2024 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day Three “100 Yards”

“Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” ― Werner Herzog

100 Yards

We’ll leave Jean-Luc Godard out of it, but there’s definitely something to Werner Herzog’s quote above. There’s something pure about a kung fu movie, athletic men (and sometimes women) in motion, exotic weapons, and stakes makes for some of the purest cinema imaginable. All the AI driven cgi in the world can’t replicate Bruce Lee. There’s little comparable to a good kung fu movie.

Which brings us to 100 YARDS directed by Haofeng Xu and Junfeng Xu. Set in Northern China in the 1920s, the martial arts academy has been set up in the City of Tianjin and brings order to roughly 100 yards of its gates. At least on the surface. The old grandmaster is dying and he sets up a duel between his star apprentice Qi Quan (Andy On) and the grandmaster’s son Shen An (Jacky Heung) as to who is to succeed him as leader of the martial arts academy. And there’s a winner, but not necessarily resolution, which leads to a long running rivalry and conflict that spills out into public and involves other factions, including the local gangs of hoodlums, throughout the city and political maneuvering along with numerous action scenes. And political assassinations. And romantic entanglements.

It’s a very handsome film with a strong sense of period, detailed sets, a score reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, a sly sense of humor, and several outright sexy female characters which have some real chemistry with the male leads. Jacky Heung also makes an attractive lead, it’s not hard to see what makes the women in the film swoon over him.

There’s also a sense of moral complexity in the film. There’s a clear protagonist and antagonist, but neither fits into being a pure hero or pure villain. Arguably, the villains of the film are part of the corruption of the colonial society and exploiters of the system. There’s a turn where Shen An discovers that his grandmaster father’s reputation for driving the hoodlums out of the local market was mostly an illusion to keep people coming to the market so that they could be robbed. That 100 yard circle of power and control is more a concept than a reality. And that the martial arts circle is hardly a united front with plenty of infighting, it’s just that the infighting is kept behind doors instead of rearing its ugly head in public making them all look weaker. The scenes between fight scenes are not throwaways and have plenty of ideas, even if ultimately it becomes a little muddled with no clear statement coming through and perhaps the scenes sap the film of momentum at times.

100 Yards

And that brings us to the main event, the fight scenes. And, yes, they’re super exciting and fun. There was audible reactions from the audience throughout and the film doesn’t skimp on them. There are plenty of exotic weapons. Shen An is called upon to peer into himself and master a new weapons style. There are fights in a gently falling snow and within the streets covered in a bright red soil. And it’s all presented clear as day with a camera style that is letting it all play out without a lot of cuts. The actors are clearly proficient and impressive and it’s not clear who is going to win each skirmish, adding to the stakes and tension of every encounter. 100 YARDS delivers the martial arts goods.

And that’s always the main draw of a martial arts movie. We often don’t care about the plot of a musical as long as the musical set pieces deliver and that’s true here. There are some loose ends here, but if it sets up a sequel I’m here for it.

100 YARDS plays twice more at the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival, once on April 19, 2024 at 9:15 PM at the Oriental Cinema and once on April 23, 2024 at 9:30 PM at the Oriental Cinema

The 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 11, 2024 until April 25, 2024. Tickets can be purchased via MKEFILM.ORG.