Fantasia Report: Jade Warrior Review
The temptation when writing about Jade Warrior -- available on DVD here -- is to make a big deal about how this is both young Finnish director AJ Annila's first feature out of film school as well as it being the first ever Finnish martial arts film. The problem with doing this, of course, is that it by attaching the 'worthy first attempt' tag on to it you risk also implying that the film is flawed in some way that more experience would likely cure. But whether it be a first film, fifth film or tenth film, Jade Warrior is, quite simply, a very good film.
A lifelong fan of wuxia film Annila's goal with Jade Warrior was to make a film that honors both his own heritage and the conventions of Chinese wuxia film and he has succeeded admirably thanks to a fortuitous, and relatively recently discovered, link between the Kalevala -- a famous Finnish epic poem filled with legends and lore -- and Chinese language and culture. A key artefact in one of the stories of the Kalevala is the Sampo, a magical machine said to be the hidden source of happiness created by a legendary Smith to help win the love of a woman. What has since been learned is that the Sampo may very well have its linguistic roots in China, where there are reports of a legendary Tibetan temple known as Sang Fu -- pronounced Sampo by the Mongolians -- whose name translates roughly to 'the wellspring of happiness'. Throw in the discovery of mummified northern Europeans in China and you have a legitimate, if tenuous, link between the two cultures, certainly enough for Annila and company to build a quasi sequel to the Smith story blending elements of Finnish and Chinese culture while remaining true to the spirit of the original Kalevala tales.
The story goes like this: following the creation of the Sampo it was stolen by a powerful nameless demon that believed it could be used to create a literal hell on earth but the demon was stymied in his plan when it discovered that the Sampo could only be operated by the Smith's son, Sintai. Sintai, for his part, has been prophesied as the man who will destory the demon and free the land from its threat, in return from which the gods will grant him freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. He will simply die and be no more, free of the continual trials and tribulations of life. But having lived his life among monks training in the martial arts to prepare for his prophetic role Sintai wants to first spend a day living as a normal human, a day in which he falls in love with a beautiful and deadly village girl.
Cut forward four thousand years to the modern day. Kai is an old fashioned smith locked in a deep depression following the departure of his girlfriend, Ronja, who he believes is the only woman he will ever love. The mummified remains of a four thousand year old man have been discovered clutching a metallic case of craftsmanship well beyond anything that could possibly have been imagined in its era, a case that responds to Kai's touch, opening to release a powerful being within and triggering waves of visions that clearly link Kai to Sintai. But how is this possible? If Sintai carried out his mission and slew the demon his spirit should be permanently gone and free from this world ...
Shot on a budget of merely two and a half million Euros Jade Warrior is a simply gorgeous film to look at, beautifully designed and detailed and shot in a series of dramatic locations. When CG is used to bolster the imagery Annila wisely chooses to leave his stylistic tweaks slight, giving the film a just slightly otherworldly, yet still recognizable, feel. The film is pitched primarily towards drama -- as befits its epic poem ambitions -- with martial arts sequences sprinkled throughout to bolster the story without ever dominating it. This is a tragic romance first, a supernatural fight film second and it never loses sight of that fact. That said when the martial arts come they are well choreographed, very well shot, and well executed with the Finnish stars proving more than up to the task of selling the physical end of the film despite their never having trained in martial arts prior to this project. The script is a lyrical piece of work, drawing on a host of ancient archetypes lifted liberally from two cultures and always resisting the urge to oversell the more extreme elements.
What really makes Jade Warrior sing, however, is the cast. Zhang Jin Chu is a known quantity as Sintai's would be lover, having recently been seen in Seven Swords and Peacock, while co-star Markku Peltota is also well familiar to fans of Scandanavian film thanks to his repeated collaborations with celebrated auteur Aki Kaurismaki. Tommi Eronen, then, is the unknown quantity cast in the dual role of Kai and Sintai and Erronen is definitely a face to watch, a deeply emotive lead who easily carries the emotions of the piece while also providing a strong physical presence. An epic poem requires an epic hero and he easily fits the bill.
The wuxia genre covers a wide spectrum of possibilities, from high art to low pulp, and Jade Warrior clocks in somewhere closer to Crouching Tiger than to The Bride With White Hair. The fusion of cultures makes for a fascinating new spin on the venerable genre and Annila executes with style and flair. Strongly recommended.