Dir. Kenneth Bi. Hong Kong / Taiwan , 2007. 115 mins.
Conceived as a vehicle for Jaycee Chan (Jackie Chan's son) but more likely to serve as a showcase for the talents of the U Theatre drummers, this gangster-movie-meets-rites-of-initiation picture has a hard time deciding which way to go among the variety of options it attempts to explore.
Not quite a genre movie, nor a philosophical one about the glory and mystery of an ancient art, it turns out finally to be quite a pleasant if not terribly original entertainment, thanks to some spectacular drumming performances and the breathtaking landscapes in which most of it takes place.
Chan, who is supposed to carry the film, suggests as restless, mischievous and unruly a screen persona as his father's, but he could have done with a bit more action and a bit less introspection. Veteran Tony Leung Ka Fai snarls his way with a passion through the role of a ruthless gangster and together with upcoming talents such as Lee Sinje, playing an ardent drummer stuck on her master and Josie Ho, as the veterinarian gangster's daughter who doesn't like people much, provide some welcome and nicely timed moments of comic relief.
Thanks to their help, Kenneth Bi's second feature manages to sail through, never allowing enough time for the audience to ponder on its finer points. Its hesitancy to choose one clear path to embark on will most likely restrict its general appeal to a respectable career on home turf, due to the draw of well-known established performers, and limited festival dates abroad.
Sid (Chan), a rebellious young drummer, gets into hot water when he jumps into bed with the concubine of a powerful underworld tycoon, Ma (Tsang). When caught out, his father Kwan (Leung Ka Fai), a triad chieftain himself, packs him up, sends him away from Hong Kong to hide in the Taiwan countryside, far away from the vengeful reach of Ma, who demands the boy's severed hands as retribution for his acts. Bored in his hideaway, Sid roams around the mountainside and stumbles upon the retreat of a Zen drumming troupe.
Having played with beat groups in the big city, naturally he feels qualified to join in instantly and is stunned when kept at arm's length. Made to pass tests before being accepted as an apprentice, he soon finds out that being a drummer requires a lot more than simply hitting the drum with a stick. He is obligated to undergo tai chi and martial arts training and even made to carry heavy stones on his back; submitting to the rigours of long marches, he finds the task of peeling carrots for the next meal utterly demeaning. Even after all this, there are still serious doubts about his eligibility, but once he learns the profound sense of this calling, the spoiled Hong Kong brat with an attitude turns into a dedicated, gifted and energetic member of the group.
In the meantime his father's triad wars rumble on, not to mention further confrontations with his rebellious daughter, Sina (Ho), who infuriates her parent by choosing to marry a man he considers a wimp. What exactly goes on in these wars is never really spelled out, with the usual mayhem taking the place of actual plot, but several twists at the end put Kwan in jail, send Sid with the Zen drummers on a world tour starting in Hong Kong and culminates in a showdown between Sid, who displays his freshly acquired intimacy with nature, and the traitor who was responsible for his father's downfall.
On the one hand, Bi's script, evidently structured to allot as much space as possible to the Zen drumming, wraps these performances into a tentative action story line that couldn't possibly satisfy genre fans. On the other hand, the spiritual process of taming Sid from a wild loner to a disciplined team player, which should have been the centrepiece of the drama, is rendered mostly in voiceover narration.
But as there is a lot of drumming being done, courtesy of Taiwan's U Theatre Company, both in natural settings and on stage, and with the assistance of classy camera work, dynamic cutting and superlative sound production underlining the quality of these performances, the various shortcomings of the script are pushed into the background. Forget the story and enjoy the show.
Twenty Twenty Vision
Arc Light Films
The Match Factory
Tony Leung Kai Fa
Members of the U Theatre Company