At the beginning of Gallants (2009) the opening narrator introduces the audience to the film’s protagonist Cheung (Yau-Nam Wong ), an awkward nerd of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) proportions. He dreams of becoming a Kung-Fu fighter, but now that his youthful bullying days are behind him he is forced to take abuse rather than dispense it within his dead-end, real estate job.
Through his employment, Cheung meets legendary actors Dragon ( Kuan-Tai Chen) and Tiger ( Siu-Lung Leung), devoted Kung-Fu pupils of their now comatose Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) who are now embroiled in a battle to save his dojo-cum-teashop. Their introduction is illustrated through a series of comic-style still action frames and retro-subtitles, exploding across the screen.
Gallants is not only an homage to the aging Kung-Fu stars of previous generations, but it also stays faithful to the universal themes of the ‘underdog film’ with scored training montages and inspirational character growth a-plenty. In one of the final scenes, playfully quoting Rocky Balboa with the line “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”, the film infuses its retro-70’s Hong Kong style with contemporary, ‘pop culture’ references for a new, younger audience.
The slightly senile (and lecherous) Master Law makes it clear that Kung-Fu is not about keeping fit – you can go cycling for that – it’s about fighting; and these veterans of the art certainly deliver. Gallant’s hyper-realistic combat scenes are nothing short of mesmerising, not only in their pace and energy but also in the joy we get from watching the infirm Tiger and Dragon spar it out with various, more youthful ‘bad guys’.
Gallants shys away from delivering any truly reprehensible characters or good vs. evil didactic and is all the stronger for it, choosing never to indulge itself in the type of excessive sentimentality that so often weakens western interpretations of the genre. There is always a well-timed joke to break up the film’s more emotive moments, and while certain humourous moments are intended for a native audience (often revolving around Cantonese wordplay), the comedy is often so absurd and exaggerated it provides as powerful a punch as even the mighty Master Law could muster.
Gallants excels during its comic moments, yet there is also a genuine heart to the story, displayed in the relationship between master and pupil. The themes of acknowledging our childhood heroes’ mortality and coming to terms with the realities of our own strength perfectly encapsulates the “hands free, no safety” mantra of the Udine Far East Film Festival. Kwok and Cheng’s Kung Fu ‘magnum opus’ was justifiably met with an enthusiastic audience reception after its screening.
Nadia Baird (CUEAFS)