I’m always a little hesitant to assume things about foreign popular culture that I’ve never studied in-depth (i.e. college courses). Hong Kong is one of those places. I bring this up only because the movie “My Schoolmate the Barbarian” takes place in what I assume is some sort of inner-city 4-year college, where all the students are vying to take a final exam called the HKCEE. I assume the school in the picture is a college because it’s called Memorial College in the subtitles, and I assume the HKCEE is some sort of exit test because the students in the film seem to hinge their future on it. (If I’m wrong, someone please send a note to correct me.)
All that being said, “My Schoolmate the Barbarian” is a comedy/action film about a spoiled preppy student (Stephen Fung) who gets kicked out of his preppy school and ends up in a tough new school where students regularly duke it out in an upstairs classroom reserved for such occasions. Think “Fight Club” meets “My Bodyguard” meets “Dangerous Minds.” Being that he’s not much of a fighter, Edward must recruit the help of local tough guy Stone (Nicholas Tse) in order to survive. It helps that the adorable Phoenix (Joey Yung) is hopelessly in love with Edward and is willing to “back him up” at every opportunity; although she’s not much of a fighter, she sure is a cute bundle of energy. That has to count for something, right?
No one is more surprised than I that I actually liked “Barbarian” very much. Why was I so surprised? It’s mostly due to the fact that Hong Kong auteur Jing Wong’s name appears in the credit listings not once, but twice — as sole writer and as co-director. I have often expressed my exasperation at Jing Wong’s brand of Absurdist Hong Kong films (“High Risk”). I find the man’s humor to be just a level above kindergarten kids picking their noses on the playground. Imagine my shock when I found myself really enjoying “Barbarian.” (I guess that old saying is true. Every dog does have his day.)
Besides a few moments of Jing Wong-inspired comedy in the beginning (the scene with the principal), “Barbarian” is mostly an entertaining teenage/action film. Notwithstanding the fact that none of the actors are probably teenagers (with the exception of Joey Yung, who might be in her late teens), the actors all do a fine job with such a limited screenplay. Even though Nicholas Tse (“Time and Tide”) threatens to skip into Ekin Cheng territory by letting his hair do much of the acting for him, co-star Stephen Fung (who co-starred with Tse in the equally spirited “2002″) is believable as the snobbish preppy that learns to appreciate friends who stick up for you. It helps that actress Joey Yung shows up a lot and that she’s just adorable throughout the film, providing all of the movie’s highlights as well as some funny comedy bits.
Director Billy Chung handles the action scenes well and I can see him directing more action-oriented films in the future. His handling of the duels (as the movie calls them) is impressive, in particular a fight between Stone and Mantis toward the end. Speaking of which, actor Samuel Pang exudes pure coolness as Mantis. The young actor plays the Mantis character straight, and his few and all-too brief scenes with Stone has a very dark and brooding undertone. Mantis, you see, is the current duel king, but he’s never fought Stone, who has given up fighting because of a personal tragedy. It’s the bane of Mantis’ school dueling career that Stone has never taken up his offer at a fight, thus Mantis is unable to claim he defeated the school’s only other champion.
Barbarian” shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s a brisk film with some nice photography and more than a few problems. For instance, it defies reason that the students at the college would turn their collegiate career into some game where they dress up like bad extras from “Mad Max” and cover their school with graffiti. Since they’re obviously paying for the privilege to go to school, why would anyone spend their time goofing off at every single turn? Also, Edward’s friendship with Stone and Edward’s growing prowess as a fighter is both fast-forwarded through. We get a couple scenes of male bonding and Stone teaching Edward how to fight (and in turn, Edward teaching Stone how to study), and there you have it. Not very convincing, but then again, “Barbarian” isn’t a serious study of teen angst, is it?
For what it is, “My Schoolmate the Barbarian” is an amusing and entertaining film, with a nice introduction to the highly affable Joey Yung (Phoenix). Stephen Fung is the movie’s actual star despite not getting top billing in the credits (the privilege goes to Tse). Co-star Samuel Pang shows some impressive martial arts ability in a limited role; his turn here as the brooding Mantis should earn him work in more movies, which is a very good thing.
It’s hard to say who gets the real credit for the success of “Barbarian.” I’m prone to think director Billy Chung is the main force keeping one aspect of the film from drowning out the other, resulting in a well-balance picture. Most of the film is played for humor, and I only felt slightly embarrassed for the filmmakers once or twice, which is a leap for me considering Jing Wong has his name all over this piece. One can only hope the dog will see more good days in the future…
Siu Hung Cheung (director) / Jing Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Nicholas Tse …. Stone
Stephen Fung …. Edward
Joey Yung …. Phoenix
Samuel Pang …. Mantis