The action here is fierce and full of manly grit. There are many fighters of international acclaim here and the emphasis is on an unadulterated display of power. Heavy thuds from punches, hammer fists and elbow strikes are the attraction of this movie. What you will see are muscular men who send the full mass of their bone and muscle in the direction of opponents, all tightly flexed and charged up. It is high time such movies replace the effect of Northern Wushu based movies in the 90s where the protagonists swiftly fly around like a swallow and land light whipping hits on their targets that cause people to fly away with dust effect and wire pulling.
In Wrath of Vajra, you would not mistake a sinewy fair-faced Asian actor as a real practicing martial artist. The actors here are built like they should with real hardcore training behind them. The last time we’ve seen a muscular man kicking butt was Bolo Yeung. We don’t know how fast and agile he can be in real life but he was portrayed to be clumsy and reliant on size and strength in his movies. In this, the muscular men are legitimate Kung Fu experts, they move swiftly like leopards and land their strikes like lightning and thunder. Their movement ‘beheads’ the modern wushu pugilist bias that muscular men cannot use Kung Fu, that swift, smooth movements does not come together with force of power. Martial artists should watch this movie, it proves that you can be big boned and muscular yet possess the deadly movements of a Chinatown guardian.
This movie didn’t make it to the Singaporean theatres. Ong Bak has stoked many an appetite for full-on Asian bloodfest and it is a shame this movie, which could have been a great action vehicle for Southern Shaolin Kung Fu, did not rise up to the challenge of filling that appetite in the box office. There is much here to like but so much more finesse is needed to propel it into the big leagues in the likes of Ong Bak and Ip man. I can only hope that its producers and cast can take from this to hone themselves for a bigger project for Southern Shaolin Kung Fu in future. I look forward to that.
Although this movie featured hard hitting martial arts styles, the plot of a Japanese cult trying to subjugate the Chinese by stealing its children and training them to be soldiers for the Japanese would not resonate with a mainstream audience with the same street cred of Jackie Chan’s Rumble In The Bronx or the Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong series by Tony Jaa. Among these titles, Ong Bak has to be the most relevant if we are to compare it to this ‘Asian gladiator’ movie. Ong Bak has the right mix. Combating a mass army of mafia goons, chase scenes with parkour, duels and the elaboration of a martial tradition, Ong Bak has it all in the right proportion, and all these action gel together with the flow of the story. The second and third installation of Ong Bak even has him fighting on elephants, switching between different weapons and zipping through Indochina ruins smashing villains with his kicks, knees and elbows. Ong Bak has set the standard for full-contact fighting films without sacrificing the plot and visual satisfaction of a thriller.
Also, if the producers and cast want to do for Shaolin Kung Fu styles what Ip Man has done for Wing Chun, they must distinguish the styles clearly in their choreography. The training scene is the best way to show it.
For Wrath of Vajra, besides focusing so much on the psychological factor of Zen in Shaolin Kung Fu, it would have been so much more satisfying if the styles are fully demonstrated and described. It is this contrast of fighting styles that makes duel based fighting movies really stand out and inspire. In this sense, if we are to compare it to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series, this movie will indeed be found lacking. If I am just a layman, I wouldn’t be able to tell the outstanding characteristics of this ‘Fujian Southern Shaolin Kung Fu’. Do they guard the centre line by putting hands in front of their chests like Wing Chun? Do they stand in a narrow conservative stance and take small steps to trap their opponent’s arms and deliver punches and palm strikes? In Jet Li’s Tai Chi Master, his body is like a swirling urn of water that spins enemies’ attacks away and return it to them. The Tai Chi master uses his body like a spring to repel his opponents’ attacks by borrowing their power. Style identity is so important to Wrath of Vajra and they missed it out.
Action-aside, I don’t have to tell you that despite also being nationalist anti-Japanese like Wrath of Vajra, Ip Man has a strong story and rich character portrayal that Wrath of Vajra doesn’t even come close. Ip Man is written to be one of the ‘noble grandmaster’ movies like Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia). These movies make Chinese people shed tears about why the Chinese masses are so incapable, plagued by corrupt politics, priority in self-preservation over taking righteous actions, and cannot take pride in their own deed like the Japanese. These brave grandmasters stood out and sacrificed themselves in the face of formidable enemies and lack of support from their own people. When you watch these movies you will sympathize with these brave vanguards of our culture.
If only the protagonist K-29 could have risen to that kind of stature in Wrath of Vajra against the devastating results of the villainous Hades experts’ abilities; their sadistic mentality and their tyranny. The actors here can be proud to have gained the respect of us martial artist enthuasiasts, but making fan girls and boys swoon on the big stage takes much more than good fighting skills.
I have to cover this valuable point of discussion in my review:
Is this the most complete of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu on screen today?
For a country that did not have the chance to sit down in the theatres to watch Wrath of Vajra, the origins of the movie plot ironically have something to do with many of our forefathers. The story is centered on Fujian Shaolin temple, with a Japanese crime lord abducting children in Fujian province and training them to turn against the Chinese people. Singapore’s majority Chinese dialect group is Fujian. Widely forgotten is that many of the Fujian forefathers dealing with the oppression, crime and violence of that time came to Singapore with some martial arts background as a means of survival. As traders and laborers of that time, they were often built men using the ferocious style shown in Wrath of Vajra.
