Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival.
You’d have to be ghoulish to want to see Jackie Chan, who’s now (a plenty spry) 56 years old, still trying anything like the hanging-off-helicopters, 100-foot-jump-without-a-net stunts that made him an unparalleled action star. But that raises a philosophical question: what’s a Chan movie without jaw-dropping Chan-style action sequences?
Of late, it’s been the “The Spy Next Door” and a handful of other studio films that have a whiff of mugging desperation, as if no one involved really believes audiences would want to see Chan in a role that doesn’t involve him dangling from the side of a speeding city bus. In between, there’ve been scattered Asian features that scarcely seen the light of a movie projector Stateside, if at all.
Chan’s achieved some recent multiplex redemption instructing Jaden Smith in the ways of kung fu and honorable living in “The Karate Kid,” but it’s his other new film, the China/Hong Kong coproduction “Little Big Soldier,” that showcases he’s absolutely capable of carrying a movie on the strength of his beaming, unpretentious charisma. (And, okay, occasional and more restrained feats of acrobatics.) Chan’s never going to be the most nuanced of actors, but he can be a immensely engaging leading man, capitalizing on that almost silent comedy-inspired charm he’s made his own.
For now, here in the U.S., you’ll only be able to find “Little Big Soldier” on the festival circuit. Specifically: at the New York Asian Film Festival, an annual celebration of East Asia’s finest genre films, blockbusters, indies, oddities and none of your more typical type of exported cinema, which programmer Grady Hendrix catchily sums up as “the occasional boring art film about lonely Chinese people eating mud and being exploited by the State.”
And “Little Big Soldier,” written by Chan and directed by Ding Sheng, certainly doesn’t aim to be an art film. It’s a poke in the ribs of ultraserious Chinese historical battle epics like “Red Cliff” and “The Warlords,” in which giant armies try to kill each other in meticulously choreographed, CGI-enhanced ways. Set in Warring States-era China, “Little Big Soldier” stars Chan as a Liang conscript who survives a giant battle (over by the start of the film) by playing dead.
Picking himself up and scavenging amongst the corpses, he comes across one other survivor — the general of the opposing Wei forces (Wang Lee-Hom), a prize prisoner for a low-level soldier. If he can manage to get his captive back home to Liang with him, Chan’s former farmer (who remains nameless) will be given a reward of land and, more importantly, exemption from service.
While battles are being fought (sometimes literally) in the background, the little soldier and the big one embark on a road trip/buddy comedy with a kingdom hanging in the balance, dealing with hostile locals, angry fauna and your standard fey/sadistic conniving prince (Yoo Sung-jun). Wang’s general is disdainful and obsessed with an honorable death, while Chan’s soldier is happy to throw dignity away for survival: “As long as you’re alive, it’s marvelous,” he insists, even as they trudge through a land decimated by decades of war.
Do the two come to respect each other and reach an understanding? Sure. Does it get a little sentimental? You betcha. Is there a “Hero”-like salute toward the end to the necessity of the violent unification of the Chinese state? Yes, and it’s totally weird! But Chan’s truly enjoyable throughout, whether jabbing the general’s leg wound in order to win a fight, or carrying a gag about his skill at rock throwing to a giddy conclusion, or coming to the rescue on the back of a buffalo.
His character’s wistful, unassuming dream of owning his own farm, visualized by his joyously walking through a field of canola flowers, is slyly devastating, as is the film’s insistence that it’s a privilege to be “a little man.” That seems like condescension, given it’s those little men that end up strewn, forgotten, across the battlefields, but “Little Big Soldier” is less tolerant of the “big men,” who seem so eager to die, and whose conflicts and power struggles are sketched out as meaningless even to them. In that context, playing dead and running off to live another day seems like a pretty solid idea.
“Little Big Soldier” does not yet have US distribution. It screens July 1st and 3rd at the Walter Reade Theater in NY.
[Photos: “Little Big Soldier,” Bona Entertainment, 2010]