I would start this with a gag about how there’s nothing worth saying about Street Fighter:
The Legend of Chun Li, but I’m gonna be talking for, like, twenty minutes straight,
so here we go,
Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun Li, a massive failure of intent.
Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun Li is a very odd film.
It feels like an honest attempt at taking the video game adaptation and elevating it
to the same level of respect as literary adaptations, and does so by mimicking…
You said cars pick their drivers.
Sometimes they pick a driver with a cheap-ass father, out the car.
Now, this isn’t to say that the literary adaptation is inherently high class, there
are definitely greater and lesser adaptations out there
On one hand you have adaptations like Annihilation that, while not strictly faithful to the original
text capture the spirit of the novel in a way that takes advantage of the change in
medium, and on the other hand you have stuff like Earthsea.
Did you see those red marking on the side of its head?
Yes, very attractive.
I've read about a dragon once with markings like those.
Fascinating, you can tell me by the fire one night.
Wait a minute. Red markings?
Like the dragon that ravaged Tavnor?
That's the one, do you remember it's true name?
The one to bind it?
The one to subdue it to your will so you can ask it any three questions you desire?
but that specific spread in quality, and the sheer volume of adaptations that have been
made, means that a movie based on a book tends to get a pretty fair shake critically.
The presuppositions created by the phrase “based on the best selling novel” are
broadly neutral, trending toward positive.
The same cannot be said for the phrase “based on the hit video game.”
The pursuit of the “respectable” video game movie has remained elusive, but boy are
studios still trying.
Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed would be the most recent failed attempts at securing
some prestige, but let’s roll back a decade.
The Playstation 3 and XBox 360 are hits, and high definition gaming is no longer next gen,
it’s the standard.
Blockbuster video games are investing more and more in narrative.
Genres that would have previously done little more than pointed the player in a direction
and just said “yeah, uh, shoot the dudes in red” are expected to have a campaign
laden with pathos, melodrama, full voice acting, and mocapped facial animation.
Simultaneously so-called nerd culture has surged into the mainstream with the better
part of the decade being dominated by huge geek franchises such as Harry Potter, the
Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Transformers dominating the box office and, to a large
degree, the cultural zeitgeist itself.
In 2009 Capcom tried to capitalize on this apparent respectability by turning Street
Fighter into an arty crime drama.
By copying The Transformers.
It did not work.
I love this job
While the dramatic qualities of Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers have been the subject of
endless ridicule and criticism, the spectacle still resonated with audiences, and those
profits definitely resonated with investors.
From aspect ratio to colour palette to story structure, everything about Legend of Chun Li
is the budget-friendly version.
Same aspect ratio, but using spherical lenses instead of expensive, troublesome anamorphic lenses.
Same colour palette, but in broad, washed tones instead of an expensive frame-by-frame
Same plot structure with a superfluous Troopcop b-plot that only collides with the a-plot
at the very end.
It’s actually kind of unsettling the degree to which Legend of Chun Li is clearly cribbing
from Michael Bay’s notes, all part of an attempt at coding itself as a “real movie”.
It even aspires to a similar weight and intensity.
Not just action, but capital D Drama, which brings us to the other primary influence,
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger.
On some level this project started as Crouching Tiger, they wanted Legend of Chun Li to be
a martial arts action movie that was, at its core, a character driven drama, much like
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
That's not a bad goal, all told, and a character like Chun Li isn't a bad choice if that's
the story you want to tell.
Within the Street Fighter universe Chun Li is easily one of the more accessible characters.
She's an attractive martial artist who works for Interpol, she's out to avenge her father's
death, and... that's about it.
Unlike a lot of the other characters from the games you don't have to exposit a deep
mythology, explain magic powers, or introduce dozens of other core characters in order to
tell her basic story.
It is a straightforward origins and revenge plot, which frees you up to really focus on,
well, character and story.
A good cue to the dramatic intent of the film is in the specifics of the editing.
The movie starts with a glory shot of the Golden Gate bridge which pans over to kid
Chun Li playing piano and her father watching proudly while adult Chun Li narrates over
top ruminating on her childhood dream of being a concert pianist.
