Action Item: iQIYI

Exquisite Bodyguard
February 25th 2024

As the big US streamers continue to raise prices, add commercials, and winnow their offerings down to anemic, algorithmically-determined “originals,” there are vanishingly few reasons to subscribe. While it’s a satisfying dopamine hit to cancel Net/Max/Cock and instead burn through your Tubi queue (next up for me, the Meatloaf kids comedy To Catch a Yeti, 1995), there are other routes open to the adventurous viewer. For example, I have spent 2024 burning through Chinese direct-to-video action movies via iQIYI.

At first all I had were GIFs and breathless hyperbole from my favorite faction of film Twitter: The action enthusiasts made up of keyboard warriors like @TimesSqKungFu, @GenreFilmAddict, and @HeadExposure. These were the images that froze my itchy scrolling finger: A slow-mo snowfall shootout in Exquisite Bodyguard (2023), a one-versus-many restaurant brawl in Fight Against Evil 2 (2023), and a blind bounty hunter slicing off limbs in Eye for an Eye (2022). As a longtime admirer of English-language direct-to-video action movies and the freedom that low budgets can provide, I wanted to seek out all of these films and more—I just had to figure out how to sign up.

iQIYI is the second largest subscription streaming site in China (second only to Tencent Video) and a subsidiary of the tech behemoth Baidu, Inc. Excluding trial memberships, they reported having over 106.9 million subscribers in the third quarter of 2023, according to Variety. For comparison’s sake, Netflix is at 260 million worldwide. iQIYI is popular across Asia, with dual headquarters in Beijing and Singapore—though both iQIYI and Tencent Video were banned by Taiwan in 2020 for concerns over the theft of personal data. As with all media companies these days, they are first and foremost a data mining outfit. Part of the data they have mined is that their customers want more action. SVP Yang Haitao told China Daily that “based on our insight of male users, who contribute more than 60 percent of playback time, they show a preference for action films.” I also could have told him this.

iQIYI has a two tier system for their movies. The higher budget “Cloud Cinema Premiere” titles are PVOD (Premium Video on Demand), which means there is an additional fee to rent them (usually $6.99.) Then there’s the “Subscription Premiere” titles, which have minuscule budgets and are immediately available on iQIYI with a subscription. In the same report from China Daily, Yang added: “In 2023, among the 24 titles released through the Cloud Cinema’s PVOD model, 19 were action films, and they contributed an impressive 91 percent of user orders among all PVOD films.”

Fight Against Evil 2 (Qin Pengfei, 2023)
Fight Against Evil 2 (Qin Pengfei, 2023)

Deciding that innovative fight choreography is more valuable than my personal privacy, I donated all of my precious data and signed up for a 1-month trial for the discounted rate of $1.99, to be renewed at $7.99 when I forget to cancel. I started with their top grossing PVOD film of 2023: Chris Huo’s The Comeback. It’s Simon Yam’s Liam Neeson maneuver, as the Hong Kong legend plays a black ops assassin who loses his memory and has to piece his life back together. This of course is the plot of two different Neeson films: the plodding Memory (2022) and the sleek Unknown (2011). The Comeback slots somewhere in between the two. The bestubbled Yam is as charismatic as ever mowing down evil government thugs, the predictably goofy plot flies along, and there is a bittersweet nostalgia for pre-Handover Hong Kong filmmaking. This is not only due to the presence of Yam, but of the legendary actor (and Bruce Lee’s stunt double) Yuen Wah (Eastern Condors, 1987 and Kung Fu Hustle, 2004) who appears as Yam’s cagey old coot buddy. The villain is played by Andy On, who made his screen debut in Black Mask 2: City of Masks (2002) when Jet Li declined to return for the sequel.

