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Plot: passive gamer must defend ancient China from barbaric warlord.

The only thing that The Warriors Gate (released in Mainland China as 勇士之門 and most of the English-speaking world The Warriors Gate – except in North America where it was called Enter the Warriors Gate) has going for it that it’s more or less a remake of The Forbidden Kingdom (功夫之王) (2008), which was in dire need of remaking because… it was only eight years old? The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) had the good fortune to have both Jet Li and Jackie Chan. The Warriors Gate makes the exact same mistakes that made The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) so reviled among fanatics who actually watch and know Asian martial arts and wuxia films. The Warriors Gate is a Chinese co-production with about three name stars but written, produced, and directed by a bunch of Europeans and Americans who seem to have no understanding of the nuances and subtleties of a good period costume wuxia, except that they typically feature high-flying, wire-fu action choreography, beautiful women in ornate dresses and heroic storylines full of betrayal, quests, and arcane magic. The Warriors Gate has all of that to lesser or greater degree, but has apparently no idea what to do with any of it. It almost makes you yearn for The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017).

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) had Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Liu Yi-Fei, and Li Bing-Bing with action choreography from Yuen Wo-Ping. In short it had the best acting talent in the business, two of the best martial artists of their generation, and an action choreographer who was a dyed in the wool producer and director. By comparison The Warriors Gate, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, is almost entirely made up of nobodies. Or at least nobody for anyone coming to this from the Asian perspective. Ni Ni, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, and Kara Hui Ying-Hung are all superstars back in Mainland China and it’s insulting enough that talent of this caliber has to appear in western dreck like this to stay working in between better projects. Ni Ni - bombarded to the next big mou girl after beloved icons as Gong Li, Joey Wong, and Brigitte Lin – has talent to spare and here she’s practically reduced to the role of obligatory love interest? Francis Ng Chun-Yu is a versatile supporting actor and he’s reduced to a few ticks. No one suffers a fate poorer than Kara Hui Ying-Hung who’s forced to wear a silly costume and isn’t even given the decency of a single fighting scene. Tony Ling Chi-Wah’s action direction is up to the expected standard, but it’s too little too late. That director Matthias Hoene got his start in music videos is also abundantly clear. Luc Besson is a good enough producer of mass audience swill but everything clearly went haywire here.

Jack Bronson (Uriah Shelton) is a passive layabout who’s in no hurry to become upwardly mobile and more pro-active to make something of his life. Jack is bullied at school and shunned by members of the fairer sex. To forget his first world problems he lives like a hermit and plays too much videogames with his tubby friend Hector (Luke Mac Davis). His mother Annie (Sienna Guillory) is an overworked and underpaid realtor who tries her darndest to keep a roof over his head. One day Jack takes home an ancient jar from the antiquity shop where he works after school. According to Mr. Cheng (Henry Mah) the jar comes from Beijing and possesses special powers. Jack doesn’t pay too much attention to Mr. Cheng’s stories until one night he finds himself on the wrong end of a blade wielded by the warrior Zhao (Mark Chao You-Ting) who was given specific instructions to seek out the Black Knight (Ron Smoorenburg), Jack’s avatar in his favorite fighting game, and the one prophezied to liberate the empire.

The empire has fallen before the barbaric hordes of Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable (Dave Bautista). Arun plans to crown himself Emperor by forcing headstrong Princess Su Lin (Ni Ni) into an arranged marriage to consolidate his power. Any opposition will swiftly be slain by his forces under command of general Brutus (Zha Ka). According to the Wizard (Francis Ng Chun-Yu) a brave warrior from a far off land will come and embark on a perilous quest taking him across the mountains. There he will vanquish the mountain witch (Kara Hui Ying-Hung) and escape the clutches of the seductive nymphs (Ming Xi, Tianyi You, and Lijie Liu). During his quest this warrior will unlock incredible powers within himself that will allow him to free the Princess from captivity and defeat Arun once and for all… The thing is, Jack isn’t too sure he’s the guy they’re looking for. What in the world could somebody as small and insignificant like him possibly amount to?

