Originally published 8.16.21: From a professional standpoint, the last seventeen months were quite hectic for me. Briefly, the translation business was not slowed down in the least by the pandemic, quite the contrary. Amongst other things, I am very grateful for the work – a regular income proved to be one less worry. Work not only kept me busy and paying the bills, it contributed to keeping me sane (long daily walks also helped). The pandemic ensured my disconnection from most people, including friends and acquaintances and the interests/hobbies we share. This year, Fantasia is also part of the general disconnect. As such, I had no idea the film festival’s 25th edition would feature the Canadian Premiere of Hong Kong Director Benny Chan’s (Chan Muk-sing, October 7, 1961 – August 23, 2020) very last film, Raging Fire. Usually, I keep track of these things as martial arts and films still fascinate me in the autumn of my life. My interest with film started at a very young age with my mother Yvette introducing me to black and white films featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Deanna Durbin, movies we would watch on television. In my early teens, my father Georges and I were patrons of the local cinemas and watched double bills featuring the celluloid exploits of Bruce Lee, Angela Mao Ying and Jimmy Wang Yu. In my later teens and early adult years, I was drawn to films such as The Other Side of Midnight, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Logan’s Run, and The Serpent’s Egg. !
In 2021, the concept most of us refer to as earning a living had me putting aside some of my interests. Fortunately, my just as busy good friend Sébastien Poitras was paying attention to upcoming Montréal festivals, particularly one we both enjoy very much, Fantasia. The very same day Fantasia announced Raging Fire’s Canadian Premiere, my friend texted me (no one ever phones me, not even my twin daughters Kimberley and Ashley, everyone’s texting) and mentioned that he was slightly disappointed by the trailer’s lack of fisticuffs. I replied that he probably caught one of the earlier teasers and proceeded to send him the latest Raging Fire trailer. He was very pleased with it. That’s when he started asking me a few things about the film. I shared what I knew and mentioned that a lot of the information stemmed from Donnie Yen’s Facebook page. Sébastien then proceeded to ask me if Mr. Yen mentioned his latest release would be shown during Montréal’s Fantasia? I was flabbergasted and my mind raced to finding ways to get tickets to the film’s Canadian Premiere. That’s when Seb teased: “Is this something you would care to attend?”
“Darn right!” – was my swift reply. He then proceeded to eliminate my levels of anxiety by telling me my ticket was already purchased. And, just like that, the Iron MNKZ were off to see Raging Fire.
On my way to the Imperial Cinema, I kept thinking how fitting it would be for Benny Chan’s last film to be shown there. Designed by Philadelphia architect Albert E. Westover, the cinema was built by the Keith-Albee Vaudeville Organization and it opened its doors to the public on April 25, 1913. Its interior decoration was done by Tognarelli & Voight of Philadelphia while the original frescoes in the lobby are the work of New York artist William Eckhart.
According to Cinema Treasures:
In 1934, the Imperial Theatre was rented to Leo Ernest Ouimet and in 1936, RKO Radio Pictures sold the movie house to Consolidated Theatres. In 1950, the Imperial Theatre was first renovated and was altered again for Cinerama in 1954. In 1970, it was sold to Cinema International and was renamed the Cine Centre in 1974. The theatre was twinned in 1975 and was renamed the Imperial Theatre in 1976. In 1980, United Theatres (part of Famous players) repurchased the Imperial and it was restored and reopened in 1981. In 1986, the Imperial Theatre became the first cinema in Quebec to receive THX certification. It was donated to the Montréal Film Festival in 1995 by Famous Players. The Cinema Imperial currently seats 819 and is still a true “Cinema Treasure.”
Furthermore, the Law on Cultural Heritage proclaimed Cinema Imperial as a classified heritage immovable as of October 19, 2012.
By Fantasia standards, the attendance was on the timid side (not even half of the cinema’s capacity). It would appear it had nothing to do with Mr. Yen’s drawing power, but rather ongoing fears relating to the pandemic and its variants. This theory of mine is supported by the following: When the event’s emcee asked how many people were attending a movie in a cinema since the start of COVID-19, 90% of the people in attendance raised their hands. Prior to attending Raging Fire, the Iron MNKZ went to an opening-night showing of Snake Eyes where about a dozen moviegoers (including us!) were seated. Now don’t get me wrong, Snake Eyes lags so far behind Raging Fire in terms of, well everything – still, it was well promoted.
After brief comments by the organizers, including a man winning a few prizes for literally jumping on stage, the wait was over. Or so we thought…
The very first images on the screen were of the Golden Harvest logo! Golden Harvest? No way! How could I be so disconnected with everything? It turned out to be a trailer for Duel to the Death (1983). Fantasia is not your typical film festival. Raging Fire is a grand spectacle. In fact, as happy as I was to watch it for the first time (yes, I will watch it again and again!), I couldn’t help but think how amazing it would be to see an Imax version. Lee B. Golden III tells me that an IMAX version was released in China and has been as well in North America as of last week. I recommend that you catch that version if you can.
Now, everything I’ve mentioned above is not meant to imply that Raging Fire is a perfect film. It isn’t. In fact, I would venture that its faults go with its qualities. I guess the last sentence warrants some explaining on my part. Allow me to start with a simple question: Why are movie goers around the world fascinated with Asian cinema and particularly Hong Kong cinema? My take is that it has to do with its cinema being so over the top, so outrageous that anything else pales in comparison. This is also true with Raging Fire. However, as much as a compliment as it seems, it can also mean that too much is quite often, well… too much. Did you ever hear the saying Less is more? Well, if you haven’t, it appears that many Hong Kong Directors haven’t either. Now, I do not mean to imply that any of it will hinder your appreciation of the film. Trust me, it won’t. Instead, I wish to underline that a few outrageous scenes clashed with the film’s genre, its tone.
