With: Ngai Sing, Law Kar-ying, Billy Chow.
After a lackluster spell, Hong Kong action maestro Ching Siu-tung bounces back with the Indiana Jones-like “Dr. Wai in the Scripture With No Words,” a Jet Li vehicle that surrounds the wooden player with enough colorful co-stars and cartoon-like adventures to satisfy enthusiasts of the genre. Splashy, big-budget look and gleeful tone should entertain festgoers, with homevideo sales down the line.
Pic exists in two versions, an international one (screened at AFM) which is entirely concerned with our hero’s adventures in ’30s China, and a domestic one which occasionally crosscuts to modern H.K., where the same leads double in contemporary roles. Running time is the same, with extra period footage added to the first to make up the difference.
Li plays archaeologist-cum-novelist Dr. Wai, known as the King of Adventurers (the film’s Chinese title), who’s introed with his dimwitted student (Takeshi Kaneshiro) fighting a lunatic in the desert who has invented a giant death-dealing steamroller. He next accepts an assignment from a Kuomintang general to find the legendary Scripture With No Words, a Tibetan scroll that can foretell the future. The Japanese, who are becoming bellicose toward China, are also after the artifact.
Trail leads to the Japanese embassy in Shanghai, where the duo steal a clue and also meet the beautiful Cammy (Rosamund Kwan), actually the leader of the Japanese team and a ruthless spy who does medical experiments on men in an underground laboratory. They also hook up with two patriotic Chinese (Charlie Young, Law Kar-ying) who have the scroll’s wooden box, a “Kiss Me Deadly” device that is the key to finding the scroll itself. Over-the-top finale is set on the Great Wall.
The humorless Li, whose martial arts skills are woven into the set pieces rather than stand out on their own, is cleverly played off against the femme fatale Kwan, goofy Kaneshiro and spunky ditz Young to consistently entertaining effect, and the set pieces (a train run amok in Shanghai, a plane flight to the Great Wall) have a self-deprecating sense of fun that’s very engaging.
The movie’s Hong Kong version is another matter. The sudden cutaways to the modern story — in which Li is a blocked writer of Wai’s adventures and is also being divorced by his super-bitch wife (Kwan) — seriously hold up the flow at key moments, and the only nice idea (Li pouring his dislike of his wife into the Cammy character, who keeps being modified as the story progresses) is hardly developed. Young and Kaneshiro play office colleagues who carry on writing Wai’s adventures while Li sorts out his head.
In its period look and characters, the film recalls Ching’s 1990 “The Terra-Cotta Warrior,” though with a jokier tone and without the grand romantic sweep of the Zhang Yimou-Gong Li starrer. But there’s plenty going on in the international version of “Wai” to satisfy western fans of such fare. Tech credits are good on the pic. which took a mild HK $ 13.8 million ($ 1.8 million) on local release in the spring.