Nostalgia is a powerful ally of entertainers these days, though seemingly few critics really offer reasons why. Personally, I think that across the broad spectrum of entertainment choices, audiences have grown tired of the pretense that defines the 2000’s aesthetics. Particularly, I think that the self-indulgence of film makers and their attempts at world-building in action films has grated on the audience for such movies. I think the artificiality of digital film making has alienated some, and, the recent infatuation with “3D” notwithstanding, many more have grown bored by what cgi and “digital backlots” offer. But nostalgia also traps some films into either over-indulging in reference or getting their homage completely backwards or simply wallowing in redundancy, which is usually no better.
I also think that Gallants is the only movie I’ve watched this year that deserved its hype. Kung Fu fans typically bemoan the dearth of quality films in the genre, tired of and inundated by the flood of ponderous, digitally enhanced and pretentious wuxia films produced either by or for the mainland Chinese market. Aside from some of Donnie Yen’s recent output, very few Chinese martial arts films deviate from a formula set by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and very few of those execute that formula well.
A Focus Films picture produced by Andy Lau, Gallants received considerable praise from fans and critics online. The set-up – two aging martial artists running a gym-turned-restaurant while awaiting their beloved master to awake from a coma while the arrival of a meek, scrawny real-estate agent accidently stirs up trouble and gets caught in a shady land-grab scheme – sounds very little like the stuff of Shaw Bros. films by Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. But directors Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng work references to classic martial arts films (zoom lens! Wacky nick-names! Freeze frame! Introductory on-screen text! Random musical cues!) in nearly surreal ways, and before you know it, the film becomes a classic martial arts film involving rival schools, training montages, and more-or-less grounded choreography.
I, and I imagine many other fans, expected that the shining point of Gallants would be the presence of old-school actors in big roles performing classic fight choreography. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung Siu-Leung (reintroduced to contemporary viewers as “The Beast” in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle) play Dragon and Tiger, the over-the-hill martial artists who save weak real-estate agent Leung (Wong Yau-Nam) and begin to teach him martial arts. Goo Goon-Chung, a character actor/regular heavy from the Shaw studio, has a cameo as a police officer. Teddy Robin Kwan, a legendary composer responsible for scoring a number of classic Hong Kong films, plays Master Law, and former Shaw Bros. beauty (read: sex symbol) Siu Yam-yam has a role as his doctor. Lo Meng and Chan Wai-Man play villains who, maybe, aren’t so bad. Choreography comes from The Master star (and veteran action director) Yuen Tak. It reads like a cast list from twenty-five years ago. An effin’ awesome cast list.
But, while the fight scenes and cast of actors from the golden age of martial arts movies delight, Gallants actually side-steps most of the expectations that one would have for a movie consciously appealing to nostalgia for classic Shaw Brothers mayhem. Leung, the loser real-estate agent, used to be a bully. Powerful martial artists like Dragon and Tiger are old and broken down. Master Law is a (hilarious) vulgar old man. Their training from the awakened Master Law is arduous and old fashioned, but they aren’t really training to take on the bad-guys, although that’s their given reason. The rival school, based out of a posh modern gym, wants to make money by glamorizing martial training and represents a philosophy of martial arts as different from that of Master Law as their training methods.
That isn’t to say that Gallants is not sentimental about its heroes (and bad-guys). Chen, Leung, and Lo Meng break out their skills for some brutal fight scenes. They are both vulnerable and intensely powerful. And Master Law, randy and scarily strong, is all too mortal. There’s a paradox here -- all great characterization comes from contradiction -- that makes these characters compelling. In fact, Gallants might be the only truly character driven slap-stick martial arts comedy.
The eventual pay-off from these conflicts is hardly overstated, a stark contrast from the more calculating, overtly old-fashioned Ip Man films. There’s a personal, almost intellectual catharsis that belies the situation comedy and bone-crunching fight scenes on display. As many other critics have pointed out, this makes Gallants the most unmarketable film ever. But it’s also one of my favorite films of the year: a sentimental, sweet-natured movie that doesn’t play its hand too soon. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung are marvelous in their roles (it’s no secret that the hey-day of the genre allowed few opportunities for real acting even for those capable of it), and Teddy Robin Kwan steals every scene he participates in.
My problem with John Woo’s Red Cliff was that it tried to be an old Hong Kong movie, and it felt dated and weird because it was so self-conscious. Gallants does what many old-school kung fu movies do not, presenting its martial artists not as god-like symbols of power in a comic book plot, but as real people battling in an uncaring, nonsensical world. And it’s funny. Unlike Woo, Kwok and Cheng have successfully made a relevant film that looks back at Hong Kong cinema without trying too hard or winking at the viewers. It’s a fresh while being nostalgic, and fun -- the only movie to really get nostalgia right.