Tomorrow is Another Day (黃金花, Chan Tai-lee, 2017)

tomorrow is another day posterMiddle-aged malaise is fast becoming a dominant theme in Chinese language cinema, but the pressures faced by the heroine of the debut feature from Ip Man screenwriter Chan Tai-lee are compounded by a series of additional responsibilities and the relative lack of support available to help her cope with them. Tomorrow is Another Day (黃金花) is, in many ways, a family drama with a sympathetic depiction of the demands of caring for a child with special needs at its centre, but it’s also the story of a marriage and of the essential bonds between a mother and a son as the family struggles to survive in a sometimes hostile environment.

Mrs. Wong (Teresa Mo), interviewed at a community centre, relates the routines of her daily life to a camera crew. Describing herself as a “regular housewife”, Mrs. Wong’s existence revolves around caring for her husband (Ray Lui) – a driving instructor, and her 20-year-old autistic son, Kwong (Ling Man-lung). She tells the film crew she is happy with her life and on one level she is, but she also fears her philandering husband is up to his old tricks again. Mr. Wong is indeed having an affair with one of his pupils, a much younger nurse called Daisy (Bonnie Xian Seli) who seems to have well and truly got her hooks into him. Knowing of her husband’s string of extra-marital affairs which has spanned the entirety of the marriage, Mrs. Wong has made a decision to turn a blind eye for the sake of her son but this latest dalliance has proved difficult for her to bear. After Daisy randomly invites herself into the family home when Mrs. Wong is shopping, the couple argue and Mr. Wong walks out leaving Mrs. Wong to care for Kwong all alone.

Kwong, usually cheerful and well behaved, experiences occasional meltdowns when told he can’t have something that he wants, often resorting to frustrated acts of self harm including bashing his head against nearby solid objects. Though Kwong is not violent towards others, he is now a grown man and much stronger than his mother who finds it difficult to help him calm down on her own. Mr. Wong’s forearms are a mess of scars and bruises received whilst trying to restrain his son from hurting himself, and the physical strain of caring him has often weighed heavy on his conflicted father’s mind.

Though Mrs. Wong and Kwong experience frequent discrimination from those who are unaware of his needs – other mothers pull their children out of the playground when Kwong comes to play, and Mrs. Wong finds it difficult to get a part-time job when her prospective employers spot Kwong standing beside her, the other neighbourhood housewives have become used to Kwong’s way of being and are keen to help out where they can. Like Mrs. Wong, many of the other women have their own problems whether worrying about the (lack of) academic progress of their sons, or trying to combat the potential loneliness of early widowhood through friendship and community. Hearing of Mrs. Wong’s marital problems via the neighbourhood grapevine (another source of humiliation for Mrs. Wong), everyone has taken her side against the villainous Daisy but they’re also worried Mrs. Wong may consider harming herself while faced with so many conflicting pressures.

Mrs. Wong however, has half her mind on revenge and has taken to watching crime documentaries which give her the idea that she could get herself a convenient alibi by going to the Mainland by official means and then smuggling herself back in to off Daisy in the hope that her husband might finally remember his responsibilities. Daisy, it has to be said, is a one note villain and it’s difficult to see why she is so intent on pursuing a dead end romance with a middle-aged, married, driving instructor without coming to the conclusion that she must love causing trouble, especially as Mr. Wong seems to find her quite irritating even once he’s taken the “decision” to leave his family for her. Mr. Wong himself is also a bundle of contradictions but emerges as a weak willed man who has never been able to fully commit to his marriage and struggles with the responsibility involved in being the father of a child with special needs. Though he eventually seems to reconcile himself to his role as his son’s father and his wife’s husband, there is something conceited in his belief that his family will simply take him back when he has caused them so much pain and suffering by his hastily taken decision to abandon them.

Kwong is more perceptive than his mother gives him credit for, and Mrs. Wong too is eventually forced to consider the effect her darkening mindset has had on his emotional wellbeing. Tomorrow is Another Day offers no easy answers in its sympathetic portrayal of a middle-aged woman driven to extremes by a series of conflicting pressures but eventually finds finds comfort in living in the now as the family begins to find its way home, cutting through the noise of a high pressure city to rediscover what it is that’s really important.


