Turning a comic book into a feature film is no easy task, as many Hollywood studios can certainly attest. When Golden Harvest, Hong Kong’s largest film studio, and special-effects company Centro teamed up to use one of Hong Kong’s best-selling comic book series as the background for their film "Feng Yun" (called "The Stormriders" in English), they laid ambitious plans. With a budget of over $10 million, this film set new standards for the local film industry. When the film finally hit the box office in July 1998, it broke all kinds of records in Asia, making "The Stormriders" the highest grossing film of the year in Hong Kong. What makes this film so special that legions of fantasy fans line up in front of movie theaters to see this film? Universe’s DVD release of this film gives us the chance to take a look at it for ourselves, especially since it is now widely available through Tai Seng Marketing here in the US. The verdict: The film is truly stunning.
Conquer (Sonny Chiba) is the head of a large clan in medieval China who desires to expand his empire. The seer Mud Buddha (Lai Yu-hung) one day predicts that Conquer will have to earn the help of Wind and Cloud to achieve this goal. The emperor sends his troops to find Wind and Cloud, kills their parents, and adopts them as his children, raising them with Charity, his blood daughter.
As the prophecy foretold, Conquer’s empire flourishes for the next ten years. As the boys grow up, helping their master to expand his reach, they both fall in love with Charity (Kristy Yeung). She returns the love of both and is torn between the two but one day Conquer makes the decision for them, not aware of the love triangle. He wants Wind (Ekin Cheng) to marry Charity, much to the dismay of Cloud (Aaron Kwok), who interrupts the wedding ceremony and attempts to spirit Charity away from his brother. Wind and Conquer are determined not to let the impulsive Cloud get away with this. A fierce war erupts between the men that will take them to the limits of their abilities and emotions.
It took five scripts and three complete storyboards to bring the tale of Wind and Cloud to life and still, the film drags a little. With a running length of 132 minutes, it sometimes focuses too much on the characters and their motives, rather than driving the story home. This can be attributed, in part, to the film’s origin as a comic book and the fact that director Andrew Lau and his collaborators tried to stay faithful to the source, portraying the characters as three-dimensionally as they appear in the numerous comics. Fortunately, this is about the only bad thing you can say about "The Stormriders", especially as its finale also features a cameo appearance by Hong Kong superstar Anthony Wong.
The film is an ambitious attempt to incorporate computer generated-effects in Hong Kong movies. After seeing this film, I can hardly wait to see more of it. Unlike Hollywood studios, whose first serious experiments in the CGI field presented us with dinosaurs and a series of other monstrous creatures, Golden Harvest used the special effects to create an enchanting world full of magic. Where other films, like "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain" clearly hit the limitations of practical feasibility, "The Stormriders" excels and presents the viewer with surprising and compelling spell effects. Although the film also includes a completely computer-generated creature, the Fire Kirin, this monster is clearly one of the weaker effects in the film. Nevertheless, the Fire Kirin, completely covered with flames, is a spectacular creature that works well within the context of the story. During one fighting scene on top of a 30-story Buddha statue, the filmmakers employed such a dramatic camera move that it becomes immediately obvious that it has to be a computer generated effects shot. You start to look for hints to give it away, and once you start looking, of course you notice them. Yet, the scene is very well choreographed and looks gorgeous and I am sure with a little more experience in the field, filmmakers will create spellbinding results throughout in future movies. Considering that this is Hong Kong’s first serious attempt to utilize computer-generated images in their movies, these slight problems are easily forgotten. The spell effects are the most dazzling spells you have ever seen. The first time I saw the movie, my initial reaction was that it felt like the computer game "Final Fantasy" had come to life. Even after repeated watching, I still feel that much of the spells’ appeal comes from the furious choreography, the flashy colors, and the amazing diversity of the effects. The film is breathtakingly staged with a gorgeous cinematography. The extremely rich look of the film is hardly surprising. Director Andrew Lau was a cinematographer before he started directing, and lent his skills to such visionary directors such as Ronny Yu, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.
"The Stormriders" comes as a Special Edition DVD and contains a flawless transfer in its original theatrical 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio that is sharp, boasting lively colors. It brings out the best of the painstakingly designed photography, unconventional framing and the lighting of the elaborate settings. The production design on this film is extremely lush and much attention was paid to make sure every little detail of the image feels organic, well placed, and authentic. It is a true pleasure to see all this come to life on this great DVD. There are no signs of pixelation to be seen and the colors are vibrant and strong, nicely reproducing all shades and hues of the gorgeously lit scenes. Shadow detail is outstanding with plenty of detail visible in even the darkest shadows. This disc easily measures up with some of the best US releases.
The disc also contains a number of supplements, including a documentary with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as explanations of the special effects. Unfortunately, this part is available only in Chinese without any subtitles. A separate feature about the computer generated special effects is also on the disc and shows how the effects were combined with the live-action footage, and how they were layered on top of each other in order to create the wealth and depth of the intricate effects. Also part of the disc are detailed cast and crew biographies and biographies of the film’s main characters. All this information is presented complete in both Chinese and English.
The film boasts an active 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack in Cantonese and Mandarin. It is a lively soundtrack with some interesting split surround effects. It is not overly aggressive but oftentimes nicely captures the ambiance of the scene on screen, giving it more dimensionality and bustling activity than a stereo soundtrack could offer.
The music to the film is nice, although quite modern at times, too. It works well within the film, although I personally would have preferred a stronger traditional score. The arrangements combine traditional Chinese music instruments with more modern sounds to create an aural experience that is rich, a great support to the film. The film is fully subtitled in Chinese and English.
Despite its sometimes-dragging storyline, "The Stormriders" is a film every aficionado of Hong Kong fantasy films should see. It clearly displays to what heights these films can be taken with the introduction of computer effects. It is a highly romantic film that doesn’t put the prophecy and the evil, empire-building clan master in the center, but focuses more on the relationships between the main characters. It is a great film and I can’t wait to see more of the new generation Hong Kong films. Make sure to pick it up!