One of the most spectacular - and spectacularly remunerative - productions in Hong Kong movie history, Storm Riders is based on a phenomenally popular manhua by Ma Wing Shing, whose bold, evocative, mythically-styled artwork heavily influenced the way martial arts were depicted in all visual arts. Karate legend Sonny Chiba is perfectly cast as unstoppable tyrant Lord Conquer, delivering his ultimatum in a voice that sounds like a cannon going off: “Support me and prosper! Oppose me and die!” Out to rule the Martial World, Conquer consults inscrutable seer, Mud Buddha (Wayne Lai) who delivers a cryptic prophecy: “The fish with golden scales becomes a dragon when Wind and Cloud unite.”
Realizing this refers to the sons of his two arch-rivals, Conquer slaughters their families and raises them as his own. Years later, Striding Cloud (Aaron Kwok) and Whispering Wind (Ekin Cheng) grow into handsome heroes whose phenomenal skill helps put Conquer top of the heap. Hereon the narrative fragments, with Cloud, Wind and Conquer’s own son, Frost (Michael Tse) sent on various mini-quests for martial arts super-weaponry (a magic sword, “Blood Bodhi fruits”, an ancient puzzle box), until Conquer discovers Mud Buddha deliberately withheld half the prophecy. It seems Cloud and Wind are destined to bring about both Conquer’s rise to power and his downfall. Discovering his daughter, Charity (Kristy Yeung) has been seeing Cloud, the wily warlord drives a wedge between the heroes by arranging her marriage to Wind. Cloud, all bare-chested and broody, gatecrashes the wedding and attempts to steal away his beloved, but things end tragically. Disfigured and exiled, Cloud is nursed back to health by wandering medicine man, Summit Yu (Vincent Wan) and his perky daughter, Muse (Shu Qi), while Wind survives an attempt on his life, discovers yet another magic sword, and finally learns Lord Conquer murdered both their fathers. This leads to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reconciliation, before our heroes square off against Conquer in his spectacular lair decorated with the swords of his slain enemies.
Storm Riders was a box-office smash across Asia and won countless fans throughout the West. Yet its flaws are legion. Producer/screenwriter Wong Jing condenses Ma Wing Shing’s epic tale into an awkward, meandering narrative cluttered with supporting characters who disappear and reappear seemingly at random. Mud Buddha, Frost, a Shaolin Monk (Roy Cheung), and the avenging warriors of Unchallenged City all bring their own sub-plots to the table, but are messily disposed of before the finale. Worst is the pointlessly protracted saga of Conquer’s arch-rival, Sword Saint (Anthony Wong), who makes the long journey to the villain’s lair, stands poised for an epic duel, only to be accidentally killed by Muse!
Stoic superheroes Cloud and Wind are vapid in the extreme. Their friendship, rivalry and reconciliation are meant to be the heart of the story, but the sulky leads barely acknowledge each other’s existence. We expect Ekin Cheng to be pretty vacant but Aaron Kwok, who was amazing in Saviour of the Soul (1991) and The Barefoot Kid (1993), seriously disappoints here, when he mostly stares into space or expresses inner turmoil by standing under a waterfall and roaring. Kwok only flickers back to life when he hops between the sheets with Kristy Yeung for a languorous MTV/Adrian Lyne love scene. “Kindness makes no enemies”, says Cloud’s father early on, not that his son takes much heed. Our supposed hero shows little remorse killing innocent men, women and - in one scene - an unborn child. Coquettish tease, Charity is similarly hard to like, telling Cloud: “I can marry Wind and still be with you.” The overriding theme: one cannot change destiny, resonates with Chinese audiences, but western viewers will find it hard to take.
For all these faults, there is much that is good - even great - about Storm Riders. At a time when Hong Kong cinema was mired in a box-office downturn, Wong Jing gambled big. He took an all-star cast, clothed them in designs by Akira Kurosawa’s award winning costumier Emi Wada, hired a Dutch company to create outstanding, never-before-seen digital effects, and mounted a costly production on an impressively epic scale. The use of CG sets and bullet-time effects predates The Matrix (1999) and 300 (2007), while the lush widescreen vistas, ancient temples, mist-shrouded valleys and breathtaking visual flourishes lay the groundwork for Legend of Zu (2001), A Chinese Tall Story (2005) and every Korean fantasy made during the last ten years. The end result was that Wong Jing, the schlockmeister known for soft porn, sleazy thrillers and puerile comedies was miraculously reborn as a Jerry Bruckheimer-style, megabucks tycoon; the man who saved the Hong Kong film industry. Who knew?
Director/cinematographer Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs (2002)) renders the far-out, fantastical fight sequences with almost avant-garde photography. It’s an amazing amalgam of lightning-fast kung fu, experimental visuals and eye-popping CG, reaching a surreal highlight when Cloud rips off an arm and uses his own blood as a weapon!!! Creature fans should relish mythical monsters like the Fire Monkey, a briefly glimpsed elemental dragon and, in the film’s best sequence, a spooky cave confrontation between Wind and the fire-breathing beast who frazzled his father. A poetic scene where Wind and Charity fly across a fairy grotto lit by a thousand fireflies cleverly foreshadows the film’s end, where an insane Lord Conquer grabs at the ghosts of his victims. Performance-wise, Sonny Chiba swaggers magnificently in his comeback role (and seems to be channelling Toshirô Mifune), while Shu Qi adds some much need vitality as girly, puckish Muse - for which she won Storm Riders’ sole acting award (although Chiba was nominated). Listen out for some cracking, kung fu dialogue (“Sword 23 is truly powerful, but lacking compared to my Trinity strength!”).
Storm Riders redeems itself with a philosophically inclined finale that, one must admit, satisfactorily surmises the heroes’ emotional journey (“Cloud is unpredictable. Wind is formless.”). It just takes a long-winded, meandering route getting there. Wong Jing, Andrew Lau and Ekin Cheng would re-team for the superior, A Man Called Hero (1999).
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.