Canola dreams: Little Big Soldier ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2010)

I will confess that I have not gone out of my way to follow action star Jackie Chan’s career. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has made 99 films; after a quick perusal of that impressive list, I’d guesstimate that I have seen approximately, let’s see, somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, around…four.

So when I say that Little Big Soldier is the best Jackie Chan flick I’ve ever seen, you can take that with a grain of salt. There is one camp of Chan’s devotees who would tell you that you can’t truly appreciate his prowess as an entertainer until you’ve seen one of his Hong Kong productions; I think I understand what they are talking about now.

Of course, you could easily apply this caveat to any number of accomplished actors from Europe or Asia who, due to their broken English, give the impression of impaired performances when they star in Hollywood films.

For example, let’s say  I was a (what’s a polite term?) casual ‘murcan moviegoer who had never heard of The Last Metro, The Return of Martin Guerre or Jean de Florette, and my  first awareness of Gerard Depardieu was seeing him in 102 Dalmatians. “Loved the puppies, but who was that dopey fat French dude?”

So, while Chan’s latest Hollywood vehicle, The Karate Kid inundates 3700 screens, in the meantime this splendidly acted and handsomely mounted comedy-adventure-fable from director Sheng Ding sits in the wings, awaiting U.S. distribution. The film had its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t make the screening. Luckily, I found a Region 3 DVD version available for rent (the movie opened in the Asian markets back in February of this year).

The story is set in the era just prior to the unification of China under Qin Dynasty rule, a time when many of the country’s states were in a perpetual state of war with one another. Chan is the “Big Soldier”, a Liang survivor who emerges from a mountain of corpses in the opening scene, poking around the remnants of a recent battle. When he happens upon a wounded enemy Wei general (Lee-Hom Wang), he takes him prisoner, hoping to collect a reward.

Big Soldier, a cynical, dirt-poor farmer who was grudgingly conscripted into military service, would just as soon leave the fighting to those who care, and fantasize about what he’s going to grow on the “5 mou” of land that he is going to purchase with this windfall (rice paddy…or canola field?). The young general, an arrogant nobleman, is appalled to be at the mercy of such rabble, but in his debilitated state has no choice but to grin and bear it until he sees a chance to escape.

An arduous, episodic journey ensues, with the “prince and the pauper” dynamic providing most of the comic and dramatic tension. Along the way, the pair encounters interesting characters, most notably a motley crew of cutthroats led by a whip-wielding bandit queen (“They are trustworthy, but truculent,” as one character describes the bandits, in the film’s best line).

However, it’s the animals who threaten to steal the show; my favorite scenes feature a bear, an ox and a pregnant rabbit. There’s also a Shakespearean subplot, concerning royal intrigue in the general’s home court, which leads to an unlikely alliance between the two sworn enemies.

Chan (who wrote the screenplay) reportedly has had this project percolating for nearly 20 years. Despite its relatively simplistic narrative, the film does have an epic feel. The misty mountains, serpentine rivers and lush valleys of China are beautifully photographed; suggesting a mythical sense of time and place.

As per usual, Chan choreographs and directs all of his own fight scenes, executed with his Chaplinesque blend of gymnastic prowess and deft comic timing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on his oeuvre, but his performance here sports a noticeable upgrade in nuance and character immersion from what I’ve seen of his Hollywood fare (don’t worry, fans-the closing credits fold in the requisite blooper reel). If you have a multi-region player, it is worth seeking out; although this is likely best seen on the big screen.

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