100 Yards (Xu Haofeng & Xu Junfeng, 2023)

100 Yards (Xu Haofeng & Xu Junfeng, 2023)

The following is a re-edited and slightly-modified version of the review I wrote for InReview Online's coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2023.

Xu Haofeng makes movies for people who enjoy and understand the finer points of martial arts choreography. His best-known film work (he’s also a novelist) is probably the screenplay for Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, in which Wing Chun master Ip Man navigates the various schools and styles of early 20th century kung fu. His films The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012) have a strong cult following, while his The Final Master received a proper release here in the US back in 2016. I haven’t seen the earlier two yet, but the latter, a story of rival martial arts schools in pre-war Tianjin, I found to be a dour slog. The choreography was indeed unique, realistically fast and detailed, but lacking in dramatics: to my untutored eye, it all blended into a rhythmically narcotic sameness. The Hidden Sword played a few festivals in 2017 (I saw it that fall in Vancouver) and struck me as a huge improvement, adding a satirical comic flair wholly absent from The Final Master that reminded me of no less than the films of Jiang Wen. Unfortunately, due to what are presumed to be censorship reasons, the film never got a proper release and appears to be, for the time being at least, completely buried. 

Now Xu is back, this time with his brother Xu Junfeng along to co-direct. Like The Final Master, 100 Yards takes place in pre-war (1920, to be specific) Tianjin. It’s a succession struggle, with the son and the top pupil of a recently deceased master vying for control of his school. The struggle draws in the local hoodlums, the school being the guarantor of an uneasy peace—no fighting within a circle a hundred yards in every direction around it. The son is played by Jacky Heung, a role for which he is uniquely qualified. The son of longtime producer and possible Triad associate Charles Heung, Jacky starred in Johnnie To’s most recent feature, the 2019 musical-action-comedy Chasing Dream, a performance and a film I love but which were both largely panned, with the production and Heung’s casting seen largely as a favor owed by To to his producer. Xu casting him as a nepo baby here then is actually pretty funny. But again, I quite like Heung’s performance. Whereas in Chasing Dream he’s all positive exuberance and wide smiles, he internalizes everything in 100 Yards, in keeping with Xu’s usual somber tones. 

He’s matched in this by Andy On, playing the top pupil. After beginning his career with a one-two punch of off-beat auteur projects (Tsui Hark’s Black Mask II and Ringo Lam’s Looking for Mr. Perfect), the American-born On (he was discovered by Charles Heung while working as a bartender in Rhode Island) never really became a major star. I last saw him in 2019’s bizarre and kind of fascinating straight-to-video John Carpenter pastiche/Scott Adkins vehicle Abduction. He’s terrific here, relentlessly focused with just a little bit of a flair for evil, and his and Heung’s fights are very good.

As a martial artist himself, Xu emphasizes realism in his screen fights. The most notable thing about them is simply how fast they are. Movie choreographers usually slow down and punctuate the action, adopting techniques from various styles of Chinese opera, in order to highlight the movements and skills of the actors. Xu, however, is content to show us the action in wide shots, in something like normal speed, meaning often too fast for the eye to follow (I honestly can’t tell if he does this via undercranking or simply the skill of his performers—either way, the effect on the viewer is the same). Unlike in The Final Master, however, the fights in 100 Yards are varied and well-motivated. Not just in terms of plotting (these guys need to have this fight because of this reason; all the terms, motivations, and goals set out clearly beforehand), but in choreography.

The final half of the film is essentially one long fight in multiple different locations featuring Heung facing off against a variety of different opponents armed with a variety of different weapons. The fight hinges on the fact that he’s forced to use weapons he is unfamiliar with, a pair of short swords (or long knives, like the ones central to The Final Master). We see him, over the course of the fights, learn how to use the weapons, adapt them to different enemies and environments, to the point that he’s able to take on On himself. The sequence is well-paced, with moments of rest and discussion interspersed here and there such that it doesn’t feel as exhausting as one long fight would be, giving us, and Heung, time to reflect on strategy. It’s a remarkable series of fights, in which Xu’s obvious knowledge and commitment to putting the martial arts on screen reaches the kind of pedagogical clarity last seen in the work of Lau Kar-leung.

Additionally, Xu retains some of that Jiang Wen tone he found in The Hidden Sword. The overcast streets of his Tianjin, where everyone wears either earth tones or shades of gray, are brightened up by moments of absurdity and sly humor, often provided by Heung’s love interest, played by Taiwanese actress Bea Hayden Kuo, best known for starring in the Tiny Times series and in real-life also Heung’s wife. Whether draping herself fashionably around him at a society ball or riding proudly on her bicycle as a newly appointed post officer in the French colonial city, she gives a cock-eyed whimsicality to what would otherwise have been a grim story of two men’s petty rivalry. She grounds what could have been an abstract film about theories of martial arts in a tangible historical reality, connecting her position as the illegitimate daughter of a European banker with the school’s precarious position in Republican-era China, lurching between colonial interests, local warlords and criminal gangs, and factional dissolution.

It’s not quite as effective as Zhang Ziyi’s role as a synecdoche for the decline of traditional Chinese culture over the course of the 20th century in The Grandmaster, but then Xu is not the romantic that Wong Kar-wai is. He’s a realist, interested less in sweeping emotional generalizations than in excavating into the smallest details of (martial arts) performance and ritual and then exploring what such minutiae might say about relations between people and the wider processes of history. With 100 Yards, he’s found the perfect balance between choreography and plot, intrigue and satire. It’s one of the best films of what is shaping up to be a remarkable year for Chinese language film.