Fist & Faith
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.
Director: Jiang Zhuoyuan 蒋卓原.
Clever, parodistic genre-mash, set at a high school in 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
Northeast China, 1932. Following the invasion by Japan, and its establishment of the state of Manchuria under puppet Chinese emperor Pu Yi, Chinese groups clandestinely set up reading societies to keep their culture alive; these were suppressed by the occupying Guandong [Kwantung] Army but, after local and international pressure, the army was officially ordered to desist. At Qinghe Senior Boys’ High, an uneasy peace reigns between the Chinese and Japanese student gangs, following the arrival of Jing Hao (Ou Hao), who, after beating up the Japanese no. 2, Muto Daijiro (Jiang Zongyuan), united the Chinese gangs and came to an agreement with the Japanese no. 1, Shibata Sokichi (Hayashi Kento), with help from his childhood friend and strategist Tan Jiamu (Yin Fang). One day, Jing Hao falls hopelessly for a beautiful young woman he sees on a bike, only to later discover that she is his school’s new teacher, Liu He (Jing Tian). Meanwhile, a faction in the Guandong Army, led by Matsui (Shuhei Hayama), secretly approaches Shibata Sokichi to break up the reading societies. In order to restore the honour of his once-famous warrior family, he agrees, though his elder sister, Shibata Kiyoko (Kuroki Meisa), isn’t happy. When Jing Hao learns Liu He has set up a reading society, he immediately joins it, after previously trying to stop his younger sister Jing Jing (Xia En). Gang follower Pi (Ding Guansen) also joins, as he fancies Jing Jing, even though she clearly has a liking for Tan Jiamu. When Muto Daijiro attacks the reading society one night, he and his gang are forced to back off by Jing Hao and his followers. Liu He resigns from the school, as she has from so many, as word gets around that her father – a scholar who’s been forced to manage Manchuria’s Japanese-slanted education system – is a “race traitor”. Now radicalised, Jing Hao promises to protect her. And then Matsui moves to phase two of his plan, bringing in professional fighters against the Chinese students.
A clever genre parody that mashes up high-school gang movies, puppy-love films, anti-Japanese resistance dramas and manga elements, Fist & Faith 青禾男高 is the second (and far more succesful) feature by maverick writer-director Jiang Zhuoyuan 蒋卓原, following his offbeat costume martial-arts parody A Stupid Journey 江湖论剑实录 (2014), also co-written with Shanghai-born Gu Feifei 顾斐斐. On a commercial level it’s simply a vehicle for singer-actor Ou Hao 欧豪, 24, who was surprisingly good as the shopkeeper’s conflicted son in The Left Ear 左耳 (2015) though less so in student weepie Crying Out in Love 在世界中心呼唤爱 (2016) and as the hacker in crime drama 少年 Blood of Youth (2016). Here he’s not called upon to do much more than look good and play a charming brawler, but he has good chemistry with top-billed actress Jing Tian 景甜, 29, as the teacher he falls for, and is good casting for a film that keeps one foot in the present despite being set in the early 1930s. Local box office was a bland RMB30 million.
As in A Stupid Journey, director Jiang, 33, keeps reminding the audience that the film is not to be taken as an authentic period piece: the boys ogle some high-school girls who are playing sports in very un-1930s knickers, the soundtrack is full of techno music (with Ou singing a rap number over the end titles), and there’s lots of slo-mo and manga illustrations in the punch-ups. The film is also narrated by a wannabe gang-groupie called Pi (“Fart”) and the Chinese lothario is forced to date a fattie. Despite all this goofier stuff – very much in the mould of A Stupid Journey – the film turns much more serious in the second half, and especially during the final half-hour, as it becomes more political. The handsome “hero”, who’s previously only been interested in becoming a gang leader and romancing his pretty teacher, is “radicalised” by events, while she, a strong supporter of underground Chinese reading-groups, is revealed to have an unhappy family background.
Ambitious as their genre spin is, Jiang and Gu don’t quite manage to bring off the dramatic morphing in the second half: the film is still more successful in its smaller details than its larger dramatic span. The theme of the Japanese gang leader’s family honour isn’t properly resolved amid all the brawling that makes up the final half-hour, and the promise of his elder sister (who’s a swordfighting ace) finally strutting her stuff is teasingly withheld…almost. Several plot strands are left hanging, as if they will be resolved in a Fist & Faith 2 – though perhaps that, too, is a deliberate joke by Jiang and Gu.
The film evokes other high-school gang films from Japan (such as Crows: Episode 0 クローズZERO, 2007) and South Korea (Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School 말죽거리 잔혹사, 2004), as well as anti-Japanese resistance dramas from the latter. Visually, this has been encouraged by hiring ace South Korean d.p. Gim Hyeong-gu 김형구 | 金烔求 (Musa 무사 | 武士, 2001; Memories of Murder 살인의 추억, 2003; The Host 괴물, 2006), who gives the film an indefinably non-Chinese colour pallette; top Korean action director Yang Gil-yeong 양길영 | 梁吉泳, who’s thoroughly at home with all the brawling; and even Japanese actress-singer Kuroki Meisa 黑木美纱, who played the lissome band singer in Crows: Episode 0. On the Chinese side, big-eyed actress Jing is OK as the teacher but her character remains under-developed, finally just disappearing from the plot; the student roles are all likeably filled, especially by gangly Zhou You 周游, in his big-screen debut as the school lothario, and cute newcomer Xia En 夏恩 as the hero’s younger sister.
The film was shot on locations in both the Mainland and Taiwan. The Chinese title simply means “Qinghe Boys’ High”.
Presented by Black Ant (Shanghai) Film (CN), Shanghai Alibaba Pictures (CN), Hehe Pictures (CN), MaxTimes (Tianjin) Entertainment & Media (CN), Lian Ray Pictures (CN), YL Entertainment & Sports (CN). Produced by Black Ant (Shanghai) Film (CN).
Script: Gu Feifei, Jiang Zhuoyuan. Photography: Gim Hyeong-gu. Editing: Tu Yiran. Music direction: Hou Zhijian. Art direction: Bo Yingzhang. Art direction advice: Huang Meiqing. Styling: Mao Jingqi. Sound: An Ningxuan, Xiong Yi, Wachira Wongsarojna, Warren Santiago, Warat Prasertlap, Nusorn Thongkhum. Action: Yang Gil-yeong. Visual effects: Chen Minghe, Dong Mingxing. Executive direction: Fan Chuan, Shi Ang.
Cast: Jing Tian (Liu He), Ou Hao (Jing Hao), Kuroki Meisa (Shibata Kiyoko), Hayashi Kento (Shibata Sokichi), Yin Fang (Tan Jiamu), Zhou You (Yao Ji/Peacock), Ding Guansen (Pi/Fart), Zhang Ningjiang (Er Bing/Two Dots), Xia En (Jing Jing, Jing Hao’s younger sister), Liu Dekai (Liu), Shuhei Hayama (Matsui, Guandong Army section head), Jiang Zongyuan (Muto Daijiro), Nakajima Hiroki (Takahashi Takashi), Kohata Ryu (Guandong Army commander), Li Fangding (Shibata Kiyoko’s handmaid), Otani Mondo (Onitsuka Sakon, Japanese karateka), Shimizu Taiji (Tokuhei Kenzaburo, Japanese judoka), Cai Weilun (Izaki Kagetora, Japanese giant), Pan Yi’an (Peacock’s fat girlfriend).
Release: China, 12 Jul 2017.