Contributor; Derby, England

It's an action blockbuster showing what happens when a mentally challenged vigilante martial artist, a master thief and a driven police captain cross paths. It's thrilling, it's beautiful, it's achingly sad and it's one of the most distinctive mainstream domestic productions from mainland China in years. So how well does [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] cope with the challenge of keeping audiences [b]and[/b] PRC censors happy? Find out after the break.

It's an odd feeling to concede that maybe, just [b]maybe[/b], it's [b]possible[/b] censorship gives us something back as well as takes it away; that sometimes we get a deeper, richer, more intriguing work of art if the film-maker was forced to exercise more restraint than they'd have liked. A dangerous concession – who wants to argue against freedom of expression? – but if a director can't or doesn't want to risk speaking their mind, sometimes they can still find a well-chosen image or set-piece that puts their point across better than any amount of slogans yelled at the audience.

China's arthouse directors in the fifth and sixth generations have had to work with these limitations for years, and sometimes even though the directors themselves may not see their stories as overly politicised the party censors still decline to allow them to be released (Li Yang's [i]Blind Shaft[/i]). Often, though, people focus on these more 'worthy' cases and ignore the contortions mainstream productions go through to include material which might be viewed as radical or subversive in a certain light. The ban on romanticising criminal activity is probably the most familiar of Article 9's many prohibitions, one that can cover a whole laundry list of sins – any number of films have fallen foul of trying to stick to it and the list keeps growing year on year. Witness the epilogue to Jackie Chan's [url=][i]Rob-B-Hood[/i][/url], and its stilted, tacked-on acts of contrition; Feng Xiaogang's [i]A World Without Thieves[/i], with its constant reminders no decent citizen would [b]ever[/b] steal from their fellow man in China, or the sudden, blunt coda scrawled under [url=][i]The Banquet[/i][/url].

Ding Sheng's sophomore feature [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] is one of the more creative efforts to struggle through SARFT's approvals process in recent years. It tells the story of Wang Tao (Liu Ye, [url=][i]Blood Brothers[/i][/url], [url=][i]City of Life and Death[/i][/url]), a promising young navy cadet left brain-damaged after a training accident where he stayed under water a little too long while rescuing a drowning friend. Discharged from active service, Wang Tao's ordeal leaves him with a childlike, crippled intellect (he narrates much of the film in patient, stumbling voiceover) and the burning desire to punish evildoers where soever they might be found, much to the distress of both his long-suffering mother and his girlfriend, who dislike Tao roaming the streets clouting the unrighteous with a four-foot spear as he sees fit.

These evildoers prove largely confined to petty criminals or less – purse-snatchers, smokers blithely lighting up in no-smoking areas – until Dragon (Anthony Wong) enters the film. Dragon is a world-weary, hangdog master thief who's set his sights on stealing a famous antique, an ancient Chinese spear newly arrived in China as the centerpiece of a forthcoming exhibition, only Wang Tao is already fixated on the spear, seeing it as the embodiment of the martial virtues he still clings to. A third lead turns up in the shape of Captain Jiang (You Yong, [url=][i]Red Cliff[/i][/url]), the police officer with a dark past who's hot on Dragon's heels. Slowly, patiently, [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] attempts to tie these three plot threads into some sort of nail-biting conclusion.

To be blunt, it doesn't completely succeed. But the pleasure is in watching how Ding and his colleagues try, and in everything the film manages [b]not[/b] to be as a result of their efforts. [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] is not in fact a Chinese play on [i]Taxi Driver[/i] meets [i]Forrest Gump[/i], as much as it might look like it on paper. Wang Tao is supremely fit, dedicated, selfless and righteous to a fault. He's also oblivious, sad, pathetic, even somewhat disturbing. The film never succumbs to the urge to portray him as an outright chest-beating hero of the people – he's frequently mocked or humiliated and people plainly suffer to some degree as a result of showing him kindness or affection. When Tao's girlfriend tries to join him in the shower only to have him reject her advances, confused and intimidated, what could have been farcically coy or plain unintentionally hilarious is close to heartbreaking. Whilst never exactly gritty or realistic, [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] is clearly after much more than the simple Hollywood archetype of the holy fool.

The director is also not interested in presenting Wang Tao as a superhero. There's a fair amount of action, both gunplay and hand-to-hand, but Ding shoots it from oblique angles, sticks his camera on the edge of a close-up or shrouds everything in darkness. One pivotal scene shows Tao nearly seriously injured as a result of trying to take on multiple foes by himself. This is both strength and weakness; on the one hand the action can feel frustratingly hollow, yet the detached approach also gives the film the air of some glossy mockumentary, and a surprising dramatic weight. The quirky, minimal score adds to this, and even comes off as weirdly melancholy over time – no booming signature themes or treacly string sections here. The film is slickly, professionally shot for all its lack of conventional blockbuster set-pieces, with the odd image proving truly powerful, clichéd or otherwise (Wang Tao's spear abandoned in the rain is a particular standout).

Admittedly a lesser cast would probably not have made so much of the material. Liu Ye has frequently managed to turn what ought to be comical overacting into performances which convey startling pathos – even critics who shredded Chen Kaige's overblown wuxia pian [i]The Promise[/i] frequently singled out his role for praise – and here he comfortably makes the lead role his own. Compare him to Zhang Jingchu in [url=][i]Red River[/i][/url] and see how where she fails to turn a mess of tics and jitters into a believable human being, Liu manages just fine. Wang Tao is rarely likeable, but he's not an object of pity. The viewer is expected to care about what happens to him, but the film never resorts to blatant tugging on people's heartstrings or appeals to the lowest common denominator. And all three leads impress, given the opportunity; the script almost leaves Captain Jiang an afterthought, but while it's sometimes hard to remember his motivation, You Yong still projects a grizzled, commanding presence with a handful of lines. And Anthony Wong could sleepwalk his way through playing Dragon if he so wished, but the veteran actor lends the master thief a tired, ageing grandeur that leaves the viewer forgetting his character exists largely to keep the censors happy.

Which is what ultimately drags [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] down – try though they might, the filmmakers cannot get the viewer to forget this is a domestic production in mainland China, where the guilty are inevitably punished and everything wrapped up tidily before the closing credits. They may have cut down on the nationalist sentiment (the emphasis on the glories of the Chinese navy is barely even an annoyance); they may have added a bold streak of moral ambiguity, but anyone who's seen the alternate ending to [i]Infernal Affairs[/i] knows more or less where this is headed before the movie has even begun. The final standoff is genuinely tense, artistic and thrillingly paced, but subconsciously the creeping certainty the ending is about to disappoint has long since set in.

But it's still more than worth watching up to that point. [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] may not be the film that proves mainland cinema can still captivate a western audience, no reservations; it's nowhere near extrovert enough to pass for cut-rate Bruckheimer, like the flood of blockbuster action movies at the start of the Korean wave. At the same time it is definitely a big-screen matinee production, too flamboyant for arthouse purists – and yet it's frequently a captivating piece of work for all its faults. It's beautifully shot with some tremendous acting from its leads and it wants very much to be different, struggling with the restrictions surrounding its production at every turn, ending up something very distinctive, surprisingly open, even daring – a film it is debatable could ever have happened under a more conventional studio system. Far from perfect, undeniably hampered by circumstances, not for everyone, [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] still comes highly recommended.

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Order the English subtitled DVD-9 of [i]The Underdog Knight[/i] from YesAsia [url=]here[/url].

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