Unbeatable (China/Hong Kong, 2013) [Terracotta 2014]

Dante Lam has built a career on making character driven action films that feature solid, hard-hitting action sequences blended with an often-deep exploration of the male psyche. The often-cited trifecta of Beast Stalker (2008), Fire of Conscience (2010) and The Stool Pigeon (2010) solidified Lam as a director who can fuse adrenalin fueled cinema with smart, nuanced narratives, but his 2011 film The Viral Factor, saw his talents take a step back as he substituted a larger canvas of carnage for the more compact and contained tales we were use to, giving us a messy, uneven film that featured some spectacular action sequences and some contrived, formulaic plot devices carried by overwrought melodrama. His follow-up, Unbeatable, see’s Lam pull back on the scale significantly, withdrawing from the globe hoping feats of The Viral Factor, to a much smaller and simpler tale.

Unbeatable teases us with the scale of The Viral Factor, with a quick opening that introduces us to our three main characters; Ching Fai (Nick Cheung), a former boxing champion turned cab driver living in Hong Kong who owes large amounts of money to some loan sharks, Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng) a drifting spirit living off of his daddies fortune travelling between Yunnan and Beijing, and Gwen Wong (Mei Ting) a mentally broken single mother living in Macau with her daughter Dani (Crystal Lee). From there our world is scaled down to strictly Macau. Fai must flee the loan sharks in Hong Kong, and so turns to an old friend who runs a boxing gym for assistance, where he spends his time performing basic janitorial services and teaching boxercise classes. Siqi discovers his father lost his fortune and so returns to Macau to be by his side, only to find he’s a drunk intent on berating his aimless son. And Gwen, already in Macau, is despondent and completely reliant on her young daughter after the accidental death of her son, an event she blames herself for due to her constant drunken state after her husband left her for another woman. Soon the worlds of all three characters collide as Fai moves in with Gwen and Dani, and Siqi starts taking mixed martial arts classes at the same boxing gym Fai works at, intent on earning back a small fortune for his father, as well as his respect, by winning the Golden Rumble, an MMA tournament held in Macau.  Siqi soon realizes that Fai has skills to teach him, and helps break him out of his woeful shell, whilst at the same time Fai becomes attached to Dani, helping her break her mother out of her sorrowful prison. Together all three characters embark on a quest for redemption.

This is a small, character driven film that uses MMA to fuel its narrative, and while its chalk full of fight movie clichés, under  Lam’s expert direction, it manages to rise above those clichés and ends up being a fairly compelling and heartfelt piece of work. In many ways it’s very comparable to Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011), another fight film that uses MMA to drive its narrative. Terrific performances are a plenty, but Nick Cheung as always is a scene-stealer, with a remarkable nuanced performance as the aging veteran, and his physical transformation is quite remarkable. Eddie Peng, much like Nick Cheung, also undergoes a remarkable physical transformation, and the young Crystal Lee is also quite endearing as the young Dani.

Much has to be said about the stunning cinematography, which is a hallmark of a Lam film. It manages to perfectly infuse the chaos and adrenalin of an MMA fight, using deep saturated colours and rapid fire camera moves, with the beauty and calm of meditative joy, where the camera lingers like a watchful eye as we see the lives of our protagonists unfold. Like most fight films, there are some spectacular training sequences, and of course some well choreographed fight sequences, but these take the back seat to the drama that unfolds around the fight world.

Much like the aforementioned Warrior, as well as David Mamet’s Redbelt (2008), there are problems with the concept for the fight tournament, as its unreasonably complex, as opposed to the typical straight forward style employed by all fighting organizations around the world. And whilst the fight scenes are very well choreographed and executed, there are techniques performed in the film that are completely illegal in all fight organizations worldwide. The learning curve of Siqi would also have been almost impossible to meet, to go from a couple of years of Tae Kwon Do training to full on MMA. But despite these flaws, Unbeatable manages to work on all levels. Much credit to Lam for creating a film that could have been a bloated melodrama of epic proportions into a wonderful piece of heart-warming MMA cinema. As with the footwork of an expert boxer, he keeps the tone light on its feet, even mocking the homoerotic undertones people often point to during these male on male type events.

Unbeatable plays at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival on Wednesday May 28. Click here for screening times and tickets.