“The Storm Riders, ” the latest action epic from Hong Kong, has the maniacally laughing villain, the sullen, moody hero, the love quadrangle and the old revenge motif multiplied exponentially.
Lifted from the comic book serial stowed in every Asian kid’s backpack, the film outsold “Jurassic Park: Lost World” and “Titanic” in Hong Kong opening day tickets when it premiered July 18. That’s quite a feat considering the anemic filmgoing market, whittled by video competition, American imports and inflation.
Now appearing Stateside, the action-adventure doesn’t approach the sumptuousness of a film epic, but as a comic book epic, it excels.
“The Storm Riders” has a plot that’s complicated but not difficult to follow: Lord Conquer methodically slays enemies city by city in a quest to make his clan the ruling one in the martial arts world. Lord Conquer, played by martial arts film veteran Sonny Chiba, follows all the paranormal safeguards, observes feng shui protocol and has a consulting prophet. Before the prophet mysteriously disappears, he predicts the Lord’s reign will be good for a decade. To find out the rest of his destiny, he must solve a giant rotating puzzle.
The prophet also decrees that any boy born under a certain birth chart must be raised as the lord’s disciples. After slaughtering the fathers of two such 10-year-old boys, Whispering Wind and Striding Cloud, the Lord trains these two and a third named Frost. Naturally, there’s a female in the midst of all this: the lord’s daughter Charity (or character name Ci).
Director Andrew Lau Wai Keung, who churned out seven films of the gangster series “Young and Dangerous” in about three years, invests “The Storm Riders” with kinetic visual energy. After the introductory scene in a sword-making metal shop, the opening credits dissolve right into anim-style animation, then back to flesh, lots of blood and much-vaunted special effects.
These effects integrate live action well by comic book standards but the action is surprisingly sporadic in the first half of the 128-minute film. Don’t look for actual fisticuffs, just lots of flying people, objects and explosions. The fight sequences do seem lifted right from the comics in a panel-by-panel staccato vortex swirl. Even one sexual interlude is told in these sly, strobe-like visual fragments.
Bodies tend to fall dead without anyone laying a finger on them (lots of deadly martial karma). Unlike Hollywood films, though, the heroes feel the loss of a loved one and experience madness, dismemberment and death. Even comic-book violence has consequences.
The story line doesn’t demand much beyond stock acting, though the stars are capable of much more. Plan to stare open-mouthed at a mighty comely cast, especially pop singer-idol Aaron Kwok Fu Sing as the glowering Cloud who witnessed his father’s murder without shedding a tear, and the slender Ekin Cheng Yee Kin as the kind-hearted Wind. Kristy Yeung as the lord’s daughter Charity fulfills her role as eye-candy; unfortunately, the film follows the comics’ pattern of diminished female characters. And then there’s the lord’s effeminate jester who looks like Pee-wee Herman.
“The Storm Riders” marks a turning point in Hong Kong film, and not necessarily a good one. For the most part, what the industry doesn’t have in terms of special effects it makes up for in sheer vitality and flying bodies. The human body, in fact, is the special effect. The movie’s Hollywood-type pyrotechnics may nullify the human focus.
Of course, to wring any redeeming philosophy out of this, “The Storm Riders” could be viewed as a squabble between destiny, self-determination, secular domination and Buddhist forgiveness. Or we could just check out Kwok’s fine physique.
Stay for the behind-the-scenes credits, if you don’t mind them subverting the fantasy. Fascinating outtakes show the actors standing on revolving planks, being suspended by wires and battling computer graphics. Sometimes, making fiction is stranger than fiction.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times