Saturday, 4 January 2014

Kung Fu Flid

Director: Xavier Leret
Writer: Xavier Leret
Producers: Xavier Leret, Jonathan Sothcott
Cast: Mat Fraser, Frank Harper, Faye Tozer
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener

I stood next to Mat Fraser at a bar once. I’m pretty sure it was him. He’s quite distinctive, with the little arms and everything. There are of course other people in the world who were born with similar Thalidomide-induced disabilities but he’s the only one I know who acts, and this was the bar at Nottingham Playhouse.

It was the launch event for something or other. I was working for the Regional Arts Board at the time and we had maybe put some money in. There was free wine so, naturally, I went along. I’m fairly positive that must have been Mat Fraser.

There are actors in wheelchairs, one-legged and one-armed actors, blind actors, deaf actors but as far as I know there’s only one thalidomide actor. His most prominent role was probably in the TV series Metrosexuality but he was already known in some circles for his fringe work including his provocative one-man show Seal Boy. He has also cropped up in things like Iron Maiden-directed Crowley not-biopic Chemical Wedding.

And then there’s Kung Fu Flid.

The first thing that hits you is the title. Either the best or the worst ever. Possibly both. Once heard, never forgotten. Controversial and bound to upset people who like to get upset. And it tells you exactly what you’re going to see.

Except, ah, it doesn’t.

This film sells itself as a martial arts picture. Check out the faux Hong Kong style poster design (it’s not really a poster as such, it’s a promotional design for the film’s online release). The designer has even, with jaw-dropping gall, used a font and lay-out that deliberately resembles the logo of animated kidflick Kung Fu Panda!

Based on the title, certainly based on that promo artwork, what we expect is a British equivalent of those Asian films which star disabled martial arts masters, like the One-Armed Swordsman or Zatoichi. There’s a whole subgenre of wandering warriors with parts of their body missing who nevertheless manage to kick seven shades of Oriental shit out of evil-doers and save the village or whatever. One of those films, but set in 21st century Britain, starring that short-armed bloke who was on the telly. That could be great.

But that’s not what we get. Kung Fu Flid actually turns out to be a fairly straightforward low-budget indie British gangster picture. Starring that short-armed bloke who was on the telly. It’s got a few fights, yes, but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination a martial arts film. It’s about as far from Zatoichi as you could get.

Fraser stars as Jimmy Loveit who is introduced to us practising his kick-boxing in a gym, where his trainer is played by Terry Stone (Doghouse, Ten Dead Men, Jack Said - who executive produced the film and owns the FilmLounge website where it debuted, having bypassed the DVD option). After this fight scene, which gives us some ‘action’ up-front but otherwise contributes nothing to the film, we get a (non-nude) love-scene between Jimmy and his wife Lu (Helen Watkins).

This is interrupted by a little girl of nine or ten years, Lola (Bethan Leret). The impression I got from this scene was that Lu is Lola’s mum and Jimmy is Lu’s boyfriend, a sort of adoptive father to the girl. It was only later that I realised that Jimmy is actually Lu’s husband and Lola’s dad. That’s just not made clear in that bedroom scene when it’s actually fairly important character establishment. I mean, all they had to do was have Lola call Jimmy ‘Daddy’ and we would all know where we stood.

Suddenly there is a banging on the door downstairs. When Jimmy answers it, two men burst in and there is a scuffle which leaves Lu shot in the stomach and one of the intruders extremely badly injured. In fact we subsequently learn that Jimmy, in wrestling the bloke’s gun away, shot him in the balls.

Next thing we know, blood-caked Jimmy is driving (yes, he can drive) at high speed with injured Lu in the back of his car. She’s screaming that she needs a doctor and he’s screaming back that he can’t take her to hospital so he’s going to take her to his mate - who, it turns out, is a vet in a wheelchair.

There’s a curious, possibly not even deliberate, touch of humour here because of course normally when you have a ‘disabled vet’ it’s someone who fought in ‘Nam, not an animal doctor. Much against his better judgement, the vet manages to remove the bullet from Lu and get her into a stable condition. Whereupon Jimmy goes in search of his daughter.

