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Plot: martial artists from all over the world compete in tournament on remote island

The “most controversial game of 1993” as Electronic Gaming Monthly called it was created by Ed Boon and John Tobias for Midway (now NetherRealm Studios). Whereas Street Fighter II: the World Warrior went for a very Japanese and anime style, Mortal Kombat became infamous for its photorealistic models and blood-splattering violence. Early in its ten-month development Mortal Kombat was to star Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme was in negotations with another company for a video game that eventually never materialized. Boon and Tobias parodied Van Damme with Johnny Cage, who does a split-groin punch as Van Damme famously did in Bloodsport (1988). Likewise had fellow action star Steven Seagal his own Genesis and SNES video game in production in 1993 with The Final Option. It was to be developed by Riedel Software Productions, Inc. and publisher TecMagik for an intended 1994 release before being inevitably pushed back to 1995 and subsequently cancelled. As these things tend to go Mortal Kombat was a smash hit in the arcades and led to a lucrative and enduring franchise popular to this day. The game’s over-the-top violence and the ensuing controversy and protests from parent groups led to the conception of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its now-familiar rating system.

Mortal Kombat wasn’t the first video game to be adapted for the big-screen. Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994), and Street Fighter (1994) all tanked at the box office for various reasons but more importantly because they fundamentally misunderstood their source material. In fact Jean-Claude Van Damme was offered the role of Johnny Cage but he declined it to star in Street Fighter (1994). Mortal Kombat was only the second feature for British director Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson would later helm the science-fiction/horror romp Event Horizon (1997) as well as being the creative force behind the Resident Evil franchise (2002–2016) starring his wife Milla Jovovich. He also was responsible for Death Race (2008), a remake/prequel to Paul Bartel’s subversive Roger Corman produced shlock classic Death Race 2000 (1975) with David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone. Mortal Kombat spent three weeks at number one at the U.S. box office, netting $70 million domestically and over $122 million worldwide. Not bad for a silly fantasy retelling of the Bruce Lee martial arts classic Enter the Dragon (1973) on a modest $18 million budget. Anderson would do the same thing again, this time as producer, 11 years later (and only to a fraction of the success) with the lovably zany DOA: Dead Or Alive (2006) and Tekken (2009) following with even less fanfare and star power a few years down the line. Rare/Midway’s completely over-the-top Killer Instinct from 1994 remains curiously unadaptated.

Three martial artists from different walks of life are summoned to a tournament on a mysterious island somewhere in Asia. Liu Kang (Robin Shou) is a Shaolin monk on self-imposed exile in America. He's currently in the midst of a massive crisis of faith as he puts no stock in the long-held prophecy the temple elders insist he's irrevocably entwined with and the destiny he's bound to fulfill. Instead Kang is concerned more with avenging the slaying of his younger brother Chan (Steven Ho). Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is an egocentric action movie star whose detractors in the tabloid press write him off as a phony and he looks for any and every opportunity to prove them wrong. Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, as Bridgette Wilson) is a headstrong military officer in pursuit of fugitive Black Dragon cartel crimelord Kano (Trevor Goddard) who’s responsible for killing her partner. The three have been selected by the god of thunder Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert) to defend Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat, the outcome of which will decide the fate of their own world. To ensure victory in Mortal Kombat shapeshifting sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) has bend the wills of fallen Lin Kuei warrior Sub-Zero (François Petit), the wraith/revenant Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), and Reptile (Keith Cooke, as Keith H. Cooke) as well as current tournament Grand Champion, the four-armed Shokan warlord Goro (Kevin Michael Richardson, as Kevin Richardson). The trio find an unlikely ally in leatherclad member of nobility Kitana (Talisa Soto), the enslaved princess of Outworld.

