Director: Suiqiang Huo
Cast: Andy On Chi Kit, Waise Lee, Yang Xing, Hank Qi, Jane Wu, Vincent Matile, Cheng Si Han, Zhang Ya Qi, Dao Dao, Li Fa Guang, Alexandre Robillard
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Is there any production looked down upon more in Asia than the Chinese web movie? Arguably no. Maybe even more so than Filipino romantic comedies. Rapidly made and rarely clocking in longer than 80 minutes (70 is much more common), the likes of iQIYI and Youku have been cranking out a constant stream of kung-fu and monster (the go-to genres of choice) flicks since the late 2010’s, with smartphones expected to be the go-to form of viewing them. The reality is most of these movies are instantly forgettable, with no higher aspiration that to keep the viewer watching for a little over an hour and make it to the end credits. However within such a lowest common denominator form of filmmaking, there are still some diamonds in the rough, mostly spurred on by the fact many stars from Hong Kong’s golden era of action cinema have found themselves a new home working within the web movie arena.
Fan Siu-Wong in One More Shot, Simon Yam in The Comeback, and Xia Miao in Eye for an Eye: The Blind Swordsman have all proven it’s still possible to keep your dignity by starring in a web movie, and even manage to look good while doing so. While virtually all the directorial talent working in the world of web movie making appear to be relatively new to the film industry, and in almost all cases have no experience other than making web movies, a few of them have looked to turn the indifference towards the format to their advantage. While the more mass consumed mainstream movies practically have to include a jingoistic element in order to please China’s NRTA censorship board, it feels like they’re less concerned with how much violence and lack of any patriotic undertone’s web movies come with. The irony being that, if done right, such productions can actually feel like they hark back to HK action cinema’s good old days.
One such director is Suiqiang Huo, who made his debut in 2020 with the fantasy wuxia Immortal Stone of Nirvana, and for the most part has stuck within the same genre with titles like The Demon Suppressors: West Barbarian Beast and Demon Sealer Bureau (and I’ll just put it out there – web movies come with the most awesome names, frequently accompanied by equally awesome posters). In 2022 Huo would try his hand at a more modern action flick, and the result was Blind War, which for a web movie clocks in at what must surely be a record breaking 100 minutes. It’s this movie that was responsible for bringing my attention to Huo, the reason being the casting of leading man Andy On.
After a rocky start making his debut by replacing Jet Li for the 2002 sequel Black Mask 2: City of Masks, On really came to my attention co-starring alongside Jiang Luxia in 2010’s Bad Blood. While the movie itself wasn’t going to win any awards (would any move directed by Dennis Law?), as a screen fighter On came across as both powerful and fast, and he’d continue to clock in scene stealing turns over the next 10 years in the likes of True Legend, Special ID, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, and Undercover Punch and Gun. Plus, how many other people can claim to have fought Jackie Chan twice (New Police Story and Ride On) AND his son (Jaycee Chan in Invisible Target). So to see On getting to headline his own action movie, regardless of the format, was something I was fully onboard for.
Thankfully Blind War falls squarely into the category of being a diamond in the rough. Sprinting out of the gates from the opening scene, On plays a member of a special force’s unit assigned to secure a courthouse where a high-profile criminal is on trial, played by Waise Lee (The Big Heat, Bullet in the Head) in a brief cameo. When a pair of boyfriend and girlfriend assassins infiltrate the building and start spraying the place with bullets, On makes the decision to break protocol and go inside, leading to a sustained shootout that ultimately leaves him blind and the boyfriend dead when he detonates a stun grenade in close proximity. Swearing to take revenge, the girlfriend, who’s played with psychotic relish by newcomer Xing Yang, soon finds her way into On’s life when his daughter is kidnapped by a human trafficker, leading to On unwittingly teaming up with the very person who wants to kill him while they attempt to track down his offspring.
For a movie of its kind, the plot is surprisingly compelling, with director Huo fully taking advantage of the format to quickly glaze over the kind of important details that audiences would usually raise an eyebrow at. This is no truer than when it comes to On’s blindness, who seems to come to the realisation about 5 minutes after being admitted to hospital that he can ‘see’ sounds. He’s soon indulging in some parkour like shenanigans in the hospital’s rehabilitation unit, and of course catching balls like a Chinese version of Daredevil, just minus the suit. Still, and I know I open myself up to being lambasted for saying this, I enjoyed On’s performance here more than Donnie Yen’s similarly visually impaired character from John Wick: Chapter 4. I’ll understand if you stop reading here.
It’d be a crime not to mention where in the world Blind War is supposed to take place. Events unfold in places with names like Manulla, Villania, and Hillia. The police wear bulletproof vests labelled Polizei, indicating that we’re in Germany. But then there’s establishing shots that show a nearby harbour, and Germany is landlocked. It’s a mystery. There’s even a mildly grating Pink Panther-esque detective character who’s basically there for comedy relief (although only achieves that goal in one scene, which involves a genuinely funny knife in the hand setup), played by newcomer Dao Dao, who comes across like an obnoxious mix of Columbo and Tintin.
The biggest thing that Huo gets right though is the pacing, with an action beat never far away, and a refreshing lack of gratuitously cheap looking CGI to ruin things. As with many of these web movies, finding who’s the action director without being able to read Chinese (the credits are rarely subtitled for such productions) feels like an impossible task, but they do a solid job. The choreography may not offer up anything mind-blowing, however the action scenes are smartly integrated into the plot. In one On and Yang are tied to either end of a chain on a pulley, with Yang suspended upside down over a tank of water, and On being able to maintain his position dependent on her not being dunked. It’s a simple and effective scene which successfully establishes high stakes, and makes On’s subsequent fight against multiple opponents while trying to keep her above water (and being unable to see!) suitably tense.
In another highlight On gets a one-on-one knock down drag out fight against Cheng Sihan (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Demons Strike Back), whose bulking frame and steampunk style sunglasses make a solid case for him to be cast as Strong Guy if they ever make an X-Force movie. The best is saved for the finale though, which looks to go the heroic bloodshed route with shades of A Better Tomorrow 2, as On and Yang descend on the trafficker’s mansion armed to the teeth (and in On’s case also his pair of balls – no, not those ones). Yes it may be heroic bloodshed on a budget, but again Huo proves himself as a director who can make a little go a long way, and the night-time setting no doubt helps to mask any CGI that likely would have been much more apparent had it taken place in broad daylight.
Of course Blind War is far from perfect. It contains one of the most unconvincing attempts I’ve seen at a violin soundtrack being matched to the person apparently playing it onscreen, and the concept of classical music being the only thing that can calm On down when he flies into a rage also results in some unintentional amusement. However such instances feel more like they add to Blind War’s charm rather than detract from it, and when you throw in an end credit outtakes reel, what’s left is a lean and mean slice of action cinema. I mean web movie.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10