Tomorrow is Another Day receives its US premiere as the closing night film of the sixth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema programme on 16th May, 2018. The screening begins at 7pm, AMC River East 21 and tickets are already on sale via the official website.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema will return for the seventh season in the autumn – make sure you’re up to date with all the latest information by following the festival on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vimeo.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist (藍天白雲, Cheung King-wai, 2017)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist posterCheung King-wai, making his narrative feature debut, opens with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the effect that people, even bad people, are often far more innocent and pure-hearted than most realise, including we ourselves. The quote, overlaid above the vision of the city at night glowing red like dying furnace, introduces us to the story we are about to hear – one which is dark, too dark perhaps to imagine, but then again all too real. Caught in the twilight half light, Hong Kong is fiery cauldron of hell, yet when the sun rises and the mist rolls in, it’s hard to see what the night made so terrible.

As if to underline the confusion, we begin with a lost old man who is desperately searching either for a way in or a way out. His housekeeper eventually comes to find him and bring him home and we discover he is the father of one of our heroines, Angela (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) – a police detective expecting her first child. Angela’s father, Dr. Ho, is suffering from advanced dementia which is beginning to take its toll on Angela’s home life even if she leaves most of the responsibility to her compassionate husband, Tony.

Meanwhile, the bodies of a middle-aged couple have been discovered at a reservoir. The police set about looking for the couple’s missing daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung Yung-ting), only to find her holed up in the mountains with her best friend Eric (Zeno Koo Ting-hin). Connie reacts with eerie calm when informed of the deaths of her parents, merely repeating that she was already aware before agreeing to accompany the police to the station where she, matter of factly, confesses to having been the one who murdered them.

Cheung’s intention is not to create a murder mystery, Connie freely confesses her crime and isn’t particularly interested in explanations or justifications (though as it turns out, she would have plenty). He is much more interested in the examining the society which made such an “unthinkable” crime possible, exposing the dark heart of an increasingly confused city which finds itself pulled in two directions by various political anxieties.

Back with the original image of the city as a pit of hell, each of our protagonists becomes a link in a circular chain of violence, turning their own feelings of oppression, marginalisation, and despair back on their fellow suffers. Connie, as we find out, comes from an extremely dysfunctional home in which her truck driver father lists small time pimping among his “hobbies”, openly masturbates while watching hardcore Japanese pornography in the family living room only enjoying it more for the thought of taunting his teenage daughter, rapes the family’s disabled mother, and seemingly ignores his grown up son. Catching Connie’s friend Eric hiding in a cupboard in her room, he assumes the pair are up to no good and drags the boy out to viciously beat him with his belt just to remind him who it is that is boss around here, pausing only to remind Connie that “a virgin pussy” is worth more money and if she’s that desperate he can find her a client to satisfy both their needs.

Strangely enough, Eric does not completely object to the beating. He sees it as a sign of validation. Like Connie, Eric is also a lonely, marginalised figure but in his case because he is gay and desperately wants not to be. Being mistaken for Connie’s boyfriend is, in his eyes, a kind of proof of his “manhood” and so it’s a beating he is almost grateful to receive unlike those from his schoolmates who taunt him with broom handles and scream homophobic slurs which only add to his feelings of extreme worthlessness. Eric wanted to be friends with Connie to escape both suspicion and loneliness, but she, in a cutting moment of despair, also uses his insecurity over his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy as a “man” against him to get him to help with her plan to free herself of parental tyranny. Connie hates bullies, but she hates people who don’t stand up to them more. Thus she becomes the gentle defender of another marginalised figure – Jessica, an Indian girl who is targeted because she wears trousers under her school skirt, constantly assailed with slurs about “stinky” curry and various other stereotypical insults that leave her in tears.

