“Gallants” Review – this blog’s exclusive [Film Business Asia / Sweet and Sour Cinema Exclusive Film Review]

DISCLAIMER:  Film viewed without English subtitles by this reviewer, who is semi-fluent in Chinese.  Furthermore, I’m writing this several months after viewing it (late Spring 2010).

“Gallants” (打擂台) review

by Zuo Shou 左手

This kung fu confection had the best trailer of 2010, with a distinct “Old School” martial arts film flavor and some apparent wit, so I was rather interested to see it.

In my part of China, this film was in and out of theatres in 2 weeks, maybe less.

As the film began, I was disappointed that it wasn’t in Cantonese, which was one of its unique selling points:  “we won’t dub it in Mandarin for the mainland”.  I later discovered that results varied for audiences on this language factor depending which part of the mainland they saw the film in.

The film was pitched as humorous throwback to HK’s action film heyday, and indeed the stars and many supporting roles are 70’s action heroes now at senior ages, including David Chiang and Leung Siu-lung (梁小龍, still quite amazing several years after his comeback in 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle 功夫).  A bit of amusement can be had playing “name that performer” as familiar faces from the genre appear.  There’s also several funny touches  –  Bruce Leung was sporting an authentic-looking 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics T-shirt (?!?) at one point.  However, “Gallants” is not really a comedy and it’s not really a full-fledged actioner either, so its marketing must be termed as rather misleading. 

Regarding the kung fu, the action can’t be faulted; it’s very sharp and even clever at times.  However, it is sparse and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the film’s kung fu repertoire.  The other thing is that while it might sound amusingly nostalgic to have kung fu cinema stars battling in old age, it must be said that while these guys should be complemented for staying in shape, their days as martial arts leads are quite far behind.

The film has at least two laugh-out-loud scenes, including a kind of parody of the grueling training sequences that used to be obligatory in martial arts genre films.  But it’s more complex than just a knockabout comedy; the film is ultimately aiming for a kind of bittersweet, elegiac tone that comes from looking back at a beloved art form’s former peak.  While it does succeed in capturing that tone somewhat, at other times it lapses into arid, or ambiguous, melodrama; I’m especially thinking of the film’s rather artsy “Pyrrhic victory” climax.

I give the film credit for not making some cheap and easy choices that a Hollywood production might.  The “sifu” who emerges from his decades-long coma would probably have been impressed into a “fish-out-of-water” cliche in a US film; “Gallants” doesn’t go there.  The film also gets credit for daring to not to have a lobotomized Hollywood happy ending…a consistent strong point of many HK action films.  Finally, it’s rather remarkable that a couple of young directors/screenplay writers made what is fundamentally a meditation on aging.

So while “Gallants” wasn’t quite what I was expecting, this little film did resonate enough with me despite its faults to give it qualified approval.  The more knowledge you have of the Shaw Brothers’ era martial arts films and their ilk, the greater the possibility you will enjoy it.

*******

Film Business Asia reported that the Hong Kong Critics’ Society award this year for Best Picture went to “Gallants”, and “Gallants” Teddy ‘Robin’ Kwan was awarded Best Actor.

*******

“Gallants” review excerpt [Film Business Asia]

Rated 6 out of 10

by Derek Elley

15 May 2010

…Gallants is a good idea weakened by a loose script and a lack of strong dramatic structure.  It’s more a film of small pleasures – including…dusky teahouse interiors and…nostalgic production design – than the film it promises to be at the start.

Full Film Business Asia review here

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