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Kozo’s Mailbag: Why I didn’t rave about The Warlords.

Today I’m going to start another feature on this blog, called Kozo’s Mailbag. It is what it sounds like: answers to actual e-mails that I receive. For something to qualify for Kozo’s Mailbag it has to ask a question that A) I think may be interesting to more than one individual, B) be something that can’t be easily researched via Google, and C) not have anything to do with contacting a celebrity. If you have a question that qualifies, go ahead and send it in here.

Also, as is a non-tradition around here, I’ll try to keep my answers short. However, this very first edition of Kozo’s Mailbag is very appropriate for the site because it’s one question composed of six separate ones. So, unlike the site’s reviews, keeping it short is pretty much impossible. I apologize in advance. If you’d like, you can simply not read it. Also, the question critiques my review of Peter Chan’s Warlords, and was sent in by a reader who has also seen it. As such, it may contain spoilers. Proceed with caution.

Jet and Takeshi
“Takeshi, hold out your hand and close your eyes.”

Anyway, Mei San of Malaysia asks:

Referring to your review of The Warlords, there are some questions that I hope to raise.

1. Why doesn’t the review elaborate on the actors’ showmanship? Personally, that is the most crucial element of this movie considering the fact that Peter Chan primarily wants to portray details on the three very different characters of Pang, Zhao and Jiang.

About the acting in the film, I didn’t elaborate on it because I was not exceptionally impressed by it. More than anything, I felt it was overwrought. Andy Lau played his character charismatically, but it wasn’t much of a stretch for him, and his character was easily the least complex of the three. In Takeshi Kaneshiro’s case, he seemed to be more insane than conflicted, which really reduced my sympathy for him. I felt the part could have been handled better, though I’m not sure if the fault is Kaneshiro’s, Peter Chan’s, or perhaps that of the eight(!) screenwriters.

Only Jet Li really impressed me, because I felt he was able to carry the film without leaning on martial arts sequences. In most Jet Li films previous to Hero or Fearless, a lot of the time between ass-kicking sequences could be considered filler. It’s not like anyone went to see those movies to check out the burgeoning relationship between Jet and Chingmy Yau or Bridget Fonda. But in Warlords, we follow him with no promise of any real action sequences, and he keeps us with him throughout. I think this role is career-changing for Jet Li, because now he may be able to take on roles that don’t require heavy action. Jackie Chan, however, still hasn’t solved his similar problem.

Another reason I didn’t elaborate on the acting was that the review was already getting pretty long, and rather than comment further, I chose to encapsulate it in a few sentences in the beginning and the end, and then put this one to bed. Usually I try to comment on the acting, but I have to admit, with time being what it was, and the review starting to drag on, I thought I could skip it with Warlords. But I should realize that people do want to hear about the acting when the stars are as big as Andy Lau or Takeshi Kaneshiro. I’ll make note of that for next time.

2. The review points out an interesting point that Peter Chan did not manage to exploit the historical Taiping Rebellion to enhance his movie. But is there really a need to harp on the Taiping Rebellion? Perhaps all Peter Chan wanted the Taiping Rebellion was just as a setting and nothing more. After all, this is a movie on brotherhood rather than a movie on the history. Moreover, won’t a heavily historical movie be parochial in terms of plots and character descriptions, resulting in a movie like, perhaps, The Soong Dynasty?

I don’t feel there was really a particular need for Peter Chan to harp on the Taiping Rebellion. I just felt that given certain details presented in the film (Xu Jinglei’s crucifix, the messianic enemy general), some extra info could have been effective to explain those details to non-Chinese audiences. Providing some explanation could have made the film richer for history-impaired audiences.

This is purely my opinion, however, and not something that should be considered a flaw. It’s not like I disliked the movie because of this point. On the other hand, I do think there was a missed opportunity there to at least bring more in. Other than brotherhood, the concerns of the characters are largely human ones, and the contrast between the religious dogma of the Taiping and the bandits’ material needs would have been interesting. But was it be necessary? Probably not. Could it have made the film better? I think so, but again, that’s just my opinion.

