Kill-Fist (2019) Review

First premiered at the Cambodia International Film Festival in 2019 before making rounds in other film festivals, James Lee’s indie action-thriller Kill-Fist is finally available for streaming on Netflix.

The title may sound like a straight-out throwback to martial arts tournament movies of the ’80s and ’90s era, which used to feature the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Billy Blanks in their heydays. It fulfils what you expect in such a genre film, where the protagonist (played by Sunny Pang) is invited to join an underground fighting game. Each participating fighter is required to dress in an all-black uniform and a wristwatch supplied to them and the tournament would take place in an indoor parking lot. The rule is plain and simple: Defeat the opponent and sync the watch against the loser’s watch to earn prize money digitally.

But given the fact this is James Lee we are talking about, the otherwise deceptively straightforward Kill-Fist sees the writer-director manages to subvert expectation with his unique arthouse sensibilities. It’s clearly not for everybody, especially for those who are expecting an all-out martial arts tournament movie will likely be left disappointed by the nature of its storyline.

At the beginning of the movie, James Lee takes his time wanting us to get to know the protagonist. We meet Zhang (Pang), a fortysomething man who works in a dead-end job as an insurance agent. Every morning in the office, he and the rest of his co-workers would gather in a room to start their days with a motivational speech. We also learn that he’s been struggling to hit the quota and his manager even warned him about the possible salary deduction if he continues to underperform in his job.

Zhang’s personal life is just as hopeless: He’s currently dealing with a painful divorce and is about to lose custody of her daughter. Back home, he has to take care of his elderly father, whose mental health has been increasingly deteriorating due to Alzheimer’s disease.

A scene from "Kill-Fist" (2019)

Then, his luck somewhat changed or so he thought when a mysterious voice goes by the nickname of “Teacher Kwok” get in touch with him online and invites him to join the aforementioned tournament.

Kill-Fist also focuses on other characters as well including John (Alan Yun), a pastor who has a hard time taking care of his ill-stricken wife (Lim Mei Fen, who could be seen in last year’s Prebet Sapu). Then, there’s Jean (Koe Yeet), a college student who’s been studying hard to earn good grades and hoping for a scholarship. And similar to the other two characters, she has to take care of a sick loved one (her mother) back home.

The fight scenes — credited to martial arts choreographer Lau Chee Hong — are decent but not spectacular. But interestingly enough, each fighter has their own different fighting style, which instantly reminded me of the old Shaw Brothers-era kung fu movies and more significantly, the Donnie Yen-starred Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Jungle (2014). Both Kill-Fist and Kung Fu Jungle happened to share similarities in terms of transplanting the Shaw Brothers-era kung fu movies into modern-day settings.

But surprisingly, what interests me the most is how the story gradually unfolds as it progresses further. Let’s just say, nothing is what it seems in Kill-Fist. James Lee doesn’t afraid to go experimental with the martial arts genre by slipping in unexpectedly quirky (a scene involving Zhang facing a bunch of bullies who are harassing a victim) and shocking (the scene involves the ugly consequences of a college lecturer played by Mike Chuah comes to mind) moments.

Kill-Fist also benefits from an excellent cast, notably Sunny Pang’s engaging performance as Zhang while both Alan Yun and Koe Yeet deserve equal praises for their respective roles as John and Jean.

Amazingly enough, Kill-Fist was reportedly filmed in a jiffy for 13 days with a low-budget cost and even with all the tight schedule that James Lee and his crew have to endure during the production, the movie didn’t end up like it was hastily put together. In fact, James Lee does an overall great job here with decent fight choreography and most of all, his subversive way of bending the typical martial arts tournament subgenre inside out with a refreshingly arthouse vibe.

Kill-Fist is currently streaming on Netflix.

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