Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gallants (2010)

Low-level real-estate agent and pathetic loser Cheung (Wong Yau-Nam) has been exiled by (for six weeks without pay) by his company into the outskirts of nowhere to help out with some sort of shady business deal there. It turns out that the guy he is supposed to work with is Mang (Ou-Yang Ching), who was the victim of Cheung's bullying ways when they were kids, but is now the junior boss in a modern and successful (= good for nothing) martial arts school. Now that things have turned around, more than just one initial beating seems to lie in Cheung's future.

A part of the vague business deal are Mang's attempts to acquire the lease to the building of the former martial arts school of Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) that is now a tea house belonging to Law's former top students Dragon (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Tiger (Bruce Leung). The two old men have been beaten and battered by life, but are still taking care of the place and their master who has been lying in a coma for thirty years now.

One of Mang's attempts at getting the lease does not get him what he wants, but instead awakens Law from his coma. As these things go, Cheung has sort of stumbled onto the old men's side with vague ideas of learning kung fu from them.

The martial arts master seems somewhat confused, and takes Cheung to be both of his former students. Tiger convinces the young man to play his and his friend's role for Law, while they pretend to be his students. Obviously, this is the beginning of some growing up - for Dragon and Tiger as well as for Cheung.

Derek Kwok's and Clement Cheng's Gallants belongs firmly into the camp of Hong Kong movies of the last few years trying at once to be love letters to classic martial arts movies and to pull the genre that just disappeared with the arrival of the hair brigade in the city back into relevance. Ironically enough, Gallants does its updating (that at times borders on loving deconstruction) by letting great old men of the genre like Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung take centre stage again. Fortunately, this does not happen in the Hollywood way that would just ignore aging action heroes' ages except for making a joke or two about it, but rather by letting the film be about what it means to be old and cantankerous and not very happy about what one has done with one's life. Cheung's story is basically just there to set the stage for the changes that finally come to Tiger and Dragon. Cheung's growth process has its place in the film, but the show really belongs to the old men, something that the film really drives home once Mang's elders begin to appear.

And once you've seen what Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung are doing in their fight scenes, or how enthusiastically Teddy Robin plays their somewhat outrageous (this is, after all, a comedy, if one a lot less slapstick heavy than I feared) old master, you don't need any nostalgic connection to their body of work to think that centring the movie around them is the right decision, because these guys don't just have the martial arts abilities to carry a movie, but have also learned to carry themselves with a hard-won dignity that is a joy to watch, even when they are doing something silly.

While all this - as well as the film's very loose structure - is perfectly in keeping with the standards of classic martial arts cinema, there is no confusing Gallants with a mere exercise in nostalgia (like a film like Coweb seems to me) or that terrible word "retro", nor is the film falling down the irony hole. Instead, Kwok and Cheng have taken much of what was great in the martial arts films they probably grew up loving, but given it it a spin that belongs to them and the now. In the end, their film's moral is quite a bit different from what I'm used to from martial arts cinema, with an ending that is interpreting "winning" in a way seldom seen in the genre. Oh yes, Gallants is that frightening thing - a film with a moral, but said moral isn't preached at the audience but actually grows organically; and into a direction martial arts cinema seldom wanders, to boot.

The only thing the film is missing is a strong female martial artist/actor. Jiang Lu-Xia is unfortunately still wasting her talent on making barely watchable crap with Dennis Law (see the limp Bad Blood or the unfocused and incredibly pouty Vampire Warriors), and there don't seem to be any other takers for the female martial arts star position in Hong Kong right now.


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