Well during the introduction to Ip Man 2, King, the kung fu programmer for Fantasia said that Clement Cheng, the director of Gallants, is a part of the new wave of kung fu cinema coming from Hong Kong. That's a big statement but I am very pleased to say that if Gallants is indicative of Cheng's future work then King was not exaggerating.
This screening seemed to be a much bigger event for the sponsor, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Society, compared to that of Ip Man 2, possibly because the director and one of the stars, Bruce Leung, were here to present it. There was a camera crew from Fairchild News, which is I guess a satellite network playing to the Chinese diaspora.
Bruce Leung has been working in kung fu films in Hong Kong for over 40 years, but you probably best know him as The Beast from Kung Fu Hustle, the humble old man who fights on all fours and inflates like a toad. He was wearing a pretty rough toupee and for a while, I thought he was the director's mom or something!
(That's him in the middle and the director, Clement Cheng, on the right.)
Real actors are often strangely bland and shy outside of the movies and Bruce Leung is definitely a real actor. When you see him on screen, he is so full of energy and charisma and utterly unmistakable. But in real life, he just looks like any middle-aged chinese dude with a bad wig.
I will have to admit that my critique of this movie has been strongly influenced by seeing it at Fantasia with Bruce Leung and the director there to present. Bruce Leung's speech in particular was really heartfelt and inspiring. After a basic greeting in strongly accented, but understandable english, where he said he hadn't gone to high school and thus couldn't speak english, he spoke the rest of the time in Cantonese with a translator. So his words were delivered in short segments, followed by the translation and then loud applause and cheering from the appreciative crowd. After many very generous and kind comments about us, he thanked many people, including the Hong Kong government (who paid for his trip). But he followed that up with an oblique political critique, which left the translator stammering and saying she didn't know if she should translate it for fear of getting punished! He said that the Hong Kong government had done a really good thing in sending him here, after having done many bad things since 1997. Quite interesting. I read over on the Fantasia blog that he had been out of movies for 15 years because of "a misunderstood diplomatic visit to Red China". I would love to know what the backstory behind that was!
Before the movie, we saw a neat little business promo short vaunting the many attributes of Hong Kong, narrated by Chow Yun-Fat in english. Very cool. It had a hilarious part where an Australian guy, looking exactly like one of the British expat heavies from Ip Man 2 said "I've been living here for 8 years and I haven't had to learn a word of Cantonese!". The audience burst out laughing.
Gallants starts out with a bang. It's the story of a total loser, low man on the totem pole in his real estate firm (he is literally beaten by his co-workers and boss) whose only period of ascendancy in his whole life was when he was 8 years old and used to bully this one other kid. This is all explained with tons of jump cuts and a hilarious, portentous voice over. And then some super lively credits, reminiscent of the old Shaw Brothers movies. The whole movie is just full of energy, in the lighting, in the cuts, in the actors themselves. Energy is what Hong Kong cinema does best and the look of Gallants does appear to be another step forward in style.
The nerdy guy, because of one more fuck-up at work, is sent on a 7-week, no pay vacation/project to settle some real estate dispute in a small town. Starting with an altercation with a little boy, things go from bad to worse for him until he stumbles upon a tea house that happens to be the property in dispute. It's a world of old, forgotten people, far from the importance of the big city. But everyone here has their role and there is a hilarious stand-off, where the protagonists and antagonists are established, each announcing their nickname and their low-level position in the community ("I am JADE KIRIN, night watchman for the Southern district!"). In the tradition of the old kung fu movies, the actor's name and the name of their character show up on the screen when they first appear.
Thematically, Gallants isn't such a big departure from other Hong Kong movies. The respect for old kung fu stars and the appreciation of the spirit of kung fu can be found in Kung Fu Hustle. The romance of the old time neighbourhood and local community is rife, but particularly strong in movies like "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father". But it's all given such a rich, energetic spin and the actors are all so much fun (tons of old faces with a particularly hilarious spin from Teddy Robin Kwan, whom one could argue steals the movie), that it feels fresh and new.
It's funny, because I loved the trailer for this movie (if you want a sense of the style and energy of the movie, check out the trailer), but I didn't have any expectations. I think the title is the problem. My wife just looked up the word Gallant and confirmed that it can be used as a noun or an adjective. In the movie, it is referenced to mean old time heroes and it is the perfect word for the movie. But it's one of those weird words that nobody uses in english (at least not as a noun anymore), but because of Hong Kong's colonial past and British education, it pops up in a popular movie.
There was a Q&A at the end and the director said the movie, which opened up last month, is currently 10th in the HK box office for the year, which is not bad at all and bodes well for Clement's future (and ours as Hong Kong movie fans). Also, he thanked Andy Lau, who bankrolled it and got a producer credit. Good on you, Andy, for not only having a kickass acting career that went well beyond your pretty boy "Heaven King" early days, but for also being a positive force behind the scenes. Things are looking up.
Tomorrow it is Vietnamese ass-kicker Clash followed by (dear god help me) the remake of I Spit on your Grave. The latter is my wife's doing. She is much more hardcore than I am.