In an East End pub somewhere, the bloke who broke in but didn’t have his balls shot off turns up with the little girl, still barefoot and pajamaed. He explains to gangster boss Barry (Frank Harper: Bend It Like Beckham, Vendetta) what happened. Well, actually he doesn’t. He explains the bits we saw but doesn’t touch on the stuff not shown. Specifically we are left to wonder how and why he took Lola (last seen in the protective arms of her parents) from the house; and what has happened to his critically injured but still alive colleague.

Who, we learn, was Barry’s son Charlie (actor/rapper Beau Baptist). We later watch Barry visit Charlie in hospital. So hang on, how did Charlie get to hospital? Did the other bloke take him while also removing Lola from her parents somehow, who then rushed to get to a vet rather than try to hold onto their daughter? How come Jimmy can’t take Lu, the innocent victim of a brutal attack, to hospital but Charlie can go there without a problem and without Knacker of the Yard wondering how he got his balls blown off? On top of which, we have to assume that no neighbours called the police when they heard gunshots, that no-one has noticed the amount of blood around Jimmy and Lu’s doorway etc etc.

Anyway, inconvenient questions aside, Barry shows his displeasure by shooting Charlie’s friend right there in the pub then turns into friendly uncle to Lola, who is placed into the care of two of his goons while the boss tries to work out what to do with her. Despite their lack of paternal experience, the two goons do their best to look after Lola after she is brought back to Barry’s palatial pad, where his drunken wife Cristol turns out to be Faye Tozer from dreadful plastic pop act Steps!

Although Barry comes across as a decent bloke compared to his ghastly wife, he’s still a cold-blooded killer of course. A flash-back to ‘six months earlier’ demonstrates this, although a subsequent caption of ‘one week later’ leaves the viewer temporarily disorientated as he has to work out if this is the week after six months before or the week after where we were before we went back six months.

Barry and his gang are introduced to a Scottish people trafficker who has a bunch of smuggled East European prostitutes locked up in a dark container, who now emerge, blinking and confused into the daylight. ‘One week later’, Barry has discovered that the Scotsman is an undercover cop and tortures him. But hang on, if he’s a cop then either all the woman were cops too - in which case Barry has a much, much bigger problem - or this cop went so far undercover that he actually did imprison East European prostitutes in a dark, airless container before selling them to a gangster. Neither of those scenarios rings true.

Jimmy goes to the pub - with no real explanation of how he knew where to head for - and breaks in at the back to find a brothel underneath the building, apparently, where he is beaten up but escapes. Barry goes to the wheelchair vet’s with just as little explanation and kidnaps the two people he finds there, which is not overly difficult as one is recovering from a gunshot wound and the other is in a wheelchair. They are taken to a building somewhere, possibly on a trading estate, where Barry leaves them to the attentions of Gregor, a card-carrying psychopath.

Gregor (Dan Poole: Batman Begins) is probably the most interesting, if least sympathetic, character here. Stripped to the waist, wearing only a long, blue kilt, he has tattoos over about fifty per cent of his visible body. Not intricate designs or pictures but big, solid swathes of ink in vaguely celtic patterns. More to the point, this is a fine portrayal of a genuinely amoral sadist. What could have been a cackling, over-the-top performance or a blank-eyed automaton is instead turned into a genuinely chilling character who enjoys his job of inflicting extreme pain on people.

Jimmy races desperately to save Lu although once again I can’t work out how he knows where to go. There is a bizarre diversion at this point as he takes a ride in a taxi driven by a slightly loopy devout Catholic who witters on about things and has a small Christ figure on his dashboard. I couldn’t work out the point of the character - perhaps it’s meant to be a comic interlude - but the plastic Messiah later becomes relevant.

This leads into an escape by Lu and Jimmy (the vet has already copped it) in which Lu turns out to be as skilled at fighting as her husband, something of which there has previously been no hint and which certainly didn’t seem to be the case during that initial break-in. Furthermore, while we can accept that battered, bloody Jimmy is still going, pumped up on adrenaline, Lu seems remarkably sprightly for somebody who was shot, operated on by a vet, dragged from her sick-bed and then tortured. The whole film culminates in a stand-off - Jimmy and Lu against Barry and Cristol and their goons - in a junkyard somewhere which admittedly does contain some interesting developments and a neat twist.

