Gallants is the sort of movie that seems custom made for lapsing into bouts of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. For me, and maybe this only makes sense in my own head (where it also makes sense to advance Manos: The Hands of Fate as a work of profound importance), you can look at and even celebrate the past without becoming nostalgic. Nostalgia is a particular way of looking at the past, one resigned to belief that the past is as good as it ever was, and it’ll never be that good again. I just can’t reconcile myself with that degree of fatalism, though the older one gets the more often one struggles with that sort of pessimism — especially when one turns on the FM radio and hears that dreadful racket the kids these days refer to as music. What’s wrong, old man??? Justin Beiber too bold for ya? Go back to the nursing home and listen to your safe old Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun albums, grampa!
I’m not exactly old, but I’m getting older. Old enough to occasionally catch myself grappling with the self-indulgent ennui nostalgia breeds. At such times, before I find myself deep my cups and moaning about the old days, I have to remind myself of two important things. First, that the majority of what I consider to be the most enjoyable and incredible experiences of my life have come in the last dozen years, not the two dozen before it. Second, I have to remember that the past was never as suave, cool, rosy, and perfect as we tend to remember during fits of nostalgia. There is a way to embrace the past, celebrate it, even rekindle parts of it, without relegating yourself to it. Like most people, my life is full of regrets, bad calls, stupid moves, missed opportunities, and things I would have done differently. But seriously, is my life today better served by making ornate plans for what I’d do if I had a chance to travel back in time and change things, or by learning from past mistakes, appreciating past victories, accepting my lessons learned, and doing something with the present?
It can be a fine line, and lord knows I cross it from time to time, but I do my best to pull back once I realize I’m getting all pissy about some golden era that never actually happened the way I remember it. Gallants is very much a cinematic adaptation of this philosophy and struggle. It’s a film built around a cast whose best days ended over a quarter century ago, but who also represent a time when we all thought martial arts films were a whole lot cooler than the ones they’re making these days. Rather than turning into an exercise in nostalgia for or imitation of old movies, however, Gallants handles itself as a celebration, a rediscovery, and a re-invigoration, handing its deceptively complex central themes with a deft hand. It’s a film that looks to the past without pandering to it or being trapped by it, resulting in a movie that is uplifting and bittersweet, and ultimately, a refreshingly honest meditation on growing old, feeling obsolete, and rediscovering your spirit and a place in the modern world.
But lest you think this movie is stuffed full of navel-gazing and winsome piano music, let me assure you that whatever themes it contains are delivered by a gang of energetic old guys cracking jokes and beating the unholy stuffing out of one another.
Said old farts are a veritable who’s who of 70s kungfu bad-asses. Under-appreciated even in his day Shaw Brothers workhorse Chen Kuan-tai plays Dragon, and former Bruce Lee clone Bruce Leung Siu-lung plays Tiger, two former kungfu heavyweights who have wasted away the last thirty years watching over their comatose old master, Law (Teddy Robin). As a result, their lives have become unfulfilled and disappointing. The old kungfu school has become a teahouse (a nod to the old Shaw Bros film that made Chen Kuan-tai a star). Tiger and Dragon have never married, never gotten out of their small village, and they spend their days trapped between regret and loyalty to their old master. Keeping vigil with them is the local doctor, Fun (Siu Yam-yam, female bad-ass from such films as Big Bad Sis, To Kill a Jaguar, and Chinatown Kid), who at least has moved on with her life enough to become a doctor. Also staying with the men is a young woman (J. J. Jia Xiao-Chen) whose mother was once saved by the duo in an incident that left Dragon with a permanently crippled arm and Tiger with a permanently bum leg. She feels protective of them, even if they think they’re protecting her, and hopes that she can repay them for saving her mother by somehow jump-starting their lives.
