Sunday, April 18, 2021

Hong Kong Comic-Book Adventures: The Storm Riders & The Storm Warriors

One of the places I didn't get to see when I went to Hong Kong a couple of years ago - it had apparently moved back to a new-old location after my guidebook saw print and my phone wasn't giving me much help - was the comics museum, Comix Home Base. You see kids reading comic books a lot in period Hong Kong movies, with no suggestion that they're imports or translations, but HK comics aren't in the top five of countries you'll find at the local comic shop, and I was curious to get a look at it. From the description, it sounds like that's in part because they wouldn't travel well, because like a lot of Hong Kong pop culture, it's very specific to those 400 square miles, with a lot of what was on exhibit satiric or political.

Which is not to say that there aren't big adventure comics to be had:
I stumbled upon this statue of Cloud while walking around Golden Bauhinia Square, maybe the same day I was looking for Comix Home Base, and as much as I was intrigued by the fact that it was one of thirty-six statues… Well, like I mentioned above, my phone wasn't doing that great with the internet that day, so I didn't find the map to follow. Still, I had to take this picture quickly, because there were a bunch of folks who wanted to pose with the antihero.

Anyway, I remembered that when I saw both of these movies in the "cheap sale" section at DDDHouse, picked them up, and picked them up for a double feature last week. A bit longer than I expected - I read the 86 minutes of special features as the length of the movie, but it's actually 25 minutes longer - but it's not like I had to catch a bus the next morning. I'm glad I did the double feature, though, because it shows what a difference ten years made at this particular point in movie history, and the way the filmmakers handled it.

Because while ten years is a lot of time at the turn of the century - the difference between everything being shot on 35mm and digitally, but it's a stark difference in style, as Andrew Lau Wai-Keung is pretty traditional - for something released in 1998, it feels like something from ten years earlier - while the Pang Brothers dive into building a whole world digitally, with the hyper-detailed armor you see in more current mainland productions. There's not exactly strong continuity between them, but it's odd that they retain the same two leads rather than relaunching when so much else is different. They both feel like movies where the audience is expected to know what they're in for, but in different ways - Riders feels like it's covering a lot of issues but working its way through the origin, while Warriors just picks up like it's in the middle of a TV series and the audience just needs a slight refresh. It's probably totally fair in Hong Kong, and I never actually felt lost.

There have been occasional rumors of a third movie, maybe by the Pangs again, but I don't know if Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng are up for that. I'd love to see some more Hong Kong films based on their comics, though, and more translations of those comics into English (a number by Storm Riders creator Ma Wing Shing were published by ComicsOne, but they've been defunct since 2005. I don't know that there's a lot of pent-up demand for this stuff in English - most of the potential audience knows Cantonese and either lives in Hong Kong or has folks there to mail it to them - but it seems like an interesting thing to have on Comixology.

Fung wan: Hung ba tin ha (The Storm Riders)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Even without watching its 2009 sequel for comparison, The Storm Riders has a throwback air to it, like the Hong Kong film industry long defined by knowing how to squeeze a lot out of what they had for a one-city market was playing a bit of catch-up before advances in technology and a drastic increase in their potential audience changed everything. It's a lot of things that hadn't often been put together in quite the same way before and wouldn't be since, but probably a real kick for fans of Ma Wing-Shing's comics at the time.

As it opens, Lord Conquer (Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba) is consolidating his hold over the martial-arts world, aching for a battle with the Sword Saint (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), but his geomancer, the Mud Buddha (Lai Yiu-Cheung) says it may not take place for ten years, and acquiring apprentices with certain birth-charts will help the process. Conquer is ruthless in how he finds and "recruits" ten-year-old Whispering Wind and Striding Cloud, raising them with daughter Charity and the already-adopted Frost. A decade later, Cloud (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing), Wind (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin), and Frost (Michael Tse Tin-Wah) all have supernaturally-augmented martial arts skills, but cracks are starting to form, especially around the young men's feeling toward Charity (Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu) and their growing discomfort with Conquer's lust for power.

Never having read Ma's comics, or Hong Kong manhua in general, I'm not sure how faithful an adaptation this is, but it in many ways resembles the live-action adaptations of Japanese manga which compact several volumes of action into one two-hour feature, keenly aware that much of their audience will be upset if anything gets left out. As a result, it often has the feel of a greatest-hits album, including all of the most popular tracks that it has to have in the proper order but not having the interesting side tracks and discoveries. Characters are introduced and never given a lot to do, such as Muse, who would be a fun supporting character in an ongoing series but is kind of a waste of Shu Qi here, and there's an outright bananas detour toward the end that never seems to amount to anything. Screenwriter Manfred Wong Man-Chun kept all the pieces, but pared everything that held them together to the absolute minimum.

