Thursday, November 08, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Unity of Heroes

What Christopher Lee is to Dracula, Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo is to Wong Fei-hung. They were not the first to play the characters, nor are they the most iconic, but over the years, they kept getting pulled back into the part. Zhao took over from Jet Li portraying the late Qing era Foshan martial arts master in the last two Once Upon a Time in China films and the mid-1990s TV show. He now returns to dispense beatdowns, acupuncture, and stern warnings of the insidious influence of all things Western in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Wong is a lot like Ip Man. He is not wealthy, but his skills are so much sharper than any of his rivals, he must be magnanimous to upstarts like the newly arrived Master Wu. He has more pressing business anyway. In addition to training the local militia, Wong must also look out for Lady 13, his thoroughly Westernized, medically trained in-law and possible romantic interest. On top of all that, Wong is determined to investigate a rash of kidnappings possibly connected to the rage-fueled madman Zhao subdued when after he trashed the dojo courtyard.

It turns out that was one of Dr. Vlad [Feelgood]’s test subjects. Supposedly, his Western-style clinic was founded to treat opium addiction, but he is really dosing patients with an ultra-concentrated opium extract, in hopes of creating some sort of super-soldier. Of course, naïve Lady 13 has gone and joined the staff there.

Zhao has massive chops and all kinds of steely badness, so it has always been rather baffling that he never seems to get the respect he deserves (fight scene-for-fight scene, Wu Dang remains one of our favorite under-heralded martial arts films of the decade). Twenty years after his last outing as Wong, Zho remains comfortable and confident in the role. Unfortunately, he cedes way too much screen time to his three goofball disciples and the ridiculously unintuitive Lady 13. Without question, there is way too much shticky humor in the cobbled together screenplay (credit to the battery of Gao Yuhao, Li Zhenyi, Niu Xinyao, and Ning Yang).

However, Wei Xiaohuan comes out of nowhere to basically steal the film out from under Zhao, as Captain Lu, Vlad’s morally conflicted chief henchperson. She has the moves and the screen presence to be an action star in her own right. Plus, Lu is by far the film’s richest, most intriguing character.

The fact that the evil Westerner is named Vlad is truly laughable. It is not exactly a stereotypically Western name, but maybe it signals a welcome return to the anti-Russian caricatures that were a hallmark of Chinese films in the early 1980s. Regardless, the anti-Western slant is clumsily didactic. Yet, fans should definitely enjoy the wildly over-the-top, high-flying martial arts action. The tone is often pretty silly, but Zhao and Wei still deserve credit for taking care of business. Easily watchable and nearly as forgettable, The Unity of Herpes screens this Saturday (11/10) and Monday (11/12), as part of this year’s HIFF.