A special Thanksgiving treat this week at Movie Klub: a double feature! First we watched the 1978 Shaw Brothers kung-fu classic Heroes of the East, and then after a pizza dinner we watched Brad Bird’s 1999 debut feature The Iron Giant.
It’s not even clear who directed Heroes of the East – the film’s credits say it was Liu Chia-Liang (a Shaw veteran who is currently working on Wong Kar-Wai’s upcoming The Grandmasters), but Wikipedia says it was Lau Kar Leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II). Like many of the Shaw Brothers films it is most closely associated with Run Run Shaw, the famed producer of a legion of the kung-fu period pieces known as wuxia. This film is preceded by the famous “ShawScope” logo, also used by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill, but he’s far from the only one to send respect Shaw’s way. Shaw is such a legend in Hong Kong media that not only was he eventually knighted by the British Empire, but a Shaw Prize, the “Nobel of the East,” has been created in his name. He even moved in on Hollywood to produce Blade Runner, but its financial failure soured him on the American filmmaking experience.
Like many Shaw films, this one has just a wisp of a plot, just enough to get us from “no fighting” to “crazy amounts of fighting” in the first fifteen minutes or so. Ho To (Gordon Liu, also in Kill Bill) is the son of a successful Chinese businessman. To help business, the elder Ho arranges Ho To’s marriage to Kung Zi (Yuka Mizuno), the daughter of his Japanese partner. The marriage has a problem: Kung Zi is dedicated to the Japanese martial arts, and Ho To is dedicated to Chinese kung fu. Soon the matrimony devolves into constant battles to show whose style of fighting is superior, and Kung Zi’s legendary senseis become involved.
As that description might make it sound, the fighting starts off fairly simple and accelerates to increasing levels of insanity. After this film was a half-hour old, I was not too impressed with the fight scenes; they were fairly standard wuxia stuff that look pale in comparison to Jackie Chan’s work in the 1980s. It’s only when the Japanese masters become involved that this movie gets completely out of hand, in the best possible way. The final fight, pitting To against ninja Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), is a marvelous display of sword fighting, animal styles, and ninjitsu tricks.
The story behind that fighting is a bit lacking. It will be clear pretty early on that this movie is going in a certain direction: that Ho To will have to learn humility and appreciation for the Japanese fighting styles. He is in that place by the end of the movie, but he doesn’t learn his lesson as much as spontaneously achieve it at exactly the moment the plot requires. As one Movie Klubber joked after the movie, the only lesson that it expends any effort in teaching us is that Chinese martial arts are the best in the world. Everything else, including the idea that constant weapon-fights with your newlywed wife might be a bad thing, gets short shrift.
The film does have a deep respect for the Japanese martial arts, though. All of the Japanese fighters are played by Japanese actors, which didn’t always happen (in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, for instance, most of the Japanese were played by Chinese). A lot of work goes into distinguishing the two styles of fighting; even if you can’t tell kung fu from karate, it’s clear that Ho To is using a much different style than his opponents. None of those opponents are pushovers, either: basically, the last 40 minutes of this film consists of show-stopping fight after show-stopping fight.
It did annoy me that Ho To never really admits that he was wrong to his wife; Mizuno’s role would really be kind of embarrassing today. The screenplay does not allow Ho To to concede anything to her, so she’s basically a fighting prop in the first half of the movie, and she all but disappears from the second half. I did like her comic timing in the first part of the film; her dedication to karate seems crazed to all of the people around her, but perfectly normal to her, which is how you get the best laughs out of it. Still, it would have been nice to see Ho To admit being wrong. Sometimes you have to do that in order to be a real hero.
That’s a problem that The Iron Giant does not have; its titular character has a really clean heroic arc, as you might expect from a movie aimed at children. The Giant is an alien of unknown origin who crashes on Earth in the 1950s, just after the Russian launch of Sputnik. The Giant sustains serious damage in the crash; all it can remember is that it needs to eat metal to live. It is discovered by young Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), who hides him at a local scrapyard run by beatnik Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr).
The Cold War setting of this film is really masterful. Maybe this story would have worked if it had been done now; unreasoning paranoia has certainly been an aspect of the post 9/11 era. But in 1999 America still felt indestructible; Bird had to go back to a time when the only clear response to an unknown creature like the Giant would be fear. In that setting, the obsessed federal agent following the Giant (Christopher McDonald, a.k.a. Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore) doesn’t seem over-the-top, and it’s easier to buy Dean as a guy that no one but Hogarth would trust.
I appreciated the sheer number of ringers in the voice cast. At the time, filling your animated movie with a bunch of well-known names was still a rare and new thing, so we didn’t really expect to hear Jennifer Aniston at the peak of her Friends popularity as Hogarth’s mother or John Mahoney from Frazier as an Army general. And they’re all really good, too: voice-acting is a tricky, difficult beast and you can’t just mail it in. Something as simple as Aniston doing “put-upon mom” can sound terrible if she tries to do it the same way as on TV, but she doesn’t.
The Giant is voiced by Vin Diesel with some electronic assistance, but the animation is the real star for that character. Using a combination of traditional hand-drawn and computer animation, the Giant is created as an expressive character despite the fact that he cannot, by definition, make expressions. Bird never cheats with the Giant’s face; it always behaves exactly like you might expect from iron. Yet, with some creative use of the creature’s eyes and jaw, a perfect face is created for the movie’s heartbreaking ending.
More than anything, I appreciated the economy of storytelling in The Iron Giant. There’s no painful exposition explaining who Hogarth’s father was or where he is now; a single element in a single shot suggests that he might have died in Korea or World War II, and it’s all we need. There’s no need to explain where the Giant came from or why; all we need to know is that it’s equally naive to think that he can’t be a weapon as it is to think that he must be one, and the movie elegantly delivers that message.
Sadly, most of the things that I liked about The Iron Giant, that made it smart and brave filmmaking, turned audiences off. Opposite the phenomenon films The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, it was lost in the shuffle and made back barely a quarter of its budget. Twelve years later, those films don’t hold up, but The Iron Giant has become timeless.
Reviewed by Mark Young