|China is full of champions - at least, that's probably what we're supposed to take from director Tsui Siu-Ming's crass yet somehow still watchable action-drama called, uh, Champions. In a rarity for today's action-starved Hong Kong Cinema, Tsui serves up copious and frequently entertaining martial arts sequences, and he does it even when they arenít appropriate for his story. Champions is too unrefined to be quality and too conventional to be remarkable, but it manages to entertain between bursts of bombast. A partial passing grade seems fair.
Set in 1930s China, the film details the trials of a group of athletes who desire to compete in the Olympic Games. There's a snag, however. The full amount required to send them abroad for the games is 600,000 dollars, and the government is only sponsoring half. It falls to the athletes to raise the rest themselves, and they start by saving every last penny they earn. They also attempt to raise the money through a variety of fund-raising activities, including street performances, networking for donations, and probably a bake sale, too. After deciding to fund their own way to the games, the athletes take to the streets to perform all manner of athletic demonstrations and martial arts moves in an energetic and impromptu street fair.
Besides rousing themselves and the neighborhood, the activity demonstrates the boundless goodwill of the athletes, as even the most cynical or conflicted join in on the "all for one, and one for all" fun. Track star rivals Ngan Ling (TV host Priscilla Wong) and Lee Sum (Debbie Goh of Nothing is Impossible) gladly work together for the greater good, and despite being sardonic and somewhat smarmy, martial artist Cheung Fung (longtime Stephen Chow wannabe Dicky Cheung) won't hesitate to run around and scream things like, "I must go to the Olympic games!" His goal, besides being loud and annoying, is convincing others to give money for the pride of the athletes, the glory of the country, and also in exchange for the chickens being sold to make money to send those athletes to the Games. It's all so inspirational.
At least, that must be Tsui Siu-Ming's intention, and he deserves credit for getting his message across. Champions wears its heart on its sleeve, and those who like crass, slam-you-over-the-head entertainment may find it enjoyable. However, Tsui gets zero credit for being subtle, as Champions is most definitely not that. The film is incredibly disjointed, with only a nominally-developed story and sometimes nonsensical set pieces. The characters are defined on only the most superficial level, and the emotions, action, and accompanying effects (both audio and visual) are dialed up to a bombastic eleven. Tsui also assaults us with his director credit, which literally explodes onto the screen, plus he serves up an overbearing score and gets his actors to emote in an over-the-top, forceful manner that sometimes elicits laughs rather than tears. There's entertainment here, but a lot of it is of the unintentional variety.
Still, the addition of a martial arts subplot helps shore things up. China Martial Arts Academy head honcho Cheung Chi-Kong (Yu Rong-Guang) is presiding over the martial arts delegation to the Olympics, and Eagle Claw-proficient Master On (Xu Xiangdong) demands tryouts to determine which athletes should really go. The competition devolves from friendly rivalries to grudge matches inspired by little more than someone uttering, "Hey, you aren't giving me face!" - a detail that seems lifted from the messy and enjoyable martial arts flicks of old. Fittingly, these characters eventually come together to form patriotic bonds of teamwork and understanding. Enemies join forces versus a common foe (in this case, capitalist gangsters), and people smile broadly, laugh heartily, and behave in a cheesy and unrealistic manner. The whole thing is so nostalgic and silly that it can be engaging, and the presence of an all-grown-up Xie Miao (Jet Li's son from My Father is a Hero), who plays one of the main heroes, adds an extra layer of nostalgic fun.
The film's choppy story, bombastic style, unsubtle acting and wannabe rousing themes are distracting, but they're also somewhat disarming. There's an odd charm in how retro the film feels; it's clumsy, over-the-top, hyperemotional, and not shy about its melodramatic pretensions at all. The whole mixture is reminiscent of an earlier time, not to mention another genre of Hong Kong Cinema. Champions is constructed and paced not unlike an early nineties martial arts movie or wuxia - except it's about athletes wanting to attend the Olympics and doesn't star Brigitte Lin, Jet Li, or any other major stars of the era. Sadly, the subject matter - that is, the whole patriotism about the Olympics thing - doesn't really lend itself to the old Hong Kong Cinema treatment. The rah-rah subject matter is ultimately so conventional that Tsui's old-style Hong Kong moviemaking approach doesn't really seem to fit.
What's also wrong: the film clocks in at nearly two hours, which is too long for an action movie, and a complete chore when considering Tsui Siu-Ming's blunt filmmaking style. Champions offers plenty of emotions, but they're obvious, amped-up and punctuated by soggy platitudes and egregious overacting. As soulful smartass Cheung Fung, Dicky Cheung is too self-conscious to be as endearing as his character needs to be. Many of the supporting characters turn in one-note performances, and co-star Priscilla Wong overacts as Cheung's track star love interest. Not only does her character get teary about the true meaning of competition, but she also suffers from a spinal condition that makes her sport into something that could possibly kill her. That's right, Champions isn't just rousing, patriotic and action-packed, but it's also potentially tear-jerking. Tsui Siu-Ming - who directed, produced, co-wrote, and co-choreographed the film - seems to be asking that we laugh, applaud, cheer and weep at his movie. He may be asking too much.
Ultimately, what Tsui Siu-Ming has done here is so unwieldy that it's hard to even call it filmmaking. Not only does the film go for action thrills, tragic drama, patriotic pride, and working class comedy, but it also gets tediously current. The film ends with droning text talking about the current pride of the Chinese people, namely the Beijing Olympics. The tie-in is appropriate, but also a bit crass as Tsui was already attempting far too much with Champions. Then again, could anyone really make a workable film out of a multi-genre period piece meant to celebrate the Beijing Olympics - which, by the way, takes place a full 70 years after this movie? I'm guessing no, but they tried anyway, so some acknowledgement should be in order. Champions is not very successful, but it's ambitious and remains watchable partly because the whole mixture is so unbelievably strange. In some ways, that also makes it kind of fun. (Kozo 2008)