Instead of a renowned high-profile action director as Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu-tung, or Corey Yuen Mortal Kombat has to content itself with Pat E. Johnson and Robin Shou. Granted, Shou worked his way up from the dregs of Hong Kong cinema through a number of action - and martial arts movies, most notably In the Line of Duty III (1988) with Cynthia Khan and Michiko Nishiwaki and Princess Madam (1989) from Godfrey Ho. Shou cut his teeth under directors as Phillip Ko Fei and Jing Wong and Mortal Kombat was his debut in the English-speaking world. That is discounting the Warin Hussein made-for-TV drama Forbidden Nights (1990) for a moment. Although superior to his Western counterparts Shou by and large showcases the exact same moves as when he started out in the late eighties. In its defense the action choreography (thankfully) gravitates more towards HK cinema than it does the other way around. Which doesn’t change the fact that the Pat E. Johnson routines tend to be clunky, slow-moving and rely heavily on quick cuts and rapid editing. The two duels choreographed by Shou (Johnny Cage-Scorpion and Liu Kang-Reptile) are much more graceful, balletic and fluent in comparison. These two fights alone evince that Shou’s time sharing the screen with Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, and Yukari Oshima did indeed pay off. The “fight” between Liu Kang and Kitana (if it can be called that) isn’t so much a fight as it is foreplay. Sonya Blade fighting Kano early on is more of a brawl than anything else. The fights and action choreography have their own problems depending on who's directing. Initial screenings were found unsatisfactory by test audiences and more duels were demanded. As a result we, thankfully, were given the Liu Kang-Reptile duel.

Kevin Droney’s screenplay is often (and unjustly as far as we’re concerned) lambasted for its overt simplicity. We’ll concur that the three-act screenplay is economic in exposition and uses the rather formulaic backgrounds of the human kombatants for easily relatable stereotypical Hollywood character motivation. It acknowledges that the entire affair is preposterous and it sells those aspects wonderfully well through a barrage of snarky witticism and comedic one-liners from Christopher Lambert (visibly enjoying the sheer silliness of it all) and Linden Ashby. Some of the best lines come from the constant sparring between self-absorbed Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. That this Mortal Kombat isn't going to feature any of the game's infamous bloody Fatalities becomes clear enough when Lord Raiden intones that "Mortal Kombat isn't about death, but life." One of the greatest strengths of Mortal Kombat is that it takes itself just seriously enough to sell the ridiculousness of the game’s premise. As a product of Western fantasy Droney manages to at least pay lipservice to Asian values as honor, tradition, filial piety, ancestor veneration, and the perennial quest for spiritual enlightenment. Mortal Kombat takes its sweet time setting up the premise and central characters too. It isn’t until 45 minutes in that Mortal Kombat moves into the actual titular matches. From that point onward the plot never gets in the way of the multitude of fights. A point of contention is Sonya’s complete change of character around the halfway mark, but it is at least excuseable as Blade recognizes Shang Tsung’s superiority – and what better motivation for a character than a captive love interest?

To say that the romantic subplot between Liu Kang and Kitana is far-fetched and unnecessary is one thing. Kitana as a character gets all but two lines of character outline and then disappears to the background as a muse or sage-like figure. That Soto has few lines isn’t without reason as Vampirella (1996) would amply evince. Character development and plot are fairly minimal and only serve to progress the characters from one fighting scene to the next. Shang Tsung is an intelligent villain who schemes to delay his inevitable confrontation with Liu Kang. It is not until his resources are depleted, and his enforcer destroyed, that he engages Kang in battle. Lambert is visibly having fun in the role of Raiden and he spouts his lines with a grin. Linden Ashby possesses the right amount of underplayed arrogance, and his cynical witticisms greatly sell Johnny Cage as a believeable character. Liu Kang (who everybody simply calls “Lou”) experiences the greatest character arc, probably to compensate for Kitana’s arc being something of an informed attribute at the best of times. It’s anybody’s guess why Kitana is allowed so much freedom of movement when she’s vital to Shang Tsung’s scheme succeeding. Had Tsung kept Kitana out of bounds Kang would’ve never emerged victorious and Earthrealm would’ve merged with Outworld without drawing the ire of the Elder Gods. Obviously in a video game adaptation there’s bound to be bigger and smaller plotholes. As beautiful of a woman as Talisa Soto is an actress she most definitely is not.

