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ASIAN CINEMA REVIEW: Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

I've never been terribly good at beat-'em-ups. I'm a 5th-dan black belt in the ancient and honourable martial discipline of Button Mashing, "piano rolling" makes me wonder if I bought a rhythm-action game, "whiffing" makes me check the disc case for the scratch'n'sniff card and the only combos I can complete are the ones you order at KFC. If you told me that you could crouch tech a kara throw into a reverse cancel I'd assume that you were performing witchcraft.

This is why the first time I ever did a Hadoken, it was magical.

I was playing Street Fighter II: Championship Edition on a Megadrive (my dad rented the cartridge for me from a chap who I think lived near our clay-piegon shoot - oh, the days before BitTorrent). Given that when it comes to beat-'em-ups my fingers aren't exactly nimble and dextrous, even the computer was handing my ass to me on a platter with a sprig of mint. I fumbled and I flailed and I flopped about hopelessly, but then, in one immaculate conjunction, the stars aligned, the clouds parted, the leylines intersected and a peak of Askhasic knowledge rose up out of the fog of reality we suffocate our minds under for fear of their unchecked potential. The D-pad rolled under me, and the tinny digitised speech scratched, "Hadoken!" and eldritch incandescence leapt forth from Ryu's arms, burning as a ghostly sun.

The other Ryu immediately countered it with a Hadoken of his own and promptly won the bout with a flying kick to the chops, but for one glorious, incredible, unimaginable fifth of a second, I was as like unto a God.

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is a movie entirely about learning how to do a Hadoken.

In 1980s Japan, in a dojo secluded high up in the leafy mountains of the interior far from the metropolitan bustle of Tokyo, Master Gouken rules his dojo, teaching his students in the martial art of Ansatsuken. His two disciples come from very different backgrounds - Ryu was found as an orphan wandering the forests with no family or history, whereas Ken was left at the dojo by his American father after the boy became an uncontrollable tearaway following the death of his mother in order to be taught some discipline. As far apart as they were, though, Ryu and Ken have come together under Gouken's firm discipline and the two have become fast friends. Ken, however, is getting frustrated - after nearly eight years of repeating the same katas ad nauseam, he's starting to feel that he's wasting his life away and wants to return to America. Ryu has no family other than the dojo and can't do the same - he pleads with Ken to stay a little longer, who reluctantly agrees.

This is quite opportune, as it turns out, because Gouken has decided that Ryu and Ken are ready to advance to the next level of mastery over Ansatsuken, and learn the mysteries of manifesting their spiritual ki into material energies through the power of the Hado. Both young men are excited at the potential of these marvellous powers they are unlocking within themselves, but once these unearthly flames have been lit, it is hard to control the conflagration - it is a constant mental battle to maintain control of this ki-energy, and there are many dangers for those who would allow the lust for power to inflame and consume them. It's a threat that Gouken is all too conscious of as he endeavours to keep his pupils on the path, for when he was learning these same techniques with his brother Goki a generation ago they made mistakes which tore them apart and drove Goki away, but now that the Hado is being tapped once more, it is sending out the signal light for Goki to return - burnt by the fires and scarred by something far darker - and settle the score of the wounds ripped between them. Can Ryu and Ken master their own strengths under the shadow of this creeping evil?  

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist has an interesting genesis. The concept began as Street Fighter: Legacy, a short made in 2010 as a "proof of concept" by Joey Ansah with his collaborator Christian Howard (who has had a smattering of bit-parts and was a stuntman on The World's End) who plays Ken. Described by Ansah as a "labour of love", Legacy was given a cautious nod of permission by Capcom and developed into Assassin's Fist - a twelve-episode web-series which initially streamed earlier this year on Machinima.com and which has now been cut together into a single feature film, which will be followed-up in 2015-6 with a sequel series, Street Fighter: World Warrior. There's something quite heart-warming for all us geeks in beholding this tale - Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is the Fan Fiction That Could, promoting itself from amateur enthusiasm to professional production.   

