Monday, December 5, 2011

Gallants (Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010)

[This film is being considered for 2011 end-of-year lists.]

Like my favorite Chinese genre films, the kung-fu movie Gallants is as much a comedy as an action movie, and as sloppy as it is elegant. Perhaps the funniest joke of all is its half-hearted insistence that martial arts brings only pain, a message it immediately scissor-kicks with a gonzo celebration of asserting one's dominance. Yet Gallants is, on the whole, too clever to corner itself as a mere paean to beating the crap out of other, and for all its slapstick, the film has moments of surprising grace in its treatment of the weak and forgotten standing up for themselves, even if Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng mercifully toss out the maudlin Big Theme moments for the sake of more action.

A sardonic wit infuses the film from the start, with narration that casts the banality of the story in epic terms and uses wonderfully pulpy animation to make the tiniest quibbles between fighters into legendary duels. When the narrator settles on Cheung, a lanky, bespectacled bottom-feeder who accepts abuse from everyone (including children), he makes plain his contempt for the lad, referring to him as "pathetic" more than once. Looking to rid himself of the scum, Cheung's boss sends him on a trip without pay to settle a disputed contract between the owners of a tea house and the property's lessor. When Cheung arrives, he finds himself caught up in a deep rivalry between martial artists that is so laughably provincial that only a scrawny fool like Cheung could mistake it for something inspiring.

Gallants frames its conflict as semi-generational, with the owners of the tea house being two geriatrics who have lived in the building since it was a dojo and have remained to care for their long-comatose master, Law. Tiger and Dragon are permanently handicapped from various fights, but they still show some considerable skills when much-younger thugs attempt to try anything. The camera matches their moves, an overarching dignity and formalism broken up by grisly, brutal shocks of pain. The directors employ the usual tricks (what is it with Chinese genre films and quick zooms, anyway?), but they never let the duels slip into incoherence.

The comedy is, of course, insane, with numerous jokes arising from the sudden waking of Master Law after 30 years. Having been unconscious so long, Master Law not only has to deal with having no idea what passed during that time but the lingering effects of brain damage on his cognition. He mistakes Cheung for both Tiger and Dragon, leading to a funny scene in which he commands "Tiger" to escort the two old pupils he no longer recognizes out of the hospital but also demands "Dragon" stay to pour him some tea. Likewise, his random outbursts—such as huffing that they should have taken a cab to get to the dojo more quickly as he sits in a taxi—provide hilarious relief for the mounting action.

Yet his delirium also carries traces of tragedy. His inability to recognize Tiger, Dragon and Dr. Fun after they devoted themselves to his vegetative body for 30 years devastates the three of them, and his spaced-out joviality clearly disappoints both Cheung and Kwai, the young woman whom Tiger and Dragon saved as a child. Both of them expected a warrior worthy of his legend, and instead they get a goofy, senile old fart. The directors also check themselves late in the film when Cheung is finally starting to come into his own through kung-fu. Suddenly, the bad guy, who knew Cheung as a child, confronts the boy about how Cheung used to bully him as a kid. Instead of blindly reveling in the protagonist finding himself through learning combat, Gallants hoists some accountability on the young man to complicate his breakthrough.

Such displays of what could almost be described as "depth" overcome Gallants' occasional pandemonium of conflicting moods, flecking its farce and action with some seriousness. The cast are uniformly excellent, with Teddy Robin stealing the film as Master Law; he even gets a lovely final speech that counterbalances his absurdity. That push-pull doesn't always work, but when all the lopsided pieces of Gallants fit together, it's a hell of a fun movie.

1 comment:

  1. Saw Clement Cheng at a q and a at a packed one off screening earlier this year in London. Clearly loves his old Hong Kong movies, and the film was a real labour of love. The only sad thing about Gallants is that they really don't make that kind of movie any more.