Thursday, August 04, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Judge Archer

His word carries authority and so does his arrows. The man called Judge Archer resolves disputes between early Twentieth Century Chinese martial arts schools. It is his job to tell the masters to play nice and eat their peas, so nobody likes him very much. The persona is a burden under the best of circumstances, but the young new Judge is also plagued by personal demons. Things will really get interesting when the martial arts arbiter is caught between two femme fatales in Xu Haofeng’s Judge Archer (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Those who saw Xu’s Sword Identity and The Final Master, might expect the wuxia novelist and martial arts scholar to rehash that same plot a third time (or rather technically the second time, since Archer was completed well before Master). However, this film is entirely its own animal. Nobody seeks to destroy the Judge’s archery techniques. The Archer himself is a different matter.

The current Judge Archer was born of peasant stock. When the landlord assaulted (as they euphemistically put it in Twins Falls, ID) his younger sister with impunity, it caused a psychotic break. According to the monks overseeing his rebirth ritual, the young man is take the first words he hears as his new name. As ironic karma dictates, those would be “Judge Archer.” Choosing to accept fate, the aging Judge Archer takes his new namesake under his wing. Unfortunately, he will not have enough time to teach the new Judge as much as he would like, but his successor is still pretty hardnosed.

Unfortunately, his relative lack of experience will allow JA to be ensnared in a complicated power struggle. Erdong, or femme fatale number one, recruits the Judge to help her avenge her father. It is a little outside his jurisdiction, but justice is justice, so he starts surveilling steely old Kuang Yimin disguised as a fruit seller. Immediately sensing a narc, Kuang has his wife Yue Yahong (femme fatale #2) seduce Judge Archer. However, she might do too good a job of her honey trap assignment. Of course, there is a wider power struggle underway, but Judge Archer really doesn’t care about the politics. For him, the situation is strictly personal.

Xu’s approach to martial arts goes beyond old school, embracing ancient nearly forgotten traditional techniques, no matter how cinematic they may or may not be. Fortunately, in this case, the seated hand-to-hand duels (sort of like Kung Fu patty-cake) look great on-screen. Still, it is definitely true Xu’s characters are more likely to brood their lights out than go skipping from rooftop to rooftop.

The fab four characters are also drawn quite distinctively. Xu regular Yang Song probably does his career-best work as the emotionally damaged Archer. Similarly, Li Chengyuan and the Chinese American Yenny Martin are not just pretty seductresses. They are also acutely sensitive and deeply tragic as Yue Yahong and Erdong, respectively. To complete the central quartet, the late, great Yu Cheng-hui exudes crusty old Sean Connery-esque badassedness as Kuang.

There are several very cool fight scenes in Judge Archer which also have the additional virtues of originality and authenticity. It is strange that it took the film (which debuted internationally in 2012) so long to get here, but it is worth the wait. Judge Archer is top-shelf but scrupulously grounded wuxia, highly recommended for martial arts fans, following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.