A dispute over the lease for the teahouse with the local heavies commanded by former Deadly Venom and Shaw Bros. muscleman Lo Meng causes a real estate company to send in a mediator: hapless loser Cheung (Wong Yau-nam). Although much younger than Tiger and Dragon, Cheung seems to have given up on life in much the same way, reconciling himself with his loser present while he dwells on memories of the past, when he was a pre-teen kungfu tournament star. Although Cheung and his company are technically on the side of the heavies, Cheung identifies more with the downtrodden old men, especially when Tiger leaps into a kungfu fury to save the young idiot from a beating at the hands of the very people Cheung is there to assist in business. Tiger and Dragon don’t want Cheung around, since he keeps bringing trouble to the teahouse and since he’s ostensibly working for the people trying to put them out of business.
Cheung’s bad luck isn’t at an end, though. He soon discovers that one of the junior bosses in the thug army is a guy named Mang (American born rapper “M.C.” Jin Auyeung), who used to be the very kid Cheung bullied and abused mercilessly when they were kids. Mang, needless to say, regards Cheung with open hostility and is keen on making up for a decade plus of pent up frustration and shame. Dragon is ready to give up the fight, seeing no way they can win. Tiger is irritated that they haven’t fought enough. Of course, Mang still expects Cheung to do the job for which he’s in town, which means Cheung finds himself in the even more precarious situation of being in the middle of physical violence and vandalism. And then an accident awakens Master Law from his thirty year coma, and all hell and hilarity breaks lose.
The central movie is, I think, a reflection of what I was rambling about earlier, something that might have the appearance of nostalgia but is really a reaction against nostalgia. Tiger, Dragon, and Cheung are all men who live in the past, pining for the days when they were fierce and respected — even though those days were likely never quite as glorious as they remember them to be. When the history of Master Law, Dragon, and Tiger is revealed, it’s communicated by the film through bold, heroic looking animation, and when Cheung reflects on his past, he remembers himself as a champion and kungfu star rather than as a bully. So obsessed are they with what they used to be that they’ve let their present lives become total shambles, giving up and accepting that their best days are long gone. It’ snot until the three despondent men meet, and then are subjected to the delirious vigor of the delusional Master Law once he is revived, that the trio begins to understand that the present sucks so bad mostly because they’ve put all their efforts into thinking about how much better the past was.
The film doesn’t let itself become what it criticizes, though. It is rejecting the modern style kungfu film, with all its CGI trickery and pouting teen idols more concerned with hairstyles than with learning the craft of making a good kungfu movie, but it’s not retreating into the past, or kicking the dirt and being all glum. Instead, it’s forging ahead with gusto to be what it’s saying we should strive to become. Gallants does have more than a whiff of dusting off the old guard to show the young whippersnappers how to do the job properly, but what’s going on here is more complex than just aping the past. The martial arts style son display, for example, are a mixture of multiple approaches that have been popular over the years. You get intricate Shaw Bros. style duels (watching Chen Kuan-tai and Lo Meng lock up is a wonderful treat). You get high-speed, frenetically filmed fights in the style of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (the same style that put guys like Lo Meng and Chen Kuan-tai out of business at the end of the 1970s). there’s some small irony, I suppose, in the fact that this style of fighting and filming a fight is handled largely by Bruce Leung — and yes, if you were wondering if they would let him break out the old Jeet Kun Do stances as well, you need not fear. The philosophy seems to be that none of these approaches to film fighting is necessarily better than the other. What’s important, what makes a martial arts movie so special, is the insane commitment and hard work that goes into creating a good fight scene. What each of these styles has in common is that they’re being performed by seasoned pros busting their ass, giving their all, and really taking pride in the artistry of what they’re doing. You can’t get that from an actor who is just being popped around a green screen set by CGI.
Perhaps the most evident expression of this comes when Master law and his rag tag band of followers limp, stagger, and swagger into a gym owned by Master Pong (played by another familiar veteran of the old school game, Michael Chan Wai-man, who slight build now gives off a serious Peter Cushing vibe). Pong’s gym is hosting a largely self-promotional tournament, and the school itself is populated almost entirely by supermodels and posturing gangsters doing pitiful kungfu wrapped up in a slick package. It’s impossible not to see them as a reflection of Hong Kong’s idea of what made an action star in the first decade of the 2000s.
