FIST & FAITH (2017) review

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In 1931, the northeast region of Manchuria in China was seized by Japan and turned into a puppet state ruled – in appearance – by Puyi, the last Qing emperor. Japanese culture, history and values were taught in schools, so that Chinese culture had to be safeguarded by underground reading societies, which, if exposed, were harshly repressed by the Japanese authorities. Jiang Zhuoyuan’s Fist & Faith takes place against this background, following Jing Hao (Oho Ou) and his friends, Chinese students of a Manchurian university who often battle it out with the Japanese students led by Shibata (Kento Hayashi), the heir to a once-glorious (but now disgraced) clan. When Liu He (Jing Tian), arrives to the university to take a position there as a history teacher, Jing Hao falls head over heels for her, and ends up joining the underground reading society she leads, just so that he can better woo her. But the carefree student is soon confronted to the harsh political reality of his time, as Shibata is hired by the Japanese authorities to violently break up Liu He’s reading society.

Though the preservation of a country’s culture in times of foreign invasion is a rich and important topic, Fist & Faith doesn’t really try to tackle it, using it instead as a kind of melodramatic booster to its numerous action scenes. The film is padded with animated interludes feeding historical exposition in quick, simplistic slashes obviously meant to appeal to a young audience, but underground reading societies quickly to be nothing more than an under-developed subplot meant to add heft to a very superficial spectacle. It all starts like a Scott Pilgrim rip-off, with overdone stylistic flourishes like comic book motion lines appearing on screen, along with onomatopoeia splashed across the screen, or even sudden lapses into 8-bit video game background and effects. It’s all a bit wearisome, though when Jing Hao falls in love with Liu He, there’s a delightful scene where he parkours breathlessly through the campus just for a chance to walk across her “fortuitously”.

Then as the tone grows more somber, Fist & Faith looks for a while like it’s going to become a historical drama, and flashes some of that genre’s themes: a carefree student awakens politically, a wealthy Chinese man must collaborate with the Japanese, becoming a traitor in order to save his daughter, a disgraced Japanese is made to do the dirty work in order to reclaim some of his past glory… But this doesn’t last long, as the film soon devolves into a Crows Zero imitation: pitched battles between swaggering bands of students dressed in black and white. With plenty of enjoyable tracking shots and over-the-top wire-work, these brawls are entertaining enough, though they’re shot in that alternating fast motion and (super) slow motion style (a la Zack Snyder, if you will) that is now starting to feel a bit tired and dated.

As the embodiment of the film’s lip-service to historical melodrama, Jing Tian is largely wasted here, required only to provide doe-eyed poignancy, and stowed away unceremoniously before the final reel. This is Oho Ou’s film, and he carries it with the confidence of a rising star. As athletic as he is charming, he can go from endearingly goofy to smoulderingly charismatic at the drop of a hat, and could go on to great things. As the main Japanese villain, Kento Hayashi is hopelessly lightweight and constantly outclassed by Meisa Kuroki (of the Crows Zero films, by the way) who plays his statuesque, deadly sister with such intensity she seems to be in a film of her own – and certainly deserves one.

Long Story Short: A Crows Zero imitation often masquerading as a noble historical drama, Fist & Faith is solid but hopelessly derivative entertainment. **1/2

 

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