THE KUMITE is the stupid American title for the 2003 Hong Kong film also known as STAR RUNNER. Thankfully there is a tournament in it, but if you’re wondering, it’s called “Star Runner,” not “The Kumite.” The word “kumite” is never used in the movie, unless you count the BLOODSPORT trailer they included on the DVD. Also, the guy in the cover is not the hero, that’s the guy he has to beat at the tournament. And the tagline “To die is an honor” has nothing to do with the movie at all. Nobody dies.
In fact, this movie is PG-13 and it’s as much about (inappropriate) teen romance as it is about fighting. Another dumb American title could be HOT FOR TEACHER. It opens with the boys in a high school multimedia class buzzing about their new half-Korean teacher Kim (Kim Hyun-Joo) and what a looker they heard she was. Sure enough she’s what Michael called a P.Y.T. and they even have a little breeze blowing through her hair when she walks in, like J. Lo when she sings. Same thing happens later when our hero Bond (Vaness Wu) brings her into his boxing gym.
Wait, what’s he doing going extra-curricular with his teacher? See, at the train station she gets attacked by one of these roving bands of teen purse snatchers, like from the DEATH WISH movies but with more mainstream fashion sensibility. Bond… Bond Cheung happens to be there and beats them up, so he and Kim sort of become friends. The gym is in debt and he’s assigned to find a model so they can advertise their new boxercise program, and he brings her in to do it. She’s an adult woman but she starts hanging out with this teen who is her student, who stands there awkwardly when she has to change clothes. Ha ha.
There is a love square. Bond obviously has a thing for Kim. Kim is temporarily staying with her old friend the nerdy guidance counselor (Alfred Cheung), who has a thing for her too. But she has a thing for a dude back in Korea but he’s married so she came here to get away from him.
Meanwhile, the Kong Ching gym is going to be able to enter two of their fighters into the famous Star Runner Pan Asian Martial Arts Competition. Bond thinks he deserves it, but his coach doesn’t necessarily agree. The coach is played by Gordon Liu in a backwards baseball cap.
Unfortunately he doesn’t fight or do any moves at all, he’s just acting in this one. Anyway, Bond’s gotta impress him, but he gets his ass handed to him by his rival at the gym, and he decides it’s hopeless and gives up, until another guy is impressed by him and tries to train him.
This is not an underground tournament, it’s a very commercial one like in EXTREME CHALLENGE. It’s heavily advertised and takes place in a traditional boxing ring and arena, with a referee and two broadcast commentators. There are fighters representing 18 boxing clubs from 12 countries.
There’s a bit of a new wave of martial arts movies where they combine the traditions of the genre with modern filmatistic styles that don’t necessarily match. A more recent example would be GALLANTS. This one uses techniques you wouldn’t expect to see in a fight movie, cute flights of fancy. For example Bond has a grandfather (David Chiang) who’s in a coma but when he comes to him we see them talking and sharing a drink and smoke, to represent some kind of imagined discussion. When Bond tells Kim about his grandfather’s life it goes into colorized war time footage, and then it’s all scratchy film as he explains it but we see Bond and Kim as the grandfather and the nurse he fell in love with. Shit like that. Like something out of 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, AMELIE or MUPPET BABIES.
The use of music is a little different too. Some nice acoustic guitar, a romantic sound you don’t expect in a sports movie. But also there’s a very effective training montage theme to pump you up in the traditional way.
Another thing: cute intertitles, like chapter names. I liked this. The section of the movie where Bond finds an unorthodox new mentor is titled “the weird coach.” This ex-fighter with an injured eye (Max Mok Siu Chung) convinces Bond not to give up. The Star Runner favorite (who Bond worships in cardboard standup form at the gym) is Tank Wong (Andy On, BLACK MASK 2, TRUE LEGEND), who seems undefeatable. And how’s Bond gonna beat him when he can’t even beat Chris back at the gym? Well, by switching it up, using kung fu instead of his usual muay thai. His new coach brings him to masters of Wing Chun and Hong-Kuen (the latter by a white priest named Father Sun). These styles are really different and cool to watch the teachers demonstrate at their training facility out in the scrapyard.
Only at the end of this chapter do we learn from Gordon Liu that the new coach’s name is “Bullshit Bill.” He couldn’t fight anymore because he destroyed his liver from drinking, “now he makes his cash teaching all these monkey tricks and things.”
Well, luckily the monkey tricks work. Bond flashes back to his Wing Chun training on the wooden dummy as he uses the techniques in the tournament. In this movie they act like you can’t mix and match from different fighting systems, you have to switch from regular to kung fu mode. The commentators are amazed when his hand position tells them he’s in kung fu mode, it reminds them of the old days. They are blown away when he wins a match with “Hong Kuen’s Arrow Fist,” a super powered flying punch that in my opinion most monkeys could not be trained to do very effectively.
