Movie Review – A Man Called Hero (1999)
Hollywood movies reign supreme around the world and though the occasional local product might pop up on the weekly box office, nothing compares to the might and allure of American pop culture. There are only a few markets that have weathered the Hollywood storm, India’s Bollywood being one and another is Hong Kong.
Recent years have not been kind to the former British territory as the local film industry took a dive for most of the late 80s early-90s prompting critics to write a premature epitaph. Not only were these critics proved wrong but VERY wrong. The industry went on an upswing as the new generation of film makers took over from those that departed, lured away by Hollywood bucks.
Leading that charge was the realization that though Hong Kong has always had the talent that it was sorely lacking in both the finer technical skills as well as having more focused plots and narratives.
It’s one of those ironic elements to realize that early Hong Kong films were influenced by Hollywood and then Hollywood in recent years has been influenced by Hong Kong but then contemporary HK cinema finds itself once again looking West for guidance. Talk about elliptical structures!
As Hollywood began to learn the art of wirework and John Woo kineticism, Hong Kong filmmakers analyzed the biggest hits that Hollywood had produced and came to the realization that it was time to mimic them as best they could. The first area to come under this new scrutiny was special effects. Previous effects were as advanced as using drawing markers on the film or constructing the cheapest paper mache sets possible. That was not going to cut it in the new millennium. Therefore, it was time to pay up and allocate the funds necessary to create the best effects possible.
The film that did this was The Storm Riders and for better or for worse, it changed Hong Kong filmmaking. Although its effects can be described as great video game footage, it launched HK into a technical craze so much so that other local filmmakers attempted to cash in on this new phenomenon even though their films didn’t need it at all. The Storm Riders was a blockbuster ensuring that a sequel would be made. A true sequel did not appear but a follow-up in the form of A Man Called Hero.
A Man Called Hero tells the tale of Ying Hung, an extraordinary swordsman born at the turn of the century. However, his is a said tale. Born under a bad astrological sign, Ying Hung is cursed causing those he loves to be forever in peril. At first he doesn’t believe it but when his family is massacred and later when his wife perishes in his arms, Ying Hung comes to grips with his fate and decides to live the rest of his life as a hermit.
If only things were so easy. A villain named Invincible, who inflicts a mortal wound on Ying Hung’s master, appears, his only goal to become the greatest warrior in the world. Only Ying Hung can stop him.
This much-maligned follow-up to The Storm Riders is much better than led to believe although still punctuated with excessive exposition, redundant plots and actors who are as dynamic as a boulder.
The film’s biggest pothole lies in the fact that it is much too ambitious, taking a long line of comic books and condensing the rather complicated plot into a two-hour feature film. Director Andrew Lau makes the mistake of not paring down the screenplay, leaving out extraneous characters and storylines. Instead he truly attempts to cram everything possible including the kitchen sink into a film that collapses under the incessant weight of the plot.
Huge tracts of the film flash by without much explanation, leaving the audience befuddled as to what is unfolding before them. Characters come and go and sometimes age decades while others appear for seconds only to disappear until the very end, chief of which is the villain.
Part of The Storm Rider’s success lay in the wonderfully over-the-top performance by Sonny Chiba as the villain who skilfully manipulates the heroes into not only doing his biding but against one another over the love of his daughter. A Man Called Hero has no such character. Instead the film’s antagonist, Invincible, comes from a long line of typical maniacs who want to rule the world for no better reason than they feel like it. By reducing his role to that of a cameo, A Man Called Hero has no driving tension and the film ends up floating from scene to scene without a care in the world. Only near the end does the tension mount but this stems not from the villain but merely because we know the end is near and thus the special effects we’ve been waiting for are around the corner.
Speaking of the effects they are a step up from The Storm Riders. You can actually see that progress is being made in this area. The two primary fight scenes, one taking place in an abandoned alley and the climax at the Statue of Liberty are truly spectacular although the CG is still obvious and plastic — think American TV level not mainstream Hollywood.
Many people loathe these effects in both Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero and I can understand their ire. Hong Kong filmmakers are still learning the intricacies of computer aided elements and as such their once kinetic, whirling camera has become much more static and stoic. Instead of flying and swooping during an action sequence what we get are just mere pans and tilts to ensure that the effects will work. With a freely flowing camera it would be even tougher to create the CG effectively until the skill level increases.
Ekin Cheng does a commendable job as Ying Hung giving the tortured soul the right amount of bitterness and honor. Still, it doesn’t help that his character disappears altogether for more than half and hour further fracturing the narrative. During his absence, young up and comer, Nicholas Tse takes over as Ying Hung’s son who is attempting to locate his long lost father. This portion of the film sags terribly and features some truly hideous make-up effects, which are meant to age certain characters but come across as just talcum powder in their hair. One can only wish that when they turn 50 that all that has changed can be easily solved with just a bottle of dye. Other thespians such as Kristy Yang who plays Ying Hung’s wife and Shu Qi as a spurned lover don’t get nearly enough screen time, reducing them to cardboard figures devoid of emotional resonance.
On a totally different tract, apart from the special effects much kudos has to go to Kwong Wing Chan who succeeds in composing, perhaps, the greatest orchestral score ever for a Hong Kong movie. The film would have scored lower if not for his appropriate use of melodies to accompany the moment. For once we’ve got individual theme songs for different characters, not to mention an immensely hummable title song, Tin Sat Ku Hsing (天煞孤星), that captures the atmosphere of the comic book sung by star Ekin Cheng. Do yourself a favour and pick up the CD if you have the chance.
A Man Called Hero doesn’t stack up well with its immediate predecessor but it’s still an enjoyable piece of fluff even with its numerable faults. With a longer running time or more intensely focused script it might have turned into a classic but that’s wishful thinking. Still, there’s a bright future for Hong Kong spectacle films of this type and that might be a better legacy than the movie alone.
**1/2 out of ****
1999, Hong Kong, 116 Min, R, Golden Harvest
Directed by Andrew Lau
Screenplay by Manfred Wong
Based on the Comic Book by Ma Wing-Shing
Produced by Raymond Chow & Mandred Wong
Original Music by Kwong Wing Chan
Cinematography by Lau Wai-Keung
Ekin Cheng: Hero Hua
Shu Qi: Mu
Kristy Yang: Jade
Nicholas Tse: Sword Hua
Yuen Biao: Boss
Francis Ng: Invincible
Anthony Wong: Pride
Grace Yip: Kate
© 1999 The Galactic Pillow