Storm Warriors (The Pang Brothers, 2009)

When I was still a full time student, I had the luxury of acquainting myself with the considerable portion of my university’s student body which would openly admit to their abject nerdiness. I also was lucky enough to get to know various ex-patriot and exchange students who came from the Chinese speaking world. There was (and likely still is) a good deal of overlap between these two segments; plenty classmates of both origins regaled me of their opinions on Hong Kong movies and comic books and other Asian cultural imports that had made at least some headway into the United States.

One of those cultural imports was Ma Wing Shing’s "Storm Riders" comic book and Andrew Lau’s 1998 film adaptation. Early in my college experience, it became apparent that there wasn’t much parity between the American kids who were interested in Hong Kong film and the kids who actually hailed from the city and culture that created it. The Americans were usually into Jackie Chan, John Woo, and occasionally CAT III films, while the Chinese speaking students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China liked to talk to me about the Young and Dangerous series, Stephen Chow comedies (Kung Fu Hustle had only just come out) and “arty” movies by Fruit Chan, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar Wai. They like Nicholas Tse and Daniel Wu, actors that some of the American HK movie fans couldn’t stand (honestly, though, I never met anybody in person who liked Edison Chen).

If agreement was ever reached on anything when these two segments interacted, it was Johnnie To and Andrew Lau's film, The Storm Riders. I’m not sure why everyone seemed to like this movie in college, but they did. Since Comics One was still in business back then, I was able to read a good portion of what was available in English, including translations of a “light novel” which narrated the early career of Nameless, an important character in the “Storm Riders” universe.

I preface this review of The Storm Warriors with this information because it is indeed pertinent, something that us amateur critics on the internet frequently forget, or otherwise ignore. I recall too, a media studies class in which we discussed critical and popular reaction to films, as well as the different ways films are received worldwide. Do the films change, or is it that viewers are different? The answer to that question is obvious, and I feel the need to point that out here, as that cultural disparity, however diminished you may believe it now is, clearly effects how people feel about The Storm Warriors.

As a movie itself, The Storm Warriors isn’t particularly good. It has literally no plot -- as in the classical sense of a cohesive flow of narrative events -- and the characters are two dimensional. When the trailers appeared online, I was annoyed by how much they looked like Zack Snyder’s 300, but the offending scenes are mercifully short, although directors Danny and Oxide Pang still overuse slow-mo. If comparable to anything, The Storm Warriors parallels the recent direct to DVD animated movies aimed at specific niche audiences, like the DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn and Twilight or Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Where it diverges is in its huge budget and cast of respected or at least popular stars. Otherwise, The Storm Warriors is clearly meant to appeal to fans of the "Storm Riders" comics and will be impenetrable to others.

Fans of the Storm Riders comic books, of course, aren’t going to be all that concerned about Cloud and Wind’s character development, or need an explanation of whom Nameless and Lord Godless are. They’re already quite familiar with these and other details. The Storm Warriors’ only redeeming aspect, and possibly the only concern of its directors, are its visuals. The visuals don’t redeem the movie to the point that one might call it good, but, in as much as the digitally crafted sets don’t call undue attention to themselves in their ubiquity, are comparatively admirable.

Asian critics (admittedly less so than audiences) found the movie passable, if not enjoyable. Westerners did not. In at least a couple instances, comments flew between reader and reviewer over whether or not the reviewer failed to get the appeal of The Storm Warriors because he or she wasn’t Asian. While I don’t pretend to know the mindset of the people who posted those statements, I feel that explicating and expounding upon them is my right. Of course you don’t have to be racially Asian to “get” a movie such as the one in question, just as you don’t have to be a fifteen year old girl to “get” Twilight or ethnically English to “get” Sherlock Holmes. It does help, though. And if you're not, having some understanding of where such stories are coming from and to whom they are directed helps too.

Ma Wing Shing’s audience, as best as I can tell, is largely comprised of young boys, and has been for decades.To a thirteen-year-old boy, a character like Cloud's brooding and flashy appearance are both an appeal and an idealization of an adolescent sense of masculinity. To an audience that has grown up with Wind and Cloud, for whom their brooding and flowy hair and cartoonishly designed swords are more than over-ornamentation, The Storm Warriors probably curries a degree of favor that it won’t from people who are familiar with them only through the 1998 film. This goes especially for those who only liked the 1998 film because it proved that Hong Kong cinema wasn’t completely dead after the ’97 handover.

Furthermore, The Storm Warriors exemplifies the part of the wuxia tradition least exposed to the west. When most Westerners think of martial arts movies (regardless of classifications like wuxia or chambara) they think of Bruce Lee. But well before Bruce Lee there was Buddha’s Palm and Temple of the Red Lotus, not to mention literary characters like Nezha or Sun Wukong. Complaints about the lack of authentic martial arts ignore the authenticity of storytelling and film. The Storm Warriors is nothing if not a distinctly Hong Kong film in terms of genre.

None of these things ameliorate those faults that other critics found with the film. Their responses remain valid. But I have read so much positive reaction to The Storm Warriors coming from people who would have grown up with it or at least with things similar to it and yet so much dismissal and even resentment from those who have not that the difference cannot be ignored. True art often transcends cultural boundaries. The Storm Warriors at least reminds us that not all foreign films are true art, and that the world is still not flat. It might be wise for some people to keep that in mind when they take an unambitious foreign film to task for not catering to their tastes.

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