Zhan. Gu / The Drummer

Not to be confused with Yang Chuan’s 1980 film, also set in Hong Kong and as of the same English translation, Kenneth Bi’s “Zhan. Gu (The Drummer)” is his third feature film (despite popular belief, as his first feature film, “A Small Miracle” only received a straight to video release). Nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this film is the first from Hong Kong and Taiwan to be selected for competition in the festival, and is already gaining positives reviews all around the world, no doubt helped by Tony Leung Ka Fai receiving the “best supporting actor” award at Taiwan’s highly acclaimed Golden Horse Film Festival. However, the film is not without its critics – with many describing it as “ill-conceived” and “unconvincing”.

The Drummer tells the story of Sid, a pompous drummer in a rock band by night, and an insufferable pain during the day, played by Jaycee Chan – the son of one of Hong Kong’s greatest talents, Jackie Chan.

After eyeing off a beautiful woman during a sold out gig, Sid ends up sleeping with Carmen (played by Hong Kong pop sensation, Yumiko Cheng Hei-Yi), despite knowing that she’s having a relationship with Stephen Ma (Kenneth Tsang) – a triad kingpin. However, even when Sid is caught messing around with Carmen in a hotel hot tub by a very infuriated Mr. Ma – accompanied by his nasty looking henchmen – Sid just yells at the top of his voice, “You have to deal with my father if you hurt me”.

However, even though Sid’s father, Kwan (played by a typecast Tony Leung Ka Fai) is also a triad leader, unlike Ma, he doesn’t wear a suit – and in these underground societies, a suit signifies a lot more power than those who wear gold chains. Incidentally, Kwan also owes Ma from a previous triad-related encounter, and is suddenly thrown into an incredibly difficult situation, as Ma wants Sid’s hands – quite literally. Unfortunately for Sid, his usual “get out of jail card” is of no use this time round, and ends up taking refuge in his sister’s veterinarian clinic. But he’s soon discovered when he stumbles out of hiding to his sister’s rescue, after Kwan goes mental and starts bashing his daughter and destroying her practice. Despite objections from the rest of his gang – who would much rather Kwan hand his sons fingers and palms over to Ma for the good of the team – Kwan decides to sneak Sid out of the country to Taiwan, while he tries to smooth things over in Hong Kong.

Accompanied by his official triad babysitter Chiu (Roy Cheung), Sid finds himself stuck in a beautiful Taiwanese town, with nothing to do. Chiu even resorts to joining a small adult school where they teach you how to be a “better person”. However, one morning Sid is awaken by the distant sound of drumming, coming from the nearby mountain. Together, Sid and Chiu hike up hill to investigate, and come across a group of Zen Drummers. Instantly, Sid is enchanted by their powerful rhythmic drumming, and he entices them to allow him to audition, despite Chiu’s prior objections. Put head to head with the youngest group member, a fiery and stunning young lady called Hong Dou (Angelica Lee), who Sid has already had an altercation with back in town, he soon gets bored of following her lead. Holding up the audition, while he rearranges several other drums around him, he then decides to improvise, smashing them as if they were a drum kit and he was back at home in a dingy nightclub. Despite the noise pollution, the group decides to let Sid join (much to Hong Dou’s disgust), supposedly because he has talent, but more probably because they want to teach him a lesson in humility.

He moves up to the mountains to receive his drumming training, but soon realises that it’s not all fun and games. Before he can put stick to canvas, he must earn their respect and learn to “drum without drumming”. Following along the same lines to movies such as “The Karate Kid”, Sid also endures several “wax on wax off” moments, as he learns virtues like patience, discipline, hard work and perseverance from his wise and patient teachers.

This section of the film, as Sid truly become at one with himself and the world around him, is truly beautiful. The cinematography is stunning, despite the fact that it’s Sam Koa’s first time in the role of director of photography – although, thanks to a picturesque location, it would have been very hard to mess up. Chan’s acting is impressive, especially during his character’s spiritual transformation, and he certainly proves his come a long way since his debut on “Twins Effect 2”.

However, once Sid finally becomes “one with the moment” and masters the art of Zen drumming, the movie takes, what most critics describe as a turn for the worst. Leaving the breathtaking scenery of the Taiwanese mountains, the film heads back to pollution filled Hong Kong, for clashes with treacherous triads and ham-handed moralizing.

However, despite the many complaints from reviewers and film critics, I for one personally agree with the directors choices. Although there is a good argument that this film could have really be made into two completely separate films – one a film about triads in Hong Kong, and another about Zen drummers – by combining the two very different worlds together in the one motion pictures creates a very unique piece of work. Although the differences between the two worlds are almost jarring, this adds to the impact to the film, in what I believe is a positive way. In essence this is a very simple coming of age story, of an impatient youth, and in many ways a lot of the plot and subplots are almost clich├ęd in nature. However, by dramatically contrasting the fast paced and dangerous Hong Kong streets with the serenity of the Taiwan mountains, the director has created a whole bunch of visual and aural metaphors, which help add many extra layers of meaning onto the quite simple framework.

But one of the biggest things going for this film is the score by Andre Matthias, and the sound design by Du-Che Tu. When viewed in a surround sound environment, the scenes with the Zen drumming are just absolutely spectacular – the beautiful and organic sound just floats all around you. But then in more dramatic scenes, the score (which also features a lot of unique drum sounds) builds dramatically in tension to reveal a whole orchestral score. Obviously the fact that the director has actually won several awards for his composing work on previous films has meant that he put a lot of importance into getting the sound elements of this film just perfect. Continuing to follow the same path as past films, Kenneth Bi also took on the roll of editor for The Drummer – he really is the kind of director who likes to retain absolute creative control over all elements of his production.

Internationally speaking, this movie should do quite well for several reasons. Firstly, it stars Jackie Chan’s son – and for this reason alone, it will draw a big Western crowd. But by also merging two very visually strong and bold worlds together (the land of the gangsters and the land of the Zen drummers, high up in the mountains), the audience is really taken on a journey of stunning proportions. Forgetting about the story for just a second – the sound design and cinematography alone is reason enough to watch this film. That said, I still don’t agree that it was necessarily a poor script (as some critics have suggested – although notably a lot of them were actually from Hong Kong) – I just think that maybe the director decided to go down an unconventional route when it came time to making the film. And of course, the U-Theatre fans will obviously come flocking to the theatres to see these amazing drummers up there on the big screen.

In conclusion, The Drummer is an amazingly beautiful film – with visuals that easily rival the very best BBC documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters such as Lord of the Rings. However, the highlight of this film is by far the music and the drumming. The soundscape that is created by the filmmakers is truly incredible. It’s also great to see Jackie Chan’s son up there on the big screen – as well as a host of other fantastic actors. Although the script may not be as tight and exciting as some might have liked – it really doesn’t matter. You have to sit down in the theatre, relax, and become at one with the drumming…