KOWLOON WALLED CITY (2021) is a diverting and pretty stylish period martial arts movie I found on Hi-YAH!. It takes place I believe in the early ’70s, mostly in the titular Imperial-Chinese-military-fort-turned-enclave-between-Kowloon-and-British-Hong-Kong. But it begins somewhere to the north with its protagonist, the gruff street fighter A’neng (Xing Yu, IP MAN, IRON PROTECTOR), storming through a gangster gambling den and into an opulent bath house to confront a fellow student he blames for the death of his master.
We don’t know who he is yet but he drags people around by their hair and fights through an army of men (and one woman) wearing only towels. Great attention is paid to knocking people through walls and doors, cracking heads on multiple sinks, crunching various ledges and tiled walls with people’s heads, sliding bodies across the wet floor, faces jiggling from the power of fists, bones banging against other bones, making loud thuds or crunching sounds. A’neng carries a small tombstone-shaped tribute to his fallen master, which his opponent kicks in half. A’neng beats him until he’s begging for his life and then stumbles out into the snow, where a drunk man’s singing inspires him to go to Hong Kong. Never underestimate the power of music.
In Hong Kong he becomes a pickpocket, and gets chased onto a crowded trolley by a colonial cop. Most of the passengers are repulsed by his smell, but a nice, proper lady in the back named Jiahui (Lang Yu) takes pity on him, pretends he’s her fiancee, speaks to the cops in English (because she went to Manchester) and bribes them with a bottle of whisky. And she gives him some ham. In an alley later he appears out of nowhere to rescue her from hoodlums, and walks her to her home in Kowloon Walled City.
She’s late for her uncle’s funeral and the meeting to choose his replacement as chairman of the South Region. Baozi (Li Guo-Xi) wants the job and doesn’t think “a girl can manage,” but she asserts her right, appointing bleach blond fired police officer Kun (Yu Lv) as treasurer and A’neng and his “sandbag-sized fists” as bodyguard/enforcer.
Kun is the horny comic relief doofus. With his expressions and his mullet-like hairdo he kinda reminds me of Dewey Crowe from Justified. He gives them (and us) an exposition-filled tour of the four regions of the city. One has casinos, another is “for women” and “the main road is called Streetwalker.” That one’s run by Sister Hong (Ji Zun Sun), who Kun says can take out 18 guys with a single punch. One called “Chasing Dragon” is run by Master Hai (Yang Xiaobao), a scary drug lord with a big tattoo on one side of his bald head. And the highest place in the city is called “Ghost Stall,” and no one has ever seen its chairman, who is called White Ghost. Even Master Hai is afraid of him. (I love this fantasy movie world building type shit in an urban martial arts movie.)
For reasons I didn’t understand they have to go to Sister Hong to convince her to “restore the water and electricity supply.” It’s awkward because Kun used to date her (surprising – she seems out of his league). Then a big fight breaks out between Sister Hong’s ladies and some of Master Hai’s thugs, who are angry that she won’t let them sell drugs there. When A’neng helps pummel them, Sister Hong recognizes his northern fighting style and discovers they grew up near each other. So based on shared methods of punching the shit out of motherfuckers they become allies, and she even seems amenable to Jiahui’s suggestion to stop the prostitution.
It turns into kind of a rom-com for a bit. Sister Hong falls back in love with dorky Kun, they rope A’neng into a date with Jiahui at a fancy restaurant, where there are jokes about him being uncouth and not understanding how to order, but Jiahui never judges him. The trouble comes when Master Hai is also in the restaurant, and grabs Jiahui’s wrist in a threatening manner. A’neng is about to fight him when a British cop called Sergeant John (Thomas Fiquet, THE BATTLE AT LAKE CHANGJIN), intervenes. According to the subtitles Jiahui says of Master Hai, “He wants to kidnap me, so I have to say, I was very disappointed.”
