There wasn't much local buzz for OUATIS and if the short release run is any indication, folks in Hong Kong just don't seem to care about it. What a shame, because there is so much martial art talent at the helm.
What is also a shame, is how underwhelmed I felt when the credits rolled.
I was initially attracted to up-and-coming talent that was presented as the face of this film's marketing. The pairing of dark horse Philip Ng and underdog Andy On intrigued me. They've both had minor to secondary roles in many other films that lent a glimpse of their talents. Could this finally be the big break for them to to join the ranks of Hong Kong martial arts stardom? The director was Wong Ching Po, who has gained minor fame in art-house circles with his frequently unusual, sometimes violent, but always interesting takes on popular genres. How would he approach the old chop socky genre? The involvement of Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo Ping's further escalated my curiosity. Two pillar directors and choreographers of the genre, working with a fresh director, spotlighting two able young men who have clear ability but not yet chance to shine? Could such a fresh combination result in anything short of exciting? Turns out, it fell short by quite a stretch, actually.
Let's start with the script. There's no hiding it was penned by Wong Jing. The man who, over the eons of Hong Kong film history, has written, directed, and produced a vast body of the most locally definitive but simultaneously most unbearable garbage ever put on celluloid man has ever seen. Fortunately, he restrains from unloading his bag of wacky fart jokes and idiotic schtick here, and keeps the story fairly straight forward and on track.
Unfortunately, this also translates into a story so conservative, so safe, it might as well have been ripped from the pages of an archetype textbook. Now, this might be unfair criticism, because old fashioned kung fu movies—which OUATIS styles itself after—never had elaborate plots or deep characters. Those old movies also often had silly dialogue, mischievous situations, and whimsical choreography that blended into a cohesive whole. That was back then however, and expectations have changed since.
The plot is presented as stoic and occasionally dramatic, but this angle is at odds with the overproduced action sequences and awkward, naive humor injected throughout. The resulting mix is choppy and transitions happen abruptly. It doesn't help that the dialogue itself is heavily stilted. Narrative shortcuts such as fluffy montages and poorly chosen events employed to develop a character keep the story shallow. The lack of emotional engagement leads to hollow, unearned catharsis at the end. Factors of believability, such as the use of long-knives where guns should be or On having less than 10 henchmen when he owns half the city, are sacrifices made for the sake of the action.
The actors make do with what they can, but being limited by the script there's little room here for anyone to truly shine beside On, who receives abundant screen-time to verbalize and terrorize. Sadly, On seem to be dubbed out of his native tongue, affecting his delivery. He compensates with body language that effectively portrays his character. Ng, playing a shy country boy, doesn't have as much dialogue as On, but being the protagonist means a lot of screen time, which he fills earnestly with facial and body language. His slight stiffness and obvious introversion fits his role and services the thin plot. Michelle Hu and Jiang Luxia, who play respective love interests of the leads, manage to bring a surprising amount of vibrancy into their scenes with admirable performances.
What is readily apparent as the film progresses is the limited budget. The sets appear thinly decorated, sparse, and empty. Most jarring is the ghost town streets of Shanghai, which is unconvincingly explained away by a character by gang warfare. Moreover, the cinematography employs a "hard" digital look with a blatant color filter that undermines the period setting and compounds the sense of cheapness. The low-key sound design is unable to mask the visual shortcomings. None of these technicalities usually matters for an action film but the glossy way the film chooses to present itself makes such issues glaring.
Then there are the fights. Thanks to the skilled martial artists in the cast, they have a manic, explosive energy that is as ferocious as anything the industry has ever made. Yet the choreography and camera work can be hit or miss, sometimes blurring brawls into a slurry of indistinguishable chicken slaps. The extreme under-cranking of certain portions hurt the fights more than it helps. Too many blows are exchanged, but not enough of them are memorable, and occasionally the camera runs out of ideas on how to spice up the action. Nowhere is this more evident than the final fight, which despite pitching Ng against a string of opponents with different skills and weapons, could have benefited by being shortened.
The vets on this project have seen better days, though their effort is evident. Wong is disappointingly conservative in his direction, and has not pushed the creative boundaries as he has done for other genres. A stronger script would have benefited the production. The shining beacons here are the two leads, who excel in both their roles and the demanding combat, and the two supporting actresses, who charm and captivate despite their short screen time. Together their chemistry has elevated the film to a standard it could not have otherwise achieved. Don't get me wrong, OUATIS is not a bad movie. Yet it is a Hong Kong martial arts movie released in 2014, with all the baggage that implies. When they only release once in a blue moon, I have inflated expectations for such flicks to build upon the genre's glorious legacy. As such, OUATIS's crime is being merely average.
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