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Cannes 2024: 'Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In' Is an Unexpected Celebration of Hong Kong Cinema

Louis Koo and Raymond Lam in Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In
Media Asia Distribution

Alas, a Hong Kong film has once again made its way onto the Palais des Festivals at Cannes. While not in competition and not the type of film one might’ve expected, Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In is certainly a true-to-form and highly commercialized lovechild of Hong Kong cinema. This might not be director Soi Cheang’s best work, but it’ll certainly go down as one of his most successful ventures as a filmmaker.

Based on Andy Seto’s City of Darkness manhua series, the film details a vagrant refugee, Chan Lok-Kwan (Raymond Lam). After stepping on the toes of local crime lord Mr. Big (Sammo Hung), he finds himself seeking refuge in the Kowloon Walled City. A protector of the city, Cyclone (Louis Koo), comes to his aid, sparking a feud between these two factions. The stacked ensemble also includes, Richie Ren, Philip Ng, Tony Wu, Terrance Lau, Kenny Wong, and a cameo from Aaron Kwok.

When it comes to local commercial filmmaking, at the moment, Walled In is as Hong Kong as it gets. Not only is it produced by and starring Koo, who has arguably kept the industry afloat over the past few years, but also upholds one of Hong Kong cinema’s most storied traditions: creating fighters out of actors who can’t actually fight. While the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen tend to dominate discussions around locally sourced artists practicing kung fu on screen, most of Hong Kong cinema’s action films tend to feature actors not formally trained in martial arts. And in most of those cases, thoughtful action choreography still results in engaging fight scenes. 

Louis Koo and Sammo Hung in Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In
Media Asia Distribution

Walled In fully displays this tradition, particularly for Koo, Lam, and Ren, all of whom have been ‘fighters’ on screen before. Are the fight scenes as thrilling and combustible if more classically trained action performers were headlining the film? The short answer is no. Instead, Cheang, along with stunt choreographer Kenji Tanigaki, smartly relies on wired work and CGI in order to recreate some of the bombastic energy of the original manhua. As a tradeoff, however, the action ends up being far less visceral, which does take away from its kinetic drive.

Tasked with taking on the brunt of the action, Lam clearly stretches himself here, but still manages to shine. As someone who is still primarily viewed as a television star (through his TVB work), he’s clearly breaking out after this film. Ng, who does have a martial arts background, borders on being comical in his portrayal of the film’s psychotic antagonist (and right-hand man of Mr. Big), which is unfortunately often a distraction. Some of the story’s more dramatic plot twists also play out in a predictable way, but strong performances by veterans like Koo, Hung, and Ren add enough gravitas to balance out the equation.

Despite being in development hell for more than a decade (with previous iterations being attached to the likes of Johnnie To, John Woo, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Chow Yun-Fat, and even Nicolas Cage, to name a few), Walled In still feels like a cohesive narrative with well-intentioned story arcs. The third act does lose some momentum, but the film’s ending pivots quite nicely into a rather endearing reflection of a Hong Kong that once was. 

Much like the Walled City itself, the film posits a culture and identity that was once uniquely Hong Kong, but is now unfortunately a figment of nostalgia in many ways. This sense of nostalgia, however, doesn’t necessarily constrict Cheang’s filmmaking choices, with the film taking leaps in terms of what a local high-budget commercial film can be.

As a director, Cheang is as diverse as they come. Like his mentor Johnnie To, Cheang’s filmography seems to alternate between films he does for himself, and films he does to help fund those more self-indulgent projects. With Walled In, he’s likely leaning more towards the latter, akin to his involvement in the Monkey King franchise. With Walled In, he blends both his twisted artistry and commercial sensibilities in a reformed gesture that simply works. Coming off the heels of a Best Director win for Mad Fate at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Cheang’s on a hot streak that sees no signs of slowing down.

Louis Koo in Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In
Media Asia Distribution

Finally, it’s interesting to examine whether it actually makes sense for a film like Walled In to screen at Cannes. On paper, the answer is clearly no. Outside of Johnnie To and Wong Kar-wai, there’s been a paucity of invitations to the Croisette when it comes to films from Hong Kong. And while Septet (not actually screened due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020) and Revolution of Our Times (screened as a last minute addition in 2021 due to fears of retaliation from Chinese filmmakers at the festival) are recent examples, they weren’t a marquee premiere with this level of coverage. Even though Walled In doesn’t seem like a natural fit, its identity as a purely local product makes it such a deliberately appropriate choice as a ‘comeback’ film for Hong Kong cinema at Cannes.

With its storied production history, Walled In is deeply rooted in the annals of Hong Kong cinema and based on source material that is also revered by local audiences. Moreover, this is a film that’s almost tailor-made for, and by, Hong Kong talent, which was a sentiment that Cheang shared during his speech following Walled In’s premiere screening at the festival. Over the past few years, a few other films might’ve also fit this bill and showcased Hong Kong cinema in perhaps a more varied light, but Walled In feels like such a unique choice for the festival.

The fact that the film is on track to becoming one of Hong Kong’s highest grossing local films of all time, and screened officially at Cannes, is almost poetic and befitting of a cinema that was once the epicentre of commercial filmmaking in all of Asia. 

Those golden years are far behind us now, but having a film like Walled In screen at Cannes carries both hints of nostalgia and celebration for the future. And coming from Cheang, a director who really does embody the crazed versatility of what Hong Kong cinema can offer, it’s no accident (pun intended—if you know, you know) that Walled In is receiving its flowers in such a grand way.


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