“Storm Riders” – From Comic Book to Live-Action to Animation

13 Oct

“Storm Riders” tells a long and intricate tale of the intertwining destinies of two young martial artists, Wind and Cloud, in the rarefied, mythical universe of competing martial arts clans in a fanciful version of Ming Dynasty China, the kind of setting popularized in the serial narratives of Hong Kong-based authors like Louis Cha (“Legend of the Condor Heroes”). It began its existence in 1989 as a Hong Kong comic book (aka “Fung Wan,” translated as Wind and Cloud) written and drawn by Wing Shing Ma, a recognized genius at home but little-known in the U.S. The comic was adapted into a live-action Hong Kong movie, THE STORM RIDERS, in 1998 starring Ekin Cheng, Aaron Kwok, Sonny Chiba, Kristy Yang and Shu Qi. This was followed by an animated sequel in 2008, STORM RIDER: CLASH OF EVILS, that was produced in China with significant Hong Kong personnel attached. Finally, there was a live-action sequel from Hong Kong in 2009 called THE STORM WARRIORS (or STORM WARRIORS II, as sometimes listed), with Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok the only cast members from the 1998 film returning in their roles.

The story’s much too difficult to sum up and was highly streamlined for the movie versions, but focuses chiefly on Wind and Cloud, who are seen from childhood as they are selected because of their names and birth charts and virtually abducted by the powerful Lord Conquer to be trained in martial arts to fulfill a prophecy provided to Conquer by the wizened Mud Buddha. Eventually, Wind and Cloud team up to fight Lord Conquer, chiefly to get revenge for his slaughter of their fathers. There’s the mystical Flame Kylin Sword and all sorts of powerful martial arts techniques that come into play at regular points in the narrative. Wind gets possessed by the sword or other techniques in different ways in different versions and has instructed Cloud to kill him if he gets too destructive and homicidal under their influence, necessitating an eventual battle between the two in at least two of the versions.

I have seven volumes of the comic book series, published in English by ComicsOne, starting in 2001. The pages are filled with beautiful artwork, a mix of color ink drawings and paintings that need time to savor. The storyline is filled with an array of characters and interlocking relationships and requires close reading. Some of the main characters are drawn too much alike for my tastes and I often got confused, but there’s plenty of martial arts action and I love the cinematic way it was presented. I scanned the covers and a few pages to give some sense of what the artwork is like, but I was hesitant to scan more story pages since I didn’t want to damage the binding on the volumes.

The 1998 movie benefits from a strong central performance by Japanese martial arts legend Sonny Chiba in the role of Lord Conquer. He is such a formidable villain that his very presence in a scene generates extraordinary suspense. (Sadly, Chiba died recently, on August 19, 2021.)

There’s also a romantic triangle in play that gives the movie a stronger emotional core than we find in the other versions. Both Cloud (Aaron Kwok) and Wind (Ekin Cheng) are in love with Conquer’s beautiful daughter, Charity (Kong-chi in the comic). Both secretly make love to her. Conquer gives her in marriage to Wind, but the ceremony is interrupted by Cloud who attempts to carry her off, prompting a battle royale between Cloud on one side and Wind and Conquer on the other. Charity’s attempt to protect Cloud results in a tragedy that leads to a series of even more pitched battles until Cloud and Wind reunite for a fight to the finish with Conquer.

When I first saw this film (purchased on a bootleg VHS at the old 43rd Chamber in Manhattan), I was thrown off by all the elaborate digital effects used in the fight scenes. Too many of the martial arts moves were augmented by special effects and too many action scenes were shot against green screens with backgrounds added by computer. 

There’s even a computer-animated flame dragon in a cave:

It was a new experience for me, unlike the “wire-fu” movies I’d loved from the early 1990s with the actors hoisted on wires hoisted amidst actual studio sets and backlots with all the effects done in real time on camera, as in SWORDSMAN II, SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED, KUNG FU CULT MASTER and BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, among many others.

But when I watched THE STORM RIDERS again for this piece, on a newly purchased legit DVD, along with the “Making of” segment included on the disc, and having already seen its CGI-heavy 2009 sequel, STORM WARRIORS, I was struck by how much of the film was shot on real locations and did indeed employ many actual sets and actual wire work. There is lots of dramatic imagery, as in the comic book, and it did indeed convey the sense of China’s mythical martial arts past.

The love story is quite touching, thanks to Kristy Yang’s delicate, affectionate and thoughtful portrayal of the somewhat pampered Charity, who does indeed seem to love both men without realizing the implications involved when she agrees to marry Wind.

There’s a host of colorful supporting characters, starting with the ever-crafty but always respected Mud Buddha (Wayne Lai Yiu-Cheung), whose predictions, both good and bad and parceled out years apart, propel Lord Conquer’s actions.

Then there’s Sik Mo-Gin, the righteous Shaolin monk played by Roy Cheung, one of the unsung talents of Hong Kong cinema, who tries to mediate between the various factions. (I got his character name from HKMDB, since it’s never given in the DVD’s subtitles.)

The poor but virtuous Dr. Yu (Vincent Wan Yeung-Ming), is afflicted with the “fire beast” arm which he uses to save the life of Cloud.

And Yu’s attractive assistant (daughter?), Muse, is a wide-eyed village girl eager to see the larger world and is played by the ever-delightful Shu Qi, who provides welcome humor in some key scenes.

And, finally, there’s Lord Conquer’s revered opponent, Sword Saint, who comes out of seclusion for his long-scheduled final showdown with Conquer, which offers a few surprises. He is played by veteran Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong (HARD-BOILED, THE HEROIC TRIO, ROCK N’ ROLL COP).

THE STORM RIDERS was directed by Andrew Lau, a longtime Hong Kong director best known for the contemporary crime sagas, YOUNG AND DANGEROUS (six films, 1996-1998) and INFERNAL AFFAIRS (three films, 2002-2003, the first of which was remade in Hollywood by Martin Scorsese as THE DEPARTED).

I like the animated sequel, STORM RIDER: CLASH OF EVILS (2008) a great deal, which boasts some remarkable action animation, scenes of great beauty, and considerable attention to the lead characters and their time away from the ever-widening conflicts that embroil them. I bought the Hong Kong Import DVD in a Chinatown store in February 2009 and was surprised I’d heard nothing about it in any of the fan press or on the internet. I reviewed it for Amazon and IMDB and, to this day, my review is the only one for this film on IMDB. HKMDB says it’s a Chinese production and was released in Hong Kong on July 19, 2008, presumably in theaters. IMDB also says it’s from China and was released in Hong Kong on September 15, 2008, in Taiwan on Feb. 13, 2009 (the exact day before I bought my DVD in Chinatown), and in China on July 19, 2009. I’ve never seen any reviews of it, other than my own (and some much more recent negative reviews on Amazon from buyers who apparently have seen a completely different movie and DVD edition from mine), and I don’t know why it never got a release of any kind here in the U.S.

Hong Kong import DVD cover

The film opens with Wind and Cloud in a pitched battle with Lord Conquer, marking this as something of a sequel to the 1998 movie, followed by a fight between Cloud and a Wind possessed by the Kylin Sword. The battle results in the separation of the two and Cloud developing amnesia and getting lost in a rural village. He winds up living with and offering protection to a band of urchins who are led by a girl named Ying and in hiding from local constables.

When the Bat Gang attacks the village and its wealthy landowner, both Cloud and Wind are on hand to fight them and they reunite afterwards, despite Cloud’s amnesia, to have a pleasant pastoral interlude as Wind hangs out with his girlfriend, Mong (a character from the comic who might be a version of Muse), and watch Cloud playing with the children, prompting this exchange of dialogue:

This leads to a sweet and touching nighttime romantic interlude between Wind and Mong:

Flashbacks show Wind and Cloud as boys under Lord Conquer’s tutelage, something that was dramatized in the 1998 version as well:

There’s a significant character from the comic book, Duan Lang, added to this film but is not in any of the live-action films, a childhood ally/rival of the boys who becomes an enemy:

The character of martial arts master Nameless, long dead in the comic book but a significant influence on Lord Conquer, is a living character here and in the 2009 film. In the animated film he is voiced on the Cantonese soundtrack by Hong Kong kung fu star Ti Lung who, coincidentally, played a character named Nameless in the 1978 Shaw Bros. swordplay adventure, SOUL OF THE SWORD.

There is some noticeable computer animation in several mobile camera scenes that offers a jarring change of visual tone…

…but this is more than compensated by numerous scenes with majestic backgrounds:

Compare with this page from the comic book:

The film was directed by Dante Lam, a live-action Hong Kong director best known for BEAST COPS, JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE and THE TWINS EFFECT. The action scenes in the animated film are intricate enough to have required the services of fight choreographer Wong Wai Fai, whose credits as action director include JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE and Andrew Lau’s INFERNAL AFFAIRS III.  

STORM WARRIORS II (2009) brings back Wind (Ekin Cheng) and Cloud (Aaron Kwok) but adds a host of supporting characters who weren’t in the 1998 film, including Wind’s girl, Second Dream (Hong Kong singing star Charlene Choi); Cloud’s girl, Chu Chu (Tang Yan), who’s in the comic; Nameless (Kenny Ho), who’s alive and well and mentors Cloud in this one; Piggy King (Lam Suet); and, as the lead villains, Lord Godless (Simon Yam) and his equally devious son, Heart (Nicholas Tse). Also on hand is China’s Emperor, held prisoner by Lord Godless until his timely rescue by Cloud. Wind is trained in the “Evil Way” by their ally, Lord Wicked, because it’s the fastest way to attain martial arts superiority over Lord Godless, but, as in the animated film, Wind runs the risk of being taken over completely by it, the way he was possessed by the Kylin Sword in the earlier film, and asks Cloud to kill him if that happens. Wind and Cloud unite to defeat Lord Godless, while Heart flees with the coveted Dragon Bone from the Dragon Tomb, never to be heard from again in this movie. Cloud and Wind battle atop a cliff overlooking a rocky landscape in the finale.

