Netflix’s Carter is a South Korean extravaganza that, at its best, channels some of the classics of 21st century martial arts.
Earlier this month, Netflix released the South Korean action thriller Carter, directed by Jung Byung-gil and starring Joo Won in the lead role. This is the story of an amnesiac Jason Bourne-style super-spy caught in the middle of a desperate chess match between the United States and the two Koreas, even as an outbreak of zombie viruses threatens to overwhelm the planet. If that sounds like a lot, narratively, it’s: Carter ends up bending under the weight of too much plot and the narration in the second half is particularly confusing.
But along the way, the film offers some frenetically entertaining action set-pieces, most involving a combination of shootouts and martial arts. Nothing beats an extended battle royale that erupts after ten minutes, when Carter, having just woken up in a blood-soaked motel bed, finds himself battling literally hundreds of knife-wielding goons in a bathhouse. . This sequence is illuminated by several iconic on-screen fights, such as Uma Thurman’s “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” in Kill Bill – which in turn was inspired by Bruce Lee’s fight at the karate school of fist of fury.
CarterThe hand-to-hand combat scenes are impressive, but they’re not really the heart of the film. For a more concentrated dose of South Asian martial arts films (melee or swordsmanship), the films discussed below would be my choice. A few caveats – for this list, I considered only Asian films (the list includes Chinese, Korean, Indonesian and Thai productions) available to stream in India, and I used the year 2000 as the cut-off date. Obviously classic Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Jet Li movies would be on most of these lists, and I thought it would be good to focus on 21st century works instead.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000; available on Amazon Prime Video)
Ang Lee’s wuxia classic starred Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi and wowed audiences around the world with its action choreography, sword fight sequences (with stunning work from ‘ wire fu’) as well as the intensity of its narration. It was nominated for 10 Oscars (still a record for a non-American film) and ended up winning 4. The climactic battle between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) is breathtakingly beautiful, as is the scene where we first see the skills of Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). The warriors “glide” over the bamboo thickets, deflecting arrows as lazily as one might swat flies. The aesthetics and sensibilities we associate with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon today is highly unusual for the martial arts genre, making it a must watch for genre enthusiasts and the layman alike.
The bustle of Kung Fu (2004; available on Amazon Prime Video)
Stephen Chow co-wrote, directed and starred in one of the best action comedies of all time, a unique blend of Bruce Lee martial arts choreography with Looney Tunes-flavored gags. James Gunn (director of guardians of the galaxy and the recent HBO Max series Peacemaker) recently called The bustle of Kung Fu the greatest movie of all time, and one can see the appeal to contemporary action-comedy creators like him. It’s the kind of movie that’s so confident and swaggering in its technical mastery that the frequent, blazingly fast tonal changes feel almost airy.
There are so many beautiful scenes in The bustle of Kung Fu but the one I’m going to single out is the Beast (Leung Siu-lung) fighting the owner and owner of Pig Sty Alley at the same time, a superbly shot and expertly executed fight that ends in a common three-way lock. Few films since The bustle of Kung Fu have come anywhere near that level of martial arts artistry, and none of those have been so effortlessly fun.
Ip-Man (2008; available on Amazon Prime Video)
Donnie Yen may have been the best all-around on-screen martial artist of the past decade or so, with the 4 Ip-Man the films being the stars. It has the strength, speed and finesse of Bruce Lee, combined with Jackie Chan’s improvisational touch that elevates the fight scenes. The first one Ip-Man The film, directed by Ip Man’s real-life son Wilson Yip, remains one of the highlights of 21st-century martial arts cinema, showcasing Yen’s prowess at wing chun, the southern style of kung fu. of China later made world famous by IPs Man’s most illustrious disciple, Bruce Lee.
Two scenes that imprint in the middle: when Ip Man fights ten Japanese karatekas and annihilates them in front of his Japanese military captors. I don’t think there’s ever been a cinematic display of hand speed to rival this scene. Scott Adkins, one of the world’s leading martial arts stars himself, expressed his amazement at Donnie Yen’s skills while breaking down this scene on his YouTube channel.
