Review by Sean Boelman
Festival international showcases often feature at least one selection that is a bit more out-there, and at this year’s TIFF, that’s the Chinese martial arts picture 100 Yards. 100 Yards is a bit of a disappointment, not because it’s a bad film — there’s no denying the skill that director Haofeng Xu brings to the table — but because it shows the potential of being so much more and never lives up to it.
The movie follows two martial arts students who become embroiled in a duel over who will earn control over their late master’s wushu academy. It’s a very simple concept — although in the martial arts genre, those are sometimes the best. Unfortunately, the film’s commitment to modesty holds it back from being anything more than moderately entertaining.
For much of the first hour of the movie, viewers will be drawn into this drama surrounding the martial arts academy. However, this plot largely goes out the window in the last 45 minutes for what is clearly meant to be an “epic” finale, but lacks the scope and the scale it needs to feel spectacular.
The opening sequence of the film is intriguing, with only glimpses of the martial arts choreography — as the central conceit of the movie is that the martial arts are something to be conducted in private, not for show. However, this is also where the film makes its fatal mistake. The reason why viewers come to watch martial arts movies is to watch awesome fights. When you deprive them of that, they are likely to check out.
Thankfully, there are just enough bursts of highly-stylized action to keep the audience energized through the first two acts. However, viewers will be on the edge of their seats, waiting for it to pay off gloriously. Of course, we do eventually get to see some fights. And while they’re well-choreographed and well-shot enough, they aren’t quite worth all of the anticipation that the movie was building to.
At the same time, Haofeng’s script fails to flesh the characters in a way that feels compelling — which is somewhat surprising, given that he was one of the writers on Wong Kar-Wai’s lauded Ip Man film The Grandmaster. 100 Yards never ascends beyond its simple underdog story premise, leaving something to be desired in that regard.
The script also really struggles with some of its themes. Admittedly, the political aspect of Chinese martial arts films has never been their strong suit for Western audiences, often coming across as propaganda. However, some of the messaging in 100 Yards is downright laughable. For example, the movie is highly anti-gun violence, yet it turns around and glorifies hand-to-hand combat. Its heart is in the right place with an overall message of peace — but the route it takes to get there is often frustrating.
100 Yards has some really fantastic moments, but Haofeng Xu waits too long to reveal the film’s hand, rendering much of the narrative ineffective. The technique and craft on display are undeniably impressive, but sadly are not enough to carry a movie that otherwise feels somewhat limp.
100 Yards is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.