Thursday, June 28, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Unbeatable

What film do you immediately associate with the song “The Sound of Silence?” It probably used to be The Graduate, but henceforth it shall always be Dante Lam’s Rocky-style Mixed Martial Arts underdog movie. Why use the moody folker as a motif for training montages? You might as well ask why climb Mt. Fuji or why hike the Camino de Santiago? Dante Lam has done it and he did it with Nick Cheung and Eddie Peng in Unbeatable (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

As we learn from the tightly cut prologue, former boxer “Scumbag” Fai, grieving mother Gwen Wong, and Lin Si-qi, the brooding son of a disgraced real estate tycoon, all need redemption. Fai has come to Macao to avoid his loan shark’s knee-cappers. His buddy arranged a gig coaching and spotting at an MMA gym as well as a room in the flat occupied by Wong and her assertive ten-year-old girl Dani. There used to be a little brother too, whose death Wong has yet to recover from. She is an emotional basket case, but Fai will slowly help Dani bring her out of her shell.

Fai also reluctantly agrees to train Lin for the big no-fighters-turned-away MMA tournament, with the $270 million purse. Frankly, the former rich kid was never really into money, but he hopes he can revive his father’s broken spirit by winning it all.

So, Unbeatable sort of starts out like Creed and then reverts back to Rocky IV. Either way, it is definitely adhering to a tried a true formula, but there is good reason why the formula was codified in the first place. Regardless, as long as we get to see the chiseled Cheung throw some arm bars, we’re okay with however we get there.

Lam is the recipient of the Excellence in Action Cinema Award at this year’s NYAFF, so you know he will do the MMA scenes justice. Indeed, he makes all the holds and grappling clear and easy to follow, while capturing the sport’s brute force. As a sizable bonus, Sai’s scenes with the Wongs are really quite endearing and downright poignant. Mei Ting never waters down Gwen Wong’s profound emotional issues and Crystal Lee shows loads of charisma and future potential as the protective Dani. Unfortunately, Lin’s subplots are not as sharply written, but you can’t blame Peng, because he brings plenty of intensity and a super-cut physique.

Unbeatable pairs up nicely with Lam’s cycling film, To the Fore, also starring Peng. In both films, he shows a knack for clearly delineating each race or match. However, action fans will most likely prefer Unbeatable, because it features Cheung beating the snot out of people. Plus, cinematographer Kenny Tse and the picturesque Macao locales deserve credit for making those montages pretty dashed cool. Recommended as meat and potatoes for fans of MMA, Cheung, and Peng, Unbeatable screens Sunday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.