I dipped down into Subscription Premiere for Exquisite Bodyguard (2023, pictured at top), a wild 71-minute speed-race that starts out as a Heroic Trio ripoff about buxom leather-clad feuding assassins and somehow ends up with one of their husbands inventing meth. I had even more fun with Angry Pursuit (2023), in which a pinched faced clock repairman (Yutian Wang) angrily pursues the amoral gangsters who assaulted the sweet mom and kid who lived next door. All the guy wants to do is brood alone with his clocks, but instead he’s smashing people’s faces into them. Angry Pursuit features delightfully blunt brawling–as well as my favorite action scene of 2023, in which Yutian carries a baby through a parking lot fight and as the poor child gets flipped up into the air he manages to murk the three deviants attacking him before the kid falls back down into his hands.

This is not to say that iQIYI is all flying baby fights. In fact, what dominates the “High Popularity” rankings are shows from what is known as the “Boys’ Love” genre that originated in Japan. These feature romances between young men and range from NC-17 Thai titles like Pit Babe: The Series (ranked #2), Love in the Air (#6), and For Him (#9), to the more PG Love for Love’s Sake (#4) from South Korea. None of these are allowed to be shown in China, as they censor LGBTQ content. But the genre has proven to be a big draw throughout Southeast Asia according to an interview with Yang Xianghua, iQIYI’s President of Movies and Overseas Business, that ran in Variety last year.

What has turned out to be the biggest draw for me is the actor Tse Miu, who is the star of two burgeoning iQIYI action franchises: Eye for an Eye and Fight Against Evil. Tse started out as a child actor–playing Jet Li’s son in both The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) and My Father Is a Hero (1995). Now 39, he is back and cranking out multiple iQIYI films a year. He still has that baby face, which charms and disarms while he dismembers his enemies. Eye for an Eye (2022) and Eye for an Eye 2 (2024) are his spin on Zatoichi. They follow a heartlessly brusque blind swordsman and bounty hunter who wanders the countryside looking for wanted criminals he can cash in on. But he inevitably, and reluctantly, gets dragged into helping villagers that are being exploited by rich gang lords. Lovingly mounted by writer-director Yang Bingjia (these are higher-budget Cloud Cinema titles), these films elegantly use slow motion and sound design to show how Tse echolocates his victims like a bat. Eye for an Eye 2 is a step up in every way, not least in Tse’s delicately rendered performance of a tough guy’s amoral edifice slowly getting cracked to smithereens by a relentless revenge-seeking orphan.

Eye For an Eye (Yang Bingjia, 2022)
Eye For an Eye (Yang Bingjia, 2022)

Fight Against Evil (2021) and Fight Against Evil 2 (2023) are Tse’s homage to Jet Li and Jackie Chan—the men he looked up to growing up in the business. They are contemporary urban fight films from writer-director Yang Bingjia and co-director Qin Pengfei in which he plays a cop single-mindedly thrashing out against corruption. Where his blind swordsman adopts a zen calm, Tse’s cop in Fight Against Evil is like a giant inflamed thumb, angry at anything that touches it. He damn near explodes when he uncovers a ring of sex traffickers. These films are electric showcases for Tse’s martial arts skill and adaptability, as the choreography incorporates his wushu with more modern MMA-style grappling and jiu jitsu. The bathroom brawl in Fight Against Evil 2, in which Tse and Liu Fengchao body slam each other through urinals, has rightly been hailed as a modern classic, but my favorite is the close-quarters fight in a car that occurs soon after in which a seatbelt, headrest, car keys, and cell phone charger are all weaponized in a high-bpm ballet of creative destruction.

Wei Junzi, the producer behind Eye for an Eye, is not just trying to make good films, but to provide a training ground for the next generation of action film talent. He told China Daily that he specializes “in Hong Kong cinema, known worldwide for its Wuxia films. However, it's been over ten years since many of the great action films were produced. Is our audience no longer interested in action films? The answer seems no.” Then why the decline? He blames a lack of experience: “fledgling actors needed to grow through low-and-mid-budget films”—the kind that have ceased to exist in the age of IP and infinite cinematic universes. But for now iQIYI is supporting these inventive small-scale knuckle crunchers—the least we could do is watch them.

Subscriptions to iQIYI are available starting at just $.06 a day. For the sake of convenience, we have placed all of the titles namechecked by R. Emmet Sweeney in a Letterboxd list.