The unlikely melding of Finnish and Chinese mythology largely works a treat in “Jade Warrior,” a cross-cultural martial-arts epic that makes a virtue of its twin settings and, even more importantly, is steered by a Finn director, Antti-Jussi Annila, who really knows his Sino chops. Romantic-realistic fantasy, about a modern-day blacksmith who finds himself reincarnated as a lovelorn warrior in ancient China, has already sold widely and performed well in the handful of markets it opened in last fall. Curio item should do OK with careful handling.
In Finland, the pic grabbed 63,000 admissions in a month; in China, a 175-print release by Warner China in late October hauled in more than 100,000 tix in eight days. On a tiny budget of $3.5 million, feature freshman Annila, 30, has come up with a widescreen entertainment that puts many big-budgeters to shame.
Screenplay by Annila and Petri Jokiranta, from a treatment by Iiro Kuttner, blends traditional swordplay with elements from Finland’s sprawling national epic, the “Kalevala.” Chief among the latter are the forging of iron and a magical artifact called the Sampo, which is a fount of happiness. Pic makes hardly any attempt to rework the “Kalevala’s” many storylines in a different setting, leaving the filmmakers free to construct their own whimsy.
Kai (Tommi Eronen) is a blacksmith in contempo Finland who works in a vast marshland. Having had his heart broken by love-of-his-life Ronja (Krista Kosonen), he finds himself affected by a mysterious metallic box that’s brought to him by the equally mysterious Berg (Aki Kaurismaki regular Markku Peltola).
Berg believes the box is the Sampo and asks Kai to use his skills to unlock its power. (Via some slightly confusing cross-cutting in the opening reels, auds are told the Sampo is sought by a nameless demon who wants to use it to create a hell on earth.)
Film takes a little while to get all its gears synchronized, but finally Kai finds himself “reborn” (while still existing in the present) as Xintai (also Eronen, but with dark locks), a Mandarin-speaking Western warrior in China, circa 2000 B.C. In a small village, he meets femme martial artist Pinyu (Zhang Jingchu, “The Road”) and, after a beautifully choreographed, slow-mo face-off to folksy Nordic music, she agrees to help him in his battle with the demon.
Most of the dialogue is in mystical-metaphysical mode, strewn with proverbs and heroic utterings, and the convoluted plot doesn’t make a lot of sense without a compass. But aside from the draggy subplot of Ronja and a Sampo expert (Estonian actress Elle Kull, dubbed into Finnish), the crosscutting between Kai and Berg in modern, grungy Finland and Xintai and Pinyu in dreamy ancient China works well.
Annila, a self-confessed martial-arts pic addict, certainly knows how to shoot and stage fights, aided by Chinese-born choreographer Yu Yan Kai. From Kai and Berg’s hammer fight to Xintai and Pinyu’s duels, there have never been more convincing fights by a non-Chinese director, apart from Quentin Tarantino’s in “Kill Bill.” Zhang (soon to be seen in “Rush Hour 3”) is especially elegant.
Perfs in both languages are fine, and Eronen essays his Mandarin dialogue, learned phonetically, with reasonable accuracy. Considering the budget, CGI work is OK and placed for maximum effect. Location shooting in Finland, Estonia and China is consistently flavorsome in a chilly, downbeat way.