My Schoolmate, The Barbarian

Reviewed by YTSL

Ching Siu Tung and Wong Jing are two Hong Kong moviemakers whose works are not known or lauded for being the most coherent offerings around.  However, they often make up for this by infusing ample amounts of creativity into that which bear their particular stylistic imprint.  Consequently, a(ny) film which has the talented man I look upon as the wirework wizard -- rather than Yuen Wo Ping -- as its the action director and the show-business personality who had a hand in producing such as “Naked Killer”, “Boys Are Easy”, the “God of Gamblers” series plus a whole slew of Stephen Chow comedies as the producer, scriptwriter and co-director (along with Billy Chung) is one that I feel ought to be worth checking out.

Not entirely unexpectedly, MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN proved to be the kind of work whose plot holes might be large enough to drive a large truck through.  Hence, in order to happily get through this film, the viewer has to be able to accept -- at some level -- that:  A responsible straight A student could be so quickly expelled from his school after being simply framed by a scheming ex-girlfriend; his loving but busy business tycoon of a mother’s instructions to her minions to enroll her son at another top level “Band 1” school with the initials of DBS could be misheard (and not get asked to be re-confirmed), with the result that he ends up at TBS Memorial College, a lowly “Band 5” institution; and that the new boy -- who gets beaten up on his first day at his new school -- would so easily attract friends and allies, one of whom happens to be an academic underachiever with great fight skills and ability to instruct an admittedly good student in the art of self-defence as well as (counter-)attack.

Greater amounts of imagination than sense are also in evidence in the seemingly matter of fact presentation in MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN re the possibility of there being a graffiti strewn educational establishment in which disputes between students are settled by one-on-one duels in the quietest classroom on the school’s top floor, atop an area of space that’s made up of 55 desks that have been pushed -- but are by no means permanently linked -- together, and underneath some nasty looking, fast-moving, blood-stained ceiling fans.  Adding to this, of course, completely fictitious institution’s surreal air is the assertion that no Triads as well as teachers and social workers have interfered with what one character refers to as the TBS’ “Barbarian underground tradition”, whose uncomplicated and definitive rules include it being so that “whoever falls to the ground loses”.

Something else that tests the limits of the film’s credibility is the fact of this impossible-to-take-seriously effort’s pair of stars, Stephen Fung (who portrays rich -- but nice -- plus smart kid, Edward Chan) and Nicholas Tse (who plays Stone, a former “King of Duel” and Triad who is MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN’s titular character), looking quite a bit older than the individuals they essay in this work (who supposedly are students who are three months away from sitting for the HKCEE:  A set of exams that are the HKSAR equivalent of the British GCSEs and other national academic tests that are taken in one’s tenth or eleventh year of schooling).  Matters are not helped by it being the case that, personality- as well as appearance-wise, their maturity -- and also that of Mantis (a class-mate and reigning “King of Duel” who comes in the form of the often impressive Samuel Pang) -- is particularly marked in comparison to that of the far-more-annoying-than-she-is-cute Phoenix (the movie’s main female presence and nominal love interest is very badly played by Joey Yung).

All this notwithstanding, a few assets possessed by this work went a long way towards making it so that, for all of its obvious as well as many faults, MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN proved to be a movie that I rather enjoyed viewing.  One of this is the definite charisma possessed by Stephen Fung, five o’clock shadow and all.  Another is the off-screen chemistry between him and his friend, Nicholas Tse (who may well be the reigning Young Turk of the Hong Kong entertainment world but seems prone to affecting the Ekin “Hairboy” Cheng style of acting), transferring well onto the screen of my TV.  Thirdly, although Samuel Pang and Ng Chi Hung (whose role is that of Phoenix’s father) don’t have as much opportunity to shine as I would liked to have seen them being accorded, they were welcome additions to the film’s cast (which also include Ken Chung as the villainous kidnapper Tiger, the strangely monikered Missy Hyperbitch as Pork Chop, and Yu Ka Ho as the troublesome Big Mouth).
Still, there should be no doubt about the best things about MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN being its Ching Siu Tung-choreographed fight sequences.  With the aid of some interesting cinematography and skilled editing, these expertly designed and directed action sections made those who appeared in the film as TBS’ duelists look very stylish indeed when executing their acrobatic, power-packed or sometimes just plain astounding violent -- yet also graceful -- moves.  It thus came as a blow to this (re)viewer that a substantial portion of an important confrontation -- that takes place inside of what looks to be a garage, and near such as professional car washing machinery -- fell below the high action standard previously established in this offering (not least because of its being accompanied by a (Cantonese) rap soundtrack and making explicit references to video game battling styles).  Up until this climactic encounter though (and maybe even after that stylistic glitch), I actually was thinking that this Wong Jing production might well be my candidate for the title of “most viscerally satisfying action work of 2001”.

My rating for this film:  6.5

NB - pictures from the official movie website