Easily the best movie Jackie Chan has made in fifteen years, this anti-war historical fable begins with a potted history lesson in the form of a striking computer animated prologue. Set during the Warring States period in ancient China, the story proper opens on the aftermath of a battle between the kingdoms of Liang and Wei. A cowardly, yet ingenious Liang foot soldier Liang (Jackie Chan) stumbles upon a wounded young general (Wang Lee-Hom) from Wei. Hoping that he will be rewarded and perhaps freed from the army, the soldier takes the general captive and embarks on an arduous journey home, but the pair are pursued by scheming Prince Wan (Steve Yoo Seung-Jun) and his right hand man Wu (Do Yuk-Ming) who have their own reasons for ensuring the general is killed. Knockabout adventures with angry peasant farmers, a hungry bear and a band of savage nomads forge an unexpected bond between the simple foot soldier, who longs for a peaceful life as a court pharmacist, and the arrogant general whose eyes are opened to the injustice and suffering wrought by his foolish war.
Little Big Soldier is a project Jackie has nurtured for the past twenty years and now emerges as part of his newfound desire to stretch himself as a “serious” actor. Chan’s acting is often underrated and Hong Kong film fans often forget that even early in his career he tried dramatic roles in Heart of the Dragon (1985) and Crime Story (1993) (for which he won Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Award as Best Actor), though usually with mixed box-office results. However, with its beautifully balanced mixture of pathos, slapstick, hard-hitting action and heartfelt humanity, Little Big Soldier is admittedly a better fit for the clown prince of kung fu than his grimly antiheroic turn in The Shinjuku Incident (2009).
Working as producer, co-screenwriter, fight director and singing a handful of jaunty folk songs, Jackie offers an intriguing new variation on his “little man against the world” persona. His live-wire, multilayered performance makes the nameless soldier a schemer, an opportunist, a mouse amongst mighty military men, but crucially resourceful, resilient, and compassionate when it counts. Armed with an array of gadgets like a spring-loaded arrow, trick swords and blood squibs, he goes out of his way to avoid a fight, but exhibits great knowledge of natural remedies. His relentless pragmatism is born from having lost his whole family on the battlefield, but he reserves his compassion for the downtrodden: a starving child, a bedraggled peasant girl (Beijing Olympics singer Lin Peng).
By contrast the young general, played with swaggering vigour by Mando-pop star Wang Lee-Hom, may be the ostensible “hero” but is cast in an unflattering light. So bound by an absurd code of honour, he kills his own rescuer when the man admits to having deserted the battlefield. As the soldier - whom the general dubs “little man” - observes, a private feud between two princes cost the lives of one thousand men. Time and again the film shows farmers, scholars and peasant folk at the mercy of capricious warlords, the so-called heroes of Chinese legend. Small acts of kindness from very ordinary people keep hope alive and even though the simple folk are ultimately washed away by the ruthless tide of history, a postscript shows the survivors have learnt the most important lesson which is preserving peace.
Mainland filmmaker Ding Sheng keeps things fast-paced like Jackie’s Hong Kong films of old, but with a mainlander’s grip on tight storytelling and character nuance. The film is distinguished by several offbeat character touches like the almost childlike kinship felt between the otherwise barbarous nomads and the indulgent father-son relationship between Prince Wen and Guard Wu, all of which are beautifully played by the eclectic cast including Jackie’s own martial arts disciples the New Seven Little Fortunes - in their screen debut. The fight scenes crackle with Jackie’s trademark zest and ingenuity (note how the soldier only ever uses “defensive moves”) and include an array of inspired sight gags that prevent this becoming a stodgy period piece. Perhaps the only aspect that feels misjudged is Jackie’s usual inclusion of comedic outtakes over the end credits. They ever so slightly lessen the impact of the gut-wrenching finale, but nevertheless Little Big Soldier remains a superlative work.