Director: Abrid Shine
Cast: Neeta Pillai, Jiji Scaria, Sanoop Dinesh
How much storytelling can we expect in a movie purposefully titled ‘Kung Fu Master’? Should we expect well-written characters, with their motivations and arcs in place, apart from some solid filmmaking technique? Or should these be secondary to the big action set pieces that are eventually the point of focus when a martial art form takes one half of the title?
In the case of Abrid Shine’s fourth film, there’s almost nothing you will find in terms of the former. Characters appear unidimensional, all of them painted with either a shade of charcoal black or Ujala white. Dialogues sound criminally juvenile with long stretches of exposition only meant for the viewers. What about the writing? Let’s just say the screenplay is pretty much the same as the film’s tagline—‘a tale of revenge’, nothing more, nothing less.
Revenge itself isn’t the issue, because a lot of great martial arts movies are driven by this one emotion. But in Kung Fu Master, it’s the time it takes to repeat the same old story that gets you. For a movie that’s under two hours, the film takes almost an hour to establish familiar situations that require just a five-minute flashback. Performed mainly by a set of new actors, none of them leave us with an impact, nor do they become people we care for.
Seen through the eyes of Ritu (Neeta Pillai), a crime against her family is what sets the ball rolling but the family itself appears so generic that you feel like they’re right out of a detergent commercial. What doesn’t help is a painstakingly mirthful song by the family on a holiday. After a hundred years of cinema, I think the audience can sense the danger that’s coming their way when there’s so much happiness on display, so early on.
But unlike these portions, it’s the villain that takes the film into spoof territory. Louis Antony (Sanoop Dinesh) is the most multi-hyphenate of all bad guys. He is a polyamorous, multi-disciplinary polyglot with a charming smile and a cocaine problem. He is also into slam poetry trying to pull off threats that sound like, “hey Kung Fu Master, I like your design. Design of vengeance. The music of death in the snow-capped Himalayan valley.” If that isn’t enough, he gets a tagline he repeats each time he’s annoyed. “Welcome to the melodies of heaven.”
If this was a spoof, I’d have lapped up these audacious lines as the construct of an OTT villain. It’s shocking to see how seriously this film takes itself. When not poetic, other dialogues sound like small talk between strangers. Set in the North, in places like Mussoorie and Badrinath, the film also plays out like a travelogue with painstakingly long stretches of nothing more than scenery and drone shots. We understand that the family is on holiday and the novelty of setting a Malayalam film in these parts, but these parts take us away even further from poorly-written characters.
All this means that it’s only the action set pieces that are worth waiting for. But these too have a rehearsed quality to it. The second the lead characters walk into a place, we sense that it is the beginning of an action scene, almost like we’ve reached an arena in a video game like Mortal Kombat. Even the number of attackers (four each) add to this artificiality.
Not that the fight itself isn’t some cool bone crunching fun. With great editing and choreography, we get two major action blocks that keep throwing surprises at us. Shown mostly through several rough hand-held shots, we feel like we’re right at the centre of the action as we move through different levels of the same building. What adds a lot of dynamism is Neeta Pillai’s moves. Even when her opponents appear twice as big, she has a way of taking us along in a way that you’re worried for the bad guys. With a couple of well-timed surprises, the action blocks almost justify the shallowness before and after them.
But is that enough? Disjointed and lifeless, you feel like you spent the majority of its running time waiting for just 10 minutes of fun. I’m still in love with the idea of making a Malayalam Kung fu movie with all the focus on the action. Without the self-importance and the pop philosophy, this could have been a genuine effort in that direction. But what’s the point if the film ends up feeling just as alien as watching a dubbed Jackie Chan movie with silly English dialogues.