More than a decade ago, producer-screenwriter Wong Jing and director-cinematographer Andrew Lau revitalized the then-ailing Hong Kong film industry with the CG-laden fantasy blockbuster, Storm Warriors (1998), that was based on the immensely popular manhua (the HK equivalent of manga) by Ma Wing Shing. Now, visionary cine-siblings Danny Pang and Oxide Pang Chun take up the baton with this long-awaited sequel. Getting off to a Star Wars (1977) style running start we open as Cloud (Aaron Kwok), his cute sidekick Muse (Tiffany Tang Yan, replacing original star Shu Qi) and mentor Nameless (Kenny Ho) along with a dozen other martial arts masters are held captive by tyrannical Lord Godless (a suitably swaggering Simon Yam) and his scheming son, Heart (Nicholas Tse). Hell-bent on conquering all of China, the villains demand they hand over their valuable kung fu manuals.
Aided by his returning kung fu brother Wind (Ekin Cheng), Cloud and company burst free in a spectacular pyrotechnic display but even their combined might proves no match for the seemingly unstoppable Godless. “The return of Wind and Cloud is worthless”, he growls in a play on the prophecy from the original film. Thereafter our heroes seek help from cave-dwelling kung fu genius, Lord Wicked (Kenny Wong Tak-Bang) who despite his name has repented his violent ways. He proves reluctant to join the good fight until persuaded by his brave and beautiful niece, Second Dream (Charlene Choi) whom it turns out has been secretly courting Wind with love poetry. While Cloud increases his mystical power by creating twenty-three new sword styles, Wind rashly decides that in order to combat evil one must absorb the very essence of evil and transforms into a yellow-eyed, pale-skinned bishonen who can blast enemies into rubble. Meanwhile, Godless and Heart kidnap the Emperor of China (Patrick Tam) and his family, hoping he will lead them to the underground city that holds the Dragon Bone, a fabled mystical artefact and “the root of the Chinese nation.” Our heroes spring into action, but Wind’s tenuous grasp over his newfound powers spirals out of control.
In a master stroke, the Pang brothers have taken the most problematic aspect of Storm Riders - namely that Cloud came across as an indifferent jerk - and turned it into the crux of their whole plot. Storm Warriors bests its predecessor in almost every aspect, most notably by humanising its heroes and weaving winning messages about brotherhood, forgiveness and self-sacrifice for the greater good. The interesting ideological conflict flips the earlier relationship on its head. This time Cloud becomes the righteous, caring hero while the hitherto morally upright Wind turns into the dark, broody and mysterious one. Neither Aaron Kwok nor Ekin Cheng seem to have aged a day in eleven years (damn their handsome hides!), but have grown in stature as actors. Having recovered the intensity that was once his trademark in films from Saviour of the Soul (1991) to The Barefoot Kid (1993), Kwok brings more emotional depth to his comic book character while Cheng is wholly convincing as a raging, malevolent demon which is something you would never have thought possible eleven years ago. A heart-meltingly lovely Charlene Choi (so unrecognisable from the perky comedienne of those early days that her entrance provokes near-gasps) plays well against type. Choi has been proving her worth as a dramatic actress of late and excels as the steadfast martial arts maiden who wins Wind’s heart, then watches her dreams crumble into dust.
As often with these Ma Wing Shing adaptations, pacing proves an issue: lengthy scenes of florid dialogue alternate with bursts of frenetic action. Whereas the original plot was a tangled web of shifting allegiances and conflicts, Storm Warriors adopts a streamlined, familiar kung fu movie structure: defeat, training and vengeance with good guys and bad seeking those genre-requisite all-powerful mystic super-weapons. However, the Pangs borrow from Tsui Hark and his classic Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) by ensuring each fantastical episode imparts a lesson and eventually meld into something with the immediacy of a waking dream. It isn’t quite as deliriously intense as Zu or its underrated sequel Legend of Zu (2001), but comes pretty close and wisely trades the maudlin soap opera of Storm Riders for a patriotic, allegorical fable.
Visually the film is a rich pageant of Asian-flavoured eye candy as the Pangs create a wholly artificial world, part live-action, part-animated like a Chinese mythological scroll come to life. The special effects are suitably off-the-wall, but utilised with an artistry that ensures rather than smothering the drama, they enhance it ranging from the spectacular “Forest in the Mind of Wind and Cloud” sequence to the oddly stirring sight of the solitary tear that falls from Cloud’s face. Cloud takes on a genuinely heroic stature at the finale that has the scale of a Wagnerian opera, but still seems rather open-ended. Don’t be surprised if another sequel is forthcoming, but if Kwok and Cheng still look the same in another eleven years they have clearly struck a deal with the devil.
Universe’s Region 3, two-disc DVD contains trailers, a music video (where Kwok and Cheng perform a manly duet as the theme song), a making of documentary and interviews with the Pang brothers and all the principal cast members. Charlene Choi fans will enjoy seeing the star as her usual vivacious and chatty self as she impersonates the Pangs, dismisses her on-set injuries (“I have accidents all the time”), and talks about being distracted by the presence of the shirtless Aaron Kwok (“I just wanted to poke his muscles!”).