In Barbarian Invasion, retired actress Moon Lee (Tan Chui Mui, who also directs), not to be confused with actual retired martial arts actress Moon Lee, is now a divorced single mother looking to do a bit of personal reclamation and regain her former sense of self. Opportunity knocks in the form of a job offer as the lead of a low-budget action movie in which she’d have to do her own stunts. Barbarian Invasion is vaguely reminiscent of docudrama movie-within-movie hybrids like, say, Irma Vep, but with a decidedly less global or socioeconomic preoccupation. Mostly, it’s concerned with our relationship to relationships and then our relationship to art, especially when it’s also a job.
Moon isn’t a trained martial artist, not in the slightest. The bulk of the first third or so of the film is taken up with her slow, often laborious training, at which she does not immediately excel. Complicating matters is the push-pull between her commitment to the work and the care of her young son (who adorably, if frustratingly for her, often tries to spring to her defense when she’s “attacked” by stuntmen). Her director (another IRL collaborator, Pete Teo) remains encouraging, but there’s a lot on the line, and he’s got to repeatedly convince a hesitant Moon to stay the course.
Where Barbarian Invasion excels, though, isn’t in the self-aware tug of war between work and motherhood (although this autobiographical element is superb texture and ultimately the crux of the work); rather, it’s that as the movie-within-the-movie bleeds ever further into reality, we’re treated to a simple, stylish fight picture with some decent displays of athleticism from its director. Tan not only can’t help but channel herself into the character — after all, they’re the same woman — but her abilities as an action filmmaker hold serious promise. The fights aren’t elaborate, but they’re shot with a careful DIY handheld style and edited with a minimum of cuts. Occasionally the performers are a tad slow and feel somewhat rehearsed, but if you didn’t know what to look for, you might not notice. What’s more, the meta-aspect of the film ties up neatly; here’s a woman who feels a loss of control, of agency, of spirit and body, and what better way to reclaim that than to kick a bunch of ass?
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 5.