As a producer, writer, and director Luc Besson has had a hand in titles as diverse as Nikita (1990), Léon (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Taxi (1998), Joan of Arc (1999), Ong-bak (2003), District B13 (2004), Bandidas (2006), The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). We would be remiss to mention that Besson in recent years stood at the cradle of the very lucrative Taken and The Transporter franchises, not even mentioning that both Nikita and Taxi were remade for the American market in 1993 and 2004, respectively. That Besson came from humble beginnings and started his career with The Last Battle (1983) (which evolved from a short feature he directed in 1981). His first big break was directing the ‘Pull Marine’ music video from Isabelle Adjani in 1984.

Since The Warriors Gate is a western production that just happens to be filmed in China it obviously isn’t going to be overly concerned with appealing to a Chinese audience. It looks like a fantasy wuxia with a western protagonist but The Warriors Gate is an East meets West comedy first, a buddy cop movie second, and a fantasy wuxia (which it barely qualifies as) or period costume epic distant third. It doesn’t help that it was written by Robert Mark Kamen who wrote the excellent three original The Karate Kid (1984-1989) movies, the fourth (and final) episode The Next Karate Kid (1994) and the wholly redundant 2010 remake with Jackie Chan. In recent years he penned the science fiction romp The Fifth Element (1997), the western spoof Bandidas (2006) (with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek), most of the Taken and The Transporter movies as well as Colombiana (2011), a South American take on Besson’s own Nikita (1990). In other words, there was no way that The Warriors Gate was going to be good.

Ni Ni (倪妮) was in a far better domestic movie the same year with the rom com Suddenly Seventeen (2016). It’s strange enough hearing her speak (phonetic) English or why she even agreed to a flowervase role in a western co-production. Why reduce an actress of Ni Ni’s stature to what is essentially a glorified girlfriend role? Talk of wasting talent! Uriah Shelton is mostly famous for his turn in Disney Channel series Girl Meets World (2014-2017). Equally lamentable is Sienna Guillory, now a decade removed from Eragon (2006), and back in bad movie oblivion yet again. Her presence in the entirely pointless 2010 remake of The Time Machine (1960) was plenty of evidence that Guillory is destined to remain a second-tier. She wasn’t able to land a decent script or role since the British ensemble rom com Love Actually (2003). Dave Bautista does his best Gerard Butler impression. His barbarian horde look as a mix between Mongol and Viking warriors complete with over-the-top warpaint and Dimmu Borgir wardrobe. It’s as if Besson wanted Butler but he had committed to Gods Of Egypt (2016), so Besson settled for the second best. Francis Ng Chun-Yu (吳鎮宇) is wasted on a comic relief role as Wizard and he was in far more enjoyable HK action flicks as Devil Hunters (1989) (with Moon Lee) and the fantasy wuxia The Bride with White Hair (1993) (with Brigitte Lin). Likewise is Kara Hui Ying-Hung (惠英紅) reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a mountain witch. It begs the question why Besson hired Hui and then proceeded to not giving her any fighting scenes whatsoever. Hui is known for her martial arts prowess and was last seen around these parts in the enjoyably kinetic Madam City Hunter (1993). To say that the Chinese talent is wasted on this western action-adventure swill is putting it very mildly.

What mostly kills The Warriors Gate isn’t so much the assembled talent, but Kamen’s trainwreck of a screenplay that raises more questions than it answers. There’s suspension of belief and taking some artistic license and then there’s something as futile as this. It’s never specified what period this is supposed to be set in or in what region of China for that matter. It’s insulting enough that the fate of an ancient Chinese empire hinges upon a Caucasian westener or that every Chinese character speaks perfect English. If there’s one good thing about The Warriors Gate it’s that it puts Ni Ni in a variety of beautiful, colorful dresses and even some urban casual wear. Given that this is a Robert Mark Kamen script we’re supposed to take it as an underdog story and East meets West comedy which is pretty much the only thing Kamen is good at writing. Where the interactions between Italian-American working class teen Daniel LaRusso and senior aged Okinawan martial artist Keisuke Miyagi were playful and innocent nothing is particularly funny or insightful about the sparring between Jack and Zhao. Miyagi learned Daniel-san something about the world, about himself, about karate. You’d imagine that Jack picks up a thing or two during the second act as they traverse the land for something or other, but no such thing appears to be the case here. The only Hollywood convention that The Warriors Gate doesn’t conform to is giving Jack a girlfriend by the end of the picture, although it’s hinted that Su Lin has taken an interest in him. The comedic bits with Su Lin in the modern world are decent, mostly because Ni Ni does all the heavy lifting requiring Uriah Shelton only to react. The running gag with Arun’s “Kill him, Brutus! No, not him! Him!” is worth a chuckle.

