Xanda (2003) Movie Review

“South Park” once did an episode where they made fun of Sports Movie cliché, including the biggest clich’ of the genre, the inevitable Big Game (or Big Fight or Big Race, etc.). The second biggest clich’ is the Montage Sequence, where our hero achieves great strides in his chosen sport over a short period of time, all accompanied by an inspirational song or score. By the end of the Montage Sequence, our hero will have been equipped to win the Big Fight. The boxing/martial arts movie “Xanda” is no exception.

The above was brought up to make this point: Except for the inevitable Big Fight (including, therein, all the cliché associated with Big Fights — i.e. the Unbeatable Opponent, the Curmudgeon Coach, the Friend Who Gets Beaten Badly/Killed by the Unbeatable Opponent, etc.) and the Montage Sequence, “Xanda” is, for the most part, an unpredictable film. But of course this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the film is original, because it’s not.

Marco Mak (“Haunted Office”) directs newcomer Sang Wei-lin as Qiang, an expert Wushu fighter from the country, who decides to seek fame, fortune, and to escape the death of a close friend, in one of Mainland China’s big cities. Here, Qiang encounters Xanda, the sports du jour that has the city all abuzz. After Qiang’s friend Shrimp is badly hurt in a fight with Zhao Wei, the reigning Xanda champ, Qiang is forced to enter the sport in order to make some quick bucks to pay Shrimp’s hospital bills. During all of this, Qiang also meets the scrappy Liu, a young woman with aspirations of becoming a singer, even if the manager at whose club she’s employed only wants her to visit his hotel room.

As dictated by genre conventions, Qiang goes through a series of events that ends with him in the Big Fight with Zhao Wei (Teng Jun), who has less personality and character development than Andy On’s Unbeatable Opponent in the equally clich’ (albeit more insipid) “Star Runner”. And like Daniel Lee’s movie, “Xanda” spends some time comparing the art of Wushu (re: traditional Chinese kung fu) with the new sport of Xanda (re: the new trend threatening to snuff out the tradition), as if hoping the audience will choose tradition over progress. Xanda is a form of boxing, Muay Thai, and free form martial arts all rolled into one. It’s fast, powerful, and effective. Wushu is slow, relies on style, but is graceful. As in “Star Runner”, Qiang learns to incorporate his Wushu with Xanda in order to beat the Unbeatable Opponent.

The film was produced by Tsui Hark (“Time and Tide”) and is surprisingly bloodless. In America, the film could skirt away with a PG-13 rating. It might have even gotten a PG if not for the scenes of intense fighting. Although the boxing matches are quite striking (no pun intended), the only person who ever dies in the entire movie is not even one of the fighters. Besides the fantastic martial arts sequences, “Xanda” surprisingly excels in the relationship between Qiang and Liu. And since I had royally trashed the childish “romance” of “Star Runner”, let me just say that the romance here could actually be called adult. Shocking, I know, but I’m sure Hark never planned to market “Xanda” to squealing 13-year old girls.

I am told that Wei-lin is a newcomer to acting, which is a major surprise. Not only is Wei-lin obviously a real Wushu expert and can pull off the physical stuff with great believability, but also his acting is equally superlative. If I didn’t know Wei-lin was new to the acting game, I would swear he’s a veteran of the trade. The man’s portrayal of the fiery and independent Qiang is one of the film’s best elements. I can’t stress enough how good Wei-lin is here.

Although the film is filled with fights, the best sequence is an early confrontation between Qiang and Zhao Wei at an outdoor restaurant, when the two first pits their respective styles against one another. The result? Zhao Wei comes out on top after barely breaking a sweat. It’s a fabulous and complex fight, choreographed out in the open and at night, and easily beats out the heavily doctored Xanda matches found in the rest of the movie. The boxing matches are good, but one almost wishes there weren’t so many slow motion shots of the boxers punching each other in slow motion, with buckets and buckets of fake “sweat” flinging away as a result. It gets to be a bit superfluous after a while.

If there is one big fault with “Xanda” it’s that the film runs very short at just about 85 minutes. There’s no doubt much of the film was probably chopped for better pacing, and one can’t really blame them. “Xanda” practically flies by, and is over before you know it. Unfortunately the short running length also shortchanges a number of things, in particular much of the supporting cast. The Shrimp character, for example, basically disappears from the movie after the 30-minute mark. Also, Qiang’s relationship with Zhang Hong-jun’s Coach is never fully explored. The Coach seems to have an agenda, and Qiang is too ill-tempered to listen to his Mister Miyagi-like teaching style. And the next thing you know they’re best friends. Wha…?

At any rate, is “Xanda” better than “Star Runner”? You bet your collection of pirated Hong Kong Teen Pop Idol CDs it is. There’s no comparison. The only thing the two films have in common is a somewhat similar plot, although “Xanda” handles its romantic angle with a lot more maturity than the other movie. In fact, comparing Marco Mak’s film to Daniel Lee’s is a bit of an insult. To “Xanda”, that is.

Marco Mak (director)
CAST: Zhang Hong-jun …. Tieh
Zhao Zi-long …. Lung
Teng Jun …. Zhao Wei
Sang Wei-lin …. Qiang

Buy Xanda on DVD