There is an upshot to coming from a web-series though - Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is a movie on a much, much smaller scale than the bombastic 1994 Street Fighter movie. You're not going to get a Hollywood blockbuster on something initially projected to be funded through a Kickstarter campaign! There are no underground bases with television walls or missile-blazing speedboats here, and nothing to spark the same memetic imagination of Raul Julia's splendidly hammy performance as villain M. Bison (there may be a bit of mileage in Dragonball skits on YouTube though given the amount of time Ryu and Ken spend grunting and groaning and getting all hot and bothered over Hadokens. Hurr hurr hurr, balls, snerk). Over half of the film takes place in a single location, a martial-arts dojo and its garden. We could call this authentic artful austere comported classical Japanese understatement... but I think that we all know that we're making excuses. The limitations become most obvious during a very rare change of scenery when Ryu and Ken duck out of the dojo and go on the razzle in the town - during the night they discover a fight club being run by a big gang of off-duty American soldiers and Ken volunteers Ryu into it. Just as the brawl is getting going, we straight-cut out to Ryu and Ken knocking back shots at the bar saying "well, that escalated quickly" while battered GIs stagger away in the background. The thing is though, Anchorman already did this joke and in a movie like this being denied a fight only leaves you feeling cheated; maybe they couldn't afford to keep the crowd of extras cheering for a whole afternoon's filming. It's also a mistake from a character-development perspective, as we've seen Ryu and Ken spar against each other, but it would have reinforced their ability to take them out of the dojo bubble and truly demonstrate just how far ahead they are of the mere brawlers beneath them, giving us a real appreciation of their skill.

A lot of this might only be petty carping, though. Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is a low-budget production but credit where it's due - the crew have definitely made a little do a lot. As much as forests might be the classic mise-en-scene for Star Wars fan-films and cheap horror schlock, the backdrops of Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist enjoy a naturalistic beauty worthy of a nature film. I will with no hesitation say that the movie is absolutely gorgeously photographed as fresh clear rivers coruscate and sunlight cuts white shafts through the curling morning mists. Shots can also be very artfully and symmetrically composed, with the sun held in conjunction with meditating monks or the precision of the construction of the dojo. Suffice to say, they've found some great locations to shoot in - only the left-wheel drive of the truck which appears in a couple of scenes is a giveaway that it's filmed not in Japan but in Bulgaria! - and the film looks absolutely beautiful and visually is well worth the Blu-ray mark-up.

Given that the entire film is so low-key, though, there is an unfortunate result in that the fantastical elements of Street Fighter itself don't really fit. When Akuma turns up, he looks ridiculously out of place with the ginger onion on his head, literally a cosplayer invading a museum exhibit - and that's before his eyes start glowing red. Fortunately it's pretty dark during his only real fight scene so his costume is not too intrusive. The other CGI which accompanies this can vary - the Hadoken effects (which you'll see repeated a lot over the course of the movie) look decent and their impacts integrate well with the sets (particularly when they go skipping across a lake), even if Akuma being summoned by a missed Hadoken flying through the sky like an errant comet is a bit silly. The wispy, steaming auras of energy generated by Akuma and Gouken as they tap into their ki strike a decent balance, visible enough to suggest their power but not outrageously overblown into huge energy-spikes like they're  Dragon Ball Z characters going Super Saiyan. The Dragon Punches thrown by Ryu and Ken look pretty fake though, as do various flame effects used throughout the movie, although the latter case can be forgiven due to the apparent trouble the production had with scalding Ansah's hands with physical pyrotechnics as shown in the outtakes reel.

The earlier talk about well-composed shots also means that the time is taken to assemble them. The direction for Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is very conservative. There are no quick-cuts or other dramatic editing, and the fade-outs where each original web-series episode ended are a bit obvious too - long shots and slow pans are the order of the day. I'm quite happy to have this, because rather than wild panic it allows for an uninterrupted focus on the martial arts, and we get to admire the fighters in long, clear duels with a full demonstration of their techniques and which are excellently-choreographed to seamlessly appear to have real hard impact. It's no frills, but that equally means that it's all focus. Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is a true martial arts movie, not a kung-fu movie - the art and performance of the kata is fundamentally important to it and the motion of these athletes is something that we are expected to appreciate on its own merits - and it's skilful enough that you're happy to.

However, the thing about a martial arts movie is that it's all about the martial arts, to a fault. A huge amount of this film is dedicated to long sequences of Ryu and Ken training, practising and sparring - intercut with flashbacks to Gouken and Goki training, practising and sparring. Then again, and then some more, and then a little extra for good luck. I'm not an especially close follower of martial arts movies and I was still able to remain engaged because I found the techniques interesting - but if you are really only a curious bystander drawn by the branding rather than any especial engagement with the material you may find yourself getting impatient for something a bit more hard-hitting - and when the final climatic battle between Gouken and Akuma abruptly cuts out for the credits though after a long, long build-up, you'll be splitting blood and fury at what's not a movie climax but an exasperating "Season One" cliffhanger. Still, the boys do spend plenty of time with their shirts off so there's a hunky chunk of manservice to keep you entertained if that appeals!

The characters themselves are all tied to those same martial arts as well. Goki does have an impressive intensity in his self-destructive quest for mastery over the Hado; Gouken and Goki's sensei Gotetsu does an effective turn as the stern, acerbic master barking out tongue-lashings. There isn't that much of a distinction between Ryu and Ken, though - Ryu is the more serious and studious one, Ken is the more boisterous and carefree, but ultimately they both walk down the same path. Even though the film opens with Ken becoming disaffected and there's occasional half-hearted gestures towards him wobbling towards the same dangerous route to Hado that Goki took, ultimately the script shies away from inflicting any lasting consequence to this and everything ends all happy and smiling between the two as master and disciplines part as a fond family, even posing for photos. Even when Gouken mistakenly condemns Ken for tapping into dark ki, Ryu makes sure that the misunderstanding is cleared up right in the very same scene. It's as if the crew couldn't bear to see their favourite characters being unhappy! As much as it's a failure of drama, though, I don't really want to condemn it - the two characters do have a good fraternal rapport in scenes such as them receiving the latest game - Mega Man 2 for the NES - and dashing off to play it leaving Gouken with the rest of the mail and deliveries. If anything, seeing them get along is a feel-good note that's nice to hold. I've struggled through enough tiresome harem-anime "romantic" misunderstandings which are usually demanded by nothing other than a relentless Idiot Plot in my time, so it's actually quite a relief to have everything be as open and guileless as it is in Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist. There are other nice touches - Sayaka, the modest love interest (in every way, there's only one chaste kiss in the entire movie) between Gouken and Goki, giving Goki a calligraphic character as a focus for his quest seems quite appropriate, and there are a few in-jokey references to Dan Hibiki for the Street Fighter aficionados to enjoy while the cat-calling and trash-talk of the fisherman Goma across the lake make for fun comic-relief interludes.

It's clear the Ansah loves the material - in addition to giving himself a role in his own movie as Akuma, his enthusiasm is obvious in the detailed director's commentary as well. There's a good selection of extras to round off the package - my favourites are "Ken's Video Diary", a trio of in-character shorts where Ken interrupts his training to fool about Gouken's dojo - and in addition to the already-lengthy movie there's plenty of extra material there to keep you engaged and get your money's worth out of the sale price.

The biggest compliment you can pay Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is that even though I'm rubbish at beat-'em-ups, I still found it interesting. I have to admit I wasn't looking forward to this assignment - a direct-to-video video game tie-in? I was expecting some knock-off chopsocky that would be there and gone in eighty minutes. As it happens, though, I found myself being pleasantly surprised. Although somewhat confined in scope and lacking in drama, the movie is nonetheless lovely to look at and clearly crafted with care, with fine exhibitions of martial prowess that provide a veritable banquet of fighting sequences for anyone who enjoys martial arts, not just videogame fans.  


Extras:

English with subtitled Japanese dialogue. Extras include director's commentary, deleted scenes, outtake reel, "Making Of" documentary, trailer, and character shorts.


9
Don't let its 'tie-in' status diminish it - this movie is all about authentic martial arts.
About Robert Frazer

The team's roving reviewer, Robert zips to and fro like a ninja in the rafters, writing in all categories. UKA firmly denies that he snatches review copies after throwing a smoke bomb into the office... and will do so until the antidote for the poisoned Hob-Nobs is administered.

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Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

Price: DVD: £12.99; Blu-ray: £15.99; Steelbook: £29.99

Certificate: 15

Distributor:
Manga Entertainment

Genre:
Action, Drama


Reviewer:
Robert Frazer

Date Published:
04/11/2014