Kung Fu Flid is not overly long at 90 minutes but never quite works. Very simply, it falls between two stools, unsure whether to be exploitational or grittily real. Writer-director Xavier Leret had an opportunity to make a quite unique film with something to say about disability, about society’s attitudes, about the media’s portrayal, about assumptions. Or he could have made a statement by not making a statement, by making a film in which a person with a very obvious and quite extreme disability plays an ordinary character, a role where the disability is irrelevant. But those are simply another two stools between which Kung Fu Flid resolutely falls.

I will admit, I am intrigued by physically unusual actors. Not just those who are missing part or all of one or more limbs, but actors who are particularly short or tall or skinny or fat or visually unique in some other way. How you look is such an integral part of the whole acting profession. I don’t mean just in terms of beauty: you can only play such and such a part if you’re Anna Paquin or Jude Law. That’s star quality. I mean the rest of the acting profession, the bit part players and character actors. It’s a job which depends on looks where you must look interesting and distinctive but not too interesting or distinctive. If you have a group of minor characters and one of them is a dwarf or has only one arm or whatever, the audience will start to wonder - or at least, film-makers seem to believe that the audience will start to wonder - well, why is he like that? What relevance does it have?

And yet, on the flip-side, the more extreme one’s physical appearance, the more suited one is to very specific roles. Roles that will not only never go to Jude Law but which most of SAG and Equity simply can’t play. If you’re casting a version of The Addams Family, only certain people are suitable to be Lurch, only some actors could possibly play Cousin Itt. No-one in either of those groups could play Gomez - but anyone suitable to play Gomez will be unsuitable for Lurch or Itt. Very simply, there are fewer roles for actors who are four feet or seven feet tall but there are fewer actors who can fill those roles.

It intrigues me, that’s all. But I suppose it’s no different from any other profession: specialism reduces your employability overall but boosts it in the few cases where specialisation is required.

What is always particularly fascinating is where physically distinctive actors get cast in roles where their physical distinction is either irrelevant or actually confounds the normal rules of casting. In the former would be, I believe, Warwick Davies in the Ray Charles biopic Ray. I haven’t seen the film but I understand that Davies plays a nightclub owner, not based on any particular real individual, so the role could have gone to any actor. Another example - it’s another short guy, sorry - is Deep Roy who was actually cast as a voice actor in The Corpse Bride, having evidently impressed Tim Burton by playing the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Obviously, in that situation his height was supremely irrelevant.

The latter type would be exemplified by something like Charlie Band’s The Creeps (sorry to keep giving short actor examples, they’re just obvious ones that I know about). Phil Fondacaro is never, let’s face it, going to play Dracula. So what does he get to play in The Creeps? A very short Dracula. By the same token Mat Fraser, that bloke off that telly show who has those weird little arms, is clearly never going to play an action hero.

Except, obviously, here he does.

Possibly the biggest problem with this film is that Fraser’s unique physique, the thing that distinguishes him as an actor and hence distinguishes any character that he plays, is sort of irrelevant. Not actually irrelevant, but not a feature of the plot either. Some characters do comment on his appearance (there’s a gag about “tie his hands behind his back”) but most of them don’t. But clearly his physical presence is relevant because this is a gangster movie with a deal of fighting in it and Jimmy Loveit’s failure or success in those fights - and he does get beaten up quite a bit - is influenced by the fact that he can’t use his arms except at extreme close quarters.

The fact that almost no-one who meets Jimmy Loveit comments negatively, or even curiously, about his arms is clearly totally unrealistic. Strangers who meet him (bearing in mind that most people in this film are deeply unpleasant) would be likely to either mock the man or be repulsed at his freakishness. Women might even be attracted to him because of it: something different, hmm, what could he do with those hands?

The thing is that, with a change of title, this script could have been made with absolutely anybody in the lead role. And you might argue that this is a good thing, that it moves Kung Fu Flid away from the group of films with deliberately provocative portrayals of disability, like The Creeps, and into the category of films with laudably progressive portrayals of disability, like Ray. You could argue that. But I would simply argue back that the film is called Kung Fu Flid (and has the tagline ‘Unarmed but dangerous.’) [For the DVD release in September 2009, the title was actually changed to Unarmed but Dangerous. - MJS]

Look, it just seems very odd to make a film about a man with vestigial arms fighting people in which not one of his opponents ventures to comment, before, during or after a fight, that it ought to be easy to beat a guy with vestigial arms. The reason why characters think they can beat Zatoichi or the One-Armed Swordsman is because those characters apparently present no threat on account of either (a) being blind or (b) having only one arm.

