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The biggest problem I can foresee with Daniel Lee’s “Star Runner” is keeping the men in the audience from walking out before the film kicks in gear at about the 40-minute mark. Of course I wouldn’t blame the men one bit, since Lee, who shares writing credits, has dived headfirst into a ridiculous love story between his two young stars (both pop idols) and remain there for half of the film. I can see Lee’s point: the two stars are the movie’s main draw, so he’s probably working under the thesis that he needs to keep the squealing 13-year old girls from walking out. Of course this means he’s neglected all the men, as well as the female audience over 13.
“Star Runner” stars one of those interchangeable Asian pop idols — in this case, one Vanness Wu — as Bong, a student preoccupied with winning a fighting tournament called the Star Runner. Enter Korean teacher Kim (Hyun-joo Kim), who has come to Hong Kong to teach as well as to forget about an affair she had with a married man in her native land. The two fall immediately (as well as incredibly, unbelievably, and a lot of other words with the -ly suffix at the end) in love. Of course questions may arise at this point, such as why a teacher is making eyes at her student and all those other nagging, not to mention creepy, issues.
As mentioned, if the men and over-13 females in the audience can survive the film’s poorly written and badly executed Teen Lovey Dovey sequences, the rest of “Star Runner” is gravy. The film’s best moments are the all-too short training interludes where Wu’s Bong is trained in various martial arts to compete in the Big Fight. In it, legendary star Ti Lung, most known to modern audiences for his gangster role in John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow”, plays a pot-bellied has-been who teaches Bong traditional Chinese kung fu. Another welcome return to the big screen is David Chiang, another legend of the chop socky kung-fu films of the ’70s and early ’80s. Like Lung, Chiang has no dialogue, but his presence is more than enough to class up this potential stinker.
Which brings me to this point: the Hong Kong film industry is shooting itself in the foot. It seems that 9 out of every 10 movies that the island state churns out in recent years have been starring vehicles for interchangeable pop stars with no apparent acting ability. Unless, of course, you count being bubbly for no apparent reason (the girls) or moody for no apparent reason (the boys) a talent. Vanness Wu, making his film debut, figures into the Ekin Cheng school of acting, right down to his impressive ability to let his hair do most of the acting for him. Korean import Hyun-joo Kim (who is also a pop idol in her native Korea, in case you were wondering) is an insanely beautiful young woman, but her character seems to exist only to introduce one clich’ after another into the film.
When it comes to the movie’s Big Fight storyline, “Star Runner” doesn’t offer anything new. In fact, if you’ve seen the so-awful-it’s-fun ’80s Teen Kung Fu flick “No Retreat, No Surrender”, then you’ve seen the last 40 minutes of Daniel Lee’s movie. Stepping into the thankless Jean-Claude Van Damme role is Andy On (“Looking for Mr. Perfect”), who is the Unbeatable Opponent that Bong must find a way to defeat. The final match between Bong and Tank makes up the movie’s other stellar moment. The fight is beautifully executed, with the match turning into a bloody, free-for-all alleyway brawl by the end. The script even manages to give the potentially mindless cardboard Tank character some personality.
Does skinny Vanness Wu convince as a martial arts master? Well, he doesn’t do any worst than, say, Ralph Macchio in the “Karate Kid” movies. Wu looks mostly unprepared for the movie’s physical stunts, although he seems to have all the fighting poses down. Then again, the 13-year old girls that will flock to see their pop idol in his debut film could care less. They won’t even “get” that Bong’s use of traditional Chinese kung fu is director Daniel Lee paying homage to the films and the people that built the Hong Kong film industry. Ironic, then, that star Wu’s inexplicable turn as a leading man is the primary reason the “old days” are long, long gone.
“Star Runner” is only worthwhile if you can survive the insipid first 40 minutes. While Lee throws us a perfunctory fisticuff early on, the film has all the maturity or believability of one of those Teen High School romance films that usually stars Freddie Prinze Jr. Every time you think the film is about to take off, the Kim character wanders onscreen and manages to pull the whole endeavor back into treacherous waters. Who knew such a beautiful face could spell such doom?
Daniel Lee (director) / Daniel Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Vanness Wu …. Bong
Andy On …. Tank
Hyun-joo Kim …. Jin Kim
Shawn Tam …. Chris