In an age when amateurs have the tools to make professional-looking films, it beggars beliefs that professionals managed to produce something as amateur as Liu Xiatong’s Romantic Warrior. And we are not using the term “amateur” in the same childishly hyperbolic way as countless so-called film critics for whom competently-assembled films can be called “awful” or “shit”. No, Romantic Warrior truly boggles the mind with its utter lack of anything resembling filmmaking skill. The story unfolds in the thirties and concerns a cowardly Peking Opera actor (Chan Kwok Kwan) who meets a young woman (Xu Dongmei) claiming their marriage was arranged years ago by their now-defunct respective parents. He first tries to sell her to a brothel. Then, seeing she will not leave him in peace, and freshly humiliated by his nemesis (Wang Mei Ying) at an backflipping contest, he accepts her tutorship in martial arts and singing, to make him a better Opera performer. But she may have a hidden agenda.
Extracting a vaguely coherent plot synopsis from Romantic Warrior is quite the achievement. Not that the film is complex or teeming with subplots. On the contrary: it noodles around so feebly, it is written with such a lack of anything resembling a storytelling structure or a dramatic arc, that for at least an hour it looks like an sleepy, half-assed improv exercise. There are faint shades of Hong Kong martial arts comedy, of course: the un-politically correct character traits (the “hero” is the kind of man who’d sell a young woman to a whorehouse), the immature young man put through a grueling training (here reduced to a few pale and clumsy vignettes), Peking Opera as a plot point (here a handful of bitty, puny performances), the last-act turn towards more unforgiving drama… But the sheer absence of any narrative flow or focus means that every plot turn lands with a puzzling thud, as the film staggers on towards a conclusion that wants to be epic and tragic, but instead looks like the final act of a kindergarten play acted by comatose grown-ups. And there is no fighting until a skimpy, hideously-edited little skirmish near the end.
But even more damningly, this is a mind-bogglingly incompetent production on a technical level. That its idea of period detail is the absence of modern details is par for the course for a film made on an obviously tiny budget: the story unfolds in bare interiors, in empty courtyards and in non-descript patches of countryside. Brief moments of wartime destruction are rendered with crude CGI that wouldn’t pass muster for a Doom 1 cut-scene. But nothing can justify the disastrous sound design, from punching sound effects similar to a kid snapping his chubby fingers, to 90% of the film being drowned in ambient bird-chirping (sometimes almost covering up the dialogues), to music that alternatively sounds like Hans Zimmer scoring a silent film on a 5-dollar budget, or like a violinist who thinks he will die if he stops frantically fiddling his detuned instrument. Background noise is random and fluctuating, as if the film’s first-assembly cut had been printed by mistake. And worst of all, dubbing is so subpar that you can sometimes almost hear the spittle hitting the microphone. We have honestly never seen this in a released film starring established actors.
Chan Kwok Kwan, 40, plays 20 with remarkable ease, Steve Yoo seems to have been fooled into believing he was being given his shot at an Asian Film Award, and Xu Dongmei provides a bit of poignancy, simply because it hurts to see a promising martial arts actress stuck in such a risible production. It is unclear whether Romantic Warrior got a theater release or went straight to VOD, though its poster did announce a January 6, 2017 release date. Either way, it is the work of talentless amateurs who somehow got hold of a decent cast and a few thousand Yuan.
Long Story Short: So technically incompetent and narratively inept that it beggars belief, Romantic Warrior is not the work of professionals, despite a cast that deserves so much better. 0