by: Marco Mak
Tsui Hark produced this sports-drama, having been fascinated with the relatively new martial art called Xanda for some time. Xanda was conceived in the 1970s as a way for Wushu practitioners to participate in matches allowing full contact. Compared to what you see Wushu experts perform, Xanda leans more towards kickboxing, making it less pretty, more gritty. How does that lend itself to on-screen fighting and what can Tsui Hark, long time editing friend turned director Marco Mak, cinematographer Herman Yau and Rico Cheung (Cha Chuen-Yee's screenwriter of choice on movies such as Once Upon A Time In Triad Society and The Rapist) do with a bunch of Xanda fighters in actual acting roles? One thing's for certain however...bring your umbrellas cause it's going to be raining clichés today! Another thing that's for certain, Tsui Hark and company emerges as semi-winners here, rather than certain losers.
Wushu expert Qiang (Sang Wei-Lin) leaves his hometown in the country and heads for bigger things in the city. Jobs are hard to come by but Qiang comes to see a new path in martial arts when he squares off with Xanda champion Zhao (Teng Jun). He ends up losing and in the skirmish surrounding this fight, his friend ends up in hospital with a juicy bill to boot. Qiang wants and now also needs to join Coach Tieh's (Zhang Hong-Jun) Xanda school but his confidence is not fitting for the discipline, making him greatly lose his first tournament match. It all comes down to discovering yourself through a devotion to Xanda or to girlfriend Ning (Ni Jing-Yang)...
Not blessed with scope, budget or name talent, the team behind Xanda consciously borrow heavily, mainly from the obvious source which of course is Rocky. However it does come from an area of necessity and need for simplicity due to the cast involved here but it's always the question of how much talent do you have to make previous seen choices resonate, even slightly? Marco Mak certainly has made his visual sense his one of his most distinguishable traits and even if Xanda offers probably zero frames of originality, he does something unexpected based on what little he actually has; entertains.
Beware though, he doesn't show much confidence in his film as the opening reel is filled with sped-up shots and weird intercutting that just screams "I'm afraid my movie is just too boring! I bring you this instead". When relocating to the rural, and not so picturesque China, Mak takes the first sports movie cliché stepping stone forward. In a way, the drab surroundings do function for the character of Qiang and his inner desires to breakout. Along the way, as these things go, he'll go through ignorance, rejection, love and discovery. Yes, it actually is terribly overdone and cliché so how the hell does Marco Mak make this as decently entertaining as it is? God knows he's not doing anything original but the answer simply lies in the fact that he injects enough heart into Qiang's character journey to make Xanda a cut above the expectations (especially of a Tsui Hark production these days also).
His flashbacks to Qiang and his friendship with wheelchair bound Yu presents the obvious parallels in the present, hammered home tenfold (subtlety rarely is Mak's forté as a director) but set against the rural backdrop, working from Rico Cheung and Lin Xiao-Long's script (or rather template), this somewhat actually begins to resonate emotionally on the level of seen clichés. As contrived as it is, even the romance between Qiang and Ning, plays out and involves for the moment anyway (I was personally awed by the fact that Ni Jing-Yang looks eerily like Charlie Yeung!). Even Mak's visual trickery ranks as original at times, mainly during the scenes featuring Xanda fighting.
I read an interview prior with Tsui Hark where he explained that transferring Xanda to the big screen really required some of today's fast cut, MTV style editing. Action director Ma Zhong-Xuan does what he can with that choice but in the end, the experiment is a rather mediocre one in terms of exhilarating on-screen fighting. Performers Sang Wei-Lin, Zhao Zi-Long and Teng Jun obviously are very capable and display the odd beautiful acrobatic move but the only aspect that really makes the action scenes stand out are some of Marco Mak's jazzing up of the visuals together with cinematographers Herman Yau and Sunny Tsang. Those moments have more to do with impact, taking place outside of the main action directing (the many shots of flying sweat surprisingly gets old very late). Mak has shown more creativity in the past, among other things morphing the picture of The Last Supper into Francis Ng in A Gambler's Story, but again, based on what little Team Workshop had here, whatever positives that do show up are still positives. The Hong Kong cinema action fans won't be screaming for more Xanda movies after this but experimenting is always welcome.
Probably THE most stand out element in this largely amateur acted affair is lead Sang Wei-Lin who along with Zhao Zi-Long and Teng Jun are real life Xanda practitioners. Going back to the fact that the template certainly screams Rocky, I think giving Sang that simple arc probably benefited him as a first time actor. He goes through the requisite ups and downs of Qiang neither well or catastrophically bad. Sang has nothing to be ashamed of but there is probably not going to be more roles for him unless Xanda becomes a long running series....
Xanda surprises because coming from Tsui Hark and Film Workshop in 2003, you won't hear any form of cheers from the fan community, regardless of what type of film it is. I feel that Tsui Hark is definitely justly criticized nowadays (Black Mask 2) but also unjustly (Legend Of Zu). This low-budget action-drama doesn't echo memories of better works of the past either for Marco Mak or Tsui but with my expectations therefore set low, the filmmakers still unexpectedly drew me in for 90 minutes. If you feel unjustly drawn in for 90 minutes, then rest assured Xanda won't linger long in your memories.
Megastar presents the film in a 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio. Aside from some dirt on the print and the opening reel having very red skintones, the presentation of this low-budget film looks solid
The movie employs Mandarin language throughout, albeit post synced mostly. Dialogue on the Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds clear and the front stage decently engages during louder moments. A Mandarin DTS 5.1 track is included as well as the Cantonese 5.1 dub.
English subtitles has only minor errors and convey plot and
situations well otherwise. Traditional and simplified Chinese
subtitles are also available. No extras are included.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson