The trailer for this was awesome. It was meta and goofy and just seemed to be having all sorts of fun. I was really excited to check this out. But was it worth hyping myself up for it? The film follows a skilled martial artist named Lu Chan Yang (Yuan Xiaochao), nicknamed The Freak due to having a horn on his head that makes him a martial arts prodigy/master from birth (or something along those lines). But he’s used his abilities too much in his short life, and the horn has almost turned black–and if it does that, he will die. To avoid this, he needs to learn internal kung fu, a style known as Chen Tai Chi, only taught in Chen Village. But when he gets there, the villagers aren’t welcoming, and they declare outsiders are not allowed to learn the style. So Lu Chan has to prove himself if he’s going to learn. Meanwhile, another villager wants his village to move forward with the times and technology, but they won’t have it. So he shows up with a giant machine to tear the village down and run a railroad through it. They have 7 days to try and stop him if they’re going to keep the village.
The best way I can describe this movie is like Ip Man meets Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And as great as both of those movies are, I’m not exactly sure that’s a good thing. From what I’ve gathered, the film is loosely based on an actual historical event. But it takes it and turns it into some fantasy/steampunk/comic book/video game farce. And this is hard for me to say, but I think it probably should have been a little closer to Ip Man than it was to Scott Pilgrim.
The film was pure style. And the style it has looks really, really cool. I definitely saw some inspirations from the likes of Scott Pilgrim and Zombieland. It’s nice and clver, but that’s about it. Outside of the style, visually, the film looks fantastic. The cinematography is very pretty, and everything just looks really clean and polished.
However, where the style works for some of the film, it also hurts it quite a bit. And what I’m about to say, I do not say lightly. In fact, this is taking quite a bit out of me… but I think the “meta” qualities hurt this film the most. (*twitch*) Let me explain. Especially early on, when characters are introduced, it does so in a very *wink wink* fashion. For instance, you know that moment in the Seven Psychopaths trailer that shows Olga Kurylenko and is like “Oh yeah, and of course a Bond girl” or whatever? Imagine that, but done about a dozen times, and within the actual movie. It’s like the director wants to show off these big-name people within the Chinese movie industry. But while he’s showing them off, he’s doing so in a way that explains exactly who they are, as if the audience is too stupid to recognize them by name. Now I could see this being the point if he was doing that for American audiences, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. He only specifies a few times (like “The director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy” or “One of the founders of Jackie Chan’s stunt troupe” or whatever)… and there are plenty of others it assumes you should actually know, which you only really would if you are from China or an aficionado of Chinese cinema. And if that’s the case, you wouldn’t really need it explained, would you? The point is, because of the way he does a lot of the meta stuff in this film, it comes off more as insulting to the audience than playful.
And it’s insulting because it’s forced. All of the meta and at least half of the style in this movie feels so forced/inauthentic. There are a handful of movies currently out there who do similarly stylistic things much better than this does them. Again, not all of it comes off that way, but a good chunk of it does. There are legitimately times during this film I was having a blast and thinking this is going to be such a cult classic. But then other times, especially in the second half of the movie, I just felt the director was trying way too hard.
Because the film tries to do so much, it also comes off as unbalanced, both in what it wants to be and in its pacing. I swear the last 45 minutes or so of this movie never seem to end (and the movie is only like 95 minutes or something). It doesn’t have a solid structure to build around. It’s trying to have two different plots that don’t really meld together all that well (it does what it can, but that’s not a whole lot). I thought Lu Chan’s struggle to learn Chen Tai Chi was much more interesting than the whole train/steampunk machine/love triangle plot thing going on. And strangely, the film just comes off as totally incomplete (though with reason). The entire second act is about figuring a way to destroy the steampunk machine. But it feels like one long third act, and there was nothing really set up to make you believe it could move on past that for a third act. But it does–and rather lamely, might I add. Though the third act in and of itself is very bizarre, as it leads to a denouement that isn’t really a denouement. It’s one confusing-as-hell ending that you soon realize is there to set up Part 2 (which has already been filmed and released in theaters at this point, at least in China). So by the end, it seems to be just the first half of a much longer story.
And I’m not exactly sure if I’ll be seeing it or not. I probably will, just to have things wrapped up. The movie actually wasn’t bad. It was actually filmed very, very competently. And like I said earlier, it looks great. I feel the real problem comes from the script (and potentially a director that needed to be reigned in just a little bit). And the most unfortunate thing about the film, the one thing that could have made me overlook all the rest, would have been if there was a lot of really great action. And neither of those things is true. The action is decent; it’s not bad, but it’s nothing groundbreaking or awe-inspiring. And they’re also few and far between. So not only is the action limited, but it’s not even action that’s worth really waiting around for. I know I’m making this movie sound God-awful, and I actually don’t think it is. It was just a bit confused, needed a script polishing (to maybe stop trying so hard), and needed more fun action sequences. As it is, you could do worse, but you could also do a whole lot better.