Review: ‘The Lion Men’ offers refreshing take on art, but throws in way too much

It's been some time since the region has seen a movie on lion dancing, Jack Neo, Singapore's most commercially-successful film director, pointed out in an interview with Yahoo Singapore during a recent press briefing about his new movie.

And what better way to bring it back to the public eye than with the nation-state's most in-demand group of male actors — the "Ah Boys To Men" cast?

Neo's "The Lion Men", which roars into cinemas on Thursday, comes on the back of the two wildly-successful "Ah Boys" films which broke box-office records in Singapore.

His new film also comes just in time for Chinese New Year, a time when lion dance troupes emerge in full force all over the island to usher in the New Year with the unmistakeably eardrum-numbing drums and noisily-clashing cymbals.

The members of "Tiger Crane" lion dance troupe in a competition performance. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)
The members of "Tiger Crane" lion dance troupe in a competition performance. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)

The good

I saw an advance screening of the film, and with regard to action, the film doesn't disappoint. Neo and his team show prowess in its fighting scenes thanks to Ma Yuk Sing's impressive action choreography, and I would even go as far as to say that this has improved significantly from the rather disconcertingly unconvincing CGI employed in the opening sequence of "Ah Boys" part one.

I also found the portrayal of lion dance visually stunning and artful. Neo promised the exploration of traditional lion dance alongside its fusion with hip hop, wushu and other performance arts, and the result is both refreshing and interesting.

Tosh Zhang plays "Supreme", a champion lion dancer who breaks away to form a new group that explores lion dance as a fusion with other performance arts. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)
Tosh Zhang plays "Supreme", a champion lion dancer who breaks away to form a new group that explores lion dance as a fusion with other performance arts. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)

Standing out in their performances in the film are "Lobang King" Wang Wei Liang, who plays the timid but hardworking Mikey, as well as Tosh Zhang, who was the sarcastic Sgt. Alex Ong in the "Ah Boys" franchise. Zhang's character, whom you will be introduced to as "The Supreme", but actually has the name Soh Zhi Wei, breaks away from traditional stronghold lion dance troupe Hu He (or Tiger Crane) and starts a new exploratory lion dance form that incorporates hip hop dance and flashy acrobatics.

Chen Tianwen (centre) of 'Ilo Ilo' fame takes on a domineering, rigid master character in 'The Lion Men'. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)
Chen Tianwen (centre) of 'Ilo Ilo' fame takes on a domineering, rigid master character in 'The Lion Men'. (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)

Also notable for his presence is Chen Tianwen, who has gained international renown for his role in Anthony Chen's "Ilo Ilo" as Teck, the father. Chen takes on a more extreme, even comical role this time, however, as the stern and ever-rigid Master He of Hu He who strictly refuses to dilute the dance form in any way.

That's about as far as the plus points go, however.

The bad

The film was excessive, full of elements that ended up drowning out one another instead of complementing each other. There was a CGI robot lion, for instance, that in a bid to help Wang overcome his fear of heights -- and of the piles -- turned Wang's character into a literal "Iron Man". Also, a swinging black "Spiderman" swooping through the CBD area left me curious to understand how they added any kind of value to the story.

The use of the "Black Hawk" troupe also seems quite superfluous in my view, as Neo constantly portrays them as ridiculous, gangster-like and incompetent, lacking any kind of unique quality that would set them up as a convincing group.

Tied in with blindingly glaring product placements and way too much unnecessary (and likely expensive) CGI scenes at some points, many scenes looked like an attempt to tell too many stories without actually succeeding at making a point with any one of them.

The supporting cast in 'The Lion Men' included 'Ah Boys' Charlie Goh (fourth from left), Maxi Lim (centre) and Noah Yap (third from right). (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)
The supporting cast in 'The Lion Men' included 'Ah Boys' Charlie Goh (fourth from left), Maxi Lim (centre) and Noah Yap (third from right). (Photo courtesy of J Team productions)

Also, characterisation failed miserably for the rest of the actors in the film as everyone else not mentioned earlier faded into the background, including "Ah Boys" cast members Maxi Lim and Noah Yap, who actually had properly unique personalities in the army film franchise. As for Charlie Goh, who played an already lesser-known character in "Ah Boys To Men", he became even more of a question mark in "The Lion Men".

Perhaps the best — or worst — point that proves the sheer unnecessary and damaging excess in "The Lion Men" is the fact that there is a Part II, which I personally was rather stunned to discover. I understand the multifaceted nature of Singapore's national service that cannot be covered in just one film, but lion dancing? Really? Is 130 minutes not long enough to tell the story? Oh wait, which story again?

All this proved a letdown to me, and likely to fans of the "Ah Boys" cast -- it's a tough call to take on whether or not "The Lion Men" will still be able to ride on the star power of Zhang, Wang and perhaps Chen, to commercial success.

Watch the trailer for "The Lion Men", which opens in cinemas Thursday, here:

Related links:

The new faces of Jack Neo's 'The Lion Men'