Saturday, February 24, 2018

WFA ’18: A Roar of Wolf Troops

This is quite the rarity: a Chinese film celebrating the valor of their nation’s military. It is particular unusual, because it casts the Imperial Japanese as the bad guys, thereby potentially fostering a national sense of resentment—something the cultural commissars are ever so scrupulous to discourage. No, not really. At least this time around they reveal their secret weapon: notoginseng. It healing powers are desperately needed at the front, so a crack squad from the Yunnan Army will ensure its safe delivery, with a little help from the you-know-who in Zhang Xiniwu’s A Roar of Wolf Troops (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Winter Film Awards in New York.

The Yunnan Army largely consisted of the ethnic Zhuang minority, who take pride in the martial arts and military heritage. Their specialty is fighting the Japanese and only the Japanese. Of course, the Nationalists and Communists are also busy fighting each other. Unfortunately, the Yunnan Army was not so good at keeping intel secret, because all interested parties will converge on the shipment.

Nong San and his men are riding shotgun, but he gets some unexpected help from the local CP cell leader and a team of behind-the-lines Zhuang resistance fighters, led by his fiancée, Lu Xiaomei. However, before the Japanese forces have a chance to swoop down on them, a group of bandits steals the cargo using sneaky but non-lethal tactics. Fighting and scheming ensues, but there is a distinct honor gap between the Yunnan soldiers and their Japanese rivals.

The frequency with which Mainland China’s sanctioned media relives and relitigates the Second World War is becoming almost comical in its kneejerk obsessiveness. Nevertheless, the world war has inspired many, many entertaining films, including a good number of outright classics. Roar can’t compare with any of them, but it is likably plucky, in an earnest, B-level budget kind of way.

As Nong San, Mo Tse definitely has the action chops, but he is constantly upstaged dramatically by Xiao Dong Me’s Lu. She is all kinds of fierce, showing off plenty of her own skills. Yet, there is something about Yi Ling playing Lu’s mute sister Azi that draws the eye and commands the screen. She obviously has no dialogue, but she is quite intense and expresses much. Of course, the interchangeable Japanese heavies could have wandered in from any number of previous films, while the mostly absent Nationalists probably get off easy.

Roar is a tad bit more eccentric than most Chinese war films, which is a plus. After all, it is something of an ode to holistic Chinese medicine. Zhang keeps it moving along nicely, so it doesn’t feel so slavishly propagandistic. It is not classic, but fans of Chinese warfighting action movies will appreciate its novelty when A Roar of Wolf Troops screens tomorrow (2/25) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.