Raging Fire is what the French call a Film noir, and as such, having Donnie Yen’s character (small spoiler alert) tumble in front of a speeding car, grab a child who is about to be killed and leap on the top of the car as it comes crashing, all the while still holding the infant, is best suited for the likes of Captain America and not a suspenseful police drama.
One more con before moving on to the far more numerous pros: When dishing out pearls of wisdom and moral lessons, the dialogue (at least the subtitles) is far from subtle. Once again, Less is more. I find the lack of subtlety in Hong Kong films rather frequent. Oftentimes, the preaching seems a bit on the heavy side and it seems to be a cultural aspect that does not go well with most Western audiences. If I had a dollar for every time a preachy dialogue in a Hong Kong film elicits laughter from Fantasia’s regulars, I would have retired a long time ago. I don’t really think that it has to do with the translation, but mostly with some culture clash. A few years ago, during The Villainess North American premiere, I paid attention to Korean Director Jeong Byeong-gil’s reaction to the audience’s laughter during a couple of sappy scenes; the poor man seemed bewildered at best.
Now that this is out of the way, I am very anxious to share some of the great things about Raging Fire (there are many and I will only delve into the most meaningful ones for my liking). Firstly, action star, action director Donnie Yen. Very much like his contemporaries Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Yen’s acting chops keep improving as he enters close to four decades of acting (Drunken Tai-Chi anyone?). As righteous cop Shan, Donnie Yen is a tormented man; he is torn between his principles, he is loyal to his team members, always aiming to do the right thing (no matter the cost) and concerned with the wife’s health issues during her pregnancy. As you can imagine, the Shan character represents quite a full plate for an actor and Yen rises-up to the challenge. I look forward to watching the characters he will portray in the twilight of his career and, even though their respective styles are different, I can imagine him as an Asian Clint Eastwood and not a parody of himself as one of my favorites has become (Jackie Chan). Nicholas Tse is also quite solid as the vicious killer. In fact, Tse seems to have mastered that kind of role and the singer/actor clearly loves chewing the scenery.
For my liking, all the main characters were interesting and well played. The character of the female cop, played by Jeana Ho, could have been developed. As it is, she is merely window dressing, if that. In no way is she Barbie that stumbles and needs to be rescued by the strong men, but little is known about the character. I can’t remember her saying more than one sentence! Since she is the only female member of this tough police squad, surely her backstory is quite something? Unfortunately, the film never bothers.
Action-wise, and any self-respecting Donnie Yen fan should care, the action scenes are amongst the best I have ever seen, and I’ve been training since 1973, had the chance to get to know and learn from the very best, and watched far more action/martial arts flicks than I care to remember or, better yet, to admit. Kudos to Donnie Yen who, at close to sixty, never ceases to reinvent himself. In a way, Madonna comes to mind, reinventing herself through the 80s and 90s. Such is Yen’s creativity and devotion to his craft. He may not kick as often as he once did in movies such as Iron Monkey, Legend of the Wolf, and many other titles, but rest assured, the man has many other skills to rely on and when he does kick (which he does, not to worry), the effect is that much more impressive.
Kudos as well to Yen’s action team, foremost in my book is Chris Collins, actor, action choreographer, action director and martial artist for his important input to the film. I spoke to Sifu/Guro Chris Collins this week and this is what he had to say:
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“When Director Benny Chan first contacted me for his upcoming Raging Fire movie, we sat at a small restaurant next to the Emperor Group main office building and discussed the action scenes. We both loved the movie Man on Fire directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington. We talked about the shoot-outs in Heat and Den of Thieves. I think everyone came together and we created an awesome set of action sequences.”
Chris Collins continued:
“Then, it was the first day of filming action and I’m on set with Donnie and Benny and I get to come up with the moves for the first knife action and Donnie says: “Yes, do that.” I was super happy. From then on, I was on set for a lot of the action scenes. Being able to lend my expertise in hand-to-hand combat and weapons work was an amazing feeling to see it being used on the big screen. I can’t wait to see the finished product.”
I concur with Mr. Collins, one of the amazing scenes towards the film’s climax had me thinking about Heat, this, before he even mentioned it. Even on a smaller screen, the sequence blew me away (pun intended).
One of the main differences between Hong Kong action films and those made in Hollywood has to do with the way scenes are shot. Raging Fire is a clinic on action film making the likes of which most Hollywood film makers (the exception being Chad Stahelski who always does his homework and, as an accomplished martial artist, is also heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema) would do well to study. Simply put, the action sequences are not only captivating but beautiful to watch – I keep thinking to a particular scene where Shan is trapped in some slum village or the following scene where he is fighting in some cylinder-type tunnel and the atmosphere is very claustrophobic, only to have the villain run away while Shan chases him, the remainder of the sequence shot as a bird’s-eye view. Simply beautiful stuff. https://youtu.be/GO3ZTtXPpR0
In interviews, Yen has somewhat compared Raging Fire to an earlier effort, Sha Po Lang. Besides the fact that both films feature excellent fight scenes with one protagonist wielding a stick and the other a blade (or two), I tend to disagree. To me Raging Fire is closer to Flash Point, what with the Vietnamese mob encroaching upon Hong Kong territory and raw action scenes. As much as many fans of the Yenster highly regard Flash Point, that might not even be a fair comparison.
Raging Fire is an electrifying close to Benny Chan’s legacy. Don’t miss it!
Special thanks to my spouse Nada, who didn’t complain that I went to see an action movie with a buddy on our anniversary; to Lee B. Golden III for his support; to Chris Collins for his generosity and to Sébastien Poitras, a long-time buddy.