This moment lasts almost a minute and has only two edits for a very quick insert.
From there the film cuts into a much faster paced sequence of aerial shots of Hong Kong,
and the music changes from relaxed piano to tense electro rock.
Both the editor and cinematographer are working to bring us into Chun Li's emotional space,
they want us to share her viewpoint and understand the contrast in her life, the peace and serenity
of her early years in San Francisco versus the uncertainty and chaos of Hong Kong.
This is solid fundamental film making.
So what’s the problem?
[Laughs] oh boy is the script terrible.
That’s not the only problem, but if we were to point to a singular core issue that's what
went wrong with Crouching Pianist Hidden Street Fighter: the script sucks.
The performances leave a lot to be desired, but it’s hard to give a powerful performance
when the script consists of gems like this:
my father was an important business man
Your father was a very well connected business man.
Kreuk sounds like she's reading a bedtime story to a three year old.
Which, yeah, sure, a great way to really elevate your video game movie is to condescend to
the audience like they’re actual children, sure, yeah.
With my mother gone, the path in front of me was empty.
I couldn't help feeling like I was being led somewhere new.
I’m actually willing to bet that this voice over, like many a terrible narrator past,
was a late addition once they realized the plot was not particularly compelling on its
own merits and audiences were having trouble following the setup because it’s boring.
However Kreuk’s condescending narration is not the least of the script's problems.
For some brevity, let's just make it into a list of major flaws, though I'm not going
to be able to get to all of these.
1 - Terrible dialogue 2 - Villain with unclear goals and motivations
3 - Poorly explained stakes 4 - Multiple extraneous characters with dead
end plotlines 5 - Main character learns nothing worthwhile
and does not change 6 - Changes are made to the source material
that actively makes the story worse 7 - Inconsistent moral core in a movie about
doing the right thing
And that is the bottom line that we’re going to dig into here: this movie sucks because
the script is terrible.
Let’s talk about that plot, shall we?
As a young child Chun Li wants to be a concert pianist.
Her family moves to Hong Kong.
She is taught Wushu by her father.
However at a young age her father is kidnapped by Bison, played here by Neal McDonough doing
his best to try and set himself apart from Raul Julia’s sublime performance of the
character by acting the character with a lilting Irish brogue.
Chun Li grows up and does become a concert pianist.
After a performance one night she receives an ancient scroll as a gift from an unknown
On her way home she sees a man with a spider web tattoo on his hand get mugged in the subway,
and she calls for help, but no one comes and then the scene just ends.
This is the kind of moment that isn’t going to stand out on the first viewing, because
you mentally assume they’re going to fill it in down the line, but they don’t.
I am, despite multiple viewings, hard pressed to explain the point or purpose of this mugging
Moving on Chun Li’s mom dies of cancer.
Bison has his business partners killed for no discernible reason.
Bison menaces Chun Li’s father who he has stashed away in a basement somewhere doing
After her mother’s funeral Chun Li gets her scroll read and the woman tells her she
needs to find a man named Gen, who’s the guy with the spider web tattoo, and then I
guess Chun Li becomes homeless in Thailand because that’s her plan to find Gen?
This isn't well explained at all, a lot changes very quickly, and none of her friends or family
seem concerned that she's quitting her job and moving to Bangkok on a whim shortly following
the death of her mother without making any prior arrangements for housing, finances,
We'll come back to this plot point later.
Bison acts menacing while talking about real estate.
Chun Li fights off six guys while starving and sleep deprived, then collapses after murdering
a man by dropping a shelving unit full of power tools onto him.
She's picked up by Gen who takes her back to his place and trains her to make fireballs
in an extended training montage and he tells Chun Li that Bison is the person who kidnapped
her father, and so Chun Li starts spying on Bison’s team.
Actually, as a part of this he explains that he used to be part of Shadaloo, Bison's organization,
but he grew a conscience so he started the Order of the Web to try and repair the damage
that he had done as a criminal, but he’s only, like, fifty, which would mean these
ancient scrolls are younger than a New Kids on the Block poster.
