Saturday, June 26, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Little Big Soldier

War is always hardest on the little guys, the men who fight not for glory, but the chance to return to their hardscrabble lives. Despite his apparent rubber-boned invincibility, Jackie Chan built an international career bringing such sympathetic underdogs to life. His fifty-six year-old body might have caught up with him, but Chan has developed the right vehicle for an aging action everyman in Ding Sheng’s Little Big Soldier (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Chan’s nameless soldier might not be much of a warfighter, but he is a survivor, thanks to his talent for playing possum on the battlefield. However, that does not mean he is not loyal to his native land. Indeed, his heart burns with love for the fertile soil of Liang. Serendipitously, the old soldier sees an opportunity to serve his homeland and earn a reward when, as the last Liang standing, he is able to capture the only other survivor of an epic battle, the gravely injured opposing Wei general.

To reap his potential recompense, the soldier will have to schlep his still dangerous captive hundreds of miles through warlord infested countryside. The forces loyal to the Wei general’s younger brother are also searching for them, but not with the intent to rescue his royal rival. To further complicate matters, there is also a mystery woman with an eerie singing voice, who might be the only appealing sight in an otherwise brutish environment.

There is definitely plenty of physical comedy in Little, mostly related to combat. However, it is not a slapsticky film. Chan’s stunt work is firmly grounded in the realities of a broken down middle-aged body. Yet, he still shows a flair for intricately choreographed fight scenes. Little’s tone is also radically different from most of Chan’s previous films, particularly his recent Hollywood forays. It might sound like a ludicrous stretch, but as the old soldier drags his prisoner through an inhospitable landscape, they almost look as if they could inhabit a Beckett play. Indeed, Sheng finds a nice balance between the gritty and the fable-like, while keeping the melee coming at a good clip.

Of course, it all rests on Chan’s big little shoulders. He has the same easy likability that made him a genuine movie star and shines in action sequences designed to showcase his guttiness rather than agility. A newcomer to Chinese and HK screens, Lin Peng also adds an intriguing presence as the singing woman. However, Wand Lee-hom is a bit cold and stiff as the Wei general.

NYAFF is billing Little as the redemption of Jackie Chan. While his prior outing in The Shinjuku Incident was at least serviceable, he definitely generated plenty of embarrassment for his fans with his Hollywood-produced supposed comedies (care for a Tuxedo with your Spy Next Door?). Fortunately, Little is a darker, tougher, and if truth be told, funnier return to form for Chan. A shrewd marriage of aging action icon to everyman character, it screens during the New York Asian Film Thursday (7/1) and Saturday (7/3) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.