Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders burst onto Hong Kong screens in 1998, riding an unparalleled wave of audience anticipation and studio hype. The film came from a popular director, thanks to his hugely successful Young & Dangerous films, and featured an all-star cast of Hong Kong’s most popular actors and pop singers. What’s more, it was adapted from the city’s most popular comic book (or ‘manhua’), Ma Wing-shing’s Fung Wan, and utilised computer-generated visual effects the likes of which had never been seen before in a Hong Kong production.
The film begins when the all-powerful Lord Conquerer (Sonny Chiba) receives a prophecy that he will have good fortune if he trains two children, Wind and Cloud, to be master martial artists and swordsmen like himself. When Wind and Cloud grow to adulthood (played by Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok respectively) a second prophecy reveals that they may become his downfall. That is about as simple as the storyline can be made, since in the execution it is a long and fairly muddled affair, hampered by too large a cast of characters and too great a reliance on the audience knowing who is who and what is actually going on. For the target crowd of excited Hong Kong teenagers, this strategy likely worked perfectly well. To the uninitiated, the film is often an exercise in head-scratching befuddlement. Most scenes appear to be a duel, or a lead-up to a duel, or an ominous conversation regarding the inevitability of a duel. It’s all taken remarkably seriously with little room for humour.
Visually the film is striking in how much it acts as the border between Hong Kong cinema in the 20th and 21th centuries. The computer-generated effects, which have dated rather badly as many visual effects do, herald the arrival of a whole new range of possibilities for local filmmakers. The cinematography, lensed effectively by Lau himself, betray the film as very much a product of the 1990s with its wide-angle lens and mobile camera-work. The action sequences vary in how they’re represented, with some appearing rather straightforward and others either enhanced with effects or edited to jarring low frame rates. These latter moments feel rather reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time, which attempted a similar technique. It actually feels more effective here, as the shots wind up looking and feeling more like panels from a comic book than moving pictures in a film.
The quality of the cast varies. Sonny Chiba is absolutely the stand-out, giving the villainous Lord Conqueror both gravitas and charisma. Aaron Kwok is rather relentlessly grim and serious as Cloud, whereas Ekin Cheng really does seem to be phoning his performance in from some distance. He’s relaxed and amiable to an extent, but there’s also a sense of boredom about him – as if deep down he’d be more comfortable starring in another Young & Dangerous sequel.
In the end The Storm Riders feels uneven and even a little tedious in places, but when it pulls a scene off it does so with aplomb. It’s very much a cultural artefact of its time, attempting to rely on its visuals and its popular cast to plaster over any holes in the screenplay – and there are a lot of holes in that screenplay. Audiences did demand a sequel, but for many years that sequel never came. Lau and Cheng re-teamed on another manhua adaptation, A Man Called Hero, but Fung Wan fans had to wait another 11 years for Wind and Cloud to be reunited – and then it was under less than stellar circumstances in the Pang brothers’ The Storm Warriors.