Iceman Cometh (1989)

Directed by
Essential for fans of Yuen Biao or Yuen Wah
Reviewed by Simon on 2005-08-08

Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah star as Ming Dynasty swordsmen on opposite sides of the law. Biao is sent by the emperor to arrest Wah, but during their fight they fall into an icy crevice and freeze. Centuries later (the 1980's to be precise), their frozen bodies are found and transported to Hong Kong, where they are accidentally thawed out and released onto the streets.

THE ICEMAN COMETH is part fantasy wu xia, part sci-fi, several parts Fish Out Of Water comedy. It's a great chance to see the two Yuens play opposite each other without having Jackie & Sammo steal their spotlight.

Yuen Biao has much more screen time, and is as cute as can be in one of his best roles. His character is noble and naive, and he does some good comedy routines as the proverbial fish, but is able to put on more emotional and dramatic masks as the need arises. He obviously agreed that the role was one of his best, as he played essentially the same character in the self-directed Kid From Tibet.

Yuen Wah plays the same sort of character he did in most films around this time - the maniacal villain. His role doesn't call for the same range or finesse as Biao's, so he plays the character superbly over the top. He's so evil! He's obviously having great fun with the part, and can take pride in the fact he played this sort of character so well despite seemingly being quite a timid & sweet man in real life :)

Maggie Cheung has the other main role as a bitchy hooker who takes in Yuen Biao and exploits him, but turns into a love interest/damsel in distress despite her pretty lousy behavior in most of the film. Unfortunately she lets the team down a bit with her acting, which is too over the top and seems like she wasn't taking the project seriously (presumably thinking it was just an action film and didn't deserve her talents). There are a few scenes where she seems to regret not trying harder and puts in a better performance though.

Few other characters get enough screen time to be worth mentioning, but Tai Bo does manage to make the most of his low-grade thug part, and actress Eva Lai Yin-Shan makes an impression in the film's first scene (I won't say exactly where that impression was made!).

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ICEMAN COMETH was a bit of an anachronism when it was made, since the fantasy martial arts films had gone out of favour several years earlier in favour of more realistic & gritty modern-day actioners. Thanks to the time-travelling scenario, the film gets chance to dabble in both. There's guns & stunts, but also swords & wires and cheesy special effects. It's a bit like a reversal of the international version of Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain, which inserted a modern day wrapper story with Yuen Biao being sent back in time in a daydream. The over-the-top wire stunts and the visual style definitely hark back to ZU and A Chinese Ghost Story, but also look forward to films like the Swordsman series.

One thing that's undeniable is that the film is beautiful to behold - six cinematographers are credited (!), and that includes Peter Pau, Jingle Ma and Poon Hang-Sang. Quite a collection of talent behind the camera then - it only needed Andrew Lau and Arthur Wong for a full house ;) The visuals are a bit inconsistent, as you'd expect with all those different cinematographers, but when they're beautiful they really are very very beautiful indeed.

The film also has an impressive set of action choreographers, including the stars Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah and fellow little fortune Yuen Tak. One thing that impresses is the variety in the action scenes - from wiretastic swordplay, to stunt-heavy gunplay to some down and dirty fist-to-fist work. The action builds in intensity as the film progresses, with the first Biao vs Wah fight rather tame, but the final fight between them being one of the best one-on-ones put to film. The two had fought on screen a few times, but never had chance to really go at it as deeply or for as long as they do here. Given that they're two of the most talented screen fighters Hong Kong ever produced, the results are predictably exciting.

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Director Clarence Fok's credentials as a visual stylist and an imagineer are rarely questioned, but he's often criticised for his handling of story & characterisation. I suspected that part of the problem with this was that his best films have suffered from atrocious English subtitles in the past - Black Panther Warriors and Dragon From Russia had some of the most incoherent subtitles I've ever seen. When HKL released Dragon they gave it a new translation that completely transformed the film, revealing an actual plot that was obscured by the subs on the HK disc. I had hoped that THE ICEMAN COMETH would benefit to the same degree, though its subtitles weren't quite as bad before. Unfortunately the new translation reveals that there are still gaping holes in the plot (e.g. what did the Wheel Of Life And Death actually do at the start of the film?), but it does improve characterisation - particular for Maggie Cheung. The script would still not be counted as the film's greatest strength, I guess, but it does have some virtues - particular the comments on "modern" HK society made by the way the virtuous and villainous swordsmen from the past fit in to modern life (or fail to do so).

The film's real strengths though, are it's gorgeous visual style, the great action scenes, and particularly good roles for Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah to show off their talents.