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Zen and the Art of Pounding Things Really Hard. Good thing I don’t come up with movie taglines, but that kind of captures a lot about the premise of The Drummer, the story of a boy who finds himself by hitting the skins.

Not as bizarre as it sounds, really. A slightly more elaborate rundown goes like this; Sid runs wild in the streets of Hong Kong. Under a scruffy mop of hair, in denim and chains, he plays drums in a punk band and gets involved with dangerous women. A neglected rich kid, Sid is mad at the world, but mostly mad at his dad, Kwan, a notorious underworld figure, for being the ruthless bastard he is to his own family. Sid’s resentment doesn’t stop Kwan from doing all he can to save his son once Sid sticks his fingers in another man’s honey pot and falls for the mistress of a Triad boss even more ruthless than his pop. Finding the Triad leader’s vengeful request for one of his son’s hands too big a price to pay, Kwan shuffles the miserable Sid off to the backwoods of Taiwan, where he’s meant to hide until Kwan can calm things down.

Having absolutely nothing to do in the rural town, the restless punk is lured deep into the mountains by the sound of drums. Sid discovers the practice camp of a group of Zen drummers and the hypnotic power of their playing has Sid insisting on joining the group. The wild and unruly boy has nothing in common with these musicians who gather to void themselves of all ego, anger and desire - all things that pretty much make up Sid’s entire being. So, in order for Sid to become a member of the group, he has to be broken down and cleared of all the emotion and hostility that has ruled his life.

While closely resembling Japanese Taiko drumming, the philosophy of the Zen drummers is different. Where Taiko drummers use and project their emotions to bring sound from their drums, Zen drummers release their emotions to allow the drum to play through them. Deep, no? In the following weeks Sid is shorn of his wild tangle of hair and slowly severed from his rebellious life through manual labour, repetitive menial tasks, yoga and martial arts. Eventually, the group becomes the family Sid never had and he honours them with his hard work.

However, all is not as blissful back in HK, where Kwan’s ruse is discovered and he is set upon by scheming rivals and spies inside his own gang who want him gone. Still, for all Kwan’s brutality, he gives his son whatever he can to make him happy, accepting Sid’s participation with the Zen drummers and even supplying them with an entire new set of expensive drums. Kwan’s only wish is to keep his son safe even after he is set up by the Triad traitors and sent to prison. Having let go of his anger towards his father, Sid comes to an understanding with Kwan and of his own self that he can only express through the voice of the drum.

Much of the success of The Drummer lies in its excellent casting. Here is the first time Jaycee Chan is really allowed a showcase onscreen and The Drummer is a clear sign of his promise as a dramatic actor. The puppy dog eyes and sweet demeanor I’d seen in lighter films like The Twins Effect and Invisible Target don’t begin to scratch the surface of Chan’s performance here. The stillness of post-enlightenment Sid shows a thoughtful Chan, still very present despite the characters newfound inner calm. The revelation for Chan is his performance the wild and crazy Sid of the first half of the film; out of control and full of fury at whatever he can get his hands on.

The brilliant Tony Leung Kai-Fai {The Lover} as Kwan is a slightly more controlled version of his psychopathic Triad leader from Election. Kwan’s fatherly affection for his grown children, who he cannot properly show his love to, is tangible and shines through his eyes even during his rages. One of the most gripping moments finds young Jaycee Chan opposite Leung, who is a compressed powerhouse as Sid screams his rage at the father he loves and hates. I guess I should probably mention that Jaycee Chan is the son of Hong Kong action god Jackie Chan, but I’m going to be good and not speculate about that amazing scene. All I’ll say is for anyone who’s seen the teen-idol favourite Jaycee in his previous confections; one had to wonder where that deep wellspring of anger came from. The Drummer is a must-see for anyone curious to know if Jaycee Chan stands any chance of ever stepping out of Jackie’s long shadow. His performance in this film convinced me that while Jaycee is still growing and learning as an actor, he can accomplish acting performances his dad never could.

Hong Kong pop star Josie Ho is fabulous as Sid’s older sister, who’s basically raised the boy and regularly protected him from dad’s volatile temper; in one scene she loses a tooth for her troubles. Ho is feisty, funny and strong and a great foil against Leung the raging Kwan. I would have loved to have seen more of her and am hoping director Kenneth Bi writes a sequel for the animal rescuing character. For all the turgid drama, there is a lot of humour in The Drummer and it’s delivered by its leads with a wonderful light touch.

The music performed by the actual Zen drumming group cast in the film, U-Theatre, is phenomenal. The power of their music casts an almost-mystical spell and gets under the skin from the start. The film opens with a stage performance featuring a supine Sid carried above the shoulders of the troupe in a cross-like formation. He’s placed on the ground and left alone, reviving only to beat the drum on the stage opposite him.

There is much symbolism in The Drummer, but the main theme of inner change, letting go and rebirth are wonderfully explored. Beyond the beautiful, restive cinematography of the lush, green mountains of Taiwan, Director Bi strikes a nice balance away from the gangster device - those Hong Kong scenes nicely shot in dark, murky half-tones against blaring neon - which at times threatens to overwhelm the film.

Bi pulls the disparate worlds together simply by letting the spiritual world of Zen drumming and the rituals of U-Theatre reveal themselves and directing his wonderful cast of actors to do some great work in this lovely, touching story.


~ Mighty Ganesha

Aug. 15th, 2008


PS:  Click here for an exclusive chat with the creators of The Drummer, director Kenneth Bi and producer Rosa Li!




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