John Woo sparked a mass exodus of talent out of the Hong Kong film industry. Along with the spectre of the city’s takeover by the mainland Chinese government and the film industry itself under the stranglehold of organized crime, there hasn’t been much hope for the once thriving film center that used to rank in the world’s top five.
The one ray of hope has been a series of crime films called “Young and Dangerous” I through V. All were directed by Andrew Lau. Last year Lau came out with a film that was a huge leap forward and brought some new hope to the town. This movie broke previous opening-day box office records held by “Titanic” and “Jurassic Park: The Lost World”. It’s called “The Stormriders”.
Why so popular? It has a large budget, by Hong Kong standards; many of biggest remaining stars are in it; and it’s based on a very popular comic book. Oh, it’s also the first Hong Kong film to make heavy use of green screen and CG effects, all in service of a martial arts fantasy film.
The story begins with up-and-coming warlord, Lord Conquer (Sonny Chiba, “STREET FIGHTER!”). Conquer’s prophet, Mud Buhdda, gives him two predictions. First, the warlord’s long awaited battle with Sword Saint (Anthony Wong) won’t happen for ten years. Second, his fate will depend on two young boys, Wind and Cloud, born on the same day, in possession of great powers. Conquer finds the boys, kills their parents, and raised them as his own with his daughter, Charity, and son, Frost.
Ten years go by. Things don’t work at as planned. This film is starting to make showings in the U.S. and it’s stunning. All the effects, including an all-CGI fire dragon, work in service of the plot and the more traditional Hong Kong fight choreography. The only film at the same level is “The Matrix”. Just the ability to “paint out” the wires must have been a relief.
The one problem has to do with the source material. The producers tried to be very faithful to the comic book, and cover around the first three years of material. As such, the film can drag at 130 minutes and too many characters are introduced. Sword Saint, prophesied to be in the final duel, is barely in the film.
These are minor quibbles. Anyone not quite fulfilled by “The Phantom Menace” may want to seek out this picture for their epic needs. It’s no accident that Tsui Hark is the producer after directing two American films with Jean Claude Van Damme. We see what his “Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain” could have been with current, state-of-the-art technology. It gives me hope for the future that a film culture I adored in the ’90’s can keep growing into the millenium. – Ron Wells