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-[Film Reviews]-, Chinese Cinema, East Asian Cinema

‘Warriors of Future’ (2022): The Expansion of Mainland Blandness

Directed by: Ng Yuen-fai || Produced by: Louis Koo, Tang Wai-bat

Screenplay by: Lau Ho-leung, Mak Tin-shu || Starring: Louis Koo, Sean Lau, Carina Lau, Philip Keung, Tse Kwan-ho, Nick Cheung

Music by: Chan Kwong-wing || Cinematography: Ng Man-ching || Edited by: Wong Hoi, Luk Chi-ho || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese

Running Time: 99 minutes

Since I started my exploration of international (re: non-English language or non-Hollywood) cinema well over a decade ago, my interest in Chinese cinema has trailed that of South Asian (primarily Indian), European (primarily French, Spanish, and Italian), and other East Asian (primarily Korean, Japanese, and Indonesian) cinema. Much of that may be a function of the social groups I formed in college, but further explanation may also lie in the culture and form of contemporary Chinese cinema itself, mainland Chinese cinema in particular. Whenever I sampled Chinese filmmaking in my late teens to early 20s, I most always tried Hong Kong (e.g. John Woo, Johnnie To, Andrew Lau, Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-wai) Cantonese movies rather than mainland Chinese Mandarin-language ones. Rare exceptions of Chinese films shot on the mainland or funded in part by mainland production companies that I enjoyed (e.g. Peter Chan’s The Warlords [2007], Johnnie To’s Drug War [2012]) were often directed by filmmakers trained in Hong Kong. What’s the story here?

I suspect my failure to connect with mainland Chinese filmmaking is connected to the culture of censorship in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which forbids, among other things, content related to the paranormal (e.g. ghosts, witchcraft, etc.), time-travel, homosexuality, and anything critical of the Chinese Communist Party, of course. Extreme restrictions on artistic expression are not unique to the PRC, however — Iranian censorship is arguably just as strict, but Persian filmmakers have made great, influential movies for decades — and after watching a series of contemporary mainland Chinese box office hits (e.g. The Mermaid [2016], Wolf Warrior 2 [2017], The Wandering Earth [2019], I noted other attributes of Mandarin-language cinema that further disinterested me from exploring mainland Chinese cinematic culture: An overreliance on special FX and computer generated imagery (CGI), bland cookie-cutter screenplays with dull, one-dimensional characters, preachy, on-the-nose political messages, and overall shallow, forgettable directorial styles that felt beholden to major studio executive committees. Sound familiar?

Louis Koo (left, replaced by a CGI double) battles a droid from Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013) while a mech from Ghost in the Shell (1995) advances in the background.

Perhaps due to some sort of nationalist, cultural ego or a desire to ape the international box office success of mainstream American cinema, modern Chinese movies seem intent on copycatting the worst of Hollywood blockbuster cliches to their detriment, neither learning from the mistakes of vapid English-language high-concept movies nor attempting to differentiate their own Mandarin-language style. What’s worse is that this unimaginative, creatively bankrupt style of big-budget filmmaking seems to have spread to Hong Kong cinema after the recent mainland crackdown (circa 2019-2020) on the former British colony’s relative freedom of cultural expression; case in point is Warriors of Future, the directorial debut of visual FX (VFX) artist Ng Yuen-fai and latest star-vehicle for Cantonese veterans Louis Koo and Sean Lau.

In development in one form or another since 2015, Warriors of Future (henceforth, WoF) reads like a Hollywood case study in how to make a bland, generic science-fiction “epic” heavy on CGI set-pieces, sparse on character development, and partial to lazy diegetic worldbuilding. Perhaps the biggest warning sign of the film’s problems is its rookie-director; VFX artists rarely transition to directing feature-films, and those who do almost never make effective actors’ directors, script-doctors, or auteurs in general (see also The Brothers Strause and Alien vs Predator: Requiem [2007], Skyline [2010], etc.); Ng’s command of CGI renderings is fine, but little beyond the VFX, including the impact of the name-brand action sequences, congeals to create a memorable blockbuster experience.

Let’s give credit where it’s due and admit the film’s few strengths: Most of WoF’s CGI is convincing (you’ll find no rubbery tigers a la RRR [2022], comical “mecha-scythe” carriages from Baahubali [2015, 2017], or knockoff X-Men [2000, 2003, 2006] superpowers as in Krrish [2013]), the movie boasts a reasonable runtime of 99 minutes, itself cut down from 112 minutes thanks to the mainland Chinese film bureau censors, and the cast is small, without the sort of cringeworthy comic relief side-characters or throwaway love-interests common to these sorts of high-profile, high-concept movies.

Those are all the positives, however. WoF’s ostensible premise, a futuristic dystopia ravaged by climate change and threatened by an unrelated meteorite impact that transported an aggressive extraterrestrial plant to earth, is in truth an elaborate excuse to showcase lead actors Koo and Lau in mechanical exoskeletons punching, shooting, or jumping around various robotic or alien antagonists in forgettable set-pieces that lack physical weight. Moments of certain action scenes are fun, like an elongated freeway chase between an armored transport and a large mech, but too many sequences are polluted by comical platforming acrobatics, excessive CGI debris FX, chaotic handheld camerawork, and laughable slow-motion combat that rips off either 300 (2007), The Matrix (1999), Hard-Boiled (1992), or some combination thereof. Will blockbusters stop with the fucking slow-motion already?

It’s almost not worth mentioning the characterizations themselves, which include clunky dialogue and bad performances from more or less the entire cast. I suppose it’s difficult to act within a paper-thin diegetic landscape and almost nonstop exposition throughout the entire first act, but I expected more from the likes of actor-producer Koo and costar Lau.

Sean Lau (far left), Philip Keung (center left), Louis Koo (center right), and some girl (Xiaoxia Cheng) slog their way through expository dialogue in an armored vehicle.

While I have accepted how restrictive filmmaking will remain under the People’s Republic of China, I hadn’t appreciated until recently how quick the transition of its satellite city, Hong Kong, from an international artistic/cultural hub to an extension of mainland Chinese censorship and Hollywood corporate mimicry, would be. Ng Yuen-fai’s Warriors of Future is most admirable for its strong CGI and modest length, but its high-profile action sequences in total feel weightless thanks to lazy cinematography, poor sound editing, and haphazard choreography. Asking for halfway memorable characters or stylish one-liners almost feels foolish at this point, as mainland Chinese and now Hong Kong filmmaking must channel the worst of Hollywood, from Michael Bay to Roland Emmerich to Justin Lin.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Written in Cantonese yet structured like a bad Mandarin riff on tired Hollywood blockbuster tropes, Warriors of Future feels like a visual FX artist’s idea of a “badass” science-fiction action movie with mechs, robotic soldiers, and post-apocalyptic cities. The CGI looks but doesn’t feel realistic, nor does the script appear to service anything but the interchangeable set-pieces.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED; audiences have better options available in almost any language.

? Is that pointless child guest star, Xiaoxia Cheng, the kid of one of the executive producers?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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