If there’s anything that Mortal Kombat benefits from it’s the location shooting in Thailand and production design that faithfully recreates many of the game’s most beloved locations and fighting arenas. Among the featured landmarks are the Wat Phra Si Sanphet temple where Shang Tsung kills Chan during the opening, the Wat Ratchaburana temple where Liu Kang first meets Lord Raiden and Wat Chaiwatthanaram that stands in for the Temple Of Light. Then there’s Phra Nang beach where the “fight” between Liu Kang and Kitana takes place. Railay Beach is used as entrance to Shang Tsung’s Island. Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile are true to their videogame counterparts as far as costumes is concerned. Sonya Blade won’t be seen wearing her revealing military outfit and Kitana’s black leather bustier/dominatrix corset, husky voice and bedroom eyes should provide more than enough fetish/fantasy fuel for any redblooded male even if her attire isn’t her signature blue. Likewise won’t Kitana’s metallic double-fans be making an appearance until the sequel two years later. The production design is positively lavish including recreations of the Courtyard, The Hall of Statues, The Tower, and seen in passing are both The Pit and the Portal. Most of the visual effects and CGI are good for the budget, except maybe that Reptile’s CGI form clearly shows its age, a thing that wouldn’t improve with the sequel. With an 18 million (one million exclusively for the Goro animatronic) budget the arenas, production - and character designs, and costumes are faithful to the games from whence they came.

Mortal Kombat is probably a lot better than it has any reason to be. It’s self-aware enough to realize that it is no match for the likes of Fist Of Legend (1994) or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and it aspires to be nothing more than 90 minutes of vapid, chopsocky fun. As an Enter the Dragon (1973) variation you could do far worse. Keith Cooke headlined the turgid Albert Pyun martial arts feature Heatseeker (1995) and the sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) helmed by cinematographer John R. Leonetti pretty much killed the franchise until Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (2010). With a soundtrack boasting everybody from Type O Negative, Fear Factory, and Napalm Death, to The Immortals, Traci Lords and Juno Reactor the Mortal Kombat soundtrack is a time-capsule for the nineties very much like Brainscan (1994) was. There's a peculiar aesthetic disconnect between the most controversial and violent fighting game of the day becoming a virtually bloodless affair through adaptation and Disneyfication. Mortal Kombat the movie is everything that Mortal Kombat the game wasn’t. Despite, or rather in spite of, that it somehow works. Mortal Kombat the movie understood the essence of Mortal Kombat the game. Nobody was coming into this expecting some kind of profound statement on the human condition. Nobody was aiming for some kind of cinematic high art. Mortal Kombat is fun, if you are prepared to meet it halfway. “Nothing in this world has prepared you for this.” For once the tagline was spot on.

Plot: daughter avenges the death and dishonor of her bankrupted father

Supreme Sword was a Cantonese period costume wuxia produced at a time when Cantonese cinema was on the way out. The Japanese wuxia of the day were more impressive but they had resources, financial and otherwise, that Supreme Sword did not have access to. Starring leading lady of the day Connie Chan Po-Chu and martial arts pillar Walter Tso Tat-Wah Supreme Sword is a fairly ordinary example of the form and about the only thing that makes it stand out is that it’s fairly bloody for its time. The revenge plot is the oldest in the book but Supreme Sword puts in at least one surprise to make it worthwhile. Supreme Sword is a vehicle for Connie Chan Po-Chu, of the Seven Princesses, and if it weren’t for her presence the production certainly would’ve been rendered a footnote in martial arts history.

When her father (Ling Mung) is bankrupted and dishonored by a counterfeiting ring employing loanshark Mr. Ma (Ko Lo-Chuen) and headed by Gold Fist (Lok Gung) he kills himself to save his relatives from further disgrace. His daughter Wang Tsui Ying (Connie Chan Po-Chu) vows revenge. The counterfeiting ring is part of a much larger criminal operation led by The Four Tigers (See Kin, Ng Yan-Chi, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, and Wah Wan-Fung). In her quest for revenge Wang Tsui Ying makes her acquaintance with master swordsman Fong Tien-Biu (Yuen Siu-Fai) and his student Cheng Wen Chieh (Lam Kam-Tong). The three run into a dirt-poor drifter/beggar by the name of Fang Tien Hung (Walter Tso Tat-Wah) who themselves are in the process of freeing the captive father of his client Liu (Gam Lui). Loyalties are tested when it is revealed that Liu’s father Cheng Chung is none other than Gold Fist.