Eric points out that his beating at the hands of Connie’s father didn’t bother him because it was “understandable” – a father finds a boy hiding in his daughter’s room and chases him out. The logic is sound, it’s a story you’ve heard before – not like the senseless acts of violence which surround him every day and cannot be explained. Connie’s crime too seems “understandable” given all she’s suffered, a precaution taken to save her from a still more terrible fate she feared might soon come her way. This is the uncomfortable realisation with which Angela is faced during her investigation, forcing her to confront her own difficult relationship with her apparently tyrannical father who made her mother’s life a misery. Angela has to accept that she could easily have been Connie, or Connie her, though she ultimately made the (still taboo) decision to place her father into a home rather than continue to look after him herself. Tube fed and alone, Angela’s father is utterly powerless but however much she wishes she could abandon him she continues to visit even if her resentment is plain. Then again, if a parent breaks the contract first in failing to care for their child in infancy, should the child still be expected to care for them when they are old? Perhaps they owe each other nothing other than civility and an attempt at forgiveness.

Asked why she ran to the mountains, Connie replies that she went to live “the life I deserve”. Dreaming of a world “beyond the mist”, free from the city’s confusion and the constant stream of violence passing from one lonely soul to another, Connie transgressed in order to free herself but has only found greater imprisonment and ongoing mental torment. Beautifully photographed, Cheung’s narrative debut is a bleak and gloomy affair but somehow maintains its belief in a better place Somewhere Beyond the Mist even if it continues to elude us.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 3 (西遊記女兒國, Cheang Pou-soi, 2018)

the monkey king 3 posterSun Wu Kong and his band of merry scripture seekers will face many challenges on their journey to the West, but none so dangerous as the poison of love! Aaron Kwok reprises his role as the titular Monkey King in the third of the ongoing series directed by Cheang Pou-soi (here credited as Soi Cheang) but steps back a few paces into a supporting role while noble hearted monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) takes centre stage to face the multifaceted dilemma of love and personal fulfilment vs the fulfilment of his quest to better the lives of all mankind. An age old problem, but one you can’t truly address until you have stake in the game.

Xuanzang, now returned and dressed in white, has a romantic destiny – something which makes him a little nervous as he happily sails along a picturesque river in the company of companions Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiaoshenyang) while Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) flies along behind, apparently having mislaid his trousers somewhere along the way. All of a sudden the atmosphere darkens as the gang sail into a “demonic” area where they are attacked by a giant, whale-like river god and subsequently thrown into another dimension thanks to an intervention from the Goddess of Mercy (now played by Liu Tao in place of the series’ previous cameo from Kelly Chen).

The guys have inadvertently landed themselves in Womanland which is 100% man free. In fact men are illegal and to be executed on sight which is a bit of a problem seeing as it’s also impossible to leave. Not so much of a problem, however, as the strange moment which occurred between Xuanzang and the Queen of Womanland (Zhao Liying) as their eyes met during a near fatal fall from a cliff edge. Following the childish exuberance of the first film and the morbidly gothic horror of the second, it’s love which now threatens to derail our heroes’ quest and with it the possibility of salvation for all mankind.

Womanland was founded by a woman scorned who turned her back on faithless men forevermore, instructing her followers that men are selfish and duplicitous, that they lie to win the hearts of women which they later break in forsaking them for the next conquest. The holy scriptures of Womanland warn of the “poison of love” which is (usually, they say) spread from man to woman and leads to nothing but inescapable suffering. Foreswearing all romance (apparently there is no concept of romantic love in the all woman kingdom save the rumour that there was once a young woman who fell in love with a river she was never able to see) turns out not to be the best solution to the problem as we discover that all the ruckus in the world above is in someway caused by these repressed or denied emotions as well as by a failure to accept that sometimes feelings must be sacrificed in favour of greater responsibilities.

Whereas the second film pitted Wu Kong and Xuanzang against each other as advocates of compassion and rationality, this time Xuanzang must face a monk’s dilemma alone in deciding whether the love of one woman is equal to that of the whole of mankind. His choice is a forgone conclusion but serves to remind the monk that denying one’s true feelings is not the same as facing them and wilfully isolating oneself from possible suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The residents of Womanland discover something similar in the parallel journey of their embittered first minister (Gigi Leung) whose own unfulfilled romantic desires have made her cruel and vindictive only to be presented with another choice and find herself denying love for duty once again.

