Chinese New Year is traditionally a period the Hong Kong film industry devotes to the marketing of its most recent feel-good family-orientated fare -- which, in Hong Kong, means undemanding action-comedies all the way! Over the last few decades, these "New Year" films have provided fertile stamping ground for Hong Kong's biggest star, Jackie Chan, whose particular brand of knockabout humour and screen-blazing fighting skills were always guaranteed to bring in eager Hong Kong punters. "Seoul Raiders" is a film made very much in the shadow of Chan's departure for Hollywood. Its director, Jingle Ma, has become a dab hand at this sort of slick, music-video-style confection with its minimalist plot, good-looking stars and flashy, ersatz action sequences; but it's all a far cry from the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema -- and, though it looks all shiny and bright, this vacuous effort is easily eclipsed by the jaw-dropping brilliance of the action flicks currently emerging from Thailand such as the acclaimed "Ong Bak". These films actually deliver the goods rather than simply trying to distract the viewer with loud bangs, fast editing and all sorts of tricks designed to disguise the fact that there is very little actually happening to get all that excited about!
The threadbare plot won't detain us long. Lam Kwai Yan (Tony Leung) is a James Bond-style Hong Kong secret agent who, in order to claim a huge reward, steals a pair of templates -- designed to make counterfeit US dollars -- from a group of Chinese gangsters. The Gangsters, led by the mysterious "Polar Bear", are planning to sell the plates to Middle Eastern terrorists who are plotting to bring down the US economy by flooding it with fake notes. During the operation, Lam finds himself also having to deal with a beautiful and resourceful female thief called JJ (Shu Qi) who also wants the reward money!
Lam prevails and takes the recovered templates to the US Embassy planning to exchange them for the promised reward. But rogue US agent, Owen Lee (Richie Ren) turns out to have plans of his own! He double-crosses Lam, drugs him, and leaves with both the money and the plates, intending to sell them back to the gangsters! With his ego bruised, Lam calls upon the services of his three glamorous, female, Kung Fu fighting model accomplices, and, with the beautiful but mischievous JJ not far behind, Lam sets out for Korea in order to pursue his elusive quarry through the neon streets of Seoul!
Jingle Ma is undoubtedly a talented stylist of modern action cinema; the disc features a revealing interview with the director where he admits that he was simply trying to make an "MTV-style" movie -- shot in a colourful and bright fashion -- in order to make the viewer "feel happy" (this is his way of putting it). Jingle Ma previously essayed this formula in "Tokyo Raiders" where it proved most successful with Hong Kong audiences. Unfortunately, despite displaying the same chromium-plated sheen as graced Ma's otherwise woeful Michelle Yeoh super hero vehicle "Silver Hawk", Seoul Raiders' style is most definitely MTV ... circa 1983! The tone is Miami-Vice-meets-Beverly-Hills-Cop, and, let’s just be charitable and say that the light humour of Tony Leung's Bond-like quips gets lost somewhere on the way from the original Cantonese to the English subtitle translations! The plot twist that comes in the final third of the film makes a total nonsense of everything that has come before, and the major action sequences often look more like attempts to promote Seoul as an attractive holiday destination for Hong Kongers: the climactic chase, involving a light aircraft, a motorcycle and various careening cars, takes place on a suspiciously deserted (apart from a strategically-placed bus full of extras) major Korean public highway, and the Korean Olympic stadium doubles as a -- ridiculously public -- meeting place for the good-guys and the baddies to square up. All this is handled with supercharged, hyper-kinetic editing -- though, in the case of the film's unremarkable martial arts fight sequences, this is more down to the fact that not many of the players are proficient in the disciplines required.
With no Jackie Chan -- who combined great charisma and screen presence with awesome acrobatic fight skills -- to carry it, any Hong Kong action director has a large vacuum to fill at the centre of his film, particularly if it is dependent, as most are, on acrobatic martial arts skills. Sensibly, Jingle Ma places current Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung at the top of the bill here; the popular actor reprises the role he originally played in "Tokyo Raiders" and fulfils his only major requirement -- which is to look good and fire-off the occasional one-liner. Leung has acted in some of the most sublime examples of contemporary Asian cinema, from Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece "In the Mood for Love" (and its 'follow-up', "2046") to Zhang Yimou's "Hero"; he can fill the screen with his charismatic presence just as well as Jackie Chan used to, but he is not a major practitioner of the martial arts and needs the director's help in the editing to make him look convincing! The same goes for his Korean model co-stars who are supposed to be Kung Fu experts but who, in reality, had never practised martial arts of any kind before appearing in this film! Leading lady, Shu Qi is a little more proficient, and appears in the film's only extended comedy fight scene with Richie Ren, but she is not the best actress in the world!
One couldn't say "Seoul Raiders" is a bad film. It's well enough made and directed, has a top star slumming it in the lead role, and looks attractive and modern. But there is absolutely no compelling content in it whatsoever and the whole thing comes off as exceedingly bland. It's all best summed up by an extension of the sentiment conveyed in the title of the ballad -- for which Jingle Ma wrote the lyrics -- which plays over a strangely lugubrious slow-motion water-fight between Tony Leung and Richie Ren: "Wasting Time in a Hot Spring". The viewer will probably feel the same way about the eighty-two minutes spent watching this film.
Hong Kong Legends give the film a very decent treatment for its UK DVD release: a sharp anamorphic transfer and powerful Cantonese DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks ensure it looks and sounds as good as it could be expected to, while at least some of the extras are worth a look. Both the theatrical trailer and Hong Kong Legends' promotional trailer are included and we also get six trailers for other Hong Kong Legends titles. "Seoul Girls: A Travelogue" turns out to be a series of two-minute promotional items narrated by leading lady Shu Qi in which the Hong Kong actress is introduced to various aspects of Korean culture by the Korean actresses who play Tony Leung's glamorous assistants in the film. It's all superficial stuff -- just like the "The Making of Seoul Raiders" which, again, consists of more two-minute features which don't really tell you anything worthwhile at all. Some deleted scenes and an animated gallery of posters and publicity stills are included, but the major extra is a twenty-two minute interview with director Jingle Ma who pretty much puts the film in its proper context.