Fortunately, long-running comics don't exactly live or die on the intricacies of plot, but by how much the audience wants to come back to a certain setting and characters, and the cast seems to have a grand time with these larger-than-life figures. Aaron Kwok especially plays the blue-haired Cloud as all smoldering passion and rage ready to explode, whether he's striking a cool pose or snarling at a supposed friend. Fellow Canto-pop star Ekin Cheng has his work cut out for him in not making the kinder-hearted Wind seem kind of drab in comparison, but manages; he's a complement when he could easily be relegated to sidekick status. There's a solid group up and down the supporting parts, from Lawrence Cheng Tan-Shui as an obsequious Jester to Anthony Wong as a (semi) final boss worth shrouding in mystery. But mostly, there's Sonny Chiba - his Cantonese may be dubbed by actor Wong Wai, and the make-up to give him a more youthful appearance in the opening scenes may not be quite convincing, but he strides through every scene in a way that tells everybody that Conquer deserves to be on top, with an striking combination of icily pure ambition and personal nastiness. He's the sort of villain heroes are measured against because Chiba knows just how much movie-star charisma to hold back and let out.

He was a bit past his action-star prime at that point, but he can still handle a sword, and the film spends a lot of time showcasing powers and weapons as opposed to straight hand-to-hand. They don't always have the effects budget to pull it off as slickly as places would in a couple of years, although I do wonder if an early bit of green-screen work not being great helps sell the more elaborate and better-executed effects that come later. There's a vibe to it that's somewhere between Shaw Brothers and 1980s fantasy, and that sense of unreality is a good match for the comic-book fantasy material. It holds together even if there are areas where it could be tighter.

Ten years later, the Pang brothers would have more money and resources for a sequel, and it would be a fundamentally different thing - slicker and more stylish, but for all that an episode rather than something balancing epic ambitions and a tactile world the way this one does. Seen back-to-back, they're an eye-opening look at just how genre filmmaking changed in the the 2000s.

Also at eFilmCritic

Fung wan II (The Storm Warriors)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

It's probably not a great sign that I completely forgot that I had seen The Storm Warriors before - almost eleven years ago, at my second trip to the New York Asian Film Festival - when I (1) ordered these two discs, (2) watched both movies, and (3) started writing the review, not discovering my previous review until I was checking to see whether I needed to add something to the eFilmCritic database or not. You'd think something working so hard to be stylish would have stuck in my head more!

That's not saying it's a bad movie, but it's strangely disconnected as a sequel. Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng are playing the same characters but they've had ten years to mellow, and it's kind of amusing that, because Tiffany Tang Yan's character was subtitled as "Chu Chu" here rather than "Muse", it never occurred to me that Tang was playing the same part Shu Qi was in the other movie, although I can kind of see it now that I've seen the HKMDB entries for them. There are a number of new supporting characters who get no introduction; I guess you're supposed to know them from the comics. And yet, it ends on what could be a literal cliffhanger, as if anticipating a third entry that thus far hasn't materialized.

What's kind of fascinating to me is how, where most sequels often tend to follow their predecessor's lead in terms of general style, the Pang brothers opt not to do that here; where The Storm Riders was epic but not too fancy, this is full of slow-mo, the charcoal color scheme that more earnestly cool-but-serious at the time (Aaron Kwok barely has any blue in his hair as Cloud!), and the sort of detailing on the armor that seems impractical but looks better in HD than the more functional (and colorful) costuming seen elsewhere. And while the film was shot in Cantonese, it seems to have a bit of an eye on what it takes to succeed on the Mainland; where the first seems to take place in a fantasy world rather than any specific time or place (albeit one with Shaolin monks), this one frames the battle as foreigners attempting to invade and destroy China. It's doubly amusing because Shin'ichi Chiba's Conquer didn't seem to be explicitly played as an outsider in 1998, at least to my North American eyes, but SImon Yam's Lord Godless is described as such but doesn't seem particularly Japanese.

I didn't find this movie "exhausting" the way I did back in 2010, but even with the added background of watching them back-to-back,, it's still kind of middling, the sort of blockbuster-style movie that doesn't quite have what it takes to thoroughly hook the audience once it's no longer state of the art.

Original eFilmCritic review from 2010

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