The film’s commitment to being more complex that you expect of such a film continues to manifest itself in the forms of Master Pong and his one real pupil, Pon (Li Hai-to, who like most of the young cast in this film, has very little experience before appearing in Gallants). Although far more financially successful than Tiger or Dragon, Pong and Pon have also been cruising along with no real motivation or spirit — the elder resigned to being the figurehead for a sham martial arts gym, the younger resigned to being the only real martial artist in a gym full of egotistical, talentless gangsters and fashion models. Among the bad guys, only Pong seems to remember Master Law and hold any respect for him or his two pupils, When Law awakens and starts prowling around looking for challenges and hitting on the supermodels in Pong’s gym, Pong and Pon begin to part ways with the real estate thugs, interested in a chance to finally test themselves against worthy opponents, to rediscover the fact that they are both martial artists.
Even Mang, who is the usual obnoxious young chump, is more complex than he might be in another movie. Yet again, he’s a character whose present is defined entirely by something that happened to him in the past — in this case, the fact that he was constantly exploited and abused by Cheung. It’s turned Mang into a trash talking dick with a Napoleon complex, but Gallants isn’t content with just letting him fill that archetypal role. We understand entirely why he holds such a grudge against Cheung, and part of Cheung’s journey toward rebirth involves confronting what he did to Mang when they were kids. American born rapper Jin Auyeung — M.C. Jin if you’re nasty — turns in the sort of Chinglish performance that, if you’ve seen it once, you know exactly what to expect. I think Daniel Wu invented it in Hong Kong films, but it reminds me most of Dante Basco in Fakin’ Da Funk. Lots of hip hop slang, randomly dropping into English, a lot of sneering and making the “Huh?!?!” face — it’s cartoony but not quite over the top. Jin is another guy in this cast who has no substantial acting experience — it seems like the cast of this movie each made either two or two hundred movies — but for a first timer, out of his element, and surrounded by a gaggle of legends, he holds his own.
Not that it matters. The young cast is good. The old cast, particularly Bruce Leung and his insane callouses, are great. But from the minute Master Law comes out of his coma, this movie belongs to Teddy Robin and his riff on the crotchety old kungfu master. Teddy has balanced a long career between acting, producing and composing music. Gallants provides him with ample opportunity to flex his comedic muscle as the arrogant but noble old master who has no idea he’s been asleep for thirty years, and he nails it every time he’s on screen. Yoda-esque in stature and possessing a high pitched croaky voice, much of his comedy has to be seen in context (“Call me…Ben”) or depends on how he says something rather than what he’s saying. He doesn’t recognize Tiger or Dragon, mistakes Cheung for Tiger and Dragon, and complains that Cheung has brought these two old bums into his kungfu school. He also steadfastly adheres to three rules: one, he hates anyone who practices kungfu for the health benefits only instead of using it to fight and raise hell (“If you just want to be healthy, go swimming or ride a bike”); two, he will not tolerate anyone with long hair; and three, ugly people are not welcome in his school (“Luckily, you’re quite handsome” he says to Bruce Leung). Amid the comedy, he even gets a few moments of genuine heart, and his final moments in the movie are handled with a poignancy and subtlety you might not expect.
If the acting belongs to Teddy Robin, then the action belongs to Bruce. Chen Kuan-tai seems to be playing the same role that he played in the 1970s — a guy so dependable and competent in the performance he turns in, that you tend to underestimate how good he really is. But Bruce — Bruce is a whirlwind in this movie. Relegated early in his career to the ghetto of Bruce Lee imitators, he had to bust his ass to prove that there was more to him than aping Bruce’s haircut and thumb to the nose. He became a frequent co-star of Angela Mao’s and went on to make some great films in the 70s, when people discovered he was a much better ass kicker than anyone had given him credit for when he was Brucing it up. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, people were going to see next gen stuff like Young Master and Prodigal Son and, a couple years later, Project A pretty much killed the sort of movies Bruce Leung (and everyone else) had been making.