Duty, however, turns out to be warmer than it sounds – in Womanland, maternal love trumps the romantic, undercutting the otherwise progressive atmosphere of a society of women doing fine on their own with a return to maternity as central virtue of womanhood. Love is the force which threatens to undo carefully won civility (a “bourgeois affectation” as the more dogmatic definition would have it), but desire repressed rivals love scorned as a force to burn the world. Xuanzang has a choice to make, but the choice itself is not so important as the conscious act of choosing. Aside from a bizarre subplot featuring male pregnancy and forced abortion, Monkey King 3 makes a largely successful shift away from gung-ho adventuring into poignant romantic melodrama. With the gang en route to Fire Mountain, where will their journey take them next?


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion Film.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精, Cheang Pou-soi, 2016)

Monkey King 2 posterThe Monkey King returns! Again! This time it’s Aaron Kwok (who, confusingly enough, played the villain in the first film) picking up the staff of the titular hero for Cheang Pou-soi in place of martial arts star Donnie Yen but otherwise it’s business as usual for the mischievous Sun Wu Kong as he finally sets off on his journey to the west with the preliminaries already well sorted out. After 500 years trapped under a mountain, you’d think Wu Kong might have had some time to reflect on his behaviour but alas, there is still a very long journey ahead of him

So, 500 years after the end of the first film which saw Wu Kong imprisoned under Five Finger Mountain by the Goddess of Mercy, a young monk, Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng), gets himself into a sticky situation with a giant white tiger. Crawling into a crevice to hide, he finds himself face to face with Wu Kong who urges him to remove the magic tag which keeps him imprisoned. Xuanzang, little understanding what he’s letting himself in for, tugs on the tag. Wu Kong busts right out of his rocky cage and valiantly defeats the “evil demonic” tiger. Of course this is all in the grand plan envisioned by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) who has a mission for Wu Kong – escort Xuanzang to the West where he will find a set of scriptures which will unlock the truths of the world.

Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精) focusses on Wu Kong’s battle with the White Lady (AKA White Boned Demon, played by Gong Li) who has been nursing a deep and incurable grudge for even longer than Wu Kong was trapped under that mountain. Like Wu Kong, the White Lady was rejected by her own kind, blamed for something that wasn’t her fault and cast out as a demon to be pecked to death by vultures all alone on a rocky outcrop. You can understand why she’d be upset, but rather than an end to her suffering the White Lady wants only immortality to indulge her grudge still further. Unfortunately for Wu Kong, she has taken a fancy to Xuanzang who she thinks would make quite the tasty snack and help her live forever as a demon rather than die as a hated human – one of those who has so badly wronged her.

Wu Kong serves the Goddess of Mercy but his primary motivation in accompanying Xuanzang is to get the metal tiara he’s wearing taken off so he can misbehave again. Nevertheless, through their journey Wu Kong develops deep respect for the goodhearted monk even if they do not always see eye to eye. Wu Kong whose fiery eyes see one kind truth can recognise a “demon” when he sees one and his hardheartedness means he has no trouble killing them on sight. Xuanzang by contrast sees with his heart and is constantly troubled by Wu Kong’s desire for violence even if it’s in his name. Wu Kong sees Xuanzang’s philosophy of love and forgiveness as naive and prefers to be proactive in the face of danger (his fiery eyes do, after all, ensure he is “right” when comes to identifying demons), but Xuanzang worries that Wu Kong’s unforgiving heart creates only more suffering in a world already overflowing with negative emotions and their unfortunate effects.

It is, however, the Monkey King who is on a journey here – away from selfish mischief and towards a more responsible use of his vast powers. Wu Kong is tempted by the White Lady, seductively played by Gong Li with a strangely alluring quality of malevolence. Yet for all that (when all that sometimes means eating innocent monks and being suspected of drinking the blood children), the White Lady is not completely unsympathetic and Xuanzang’s desire to save her admirable in his commitment to lifting those in pain out of their dark places even if it comes at great personal cost to himself.

