Well, there seems to a plethora of comic book based movies nowadays, with the ever-increasing ability of digital effects to recreate the comic book panel. So whilst skimming over a cinema guide recently, my mind slowly drifted to one of the first comic book digital effects spectacles that I could remember: The Storm Riders. It was convenient then that Pinnacle are about to do an Australian DVD release, meaning I get to revisit this 1998 ‘classic’.
Ah, nostalgia – it’s not what it use to be.
For a film originally sold upon its cutting-edge digital effects and dynamic comic book aesthetic, I feel somewhat bad to say the film has not aged well at all. The effects really do look dated and obvious, with a number of scenes at a level I associate with television martial arts soaps. Part of this is perhaps the editing choices for the film, which feel clichéd and inconsistent from battle to battle, particularly in the beginning before Aaron and Ekin as Cloud and Wind enter the scene. The fact that I’ve discovered (while researching the film for this writeup) that there was a television series that predated the film just makes me second-guess whether there was some footage recycling for the sake of fans of the serial.
And this film really suffers for trying to be way too faithful to its source material, cramming so much story into its two hour run time that the character and plot development are minimal. It is not uncommon in cinema for characters to act as carriers of some talismanic plot device that is to be given to or taken by the central characters. You really have to wonder why such effort was made in portraying those particular scenes, since their impact upon either the plot or the main characters is minimal.
But then, most of the main characters are so two-dimensional that it seems little would affect their development that does not add to their eventual triumph in the end. Aaron Kwok’s Cloud is a brooding hero whose emotional range is demonstrated either with comical posing or overstated saccharine sentimentality. Ekin Cheng’s Wind does not even have the same opportunity for posturing and only really exists because the plot demands it. Kristy Yang as Charity is merely the third point in the token love triangle in the film, and Shu Qi as the latter half’s comic relief just feels awkward.
The exception, though, is Sonny Chiba’s Lord Conquer. As the film’s single target of characterisation, there is some interest in seeing the rise and fall of this man of ambition. His relationship with his destiny is what drives the film and it contains echoes of something greater that one presumes exists in the source material. In fact, the one scene that still carries a level of awe is his battle with Anthony Wong’s cameo as the Sword Saint. Admittedly there is no real explanation as to why this confrontation should occur — in a wu xia film this is hardly surprising — but this portrayal of two epic figures in a battle of wills greatly overshadows the final climax.
As an early film from Andrew Lau, you can see shadows of the techniques he uses much more effectively in later films, but looking back The Storm Riders is a film that is better fondly remembered rather than actually revisited. For those who have yet to see the film, it is perhaps better as an academic exercise in the evolution of digital effects in Asian cinema rather than as a film to be enjoyed for its own merits.