Connie Chan Po-Chu, one of the Seven Princesses of 1950s/60s Cantonese cinema

The star of Supreme Sword is Connie Chan Po-Chu, who was one of the so-called 'Seven Princesses' of Cantonese cinema all through the fifties and sixties together with Josephine Siao. Chan was the daughter of opera stars Chan Fei Nung and Kung Fan Hung and was trained in Northern and Southern martial arts. Starting acting at an early age Chan appeared in every genre under the sun including, but not limited to, Chinese opera, wuxia, fantasy and even the occassional romance. Chan was a protégé of famous Cantonese opera star Yam Kim-Fai, famous for frequently playing male roles. Connie Chan Po-Chu and Josephine Siao had starred together with the remaining five other Cantonese starlets Petrina Fung Bo-Bo, her older sister Alice Fung So-Po, Wong Oi-Ming, Nancy Sit Ka-Yin, and Sum Chi-Wah in the two-part monochrome epic Seven Princesses (1967), from whence the collective derived its pet name. Connie Chan and Josephine Siao had a great and devoted following with Chan exceeding Siao in sheer volume, some 230 titles, even though her career was considerably shorter. Despite the friendly rivalry Chan and Siao would often star together in various productions.

A bitter rivalry existed between the genre’s two prime studios Shaw Brothers from Hong Kong, China and Motion Picture and General Investments Limited (MP&GI, later and better known as Cathay) from the Republic of Singapore. As Cathay ceased operations in 1970 Cantonese cinema all but collapsed as Mandarin productions became de facto standard at the box office. The ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants (1973) was the only Cantonese movie made that year and a rousing success. Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong company formed by exiled Shaw Brothers executives Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, was in no small part responsible for keeping Cantonese cinema alive. The decline of Cantonese productions forced Chan into early retirement. Connie decided to move to America to further her education but she was encouraged by director Chor Yuen - with whom she had worked frequently in the sixties - to join Shaw Brothers studio and star in his production The Lizard (1972). Following the release of The Lizard in 1972 Connie Chan retired from the entertainment industry completely.

Chan's place was taken by a bright talent called Angela Mao Ying. Mao Ying would continue the pioneering work and pave the way for Michelle Khan (later Yeoh) in the 1980s, who herself was replaced by Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima during the eighties and nineties. In 1999 Chan returned in the record-breaking stage play Sentimental Journey, a story based upon the life of her mentor Yam Kim-Fai, that was a critical success and ran for an impressive 100 performances. In 2003 Chan staged a series of high-profile concerts of beloved films songs and Cantonese opera classics. After the trek had ended Chan appeared in the play Red Boat that ran for 64 performances. Two years later, in 2005, Sentimental Journey was brought back for a six-week revival. Finally, in 2007, Connie was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Drama Awards.

Supreme Sword was produced by Walter Tso Tat-Wah for Wenhua Film Company. Tso was a star in his own right. Tso had a career spanning seven decades and got his start in the industry in the mid-1930s when he worked for Grandview Film Company Limited as an assistant director to Chiu Shu-San, Moon Kwan Man-Ching and Tang Xiao-Dan. From there he worked his way up the ladder to production manager in 1949, all while staying active as an actor through out. In 1946 Walter Tso Tat-Wah and his sister Tso Yee-man, who The New York Times famously called the “Mary Pickford of China” at the time, were the stars of Yau Kiu Films Company, the company co-founded by his brother in law and Toishan native You-Chuck Moy. Yau Kiu Films Company was a state-of-the-art 48 thousand square feet studio compound in Kowloon City near the Hau Wong Temple where Sai Kwong and National studios were also housed, making it the mini-Hollywood of Hong Kong. Tragedy struck on November 20, 1948 when Tso Yee-man, the creative force behind the studio, suddenly passed away at the young age of 30 due to complications arising from pneumonia. In an interesting strategic alliance Moy married Susan Shaw, the only daughter of Shaw & Sons Studios mogul Runde Shaw, in March 1949, mere months after the passing of his wife Tso Yee-man.

