Stormriders - Hong Kong's Latest Kungfu Extravaganza Breaks Box Office Records

By Dr. Craig D.

While studying corn-pest predators in Illinois, I was once in the middle of nowhere when suddenly the skies darkened and a tornado ominously swooped down and wove a destructive path through the corn field I had just been in. The next thing I know, my colleague and I are in a pickup following it. I recall thinking, "It'd be cool if a man could harness that power for a fighting technique." When I first saw Hong Kong's fant-Asia actioner, THE STORMRIDERS (aka FUNG YUIN, literal translation "Wind, Cloud"), where the audiences' "Waaas" got louder by the minute, my mind mulled over that blustery bout with the tornado -- my nutty notion had come true. Before my eyes, two young warriors had learned to harness the destructive dynamism of wind and rain and through the phenomenal CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) work done by Centro Digital Pictures. I was blown away again.

So just when you thought fant-Asia film was limping around, and their top cinematic talents have done the famed Chinese monkey king thing, fleeing the Communist Chinese regime (like we didn't see it coming) by journeying to the West, along comes STORMRIDERS. We're talking about a typhoonic masterpiece whose box office receipts have not only blown away all other fant-Asia classics into the ocean of redundancy, but one that has even surpassed the Asian records previously held by Jackie Chan.

This must see mass of mayhem is so wild that wolf packs howl, apes brachiate, dogs catch their tails, buffaloes stampede and killer bees freeze. And due to massive facial contortions brought on by the film's awesome energy, audiences' faces develop wrinkles they never thought they could get. As my face is recovering from its workout, I'm honored to speak with the producer and Centro's president John Chu, and the film's director Andrew Lau, as they exclusively fill us in on all the hype of one of the world's best recent films you've probably never seen.

Comic Books and Special Effects
"I've always strongly believed that if we apply modern visual effects to a Chinese story there will be a market," Chu relates. "My company has always been developing techniques for visual effects. So when Golden Harvest approached me with this ambitious project and asked me to do the effects, I had no hesitation."

When I first coined the term fant-Asia to describe Hong Kong's outrageous genre films, only a handful of us eagerly covered these films trying to mainstream their presence to the American public. The furor somewhat waning, homage to the term exists with Canada's highly successful "Fant-Asia Film Festival" (thanks guys). But since the 1997 take over (oops, hand over) film production in Hong Kong is down to 50 films a year, there's no government support, and fant-Asia films was the first genre to suffer. But Chu and Golden Harvest invested $10 million (US) into a movie that they hoped could provide the spark to help save the failing postage stamp colonies' film industry. Why the risk?

"In the past, wu xia pian (old style fant-Asia films) were popular," Chu explains, "But maybe there were too many and they had the same fighting and stunts so the audience became bored. But I thought if we use special effects to re-create the mythical and mystical kung-fu fighting powers from the Wu Xia Xiao Shuo novels (old style kung-fu superhero novels), deep down, people in Hong Kong would enjoy a well produced and good Chinese film."

Kungfu Edge
Lau shares with us his take on the genesis of the project. "After I had finished my fifth YOUNG AND DANGEROUS film, which is from a comic book, my partner Manfred Wong and I thought our next project should be from this comic book called "Tian Xia" by Ma Wing Sing, which at the time was not called "Fung Yuin." It's the biggest selling comic book in Hong Kong. But the problem is that it's a period piece; there are many famous kung-fu filmmakers here so we must think of a high tech way to make the film. When I came to the States visiting FX companies I saw this shot from BATMAN where Batman jumps down from a 20 foot building, lands on the ground and walks away. They said it was all CGI. I thought, "Wow." From then I was hooked on CG. So we talked to John Chu and Golden Harvest about what we wanted to do. I have worked on wu xia films and I was nervous if we could do things better than Ching Siu Tung (CHINESE GHOST STORY, SWORDSMAN) and Tsui Hark (ZU: WARRIOR FROM MAGIC MOUNTAIN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA). So we thought using special effects, to re-create the mythical and mystical kung-fu fighting powers from the kung-fu superhero novels, would be our edge."

