Packaged as a homage to the yesteryears of Hong Kong cinema as it relived the old-school martial arts genre, there's simply more than a mere recollection of the good old days. Set in a contemporary era where past masters have long been acquainted with physical limitations, it allows them to self-discover facts about themselves while teaching the younger generation a thing or two amidst laughter and action. Very much a nostalgic hit among those who've grown up with the genre.
Two has-been martial arts masters, Tiger (Leung Siu-lung) and Dragon (Chen Kwun-tai), are holed up in a village restaurant, tending to their master who is in a coma. Trouble arrives in the form of a gang of roughs – diplomats for the ruthless developers that are drooling over their property. The master wakes up with a start, and pushes the old boys into action for home and country.
Gallants doesn't really take itself too seriously and the over-saturated sepia hues immediately hits your senses as we don't get to see such film treatments anymore in today's cinema. There is a lot of exaggeration that works with the genre but not with logic. With that in mind, if we are able to let realism all go, there's plenty to like.
Not all goes illogical as I might have made this film sound, Tiger and Dragon are both aged masters who're struggling to pay off the rent for their teahouse as real estate predators come preying on their properties in aim of redeveloping it into an urban establishment. Right after the nostalgic old-school opening sequence, this premise does indeed appear to be dull and boring as we're expecting an all out homage. When Leung and Chen appeared on screen, it does bring back old memories instantly.
Aged, they may be. Their spirits are never diluted with age.
Together with Teddy Robin Kwan, who plays Tiger and Dragon's master who's slipped into a 30 years coma, the cast is surprisingly full of vigour and vitality. Especially Teddy Robin, who's imperialistic aura that's full of crude and blunt demeanours does leave a very deep impression in the audience. Remember how I've mentioned that they've taught us a thing or two? This is the first:
They may be overdue from a golden era in the past, but they never diminished in glamour and glory.
What's a good old martial arts film without the heroic classic soundtrack. Here, not only did they flood the film with it, they've also added subtle cheeky tweaking such as English lyrics. This east-meets-west, old-meets-new treatment really adds a lot of fun and context, although it may not be easily noticed with all the loud action going on when most of the music's on. Kudos to Teddy Robin and Tommy Wai for their original music composition that won them Best Original Film Score at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards.
We cannot critique the technical qualities of Gallants as it would be unfair to this film that's using all the past techniques and treatments on purpose. That said, the camerawork was really effective in drawing out all the tensions and emotions amidst the drama. I especially loved the sudden extreme zoom-ins and zoom-outs.
The camerawork also complemented the superb action choreography by Tak Yuen and brought out a lot of energy during all the fights and sparring sessions. The fights in Gallants were shot mostly in real-time and it's admirable that the veterans are still able to render such swift movements despite their age. These days, not a lot of action stars actually spar in realtime and have to rely on speeding up the scenes to allow them to appear swift and agile.
The plot isn't the most sensible, but it did portray the veterans in a humble light where they do accept the fact that their time's past and they no longer harness the youth that allowed them to shine back then. The finale allowed them one last shot at glory and it was really satisfying because we get to pay our full respects to them when it comes to spirit.
One won't be in defeat if they don't fight. But if one chooses to fight, one must not settle for anything less than a victory.
While agreeing that it's a surprise Best Picture winner at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, perhaps it does show how much Hong Kong loves her cinema history and embraces it well. It was also heartening to see Hong Kong Superstar Andy Lau being one of the Executive Producers, who's a middle generation veteran who believes in past glory films like Gallants.