Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
For those who don't already know, Hong Kong's 1998 blockbuster hit film-phenomenon is the movie Storm Riders. Based on a popular comic book by Ma Wing-sing, Storm Riders evokes a mythical Chinese past full of swordplay, magic, stunning palaces, pretty-boy heroes, fabulous costumes, and extravagantly tangled hair.
The nominal stars of the film are A-list pop star Aaron Kwok (as Striding Cloud) and A-list teen idol Ekin Cheng (as Whispering Wind). These two paired young heroes, were each orphaned at the age of 10, then adopted by Lord Conquer (played by Sonny Chiba), whose earth-dominating ambition depends at first on their success, and then hinges on their destruction. There is a vast gallery of supporting characters: Conquer's daughter, in love with one hero, loved by the other; a powerful Shaolin monk, magic soothsayers, jesters, swordsmen, herbalists, magic beasts ... a group whose breadth and richness, undeniably impressive, owes its amplitude to the drastic compression exercised on the original complex material by the filmmakers. Storm Riders is among other things a coming of age parable. Wind and Cloud, reaching their maturity, become entangled in dilemmas both intimate and cosmic: a love triangle with Conquer's daughter Charity, and various world-saving and illusion-shattering battles with the film's corps of fantastic foes occupies its two hours plus running time. By the end, their rivalry modulated, Wind and Cloud at least temporarily parry Conquer's world-destroying power.
Enough of plot. SR may be both a return to tradition and a new beginning for the Hong Kong film industry: a return to the fantasy swordplay epic, after it seemed to have run out of steam around 1994; and a re-definition of it origins, forwards into the hitherto Hollywood-dominated arena of the CGI spectacular. Computer generated effects overwhelm the movie, almost completely displacing the dazzling acrobatics (derived, as performance and entertainment spectacle, from Chinese opera, honed in countless Shaw Brothers martial arts films of the 70s, and transformed into high art by Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-tung, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and their colleauges in the 80s) that this genre used to depend on in its Hong Kong re-incarnation through the early 90s.
Like a Spielberg picture, it's the special effects that are the only real star. Jurassic Park was the first Hollywood film to dominate the Hong Kong box office in recent times: SR reflects the aftershocks still felt by that event on the Hong Kong film industry, and represents the industry's most substantial effort to date to come to terms with it. But the Spielberg-erization of Hong Kong cinema, if it should become a path to success (of the box office-determined kind), is a depressing prospect, to go by the evidence of Storm Riders. The artists behind the film have aimed to recreate the look and feel of a comic book, mixing live action and computer assisted animation in frequently stunning ways. But the characterization and the acting (with the noteworthy, glorious, and entirely unexpected exception of Sonny Chiba's rich and nuanced portrayal of Lord Conquer) are also comic book thin. After you're through admiring the proficiency of the graphic artists and animators, there's not much else to do here. SR seems sodden, heavy, portentous, as if it's weighed down by the burden of a technological sophistication that it seems so anxious to embrace and then flaunt.
And this is the predominant feeling that SR embodies: anxiety. Anxiety about the possible imminent collapse of the Hong Kong film industry, for one. This forces the film into taking an extreme, almost polemical position: an almost total reliance on special effects crowds out almost all of what a discerning Hong Kong audience has learned to expect from its films since the early 80s. Gone are: stunning physical grace rooted in a stretching of traditional acrobatic arts almost to the breaking point; characters that afford movie stars the opportunity to stamp them with their own brand of vivid characterizations; rich, substantial, proactive roles for actresses; mind-stretching formal structures that confront the audience and show them new unexpected ways to see; a dizzying sense of playfulness and velocity (the "kinetic" element, perfected in the 2nd wave of Tsui Hark's films) that offered a new way for an audience to feel. Perhaps this kind of cinematic package, introduced by the Hong Kong new wave and then processed into the mainstream of the industry, had to play itself out, eventually, dependent as it was on Hong Kong's particular place and time, with its late colonial history ticking ineluctably down to 1997.
Something different has to happen to Hong Kong cinema in its new post-1997 world. An entirely new set of anxieties comes into play: this time less focused on specific questions of Hong Kong film's own identity, and more on how it can adapt to a relentlessly globalizing international arena without collapsing. SR's answer is to play the international game as well as the internationalists: to gamble on "Hollywoodizing" its values in as exhaustive a way as possible. And the result, looked at through the eyes of the global game players, is undeniably impressive: record-breaking box office receipts.
