Little Big Soldier -- Film Review
EmptyBerlin -- "Little Big Soldier," touted as Jackie's Chan's 99th film, is a moderately enjoyable case of Stockholm Syndrome set in 227 B.C., during China's Warring States Period. Chan plays a cowardly foot soldier who winds up befriending the haughty enemy general (Wang Leehom) he kidnaps for a reward. Except for an unanticipated dark ending brandishing an anti-war message, director Ding Sheng does not step out of line from Chan's standard repertoire of family-oriented adventure. The film offers an assortment of well-designed stunts and genuine martial arts without one knock-out set piece.
Reception at the Berlinale special premiere was warm, and Chan's worldwide fan base should stoke demand from his usual international distribution channels. However, this probably won't be a huge breakthrough for Chan's own boxoffice record.
Like so many recent Chinese blockbusters, the film's background is the Warring Period, when China is fractured into seven feuding states and commoners are recklessly used as cannon fodder. A soldier from Liang state (Chan) becomes the 1-in-3,000 survivor in a skirmish with enemy state Wei. When he captures a Wei general (Leehom) by fluke, he is determined to take him back to Liang to claim a reward so he could buy a plot of land and return to his agrarian roots. Their journey is strewn with ambushes by sundry groups and persons, whose motivations range from prankish to covetous to seditious.
Of these encounters, the one with a seductive songstress (Lin Peng) is the screenplay's biggest missed opportunity. After a titillating early scene in which she ensnares the two leads with dance and wine, she only resurfaces twice briefly, never materializing into a consequential role that could add frisson and ease the monotony of the predominantly male cast.
Even more random are the intrusions and exits of an ethnic bandit tribe led by a spunky female chieftain, suggesting another promising narrative thread that is dropped before it picks up momentum. Made to grunt in an unintelligible, non-subtitled tongue, it is hard to make sense of their actions and intentions, even if they eventually play a decisive role at the climax. This makes the heroes' pursuit by Wei's prince (Steve Yoo) and his strategist the most clearly-developed strand in the narrative. Even here, the script dithers between demonizing Wen as a callous despot and condoning him for being a malleable spoiled brat.
Chan gets by on his usual comic charisma, rendering Wang and Yoo wooden by comparison. Efforts to adapt the "odd couple" chemistry of films like "Midnight Run," "48 Hours" and Chan's own "Rush Hour" series to a local, Chinese context falter for lack of culture clash or contemporary repartee. The film's anti-war stance is born out of an idea Chan developed for years. However, the method of contrasting the soldier's dream of farming in peace with the general's ambitions of conquest was already explored with greater depth in He Ping's "Wheat."
The absence of Chan's inimitable death-defying stunts is compensated by supple physical slapstick, which makes clever use of natural props as simple as twigs, stones and bamboo poles culled from extensive outdoor locations. Some magnificent Chinese landscapes, like lofty crests, an underground limestone cave, a canola flower meadow and the curvaceous Yangtze River are expertly framed. More functional rural locations have a dusty, dingy look.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Production company: Polybona, Huaxia Film Distribution Co./Jackie & JJ Productions
Sales: Jackie & JJ Productions
Cast: Jackie Chan, Wang Leehom, Steve Yoo, Lin Peng
Director-screenwriter-editor: Ding Sheng
Producer-executive producer-action director-original story: Jackie Chan
Co-executive producers: Sun Yuannong, Wu Hongliang, Kay Zhao, Peter Cheung, Li Guiping
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Sun Li
Music: Xiao Ke
No rating, 95 minute