It is not every day that I watch a Greek (Cypriot) film dealing with martial arts (I am Greek btw), so I was really excited to see Aliki Danezi-Knutsen’s effort, even more so because a true HK veteran, Richard Ng, had a protagonist role in the film. Let us take things from the beginning though.
The story revolves around Cleo, a Greek-Chinese girl who lives an uneventful life in Cyprus, at least until her 18th birthday, when she finds out that her long-deceased father was actually murdered by the Chinese Mafia in Athens. The messenger of this shuttering piece of news is Cook Lin, an old friend of her family who comes to Cyprus to pay his respects to Cleo’s father, and the girl soon finds herself in his company in the Chinatown of Athens, learning about Chinese cooking and martial arts, along with the secrets of her true origin. Furthermore, she soon finds herself being more than friends with Lin’s assistant, Xiao Ping, although revenge remains the main concept that rules her life. Eventually, she finds herself in a situation she cannot overcome, and that is when Uncle Takis comes to her rescue, instigated by her mother, Toula. More secrets, though, come to the fore…
Evidently, and despite the unusual setting for such a film, the story is quite clichéd, with the revelation of the unknown past, the concept of the “special child,” the Chinese mafia and the old kung fu master being elements that one could find in the majority of martial arts films. Furthermore, Cleo’s relationship with her mother and uncle, the romantic one with Xiao Ping, along with the cooking sequences, seem like clichés of Greek cinema/TV.
However, the combination of the two results in something completely fresh, as the first aspects function as a “tribute” to old Shaw Bros kung fu films, and the second ones as a new addition to a preterit genre. The reef of cliché is not completely avoided, but the approach remains quite interesting in its unusualness.
The element that truly stands out, though, is Vladimir Subotic’s cinematography, which takes full benefit of the excellent location scouting in the Athenian China town. In that fashion, and through an approach similar to noir films, Subotic creates a labyrinth-like setting in the dark alleys and the abandoned buildings, which suits the aesthetics of the film quite nicely, while the claustrophobic sense the setting emits mirrors Cleo’s psychological status quite accurately.
And talking about Cleo, Katerina Misichroni gives a convincing performance in the role, highlighting the combination of disorientation and frustration her character feels quite nicely. Misichroni has a background in dance and not martial arts, and this fact (although, in essence, martial arts in films are mostly choreographies) somewhat faults the action scenes, which would probably be more impressive if the protagonist was a seasoned fighter. Kenan Akkawi’s editing and the action choreography by Antje Rau and Master Tang Tung Wing tone down this aspect, along with the, occasionally quite bloody, visual effects by the Alahouzos Brothers, but the sense remains. On the other hand, Misichroni’s cat-like physique and movements suit the character perfectly.
Richard Ng is always a pleasure to watch and “Chinatown” is not an exception, with his part as the mysterious “sifu” being one of the highlights of the movie, as he emits dignity (and something else eventually) through every movement and every line. Occasionally, though, the one who steals the show is Jacqui Chan in the role of the “old villain”, with her presence providing some of the most entertaining scenes in the film.
“Chinatown: The Three Shelters” has its faults, but is a worthy effort on a genre that is very rarely (if ever) visited in Greek cinema, and definitely deserves a watch, particularly for the production values and its unusual approach to the category.