It sort of begs the question why this was necessary. The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) is still widely available for anyone wanting to see it, and it wasn’t exactly a genre classic in need of reimagining. In place of making this a serious period costume or fantasy wuxia this is the umpteenth trainwreck of western filmmakers invading upon territory that isn’t their own and making complete fools of themselves in the process. Much to the delight of Sino audiences, likely. Asian and western audiences have different cinematic expectations and sensibilities. The Warriors Gate is the western equivalent of Chinese-Thai co-production Angel Warriors (2013) which is to say that it fails in every aspect but there’s enough pretty faces to look at. That the western world is finally giving Ni Ni a chance (after Fan Bing-Bing, Zhang Ziyi, and Liu Yi-Fei as well as Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, to name a few recent examples) can only be applauded. However there must be better roles for actresses of her caliber and repute. The Warriors Gate exemplifies just about everything wrong with international co-productions. Sino – and European cinema has far better things to offer than brainless swill like this. The Warriors Gate should have been so much more than what it ended up being. See it for the Sino talent (Ni Ni, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, and Kara Hui Ying-Hung), Dave Bautista, Sienna Guillory, and pray that they find more worthy projects, domestic and abroad.

Plot: will Liang find her true self again with all the obligations of adulthood?

Suddenly Seventeen (28岁未成年) is that other movie that Mainland China actress Ni Ni starred in in 2016. On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from the French co-production Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016) Ni Ni shines in Suddenly Seventeen as never before. Suddenly Seventeen was the directorial debut of Zhang Mo, daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yi-Mou and a romantic comedy that can easily compete with anything coming out of Hollywood. That is if the average American could be bothered to read subtitles or watch a foreign film in the first place. It hits all the right notes and Ni Ni can show why she’s probaby the best actress of her generation while wearing a lot of the latest fashion. It mercilessly tugs at the heartstrings and is magically optimistic before anything else. It might be formulaic to a fault, but everything in Suddenly Seventeen falls in place beautifully. If this was Japanese they’d probably call it kawaii or fuwa fuwa but Sudden Seventeen comes to us from Mainland China. It’s not quite Amélie (2001) but it comes close. Hardly the worst of comparisons.

Zhang Yi-Mou is the kind of director that isn’t very well known in the western hemisphere. Gong Li acted very much as his muse as she appeared in his Red Sorghum (1987), Operation Cougar (1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiuju (1992), Lifetimes (1994), Shanghai Triad (1995), and Coming Home (2014). Inevitably Yi-Mou’s most popularly known titles in the Anglo-Saxon world are the human interest drama Not One Less (1999) and his colorful big budget Hong Kong fantasy wuxia spectacles Hero (2002), and House Of Flying Daggers (2004) with Jet Li and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) with Chow Yun-Fat. Zhang Mo worked as an editor on her father’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009) and Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010) before moving up to assistant directing on his The Flowers of War (2011) with Ni Ni and Christian Bale. Suddenly Seventeen is entirely her own as she directed, edited, and co-wrote her debut feature. What better way for a daughter to step out of the shadow of her famous father than with her own rom-com?

