Though it’s a tricky sell beyond festivals and DVD, and doesn’t keep all its plates spinning at the same time, Ding Sheng’s “The Underdog Knight” is one of the most original movies to come out of China in the past year. A genre-bending mix of psychodrama, action movie, black comedy and aspirational drama, this sophomore outing by writer-director Ding Sheng works primarily due to an utterly convinced perf by young actor Liu Ye as the wacko modern-day knight errant. Neither purely arthouse nor purely mainstream, pic grossed only a modest $1.2 million in China late last year.
Surprisingly, but to his great credit, the pic was produced by Hong Kong schlockmeister Wong Jing, who does know talent when he sees it. Ding, now in his late 30s, debuted with the 2000 comedy flop “A Storm in a Teacup,” and then spent seven years as one of the mainland’s top directors of TV commercials before returning for a second stab at a feature film. He’s now slated to helm Jackie Chan’s next pic, costume actioner “Junior Soldier.”
“Knight” was directly inspired (and co-written) by Liu Tao, an old friend of Ding’s who felt driven to do noble deeds in the cause of society’s good: so-called jian yi yong wei.
Like a more benign, mainland Chinese version of Travis Bickle, twentysomething, shaven-headed Wang Tao (Liu Ye), discharged from the navy after a brain-frying accident, sees himself as a contempo righter of wrongs on the, uh, mean streets of Qingdao, northern China. With a tassled spear and beggarly duds, he’s like a figure from a traditional martial-arts novel.
Calling himself Lao San (“No. 3”), he works out obsessively, conducts himself with military precision and has an active fantasy life imagining he’s still a “warrior for the people.” Living at home with his mom, Lao San has almost no friends, apart from a mute street kid (Zheng Hongtao) and a patient but disapproving g.f., Daffodil (Liu Yang).
Pic also interweaves two other plotlines, one of which features Hong Kong antique collector-cum-mafioso Dragon (Wong), who’s flown in with his psycho fiancee, Nancy (Ellen Chan), to steal a 900-year-old sword from Qingdao’s Antiquities Museum. Secondary strand, much less well developed, follows local police Capt. Jiang (You Yong), who’s obsessively hunting down the killer of one of his colleagues.
For almost half the film, there’s no clear sense of where all these separate threads are headed — and whether, indeed, the pic is more than just a bizarre collection of character studies. Ding’s habit of rapid fades and non sequiturs underscores the patchwork feel.
However, when two of the three characters almost intersect, and soon after, all three cross paths at the 50-minute mark, there’s a genuinely exciting sense of the pic’s plates moving together. It’s another 20 minutes, however, before everything culminates in a tensely staged hostage finale at the antiquities museum.
Some auds may tune out before then, put off by Ding’s quirky, almost anti-narrative structure and lack of any clear genre signposts. But the perfs are the thing. Liu Ye (“Lan Yu,” “The Promise”) again proves he’s the most unpredictable of China’s young actors: His portrait of the brain-damaged Lao San is by turns fearsome, sad and moving. Wong glides effortlessly through the movie as a gangster who lives by a code and knows when he’s beat; You is solid enough as Jiang, but his character is shortchanged by the script.
Tech package is tops, with Ding — from the opening, color-doctored title sequence — showing a painterly eye for Qingdao’s seaside landscape. During production, the pic was known under the much better English title “Tough Guy,” which translates the Chinese original.