Unable to make the transition to the new bone-breaking, stunt-driven style of Hong Kong kungfu film, Bruce’s career faded. In 1988, he appeared in what we could all safely assume was his last film. And for sixteen years, that was the case. He was dormant — either getting old and getting on with other aspects of his life, or encased in ice and slumbering under an Arctic ice shelf until humanity needed him again. It’s up to you to decide which eventuality is more likely (though I will give you a hint — Sho Kosugi is slumbering under the same ice shelf). Then, for some reason or other, Hong Kong comedy megastar Stephen Chow dug Bruce Leung up and gave him a substantial role in the blockbuster Kungfu Hustle — a movie which, much like Gallants , depended heavily on stars and fighting talent from the aging previous generation (albeit in a Looney Tunes sort of CGI-heavy fantasy world, rather than the no-nonsense no-computers approach of Gallants). So began an unlikely but warmly welcomed career revival for Bruce Leung.
Gallants gives him a chance, unlike the special effects laden Kungfu Hustle, to dust it up old style — or what is now the old style but was previously the new style that retired Bruce’s previous old style. Got it? In other words, he’s pulling off some serious Sammo Hung moves, full of speed, power, and surprising dexterity. This is the meatiest role, both as an actor and a fighter, that I think he’s ever had, and the opportunity to show what he can do in both aspects is not squandered. At the same time, as good as he is in the action scenes, the movie doesn’t let you forget that he’s an old man. His leg is week. He gets winded quickly. And his final duel, when Pon and Pong come to pay their respects and remember what it was like to be real fighters, is a delirious mixture of energy, speed, heartbreak, and earnestness. “When you’re older,” Master Pong tells a confused Mang, “you’ll understand.”
In an industry that doesn’t really feature seniors as anything other than background characters or cheap comic relief (“Oh, look — they’re having Betty White curse again”), and seems to worship at the altar of youth, Gallants never allows its older cast to be presented as novelties. Yeah, for long time fans, seeing Bruce, Kuan-tai, Lo Meng, and Siu Yam-yam in action once more is a treat, but the movie would betray its own theme if it allowed itself to simply get by on nostalgia alone. The writing-directing team of Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin, and Frankie Tam don’t have much experience between them, but they work hard to make Gallants heartfelt, honest, and witty, and something much more than a crass exercise in exploiting yesteryear. Like the cast, the crew puts everything into trying to make this movie good. And just like it does for the character sin the movie, that unwillingness to compromise, or to take the easy route, is what makes Gallants such a tremendously enjoyable movie.
And it’s not surprising that one of the central themes to emerge in the movie is that you should keep trying, find ways to keep believing, and always try to keep yourself moving forward while, at the same time, not forgetting what came before you. As if they were characters in the movie, the makes of Gallants went through an endless series of downfalls and rejections. No one wanted to finance this movie, this weird heart-on-the-sleeve celebration starring a bunch of people no one remembered or no one had heard of. Studio after studio slammed the door in their faces, until finally, somehow, word got around to Andy Lau. Lau loved the idea and brought the movie into his own production company, fronting his own money (or so I hear) to get it made. Martial arts movie fans everywhere ow him a debt of gratitude. Although I’ve never been disappointed with kungfu films that do nothing more than deliver the action, I’m even more pleased when a movie like Gallants comes along and proves just how fun, smart, and even touching the genre can be.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Teddy Robin Kwan, Wong You-Nam, J.J. Jia, Jin Auyeung, Li Haitao, Law Wing-cheong, Siu Yam-yam, Chan Wai-Man, Lo Meng, Ku Kuan-chung | Screenplay: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Director: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Cinematography: O Sing-Pui | Music: Teddy Robin Kwan, Tommy Wai | Producer: Ka Tung Lam, Andy Lau | Original Title: Da lui toi