So the next 20 minutes or so are largely concerned with Bison’s real estate conspiracy.
He is, I guess, extorting the city of Bankok into selling him the riverside slums so that
he can kick out all the residents, bulldoze the neighbourhood, and build a series of luxury
condos, but I’m not sure why he needs to do all this extorting because this sounds
like exactly the kind of garbage move cities are already more than willing to do.
Also there’s a MacGuffin called the White Rose that Bison is trying to smuggle into
This sub plot leads to Chun Li following Bison’s henchwoman Cantana into a nightclub where
we’re going to put the movie on pause and talk for a second about gaze.
I have talked in the past about the Kuleshov effect, the principle of Montage, and the
psychological mechanisms through which editing creates meaning.
Now, gaze describes the act of looking.
In a film context we are principally concerned with the gaze of the camera, meaning what
the camera chooses to look at and how it chooses to look at it, and yes this involves anthropomorphizing
No better are the ideas of gaze and montage demonstrated than when a film chooses to use
its gaze to express the gaze of a character within the film, which is itself a situation
manufactured to justify gazing.
So, Chun Li’s plan to get information out of Cantana is to seduce her, a plan to which
Cantana is potentially receptive because she’s attracted to women, a detail that is communicated
to us the audience via the camera following her gaze, and gazing on the women in the dance
This isn’t necessarily condemnation, but I think it’s useful and instructive to actually
break down the why and how of this information exchange, how is it that we, as an audience,
come to understand that Cantana is attracted to women purely via the use of juxtaposed
Being aware of these kinds of mechanisms makes us more alert as film viewers, more conscious
of the ways in which a film is steering our attention and our emotions, and in turn making
us better equipped to vocalize the messages that media is presenting us with, in this
case the way that the film has chosen to justify staring at women’s asses by using a female
character as the agent of that staring.
Anyway, this subplot ends with Chun Li fighting Cantana in the bathroom, and as she’s escaping
from the nightclub she shoots a man in the chest at point blank range.
So, yeh, he’s dead.
In a scene that is up there in the realms of “where did they think they were going
Bison is using Cantana’s dead body as a punching bag because she’d already said
Alright, strap in for a second, ‘cus this is where things really jump off the rails.
Like, the punching bag scene is definitely something, Gen fills in Bison’s whole back
So, in his youth as the orphan of some Irish missionaries who died in Thailand he used
to just steal fish but crossfade time jump to much later in life when he’s I guess
no longer homeless he takes his very pregnant new wife to a cave and kills her by ripping
their baby out through her belly in order to put all his goodness into the baby so that
he wouldn't have a conscience and would only be pure evil.
We'll come back to this one too.
Evil guys attack the secret hide out in the stupidest way possible.
They send in ninjas to fight hand to hand when they have a rocket launcher in the car.
Both parts of that are stupid, but it does give us the best line in the film.
I'll do it myself
In the explosion Gen dies, then Bison hires Vega to kill Chun Li then Vega promptly gets
his ass kicked.
Now, this next scene, Chun Li physically assaults a civilian for not giving up private shipping
manifests and gets some more information about the White Rose, but for me the scene is more
instructive because of the sound.
I haven’t pointed this out up until now, but the dialogue in the film has overwhelmingly
been re-dubbed, which is actually part of why the performances feel so flat and disjointed:
the emotion of the face and lips just doesn’t quite match the sound that you’re hearing.
Also there’s a different character to the dialogue that’s recorded in a sound booth
versus the dialogue that’s recorded on set.
It’s subtle, but pervasive.
Now, if you listen to this guy’s lines,
listen lady, I think it's time for you to go
Hear how they’re kinda mumbly and overlapping with a lot of room noise and echoes?
I think it's time for you to go
I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that most of the on set sound was like this, which
is why there’s so much dubbing like this
What does this have to do with my father?
Many people wanted those connections.
People like Bison.
The leader of Shadaloo
Moving on with the plot, Chun Li gets trapped and captured.
Bison kills her dad in front of her.
