Fantastic Fest 2023: 100 YARDS: A Grand, Character-Based Martial Arts Epic

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The Chinese film industry in recent years has not really been putting out stuff that compels me in the ways that the glorious golden age of Hong Kong cinema used to. Between the government censoring the kinds of ideas and styles that can really be explored and the push towards massive blockbuster cinema that can be sold globally, I’ve been more often than not put off by tons of GCI, superheroic antics, and the like. Call me old fashioned, but I’m simply more interested in seeing grand and gorgeous stories from the Chinese film industry. Some of those massive epics they’re cranking out are actually quite good, but it took something like 100 Yards to come along to remind me of what I love about Chinese martial arts movies.

Loaded to the gills with talent that I’m frankly not super familiar with, 100 Yards feels exciting as a calling card (at least for me) for the talent involved. Written and co-directed by Xu Haufeng, it turns out my unfamiliarity with Haufeng is not for lack of accomplishment, but rather simply my own ignorance. 100 Yards was also co-directed by someone named Xu Junfeng, who has no presence on IMDb, but Haufeng came up as a novelist and writer (The Grandmaster) who began directing movies years back. 100 Yards certainly displays the clarity and confidence of a filmmaker who has something to say with his characters and a knack for dynamic, clean, classic martial arts sequences.

The film is quite sprawling, with a bit of a Game Of Thrones vibe in its obsession with succession and control of various houses. We meet Jacky Cheung’s Young Master and Andy On’s Apprentice early on when their father and master, respectively, tasks them to duel at his deathbed for control of their martial arts school. This will be the first of seemingly dozens of duels, interspersed with trickery, politics, lessons learned, and romantic melodrama. I’d be disingenuous if I claimed to understand everything that was going on in this 1915-set tale, as it felt like lots of very time period and culture specific things were happening that my western ass isn’t informed enough to have all the context for. But that shouldn’t scare fellow westerners away because I’m here to tell you that the story is loaded with strong characters and twists and turns and keeps you invested even if you might not catch it all. 

There’s not really a villain in 100 Yards. Jacky’s the heir apparent of the school, and Andy’s the top protege. At times the story seems to be about the “young master” learning about the real world out from under the protective eye of his father. At other times it seems to be about the “apprentice” discovering the final remaining secrets of a hidden martial arts form that is only spoken of in whispers. At other times the fairly prominent female roles in the film are explored and 100 Yards wrestles with not only the succession of the young master and apprentice but also the women in power in the martial arts circle and what they must do to preserve what they have. 

What’s great about 100 Yards is it explores a whole bunch of potent human and societal issues all whilst whipping a ton of ass. I’ve been digging deep into classic Shaw Brothers titles for the last couple of years and while there’s virtually no end to the amount of martial arts prowess in those titles, gripping narratives are fewer and farther between. Here we aren’t just stringing together plot points to get to the next action set piece, but rather digging into a particular time and place and doing the “what to do now that the master has passed away” trope with a thoughtfulness and attention to character work that really matters. The action is clean, crisp, and cool as hell. But the characters are also fleshed out and more than simply embodiments of their martial arts styles. In the end our guys kind of settle into a new future and a new reality they’ve forged on their own, rather than simply inheriting what had come before. It just takes a dozen or so badass battles to get there.

And I’m Out. 

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