Kwok makes for a less cartoonish Monkey King than Yen, embracing the impulsivity of the unpredictable Wu Kong but also capturing something of his complicated emotional landscape as he finds himself drawing closer to Xuanzang’s way of thinking only to rebel against himself. Learning from the mistakes of the first film, Cheang ends the headache inducing sugar rush in favour of a more normal Chinese fantasy aesthetic while also ensuring the (still frequent use of) CGI is of a much better (if imperfect) quality. All in all, the second venture of the Monkey King can be counted a success which is fortunate indeed because his journey is far from over.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sleep Curse (失眠, Herman Yau, 2017)

sleep curse posterInsomnia can be like a curse, a yearning for sleep that yields no rest and paints the days with a lingering greyness but the regular kind of sleeplessness rarely has consequences as extreme as those experienced by the beleaguered protagonists of Herman Yau’s The Sleep Curse (失眠). Historical trauma and cultural memories continue to haunt the present, the refusal to lay the dead to rest giving rise to a hundred hungry ghosts all asking for recognition and some gesture of atonement from those that have come later. Yau’s film touches on some thorny, even taboo areas but doing so in the context of a Category III horror extravaganza that eventually descends into a bloodbath of perverse depravity might even push poor taste too far.

In 1990, a Malaysian Chinese grandfather celebrates his birthday and then develops chronic insomnia which eventually drives him insane, murderous, and suicidal. Meanwhile, abrasive professor Lam Sik-ka (Anthony Wong) is hard at work on a controversial research programme to discover a way for people to live without the need for sleep. His latest grant application has just been turned down because the university can’t see the benefit in his research and claim his methods are unethical. Sik-ka is, therefore, even happier than might be thought to reunite with a former girlfriend, Monique (Jojo Goh), who is the granddaughter of the Malaysian Chinese grandpa and suffers from a rare sleep disorder herself. It’s not for herself she’s approaching Sik-ka though, but for her brother.

For unrelated reasons, Sik-ka is also anxious to lay his own father’s ghost to rest by visiting a Taoist priest to help him remember what happened to his dad back in 1943. What ensues is two lengthy flashbacks to occupied Hong Kong in which Sik-ka’s father, Sing (also played by Wong), is coerced into collaborating with the Japanese when it is discovered that he was raised in Japan and has fluent command of the language. While Sing’s capitulation is guilt-ridden and born of fear for himself and his family, another turncoat, Chow Fok (Gordon Lam), has embraced his role as an active participant in Japanese rule, rounding up girls for the local “comfort station” which he himself runs.

The Japanese are an easy target, but Yau has his sights set on the evils of collaboration and his eye is particularly unforgiving. Sik-ka’s father is repeatedly described as a “good man”, though often by those seeking to justify his less good actions. The film acknowledges the difficulty of Sing’s position as a single father desperate to protect his son and mother yet fearing that one wrong move or unwise refusal may get them all killed. He does good where he can – helping a small number of young comfort women to escape, but finds that his “good” deed provokes only more harm when 40 are required to take the place of four escaped. Sing saves one of twins, “awarded” to him in place of a wife by the lecherous Japanese Colonel, but finds himself the subject of a curse by her supernaturally endowed sister who casts her evil eye upon all those who have wronged her.

This particular plot development makes little sense seeing as Sing is the one thing between her sister and the fate worse than death that she has just endured. Nevertheless, the vengeful ghost of a betrayed woman follows one generation to the next in her quest for retribution, remaining unseen and unremembered by those who should avenge her. Given the sensitivity of the issues, which maybe more pronounced in territories further North than Hong Kong, it is perhaps in poor taste to make them the centre of an exploitation leaning Category III horror film, offering only the message that the unresolved past will eventually consume the children who inherit only past trauma from their guilt ridden (or unrepentant) forebears.