I like some melodrama in these movies, so I don’ t mind that there are multiple scenes of Bond standing or sitting in the pouring rain brooding. I like the touching moment where you realize Bullshit Bill has impressed shit-talking Gordon Liu, and when he makes a sincere vow to Bond: “I, Bullshit Bill, will never lie to you.” I like the underdeveloped moment where Tank’s brother/trainer Benny (Ken Lo) lets him get away with calling him “brother” instead of “sir” in the ring. I even kinda like the entirely unearned and not believable moment between rounds in the final where Bond says to Tank, “Nice moment, huh? Pretty peaceful,” and Tank compliments his fighting.
But for my tastes there is way too much of the movie spent on the extra-tournamental wooing. The counselor asking him for dating advice, then following the advice, then Bond figuring out he was dating Kim so he shows up and interrupts. Due to his dating strategy they miss the last ferry and get stranded on an island at night… cut to terrible dancing to smooth jazz! Maybe that was an homage to the famous bar dancing scene in KICKBOXER.
The relationship ends up being the main focus of the movie, to the point that the results of the tournament are left deliberately unanswered. The important thing is that his adult lover shows up at the last second after Tank beat his pretty boy face like he was making it into a pizza crust, and makes a plea to the referee that, “Sir, he only needs a chance!,” delaying the 10 count long enough that he can get up and get beat even more.
To be fair, that is something that makes the movie original, and people who are into that type of soap opera romance movie probly appreciate it. But I think it’s problematic. The filmatists don’t really get around that this is an adult woman starting a relationship with a dumb kid, and that she is his teacher which adds an extra layer of wrong. I don’t think it’s a cultural thing, because in the movie the other teachers talk about it being wrong too. Or at least something she should keep a secret.
I also don’t really buy the counselor then coming to the match and cheering him on, and being a comic relief nerd that they cut to throughout the fights. I mean, we don’t want him to be a jealous asshole or anything, but he is actually the guidance counselor at the school. Isn’t it his ethical duty to, like, report her or something?
And also, not once do we see one second of her teaching anything about multimedia or him having any interest in it. I feel like maybe she was more hired for her hair blowability than her knowing how to teach.
The director is Daniel Lee, who did BLACK MASK, but most of the fights are covered like a modern American post-action director would do them. The camera shakes around and the editing is spastic, very rarely showing more than one move before it cuts away. The final fight between Bond and Tank is one of the few that has much of a story to it.
I don’t remember much about DRAGON SQUAD, which Vaness Wu starred in a few years later, and which I wrote about in Seagalogy since Seagal produced it. I don’t recall him being bad there, but here he’s kind of an empty husk. I looked it up just now, and it does not surprise me one bit that he got started as a member of a boy band called F4, originated on a Taiwanese drama called Meteor Garden. And this started like two years before the movie, so we’re talking Justin Timberlake when he was still in whichever one Justin Timberlake was in, not Justin Timberlake now. Wu is still a pretty boy singing idol, and just 2 years ago had a solo album with the hilarious title C’est La “V”. Because his name starts with V. He also has his own jewelry line and is the creative director of the Greater China division of Reebok.
All of this would be fine if he was good in the movie. I liked that Rain guy in NINJA ASSASSIN, and I know Luke Goss was in a boy band before he was in BLADE II and the DEATH RACE DTV sequels. But C’est La “V” spends most of this movie with almost the same blank expression on his face:
Do you see any intelligence behind those eyes? I can’t spot it. He’s more bangs than personality, a slow, quiet kid who knows if he just hides behind his hair and doesn’t do anything then girls will swoon for him.
In fact, there’s a weird scene where a shy girl at the train station is waiting to give him a casserole dish of food she must’ve made for him. He just says “thanks” and walks away, and never talks to her again in the movie. He takes shit like that for granted, ’cause he’s Bond.
Even that would be acceptable if he later proved to us that there was more going on inside him, that we weren’t seeing all his dimensions. But wanting to win the tournament and kiss his teacher are not enough to convince me.
THE KUMITE – or, let’s face it, it’s called STAR RUNNER – deserves points for being a little different. It deals with many fight movie tropes, some of them effectively, while also trying to be another type of movie both in style and content. That I didn’t like some of this stuff didn’t stop me from being excited toward the climax when the members of the boxing club Bond quit show up unexpectedly to help him train for the final, now that their fighter is out of competition. Or even at the beginning when they all sing an anthem of unity. There is plenty to like in this movie. But is it enough to beat BARE KNUCKLES?