The Wrath of Vajra (Jin Gang Wang: Si Wang Jiu Shu): HK Filmart Review

Well Go USA Entertainment
Korean break-dancer "Poppin" Nam Hyun-joon in The Wrath of Vajra.
Slick production values prop up smooth action choreography and obscure thin and fantastical premise.

Shaolin-monk-turned-actor Xing Yu stars as a Chinese fighter confronting the Japanese death cult who raised him to wreak havoc in his home country during WWII.

For a film set during the second world war and revolving around a Japanese conspiracy aimed at converting POWs and local children into cold-blooded hitmen, The Wrath of Vajra is surprisingly devoid of jingoism: there's hardly a rising-sun banner or a thin moustache in view, and that's no big patriotic speech from the hero before his final showdown with the villain either. It could have been a canny move from the filmmakers to circumvent last year's official clampdown on extremist anti-Japanese fare; whatever the reason, it's a shift which has allowed the bone-cracking martial arts sequence and slick production values to take centerstage.

Then again, to attach message-heavy seriousness to this fantastical and bordering-on-silly premise is probably impossible in any case. Produced by Pang Hong (Painted Skin: Resurrection) and directed by Hong Kong's Law Wing-cheong (part of Johnnie To's Milkyway Image crew), The Wrath of Vajra is more about form: the vividly real action choreography intensified by slow-motion gimmickry, of course, but also playing out these confrontations (as well as taut verbal spars) in noir-like settings.

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While Wrath might have disappointed during its short run in Chinese cinemas in September (with takings of just $2 million) - a flop due partly to its lack of big-name stars and the big-budget blockbusters also being released during the same National-Day window - it might find an audience among international kung-fu buffs looking for that mythical dose of unadulterated, VFX-free fights and flights featuring bona fide martial arts practitioners. Opening in Hong Kong on Mar. 6, the film will hit home-video shelves in the US on Mar. 18, and is repped at the Filmart by Media Asia.

Central to the proceedings is the Shaolin-monk-turned-actor Xing Yu (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, credited here in his monastic moniker Shi Yanneng), who plays a character known in the film simply as K-29 - a handle imposed on him when he was abducted from his parents and then raised to become an assassin by a deadly Japanese cult called Hades. When the film begins, sometime at the tail-end of the second world war, Hades has already been disbanded for 12 years by the Japanese military regime for its fundamentalism, with its leader Kawao Amano (Japanese action-film veteran Yasuaki Kurata) in jail and K-29 leading a new life at a Shaolin temple; as a rogue prince in Tokyo attempts to revive the sect to win the war, the fighter is forced to confront his past in order to save the new batch of children being frog-marched into the cult.

Arriving at the villains' den - which production designers Liu Jingpingand Liu Xiaoyan have created in the style of a traditional roundhouse in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian - K-29 is greeted by Daisuke Kurashige (the Korean-American pop star Steve Yoo), the top fighter in the cult. An warped idealist who firmly believes in his master's teaching of conquest through spiritual strength rather than swordplay - a maxim less grounded in logic but more in rationalizing the bare-knuckles mano-a-mano in the age of machine guns - he would unleash his underlings on K-29, including a towering giant (Jiang Baocheng) and a blood-sucking acrobat (the Korean break-dancer "Poppin" Nam Hyun-joon) before, of course, dusting himself for that final showdown.

Padding up the thin narrative is the presence of a group of captured foreign soldiers who are given the choice of joining the cult or die - with some of them, including the Chinese-speaking American squadron leader Bill (US kickboxer and martial arts actor Matt Mullins), revealing themselves to be former Hades trainees readying for some kind of vengeance of their own as well. This, alongside the presence of the cult master's journalist daughter Eiko (Ya Mei) who disapproves of the plan and files home reports of K-29's triumphs, are just distractions to the neck-breaking moves on show. It's not exactly a film set to reinvent the action-thriller wheel - and the acting can sometimes be as painful to watch as the skull-crushing - but what it does is to offer some easy diversion for genre geeks looking for yet another muscular thrash-about.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Mar. 6, 2014

Production Companies:  Kylin Network (Beijing) Movie & Culture Media and co-presented by Ningxia Movie Group, Media Asia Film International, China Film Co., Beijing Kylin Culture, Beijing Huaming Star International Culture Media, Sanz Group, Beijing Daqiao Tang Film Television Media

Director: Law Wing-cheong

Cast: Xing Yu (aka Shi Yanneng),  Steve Yoo, "Poppin" Nam Hyun-Joon,  Jiang Baocheng, Ya Mei
Producer: Pang Hong

Executive Producers: Guo Li,  Yang Hongtao,  Peter Lam,  Han Sanping, Shang Jin, Rayman Liu,  Yan Xiaoming, Lin Zhishan, Wang Liqiao, Blues Li

Screenwriters: Yang Zhenjian, Qu Linan

Director of Photography: Fung Yuen-man

Editor: David Murray Richardson

Production Designers: Liu Jingping, Liu Xiaoyan

Music: Chen Tao, Wang Bei

Action Director: Zhang Peng

International Sales: Media Asia Film Distribution

US Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment

In Mandarin, Japanese and English

97 minutes