On the morning of their tenth anniversary Liang Xia (Ni Ni) is convinced that her fiancé Mao Liang (Wallace Huo Chien-Hua) is going to propose to her. After 5 years of dating and 5 years of living together Liang has given up on her dream of becoming a famous painter. When he doesn’t and the diamond ring turns out to a business present for the wife of Mr. Gao (Pan Bin-Long), Mao’s client at his design company, Liang spirals into binge eating and depression. Impulsively she buys a box of Forever Lasting Youth and Happiness Magic Chocolate after seeing a TV commercial. Her BFF Bai Xiao-Ning or Four Eyes (Ma Su) encourages Liang to force Mao into proposing to her in public, something which she does at the wedding of their mutual friend Xiao Yu (Liu Bing). The plan backfires and Mao breaks up with Liang. Certain that she’s at fault for the failure she tries the Magic Chocolate and transforms back into her wide-eyed, flirty, rebellious younger self (or for 5 hours at least). Suddenly Seventeen again Liang stirs not only the interest of Mao but also that of the much younger Yan Yan (Darren Wang Ta-Lu). Now that she rekindled her passion for art and life again – will Liang be able unite her own interests with the needs of Mao and those of her boundlessly optimistic younger self?

Ni Ni must without a single doubt be the most talented and beautiful Asian actress since Joey Wong Yo-Chin and Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching. Since debuting in The Flowers of War (2011) from Zhang Mo’s father in a few years she has become one of the most sought-after Chinese actresses together with Fan Bingbing. Before landing in Tsui Hark’s beautiful disaster The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) she starred in the 2015 Chinese remake of Bride Wars (2009) and Luc Besson’s comically inane period costume action-adventure wuxia Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016). As steely-eyed and constipated she was in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) so much more lovable and adorable she’s in Suddenly Seventeen. In tradition of every great actress that ever played a dual role Ni Ni is allowed to indulge with different hairstyles and fashion. In a nice touch to indicate the change whenever Liang turns into her 17-year old self colors become highly saturated and when she returns to her old self low saturation sets in. It’s a cost-effective visual effect that has a profound effect on the viewer and helps visualize Liang’s differing state of mind on which demographic she currently inhabits.

Suddenly Seventeen is every bit as corny and every bit as formulaic as you’d expect of a big Mainland China production. It’s a romantic comedy that’s in part a gender-swapped The Family Man (2000) with a healthy dose of Big (1988) and a bit of 13 Going On 30 (2004) in reverse to even things out. A great deal of the comedy is modeled after every bodyswap time-travel movie since Freaky Friday (1976), Like Father Like Son (1987), and Vice Versa (1988) – except that Ni Ni trades places with her younger self in the present. Liang comes to a better understanding about herself and rediscovers her passions by letting her younger self run amok. As she tries to clean up the messes 17-year old Liang leaves behind while trying to hide her from those immediately surrounding her. She comes to the conclusion that having her younger self at her disposal might actually benefit her life, which was in an impasse ever since she started dating Mao, and allow her to spread her wings, both personally as well as professionally. It’s the old fish out of water convention that continues to be remarkably effective when used properly. Ni Ni’s transformation from sharply-dressed young woman (in 2016 she was 28 after all) to a denim-wearing, wild haired 17-year old party girl that is every bit as enjoyable as Jennifer Garner waking up in her thirty-year-old body in 13 Going On 30 (2004) and discovering that, yes, she has breasts.

A point of contention could be that Suddenly Seventeen is as hyper-polished and thus a bit bland. It’s exactly the sort of product you’d expect from a known dynasty of filmmakers. The level of craft and attention to detail coupled with the cinematography from Jeffrey Chu will inevitably lead to it being labeled as soulless. There’s a time and place for by-the-numbers rom coms like Suddenly Seventeen. As formulaic and predictable as they tend to be the relentless optimism from Suddenly Seventeen is endearing and infectious, to say the least. Zhang Mo couldn’t have left a more favorable impression than she did here. In the last decade or so Mainland China has been in a habit of remaking Japanese, and American properties for the domestic market and Suddenly Seventeen is one such features. It piqued our interest enough to be curious what Zhang Mo could do in the period costume wuxia (whether it’s fantasy or historical) or martial arts/action genres if she was coupled with somebody like like Yuen Wo-Ping or Tsui Hark. Even if Mo just makes a career out of dramas and romances she can be counted upon to deliver quality work. There’s no shortage of both on the Chinese domestic market making it a treacherous landscape to explore. Suddenly Seventeen doesn’t have to worry about the restrictions that its lesser funded cousins have, and that’s part of its appeal. Suddenly Seventeen is the sort of movie you’d expect to be remade in Bollywood or South Korea. We’re surprised that hasn’t happened yet.