Set in ancient China, STORMRIDERS is adapted from the martial arts comic book series by Ma. Apparently, Ma's former boss was so mean to him that he was inspired to create a story based on a similarly "virtuous" villain. Hence the creation of Xiong Ba, a martial arts grand wizard and head of the World Society clan whose sole ambition is to conquer the world. To accomplish this, Xiong was foretold that he must find Fung (Whispering Wind) and Yuin (Striding Cloud), two boys whose birth constellations corresponded with Xiong's destiny. However, at a later pre-ordained time, Xiong is presented with the second part of the fortune.

Xiong finds Fung and Yuin but in the process kills their parents. He takes them back to the World Society, adopts them as his pupils and they vow to avenge their families. The boys grow up along side Xiong's daughter Kong Ci. Their love for her, and her ultimate choice for love, leads to everyone's undoing as Xiong now learns from the sealed Persian Box of Destiny that the only thing that can stop him is if these two warriors unite against him. This of course sets up the fantastical final confrontation. Adding to the anticipated ending, Xiong's fortunes unfurl a war-of-the-millennium epic where his personal search for the Invincible Sword also leads him to a "what the hell was that?" and "are you kidding me?" final showdown with the Sword Saint (Anthony Wong).

The film stars Hong Kong's top Canto-pop performers Aaron Kwok (BARE-FOOTED KID, SAVIOR OF THE SOUL) as Cloud, and Ekin Cheng (MAN CALLED HERO) as Wind. Sonny Chiba plays Xiong. Behind the scenes, Kenji Sahara from RODAN was also in the running for Xiong. "But Sonny Chiba was a godsend," the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematogratia of Rome film school graduate Chu confides. "We searched for a master who would be able to authentically depict the character from the comic book and couldn't find this person in the Chinese film industry. Golden Harvest went to Japan and found Sonny at the last moment. With makeup and costume he looked exactly like the comic book character. He has this stature and air about him, a lot like the late Toshiro Mifune."

"We really wanted a 'master' looking guy," Lau also recalls, "And when I was young, I remember seeing Sonny on TV shows in Hong Kong. I always remembered his look. We had a lot of casting but when he came to Hong Kong and I met him face to face, we looked at the comic book and we all thought God had given us a break. He looked just like the comic book character. For the filming, all his lines were delivered in Japanese."

Chu continues, "Our challenge was to stick to the comic book and not upset all the local fans of the comic. After the film's showing we got a lot of support and positive reactions from the fans. I would engage my friends who were also fans and they'd say we were doing good and it was screen friendly.

"What's tough is that there are so many characters. Even the final version had too many. But we needed to find a balance for those who had never read the comic. Producer/writer Manfred Wong's script had 5 versions and the storyboards had 3. We did location shooting for 4 1/2 months with 18 for post. We're currently re-editing a more suitable version for the European and non-Chinese prints. Our overseas buyers are requesting the film and we want to simplify it a bit. Any suggestions?"

Honored by Chu's request, as I pose several ideas, I can't help thinking that there must be some sort of fate thing happening. The year I was seeking shelter in an irrigation ditch from a tornado, Tsui Hark was making ZU. I've gone from stormchaser, to stormcreator (the furor created by my term fant-Asia) and to now possibly stormrider. Whoa.

Special Effects
Although Chu's previous efforts include the CGI for an array of award winning commercials and films such as THE UMBRELLA STORY and THE SOONG SISTERS, STORMRIDERS is his most ambitious project to date. With over 500 special effects shots totaling 40 minutes of action, many of the brainscraping, wowee-zowee set pieces could never have been accomplished without the computer generated shots. For instance one of the fight scenes takes place on top of the 71-meter Great Buddha in Leshan, Szechuan and appears to be filmed with a 360-degree revolving camera. In reality, the "fight" took place against a blue-screen with the wire harnessed actor stationed on a revolving plank and filmed using a 360 degree rising shot with Centro's motion-control camera rig. The figures were later scanned onto the computer image of the Buddha. Lau comments, "That would have been logistically impossible to film, not only because of the tourists but also because of the height of the buddha."

The first half of STORMRIDERS plays more like an ultra-artsy film where careful camera choreography, slow motion, step printing and twisted sound effects create a remarkable quasi-European sensibility without sacrificing those typical patented Hong Kong visual elements. For example, during Sonny Chiba's first duel against Wind's father, while bodies flicker in and out of frame and dutch camera angles rock back and forth, the chromatic palate melts from color to color. Then suddenly, at what appears to be the pseudo-apex of the battle, all movements freeze and all we are left with is the loud churning sound of a single leaf rapidly flip-flopping through the screen. Wow.

