A young Hong Kong rebel finds inner peace and a sense of purpose with a group of Zen musicians in the hills of Taiwan in “The Drummer,” an entertaining blend of genre elements and spiritual content that plays much better than it sounds on paper. Touted as the first serious dramatic perf by Jaycee (son of Jackie) Chan, pic is strongly cast down the line and reps an enjoyable sophomore outing by Hong Kong writer-director Kenneth Bi after his uneven Singapore-set “Rice Rhapsody.” In Asia, pic could have respectable legs, while in Europe niche distribs could drum up modest biz.
Early on, scenes of traditional Taiwan troupe U Theater tap something very basic in the human psyche, the beat-beat-beat of the drums mimicking the heartbeat of a baby in the womb. More immediately, however, v.o. narrator Sid (Chan) is shown to have more urgent problems, when he’s caught in the bath with the wife (Cheng Hei-yi) of powerful triad boss Stephen Ma (vet Kenneth Tsang).
Cocky Sid insults Ma in front of the latter’s men, leading Ma to demand both of Sid’s hands on a platter from Sid’s father, Kwan (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who runs a rival gang but owes Ma a favor. Kwan tracks down Sid and dispatches him for safety to Taiwan, in the company of deputy gang leader Chiu (Roy Cheung).
Third reel finds bored Sid and ever-watchful Chiu in a Taiwanese village, above which Sid one day finds a reclusive community of Zen drummers who also practice tai chi and martial arts. Mesmerized by their open-air exercises, Sid asks to join — and is tentatively accepted. He’s equally mesmerized by their most junior member, Hong Dou (Lee Sinje, aka Angelica Lee, from “The Eye”), but she coquettishly snubs him.
Bi injects a fair measure of light comedy, leavening the gangster material and also making Sid a likeable ne’er-do-well. Latter’s inauguration into the live-rough community is handled with charm and humor, and tight editing (with copious fadeouts) keeps things moving along. By never taking itself too seriously, pic manages to stir a spiritual element — the mystical properties of traditional drumming — into what is basically a genre movie.
As the female troupe leader, Liu Ruo-yu is especially good, giving shallow urbanite Sid endless physical tasks to deflect his testosterone from the hotsy Hong Dou (genially played by looker Lee).
Bi manages to disguise Chan’s lack of acting smarts by clever cutting and use of reliable vets like Leung and Tsang, the former bringing a touch of tenderness to yet another of his patented mobster roles.
Aside from Sam Koa’s attractive lensing of the rural Taiwan locations, German composer Andre Matthias’ chamber-like score is also a powerful assist, with mournful cello solos and subtle string writing adding genuine emotion to the final reels. Sequences of U Theater performing, either in the wild or on stage, have a real physical charge, with pro thesps blending in easily. Pic’s Chinese title literally means “War, Drums.”