Curated Kung-Fu #1: Paradox

Wilson Yip’s 2017 film Paradox is the first to feature in our “Curated Kung-Fu” collection of articles – focusing on the movies that we deem as highly recommendable or even essential viewing for fans and those interested in the genre. Less of a review, more of a public service announcement, from classic features such as Iron Monkey (1993) to modern masterpieces like Ip Man (2008), we run through why these titles should be on your viewing bucket list.

Paradox is the third instalment in the confusing assortment of films in the Sha Po Lang franchise. It stars three of the actors from SPL 2… each in different roles. The lack of continuity and absence of a certain supremo actor who headlined the first film doesn’t detract, however, from the film being a fun and frenetic rush through the seedy Thai criminal underbelly.

Paradox is preceded by Sha Po Lang, and Sha Po Lang 2 (Killzone 1-2 in the west). All films are strong in their own right, but arguably the first outing is the only well known entry. Being bolstered by the pedigree of Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, and directed by Wilson Yip of Ip Man fame made it a true tour-de-force of Hong Kong cinema. SPL was an early showcase of Yen’s new contemporary full contact martial arts style. It also contained what is regarded by some as a masterpiece of modern day kung-fu screen brawls – the baton and knife fight between Yen and and a peroxide haired Wu Jing. Though I don’t think this is Donnie Yen’s best display of his new style by any stretch, both Flashpoint (2007) and Special I.D (2013) starred a more honed MMA-era Yen.

The Wilson Yip helmed Triad caper spawned a sequel in 2015 titled SPL: Time For Consequences. Although this time round, due to scheduling conflicts, gone is the Yip, Hung, Yen trio, and the neon lit Hong Kong alleyways home to rogue undercover cops and merciless Triad crime-lords is swapped out for the gritty world of human traffickers and the corrupt Thai police force.

The film introduces Tony Jaa, Louis Koo, and Zhang Jin in to the fray. And to star along side the newcomers it welcomes back Wu Jing and Simon Yam. Yam plays detective Chan Kwok, as opposed to Detective Chan Kwok from the first SPL… Jing is of course a different character, this time cast as Chan Kwok’s nephew. It’s unclear whether this Chan Kwok is the same Chan Kwok from SPL. That wouldn’t make any Kwoking sense. It’s best not to think about it for too long. But to make things more convoluted – Dennis Law had penned a script for SPL 2 which ultimately was used for his 2008 film Fatal Move, which also happens to star Sammo Hung, Wu Jing, and Simon Yam. But enough of this.

(trivia: the music that is featured during the famous alleyway fight scene with Wu Jing’s character Jack in SPL is played during a short montage leading up to the final act in SPL 2. The montage is focused on, you guessed it, Wu Jing).

Louis Koo netted numerous Best Actor awards for his portrayal of Inspector Lee Chung-chi

On to Paradox, a film upon first glance you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking has no connection to the first two SPL films. Nor does it really except for the fact that in interviews and press releases it is touted as the third film in the saga. Tony Jaa and Louis Koo are back as different characters, but the film does share the same themes as SPL 2; the international cast allows for the characters to narratively transition from Hong Kong to Thailand, where again there are human traffickers and corrupt Thai police officers. Is Paradox a reboot, a rethinking? Who knows. Could both sequels have stood on their own? Yes. Perhaps the producers wanted to use the weight of the stars or success of the first film. But either way, I’m at a loss as to why such a conscious effort was made to connect them all.

Wilson Yip is back in the directors chair for Paradox and Sammo Hung takes up action choreographer once again. What I like about Paradox is that they appreciate Jaa’s abilities as a martial artist, which since he started taking roles outside of his native Thailand has gone woefully underused. Jaa has mastered his chosen discipline of Muay Thai and when given the chance to display it he proves it to be a both beautiful and brutal art.

SPL 2 gave Jaa the screen time he deserved and his team up with Wu Jing is action film bliss. But I can only choose one film.

I hold the unpopular opinion that Sha Po Lang is an overrated slog, not to purposely undermine any of the actor’s fighting prowess in anyway, but they’ve all done better, and because of this the film is, in the end, forgettable. Sha Po Lang 2 changes this by, well, completely changing the blossoming franchise and giving Tony Jaa space to perform. Normally used to directing visceral crime noir films, Cheang Pou-Soi does a great job at giving the audience room to breathe and take in the action. The film treads the line between traditional and contemporary, with a few instances of wire work, but the final fight between the three main characters is masterfully directed and genuinely something to behold. However, it fails to not let its confused narrative and meandering story get in the way, sadly relegating the film to the “YouTube search for its fight scenes” category. Paradox thankfully carries on giving Jaa the chance to elbow his way through thugs in tightly choreographed and thoroughly enjoyable fights, typical of action scenes blessed with the guidance of Sammo Hung. Paradox is more playful when it comes to its set pieces than the previous two films and Wilson Yip brings back his no frills directing. Clocking in at 98 minutes, Paradox doesn’t over stay its welcome either. If push came to shove I’d say Jaa’s martial arts in Sha Po Lang 2 is worth seeking out, but as the most digestible and well rounded film of the lot, Paradox is an enjoyable and easy must watch of Kung-Fu cinema.

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Editor In Chief at The Idle Critic, Cinematographer, husband, dreaming of a bygone era, caught in a Champagne Supernova, sometimes awake. - joseph@theidlecritic.co.uk