By Shelly Kraicer
Chinese director, critic, novelist, and student of Taoist martial arts Xu Haofeng has made at least six beautifully crafted action films (five released, at least one in Chinese censorship limbo) since his wuxia debut The Sword Identity in 2011. 100 Yards, co-directed with his brother Xu Junfeng, is set in the Republican era in Tianjin, a Western-semi-occupied treaty port where French, US, British, and Italian powers ran their colonial enterprises.
This is where the Xu brothers situate a semi-independent wushu academy, and island of autonomy in an occupied city. The academy’s master has died, and two disciples, played by Hong Kong American action actor Andy On (noble, with a screen-friendly quiet charisma) and Hong Kong action star Jacky Heung (a razzle dazzle martial arts showman, with scene-stealing brio) repeatedly battle it out for supremacy. There are intrigues, and serious attention paid to various gongfu and wuxia techniques (a key “missing” Fourth Palm sequence becomes a key to victory) as the closed world of the wushu academy, repeatedly failing to contain its disputes within its walls, threatens to spill its violence out into the Tianjin streets. Bea Hayden Kuo provides glamorous romantic/comic relief, and newcomer Tang Shiyi is a real find: a graceful whirlwind of a fighter whose distinctive style of moving is beautifully choreographed and fresh and fascinating to watch.
Xu Haofeng follows his normal practice here, assigning particular “realistic” weight to his action sequences: realism here meaning something like its opposite—they’re not actually fighting after all, but creating a simulacrum of fighting spectacle designed to be analyzed with medium and distant shots and synthesized into something continuous and legible with precise editing—that eschews “wire-work” and other CGI trickery, and post-production speed variations. That’s good as far as it goes, and the fight sequences here (unlike, say Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s magically transportive sur-real variations on gongfu and wuxia, or King Hu’s reconstructions of space and time through lightning-quick cuts), stay even, steadily rhythmic, without the kind of big showy crescendos and climaxes that can beam these movements, however briefly, into the imagined bodies of film viewers like us. But what the directors are seeking is a more analytic, thoughtful kind of wushu: action as a transmission of ideology, kept here more neatly under the surface than in some of Xu Haofeng’s previous films, which bore a visibly heavy conceptual load that could be a challenging to grapple with. It’s refreshing, these days, to see a censor-approved Chinese action film whose ideological commitment is directed, not towards imaginary extensive national projects, but towards the integrity of independently defined and individually forged morally grounded communities.