The monk is in town to avenge his brother, though because he’s taken a vow not to kill, he brings a team of assassins along. Only a young couple can stop them, though it’ll involve interrupting their reunion date, which begins with a roll in the hay and a strange discussion of the restorative powers of, uh, “male proteins.” Such is the setup of Vaughn Christion’s The Yaku and the Undefeated, which would sound convoluted were I to fully explicate the circumstances of revenge and defense at play but which unfolds in a nicely streamlined manner from one fight scene to the next, as some seeming moral ambiguities are headthwacked into clarity, villains are dispatched, and a restaurant reservation may or may not be broken.
Vaughn Christion is Newark’s longest-working filmmaker, and I’ve written at length about him before, so I won’t rehash except to say Yaku carries the torch he’s long held, blending pulp action-thriller and martial arts like a 70s grindhouse double feature condensed into a single film. I mean that as praise, of course—it’s possible that some folks attending other screenings at the Newark International Film Festival, where this proudly premiered today at Newark’s Cityplex, might have more highbrow tastes, but let ‘em have their Merchant-Ivory knockoffs or global middlebrow whatevers; this is good cheesy fun, without a hint of ironic distance, and I salute everything about that.
As always in Christion films, women kick more ass than the men, and as heroine Phay’yin Touble, debut performer Sofia Salgado doesn’t cater to gender conventions; girly enough to paint her toenails as she drives (?!), she also carefully takes off her heels every time she needs to duke it out with baddies. No damsel in distress, she’s even paying for the dinner reservation that begins the film and she brings flowers to her man, so take that, patriarchy! Against her, Robyn Elise makes for a sinewy killer with a mean spear. The men in the film do an admirable job at staying in the background as necessary: smooth male lead Wesley Renard is as likely to be rescued by his date as to do the rescuing, and Struggle E. Stylez, as the monk, exudes gravitas with few words and visibly struggles to maintain his vow while choking out an enemy. There are a few slightly stiff supporting players, but hey, find me a Jim Kelly or Wings Hauser film where that’s not the case!
At some level, the fight’s the thing in Yaku, and they’re well-blocked with some inventive moments that drew crowd cheers. The budgetary limitations are apparent, but they also keep Christion honest: no cop-out CGI action here, just straightforward old-school kicks, punches, and jumps. Props too to the sound team: one throat-crushing had a wet crunch visceral enough to win a wince.
Some of Christion’s idiosyncratic tactics are held in abeyance here; as with Key of Brown, his last film, shooting digitally has polished some of his rougher edges. Still, some distinct flourishes remain. Who else would employ this color arrangement?
The other through-line linking this to Christion’s earlier work is the North Jersey nighttime ambiance, an evocative blur of traffic lights, dark alleyways, parking lots, and floating helicopter cityscape shots that recursively punctuate the action. What’s remarkable is that his emphasis on this mood-setting material has remained tonally consistent even through the shooting-technology changes from 16mm of The Wrong Disciple to Heaven’s 35mm foray and into the digital era. As always, you could call it filler, but you’d miss the soul of the project: imagine Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks except with a kung fu fight on the diner’s counter; that empty street would still set the vibe. Rutgers Business School and the down Renaissance Towers show up briefly, and some of the film was apparently shot in the Ironbound Film & Television Studio, but other parts look scattered around the region and maybe outer-borough New York too, I’m not certain (I’m relying on previews and images from the movie’s Facebook page here, so my visual selections are limited).
In any case, to keep it short and sweet: I’m not really an impartial critic here, I’m an unrepentant Vaughn Christion booster. But The Yaku and the Undefeated is a perfect extension of his filmography, another enjoyable, ever-so-slightly off-kilter DIY b-movie by an unsung hero of North Jersey regional filmmaking.
World premiere bonus pics!
Nerd-cinephilia in action: