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After watching Finnish director AJ Annila's sophomore feature, Sauna, I was curious to go back and see how he got started. As if on cue, here we have Jade Warrior, his cinematic debut which is finally being made available on our shores. After viewing the film, I can definitely say that Sauna was not a fluke. Annila finds a surprising point of intersection between Chinese and Finnish mythology to give us a Wuxia film that side-steps genre conventions while charting a path of its own.
Featured prominently in the Finnish epic Kalevala, the Sampo is a mythical machine that can satisfy all of one's innermost desires and bring happiness to this world. Of course, since perspective is everything, in the hands of a demon it could just as easily be the gateway to hell. Jade Warrior uses the Sampo and elements of the Kalevala to weave together two drastically different time periods into a tale of reincarnation. In present day Finland, Kai (Tommi Eronen) is an ironsmith who has just gone through a messy breakup with his girlfriend, Ronja (Krista Kosonen). When Ronja tries to unload some of Kai's belongings in an antique store, she piques the interest of the shopkeeper, Berg (Markku Peltola). Berg becomes convinced that Kai is the reincarnated form of Sintai (Eronen in a double role) who lived in 2000 B.C. and was a warrior of Chinese and Finnish descent. When Berg approaches Kai with a metal chest that only Sintai would be able to open, Kai slowly finds out who he was in a past lifetime but only after unleashing whatever was hidden inside that chest.
As the tale flashes between the present and the past, we learn of Sintai's noble quest to rid the world of evil. He travels with an army that is tasked with killing the last son of the Nocktress who is the eldest of Hell's daughters. Accompanying him in his mission are Cho (Hao Dang) and a metal chest that should look familiar to us by now. Handed down by Sintai's father, an ironsmith, the chest can only be opened during his moment of greatest despair. His mission is perilous but it promises a great reward. If he can defeat the hell-spawn, he will be released from reincarnation and find eternal peace in the afterlife. When he travels to Cho's village and meets Pin Yu (Jingchu Zhang), the granddaughter of the village elder, Sintai realizes that he may have a reason to stay on in this world after all. After a brief but energetic courtship, Sintai and Pin Yu pledge their love to each other while he prepares for his confrontation with the demon. His ensuing actions send waves of despair through time which eventually come crashing down on Kai.
To call Annila's approach to the material deliberate is an understatement. He manages to strip away any expectations one may have for a martial arts epic and replaces them with layers of abstraction that give the film an elegiac tone. While there are a few action sequences to be found, they are more focused on the poetry of motion than the spectacle of battle. This is most evident in the courting ritual of Sintai and Pin Yu. They start to fight each other amidst a slow motion swirl of leaves. Before our eyes and without warning the fight morphs into a gently choreographed dance of two equals testing their compatibility in the only way they can be sure of. It's a playful scene tinged with melancholy because we know as well as they do that even if they accept each other, Sintai will leave to face the demon with no assurance of victory. This is in stark contrast with the final showdown between Kai and his nemesis. They go at each other with hammers in a way that is still beautiful but more ferocious than elegant.
If I had been watching the film for action alone, I would have walked away disappointed. While the few action scenes are well choreographed and artistically framed, they are simply not the focus of the film. Annila is after bigger fish here. He takes the Wuxia framework and fills it out with musings on responsibility, loyalty and redemption. It's a bold move for a fledgling director but he handles it with very few missteps. My primary complaint is unfortunately linked to the novelty of the central conceit. Make no mistake about it. This is definitely a Finnish film. As such, Annila runs through ideas of Finnish mythology that may confuse the casual observer. True appreciation of what he has attempted here requires one's rapt attention during the film and possibly some light research after it has ended. To use a slightly idiotic metaphor, this film is like a coconut. In order to get to the nectar within, you have to patiently break through the hard shell.
Since Annila walks the tightrope between cool detachment and aloofness, it helps that he has a capable cast who come through with warmth and conviction. Eronen is definitely the star of this piece. He has the difficult task of portraying two very different roles without short-changing either character. He does so with flying colors. Kai and Sintai start in different places in their lives and almost follow inverted arcs. Sintai's confidence starts to crumble just as Kai discovers his place in the world. The knowledge that the same actor is essaying both characters just makes both performances that much more riveting. Peltola also gets a few juicy moments as Berg. His transformation after Kai opens the metal chest is surprising for the simple reason that nothing about Peltola's demeanor suggests that he will be capable of where the film eventually takes him. Zhang and Kosonen have leaner parts to work with. Of the two Kosonen definitely gets the short end of the stick since Ronja only acts as a plot device to move the proceedings along. Zhang has a natural sadness about her that works well, especially during the courtship dance with Sintai.
The movie was presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The beautiful cinematography on display here was ably supported by an image that faithfully conveyed the earth tone rich color palette. Occasional grain showed up in some of the darker scenes where contrast also suffered. Although noticeable, this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the film too much.
The audio was presented in Finnish and English 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound tracks. I chose to view the film with its original Finnish soundtrack. I found the mix to be quite lively especially during the action scenes when it came through with a nice boom amidst the great washes of sound. Subtitles were available in English and Spanish.
This disc was fairly lean on extras. First up, we go Behind the Digital Effects of Jade Warrior. This widescreen featurette is presented in Finnish with English subtitles. Although it is barely 10 minutes in length, we get to hear from the special effects supervisors about how a number of the surprising and subtle scenes came together. There is some discussion of motion capture and green screen but ultimately I was looking for a little more from this piece. Perhaps that's just my disappointment over the lack of a commentary track peeking through. The extras close out with a Trailer for the feature film along with some additional films Also from Lionsgate.
Don't let the flying leaves and billowing robes fool you. Jade Warrior may sound like a martial arts epic and at times even resembles an approximation of one but director AJ Annila is definitely after something a bit more challenging here. He wants to fuse aspects of Chinese and Finnish mythology into a tale of duty and redemption. That he does so with little consideration for how much of the audience is being left behind is my only sticking point. Some will view this film and consider themselves cheated while others will appreciate its measured and meditative approach. I consider Annila a talent worth following and find his debut an assured, if slightly obtuse, piece of work. Recommended.