In history, the Japanese also have inextricable martial ties with the Fujian Shaolin temple. This is because their country’s famous striking based martial art Karate, has origins in Fujian Kung Fu styles. The antagonist K-28 uses Karate in this movie. His Karate is closer to Shorinji Kempo, with a distinct Chinese footwork and hand shapes. The body positions are square and structurally stable on the move. He also uses the knife hand chop, which is also a part of the Fujian Shaolin arsenal of strikes. This style is relevant to the story’s setting, Fujian Shaolin Temple. I’d say that K-28’s fighting style is the closest to the original Fujian Shaolin style among all the fighters in this movie.
On the contrary (some might say controversy), the main character K-29’s fighting style is clearly Northern Henan Songshan Shaolin. This is because the lead actor Shi Yan Neng is primarily trained in Songshan Shaolin, which is said to be the original form of Shaolin Kung Fu before a Southern Shaolin style became recognised. This style uses straight linear footwork and rolling, weaving hands. It has a strong emphasis on moving lightly and swiftly in circular rolling motion, to landing heavy strikes. Moving in and out of ‘light and heavy’ is its flavor. However, I appreciate Yan Neng’s effort to make his fighting style more heavy and solid for this movie. I always have high regard for his skills since his performance in Kung Fu Hustle, sending full weighted kicks through his enemies. In real fighting, heavy damage is dealt by committing the momentum of your body into your target’s body.
If the producers’ aim was to feature real Southern Shaolin Kung Fu, it will be highly debatable because its modern versions are split between Fujian styles and Guangdong styles. The former has a higher, narrower stance, and its hand and body movements are not big enough for prominent full body scenes. The latter has been proven in Hong Kong cinema but it is in the end, the Guangdong version. The action could have been far more meaningful if the cast was to study both Fujian and Guangdong styles and come up with a style for the main character that uses a fusion of both. The Fujian and Guangdong styles also have many similar techniques, with the same applications, so it is technically possible. The one thing that should be highlighted should be the quality of strikes a Southern Shaolin warrior can deal. K-29 in this movie could’ve made a deeper dent if he was sending fewer shots while doing the same amount of damage.
So far, if I have to pick a Kung Fu actor/director that is able to produce accurately depicted fighting styles yet retain optimal effects on the movie screen, it would be Donnie Yen. As an action movie lover who knows Kung Fu, I would want to see more actors/directors who are capable of this ability.
Notwithstanding, K-28 and K-29 really stand out among all the cast, for showing Shaolin Kung Fu. The American soldiers and other arena fighters did not show any skill in Kung Fu. They fought with generic kickboxing, without utility of blocking and intercepting positions unique to Chinese Kung Fu. It sends a strong message, you can interpret it as 1) sharp fighting skill like the main characters takes talent and strong resolve to develop, not everyone has it in them 2) to show that few can showcase Kung Fu’s effectiveness, K-29 is just the one and only one who can use Kung Fu to get the job done, hence all hopes are pinned on him.
The fighting style that I cannot agree with is that of the mad monkey character. I’m not impressed by the Indian, Indochina inspired hand waving tongue waving dance performed by the Korean rapper dancer. It does not look monkey at all; it looks more like a witch, like the one who gave Snow White the poisonous apple. The fighting scene does not tally with K-29’s abilities. K-29 is supposed to have bone shattering iron fists and kicks, yet this skinny half naked character can take more punches than the hulk of K-28 can. Those who know Kung Fu will know if a thin fighter is to stand toe-to-toe with a larger fighter, he better be not just faster, but also covered in hard, lean muscles all over. This guy does not have that physique; neither does he have conditioned hands like those shown in Kung Fu Jungle.
Modern movie directors and producers should not simply let actors and concept developers present character that is fresh and new in cinema history but completely forget about believability. You can create something new, but it has to be realistic because as human beings the audience knows how a human body will move and handle stress and impacts. As audiences, we should demand that the next generation of action stars be really skilled in Kung Fu and physically seasoned, like the action actors in the 70s and 80s who are really as fit as the characters portrayed are.
One thing that I do appreciate about the Wrath of Vajra plotline is how they have contrasted the imperfect souls of all other characters with the pure beam of light which is the perfect warrior mind of Yan Neng’s K-29. He has the forged steel body of a Shaolin warrior; profound, effective skills; complete with an infallible fortitude. The threat of the formidable K-28, his vast army, as well as the threats hurled by powerful foes, do not shake the Warrior Monk’s unbreakable mind one bit. His mind is perfectly conditioned, impenetrable to negative influences, yet receptive to the emotions of the people he needs to rescue. He also has his own hopes and desires, which is the love for his brother. His strong mind is unlike a heart of stone, for it is connected to emotions, be it love, hate or fear, but his mind has conquered and overcome all that.
Overall, the psychological tension was what I found to be the strongest factor in this movie. You will spend most of the movie being stared at by K-28 from the upper storey of the building, backed by his army. All odds are against you, as you face the anticipation of facing a ridiculously muscular Kung Fu expert who’s likely to be much more powerful than everyone you faced earlier. Yet you find it in yourself to prevail.