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. Two of Xu’s earlier directorial efforts, The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012), have a strong cult following, although this writer hasn’t seen them. On the other hand, Xu’s The Final Master, which received a proper US release back in 2016, is a dour slog: the choreography is indeed unique, realistically fast and detailed, but the story of rival martial arts schools in pre-war Tianjin lacks dramatic sense, such that the action all blends into a rhythmically narcotic sameness.
Xu followed The Final Master with The Hidden Sword, which played a few festivals in 2017 and registered as a huge improvement over its predecessor — adding a satirical, comic flair that situated it closer to Jiang Wen’s films. Unfortunately, due to what are presumed to be censorship reasons, The Hidden Sword never got picked up for a proper release and appears to be, for the time being, staying completely buried. So now Xu is back with 100 Yards (co-directed with his brother, Xu Junfeng), which, like The Final Master, takes place in pre-war Tianjin (1920, to be specific). The film follows a succession struggle, with Shen An (Jacky Heung), the son of a recently deceased master, vying for control of his school against his father’s top pupil, Qi Quan (Andy On). The struggle draws in local hoodlums, the school being the guarantor of an uneasy peace — no fighting is allowed within a hundred-yard circle around it.
Heung is uniquely qualified for his role: The actor is the son of longtime producer and possible Triad associate Charles Heung, and previously starred in Johnnie To’s 2019 musical-action-comedy Chasing Dream, a performance and a film which were unjustly panned by many, regarded largely as To doing a favor for his producer. The Xu brothers’ casting of Heung as a nepo baby here, then, is actually pretty funny — but once again, the actor’s performance is good in its own right, too: Whereas in Chasing Dream, he’s all positive exuberance and wide smiles, here he internalizes everything, in keeping with the somber tone typical of a Xu Haofeng film.
Heung’s co-star, American-born Andy On, is likewise a good fit. While the actor — who was discovered by Charles Heung while working as a bartender in Rhode Island — has never really become a big star, he began 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. He also starred alongside Scott Adkins in a bizarre and kind of fascinating straight-to-video John Carpenter pastiche from 2019 called Abduction. In 100 Yards, he’s terrific — relentlessly focused, with just a little bit of a flair for evil. His fight scenes with Heung are also very good; as a martial artist himself, Xu Haofeng emphasizes realism in his screen fights, the most notable thing about them being 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. The Xu brothers, however, are content to show us action in wide shots, at something like normal speed, meaning it’s often too fast for the eye to follow.
Thankfully, unlike in The Final Master, the fights in 100 Yards are varied and well-motivated, and 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 their choreography, as well. The final half of the film is essentially one long fight extended through multiple locations, as Heung’s Shen faces off against a variety of opponents armed with a variety of different weapons. The fight hinges on Shen being forced to use weapons he’s unfamiliar with: a pair of short swords (or long knives, like the ones central to The Final Master). Over the course of the fight, we see Shen learn how to use the weapons and adapt them to different enemies and environments. 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. The Xu brothers give us, and Shen, time to reflect on strategy, and as a result, the filmmakers’ obvious knowledge and commitment to putting the martial arts on screen reaches a kind of pedagogical clarity last seen in the work of Lau Kar-leung.
Additionally, Xu retains some of that Jiang Wen tone he brought to 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 Taiwanese actress Bea Hayden Kuo — best known for starring in the Tiny Times series and who is Heung’s real-life wife — as Shen’s love interest, Xia. Whether draping herself fashionably around Shen at a society ball or riding proudly on her bicycle as a newly appointed post officer in the French colonial city, Kuo’s Xia lends a cock-eyed whimsicality to what would otherwise have been a grim story of two men’s petty rivalries.
Kuo’s performance grounds what could have been an abstract film about theories of martial arts in a tangible historical reality, connecting Xia’s 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 in the 20th century in The Grandmaster, but then the Xu brothers are not as romantic as Wong Kar-wai. Xu Haofeng has proven to be a realist, interested less in sweeping emotional generalizations than in mining the smallest details of (martial arts) performance and ritual to learn what such minutiae might say about the wider processes of history and the relationships between people. 100 Yards strikes the perfect balance between choreography and plot, intrigue and satire, and it’s one of the best Chinese-language films of the year
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 4.