Two very similar films in premise but vastly different in execution hit the festival this year. NYAFF is always a good home for Asian action films of all stripes and budgets, but rarely are two films so perfectly contrasted against each other in terms of both style and quality. From Hong Kong there’s Unleashed, from first-time director duo Ambrose and Ka Hei Kwok. Famed HK stuntman Ken Lo (part of Jackie Chan’s team for decades) stars as Debo, an ex-fighter who gave up the ring to teach in his own gym. His pupil, Fok Kit (Zhen Feng Sun), is an up-and-coming player on the underground fight circuit. Meanwhile the gym’s landlord is raising the rent, a mysterious and potentially deadly new fighter is brutally wiping out his challengers (with Fok Kit up next), and a pretty young actress has started training with Debo to both enhance her on-camera skill and perhaps inflict a little justice on a director who treated her very poorly. The surrogate family that forms here is certainly earnest and very sweet, and while something so narratively perfunctory isn’t really a problem in a simple fight movie, it has to be backed up with impressive technique. The fights here are simply inadequate, despite the presence of a force like Lo. Impacts are cut away from and elaborate movement is shot too-close or otherwise marred by excessive edits. It’s not enough to know that a fight is happening; the viewer needs to be able to see the performers perform, because martial arts is still acting. And the whole thing is shot with a chilly, blue, almost plastic video sheen. There’s no warmth — or rough edge — to any of it.
Contrast Unleashed with Geran, from prolific Malay cinematographer Areel Abu Bakar, also directing for the first time. Another family beset by gangsters and other unscrupulous hoods. This time Pal Nayan, his sister Fatimah, and their father Ali (Khoharullah Majid, Feiyna Tajudin, and Namron, respectively) find out their other wayward brother Mat Arip (Fad Anuar) has sold the deed to the family land to pay off his gambling debts from street racing. What the bad guys don’t know is that the family are all highly skilled practitioners of the martial art Silat. Hijinks ensue. Despite yet another simple, arguably even clichéd setup, Geran is extremely confident, unreconstructed martial arts filmmaking on a DIY level. At times, it’s enough to even recall the great master director Lau Kar-leung in that the fight craft of its characters is a spiritual extension of its practitioners. Here that leads to a slightly schmaltzy morality that is nevertheless charming and effective. And the performers themselves are, in real life, experienced in Silat, so Abu Bakar is able to use camera movement and cuts to emphasize speed rather than create the illusion of it. Tajudin is particularly stunning as the no-bullshit sister who fights off a bunch of dudes while keeping her hijab perfectly in place. There’s also a fairly colorful depiction of Malay gang culture and street racing.
Where Unleashed evinced a polished plasticity, Geran is raw, brown, cheap video, often slipping into Go-Pro footage for odd angles or tough car shots. In other words, it’s constantly teetering on an edge visually. Put next to each other, these two films feel like polar opposites despite building from essentially the same stories. The contrast works as a stark object lesson in filmcraft: while cursory themes are shared — grappling with simple ideas like legacy and skill and power and family — it’s the gap that is revealed between execution and intent that most defines these films. In the case of Geran, that personality goes a long way.
Published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.