Iceman (Bing Fung: Chung Sang Chi Mun)

Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Wing-cheong Law

It may have only occurred in the last decade but Donnie Yen finally broke out of the supporting role rut he was stuck in to become a star in his own right, reaching the pinnacle with the two Ip Man films. Yen now had the opportunity to capitalise on this success with a free reign but his choice of projects has been questionable to say the least.

With the 3D extravaganza Monkey King breaking box office records despite a critical panning, Yen needed his next film to be a similarly big hit, hence this mega budget 3D remake of the 1989 classic The Iceman Cometh, originally starring Yeun Biao and Maggie Cheung.

Starting as it was meaning to go on, the film opens in confusing style, completely cold with a truck driving through the night which crashes on the motorway and onto a nearby shack, discarding its contents, a cryogenic casket carrying a Ming Dynasty guard He Ming (Yen). Elsewhere two other guards Sao (Wang Baoqiang) and his brother Neihu (Yu Kang) have also been defrosted after 400 years is frozen stasis and are looking for He Min, who they believe is a Japanese collaborator and want revenge for betraying the Emperor. Talk about holding a grudge.

It’s a simple enough plot so why is it such a mess? The answer is in the execution which seems to have been edited in the same order it was shot, it is often that random. One can only surmise that because of the 3D gimmick a spectacular opening scene was necessitated to give the audience a visual treat from the onset. Ordinarily the film would have opened with the set-up from 1621 to explain who the characters are, what their dispute is and how they became frozen before being reanimated in modern day Hong Kong.

Even if this is a conventional way of doing things it offers the audience much more to work with as opposed to the constant piecemeal flashbacks that only confuse the issue. That said this helps the reveal of the incredibly clunky ending which paves the way for the sequel due in October but these scenes could have easily book-ended the film with for greater success and more respect for coherent narrative.

Because of this, the acclimatising to the modern surroundings for our trio of fish out of water, which made up much of the comedy in the original, is largely glossed over, leaving us to accept that they’ve sussed everything out with nary a concern. While Sao and Neihu hook up with a group of thugs, He Ming meets club hostess May (Eva Huang) whose May’s mother (Wong Man-wai) is in a retirement home, the payments for which are proving difficult, hence May’s choice of occupation.

Meanwhile Ming is trying to locate the Wheel Of Time, an apparent time travelling artefact, operated by a key that happens to be the (large) phallus of an Indian god. This is just the tip of the bawdy “comedy” iceberg found in the film, ranging from Yen’s first leak in 400 years being akin to a cascade from a water cannon, to a sample of literal toilet humour that you won’t believe. He Ming’s simpler and smut free scenes with May’s comatose mother are much funnier.

Clumsily injected into the plot are the actions corrupt police chief Cheung (Simon Yam) who was transporting the imperial icicles to a North Korean buyer before their transit was disrupted. The nature of this transaction is never disclosed but then again so is lot of congruent bits of information that would go a long way to make this plot more rational.

It’s not all bad however, with, as you might expect, the fight scenes being the saving grace despite being sadly too infrequent. Yen once again acts as choreographer and this time he resist his recent urge to utilise MMA style techniques in his fights. An all to short but enjoyable scrap in a compact night club lounge demonstrates this with some close combat moves reminiscent of the good old days of pre-wire fu, pre-CGI fight scenes that wowed us with their incredible physical adroitness and tight execution.

Eating into the film’s already hefty budget is the big finale, a weapon heavy clash between He Ming, Sao and Neihu on the Tsing Ma Bridge, which required a full sized replica set costing HK$50 million after the Hong Kong government refused permission to film there. The fight itself is a climactic brawl as you might expect but the spots designed solely to exploit the 3D with weapons, debris, and even cars flying about are all too obvious and naturally don’t work as well in 2D. The other side effect is it becomes more important that the actual fight itself which spoils the fun for martial arts fans.

Because the characters are so badly designed and developed it is hard really to care for them or indeed to judge the performances. Even the usually reliable Simon Yam and Lam Suet seem to be struggling here. The tonal shifts, especially for Yen and Eva Huang, don’t make it easy for them either, flitting between silly comedy and drama in the drop of a hat. This is as much the script’s fault as it is Wing-cheong Law’s unfocused and clumsy direction, a disaster for man who worked alongside the likes of Johnnie To for years.

It is no surprise that Iceman was thrashed at the Chinese box office by a teen rom com making the future for the sequel looking bleak. This only barely passes as acceptable popcorn fodder if you set your expectations low otherwise watch the original instead.