There are other anxieties lurking within Storm Riders, anxieties that feel a bit stale, already, almost a throwback to the colonial era that has just ended, In an intensely male world, the film is utterly obsessed with issues of virility and paternity. Although the magic skills of Wind and Cloud are based in their own bodies (magic emanations from palms, fists and the like), the opening scenes and ultimate confrontation comes down to swords: swords as an emblem of the inherited vigour, the masculine power of the father, swords as an emblem of a completely mature manhood.
Storm Rider's most blatant anxiety is specifically centered around paternity. A paternity in crisis that predictably obsesses the Hong Kong film industry: "Whose films should be our industry's 'fathers'?" "Should we abandon ourselves in a wholehearted embrace of the Hollywood father and reject our hybrid nature, with its devotion to a trio of cinematic fathers: Shanghai, Hong Kong and America?" "Is Spielberg the new dad of HK film?"
Both our young heroes lose their fathers, to the violence of new substitute father/teacher Lord Conquer. Cloud's father was a wise sword maker slain by Conquer's minions so that Conquer could bring up Cloud as his own son. Wind's father was a disillusioned, retired swordsman, also slain by Conquer, who won not only Wind's son but also his wife. Conquer represents usurping paternity; our heroes grow up under a false father, but are constantly haunted by repressed, distorted, elusive memories of the real fathers.
The film's splendid play of visual invention is at its most intense and creative in these sections, as it depicts Wind and Cloud's disembodied memories of their own fathers, shattered into pieces of images, the shards of which slice into every significant moment of their adolescent lives. Storm Riders is authoritative at showing us how Wind and Cloud can only see the most stressful events of their lives through the fog, or more precisely the splintered mirrors of the incompletely integrated memories of their fathers. And it is only when they begin to understand who their "real" fathers were, and what violence their "false" father had inflicted on them, that they are able to join together and fight back. But even then their victory is incomplete. Shrinking back from completely destroying the false father, they perhaps acknowledge that it is precisely the complex play of all these contradictory paternal images that has defined who they are, and that permits them to be able to imagine even the possibility of a future. They can't revive -- except in memory -- the fathers that they have lost, nor can they completely extinguish Conquer, the father that they now have to reject.
Hong Kong film critic Li Cheuk-to believes these very issues -- a crisis of uncertain paternity, ambivalence towards different fathers -- are at the heart of the 1997 experience: the end of Hong Kong's colonial history (breaking with an adopted father-culture) and its reversion to the People's Republic of China (embracing the simultaneously new and authentic, original father). His analysis puts attitudes towards history at the centre of this re-fathering experience. The opportunity finally exists to confront a colonial history distorted by nostalgia. A complex process ensues that both cherishes and reappropriates the distanced images that made up a nostalgic world view. These are now shown to have been mere constructs, which served to reinforce and "naturalize" a certain disposition of power [???]. All the emotions inherent in this most difficult of re-imagining experiences -- bewilderment, frustration, nausea, disorientation, but also a dizzying sense of speed and drive and possibility -- these are what Storm Riders labours to put on the screen, in an onslaught of rapid-fire montages, sequences and tableaux, so that your eyes are stuffed with Hong Kong's special obsessions [many thanks to Li Cheuk-to for suggesting a reading of Storm Riders in this direction: any misreading of his analysis is of course completely my own].
What the film doesn't do is to challenge our brains, as well as our eyes. And this might be why it is so tiring to sit through: it mirrors to us what we already know; it rehearses last year's anxieties; there is nothing startling, nothing really new behind the parade of light-candy that it flaunts on its surface.
But that would be asking for precisely what Storm Rider's agenda rules out. Storm Riders' innovations are strictly technological, as Alvin Lu points out in his welcoming review of the film. It's one response to the shock of Hong Kong film losing its home market to Hollywood.
In other words, the Storm Riders phenomenon is about the emerging internationalization of Hong Kong film, which runs in parallel with the internationalization of Hong Kong itself. That's the crisis the SAR is going through right now: not the much feared totalitarianization at the hands of the China's Communist Party, but rather a wrenching "globalization" at the hands of those "irresistible market forces" of transnational capitalism, emanating from our very own democratically capitalist West. That Storm Riders' jumping on the bandwagon is so enthusiastically embraced by Hong Kong's theatre-going audience might just show where the city and its cinema is heading.
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