Yau begins in the mode of tame absurdity as Sik-ka calmly breaks into a morgue for an impromptu bit of brain theft (later shoving his loot into a hollowed out durian fruit to hide his crime), but descends into blood soaked depravity in the increasingly strange final reel. Genuinely outrageous, though also incoherent, The Sleep Curse should provoke nightmares enough with its shocking, gore filled finale but may also leave a sour taste in the mouth.


Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles – contains intense gore/violence!)

Trivisa (樹大招風, Frank Hui & Jevons Au & Vicky Wong, 2016)

Trivisa posterIt’s worth just taking a moment to appreciate the fact that a film named for the three Buddhist poisons – delusion, desire, and fury, is intended as a criticism of Hong Kong as an SAR that revels in the glory and subsequent downfall of three famous criminals who discover that crime does not pay right on the eve of the handover. Mentored by Johnnie To, Trivisa (樹大招風) is directed by three young hopefuls discovered through his Fresh Wave program each of whom directs one of the film’s three story strands which revolve around a trio of famous Hong Kong criminals.

Back in the ‘80s, as Mrs. Thatcher delivers her pledges on the Hong Kong handover, King of Thieves Kwai Ching-hung (Gordon Lam) gets stopped by a random police patrol, kills the officers, and then has to fake his identity to escape. 15 years later he’s a petty mobile phone trafficker dreaming of pulling off a big score. Meanwhile, Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), once known for his AK47 brandishing robberies is a “legitimate businessman” smuggling black market electronics into Hong Kong and bribing Mainland officials to do it, while Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) is a flamboyant gangster revelling in underworld glory and dreaming of eternal fame.

Rather than weave the three stories into one coherent whole or run them as entirely separate episodes, the three strands run across and through each other only to briefly reunite in the ironic conclusion. The most famous of the three real life criminals, Kwai Ching-hung’s arc is perhaps the most familiar though rather than fighting an existential battle against his bad self, Kwai’s quest is to regain his title as Hong Kong’s most audacious thief. To do this, he’s reunited with an old friend and comrade in arms who’s retired from the life and married a Thai woman with whom he has an adorable little daughter. Unbeknownst to him, Kwai has not come for old times’ sake but is taking advantage of the fact that the family live directly opposite his latest score. Employing two Mainland mercenaries, Kwai has his eyes on the prize but his friend is wilier than he remembered, is quickly suspicious of Kwai’s friendship with his daughter, and has his suspicions confirmed when he finds his kid’s backpack full of guns.

Yip’s story, by contrast, is one of diminished expectations and ongoing financial woes. An early scene at a restaurant finds Yip in the company of Mainland officials to whom he must scrape and bow, placating them with various bribes and engaging in the strange trade of precious vases which seems to pass as currency among corrupt civil servants. Corporate shenanigans and business disputes, however, are no substitute for good old fashioned firefights and Yip’s frustration with his new career is sure to lead to some kind of explosion at some point in time.

Cheuk becomes the lynchpin of the three as he takes an advantage of a rumour that the three “Kings of Thieves” are getting together to plan a giant heist to track down the other two and see if he can make it work for real. The most successful and happiest in his life, Cheuk has made his fortune out of ostentatious crime – kidnapping the sons of the extremely wealthy for hearty ransoms. He is, however, bored and dreams of making a giant splash which will ensure his name remains in the history books for evermore – i.e., blowing up the Queen.

Facing the approaching handover, each is aware the world will change, unsure as to how they’re in the process of trying to secure their futures either way. Kwai wants one last heist, Yip has already begun courting Chinese business, and Cheuk just wants to be the face in all the papers across the entire Chinese world. Kwai’s sin is “desire” – he wants one last hit as a criminal mastermind and he’s willing to take advantage of his friend (and even his friend’s young daughter) to get it, Yip’s sin is “fury” as dealing with constant humiliation leaves him longing for his AK 47, and Cheuk’s failing is “delusion” in his all encompassing need to be the big dog around town, all flashy suits and toothy grins. On the eve of the handover they all meet a reckoning – betrayal, a stupid and pointless death, or merely ridiculous downfall.