Casting someone like Mat Fraser (who, let us never forget, is a pretty good actor) in a film where his disability is irrelevant would be, if tastefully handled, an unusually positive representation of a disabled person. But casting him in a film where his disability is not only relevant but actually the whole focus of the thing - and then ignoring that disability - well, that just doesn’t make sense. It’s an opportunity wasted. Actually it’s two opportunities. It’s the opportunity to make a straight, serious (which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be funny) film about a disabled character and it’s the alternative opportunity to make a kick-ass exploitation movie which would piss off all the politically correct, self-righteous, mostly non-disabled twats out there.

In that respect, it’s difficult to see how Kung Fu Flid can do anything except disappoint. It singularly fails to live up to its marketing yet it doesn’t actually go far enough to confound expectations.

There are two other areas where the film falls down. One is the script which, as previously mentioned, glosses over the difficult-to-explain bits, like how Charlie got to hospital, while at the same time having too many unexplained instances of characters knowing where to find other characters. In fact, there is never a proper explanation of how far Jimmy’s involvement extends into in the criminal world, if at all. He is adamant to Lu, when driving her to his veterinary friend, that he has no idea why they were attacked in their own home, and in the subsequent pub scene Barry complains that his two hit-men got the wrong house. So maybe the whole thing was a genuine, tragic, brutal mistake.

On the other hand, Jimmy seems to know who he’s dealing with, where to find people and so on - so maybe he does know these gangsters. But then again, they don’t seem to know him. Nobody recognises him, but nor do they express any surprise at seeing him. And let’s face it, he’s a pretty surprising character, both when you first meet him and when you see what he’s capable of doing to protect his wife and rescue his daughter.

Ah yes, the daughter. Well, two things. First, there is no explanation of, or reason for, the daughter’s kidnap. More to the point, Xavier Leret cast his own daughter in the role and, sorry to say this, but she can’t act. And that’s a big problem for the film. Lola isn’t called on to do very much, she barely has any dialogue, but she does feature quite a bit - let’s face it, she’s the McGuffin - and the film will only work if we see how much danger she is in and how much she could suffer, especially at the hands of Cristol who is understandably bitter about losing (part of) her own child.

You can see why Leret cast his own little girl. It makes a lot of sense: he already knows her, she knows and trusts him, he can guarantee that the child will be supervised and he doesn’t have the tricky job of either exposing someone else’s child to the swearing, threats and violence of the film or shooting around the child so that she’s not actually in any shots where bad stuff happens. In practical terms, casting his daughter was a sound move.

But it would only work if she could act. And she can’t. Not even a little bit.

Having said all that, the film does have some good points. The (adult) cast all acquit themselves well. Fraser is very good indeed although the stand-out performance is Dan Poole as the sadistic Gregor. Dusan Kmac’s cinematography is fine, as is Ismini Xekalaki’s production design. Fight directors Pete Morgan (A Day of Violence) and Tony de Gale stage some realistically bloody and brutal fights. But none of that is enough to save this disappointing curiosity.

Also in the cast are Kugan Cassius (The Rapture), Johnny Vivash (The Fallow Field), Forbes KB (Jack Says), Adam Saint (Dead Man Running) and Dennis Santucci (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife). Jonathan Sothcott (Wishbaby) shared producer duties with Leret (despite what the IMDB says, Mat Fraser is not credited as producer). A quartet of associate producers includes Phil Hobden (Ten Dead Men, Left for Dead), Richard John Taylor (an editor who cuts extravagant trailers for EastEnders), agent Olivia Bell and and Croatian colour correction expert Dado Valentic who also supplied digital effects. Make-up designer Matthew Pimm works as hair assistant on Strictly Come Dancing!

Executive producer Terry Stone, as mentioned way back at the top of the review, owns a download site called FilmLounge where Kung Fu Flid was made available in April 2009. Other movies available from FilmLounge include Evil Aliens, Lighthouse, Lawrence Pearce’s little-seen British vampire flick Night Junkies, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie Holocaust, Night of the Public Domain Living Dead and, ironically, The One-Armed Boxer II - which is exactly the sort of film that Kung Fu Flid isn’t.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 16th June 2009

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