She escapes, but takes a grazing shot in a market, and manages to slip away once a riot
Gen shows up because he’s not dead, just a dick, uses magic powers to heal her bullet
wound in seconds, and she finally figures out how to make a fireball.
Returning to the dock she threatens this guy again, there's a big fight at the docks, Gen
fights Balrog, they figure out that the White Rose is Bison's daughter, Chun Li knocks Bison
off the roof with a fireball, kills him in front of his daughter, buries her dad, plants
some sequel bait, credits roll.
Did you even notice the two supporting characters that I cut from the plot?
The interpol agent and the Thai detective?
Guess we didn't need them.
His name's Bison I’ve tracked him through eleven major cities on four continents and
never come close, not once.
They actually take up a substantial chunk of the screen time, they’re a couple of
cops in pursuit of Bison and his Shadalaoo organization, but mostly they just sit slightly
off to the side of the action or show up after everything is over.
They’re pretty much just here for padding and innuendo.
We should be more aggressive
Looks like you got that down
Well, unlike you, I don't lose my man
Alright, [cracking noise] let's start with the whole "abandoning your past life" storyline.
The first major flaw in this is that no one tries to stop her.
Her mother just died, she's clearly in a deeply vulnerable place in her life, and not one
of these people, friends, or extended family tries to intervene when she quits her job
and packs up her house.
this isn't indicative of a plot hole, it's indicative of a fundamental lack of drama
And this all ties in to another issue: she doesn't actually abandon everything.
She doesn't get up and walk away from it all, taking only some bare essentials and living
with the poorest of society.
Oh, sure, she sleeps in an alley and skips out on showering, but at the end of the movie
she's moving right back into her multimillion dollar Hong Kong mansion.
Living on the streets for a couple weeks was probably instructive, but she was basically
a poverty tourist.
If she ever got tired of living in a slum there was always a mansion waiting back in
She sacrificed nothing.
This ties directly into the character arc: Chun Li doesn't really learn anything or change.
At the start of the film she's a confident, spunky, kindhearted person.
As the film progresses she dabbles in poverty tourism, kills three men in cold blood without
remorse, and returns to her life of wealth as a spunky, kindhearted, slightly more confident
Now, that's not an irredeemable problem.
Lots of good movies have main characters who don't learn or change all that much.
But it IS a problem when your movie opens with the main character pondering how they
turned into the person they are!
Sometimes I wonder how I got to be the way I am.
The writers have explicitly set up a transformation story.
I used to be a little girl who wanted to be a piano player, now I'm a cold hearted killer
who murders people for the greater good.
I used to be a selfish, upper class snob, but I learned the value of hard work, community,
These are the kinds of stories that we are, very literally, being told to expect.
Any transformation contrast is deeply compromised by the early scenes of the film, when her
father is kidnapped.
Now, the problem is not the existence of these scenes, but their proportional length within
We're shown that she's been exposed to this criminal world since she was a little girl
and we only spend the briefest time with her as a civilian.
This is a really good example of how movies need to function emotionally and not just
We can look at the opening of the film and extrapolate that logically everything between
her father being kidnapped and her success as an adult was more or less normal but we
don’t feel the respective weight of these things
Because it's such a tiny part of the opening her time as a concert pianist feels more like
a brief interlude in a life of violence, a hobby that she took up to pass the time waiting
for revenge, rather than the normal world that she's pulled out of, and what little
we see of her in that stage of her life is basically the same person we see at the end
of the film.
The only thing that changes is the number of living parents and felony murders.
Next up is the whole thing where Bison transfers his goodness into a little baby.
I have a couple problems with this scene.
First, and least important, is that the intensity and violence of the scene is considerably
out of place given the tone and treatment of violence throughout the rest of the film.
It's an extremely jarring kick-the-dog scene that's meant to show the audience just how
evil the bad guy is, but I think it becomes less effective because it's so relatively
It's such a sharp break from almost everything else that it pulls you out to a place where
it stops being the actions of a character and becomes the decision of some filmmakers.
