Chinese cinema is booming. It's been steadily growing for the past 10-15 years or so and it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore. That said, the West is really trying its hardest to look the other way. A movie like Jiang Zhuoyuan's Fist & Faith shows plenty of potential for international success, but for some reason it's unable to catch a break outside China's borders. And that's a real shame, because if you're looking for something fun and creative with a darker edge, Fist & Faith is a solid bet.
Not longer than twenty years ago, Chinese cinema was quite limited. Not that there weren't any good films around, but you'd be hardpressed to find much outside the realms of martial arts and social drama. Chinese directors had to rebrand themselves like crazy in a short period of time, which does make it considerably more difficult to navigate all the Chinese films being produced today. Suddenly there are blitzy comedies, haunted house horrors and crazy urban fantasies all fighting for attention, borrowing and copying from and adding to foreign influences.
Knowing all that, Fist & Faith still came as a pretty big surprise. The film finds itself somewhere stranded in between Crows Zero, Cromartie High and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but still comes out its very own thing. The typical Japanese school gangs combined with the comic book aesthetic and the geeky comedy are a triple first for Chinese cinema, but Zhuoyuan does well to put it in a local (historical) context while making sure the presentation is slick and polished.
The film is set during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 30s. In order to colonize the Chinese, the Japanese are doing away with Chinese literature and are taking over their history classes. Underground book reading clubs are popping up left and right, but the Japanese are using school gangs to disrupt and disperse these gatherings. Jing Hao is one of the first Chinese students to stand up against the Japanese. He unites the different Chinese clans and vows to take on the Japanese oppressors.
Visually there's a lot happening here and most of it is pretty neat. Even the less-accomplished CG shots carry a clear aesthetic and add to the overall atmosphere of the film. The comic book effects are very cool, the camera work is fun and creative and the use of color is bold and extravagant. Zhuoyuan is a younger director and it clearly shines through in the look of the film. Not every single effect and/or filter is successful, but overall the film looks superb and presents itself as both modern and stylish.
The soundtrack too is quite remarkable. Chinese films tend to play it safe when it comes to choice of music, but Zhuoyuan opts for a slightly more daring approach. Some hip-hop and dubstep influences bring a lot of extra energy to the film, not in the least because these aren't the typical soundtrack interpretations of said genres. The music here feels genuine and edgy and supports the scenes effortlessly, while adding a lot of extra flavor to the film. It's a great example of how a soundtrack can be both modern and impactful without sounding like a bad pop compilation.
The cast is also pretty on point. Jing Tian and Oho Ou carry most of the weight and do a solid job. There is some oustpoken comedy that might come off a little weird for those not used to the Chinese sense of humor, but the lighthearted first half of the film makes it pretty easy to cope with. Jiang Zhuoyuan deserves extra credit for casting a fine selection of Japanse actors (Meisa Kuroki and Kento Hayashi are perfect) to fill out the Japanese parts. While that may sound like an obvious thing to do, it wouldn't be the first film to use Chinese actors in Japanese roles.
The first half of Fist & Faith is pretty casual. Bits of comedy, comic book silliness and romance brighten up a pretty simple plot. Halfway through it turns dark though and the second half of the film is a lot harsher. Things escalate quickly and characters end up dead, yet somehow the film manages to maintain its air of entertainment. It's a tough trick to pull off and the transition might not to be everyone's liking, but by the time Zhuoyuan starts his final act it felt like a natural progression of the story.
Fist & Faith is a film that isn't shy to pay tribute to its influences. From the 300-esque Crows Zero clan fight to the Scott Pilgrim-like introduction, Zhuoyuan borrows royally from a broad varity of films. The way he brings everything together though is quite unique, not in the least for a Chinese film maker. The result is a thorougly entertaining film that amuses, dazzles and delights. Getting your hands on it is going to be a tougher challenge, but I'm sure those willing to go the extra mile will find a way.