Then when Wind conjures up the power of wind, he surrounds himself within a miniature tornado that looks like something out of TWISTER. Cloud's ferocious use of water is wonderfully depicted as he sweeps his hands in circles around his body, causing bucket loads of water to sway and move in rhythm with his arm's motions. He then folds his arms and punches his hands forward shooting the water out of its circular path into liquified missiles that impale his opponents. Then of course the most powerful technique is reserved for Xiong's growing, light pulsating, crystal ball maneuver that is partially reminiscent from something out of THE PRISONER except it's much more damaging.

Fire Beast
"But the biggest challenge," Lau contends, "Was creating the mythical Fire Kirin, a fire-breathing beast that duels with Wind. It was all CGI and we couldn't afford to even build a cardboard model to help Ekin who had never worked with "nothing" before. We did a lot of storyboarding, which is something not often done in Hong Kong films and that helped him. In fact, apart from having 5 versions of the script we had 3 versions of storyboards. Of the four and a half months for shooting this thing, it took us 15 shooting days for the Kirin sequence, the longest of the shoot. In Hong Kong that is a long time. But at least we had 18 months for post."

A drawn out sigh of relief later, Chu interjects, "This is an instance where we didn't follow what the comic book had as the Kirin. Instead, we had to create this animal that only exists in our minds, because nobody has ever seen the Kirin before so we wanted to make it fiery, like a burning coal, so it also had to have this light emitting energy. We somehow blended it with the design of the comic and what we felt was in people's minds. Also remember that Ekin had to fight something that wasn't there and that is not only a new experience for the actors but for also our Hong Kong crews.

"The challenge was also to keep the texture of the scales on its skin while still maintaining that fiery body effect. Plus, we needed to capture all the facial expressions and the beast's body postures and language. So character design began with many illustrations detailing facial features, skeleton, musculature and skin texture. A clay model was sculpted based on drawings then its coordinates were digitized as the basis for the first computer model but that CG model proved limiting. So the Kirin was essentially re-modeled from scratch." Curiously, the latest TV commercial for the Marines is a direct rip-off of the Kirin created by Chu.

By using state-of-the-art effects, STORMRIDERS has been able to finally give authentic life to those old-style kung-fu novels that fant-Asia films have been trying to emulate for decades. To the Hong Kong film fans, it's the elaborate swordplay and fight choreography of these films that holds a special wonderment in our psyches because no one in their right mind can do it like the Hong Kong filmmakers. So although the film is loaded with special effects, fight director Dion Lam (THE MATRIX, MARTIAL LAW) gives the film that "Made in Hong Kong" label; the fights still maintain the frenetic paced pugilistic action with wild wire work that makes you cringe because you know it's a real guy doing that stuff.

Yet ironically, the film's strength is also sometimes its weakness. Just imagine trying to figure out what is going on in Ching Siu Tung's classic swordplay films like DUEL TO THE DEATH or SWORDSMAN II while the images are covered up in swirling winds and crashing water. The effects essentially hide a lot of the fight choreography, sometimes making it difficult to figure out who is attacking who. But on the flip side, except for Sonny Chiba, you're dealing with actors who don't practice martial arts and who are basically Canto-pop singing idols of the masses.

If the DOORS were around, they would be proud to have their song "Riders on the Storm" on the soundtrack of the English dubbed version, because like Jim Morrison, this film is far-out, psychedelic and unpredictable. Just ask Cloud how his arm was saved. STORMRIDERS may not save the Hong Kong film industry, but for a cool $10 million budget it doesn't only put many of the recent Hollywood big budgeted affairs to shame, it downright chews them up, spits them out then eats them a second time after they have sprouted. It's what MORTAL KOMBAT should have been. Kasanoff, are you listening? Too late.

Finally, although the film is loaded with over 500 seamless special effects, according to Lau, "It's still sort of a love story."

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

About Dr. Craig D. :
Dr. Craig D. Reid is a writer and martial artist based in Los Angeles.

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