The One reduces Nietzschean eternal recurrence to a mere 124 coexisting universes (the “multiverse”), all of them apparently consisting of L.A. and looking so made-for-TV it’s a wonder the Sci-Fi Channel logo doesn’t appear in the corner. Jet Li plays renegade timecop Gabriel Yulaw, who has snuffed all but one of his simultaneous incarnations; each kill gives him power, and he believes that eliminating them all will lead to godhood. Last on his list is good guy Gabe, who shakes off the possibility of insanity and sets out to destroy his doppelgänger. (Adding to this project’s quickie feel, Gabe’s wife is named T.K.—media shorthand for “information to come.”)
In Li’s best Hong Kong performances (including 1993’s Tai Chi Master and Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China saga), his character and fighting are inseparable, each supplying the other with necessary grammar. Here director James Wong and fight choreographer Corey Yuen (X-Men) use Matrix space-time distortions and way too many guns, rendering their star redundant long before the Li vs. Li finale. Wong’s efficiently creepy Final Destination was as much memento mori as teen disposal unit, but in The One the maze of death leads only to exhaustion—a solipsistic extension of Bruce Lee pacing the room of mirrors at the end of Enter the Dragon.
Brooklyn and Manhattan will soon seem multiversal to wushu enthusiasts, with festivals at BAM and Cinema Village offering martial arts classics, oddities, and high-calorie junk. BAM’s “Dance of the Dragon” has the more recognizable stars, including Michelle Yeoh in Wing Chun (1994) and Maggie Cheung as a stately textiles-factory owner in the melodrama The Barefoot Kid (1993). Two well-known versions of the legendary physician-fighter Wong Fei-hung can be seen here: Jackie Chan plays him as punch-drunk youth in 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master (perhaps his most enjoyable movie); for the Once Upon a Time in China films, Jet Li presents a more nuanced (but even more high-kicking) Wong—noble, righteous, and comically repressed. (Pace The One, Wong’s role as both healer and destroyer grants him de facto divinity, an appealing balance that might explain the beloved character’s 100-plus screen appearances.)
Dreadnaught (1981), at Cinema Village’s “Old School Kung Fu Fest,” affords a welcome glimpse of Wong in old age. Directed by Crouching Tiger, Iron Monkey fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping and starring the 76-year-old Kwan Tak-hing, Dreadnaught portrays a spry septuagenarian who remains unflappable in the face of lethal tailors and lion-dance saboteurs. The rest of the fest skews to the willfully lurid. Shogun Assassin is the 1980 U.S.-recut version of a Japanese ronin bloodbath, hair-raisingly scored to what might be a scrapped Fixx album. In Crippled Avengers (1979), the thwack-happy thespians known as the Five Deadly Venoms go blind, deaf, idiotic, or limbless, respectively—imposing downright Oulipian restrictions on their kung fu skill sets. While some of the selections are more trashy than actually fun (Seven Brothers Meet Dracula can’t transcend its title), Taoism Drunkard (1981) is emphatically and endearingly both: a low-rent schlock-house stuffed with bathroom humor, looking-glass plot devices (and now—ventriloquism!), and delirious shoestring visuals (the Watermelon Monster, less melon than maniacal cannonball dentata). That this demented mess is the baby of the five Yuen brothers (including the aforementioned Woo-ping and Corey) suggests a secret history to their ascendant world-beating aesthetic, composed under a steady stream of laughing gas.
The festivals’ lone double-dipper is The Prodigal Son (1981), a wing chun bildungsroman about a silver-spoon scholar (Yuen Biao) who loses his innocence in pursuit of kung fu mastery. Despite some broad comedy, the tone is decidedly ambivalent; by the end, his opponent sits drenched in blood, an enormous lump blossoming on his skull, and revenge starts to look like sadism, knowledge like a curse. Indeed, prolonged exposure to both series can lead to a certain melancholy, as ritual and repetition reveal the genre’s Sisyphean traits. Two-story teahouses exist to be destroyed, splinters magically rejoining for a hundred more high noons, and the air is always thick with the same crimson-fletched spears. Implicit in the cinematic heaven of elaborate melees is a parallel hell of constant combat. (In the parting shot of BAM’s Sword of Doom, the samurai, running out of options, swings at us.) It is always the one against the many, with the enemy fungible and all the world a weapon: not just axes and arrows, the 3-Section Whip and the 8 Chop Swords, but fans and fabric shears, benches and banisters, rags and roofing and rope.