Chan plays a Liang foot soldier, the only one to survive their ambush of the Wei army. He only survives, in fact, by playing dead. On the field, he finds an injured but alive Wei general. If he can get the general back to his warlord’s capital, he’ll receive five acres of land. The problem is Wei conspirators want to make sure this particular general is dead. The two soldiers will have to set aside their rivalry to survive.
If you think of Jackie Chan historical films at all, you probably think of ‘Drunken Master’ (1978) where he plays a young Wong Fei Hung (a Chinese revolutionary folk hero from the late 19th century). And if you think of modern historical films you might well think of ‘Hero’ (2004) and other wuxia films set in a mythologised past. Often it’s the warring states period (approx. 500-200 BCE), which also serves a symbolic purpose. At the end of the warring states, Qin unifies China. The current Chinese administration likes this symbolism.
So what should we make of a Jackie Chan historical film that is set in the warring states period?
Firstly, it’s not wuxia. The martial arts on display are all physical, with no supernatural element. The only non-realist bit is as the foot soldier, near death, dreams of his farm. That sequence borrows heavily from ‘Gladiator’ and is the only splash of bright colour in the film.
The tone – both visually and narratively – is bleaker than you might expect. It’s set in the opening animated credit sequence that explains the context and carries through to the rather surprising ending.
Of course, being a Jackie Chan film, there is comedy. Many of the fight sequences with Chan are his classic Buster Keaton inspired stunt work. And the foot soldier he plays get all the funny lines. A girl they encounter sings a song which I’m not entirely sure was meant to be funny though – I suspect a mistranslation.
One nice touch, though, is not translating the wild tribe they encounter. The fighting master who leads the conspiracy explains that they don’t speak the same languages as the Liang and the Wei.
This is one of the best Jackie Chan films I’ve seen in years, and a welcome new, more serious direction for the master of comedy fu. I’d recommend it to anyone. But bear in mind the subtext is that fighting – and resisting – is a bad thing.
We’ve two DVD copies of ‘Little Big Soldier’ to give away! Find out how to enter the competition.