100 Yards was screened and reviewed for the 48th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, upon virtual invitation.
It’s been wild having to wait this long before the film markets picked up on something (or anything) attached to the name of author and filmmaker Xu Haofeng. The man best known for whipping out some of the most artful and concentrated martial arts features to hit screens for well over a decade was all but a blip after landing back on radar with 2015’s The Final Master, when trailers arose for his 2017 actioner, The Hidden Sword, followed by stills and posters in 2019 for “Shi Yan Juan Tian Ya.”
Both incumbent period flicks deserved better rollouts they were never given for reasons unbeknownst to this critic, and so it remains to be seen if either of those movies will ever see a wider audience outside their home region. It’s a shame, frankly, as deserving as Xu is to have his work seen by any and all who love martial arts cinema and Asian film in general. His work speaks for itself, which is precisely the case he reiterates with his latest co-directorial effort with first-time filmmaker Xu Junfeng for martial arts drama, 100 Yards, titled in its early days as “Men Qian Bao Di,” or “A Treasure In Front Of The Door.”
The renowned filmmaker, Taoist and action director wrote the film as well, casting a roster of acting and action talents led formidably by Jacky Heung and Andy On, both whose film careers began under the stewardship of Yuen Woo-Ping, and have since grown their resumès handsomely, even sharing the set a few times over the years (see Yuen’s True Legend and Koan Hui’s League Of Gods). The film’s biggest star going forward for that matter is its taut, blistering martial arts action, just minutes after the film’s watercolor-themed opening credits with the core plot kicking off right from the top.
The movie is set in Tianjin 1920 (a good deal of it filmed on virtual lots to emanate the atmospheric look and feel of the location’s seaside harbors among its other reconstructions), eight years after the launch of its inaugural martial arts school, with the province transforming thanks to bustling street markets and commercial colonization by Europeans. The school’s emergence hinged on the establishment and thriving of circles within the sub-societal martial world. Feted fighters are championed by their schools and the senior elders who run point on all internal and political matters pertaining to the martial world, including and especially duels to settle differences between fighters.
Shen An (Heung), son to one of Tianjin’s most respected martial arts masters, is one such fighter, whose ten years of training have cultivated him into a proficient purveyor of the three Fist Fight Forms. As it stands though, the death of his father, his unwillingness to accept pasaage of his school to his best apprentice, Ji (On) after losing to him in a duel, and his inability to honor his late father’s posthumous wishes to leave martial arts, have left the circle at an impasse. Compelled to prove himself time and again regardless of the defeating circumstances and surfacing doubt over his own abilities, it’s not until Ji makes his unorthodox agenda clear to the martial circle elders along with chancellor Meng (Li Yuan) that further opportunity arises for Shen to settle things with Ji.
As the story progresses, mystery looms amid speculation over a presumed assassination, while Shen comes to grips with his choices opposite his romantic arc with the beautiful, enigmatic and layered Xia (played handsomely by Heung’s wife on-and-off screen, Bea Hayden Kuo). Ji, intent on subverting tradition and capitalizing off the good graces of most of the council, is forced to contend with his own arsenal and standing as well, treading between stories of untold familial connections relevant to rumors of a secret fourth syllabus to the Fist Fight style.
Par for the course is the reveal that Shen’s father, in a number of ways, defied convention as well before his passing, contributing thusly to the intense unrest between Shen and Ji, as both pugilists reach their boiling point. Taking matters beyond the walls of the martial circle as the bodyguards and the local slingshot gang become enveloped into the deadlock, 100 Yards recapitulates with an explosive second-half that sees the streets of Tianjin transformed into an arena suited for both Shen and Ji to occlude innocent bystanders, and settle their great dispute once and for all.
One of the strongest points for 100 Yards that I can appreciate the most is its adept reflection, between story setting and characterization. From the screenplay to Shao Dan’s cinematography, An Wei’s score, Xie Yong’s art direction and Liang Tingting’s costuming, along with set design, coloring and tone, the film serves up a meaty, discerning and poetic portrayal of the dissonance and begrudged acceptance of Tianjin’s evolving atmosphere.
