For many a year there has been a trend in cinema where people are aping and reinterpretation that which influenced their material. On the other hand, martial arts cinema hasn’t really looked back at what made it what was except for a few films here and there, as a rule the Chinese action cinema tends to look forward with its ideas and execution and not looking in on itself. There are few examples which pay homage to their roots. Gallants is one such example, which has yet to be released on these shores beyond its appearance on the festival circuit, with its UK premiere at the London-based Terracotta Far East film festival.
In Clement Cheng’s directorial debut we have Gallants, homage to all things 70s Kung Fu and Shaw Brothers, much in the same way that Kung Fu Hustle was only this is a much more restrained and solemn piece of film making. As the films narration goes on to describe, Gallants is the story of loser, Cheung (You-Nam Wong) who cannot do his job as an estate agent. He is constantly causing trouble for his bosses, so to get rid of him he is sent off into the Chinese countryside to resolve a dispute on the rental of a property. When he gets there he causes a dispute to be raised to the point where it becomes a full-blown face off. Along the way there are love-interests, training montages and loss. All of these things are common place in the martial arts genre, so don’t expect the film to say anything new through its narrative.
The two parties are made up of a group of old martial-arts who run a restaurant instead of a dojo out of a mark of respect for their master who has been a coma for 30 years and a local gang/martial arts school. The story starts off as you would expect the endless back and forth between the two groups in trying to get the upper-hand. Nothing really out of the ordinary happens here, that is until the master wakes up after the local gang bungle in trying to steal the deeds to a property. It’s here when the film is given the jolt of adrenaline that it needed.
Master Ben Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) not only turns the film into the martial arts film that it threatened to be in the early stages, he breathes a spark of life into the film. Despite his diminutive frame he still proceeds to beat up his disciples (Tiger (Siu Lung Leung) and Dragon (Kuan Tai Chen) as well as Cheng, who he mistakes both of his pupils for. Teddy Kwan has a masterful comic timing for both the psychical stuff as well as the spoken. His comedy comes from the fact that he still thinks he is a young man and doesn’t know he has been in a coma for 30 years, through this he is hitting on all the pretty young things and he does this when someone stops paying attention to him. It never fails to be funny.
The most important part of any martial arts film is the action scenes and this is no different here. One of the things that stand out to prominence in the fight scenes is the accompaniment of a couple of animated frames when a particularly vicious blow is dealt. These moments are very visually striking, and its little touches like this that gives Gallants a very unique sense of style. All things considered it’s a brilliantly directed debut from Clement Cheng.
The fight scenes are well choreographed and delivered. Unfortunately people who clearly aren’t martial artists are used in some scenes, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a shame when most everything else in the film is done so well. All this might be the case, but at the same time, I feel it’s unfair to compare this to other martial arts films. This is the case because the film is trying to say something through the action scenes. Gallants is a deliberation on aging, no matter how proficient you are at whatever you do whether it is martial arts or not, age will catch up with you. Even the heroes of martial arts cinema in Fong Sai-Yuk and Wong Fei-Hung got old. Even with this being the case and their psychical capabilities becoming dull compared to their youth, there are still some great fantastic scenes with Tiger and Dragon.
Gallants may not get to recognition it deserves, but in my eyes Clement Cheng has crafted a massively under-rated action/comedy that entertains in all the ways this sort of film should, but with added depth. That said the Chinese hip hop in the end credits did nothing for me.