There’s only so far you can take a movie about a schoolmate who happens to be a barbarian, and this movie does its best to go the distance. It works well too, if you believe that Nicholas Tse is the most badass kid at Hong Kong’s most ghetto school, which some people probably do. But those who don’t will still find an entertaining movie that balances over-the-top fighting sequences with a good dose of cheeky humor.
Stephen Fung plays rich kid Edward, a top student at a posh school who is expelled because of an ex’s stunt. Concerned about the upcoming exams, his mother demands that he enroll in DBS (Diocesan Boys School), an actual posh school in Hong Kong. However, due to crappy telecommunications (they were probably using PCCW), Edward is mistakenly sent to TBS, a Lord of the Flies-like school where even the spiders are thug. Every afternoon, a fight club of sorts gathers. The rules of this fight club are simple: push together 55 desks, turn on the ceiling fans, and the first one to hit the ground, or get decapitated, loses.
At TBS, Edward befriends Stone (Tse), the titular barbarian, though others qualify. Not used to getting the run around, Edward doesn’t abide by the ruffian etiquette and is summarily wiped on his first day, this despite the fact that he’s no pansy – he has an earring after all, he points out. Although Stone is the school’s most feared, and best looking, fighter, he has given up this hobby as a promise to his grandmother. Nevertheless, he agrees to coach Edward in exchange for some computer game-inspired academic tutoring. It’s a suitable arrangement for everyone, especially classmate Phoenix (Joey Yung), who is more than a little obsessed with Edward and manages in on the deal.
There is a lot of potential for this film to disappear into the ranks of lamentable teen movies, but Stone and Edward, and the actors who play them, display that rare faculty of maturity. Tse and Fung help their characters stretch beyond 2 dimensions while maintaining a subtle and self-aware irreverence for the genre. These two male leads acquit themselves well and have graduated on to (relatively) more impressive bodies of work. Tse, who is actually quite the thespian despite his EEG pedigree, hints at his potential here. Although his role requires him to be the brooding, mysterious badass that he tries to play in real life, he also gives Stone a vulnerability and innocence that mirrors many a disengaged youth. Meanwhile, Fung delivers on what he does best – snark (see his television show Stephen’s Diary). His talent for sarcasm is much toned down in this earlier role, but whether this is because he’s being sandwiched between two teen idols or because it hadn’t fully ripened, Edward is a much more engaging character as a result. Samuel Pang as Stone’s arch nemesis, Mantis, also adds to the picture with an understated presence that compensates for some of the exaggerated action.
One more point of recommendation is the film’s camerawork. I don’t refer to the overdone action sequences in which the characters actually lift moves from video games; those were filmed with a faux seriousness that I thought appropriate for the movie. I mean the shots that resembled the work of a slumming Wong Kar-Wai. The slow mo is excessive and purposely so, but the angled close ups, though neither original nor brilliant, contribute to a sense of alienation felt by the students. While I doubt the filmmakers were aiming at a strong political or social statement, the universal problem of crumbling schools and the lack of sound educational opportunities for the poor is acutely felt. This situation in Hong Kong is unchanged since the movie’s release and arguably exacerbated by the increasing wealth gap there.
Yet all this is nearly negated by the presence of Phoenix, one of those incoherent and disposable female characters that seem to exist more in Hong Kong cinema and in television than in real life. Phoenix is sustained by her teenage infatuation with Edward, a disease that causes her to erupt in glass-shattering shrieks at the mere sight of our bespectacled hero. The movie would greatly improve if her mouth was duct taped shut, though nothing would be lost by excising her entirely. But EEG queen Yung must earn her company keep with occasional film appearance, so we endure.
Released: 2001/Reviewed: 2011