as a villain in “Lethal Weapon 4.”) K-88 somewhat parallels the Roy Batty character from Blade Runner. He has a desire to commune with his creator, and also extend his own life.

Some comedy relief is provided by Ronald Cheng’s character. I’ve seen Ronald Cheng in some other films and he reminds me of an Asian Pauly Shore. And as with Pauly Shore, I don’t understand his appeal. Interestingly, he’s also the co-composer of the film score. I like his music scoring better than his goofy comedic acting. But I suppose his goofiness appropriately matches the tone of the film.

Eric Tsang is the Asian equivalent to Samuel L. Jackson. That is, he’s an actor who seems to appear in many movies. And looking at the acting credits provided by IMDb, Tsang beats Jackson with 179 credits versus 127! Unusually, he wears a pained expression whenever he appears in his small role in this film. But who am I to question this actor’s acting choices considering the experience he has?

Although the film is set in 2046, everything in the film seems rather contemporary, beyond the existence of cyborgs and their technology. I don’t think there’s even an attempt to explain this. The year 2046 is significant in that Hong Kong’s independent capitalist system will end, but I’m inclined to think that the year 2046 was chosen as homage to Wong Kar-wai’s film, 2046, in which the film’s science fiction writer imagines a future in 2046 when a woman cyborg has conflicted feelings of love for a human.

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Everything associated with the cyborgs is not treated in any realistic manner. The cyborgs are able to transform themselves into any type of machinery including large Transformer-like humanoids. In one instance, K-1 creates rosebuds in the palms of his hand, seemingly out of nothing. The abilities of the cyborgs seem to arise out of nowhere to service plot points or to set up humorous gags. It becomes apparent that there’s no use in trying to apply logic in following the plot, but I guess most movies fail in this department.

As an example of sacrificing realism for weirdness, K-1 transforms his hand to be able to shoot motion depressant drug darts from his fingers during one scene. When the drug dart hits a human, the human begins to move in slow motion, so you might think that the drug somehow affects the muscles. But then the human jumps off a ledge and falls in slow motion which makes you wonder how the drug is able to affect gravity. It is sort of cool to see this visual effect as an opponent takes advantage by beating the slow falling drug-induced victim to the ground level and delivering an uppercut as the victim lands at ground level.

With all of its storytelling flaws, this film partially redeems itself through its undeniably beautiful look. I’ve seen director Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Tall Story which didn’t seem overly beautiful, so I’m going to have to guess that the cinematographer Fung Yuen Man is responsible for the great look. Fung Yuen Man was the cinematographer most famously on Infernal Affairs. The lighting and frame composition during K-1’s pensive moments make up for the stillness in action.

The visual effects are done by Centro Digital Pictures Limited, which I believe is China’s equivalent to Lucas’ ILM. They did the visual effects for Kung Fu Hustle, and even did some work on Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. There is a major battle sequence between K-1 and K-88 that isn’t photorealistic like Michael Bay’s Transformer films are. There are some cool elements like seeing a nunchaku with metallic rods linked with electrical energy, but I wasn’t totally awed by the kung fu fighting cyborgs.

There is an interesting notion raised by this film concerning cyborgs that not even Isaac Asimov considered in his Laws of Robotics. I know that Asimov refined his ideas in further robot adventures, but I’m not sure if he ever dealt with “love.” The ramifications of having a robot “love” a human, another robot, a thing, or even an idea can be dangerous. Consider the conflicts that arise when humans fall in love. Now I’m a computer programmer and I’m not even sure how I would go about detecting if a robot was in love, but it seems that this movie’s cyborgs have a built in fail-safe to handle this contingency. Cyborgs have programming that detects when they are falling in love and causes them to self-destruct!

Now as a human, you would have to make sure that you don’t fall in love with a cyborg. Think about it. By falling in love with a cyborg, you risk the cyborg falling in love with you. And taking what I said in the last sentence of the last paragraph, then you’d end up in a doomed relationship.

Would you (I’m assuming you’re human if you’re reading this) be able to fall in love with a cyborg? I think I would be able to. I mean, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then I’d… (Well, I was about to use a crude fornication term that rhymes with duck, but I’ll dispense with the cheap laugh.) I think the much-maligned Chris Columbus film Bicentennial Man based on Isaac Asimov’s writings dealt with this issue nicely.

Not since Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn have I heard of a strange title for a film that was such a mouthful. And I believe if you go searching for this film, you’ll end up finding this movie under variations of the title I used, which came from the movie’s actual title splash frames. For example, “KungFu” is shown as one word, but you might be more successful in your search if you add a space between “Kung” and “Fu.”

I thought the images on the cover of the DVD that I bought had sort of a spoiler in regards to showing how Sumei’s love for K-1 would resolve itself, but it turned out that the image on the cover is misleading as is the title of the film. I think many of you would consider this to be a “bad” film, so I won’t recommend it. But I enjoyed it.

As a last note, K-1 whispers something into Sumei’s ear at a crucial moment in the film. If anyone who sees this film knows what he whispers, please send me an e-mail through Film Junk and let me know what he says.

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  • projectgenesis

    Ronald Cheng is indeed goofy. I didn’t know who he was until recently when I saw Fatal Contact on DVD. His acting really stood out. Hope to check this one out soon!

  • I haven’t gotten around to getting Fatal Contact, yet. I’ve been seeing practically every other Jacky Wu Jing movie.

    I didn’t realize Ronald Cheng was in Fatal Contact. projectgenesis, at least one critic agreed with you that annoying as Cheng can be, he’s actually pretty good in Fatal Contact.

  • Fatbologna

    Reed, being that you seem to be a huge fan of Asian cinema, I was wondering if you could elaborate on some of the stuff (non-Zhang Yimou) you hold nearest and dearest? I’m a HUGE fan of Asian cult film and own a good chunk of Asian films on DVD, but I think our tastes would be considered wildly divergent to say the least. I’ve noticed that your interest seems to lie mostly in contemporary HK/Chinese films, is this due to your heritage or just personal preference?

    Also, I’ve noticed that Jay seems to nod off and disregard you any time you bring up Asian films you enjoy. Does he not enjoy ANY Asian cinema or just the stuff you’re into?

    My interests lie more in the Japanese and Korean cult films, especially Japanese films of the 50s-70s. I find that some of the most groundbreaking films of all time in genre film were made during that period influencing many directors all around the world. America, Italy, and France seemed to really glom on to may of the styles that later helped create the Spaghetti Western, French New Wave, Italian Polizia, and American Crime films of the 60s and 70s. The Yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku are some of the most stylish and gritty films I’ve ever seen. The Samurai/Chanbara films of Hideo Gosha, Kurosawa, Kenji Misumi and others VERY obviously inspired MANY Italian AND American westerns. The Pinky Violence films of Teruo Ishii, Norifumi Suzuki, and starring Reiko Ike, Meiko Kaji can be seen all over the 70s grindhouse films from America, and Shohei Imamura, Ozu, and Koji Wakamatsu’s free form indie style can be seen in the French New Wave all the way up to the indie films of the 90s.

    The other interesting thing about vintage Japanese film is the way that they ran their studios. Directors would always be mentoring a young up-and-comer and would train them using on-set experience. Very similar to Tradesman in a way. This created a strong sense of style as well as a knack for using small budgets and little time to create something that was well composed and of a very high quality. Some directors were known to direct as many as 6-12 films in a two year span!

    Anyway, there’s a mini starter lesson if you’re interested in that particular portion of Asian film. As far as HK flicks go, I definitely love the action films of the 90s. The crazy CAT III films of the 80s and early 90s were also an especially grotesque and fun little craze. It’s so awesome to see now-respected actors like Simon Yam and Anthony Wong going absolutely batshit insane in films like Dr Lamb, Untold Story, and Ebola Syndrome!

    I recall you mentioning that you enjoyed Dog Bite Dog and thought of a film called Run and Kill directed by Billy Tang that you might really enjoy. Dog Bite Dog definitely had a similar feel to some of the 80s/90s CAT III action stuff. I also recommend Johnnie To’s films. He’s the best action/crime director working in HK film today. Exiled and the Election films are absolutely stunning.

    Anyway, sorry to go off on a tangent, but it’s nice to see an Asian film contributor on FilmJunk. Hopefully you can put up more of these reviews as I really enjoy them.

    Oh yeah, recently checked out the Chan-Wook Park film Thirst and REALLY enjoyed it. It’s a definite recommendation as I found it to be a Funny, Gory, Dramatic and typically strange effort from Park. Good stuff!

  • Fatbologna, thx for your informative comments. I’ll try to touch on most of your points.

    I think I’ve only come to appreciate Asian cinema within the past decade when their techniques and/or technology seem to me to have reached Hollywood levels. I can appreciate how certain films and filmmakers have been influential, but I find that later films that have been influenced are actually better. For example, I don’t really appreciate the early John Woo films with Chow Yun-Fat. But I realize they’ve been highly influential.

    As for what I like beyond Zhang Yimou, I’ve mentioned Wong Kar-wai in the past and how 2046 would be in my top 5 favorite films of all time. I like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow films for their entertainment value. I tend to like more the Asian films set in the contemporary era. I like modern Korean films a lot.

    Jay doesn’t talk about Asian films when I’m around him; I’m guessing there’s already enough other good cinema that he has more ready access to. He does have Seven Samurai on Blu-ray, but he never seems to be in the mood to watch it. I confess I haven’t seen it, yet.

    I’ve been trying to watch some early Japanese cult films that I bought on VHS, but I can’t seem to enjoy them. I can’t even get into the more popular stuff. I was even disappointed in Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

    I enjoyed Exiled. I didn’t quite like Election 2.

    For some reason, Chan-Wook Park’s recent films like “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” and “Thirst” haven’t been readily available at the shops I frequent.

  • fatbologna

    Wong Kar-wai is definitely a great filmmaker. Chungking Express is a pretty pivotal moment in contemporary Chinese cinema. Almost the equal of Pulp Fiction in terms of the effect it had socially and in terms of independent free-form cinema.

    I think one of the big mistakes that people make when attempting to get into Japanese cult cinema is trying to watch Kurosawa’s films. I truly admire him as a groundbreaking Japanese director in terms of getting them recognized on the world map, but watching his films has always felt like a film studies course. Rashomon and Seven Samurai are VERY entertaining films to watch but you definitely need to be in the mood. I prefer Yojimbo in terms of PURE entertainment value and stylish fun.

    Besides Kurosawa though, there are MANY 60s-70s Japanese directors who made films for purely unadulterated entertainment. The Lone Wolf and Cub films are definitely the peak in terms of samurai cinema, with their geysers of blood and limbs flying, nudity, ninjas, and a baby cart that’s used as a multipurpose killing device. The Zatoichi films are more lighthearted with an amazingly consistent, funny, badass and often heartwarming performance by Shintaro Katsu. If you’re looking for crime films you can’t go wrong with the Yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku. They’re violent, stylish, kinetic and the actors in the films couldn’t be more badass. Bunta Sugawara is the Japanese equivalent to Lee Marvin and he’s so fucking cool it HURTS!

    If you’re looking for crazy, pop-culture soaked, titillating, sleazy action then the “Pinky Violence” films of the early 70s are AMAZING. Hyper-stylized, often directly based off of Manga, featuring beautiful, strong women in the lead roles, torturing each other, topless knife fighting, wearing school uniforms, brawling, drinking, riding motorcycles, you name it! The Terryfying Girls’ High School and Sukeban Deka films are CRAAAZY. Female Yakuza Tale and Sex & Fury are simply awesome and The height of them all is the Female Convict Scorpion films starring Meiko Kaji which take the genre to a higher level, eliminating much of the sexual elements to focus on pure revenge.

    A couple more recommendations that don’t really fit into ANY mold but are two of my very favourite films/series are Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, featuring topless ninja women, blood geysers, cult aspects, a ronin, and a forced prostitution ring, this film looks like a comic book caught on film.
    And finally, Hanzo the Razor. The coolest samurai detective of all time. With a blaxploitation soundtrack and an awesome performance by Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro, Hanzo is a trilogy of films about a shogunate officer who plays by his own rules. He uses his giant “member” for the purposes of interrogation. He has a booby-trapped house that repels all comers. He has two bumbling sidekicks for comic relief and he kills people in the most violent ways possible.

    I know that all of the films mentioned sound like schlocky American-style grindhouse cinema, but the Japanese are a very proud culture and this pride extended even to their lower-level cinema. The direction is top-notch and considering the subject matter, the production values are through the roof! I highly recommend checking some of this stuff out. Google and “other internet sources” are your best friend!

    As for contemporary Korean cinema, I’m of the belief that they can’t be beat in terms of sheer production values, actors, and interestingly daring films. Can Wook-Park, Joon-ho Bong, and Ji-woon Kim helped create a renaissance of amazing modern Korean cinema. Although, I’ll recommend that you avoid “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” as it’s a pretty big misstep for Park.

    I see where you’re coming from in terms of the older Chinese stuff from the 80s-90s. I do appreciate The Killer and Hard Boiled but they take a certain amount of tolerance to get passed some of the heavy cheese. I’m more a Shaw Bros. kind of person when it comes to the older stuff.

    Anyway, another long tangent complete! It’s nice to finally know where some of the interests of Mr. Farrington lie. You’re an interesting fellow, my friend!

  • fatbologna, until your recent comments here, I didn’t realize how knowledgeable and interesting you were! I may “pick your brain” in the future. If you catch wind of any interesting films coming up, please let us all know about them.

  • fatbologna

    to quote my “ol’ lady”: You’re FINALLY valid in Reed’s world! Now THAT’S an accomplishment! LOL!