Every once in a while, miracles do happen. Hong Kong’s fast-living culture worships at the altar of youth, embracing everything shiny and new and turning its back on anything that seems even vaguely antiquated, no matter how valid or important its contribution to their national and artistic identity. So how did Gallants, a low-budget ode to the glory days of kung fu cinema and the supposedly outdated values they espoused, shot in eighteen days with a cast of sixty-something martial arts movie veterans whose heyday was thirty years ago, become the sleeper hit of 2010 and win Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards?
Back in his youth, Cheung (Wong Yau-Nam) practiced childish kung fu stances so he could pick on the neighbourhood kids. Now, by poetic justice, he is a geeky twenty-something going nowhere in a crappy real estate job, bullied and browbeaten at the office every day. Sent to secure a remote rural property for redevelopment, Cheung lands in trouble with local triad thugs. He is rescued by Tiger (Bruce Leung Siu-Lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-Tai), two crippled and doddery, but still super-skilled kung fu masters. Together with the spirited and beautiful young Kwai (J.J. Jia Xiao-Chen), with whom Cheung is soon enamoured despite making a disastrous first impression, these game geezers dutifully tend the local teahouse in honour of their Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan). Once, this teahouse was a famed martial arts school known as “Gate of Law”, but for the past thirty years Master Law has lain comatose in the room upstairs, having narrowly survived a legendary battle.
Unfortunately, Cheung makes a few shattering discoveries. Not only is the teahouse the very property he has been sent to foreclose, but the triads are actually his employers and include Mang (Canto-rap star MC Jin Au-Yeung), his former childhood victim turned mouthy, hip hop martial artist. Hoping to learn kung fu and get his gumption back, Cheung switches sides to help Tiger, Dragon and Kwai defend their beloved home and all are delighted when Master Law snaps out of his coma. Time has ravaged the old man’s mind, leaving him unable to recognise his old students or comprehend that thirty years have gone by, but his libido has him flirting with every pretty girl around and his skills are still sharp. Yet it remains to be seen if his crazed coaching can help his disciples beat Mang at the forthcoming martial arts tournament.
While a plot synopsis makes Gallants sound like yet another hackneyed underdog-makes-good yarn, in reality the film proves far more poignant and profound. Given Hong Kong as a society thrives on capitalist values, where winning big and earning bigger is everything, Gallants has the audacity to suggest that is not necessarily the case. Hollywood martial arts movies take their cue from Enter the Dragon (1973) and Rocky (1976) and are tournament based, telling stories where lone heroes triumph over impossible odds. Chinese martial arts films have their roots in old folk tales and wu xia novels where, more often, winning was less important than the hero’s journey towards a spiritual awakening. Cheung reckons learning kung fu will turn him from zero to hero and enable him to beat the bad guys, but the so-called villains in this film are more misguided than evil and the lessons learned are more contemplative than cathartic. Bruce Lee said it first in Fist of Fury (1971), Jet Li echoed his sentiments in Fist of Legend (1995) and Gallants concludes with a direct quote: “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and move forward.”
This is a film about rolling with life’s punches and gains tremendous poignancy from the casting of Shaw Brothers legend Chen Kuan-Tai (who sadly passed away after completing this film) and chopsocky veteran Bruce Leung Siu-Lung - last seen as The Beast in the thematically similar, but frothier Kung Fu Hustle (2004) - now paunchy and grey, but determined to live lives defined by virtue and dignity. For although the film at first seems to be about Cheung, it ultimately gives short shrift to his burgeoning romance with Kwai and instead revolves around these gracious old-timers and how they embody the real spirit of kung fu. “Guts first, power second, skill third”, runs the heirarchy of martial values according to Master Law, a man steadfast in his belief that a lightning fast fist opens the pathway towards righteousness, not power.
Sixties Cantopop idol-turned-respected composer-producer-director Teddy Robin Kwan might seem like a strange casting choice given there are many genuine martial arts stars passed retirement age who could have played his role, but his lively tragicomic turn is truly the heart and soul of the film. Both the veteran stars and newcomers Wong Yau-Nam and J.J. Jia Xiao-Chen deliver engaging performances, while kung fu film fans will enjoy the warm glow of nostalgia at the sight of Shaw Brothers stalwarts Lo Meng of The Five Deadly Venoms (1978), Goo Goon-Chung, onetime sex kitten Siu Yam-Yam returning to the spotlight in substantial cameos.
Co-directors Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok deliver a spirited pastiche of Seventies kung fu filmmaking with gunshot zooms, split screen, training montages, onscreen text announcing each cast member and charming manhua-styled animated flashbacks, but ensure their engaging visual pyrotechnics never swamp the emotions underlining the story. Actor-turned-producer Andy Lau is the man viewers have to thank for spotting the potential in Cheng and Kwok’s offbeat story that puts the heart back into kung fu comedies.