China (2021) Dirs. Shuai Yang & Zhong Weixi
“There’s a hero / If you look inside your heart”
No, I didn’t expect to find myself quoting Mariah Carey in a review for a martial arts film but stranger things have happened. But it is apposite as this is your typical story of a lowly peasant with no discernible skills becoming a heroic fighter.
Being a member of the fabled Maoshan Sect is the aspiration of every local martial artist, and daydreamers like Yin Shou Yi (Di Liu), son of restaurant owner (Zhou Xiaofei) in the Taoyuan Township. Growing up enchanted by stories of the Three Zi of Mount Maoshan, Shou Yi vows to become the protector of Maoshan, but instead riles the locals with his tomfoolery.
When the grandmaster of the Devil Sect Luo Huan Zhen (Zhang Chunzhong) attempts to steal the spiritual power of Maoshan, the ailing grandmaster of the Maoshan Sect, Master Burning Eyebrow (Do Yuming), decrees a new master of the Nine Dragons Sword needs to be found. Shou Yi joins the open selection ceremony despite being the least skilled and qualified, yet somehow becomes the new Master.
Maoshan is apparently a TV movie though you’d would only notice this if you paid close attention to the more ambitious examples of CGI, which exposes where the budget and capabilities are being stretched. Otherwise, this is a good looking, high-end production that I’m sure the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest would have killed to be able to pull off in their prime.
However, as this is a recent film with very little exposure outside of China, there is scant information about it online, including the full cast list (not being able to read Chinese is a real handicap here), so I apologise in advance for the vagueness of the discussion about the film and some of the absent acting credits.
Since the film sprints along for its swift 79-minute run, pretty much everything that occurs is spent moving things forward, which is fine as this means the focus is to keep us engaged and not to force us to sit through and aimless, indulgent screenplay. The downside to this is the character depth and backstory is practically nonexistent, as are the motives of the antagonist and the mythos of the Maoshan Sect.
A short voiceover at the beginning tells us the power of Maoshan Mountain is formidable hence needing the sect to protect it from evil influence, but this as far as the exposition goes on that front. However, the opening scene in which Huan Zhen attacks Taoyuan but is fought off by Shou Yi turns out to be a tall tale he is spinning three young kids to sell them his wooden toy replicas of the Nine Dragons Sword.
Unfortunately this backfires on him when a demonic giant shows up and starts attacking the townsfolk, and one boy holds his ground, believing he is wielding a powerful weapon to fight the giant off. Luckily, Shou Yi saves the boy and the Three Zi – Yu Ling Zi (Zhang Dong), Liang Xu Zi (Gong Xiaojun) and Zhong Gui Zi – arrive to finish the big guy off. This earns Shou Yi a stern rebuke from the town’s people for misleading the kids and endangering them and the Sons for his false bravado.
Chastened, Shou Yi decides to make amends to everyone by trying out at the selection ceremony where he is clearly out of his depth amongst the legion of weapon-wielding kung fu experts. As the token female warrior, Ling Zi takes a shine to Shou Yi perhaps to help encourage him although this feels a bit hollow given her kick-ass status. The others are less inspired, including their master Liang Xiao (Chin Siu-Ho), who is aghast when the grandmaster chose Shou Yi after he lucks with way through the trials.
Except this wasn’t just luck – there is a secret about Shou Yi’s heritage he isn’t aware of that is convenient but helps to make Shou Yi’s sudden transformation from clumsy oaf to warrior saviour inside ten minutes a little more palatable. Yet, this is given roughly 60- seconds longer than Huan Zhen’s backstory, not to mention a sorely underdeveloped traitor subplot thrown in at the last minute.
Regardless of how pedestrian and predictable the story may be, and the shortcomings of poor development incurred by the terse runtime, it is hard not to be entertained here. Directors Shuai Yang and Zhong Weixi have clearly studied the masters, notably Tsui Hark for the bombast and scale, and Zhang Yimou’s recent Shadow for the artistic aesthetic; the two masters playing a board game whilst sat on a Yin-Yang symbol is just a tad obvious.
Production values as mentioned earlier, are very impressive for a TV movie – the sense of epic grandness of the cinematography and the immaculate sets is up there with any major film budget presentation. The fights are exciting enough, maybe a little infrequent but tightly choreographed wire fu affairs nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, whilst the SFX are generally good, the CGI monsters are a letdown, proving debatably unnecessary in the final analysis.
Despite the characters having little scope beyond genre tropes, the cast make them work by figuring out who they are themselves. For my money, Zhou Xiaofei as Shou Yi’s mother is the standout – charismatic, funny, and a no nonsense fighter to boot. Di Liu probably could have done with some these qualities as Shou Yi but he plays the role well. Veteran Zhang Chunzhong hams it up as Huan Zhen to ensure we get he is evil, whilst Zhang Dong is distracting through being a doppelganger for Zhou Xun.
We may have seen the “outcast buffoon seeking redemption with nascent fighting skills” storyline Maoshan offers many times before, done bigger and better with greater depth but for what it is, and running so short, this is a perfectly acceptable, over-performing burst of wu xia fantasy fun to scratch that martial arts itch.