AKA: The Last Race
Director: Stephen Shin, Michael Parker
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Shawn Dou, Bruce Locke, Augusta Xu-Holland, Richard Sanderson, Jesse Kove, Elizabeth Arends, Simon Twu, Darren Grosvenor, Shigeo Kobayashi
Running Time: 104 min.
By Martin Sandison
The story of Eric Liddell is one as a Scotsman I have a lot of interest in. Liddell won the 400 metres race at the 1924 Olympics – the story of which is told in the classic movie Chariots of Fire – and was one of Scotland’s greatest athletes. What happened after this feat in the life of Liddell, Wings of Eagles concerns itself with, and very interestingly it takes place in China. A Chinese/Hong Kong co-production shot in English with a little Mandarin, starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as Liddell, this movie manages to tell a dramatic true story without falling in to the traps of many recent Chinese productions.
In the film’s prologue, we discover that Liddell was born in China to Christian missionary parents, and returned there after he had become a successful athlete with his wife and daughters to be a missionary. When the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War occurs, his family escape back to Scotland and he stays to help the downtrodden. He is forced to go to a Japanese internment camp along with his mostly Western friends, and the movie plays out in this scenario.
Credited directors are Stephen Shin (The Source of Love) and Michael Parker (Hong Kong Express), a very intriguing collaboration. Shin has been directing films in Hong Kong since the 80’s, but is known more as a producer with credits including Yuen Woo Ping’s Tiger Cage 2. The last film he directed was made in 2003. Parker, a Canadian native, is also more recognisable in a producer’s role, and has the distinction of being a Westerner in Hong Kong. It’s a bit of a gamble for the two to make a film with a reasonably big star and a pretty lavish production. Undoubtedly, it pays off, although the film is decidedly above average in many departments.
Structurally, Wings of Eagles is very well-delivered with a necessary prologue short in length, and on to the story of Liddell, as narrated by his Chinese best friend Xiu Niu (Shawn Dou, Flowers of War). There is a depth to the proceedings, with screen time dedicated to not just Liddell but also bit part players in the story. Unfortunately, the Western actors are nowhere near a match for Fiennes magnificent performance as Liddell. I would go so far as to say Fiennes gives the best performance of his career, depicting Liddell with tremendous courage and spirit. There are many standout scenes conveying this, especially towards the end of the film, such as when Liddell races the commanding officer of the camp in an ultimate show of altruism to his friends. Also, a bit unfortunately, and one aspect that only niggles, because I am a Scotsman: Fiennes affects a posh English accent. Ok, I know the Scottish accent can be hard to understand, but come on!
Not just a platform to tell the story of Liddell, the Wings of Eagles is a superb account of WW2 and the affect the Japanese occupation had on China and its residents, Chinese or non-Chinese. Yes, the stereotypes of the Japanese soldiers are in full effect, but some of them try to assist Liddell in his efforts to help his friends in the camp.
Actually, the film plays out with a definite Christian slant, with Liddell depicted as the epitome of the “good Christian”, always willing to put the lives of this friends and loved ones over his own. My experience and knowledge that Christianity is on the rise in China may partly account for the producers decision to make the film, despite a more recent Government crackdown on the religion in the Mainland. The mawkish sentimentality, melodrama, and flag waving so prevalent in Chinese productions these days are thankfully kept to a minimum, with a mature approach to the subject matter. Even the musical score anchors the images well without descending in to over emphatic territory.
As noted previously, some of the Western actors are below par in their acting, with some badly delivered lines that tend to take the viewer out of the film. Dou, with not a lot to do, aquits himself well. The kids, mostly in the internment camp and one outside, are convincing and add to the story. At times, the film comes across as a little preachy and hammy, with a slight dose of cheddar, but fortunately these elements are not to the fore very much, and the film comes across as genuinely conceived.
A sumptuously shot film that is a fitting tribute to the legendary Eric Liddell, Wings of Eagles succeeds for the most part and had me entertained and interested throughout. The film will be released by Signature entertainment on Digital HD on 12th March and DVD on the 19th of March. In currently available in the U.S. from Sony Pictures. Seek it out.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10