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Friday, May 29, 2009
'High Kick Girl'
Kicking out hard, but ultimately collapsing
Movie-action scenes are as choreographed as "Swan Lake," but the exceptional ones that make it real — Buster Keaton standing stock still as the side of a house falls on him in "Steamboat Bill Jr., Jackie Chan sliding 30 meters down a pole in a shopping mall in "Police Story" — linger on in memory and legend.
But thinking more about sky-high payouts to injured actors than the glories of death-defying realism, Hollywood makes action movies now with armies of stunt coordinators and special-effects technicians, whose falls and fights will never bring insurance-adjustors calling.
Bucking this trend, Thai stuntman Tony Jaa starred in a 2003 action film, "Ong Bak," and proudly proclaimed that he used no wires, CG or any other artifice whatsoever. Jaa's stunning, neck-risking performance, modeled on his idol Bruce Lee, made "Ong Bak" an international hit — and inspired other filmmakers to try something similar.
In 2007, Shunichi Nagasaki directed "Kuro-obi," a karate actioner set in late 1930s Japan and cast with real-life karate masters doing traditional karate, not the showier sort found in Sonny Chiba's chop-socky epics from the 1970s. (Though just for the record, Chiba, now pushing 70, was, and still is, a formidable martial artist.)
Now one of those karate masters, Tatsuya Naka, returns in another hardcore action pic: Fuyuhiko Nishi's "High Kick Girl." Naka, however, does not receive top billing. That goes to Rina Takeda — a teenage karate black belt who plays the title character.
Watching the film's trailer, which proves that Takeda can indeed kick high, and reading some of the slavering fan-boy comments on the Internet, I had the impression that "High Kick Girl" was yet another pic that trades on the appeal of short-skirted, butt-kicking Japanese schoolgirls, with more the export than the home market in mind.
True, the film features not only Takeda, but several other young female martial artists who are both surpassingly skilled and undeniably cute. At the same time, it will disappoint fans expecting a campy, panty-flashing romp.
Nishi doesn't ignore the comic potential of his material — in one of the funnier scenes the heroine flattens an all-male karate club like so many 10 pins — but he mainly wants to show us karate and other martial arts performed realistically by experts, not stuntmen or actors.
In a program interview, he emphasizes that Takeda's high kick is not just for show, but the real, knock-out, deal. (The end credits, however, do not feature NG shots of her on-screen opponents collapsing unconscious to the ground.)
She plays Kei Tsuchiya, a 17-year-old karate student who is the rising star of her dojo, but her sensei (teacher), Matsumura (Naka), refuses to award her a black belt. His reason: She has not yet mastered kata — the basic movements of karate — even though she can thump her male opponents.
Angered by Matsumura's apparent sexism, Kei storms off and, after displaying her skills in the above-mentioned club, is recruited by a group of kowashiya — renegade martial artists who break heads for fun and profit. Each goes by a nickname and has a special skill, be it the dazzling acrobatics of the petite-but-deadly Choka (Aya Sugiyama) or the machinelike kicks and blows of the coldly efficent Tensho (Ichiro Sugisawa).
Kei passes her "audition" for this gang and learns their next target is none other than Matsumura. Whatever her differences with him, she knows that a sensei is still a sensei, to be respected and, in this case, defended. But how can she stand up alone against this scary phalanx of fighting talent?
The short answer is, she can't — but Matsumura, that stainless embodiment of the highest karate ideals, can and will. In other words, from this point on, he becomes the hero, Kei, the lady in distress, which seems to confirm the film's sexism, if not Matsumura's.
He is, however, a brilliant fighter, using the kata he was teaching Kei to quickly demolish kowashiya after kowashiya. As such, the film serves as an excellent instructional video for not only karate, but the various styles Matsumura finds himself matched against.
As an action movie, however, "High Kick Girl" lacks what Keaton, Chan and Lee had in spades: panache, imagination and daring. Purists will applaud, but I found my attention wandering, as I wondered how Kei miraculously managed to keep her miniskirt from riding up when she delivered those amazing kicks. Call it the film's one and only special effect.