The heyday of crime has, it seems, ended but that’s definitely a bad thing, laying bare a change in dynamics between nations and a decline in the kind of independence which allows the flourishing of a criminal enterprise. Bearing To’s hallmark in its tripartite structure, ironic comments on fate and connection, and eventual decent into random gun battle, Trivisa is a ramshackle exploration of a watershed moment in which even hardened criminals must learn to live in a brave new world or risk being consumed by it.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gallants (打擂台, Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)

Gallants PosterLike the master at the centre of Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s Gallants (打擂台), old school martial arts movies have been in a deep sleep since their Shaw Brothers heyday. Drawing inspiration from the kung fu films of old, Gallants is a tale of buried heroism suddenly reawakening and the risks of writing off veteran challengers just because of their age. It’s also a tribute to those perhaps more innocent times and, in contrast to a prevailing trend, a true Hong Kong film filled with typically Cantonese (sometimes untranslatable humour) and meta references to the area’s long cinematic history.

For a brief moment in his childhood, Cheung (Wong You-nam) was the unbeatable superhero who never lost a fight. These days, he’s a nerdy loser who sometimes hides under his desk to escape his angry boss. Despatched by the shady real estate company he works for, Cheung is sent back to his rural hometown entrusted with the mission of convincing the local population to surrender their homes so the developers can build a large scale complex. Whilst there he gets attacked by local punks only to be saved by an old guy who has immense kung fu skills.

The old guy turns out to be one of two living in a ramshackle tea house that used to be a martial arts studio. Tiger (Leung Siu-lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) turned the Gate of Law into a teahouse to make ends meet while their legendary sifu, Master Law (Teddy Robin), has been in a coma for the last 30 years. When a fight breaks out and the old guys get to strut their stuff against a local kingpin, Cheung decides to petition them to take him on as a pupil. In a classic case of bad timing, Cheung is around when the teahouse is raided again and someone attacks Master Law causing him to wake up and act as if the last 30 years never happened. He thinks Cheung is both of his young pupils, Tiger and Dragon, in one and that the real 30 years older versions of Tiger and Dragon are some random old guys Cheung has agreed to train out of pity.

If you don’t fight, you won’t lose quips Law, but if you fight you have to win. Like any good martial movie, Gallants is more about the journey than the destination. Rather than focussing solely on Cheung who experiences several conflicts of the heart when he realises that his adversary is the childhood friend he used to bully and that he was technically on the wrong side to begin with, Kwok and Cheng broaden the canvas to allow Tiger, Dragon, and Law to take centre stage. Still skilled martial artists, the guys give it their all in the knowledge that they’ll have to work far harder now that they aren’t as agile as they once were. Still, they have the true spirit of kung fu and resolve to keep getting back up each time they’re knocked down.

This oddly defeatist attitude which presupposes humiliation but insists on perseverance gives the film much of its warmhearted, ironic tone as the hapless martial arts heroes repeatedly fail yet refuse to back down. The other source of comedy lies in the hilarious performance of the tiny Teddy Robin as the supposedly all powerful Law. Law, as it turns out, is a wisecracking lecher who sets about flirting with just about every young girl he lays eyes on before decamping to a hostess bar and asking for the ladies from 30 years ago. Former starlet Susan Shaw makes an amusing cameo as the long suffering, lovelorn doctor apparently in love with Law since their youth who has continued to care for him throughout his illness but is entirely forgotten when Law wakes up in full on sleaze mode.

Bizarre gags including one about a missing preserved duck, jostle with impressive action sequences performed by two veterans proving they’ve still got what it takes all these years later. The aesthetic is pure ‘70s Shaw Brothers complete with speedy zooms and whip pans accompanied by an overly dramatic score, lovingly echoing the classic kung fu era rather than trying to attack it through parody. As funny as it all is, and it is, Gallants is also surprisingly warmhearted as it finds space to value the skills of its elderly protagonists as well as the enduring bonds of friendship which connect them.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)