As one of the major movie studios in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s Yau Kiu produced a modest 16 features and filmed 13 others. In 1952 the Mandarin section of Yau Kiu studio burnt down when a short circuit took place in one of the movie sets. From that point forward production was halted at Yau Kiu but other production companies still used the facilities. Walter Tso Tat-Wah not only was a shareholder in Yau Kiu studio but also owned the Palace Theatre (皇宮戲院) in Pak Ho Street in Sham Shui Po which opened in 1953. Tso had to sell his Palace Theatre as well as a number of other properties to pay off his gambling debts, one of his known vices. The most successful production for Yau Kiu was The Seven Swords and the Thirteen Heroes (1967). Yau Kiu was absorbed by Great Wall Movie Enterprise (now part of Sil-Metropole Organization), the leader of Mandarin films in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2001 the properties underwent re-development and it has since become the home to HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity and the Stone House Family Gardens. Yau Kiu was overshadowed by Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest from 1970 onward. Walter Tso Tat-Wah was a veteran from in excess of 700 films and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Hong Kong Film Critics Association in 2001 and was given the Professional Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2003.

Walter Tso Tat-Wah was one of the biggest stars at Wenhua Film Company, famous for his roles of Leung Foon, the head disciple of Wong Fei Hung in the four-part Wong Fei-Hung series (1956-1958) that started with Wong Fei-Hung at a Boxing Match (1956) and Wong Fei-Hung's Fight in He'nan (1957) and concluded with How Wong Fei-Hung and Wife Eradicated the Three Rascals (1958) and How Wong Fei-Hung Stormed Phoenix Hill (1958) as well as for his role of Lung Kim Fei from the Buddha’s Palm (1964) series. The directorial duties were given to Ling Yun, a material arts veteran who had worked with Tso earlier on the Buddha’s Palm (1964) series and with Chan on the The Sword of the Palace (1963) trilogy, the two Young and Furious (1966) films as well as the Jade in the Red Dust (1966) trilogy. The screenplay was written by Sze-To On, a prolific writer in Cantonese and Mandarin cinema with credits in a variety of genres dating as far as back as the mid-fifties. Although he was a specialist in the martial arts and wuxia genres Sze-To On also wrote the screenplay to Erotic Ghost Story II (1991) an adult feature that capitalized on the success of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) franchise, which was on to its third episode by that point. Assistant direction on Supreme Sword was done by Chan’s long-time paramour Law Kei.

The fight choreography isn’t quite as acrobatic as would become the norm thanks to Shaw Brothers’ “second wave” wuxia from the second half of the sixties onward. The sword-wielding avenger is a classic figure of Asian cinema and Connie Chan Po-Chu’s portrayal of the vengeful Wang Tsui Ying might not surpass Lady Snowblood (1973) in terms of on-screen carnage and bloodshed, although it doesn’t shy away from severing extremities and spatters of blood, both are equal as far as intensity is concerned. Supreme Sword is one of the transitional titles between the earlier, more rustic wuxia and the more acrobatic variety that would come to dominate the seventies. While the two Lady Snowblood (1973) movies with Meiko Kaji are retroactively more remembered (not only because they were far more bloodier, but also because they were remade in 2003-2004 by a certain American director as the two-part Kill Bill feature) Supreme Sword is not any less impressive. Especially considering that it came from a considerably smaller studio. If there’s one title to start exploring the massive repertoire of Connie Chan Po-Chu Supreme Sword is an excellent startingpoint. Although truthfully the two-part Seven Princesses (1967) epic is where any such journey should really begin.