Dennis Law’s Fatal Contact has been a much anticipated title around these parts for one very simple reason: Wu Jing. Wu is an immensely gifted martial artist who has been crowned Chinese national wushu champion multiple times and who shares a master with Jet Li. I had the chance to meet Wu in September of 2005 in a group interview with Sammo Hung and Wilson Yip following the premiere of SPL. The film that introduced him to many outside of Hong Kong and China. Though he does have previous film and television credits to his name.
Over the course of the interview I asked elder statesman Hung about the future of the Hong Kong martial arts film. With Jet Li and Jackie Chan both planning gradual withdrawals from the industry and Donnie Yen not getting any younger where. I wondered, would the next generation come from? Who would take up the mantle? Once the question was translated Wu Jing practically leapt out of his chair with excitement. He wants it so bad he can taste it. He’s got the physical skills to back it up and now, thanks to SPL. He’s got the name recognition to have projects tailored to his skills and style. Fatal Contact (Hac Quyen) is the first such film. If Wu is to break through this is where it is going to happen so the question becomes does he have what it takes?
The answer? The film itself is a little bit chunky and simplistic on the script side but Law has a great eye behind the camera. Wu shows a broader range and better natural charisma than he has ever been given the chance to exhibit until now. His charmingly goofy turn in Drunken Monkey notwithstanding. And when it comes to his physical skills … hell, yes. This guy has got the goods. Fatal Contact is not at all a flawless piece of work but it is a very entertaining one. One that showcases Wu’s immense potential. And should stand as a calling card that will have top end producers and directors lining up for a chance at its young star.
Wu Jing stars as Kong, a Chinese mainland wushu champion on tour with a Chinese opera comapny in Hong Kong. While showcasing his skills on stage Kong is approached by a group of small time gangsters who want him to fight in illegal underground boxing matches for them and are prepared to pay him well to do it. Though he initially holds to his principles and refuses Kong eventually agrees, thanks in no small part to the influence of Tin. The attractive young girl who has been helping the company’s tour and who constantly chafes against her own poverty.
It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girls wants money, boy does whatever he needs to do to impress her. And in the early going it seems like such an easy solution. Tin’s relationship with Kong blossoms and Kong so enormously outclasses the fighters on his small circuit that it seems to be easy, risk free money.
But Kong proves to be too skilled for his own good. His notoriety spreads and before long larger bookies and fight organizers take notice. His small circuit is absorbed by a larger gambling ring. A move that draws the ire of an even larger and better established fight organization. Kong is the lynchpin of this upstart fight circuit, the fighter that draws the crowds and the dollars and, understanding that, the older circuit throws a series of increasingly difficult opponents in his path, needing to crush him publicly to bring the paying audience back into their fold. Incorporate the romantic sub plot between Kong and Tin. Another revolving around another of Tin’s pverty stricken friends drawn into prostitution. And the goofy sidekick / hidden master character played – and played very well – by Ronald Cheng.
Before going further into the film’s strengths we should first acknowledge its major flaw. Though the basic plotline is quite strong, giving an interesting spin on a tried and true formula. And the entire cast performs admirably well on both the physical and dramatic level there is no denying that the scripted dialogue. At least, the english translation. It may be better in the original language – is very simplistic and very weak.
The performances are strong enough to lend the characters some surprising depth but those performances are too often undercut but the weak lines being put into their mouths and some rather underdeveloped and arbitrary subplots and other elements. The story and characters work quite well but the script itself feels as though it was a draft or two away from being really complete. This one factor takes a film that could have been a minor classic and knocks it down to being instead an impressive physical introduction to Wu’s skills on screen.
Script problems aside, the films has a lot of positives. First, no doubt thanks to Law’s influence as a producer, the cast is studded with familiar and well established faces. Any time you have Andy On and Lam Suet tucked away in minor roles you know you’ve got one damn good casting agent at work and when the support cast is that good you also know you can expect good things from the leads. Wu – though his drawing card will always be his martial arts skills – shows a good degree of natural screen charisma while Theresa Fu – though saddled with by far the majority of the weak dialogue – also carries a healthy weight to her performance.
The surprise performance, however, belongs to Ronald Cheng, a singer turned actor who normally plays only comic parts and is – no surprise – cast here as the comic relief. But Cheng truly outdoes himself and his character, handling the physical demands of the part exceptionally well while also taking what could very easily have been just one more irritating sidekick and playing him in a way that balances the humor – which is actually funny – with a surprising sense of depth and pathos. Though Cheng has twenty films to his name most are relatively minor titles and this could. And should – very well prove to be a role that pushes him into some larger and more serious work.
Fatal Contact also excels on a technical level. Law shoots some beautiful film, every shot very well framed and lit. The camera capturing a dark and shadowy underbelly to Hong Kong. The pacing of the piece is excellent. Law maintaining an easy flow and rhythm between the plentiful action sequences and the more dramatic moments. Though most active as a producer – a role he filled on Johnny To’s Election films. For example – Law is certainly more than competent behind the camera himself.
But the big draw: the fighting. There is lots of it, the fights coming frequently and the gaps between them seldom running longer than ten minutes. The choreography is inventive, the camera work and editing fluid and powerful. The fights play almost entirely without any outside assistance. There are a couple shots that I suspect used wire assists. But it is otherwise all natural – and surprisingly naturalistic, particularly in the competition fights, which are fast, hard and brutal.
Wu Jing trained in teh art of sanda for this film. The fight style most prevalent in actual underground fight circles, a style not seen often on camera and one that translates very well to the screen. But dedication to realism or no. Wu is a man with extraordinary skills and Law is smart enough to shows those off with a number of stunning high flying tricks. Wu does a few things in this film that I have never seen before. Things that left my jaw on the floor while my hand reached for the rewind. Watch for the triple take out move. You’ll know it when you see it.
Undoubtedly a flawed work whose characters neer connect as well as they should thanks to the undercooked script Fatal Contact is. Nonetheless one of the better pure martial arts films to come out of Hong Kong in quite some time. A film that should propel its star to much greater recognition around the world. It is a film that establishes Wu clearly as the logical successor to Jet Li – as a performer who shares Li’s grace, power and speed – and would actually fit quite well into Li’s mid-90’s filmography. Martial arts fans have been keeping an eye on Wu for some time now and this appears to be the film that will finally push him into the wider eye. Very much worth a look for martial arts fans.
A young athlete desperate to support his girlfriend is inadvertently drawn into the dangerous world of underground fighting. As the oppressive greed and ruthless of the underground prizefighting circuit transform a once-naïve contender into a hardened fighting machine, this noble young warrior enters into a battle in which both his life, and his soul, are on the line.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Art House & International
Directed By: Dennis Law
Written By: Dennis Law
In Theaters: Feb 1, 2008 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Jan 22, 2008
Runtime: 106 minutes
Studio: Weinstein Company