“The Fins do wuxia.” Something isn’t quite right about that statement, but that’s not going to stop first-time writer/director Antti-Jussi Annila. The writer/director of “Jade Warrior” has constructed an earnest melodrama set against the backdrop of the familiar Eternal Struggle Between Good and Evil motif, set in Ancient China and modern Finland with doses of wuxia swordplay and the accompanying caveat that one should really pay attention, because the film has no uses for explaining itself more than once. To be sure, there’s nothing here that will bend time and space, but Annila has chosen to forge his screenplay on the basis of providing as little information as possible, resulting in a film that, once you survive past the first purposefully convoluted and muddled 40 minutes, is surprisingly engaging and, ultimately, rewarding.
Our tale of grand love that reaches across time (or somesuch) begins with lovelorn blacksmith Kai (Tommi Eronen) mourning the end of his relationship to girlfriend Ronja (Krista Kosonen). Meanwhile, an archaeologist unearths what looks to be ancient remains of two lovers that passed away thousands of years ago, with the man clutching a heavy metallic case constructed of material that should not exist at the era in question. By a serious of cinematic circumstances, it is discovered that the case only reacts when it comes into contact with Kai’s DNA. This sends Chinese shop curator Berg (Markku Peltola, “Book of Fate”) to Kai’s house, where the case is opened and an evil force is awaken, inhabiting Berg’s body and forcing Kai to forge a mythical device called the Sampo. And in doing so, Kai begins to relive his past life, back in a time when he was a lovelorn warrior destined to defeat the son of Hell itself.
Or somesuch. To tell you the truth, “Jade Warrior” tells one whopper of a story, and the script by Annila is so distractingly devoid of exposition that the film borders on becoming a chore to sit through. The film’s potential saving grace is the viewer’s blind acceptance that Annila does in fact know where he’s going, and that sooner or later he will get there. Hopefully. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about consistently doling out enough information to keep the audience’s impatience at bay, or in the very least sufficiently entertained until the moment of plot clarification that inevitably comes in the end. Having said that, those used to the action beats of a Hollywood blockbuster will not have an easy time with “Jade Warrior’s” early parts.
There are little bits here and there that Annila supplies to help sustain the audience as he plods toward his story’s conclusion. There is a spirited street fight that resembles more of a courtship dance between Sintai (the Ancient Chinese incarnation of Kai) and female warrior Pin Yu (Jingchu Zhang, “Seven Swords”) that is easily the film’s highlight. The sequence features intricate fight choreography that convinces you Annila could have done something on the scale of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” if he so chose. The film’s other major martial arts moment is a final fight between Kai and his ancient enemy. Although it has moments of martial arts, “Jade Warrior” really shouldn’t be considered a martial arts film, because to call it such would be to invite disappointment.
“Jade Warrior” thrives when it flashes back to Ancient China, where the relationship between Sintai, Pin Yu, and Sintai’s monk friend and armor-bearer Cho (Hao Dang) unspools to tragic circumstances, every moment of it presented in a calm, deliberate pace. Here, Annila shows his chops as a director, revealing powerful emotions with ease as the well-worn Sintai, destined to defeat a great demon plaguing China, finds a momentary diversion that proves to be something greater. What begins as a destiny to save the world grows ever more complicated, resulting in a decision that will be felt across time. It is the end result of this storyline that continues to haunt the modern Kai, as his enemy returns, still seeking a key to the Sampo.
In some ways, “Jade Warrior” doesn’t quite realize its full potential. There are many scenes that begs to be expanded, battles talked about and the aftermath of which are seen but never shown. Most of this can be attributed to budgetary constraints, but there are few excuses for doing such a shoddy job with Kai and Ronja’s modern romance. In particular, Annila seems lost about what to do with Ronja, and as a result actress Krista Kosonen ends up walking between locations, and her discoveries in service of plot progression seem wholly contrived.
Still, Antti-Jussi Annila is most definitely a director to watch. Likewise with star Tommi Eronen, who has done mostly Finnish TV work until now. Finnish veteran actor Markku Peltola is also impressive, especially for a man of his age; the transformation Peltola forces upon his character, from shopkeeper to punishing evil menace, is quite remarkable and believable. The beautiful Chinese actress Jingchu Zhang is captivating, and her roles in the Hong Kong triad film “Prot’g'” with Andy Lau and Daniel Wu, as well as the upcoming Hollywood movie “Rush Hour 3”, should continue what looks to be a promising movie career.
And so we return to the beginning of our review: “The Fins do wuxia?”
Well yes and no. It is a good movie, with good performances from the cast and a solid mystery at its core. Yes, there is a traditional wuxia approach to the film’s Ancient China scenery, but don’t mistake “Jade Warrior” for a Zhang Yimou big-budget Chinese epic, even with the healthy doses of slow-motion martial arts and wireworks on display. The film either doesn’t have it in itself to be a full-blown martial arts affair, or it is not interested in becoming “Hero” Part 2. The result is a story that is intimate and grand, epic and yet small, and an action movie that is not quite an action movie. There is a middle ground somewhere in there, but I can’t say if “Jade Warrior” ever finds it, although I am not entirely disappointed by the end product.
Antti-Jussi Annila (director) / Antti-Jussi Annila (screenplay)
CAST: Tommi Eronen … Kai/Sintai
Markku Peltola … Berg
Jingchu Zhang … Pin Yu
Krista Kosonen … Ronja
Taisheng Chen … Demoni
Elle Kull … WeckstrÃ¶m
Hao Dang … Cho