He Who Controls The Rebound Controls The Game: Kung Fu Dunk (2008)

The J-Drama/K-Drama scene is something I am not familiar with, despite having a deep admiration and love for all things contemporary and East Asian.  It is not that I do not think that I would at the very least enjoy the absurd plots of Korean kids dealing with high school romances in the supernatural or find something evocative and captivating in period piece Japanese miniseries, I love both of these narratives in their filmic form, but am fully aware that an endeavor of the sort in regards to drama would suck way more time out of my day than I already do with watching movies.  Therefore, I occasionally try to nab a film that looks expressly like it is a result of Asian television more so that film and considering that Kung Fu Dunk fit within the framework of my month of martial arts films, it figured like a perfect opportunity to kill the veritable two birds.  Of course, Kung Fu Dunk is a Chinese film, but its existence is quite similar to that of the aforementioned J/K Drama works, in so much, as it is a highly stylized and overly melodramatic film that does not delve too deeply into serious social issues, although Kung Fu Dunk does venture into some rather interesting territory.  It is necessary, first off, to note that this film is nowhere near that of Shaolin Soccer, but in a humorous tip of the hat makes that rather clear from the onset.  Instead, Kung Fu Dunk exists in a space similar to that of a high school comedy that might appear in the world of The Disney Channel, right down to the archetypal characters and the absurdists adult figures.  Indeed, I could not help but draw constant comparisons between the film's main star and the indomitable media presence that is Justin Bieber.  Kung Fu Dunk is a textbook mid-grade film whose offering is nothing revolutionary, but is also not unwatchable, instead existing as a series of thoughts ideas and action sequences that were thought up by producers to create something that could be produced quickly, relatively inexpensively and turn around a quick dollar.  Considering this frame of mind, Kung Fu Dunk is fun, but never exceptional.  Indeed, it lacks the stakes or threat of narrative danger necessary to a truly good film, particularly in the martial arts and even sports drama.  The characters are likable, but not memorable.  If anything is to be outright praised about this film, it is what I can only assume to be the entire sequence that stands in as a shot-for-shot remake of a highlight reel from the games played by the 1992 USA Dream Team.

Kung Fu Dunk begins by focusing on the early life of an orphan named Fang Shijie (Jay Chou) who is taken in by a vagrant kung fu artist known for his attempts to master a technique that will alter time.  However, messing with such a dangerous technique results in the man's death and Fang is then relocated to another dojo, where he is reviled by the headmaster and used as a literal punching bag.  During an evening when he wants to escape the woes of the dojo life, Fang wanders about a park in the city, tossing cans carelessly into a trash can, with surprising precision.  This catches the eye of a hustler named Wangli (Eric Tsang) who realizes the potential Fang could have in hustling at a local bar.  During the night he takes Fang to the club and begins using his skills to win dart games, much to the frustration of the bar owner, who sends his goons to attack, all of which are fended off by the versatile Fang.  However, this bar owner is also a dear friend of the dojo master, who punishes Fang and then exiles him from the dojo.  Fan desperate returns to Wangli who comes up with the idea of using Fang's skills on the basketball court, combining his precision with the orphan narrative to create the most ideal of underdog stories.  Arriving at First University, the idealist Fang is confronted with a group of basketball players who while skilled deal with a variety of problems, whether it be the injury of their star player, or the crippling alcoholism of the team's captain Ting Wei (Bolin Chen).  Matters are made worse for Fang when his long time crush Li-Li (Charlene Choi) proves to be the sister of Ting, providing an initial anxiety to Fang as he attempts to prove his skills on the court.  While Fang is excellent at making shots, he is not as skilled at the basics of basketball and delves heavily into his training, eventually earning the respect of his teammates, although he has yet to find his family.  The First University team eventually makes it to the finals where they are forced to face Fire Ball, a team infamous for their foul play and financial backing, one that is the same as the owner of the bar with whom Fang and Wangli are at odds.  However, despite the unending cheating on the part of Fire Ball and its backers, Fang uses a long lost skill to assure a win, earning admiration from all involved and even a chance meeting with his father.

Mind you a condensed that narrative a bit, but there are also a lot of side stories going on in the film that never really come to fruition.  I am rather certain that the narrative was much longer in its inception and was wildly cut to fit a shorter film, thus assuring the limited attention span of the young adult audience for which it is likely intended.  Indeed, the film makes great strides to show how aware it is of Western youth culture, between the absurd outfits worn by the characters, to the decadent engagements of the young people as they move about the spaces of clubs drinking and dancing as though the former has no lasting repercussions, even for Ting who is depicted as being a heavy alcoholic, shaking with anxiety on any occasion where he is not guzzling alcohol out of a flask.  Other elements, like Fang's attachment to his lost family and coming to learn familial bonds through friendship, also emerge, but what I found most fascinating is the manner with which the film dealt with cheating, almost as if to put forth a larger narrative about the nature of exploitation and its unfortunate past in Chinese history.  The figure of the club/Fire Ball owner is that of a man who wills his way in everything, even hiring the referees to run afoul when it proves that Fang and his teammates might win a game.  The narrative seems to suggest that China acknowledges its problematic exploitative past through figures like the club owner, as well as Fang's father, who even dons an outfit that seems indicative of feudal Chinese power.  In the past, no amount of diligence or unified efforts could have afforded those without access to those with and even when underdogs did emerge, the person in power would stifle their movement in very real and jarring manners.  In Kung Fu Dunk it is with a baseball bat, whereas in Chinese history one thinks of the man standing up against a tank, one of the most iconic images in a post-television world.  In the end, however, the film does embrace a notion of companionship through trust and team bonding, reminding viewers that while dunking is cool it rarely wins a game.  This narrative is highly invested in a communist based ideology of unity for a common success, but entrenched within individual endeavor, it manages to avoid the trouble of blind robotic devotion and embrace the singular identity in the process.  Ideally there would be more of this in the film, but, again, it is a narrative mess that was likely the result of heavy script editing.

Key Scene:  Again the scene that might have doubled as 1992 USA Dream Team highlights is pretty wild

Honestly there is nothing really excellent about this film that makes it worth watching.  If you are bored it might be worth taking a look at, but Shaolin Soccer is a far better film for kung fu martial arts, and pretty much every Korean film about high school is better than Kung Fu Dunk.

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