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The Drummer

Jaycee Chan and Angelica Lee in The Drummer.
Chinese: 戰‧鼓  
Year: 2007  
Director: Kenneth Bi  
Producer: Peggy Chiao, Thanassis Karathanos, Rosa Li
Writer: Kenneth Bi  
Cast: Jaycee Chan, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Angelica Lee Sum-Kit, Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung, Josie Ho Chiu-Yi, Kenneth Tsang Kong, Yumiko Cheng Hei-Yi, Liu Ruo-Yu, Huang Chih-Chun, Eugenia Yuan Lai-Kei, Ken Lo Wai-Kwong, Glen Chin
The Skinny: Ill-conceived and unconvincing. The Zen Drummers are worthy of our time, but the hackneyed melodrama and pretentious themes doom The Drummer. A well-meaning but unremarkable second effort from Kenneth Bi.
by Kozo:

Ill-conceived may be the best word to describe The Drummer. Director Kenneth Bi's exceptionally well-produced film is fine to look at and a joy to listen to, especially during the scenes involving the rhythmic performing of the film's Zen Drummers. Part of the story brings the viewer into the strict philosophies and austere daily lives of a Taiwan-based Zen drumming clan, and the glimpse is appreciable for its presumably accurate and usually unseen detail. There is a certain enchantment and energy to their drumming performances, and the film has dynamite sound design to make it sound all the more powerful and exciting. However, that's only the film's A plot. The film's B plot involves a brewing triad gang war, recycled plot devices from the greatest hits of Tony Leung Ka-Fai, and more canned melodrama than any single film requires. Worst of all, the film's two parts don't seem to be compatible, making the whole an attractive, but pretentious, unconvincing and even bewildering affair.

Jaycee Chan has recently impressed as an actor, distancing himself from his forgettable Twins Effect 2 debut with a string of solid, professional performances in 2 Young, The Sun Also Rises, and even Invisible Target, though his minor overacting in that last film was a bit taxing. The Drummer is proof of Chan's professionalism, as he handles a role with high physical and emotional demands, and comes through admirably. Unfortunately, his character is an obvious screenwriter creation, and not very convincing. Chan plays Sid, who's a drummer in a rock band at night, and an insufferable pain during the day. Sid sleeps with the sexy Carmen (Yumiko Cheng), who warns him that her boyfriend Stephen Ma (Kenneth Tsang) won't be happy that they're playing around. Stephen catches the two in the tub and gets unhappy, whereupon Sid screams at the top of his lungs, "You can't touch me! Do you know who my father is?" Yes, we do, it's Jackie Chan! After seeing Jaycee yell about his pop, one almost expects the elder JC to come busting in carrying a stepladder for some quick prop-induced action, but obviously that would be completely unrealistic.

Then again, the film has a hard time convincing of its reality regardless of a Jackie Chan cameo appearance. Sid's dad is actually triad kingpin Kwan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a fact that Sid parades around your proverbial "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Kwan actually owes Ma from a previous triad-related encounter, so he's put in a tough spot because he wants to save his son and also make good with Ma, who's a triad kingpin who wears a suit, and not an open shirt with gold chains like Kwan. For those who don't understand underworld hierarchy, wearing a suit means you rank higher than guys with gold chains. Kwan responds to this dilemma by going ape, which is when we realize that Kwan is basically a slightly more subdued version of Big D, Tony Leung Ka-Fai's award-winning role in Election. Leung brings the same cartoony excess and brimming inner emotion to Kwan that he did to Big D, except he sometimes opts for cartoony excess during inappropriate scenes. The result: epic overacting that can be sometimes quite funny, especially when he's throwing house pets or writing a letter with the same manic glee as he would disembowel a treacherous underling. Tony Leung Ka-Fai is a fine actor, but in The Drummer, it's like he's parodying himself.

Sid has to go on the run, which sends him to Taiwan, along with his official triad babysitter Chiu (an excellent Roy Cheung). One morning he discovers a group of Zen drummers practicing in the nearby mountains. Immediately, Sid is enchanted by their powerful and rhythmic drumming, so he cajoles them into an open audition where he bangs on a bunch of drums like a wannabe Tommy Lee. Bizarrely enough, the group decides to let Sid join, supposedly because he has talent, but also possibly because they want to teach him a lesson in humility. They subject him to menial character-building tasks, which test his patience because hey, he just wants to rock! Sid also wants to romance Hong Dou (an underused Angelica Lee), a fiery junior member of the group who initially clashes with Sid. However, to earn her respect and become a better drummer and person he must learn such lessons as how to "drum without drumming", or how to become "one with the moment". Will Sid become a better person, embrace Zen drumming, win Hong Dou's heart, make peace with his father, escape the clutches of Stephen Ma AND exact justice from the triads for all that they've done? And can all these plotlines conceivably be solved in less than two hours?

Yes they can, but not convincingly. Kenneth Bi assembles a multitude of themes and storylines, but some of his ideas just don't work well together. The film's triad storyline is more generic than inspired, and is given to the same posturing, plotholes, and narrative sloppiness as your standard gangland thriller, albeit with a healthy helping of family dysfunction and parental issues, courtesy of Sid's problems with both his dad and his wayward mom (Eugenia Yuan in flashbacks). The generic handling of this storyline drags down the film's more evocative details, namely those involving the Zen Drummers and their craft, which is actually quite interesting when it's not seeming pretentious. Kenneth Bi introduces his subject poorly: he uses a blatantly manufactured character, Sid, to introduce a spiritual subject, which he paints in an objectified and too-reverential manner. That he uses Zen drumming to enlighten a spoiled triad brat makes it all seem a bit too cloying.

There's wisdom in the Zen Drummers' spiritual teachings, but the way Sid is integrated into them is pandering, like the Zen Drummer version of The Karate Kid. In any realistic film, the drummers would tell Sid to take a hike when he first forces them to give him an audition, and his subsequent behavior doesn't make him any more endearing or tolerable. However, because he's so talented and they're so patient and wise, they accept his crap, allowing him to one day become enlightened and a better man, drummer, and probably son. The revelation that he's the son of a triad boss and that he's marked for maiming or murder by sordid underworld types is apparently no big deal to them, either. Basically, the two storylines - triad thriller and inspirational drumming film - are ill-fitting for one another. The former is too commercial and cloying, and the latter uplifting only if you factor out the cheesiness of the triad drama and accompanying characters. There's actually two competent, if not good films in The Drummer, but together they make one uninspiring whole.

The worst part is that the triad portion of the film literally drags down the drumming portion. About three-quarters into the film, the triad stuff has faded into the background and the drumming comes to the fore, and Kenneth Bi actually seems like he's on to something. Once the audience gets past the awkward set up and cloying storyline, the film seems to find some visual splendor and rhythmic poetry in the mountains of Taiwan. The art of the Zen Drummers does seem to seduce, and Sid's acceptance of their training, and his subsequent enlightenment does strike a few chords.'s back to Hong Kong for clashes with duplicitous triads and ham-handed moralizing! That the Zen Drummers accompany Sid to triad functions and even play a part in his saga of triad angst, lust, revenge, and Young and Dangerous-style posturing is just bizarre and even hilarious. For The Drummer to work, they needed to seriously subdue the triad storyline, and take out all the over-verbalized moralizing and uplifting touchy-feely conceits. Or, they could have simply excised the triad stuff and tried to make a film about, say, just drumming, because the Zen Drummers do seem worthy of our attention. But The Drummer? Not so much. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 PAL
Joy Sales Film and Video Distributors
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen