Armed with a large array of popular Chinese myths, martial arts movie references and martial arts philosophy, screenwriter John Fusco and director Rob Minkoff have assembled a fast-paced action adventure that is highly enjoyable escapism. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM takes the last 40 years of Chinese martial arts cinema and condenses it into a streamlined fantasy story, light on depth yet overshadowed by many strengths including fierce screen fighting from action director Yuen Wo-ping, a phenomenal action and comedy pairing of Jet Li and Jackie Chan and gorgeous cinematography from Peter Pau. The film is also a lavish visual showcase for two of Asia’s most beautiful women of the moment, Liu Yi-fei and Li Bing-bing.
The film starts off with an action sequence, which is always a good sign, with Jet Li as The Monkey King fighting off all comers on misty mountain tops (sans Led Zeppelin). Is it a dream or real? Our young hero, Jason (Michael Angarano), wakes up to Shaw Brothers’ 1966 film THE MONKEY GOES WEST playing on his TV set next to his bed. Nice touch. The camera pans away to reveal that his room is littered with classic martial arts memorabilia. This sets us up for slick opening credits featuring classic kung fu poster art with the likes of Lau Kar-leung, Bruce Lee and Jimmy Wang Yu prominently displayed. Opening credits have become something of a lost art yet this film suggests they may only have been forgotten.
At this point, the film had me firmly hooked and didn’t let go till the end credits rolled. Only once does the film lapse and that’s during a scene or two where the filmmakers seemed to struggle with how to build up a credible romantic link between the dorky Jason and the stunning Sparrow (Liu Yifei). They never got it right. Test audiences apparently felt the same way since a kiss between the two actors was removed from the final release.
Interestingly, the premise of the movie is somewhat similar to a pitch that had been making the rounds in Hollywood a few years prior. Rumors were circulating that one of the Wayans was being courted for a project about a kung fu movie fan who gets sucked into his TV set, ala PLEASANTVILLE, and into an old school kung fu movie. We can all be thankful that never came to pass. One KUNG POW-like movie is enough.
In the case of THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM, writer John Fusco goes the family-friendly adventure route by tapping primarily into JOURNEY TO THE WEST, a 16th-century literary classic from China that features the exploits of the Monkey King and other immortals. Mature themes dealing with flesh-eating demons and seductresses have been left untouched.
Through a simple device of a magical cudgel or quarterstaff, Fusco sends a typical American teen into a world populated by demigods, super chi-powered martial arts masters and beautiful female assassins. There are many references to popular Hong Kong movies as well, beyond the obvious opening credits and title references that Jason talks about as a kung fu movie nut. Liu Yifei’s character is modeled after Cheng Pei-pei’s dart-tossing character in GOLDEN SWALLOW. When facing the Jade Warlord she says, “come drink with me,” an obvious reference to the same-named prequal to GOLDEN SWALLOW. The stunningly beautiful Li Bingbing appears in long flowing white hair that occasionally serves as a weapon that can be commanded to grab objects. She’s also a man-hater. This is a direct reference to Brigitte Lin’s famous role in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. Jackie Chan first appears as an old pawnshop owner in Chinatown but later turns up as Lu Yan, a beggar and Drunken Fist master who is supposedly an immortal. This references Chan’s kung fu style in DRUNKEN MASTER, another film he worked on with Yuen Wo-ping. It’s also a reference to the famous Eight Immortals, who according to southern Shaolin lore, are what provided inspiration for Shaolin monks to develop the Drunken Fist in the first place. These all create a realm that would be familiar to Chinese audiences and yet altered enough to bring a variety of Chinese legends into one story that could be easily digested by an audience previously unfamiliar with all these references. This is comfortable territory for Fusco, an avid wushu practitioner with experience in wrapping cross-cultural themes in layers of mysticism and reverence as previously seen in HILDAGO.
Leaning so heavily on Chinese martial arts and fantasy lore does have its drawbacks, particularly when so much is being thrown into one kettle. There is a point in THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM where Chan’s character admonishes Jason to empty his “cup” of previous notions about martial arts when training. It’s a truism of real-world martial arts that could also be applied to filmmaking. There are many reworkings of old ideas in the film that may be more polished in presentation but lack the punch of the original material. Take Li Bingbing’s character. I never really took notice of her until she put on a white wig. She looks amazing but doesn’t come even close to measuring up to the ferocity or dramatic substance of Brigitte Lin’s character. It’s not so much that something was lost in the translation. It’s more that this film is directed at a different demographic and there isn’t enough running time to properly adapt all these ideas. It wouldn’t be appropriate in a Jackie Chan film for a character to rip victims limb from limb for one thing.
Other elements seem half-hearted in presentation, from the juvenile, KARATE KID-like confrontation between Jason and bullies in New York to Jason’s relationship with most of the other characters. Angarano is the weak link but I can’t say the film would be better without him. The story needs someone to represent the audience, someone they can identify with while being thrust into a foreign environment. He plays the everyman, or boy character well. What seems to be missing is growth. For all of the martial wisdom that’s passed on, all we get at the end is Jason beating up fellow teenagers who seem way too enthusiastic about antagonizing him. Jason’s training with Silent Monk and Lu Yan was also somewhat of a disappointment. For the amount of time the film spends on it, it could have been more substantive and engaged than having him practicing forms, shirtless in a waterfall. In more ways than one, we’re getting a watered down version of more interesting training sequences in other films.
The main draw of this movie is clearly the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, their first ever. It works marvelously. The two have excellent screen chemistry in both physical and comedic situations. Jackie plays the goofball and Jet the straight man, or so we’re made to think. The single biggest highlight of the movie is their initial confrontation in a temple. It’s a good length with good variation but nothing too outrageous. Of course, Yuen has his team using a lot of wirework but it’s actually appropriate for once considering the fantasy slant. Much appreciated are the various, distinct fighting styles the actors employ and the emphasis on hand work, which today is often neglected in favor of flashy high kicks. Some of the best moments between the two do not even involve fighting. It’s obvious they had a lot of fun on the set. It also seems that Chan delivered one of his best acting performances to date. He’s always wanted to earn equal respect for his acting, which never has quite matched his physical skills. He makes decent strides in this film.
Collin Chou has a rather limited role in the movie as the lead villain. His character is the exaggerated villain type, similar to what Karen Mok performed in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. Collin dishes out the fu near the end with palm blasts mixed in.
From a technical standpoint, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is exceptional. The real-world scenery is breathtaking and the production design team adds nice touches in ornate set design, costuming and matte painting for that added fantastical look. Peter Pau captures everything with his usual excellence. David Buckley does some interesting stuff with the score. Some of it is traditional Chinese riffs or rousing orchestral pieces you would expect to hear but he drops haunting little bits here or there and has a bit of an aggressive and modern theme for Li Bing-bing’s character that works well. The score has a way of reinforcing the idea that the audience is not supposed to take the movie too seriously.
Aside from my love of martial arts cinema, I’m also a sucker for a good adventure movie, partially because there are not a lot being made anymore. For a kid-friendly movie, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM meets both criteria and makes for a very enjoyable two hours despite its flaws. There is a lot for genre fans to appreciate above and beyond the obvious so long as there are not any hang ups about little things like characters speaking English in ancient China. After seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li battling each other and joking onscreen I can only hope this isn’t the last time we see these two screen legends together. Maybe next time someone could invite Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. I can see it now… a Chinese kung fu version of THE WILD BUNCH!REVIEW: Forbidden Kingdom, The (2008),
Collin Chou • cudgel • Drunken Fist • emperor • Genre: Wuxia • Invincible Asia • Jackie Chan • Jet Li • Monkey King • tea house • time travel • training • Yuen Woo-ping