The other scene is Ip Man defending a group of factory workers against dozens of goons armed at the same time. The way this scene was shot – close combat shots interspersed with a moving overhead camera to show us the strong odds of Ip Man fighting – is really quite clever and uses the dizzying speed of Yen’s hand. The storyline might sound like a Bollywood melodrama, with overlapping themes of cultural and national pride, but for sheer martial arts goodness, it’s hard to beat. Ip-Man.
Lowering (2011; available on Amazon Prime Video)
Indonesian actor Iko Uwais is now one of the world’s leading martial arts stars, leading his own Netflix series (Wu Assassins) and choreographed fights in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. And although he debuted with Merantau (2009), it was Gareth Evans Lowering (2011) which made him a world famous star.
The storyline is simple but the execution is spectacular – Uwais’ protagonist, Rama, is one of many Special Forces recruits tasked with taking down a local drug lord called Tama Riyadi who lives on the top floor of a dilapidated building. But when Riyadi is alerted to the arrival of Rama and his team, he declares an open bounty on the apartment’s many criminal residents; whoever kills the cops has a right to a rent-free existence.
The “constrained space” action which Lowering excelled in has now been aped across the globe (including the pinnacle of Bollywood film Baaghi, with Tiger Shroff). Again and again, Rama is cornered and outnumbered, but fights his way through in brutal fashion, an explosion of fists and knives – for the martial art on display here is Indonesian “pencak silat” which combines elements of fighting with full body, as well as grappling like a knife game, with distinctive looking curved blades being the norm.
Few films have influenced so many action choreographers around the world in recent times; look Lowering for a pure adrenaline rush to the heart.
Avenger (2018; available on Netflix)
Prolific stuntman and fight choreographer Bruce Khan has finally been given a starring role in the South Korean vendetta thriller Avenger, directed by Lee Seung-won. Khan stars as Yool, a disillusioned cop and martial arts master on the hunt for the man who killed his family years ago. His search finally leads him to a prison island where a group of ultra-violent criminals have been living for a long time. Amid the greenery and idyllic settings, these psychopaths murdered and terrorized the local villagers, treating them like playthings.
Equal parts Kill Bill and Seven Samurai in its configuration, Avenger never threatens to reach the heights of storytelling reached by these films. But boy, he knows how to put on a bloody show. Khan’s swordplay is just as impressive as his kung fu, and a prolonged battle in the climax sees him mow down nearly a hundred opponents even as he bleeds terminally. Not quite in the class of some of the films discussed here, but very entertaining nonetheless.
Fury (2019; available on Netflix)
Veronica Ngo is known to Hollywood audiences for her role as “Hanoi Hannah” in Da Five Bloods and a cameo in The old guard. But his best action film is the Vietnamese production Furie, about the search by an ex-assassin for his kidnapped daughter, who has fallen into the clutches of a gang of traffickers led by Thanh Soi (Tran Thanh Hoa).
FuryThe hyper-active opening chase and fight sequence is impressive enough, but when the action kicks into an old-school train at the climax, the fun kicks into high gear. Ngo excels as Hai Phuong, a woman who must unlearn her “polite society” ways to reenter the obscure surroundings she left behind for the sake of her infant daughter. And again, the rule of “limited space” action scenes; Hai’s fight with a taciturn gangster named Truc escalates into brutal and terrifying horror within the four walls of Truc’s one-room house.
tai chi sir (2019; available on Netflix)
The latest and newest entry on the list is a sentimental favorite for you really, not least because it’s the only film to date directed by Keanu Reeves, Hollywood’s reigning action star once again, after a decade away from box office gold. Reeves loosely based the story on his friend, martial artist Tiger Chen, who played minor roles and Reeves’ stunt double in The matrix and its sequels.
Tiger here deploys a style of kung fu adjacent to Tai Chi, which is the film’s novelty value. But it’s also pretty strong in the usual martial arts movie fashion – great sets, extremely skilled fighters throughout (including Reeves himself playing the bad guy and Iko Uwais making a cameo during the climax) and a real flair when it comes to choreographing the many hand-to-hand combat scenes featuring Tiger chewing up considerably larger opponents. It’s fun to see Reeves play an evil guy too.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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