Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In

Jiu Long Cheng Zhai: Wei Cheng
2024 / 126m - Hong Kong
Action, Thriller
Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In poster

Soi Cheang is on a winning streak. Limbo and Mad Fate brought some glamour back to Hong Kong crime cinema, so it wasn't too big of a surprise when he was chosen to complete this prestigious project that had been in the works for the past two decades. Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In [Jiu Long Cheng Zhai: Wei Cheng] is the first film in a projected trilogy that mixes (fantasy) martial arts with crime elements, set in Hong Kong's legendary Kowloon City. Safe to say, I passionately looked forward to this one, and Cheang nailed the assignment.

screencap of Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In [Jiu Long Cheng Zhai: Wei Cheng]

Cheang has been doing pretty well, apart from that time he lost himself in the poorly realized CG-driven Monkey King trilogy. It's good to see that he's been able to redeem himself because Hong Kong is in dire need of directors like him. Directors capable of adding a little grit to polished blockbusters, without ignoring their potential for slick genre entertainment. The Chinese censors have been weighing down on Hong Kong cinema in recent years, and while a film like Twilight of the Warriors doesn't offer any concrete promises for the future, it does keep the Hong Kong film DNA alive.

I learned about Kowloon some 10 years ago when I bumped into a rare photoshoot highlighting the otherworldliness of the place. I understand why they tore it down, it's probably not a place that deserves any overt glorification, but it's impossible to ignore its enormous cinematic potential. The mini-city is only featured in a handful of films (Long Arm of the Law being the most interesting one), and I've always wondered why filmmakers weren't more eager to incorporate the place into their films. Technical and budgetary problems lay at the roots no doubt, which is probably why it took so long for this film to move from prep to shooting.

When Chan Lok-kwun arrives in Hong Kong, his priority is getting an ID card. He enters a martial arts tournament and wins, but it's organized by shady criminals who make a fool of him when he doesn't want to join their gang. As revenge, he steals some of their dope. He is chased down until he escapes into Kowloon. They can't follow him there, but Kowloon isn't the most inviting place. The area is ruled by Tornado, who reluctantly lets Lok-kwun stay after hearing his story. The crime gang won't leave it at that, and they devise a plan to seize control over Kowloon.

screencap of Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In [Jiu Long Cheng Zhai: Wei Cheng]

Kowloon was a very dense and dirty place, made up of entirely of shabby rooms connected by small, labyrinth-like alleys. With Limbo in mind, Cheang was the perfect guy to bring the city back to life, even if it required some CG to handle the broader overview shots. The indoor sets are impressive, the camera work is very dynamic, the editing is snappy and the city just looks tremendously cool. They captured its rundown, chaotic charm (which at times reminded me of Blame!'s postapocalyptic architecture, though at a much smaller scale), and that is all I wanted from this film.

They didn't skimp on the original score either, and it paid off. Kenji Kawai was asked to provide the music, and while not his best work (this isn't on the same level as his Osshi collaborations), it's a big step up from the usual Hong Kong blockbuster fare. The music accompanying the action scenes is relatively generic, but the more dramatic moments in between work well because of the epic pieces Kawai created. It's rare for a film like this to have a score that draws attention to itself, and while not a defining characteristic, it's certainly a welcome bonus.

The cast features a typical selection of Hong Kong greats for the meatier parts, with upcoming talent getting their chance to shine in secondary roles. It's nice seeing Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, and Sammo Hung gracing the screen again (though in more dubious roles this time, Hung does particularly well as the story's villain). Philip Ng is hilarious too and probably has the most memorable (and possibly most divisive) part. It's a solid cast, nothing too exceptional, but everyone seemed aware enough of the type of film they were in, and every single one of them delivered.

screencap of Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In [Jiu Long Cheng Zhai: Wei Cheng]

I love going into films blank, even highly anticipated ones like this. Knowing the director and genre while being familiar enough with Hong Kong cinema in general, I felt I had this one figured out before even starting. However, I was still surprised by the martial arts elements. I expected some dashing action, but there's a fantastical streak I didn't see coming (of course, I wasn't familiar with the source material). One that even intensifies as the finale draws near. I'm not sure if the film needed it, but I always appreciate a pleasant surprise and it never felt out of place, thanks to the otherworldly setting.

Twilight of the Warriors is a prestige project and I'm glad they took the time and went through the effort to get all the details right. Cheang was the right man for the job and he made certain this trilogy wouldn't mess up his winning streak. Kowloon finally gets the film it deserves, sporting a great cast, a distinctive score, and some dazzling action scenes, layered on top of a sprawling crime epic. With two more films planned down the line, Walled In has become a rare instance of a movie series where I'm looking forward to the sequels. Bring on the sequels!