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Imaginative animated fantasy based on Hong Kong comic
STORM RIDER: CLASH OF EVILS (2008) is an epic animated feature co-produced by Hong Kong and China and is, I believe, the first animated adventure I've seen that was based on a Hong Kong comic book. It's quite a spectacular swordplay fantasy, with intricately choreographed fight action and expertly detailed backgrounds that evoke an ancient and mythic China. It has a strong storyline and a host of interesting characters and never flags during its 99-minute running time. It was directed by Hong Kong director Dante Lam, who's known for such live-action thrillers as BEAST COPS, JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE, and THE TWINS EFFECT. Why this film isn't better-known is a mystery to me. IMDb lists release dates in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, but I have found no information on how it was received critically or how well it did at the box office. As far as I know, it never got any release outside of those regions. I found my import DVD copy in a Chinatown video store in New York.
The film is based on "Storm Riders," a comic book by Wing Shing Ma that has been published in English by a company called Comics One. The comic was previously adapted as a live-action film called THE STORM RIDERS (1998), which starred Ekin Cheng, Aaron Kwok and Sonny Chiba. The animated film is something of a sequel in that it follows the two main characters, Wind and Cloud, after the events of the earlier film.
The animated story is a little on the convoluted side, but once you get all the characters straight by the half-hour mark, it's simply a matter of following what happens to Wind and Cloud. In the earlier film, they had been seen as martial arts students under the tutelage of Lord Conquer, a villain who had killed their parents and taken them as pupils to fulfill a prophecy laid out by a character called Mud Buddha. In that film they nurtured their plans for revenge and carried them out at the end of the film in a sequence that's recreated in an entirely new fashion at the beginning of this film. In the newer film, the two heroes acquire the power of the sacred Flame Kylin Sword, but it comes with a price. Wind gets the lion's share of the power but runs the risk of being possessed by it to the point where he might lose control and become a murderous all-powerful monster. Cloud has been ordered to kill Wind if this were to happen. After the events of the opening sequence, the two heroes are separated for a long stretch, during which Cloud is afflicted with amnesia and aligns himself with a band of street urchins, acting as their mentor and protector and earning the affection of Ying, the oldest girl in the group. Wind joins a group in another village and begins a relationship with a woman named Mong. Both protagonists wind up in the same town and on the same side in a battle with a marauding gang before they are eventually reunited.
There are three major action setpieces. After the opening flurry of fight scenes involving the confrontation between Lord Conquer and his two vengeful students, there is a welcome lull in the action in order to deal with Cloud's sudden amnesia, introduce new characters, and build up to the two sprawling battle sequences later in the film. At around the 50-minute mark, the Bat Gang, a group of vicious bandits, attacks the main town and their leaders are confronted, on separate fronts, by Wind and Cloud, who are both still unaware of each other's presence nearby. Later, after Wind and Cloud reunite, the two must confront Ao Jue and Duan-Lang, two young martial arts masters who covet the Flame Kylin Sword and its power. It all leads to a knockdown, drag-out fight in a massive clifftop castle which results in Wind losing control, thanks to the power of the Kylin Sword, compelling Cloud to recognize his duty to stop him.
The characters drive the story here and incidents occur based on what a particular character would or wouldn't do. As a result, the viewer becomes more engaged and emotionally connected to the action. It helps that the characters spend significant downtime with their friends and allies and get a chance to relate normally to other people. This is most evident in scenes where Cloud interacts with his young charges, the street urchins, after he's rescued them from the bumbling town constables. After the two protagonists are reunited, Wind watches as Cloud plays happily with the children. He turns to Mong and makes the memorable observation, "I never would have imagined his happiest times would come when his past is forgotten. When you leave the anger and stubbornness behind, life changes entirely." This leads to a romantic interlude between Wind and Mong that's remarkably touching and something quite rare in this genre.
There's a beautiful music score by Henry Lai Wan Man that perfectly matches the breathtaking artwork, particularly in scenes of sprawling landscapes of farms, villages, fields, mountains and waterfalls. The fights are staged by an actual action choreographer, Wong Wai Fai, whose credits include Dante Lam's JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE. The swordplay is mildly bloody at times, but the gorier parts are all kept offscreen. The DVD comes with both Cantonese and Mandarin language soundtracks, with English subtitles. I prefer the Cantonese track because the sound quality is better and the caliber of the voice acting much higher.
STORM WARRIORS II (2009) is a live-action sequel to the 1998 film, bringing back Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok in the roles of Wind and Cloud, but it has points in common with the animated film, including the threat of Wind going out of control. It's much darker and more claustrophobic than the earlier films and relies much too heavily on computer effects and CGI-created backgrounds. I prefer the animated film.
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