I’m sort of just sitting here, trying to sift through any number of films and shows I might recall that deal similarly in the subject matter Huang Huang’s new film, Wushu Orphan, observes (Painted Faces and Dead Poets Society come to mind). Really, it’s part and parcel to helping mysef absorb the two-hour tale Huang elucidates in his latest outing – beautifully shot and conceived throughout, and with an ending that challenges you to be okay with what you just saw.
A multi-bracketed coming-of-age drama, Huang’s contemplative Wushu Orphan tells its tale in four chapters, each prefaced by the brief visual of an old man with an eyepatch – a wushu master fresh out of prison journeying between stops to confront other masters. Central to the story is Youhong (Noah Jin), an inexperienced teacher hired by his uncle (Ma Zhongshan) who happens to be the acting dean of Zhige Wushu Academy, where higher learning unfortunately takes a backseat to kung fu.
Many of the students in Henan province are children whose parents left them behind to find work in the cities. At Zhige, the boys play pranks and otherwise live, eat and breathe kung fu under the stewardship of their instructor, You Hu (Darren Choi). Each morning, they are regularly drilled with rehashings of short tales of ancient folklore, and are mandated with affirmation of one day being like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Compared to rest of the student body, however, these dreams exist far from the interests of at least one student, Cuishan (Hou Yunxiao), whose fishing family doesn’t let him set sail with them. He takes no interest in wushu, and often suffers the recurring ire and torment by his of fellow classmates for his upstanding in academics. It gets so bad that Cuishan, try as he may, runs away as often as possible with little to no affect as he’s eventually caught by the school staff.
Youhong’s tenure takes a turn for the prospective at Zhige, especially with trying to help nourish Cuishan’s potential whilst trying to tame the rest of his uncouth students. Youhong also finds friendship in the principal’s son, Qin (Yes Shi), a wayward, uncultivated slacker with a penchant for spitting, and oftentimes putting out his cigarette butt in his chewing gum where he sticks it. He also finds promise in a burgeoning bond with the school’s nurse, An (Liu Zhihan), despite a veiled heads-up from his uncle about her past.
The lynchpin of Huang’s Wushu Orphan is much ado with Youhong’s efforts to tap into the better angels of his students, as well as try and break through the myopia of the school’s stringent principal whose daily routine is resigned to playing with his hawk and restricting rooftop privilges. A key turning point in how things develop from here involves one of the film’s more jestful moments which includes a newly-repaired kite, and the school’s pudgy chef who happens to be none the wiser to his surroundings.
A lot goes on between our characters for the film’s two-hour runtime, and thankfully while it could have, for up to 95% of the time, it never loses its footing. Huang’s painstaking craftsmanship allows for easy, palpable transitions between scenes and characters, ornamented with a just few existential flurries to add to his cinematic touch.
I say the abovementioned with at least one thing in mind about the ending that I’ll get to, and it has to do with the clear and present struggle we see from Cuishan’s perspective. It’s Youhong’s fragile connection with the beleagured young boy that provides the only real air of genuine hope and optimism – an arc keenly portrayed by Hou who lends an apt, brilliant and relatable stoicism in his performance.
The crux of Wushu Orphan serves as a culmination of things – definining what the word “wushu” really means, and seeing how it applies to our characters as they cope with trying to find themselves in an atmosphere of learning that seems to have lost itself. The fact that one of its own students is so tortured by his peers that he keeps trying to escape is proof of that fact – one that couldn’t be made clearer, which makes the choice of music soundtrack for the outro seem so dissonant when paired with the bleak reminder of what this film is really about.
Alas, there’s a bigger picture to be seen in Wushu Orphan for one’s viewing. By no means is this film terrible or unworthy, as much as Huang has earned his stripes here. Still, there’s an unshakeable feeling about a movie like this, how it ends and what it leaves you with. The ending might have had a certain thing in mind, but there’s no escaping it – much like adolescent hardship.
Perhaps that’s the true messaging here – the ugliness life brings when you’re a juvenile, an outcast and without a viable support system or people who love you, and the preminence of finding the courage and strength to endure these things…I don’t know.
Wushu Orphan is by no means a bad movie, so I recommend seeing it at a festival or checking it out when it’s finally made its way to a digital or streaming release. All I know, really, is it’s compelled me to keep thinking about how this might affect other viewers going forward after publishing this review.
Talk to me if you’ve seen this and let me know your thoughts.