Sergeant John says the only reason he hasn’t busted Master Hai (who Jiahui calls a “tumor”) is that cops can’t get inside the walled city because the people don’t trust them. We see that in the next scene when he and his men are blocked at the entrance by a crowd carrying bamboo poles because “Kowloon Walled City has always been a Chinese territory.” After Jiahui makes a speech about trusting Sergeant John to stop the drugs and A’neng makes a speech about trusting Jiahui they reluctantly let the cops in.
Instead of looking for Lord Hai, though, Sergeant John goes straight to the elevator to Ghost Stall. Says he wants to go all the way to the top – literal as well as figurative, I guess. After arriving in the luxurious penthouse he does a big reveal that he’s actually White Ghost, the mysterious chairman of Ghost Stall, and that Master Hai was working for him all along.
I enjoy a good over-the-top gweilo villain in a martial arts movie. One funny touch with this one is that the actor must not have been great at Mandarin/Cantonese so they dub him, but the guy dubbing him does terrible at the English phrases he sometimes uses.
I know this is a whole different situation, they’re doing an anti-colonialism thing, but I see parallels to American cities, where even most Democrats give in to “tough on crime” propaganda and are beholden to police departments and unions. Here, the very well meaning leader who they put their trust in convinces them to work with the cops. The people who tell her hey lady, they are not here to help us are proven right – in fact these cops are literally the gang running the crime. And they kidnap her! And it’s like, whoops. Somehow that’s not the end of her political career. She’s still the leader who gives them hope.
More secrets are revealed, there’s a fight, Kun gets shot many times, Master Hai kidnaps Jiahui and ties her up a the dinner table for his brain damaged brother, like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Sister Hong goes back to the citizens asking for help, but they point out that Jiahui was the idiot who let the cops in in the first place. A’neng makes a big speech about how “Kowloon Walled City belongs to everyone” and an old lady, Aunt Fu, makes one about how Jiahui fixed her antenna, so they break the curfew, light torches and gang up on the gangsters while A’neng fights his way back to Ghost Stall for a big fight with knives, wires, and spinning overhead shots.
There are many strange touches I enjoyed. I like the fish-tank-style blue sand on the ground that gets kicked around. A’neng knees Master Hai through a wall and discovers a secret room full of dogs (and some people) in cages. There are some parts where he kicks the dog cages and they fly through the air and spin around. Not cool. John Wick would not allow that. He opens all the cages and the dogs swarm on Sergeant John and, I think, eat him.
At the end there’s some laughable propaganda text explaining that the Walled City was demolished in 1993 and then Hong Kong returned to China but many people found that it was really great and they loved China and said hooray. Or words to that effect. It’s not as funny as the one on STEP UP CHINA that explains that everyone who did bad things got prison sentences, but it’s pretty funny. I’m trying to imagine the shame I would feel if that happened in my country – if Congress passed a law that movies must include some insulting disclaimer like that to get certified. It would be infuriating.
I enjoyed this story, it’s barely over 80 minutes, it has some good fights and I like its lovable brute hero and his friends. But it’s noticeable that it’s basically three big fights (beginning, middle, end) and only a few minor skirmishes in between. And since the opening is more impressive than the other fights there’s an imbalance to the action.
I also have to confess that I watched this by mistake, because I saw it was on Hi-YAH! and thought it was the one I’ve been waiting for from the director of KILL ZONE 2 with action by RUROUNI KENSHIN genius Kenji Tanigaki. Because the action at the beginning was cool and anime-like I didn’t realize my mistake at first. But I should’ve known it was different because that one’s gonna star Louis Koo and Sammo Hung. The title is changed to TWILIGHT OF THE WARRIORS: WALLED IN and as of a Variety article in March was in post-production set for theatrical release (here? I don’t know) “at the end of this year or early 2024.”
That movie has been in development for many years, with versions by John Woo, Johnnie To and others, so this one may be some knock off trying to cynically exploit that fact, which might also explain why I’ve had a hard time finding much information about it online. But it has production value and filmmaking far beyond any Asylum mockbuster, that’s for sure. It’s worth checking out before the other one comes out and (hopefully) becomes an unfair comparison.