Bond (Vanness Wu) is a high-school student whose real passion is Muay Thai kickboxing, which he practices at a club headed by Lau (Gordon Liu). His ambition is to enter the prestigious Star Runner competition, and he devotes himself to that goal at the expense of his school work. Having to take Summer classes, he meets the young Korean teacher Mei Chiu (Kim Hyun-Joo), and soon enough they’re in love. But as his focus moves from training for the competition to romancing Mei Chiu, someone else is chosen by Lau to represent the club in the competition, and Bond is expelled for having resisted this decision. But not all is lost as Bill (Max Mok), a washed-out former martial arts champion, takes him under his wing and teaches him to incorporate elements from other martial arts into his muay Thai. Together they form a team and enter the Star Runner competition, with an eye on challenging Tank (Andy On), the reigning champion.
Most sports films include a love story ; indeed, the film that more or less started the sports film genre as we know it, Rocky, is arguably a love story first and foremost. But Star Runner (also known in some places as The Kumite) isn’t as deft in mixing the romantic strand and the sports strand as Sly Stallone’s classic. The love story between Bond and Mei Chiu is so saccharine as to border on the laughable at times. They exchange longing stares, they dance alone on an empty dancefloor, he defends her against thugs, they kiss in the rain, they sit at the end of a pier, looking silently at the sea… Daniel Lee assembles corny vignettes more than he tells the story of two people in love. It doesn’t help that there is no discernible chemistry between Vanness Wu and and Kim Hyun-Joo. Wu is his usual sullen self, content with just tilting his head slightly when having to express an emotion. Kim is lovely, and deserved better than such a dead-weight role.
Where Star Runner succeeds, however, is as a sports film. The training phase is the highlight of the film. As Bill, the once-great martial artist with a case of self-loathing, Max Mok (remember him as Jet Li’s disciple in the Once Upon A Time films ?) is simply superb, and unexpectedly gives the film its beating heart, where it should have been the leading man Vanness Wu. He isn’t quite a mentor figure, but he is a man riddled with regrets, who sees training Bond as a new lease on life. From a martial arts point of view, his advice is to include elements of Chinese Martial Arts such as Wing Chun and Hong Kuen in the Muay Thai structure. This leads to a great cameo by the legendary Ti Lung as a silent Wing Chun teacher, and one of the most beautiful training montages we’ve ever seen, scored incongruously but beautifully to Russian music by the excellent composer Henry Lai.
Daniel Lee likes his Shaw Brothers legends : in addition to Ti Lung as the Wing Chun teacher and Gordon Liu as the club teacher, David Chiang appears as Bond’s grandfather, a photographer now in a coma. In one scene where Bond is in dire need of advice, he fantasizes his grandfather coming out of the coma to talk to him, and in another, he tells the story of how his grandfather once fell in love with a woman he’d inadvertently photographed, and spent months trying to find her, finally succeeding. Those are quirky touches that work well and feed the film’s overall theme of family. Bond is an orphan, and sports to him is about fitting in a family of his own : indeed, the story of brotherly love between him and Bill is much more affecting than the straightforward love story with Mei Chiu. Even Tank, the fearsome main opponent played with much physical intensity by the underrated Andy On, is seen interacting with his brother and coach Benny (played by good old Ken Lo), which gives him more depth than your average Ivan Drago-styled nemesis.
But what about the fighting ? It is well choreographed by veteran Chin Kar Lok, but as often Daniel Lee overdoes the filming. You can see what’s happening well enough, but after a superb training phase directed as a love letter to martial arts, it would have been more appropriate and satisfying to render the fighting in all its fluid and barebones beauty, rather than resort to flashy editing tricks. Still, the conclusion to the final fight is pretty ballsy, though don’t count on us to spoil it here.
Long Story Short : A sports film with more depth and emotion than most, STAR RUNNER is held back by an annoying and corny love story and some ill-judged showiness. ***1/2