Heung and On bring nimble and charismatic portrayals to their roles as fighters tested by martial world doctrines among their other personal woes, both equally matched in their quiet frustrations and dwindling levels of patience right down to the film’s ultimate boiling point. Obsession, chiefly, plays a role in their overall threat to the circle’s balance, adding a sense of heightened urgency that spotlights other key theme’s in the film’s messaging.
Additionally, this comes with the topical spotlighting of implied sexism and the lack of upward mobility for women in martial arts at the time – an aspect of the story that speaks brilliantly to the design and writing of Meng, who carries herself more with machismo and swagger than femininity and grace. The latter is mostly capitalized on by actress Tang Shiyi whose performance as school teacher Gui Ying, who viewers simply won’t be ready for as we continue to learn more about her character. To put it bluntly, you won’t see her coming, which is all the more reason why her character should excite the hell out of you.
From that point on, all that’s left to indulge is the stimulating fight choreography by Duncan Leung, substantiated with distinction by the cast involved in the action with Heung and On front and center. The two stars share multiple sequences together in addition to a few other propulsive moments in the film. Heung is lightning fast in this movie, a fact further underscored between sequences when using weapons and is forced to go the empty-hands route when push comes to shove. He matches perfectly with actor On in both speed and strength, as well as chemistry and pace, which the film smartly proceeds to convey in their first duel.
One of the most prolific characteristics about this particular scene in its introductory measure is the use of control between both fighters in select scenes. You can bet some serious sound work was done to illustrate our characters’ athletic potency, as their techniques cut through the wind with force as deadly as some of the weapons they use in this film’s array. Contact, for the most part until the film’s action-packed final half-hour, is avoided within millimeters, conveyed with a vivid geniusness to the mastery of their craft. It’s within Leung’s choreography that the directors resume the continued element of growth, an element of the story that not only brings Ji’s aforementioned obsession full circle, but makes Shen’s progression all the more transformative as a martial artist.
Not to be outdone by mere cordoned off one-on-ones here will be the occasional match up between select characters-versus-opponents in numbers. Shen has several throughout the film, including and namely the final showdown leading up to his fated tête-à-tête with Ji. If you’re like me and were introduced to Xu Haofeng via The Final Master eight years ago as I was, then you have a fairly worthy idea of what awaits in the rousing climatic action in 100 Yards.
Notably, there are multiple supporting and guest roles placed firmly in the film’s dramatic action, including Zhao Zheng (Judge Archer, The Final Master) whose peacekeeping portrayal as Brother Wu leads a squad of bodyguards to Ji, executing their duties using a pair of arched, non-lethal wooden beams to disable, immobilize and arrest attackers. Other performers to name a few include MMA specialist Wang Sai, and sword-wielding Jaden He who also appeared in League Of Gods and opposite Sarah Chang in the award-winning short, “The Teacher.”
Well before the credits roll, 100 Yards is careful to culminate the disciplinary groundwork on which this film’s martial arts millieu stands. Indeed, there will be a winner in the final outcome of things, although any answers to the matter won’t be without their share of mention pertaining to consequences. It’s an addendum to the latest work of Xu² that signs things off more than adequately toward the film’s conclusive messaging, capping off what will deservedly serve as a fine breakout for Xu Junfeng, as well as exemplary follow-up for Xu Haofeng since The Final Master. Should this be the start of another one of those time-honored routine partnerships between filmmakers, then I think anyone who comes away from 100 Yards may be in for another hopeful treat by any measure. Yards, even.
Director(s): Xu Haofeng, Xu Junfeng
Cast: Jacky Heung, Bea Hayden Kuo, Andy On, Li Yuan, Tang Shiyi, Li Yuan
Producers: Jacky Heung, Hu Xiaofeng, Amanda Ho
Martial Arts Choreographer: Duncan Leung
International Sales: Fortissimo Films
U.S. Distribution: Well Go USA Entertainment
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.