Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Pang Brothers' STORM WARRIORS

In 1998 Andrew Lau's The Stormriders offered a glimmer of computer generated hope to an anxious Hong Kong film industry burdened with waning hometown profits and productions (not to mention that it was all governed by a new landlord officing in Beijing.) Stormriders was a martial arts melodrama that propelled its elements of fantasy using computers, not wires. Based on a popular comic book, Stormriders starred dreamboats Ekin Cheung and Aaron Kwok as martial arts heroes, Whispering Wind and Striding Cloud. Wind is the sensitive and calm one who calculates his battles with patience; Cloud is the emotional and erratic one who acts before he thinks. Falling prey to the manipulations of Lord Conqueror (Sonny Chiba), and his beautiful daughter (Shu Qi), Wind and Cloud turn against one another in an epic showdown that eventually leads to their bond of brotherhood. Directed by Andrew Lau (of the incredibly popular Young and Dangerous series) added an artful new pizazz to a tried-and-true formula. The film cleaned up at the box office and almost everyone raised their hands in a communal cheer for Hong Kong film.

I bought into this brooding period drama, hook, line and sinker. It played a few times in town (courtesy of Asian Media Access) and I subsequently bought the import DVD for repeat viewings. Twelve years later, the DVD has gathered some dust, but I find I am equally susceptible to the stylish but light machinations of Wind and Cloud. Returning to the screen once again—this time at the hands of the Pang Brothers with Cheung and Kwok reprising their roles—Wind and Cloud find themselves even further enmeshed in special effects but with the feeling that they had even more to prove now than they did in 1998. Although some distance has no doubt made my heart grow fonder of Stormriders, I was realistic in my expectation of this new installment, generically titled Storm Warriors but surrounded with a halo of communal anticipation.

Storm Warriors picks up at a different point in the saga where Wind and Cloud and their master, Nameless, are up against a new nemesis in the form of evil Lord Godless (Simon Yam) and his equally evil but emasculated son Heart (Nic Tse). Lord Godless has situated himself as the king of the martial arts world by ruthlessly exhibiting his prowess against all the masters, most notably Nameless. His intentions of world domination (or at least the world known as the middle kingdom) are obvious and so are his plans to rule with an iron fist as his minions go about pillaging and conquering. Because Nameless was given the wu shu smackdown, Wind and Cloud are set to avenge their master and prevent the slaughter of innocents by any means necessary. In this case they must turn to Lord Wicked, the only person who has a chance of defeating Lord Godless and his seemingly unlimited powers.

As it turns out, one of the fair faced men must turn to the dark side to achieve the power needed to defeat Lord Godless. Wind, of rational mind and cool temperament, is chosen as the best candidate for the training in the evil arts while Cloud retreats to high mountain to train with his master in preparation for facing Godless. Both of the men face great danger, but the fate of Wind's soul hangs in the balance. Meanwhile there are two damsels waiting in the wings, Chu Chu for Cloud and Second Dream for Wind. Their task is to stop Lord Godless before he finds the legendary imperial relic, The Dagon's Bone, which holds the magical key to ruling the land.

Unfortunately, Storm Warriors is more an exercise in technical deftness than an exertion in creativity for the Pang Brothers, who have success in both areas, and sometime simultaneously. In this case, their film is sucked dry of any emotional grit and it fails to have the gravitational guilty pleasures of romance, passion and heroism of Stormriders, even if it was completely over the top. But nice to look at counts for something, and that is what Storm Warriors cashes in on, even with the actors. Neither Cheung nor Kwok are doing much acting beyond an occasional furrowed brow; Simon Yam simply works on his sinister smile; and Nic Tse simply emotes by clenching his jaw (not so unlike George Clooney in The American.)

One thing I will say about the Storm Warriors Blu-ray is: holy cow dts-HD. The picture quality is top notch, but the sound will blow the hair off your head. It has a thunderous and complex sound that you hardly care about the cheesy lines being spoken.

All in all, I can't find much difference between The Storm Warriors and Resident Evil: Afterlife, also recently viewed. Both engage with enthralling CGI and ride a wave set in motion by their respective successor(s). That wave is fun but limited. Twelve years was a long time to wait for a mediocre sequel, but I'm a sucker for martial arts fantasies, especially when they are visually well-executed. The Pangs have already signed on to Storm Warriors III, and I, for one, am hoping that they do a little bit more than resting on their entertaining, but finite, CGI laurels.

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