A Chinese distaff action star is born in “Coweb,” an otherwise by-the-numbers contempo martial-artser that harks back to the exhilarating quickies of ’80s and early ’90s Hong Kong cinema with femme leads like Moon Lee and Cynthia Khan. Befitting the times, the new star is from the mainland, 23-year-old Shaolin wushu champ Jiang Luxia, whose pugnacious energy invigorates this so-so helming debut by well-known martial-arts coordinator-cum-thesp Xiong Xinxin. Pic opened in China in May but is ancillary fodder elsewhere.
With her boyish looks, broken nose and baggy clothing, Jiang has the androgynous appeal of mainland Chinese singer Li Yuchun and the recklessness of onetime action distaffer Sharon Yeung, making her a potential gay icon in the West.
Unfortunately, the pic doesn’t allow her to express any of the humor or character she showed in her own online shorts, which made her a 2007-08 Web hit under the alias “Cat-Eared Baby.” However, as a wushu fireball, she has the wherewithal to blaze a trail alongside other Asian newcomers such as Thailand’s Jeeja Yanin (“Chocolate”) and Japan’s Rina Takeda (“High-Kick Girl!”) in the newly reinvigorated femme action genre.
The plot is simply an excuse for one setpiece after another — on bamboo scaffolding, in water, with nunchucks, and even in a breakdance sequence — as Nie Yiyi (Jiang), after signing up as a bodyguard to a Hong Kong millionaire (Eddie Cheung) and his wife (Peggy Zeng), finds herself participating in an online tournament in which the rich bet vast amounts on her survival.
As in Yanin’s and Takeda’s movies, much effort goes into showing that Jiang does her own stunts (well, most of them, anyway), though the more dangerous ones are wire-assisted. Xiong’s deliberately retro approach fits in with current trends (“Yip Man,” etc.), and Jiang’s final, lengthy standoff with Asian-American martial artist Kane Kosugi (son of vet Sho Kosugi) caps a genuinely impressive and breathless display of the diminutive lead’s abilities.
Though mostly set in Hong Kong, the pic was actually shot in China’s Guangdong province. Sam Lee provides a smidgen of lightness as her childhood friend, and Cheung most of the acting smarts. Tech package is OK, though editing is choppy.
English title is never explained, though could be an abbreviation for “Combat Web.” Chinese title roughly means “Peerless Combat.”