You’re not thinking about the moment and its place in the emotional tapestry of the
movie, you’re thinking about why the people who made this made it the way they did.
The only other scene that comes close is where Bison is using Cantana’s body as a punching
bag, while everything else is sanitized, bloodless, fantasy violence.
Beyond that is the implications of this scene on the metaphysical world of the film.
So, first, things that happen in movies don’t need to be true.
Like, characters can believe something without that thing being diegetically factual.
It's one thing for this myth to exist, for Gen to tell Chun Li this mystical rumour that
he heard, but it's effectively confirmed later in the film that his daughter is, in fact,
the vessel holding all the goodness of his soul.
That means that in the world of Street Fighter good and bad are tangible products that can
be transferred from one person to another.
While the implications on free will and morality are staggering, most importantly it does nothing
to actually improve the story at all.
It makes Bison less comprehensible.
It doesn’t make his goals any clearer.
We still have no idea what he's up to, what he's doing on a day to day basis, and what
his end goal is.
It actually makes it worse.
By offloading the explanation onto supernatural evil the screenwriters fall into the trap
where the villain’s actions are tautologically justified by them being the villain.
It’s fine for melodrama, Raul Julia understood that
The day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life.
But for me?
It was Tuesday.
But Legend of Chun Li is trying to take itself seriously.
There's one thing I learned in the slums: when people are hungry there's nothing they
Everyone has a price.
There's a plot in here about buying up waterfront property for redevelopment, but they're extorting
the city board into making the sale which makes no sense.
Was the board zoning the area as a slum for purely altruistic reasons?
It's like the writers couldn't decide if Bison should be using black magic, private military,
shady business practices, or a Chinatown style shakedown, so they tried to squeeze them all
It's hard to care about any of them since the stakes are so vague.
The people who live in the slum get kicked out, then vanish never to be seen or mentioned
again, not that we ever really connected with them in the first place.
The big showdown at the end with Interpol, Bison, and Chun Li doesn't even have anything
to do with the whole slum buyout anyway, and the plot line is never resolved.
The only reason anyone cares about the White Rose shipment is because they think it might
be a weapon, even though Bison’s whole plan is pretty much just capitalism.
To top it all off, the changes to the source material actively make the story worse.
In her original incarnations Chun Li is alternately an undercover cop or an Interpol agent.
Changing her from a cop to a concert pianist does nothing to raise the stakes or make the
character more relatable.
In fact it makes the story hard to tell because you now have to justify all kinds of crazy
crap that's super easy to hand wave if she works for interpol.
Why is she in Thailand?
Why does she know martial arts?
Why does she have combat training and not freak out the first time someone pulls a gun
Why does she care about the legal front of a criminal organization?
all of this action nonsense is just explained in one line if she works for Interpol.
The character conflict comes baked in: when she confronts Bison does she stick with her
training and let the courts bring him to justice, or does she extract revenge and kill him herself?
When she meets Gen does she stick with Interpol with its superior resources, but strict rules
and expectations, or become a vigilante and join the Order of the Web?
Instead we're asked to believe that a concert pianist who learned kung fu as a kid is going
to be willing to throw herself at a well armed international criminal organization and not
wind up as Jane Doe floating down the river.
So, they wanted to legitimize the video game adaptation and they screwed it up with an
Every single problem with this movie comes back to the script.
The characters frequently make decisions based on information they don't have because the
script needs to get them somewhere, the villains are an indistinct mass made of every bad guy
trope possible, resulting in an antagonist that's too confusing to take seriously, and
entire chunks of the film are flat out useless to the story.
the funny thing is that they failed so hard that even when talking about video game movies,
a sub-genre that is peppered with examples that plumb the depths of shoddy, hilarious,
and hilariously shoddy filmmaking, that they made something most notable for how forgettable
It does all make the movie somewhat unique.
You're not a schoolgirl anymore.
Really in all the agonizing over when video game movies are going to finally be good we
miss that they already peaked with Super Mario Bros. in 1993.
Okay, look, how many Marios are there between the two of ya?
There's three: there's Mario Mario and Luigi Mario
Help these Marios around the side.