Edward (Stephen Fung) is transferred to a new school after an incident involving his ex-girlfriend. Not long after he butts heads with the school bullies and is forced into a fight. After losing, another student called Stone (Nicholas Tse) agrees to train him so he can better defend himself. Meanwhile Stone has to deal with Mantis (Samuel Pang) constantly challenging him in order to become The King Of Duel.
Wong Jing has always been a film maker for better or worse that can make a profit. Not a huge profit when compared to most Hong Kong film makers but enough so he can fund further projects. With a knack for being able to make movies very fast and very cheap, as well as being able to change scripts on the fly even when filming. Wong Jing has gained a reputation among fans as a director which you either love or you either hate. Especially when you consider the fact that he's worked with some of the top names in the HK film industry. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung and Chow Yun-Fat are just some of the people which he has worked with on a consistent basis.
My Schoolmate, The Barbarian is a film which sees him working with what were at the time two of the hottest young actors working in the industry, Nicholas Tse and Stephen Fung. Two actors who have since gone on to have very successful careers even in a time when young actors like themselves would often fall out of popularity with local audiences and fade into obscurity. Nicholas especially has matured into a very capable actor in both the dramatic and action stakes with Fung enjoying a career as a film maker in his own right having directed films such as Enter The Phoenix, House of Fury and the upcoming Tai Chi O.
It's a good thing this film has two actors like Tse and Fung in the lead as if it had starred anyone else it could have easily fallen apart very quickly. While Wong Jing may be able to make films quickly, some times they just aren't very good. The pacing which moves at the break neck speed suffers from annoying supporting characters, horribly written dialogue and not enough action to justify the title. Wong isn't entirely to blame though. He actually co-directed this with another director Billy Chung who has directed such genre "classics" as Kung Fu Mahjong and The Lady Iron Chef. You would think an inept film maker Chung would be able to rein in the mediocrity once in a while but it's obvious that Wong Jing seems to be responsible for most of the scenes that were filmed.
Getting back on topic with the two leads. Tse and Fung are very likable. Fung plays the naive smart guy pretty well and Tse plays the stoic hero in a very competent way. Tse's character Stone especially gets to enjoy the benefit of actually being fleshed out and given a real personality with a believable if not purposefully tragic back story. Shame none of the other characters enjoy this sort of treatment. Joey Yung's character Phoenix almost comes close but when she has moments which sees her screaming for no apparent reason we stop seeing her as an interesting character and somebody who should be receiving psychiatric treatment. Her parents come off slightly better though. Frankie Ng and Rocelia Fung have some nice scenes together and it is nice to see Frankie play something other then a Triad for once.
Handling the fight choreography is Ching Siu-Tung, another big name who has worked with Wong Jing on several occasions. Ching seemed to be an interesting choice here as at this time he was mostly doing more fantasy orientated work like The Duel and Shaolin Soccer and despite the film trying to be a teen comedy drama he uses the exact same style of choreography and film techniques he applied to those films. Not that I had a problem with that in any way. I'm all for action directors doing fight scenes in unique and interesting ways and it's a testament to Ching's talent as an action director that he's able to apply his style of frantic and fantastical action to a film such as this. One problem I did have with the film was that there wasn't enough of it.
The film opens with a great fight between Nicholas and another actor whose name seems to allude me. Right away this fight sets the tone for the style we will be seeing. It very much reminded me of the classic Kung Fu movies of the 70's which would open with a fight that displayed what would be the primary style and generally easing the audience into the over tone of the film. The fight uses a lot of exaggerated kicks and punches with a lot of it done in slow motion allowing for some cool moments so the actors look like they are legitimate fighters. Nicholas has always impressed me when doing action. It comes as no surprise that even to this day he takes his training very seriously and has been able to show off what he can do in films such as Invisible Target and Shaolin. His moves are a little stiff but for someone who was never formally trained he is very impressive.
Stephen Fung also gets to look like a bad ass fighter when he has a rather impressive fight with Yu Ka-Ho. The most interesting aspect of these fights are that they take place on a bunch of school desks all pushed together to create a platform. As each move is executed the desks are knocked away leaving a smaller area for them to fight. This made Ching become more creative in terms of the choreography and I'm surprised this idea of a slowly shrinking area of movement hasn't been used in other films.
Another good fight sees Nicholas fight Samuel Pang. Pang is a performer who I've yet to see used to the effect he was here. He's an extremely capable fighter but no one has used him like this since and it's a shame because I'm hugely supportive of actors who can not only act but can fight convincingly on screen and Pang is one of those types of actors. His very lean build and cold stare make for a good villain and I hope one day a director will realize his potential and use him in a good way. His fight with Nicholas is a fine example of his skills and flexibility, particularly when he throws a few nice looking kicks.
We then get a rather lengthy and nicely done finale taking place in a garage. Ching throws in as many ideas as he can in the remaining running time. Both Tse and Fung take on Lee Tat-Chiu. Lee's character uses a lot of big kicks and some traditional arm and hand locks. Again, the exaggerated way in which Lee uses his moves and applies them evokes 70's Kung Fu with a slightly contemporary edge. He has a few nice exchanges with both actors. There's a nice moment when Chiu and Nicholas have a classic sword duel with a spanner and baseball bat replacing swords. Ching uses the exact same style of action he used in films such as Swordsmen II and it was interesting to see this used in a more modern setting. Things get even crazier from there when Fung has to fight on his own against Lee and we see Wong Jing indulge in his love for video games. Something he's done before. It's a good solid final fight and is definitely worth checking out.
My Schoolmate, The Barbarian is an interesting mix of comedy, drama and almost fantasy style martial arts action. Not all of it works but what does work is great and what doesn't is ultimately forgettable. While I wouldn't say it's a must see for fans of Hong Kong action cinema. Fans of Ching Siu-Tung or Nicholas Tse might have a good time with this one.