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Capsule Reviews

Gallants    (2010)
Try to imagine a hip, modern film starring authentic, graying 1970’s kung fu cinema heroes who lose their fights. It’s a crazy film concept but Gallants works like a charm. This remarkable 2010 film by Hong Kong writer/director duo Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok turns the traditional kung fu pian on its head, spins it around and gives it a kick in the pants, all the while embracing the genre and its incredible cast with genuine love and respect. A delightfully zany exploration of maturity, Gallants, for all its frolicking iconoclasm, never loses sight of the old school spirit of righteousness, heroism, and the true meaning of victory.

The gallants in Gallants come in all shapes and sizes. The unlikely young man who learns from his elders is Cheung (Wong You Nam), a bullied, directionless real estate agent forced by his boss to help corrupt businessmen coerce honest village folk out of their land. This wimpy loser lacks purpose and strength, and when he accidentally discovers an elderly, belligerent kung fu master named Tiger (Bruce Leung Siu Lung), he latches on. Tiger and his stoic companion Dragon (Chen Kuan Tai) have waited thirty exhausting years for their martial master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) to awaken from his duel-induced coma. When the businessmen try to coerce Dragon and Tiger into giving up the martial club that they have preserved in the form of a teahouse, the master suddenly awakens. Pong (Michael Chan Wai Man), the old school boss of a glitzy, shallow martial arts studio announces a kung fu tournament and Master Law’s teahouse team must begin training to face their competitors both in and out of the ring.

The Gallants story is character-driven, fresh and clever but thematic conflict oppresses the screenplay’s spontaneity. A woefully mistimed rallying speech injects unwelcome hackney into an otherwise meaningful story, and formulaic metaphors dampen the climax. By the time the high point arrives, though, it almost doesn’t matter because the remarkable characters have already taken full control of the story. They are very much alive, laden with eccentricities and flaws that become, in the hands of compassionate filmmakers, completely loveable. Master Law, the catalyst for the heroes’ new lease on life, is a sparkling jewel. As the ancient, sick, hilariously intolerant and imperious playboy sifu, Robin’s sly yet joyful wit illuminates his every onscreen moment and is the perfect comedic counterpoint to his loyal, harassed kung fu team. Dragon and Law’s doctor (supporting actress Siu Yam Yam), gently, often touchingly, express the weary patience born of too many burdens and a life unfulfilled. And they command respect for their loyalty and sacrifice. Because they are all fraught with forgivable emotional conflicts, almost every role in Gallants (teahouse babe J.J. Jia excepted) is charming, if not downright captivating. Directors Cheng and Kwok’s gift for intrapersonal conflict sets up a heady emotional brew that quite naturally leads to interpersonal bickering, arguing, and the ultimate conflict resolution: violence.

Ah, the kung fu. Legendary lions Chen, Leung and Lo Meng are given the chance to use their famous skills while martial champion Li Hai Tao, finally given real screen time as Pong’s son, passes the torch of honorable martial power to a younger generation. Master Yuen Tak’s choreography is a successful blend of old and new school fighting styles with a pleasing variety of moods and intentions that range from a light, brilliant spoof of the traditional teahouse brawl to the thunder of self-sacrificing heroes. Tak uses each man’s natural physical strengths to make the mature actors come off as powerful, albeit damaged and vulnerable fighters. The original film title, Fists of Dignity, captures the essence of their physically and emotionally painful screen fights. But it is the trick of placing actors Chen and Leung into a new millennium story that delivers a deeper meaning: along with their characters Dragon and Tiger, the elderly legends themselves are given validation, blessing, and redemption. Watching Bruce Leung Siu Lung, Chen Kuan Tai and Lo Meng fighting in Gallants may actually amount to a cathartic experience for some old school kung fu cinema fans.

As if all this moving emotion isn’t enough, Gallants is also a comedy. Slapstick, sound effects, cartoon visuals, Shaw Brothers references and of course geriatric jokes, abound. The humor is witty and zany but never cruel. It is, in fact, tender and sympathetic. Gallants laughs not at but with its suffering characters, which is what guarantees the film’s message of love and respect. Our gallant heroes may be losers in the ring but they are winners in the much more difficult arena of life. It is this enormous dignity that makes Gallants, despite its flaws, such a success. Buy it, watch it, watch it again, and keep your fingers crossed that filmmakers Cheng and Kwok will continue their crazy winning streak.
Sylvia Rorem 9/9/2010 - top

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