Directed by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng
In ‘Gallants’, the opening narrator establishes the protagonist Cheung (Wong Yau-Nam), an awkward nerd of Napoleon Dynamite proportions who struggles to garner any sympathy from the audience and is often even less popular with the characters he interacts with. He dreams of being a Kung-Fu fighter, but now that his youthful bullying days are behind him, he takes abuse rather than dispenses it in his dead-end real estate job. Through this he meets legendary actors Chen Kuan-Tai and Leung Siu-Lung, playing Dragon and Tiger, devoted Kung-Fu pupils of their now comatose Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) embroiled in a battle to save his dojo-cum-teashop. These past heroes are also introduced individually through a series of comic style still-action frames and retro subtitles exploding across the screen.
‘Gallants’ is not only a homage to the aging Kung-Fu stars of a previous generation that it features, but keeps 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 from 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 nicely ties the ’70s Hong Kong film genre with references for a 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 is about fighting and these veterans of the art certainly deliver. The fight scenes are nothing short of invigorating not only in their pace and energy, but also in the joy of watching the infirm Tiger and Dragon spar it out with the various ‘bad guys’ in spectacular fashion.
The tightly arranged movements of action choreographer Yuen Tak (known for ‘Fong Sai Yuk’ and ‘She Shoots Straight’) are matched with rapid cuts to animated frames and frantic angle changes but the result never feels chaotic or disjointed – much rather the opposite.
This was clearly a project of passion for the young film makers Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok (‘The Pye Dog’, ‘The Moss’). The film works not only because Cheng and Kwok have created a story inspired by their own boyhood martial arts film devotion, but even for the genuinely uninitiated in the audience, or those with an aversion to glorified violence, can appreciate the nobility of the veterans skillful combat.
The film does not deliver any truly reprehensible characters or good vs. evil or morality lessons and is all the stronger for it – choosing never to indulge in too much sentimentality that often weakens Western interpretations of the genre classics. There is always a well-timed joke to break up the more tearful moments and while certain humourous moments are intended for a local audience (based on Cantonese word play), the comedy is often so absurd and exaggerated it provides as powerful a punch as the Master Law could muster.
Of course hilarity abounds but there is a genuine heart to the story found in the relationship between master and pupil and the natural physical hurdles that come with growing old. 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 festival and justifiably met with an enthusiastic audience reception.
Review by Nadia Baird