It’s all shot on sound stages with minimal sets against a green screen backdrop so the CGI backgrounds can be added later. It reminded me too much of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006). Everything’s much darker here and more claustrophobic than in the two previous Storm Riders movies. To my eyes, the visuals lacked beauty and artistry.

Some “Making of” scenes:

The film was directed by twin brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, whose previous best-known film was the supernatural horror drama, THE EYE (2002).

Here’s a link to my IMDB review of STORM RIDERS: CLASH OF EVILS.

I happen to like my Amazon review of the animated film, written in 2009 and which goes into a little more depth, but it seems to have disappeared from the site so I’ll post it here:

Excellent animated martial arts fantasy from Hong Kong

*****

Over the years, I’ve been curious about animation from Asian countries besides Japan, and have sought out examples from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Korea, but it wasn’t until I saw STORM RIDER: CLASH OF EVILS (2008), a Hong Kong/China co-production, that I found something that was just as good as the best animated martial arts adventures from Japan. It’s filled with expertly staged fight scenes, all framed against beautiful background designs, whether the natural landscapes of the Chinese setting or the cities, towns, castles and villas the characters pass through. There are all sorts of breathtaking shots and it’s a visual treat from start to finish.

The story is a little on the convoluted side, but once you get all the characters straight by the half-hour mark, it’s simply a matter of following what happens to the two main characters, young martial arts experts Wind and Cloud, first as they are separated from each other following a battle that should have killed them both, and then as they gradually reunite and try to reconcile the fates imposed on them by their blood connection to the notorious Flame Kylin Sword, which has given them enhanced powers that come with a price. In the meantime, various factions compete to try and dominate the World Fighting Association, whose head had been killed by Wind and Cloud, and retrieve the power of the Kylin Sword from the two heroes. What’s important here is that the characters drive the story and incidents occur based on what a particular character would or wouldn’t do. As a result, the viewer becomes more engaged and emotionally connected to the action.

STORM RIDER: CLASH OF EVILS is based on a long-running Hong Kong comic book by Wing Shing Ma that has been published in English by a company called Comics One. The big difference between this comic and its counterparts among Japanese manga is that it’s in color. Every panel in “Storm Riders” has extraordinary linework and detail and many of the panels offer painterly backgrounds. The comic was first adapted for film in 1998 as STORM RIDERS, a live-action film starring Ekin Cheng, Aaron Kwok, Sonny Chiba, Shu Qi, Kristy Yang, and Anthony Wong. It was notable as the first martial arts fantasy film to utilize CGI in lieu of the wire work and on-camera effects commonly employed in such films beforehand, e.g. KUNG FU CULT MASTER (1993) with Jet Li.

The animated version offers three major action setpieces. After the opening flurry of fight scenes involving the evil Lord Conquer and his two students, Wind and Cloud, there is a nice lull in the action in order to deal with Cloud’s sudden amnesia, introduce new characters, and build up to the two sprawling battle sequences later in the film. At around the 50-minute mark, the Bat Gang, a group of vicious bandits, attacks the main town and their leaders are confronted, on separate fronts, by Wind and Cloud, who are both still unaware of each other’s presence nearby. Later, after Wind and Cloud reunite, the two must confront Duan-Lang and Ao Jue, two martial arts masters who covet the Flame Kylin Sword and its power. It all leads to a knockdown, drag-out fight in a massive clifftop castle and one which results in a dilemma for Cloud as Wind goes out of control, thanks to the power of the Kylin Sword, and it’s Cloud’s job to stop him.

One of the great things about this film is that the characters spend significant downtime with their friends and allies and get a chance to relate normally to other people. After they’ve reunited, Wind watches as Cloud plays happily with a group of street urchins he’s befriended. He turns to Mong, his female companion, and makes the memorable observation, “I never would have imagined his happiest times would come when his past is forgotten. When you leave the anger and stubbornness behind, life changes entirely.” This leads to a romantic interlude between Wind and Mong that’s remarkably beautiful and touching and something quite rare in this genre.

I found this DVD at a video store in Chinatown. I don’t know how well it did at the boxoffice in China or Hong Kong or if it will lead to future ventures of this type. The film is of such high quality that it should have had a run in theaters in the U.S., at least on the arthouse circuit, which would have given fans like me the opportunity to see it on the big screen, where it could be properly appreciated. I’m hoping that word will spread until some North American distributor releases it on R1 DVD.

The action choreographer credited is a veteran Hong Kong action director named Wong Wai Fai. The swordplay is mildly bloody at times, but the gorier parts are all kept offscreen. I couldn’t see this getting more than a PG-13 rating. The film’s director is Dante Lam, best known for such live-action HK films as BEAST COPS. The excellent music score is the work of composer Henry Lai Wan Man. One of the voices on the Cantonese soundtrack is none other than Ti Lung, a former Shaw Bros. kung fu star (he plays Nameless). The DVD offers both Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks, with English subtitles. The film is 99 min. long and it’s well worth tracking down.

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