3. The review elaborates a lot on commercialism. I thought Peter Chan did quite a good job in balancing between commercial (great cast) and cinematic values (a rather creative way of portraying brotherhood instead of just swords and blood) of the movie. Well, a movie, to a certain extent, still needs some commercial values, right? Although too much will definitely spoil it.

Actually, I think we’re in agreement on this point. I think Peter Chan did do a good job balancing the commercialism with his story and stars. The main reason I rambled on about commercialism is because I believe Peter Chan is much more concerned with the commercial appeal of his films than, say, Johnnie To or Pang Ho-Cheung. I think that’s always been the case since he got back from Hollywood, and he seems to say as much in his interviews. This isn’t a negative; actually, it’s quite smart, and I think Chan’s approach is helping Hong Kong and Asian film survive and even thrive on an international level. In the review, I describe the commercialism as a debit and a credit. It’s a debit because I do think that commercialism can make a film simpler and perhaps predictable. It’s a credit because it made for an accessible, entertaining film that should appeal to global audiences. The extra money in the bank isn’t a bad thing either.

4. Brotherhood theme is perfunctory? But till the end of each of Pang, Zhao and Jiang’s lives, they are, in one way or the other, still holding on to their oath. For e.g. Pang wants Jiang to kill him according to their oath; Zhao, being ignorant to the fact that Pang wants to kill him, rushes to save Pang from a rumoured coup against Pang; Jiang hopes to die with his two elder brothers and admits to be the assassin of Pang.

I think this next question is based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote. The brotherhood theme isn’t perfunctory; after all, that’s what the whole film was about. I just think that the actual brotherhood, as portrayed in the film, felt very perfunctory, in that it was presented as strong and powerful, but wasn’t given enough support to really show that strength to the audience.

The plot certainly contained all the requisite conflicts and themes, and I understood the importance of brotherhood to the story. But did I, as a captive audience member for 2+ hours, feel the brotherhood between the three? No, I didn’t. This is why I called it perfunctory, because it seemed to exist nominally, and not because the actors, director, or eight screenwriters made it work. I never really got a good sense of the three as brothers, such that when their relationship started to fall apart, it wasn’t that compelling to me. To me, this is the film’s largest flaw, and the reason I probably won’t put it in my Top 5 for 2007. It could make the Top 10, but that’s because only 50 films are made in Hong Kong per year.

5. The anti-war message? Peter Chan approaches war in a very realistic manner. No nationalistic purpose, but is rather to make ends meet, for self-seeking purposes.

The “anti-war” mention in the review was rather vague, and I regret using that word. Basically, the film demonstrates that war gives way to a certain pragmatism that can dehumanize or destroy. This isn’t “anti-war” per se, at least not in the tree-hugging, “give peace a chance” sort of way, though it does cast war in a negative light. I probably chose the wrong word to use there because “anti-war” carries connotations that the film does not demonstrate. I’ll edit my review shortly.

Hold on.

Okay, done.

6. What about Peter Kam’s music to enhance the war scenes? That’s definitely a point worth talking about, right? I mean, so far, I have never seen a movie which the soundtrack is so immensely effective in enhancing the war scenes.

Peter Kam’s music was good, but truthfully not something that I really felt I had to mention. To me, it was a rather obvious score, and not up to the level of, say, Chris Babida’s work in C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri, Alexandre Desplat’s work in Lust, Caution, or numerous film scores by James Wong (Green Snake is, to me, still the best Hong Kong movie soundtrack ever). I probably could have mentioned it, but I don’t think it would have taken up more than a sentence. This is kind of like the first question, about the actors. I just ran out of time/space/energy to push it to a 1600 word review. Not that it wasn’t long enough already.

Thanks for reading this lengthy mail. The above questions are just personal opinions, because I feel that The Warlords is a rather great movie and can be called a breakthrough in Peter Chan’s career. I have been expecting quite a good review from LoveHKfilm, but it’s a little disappointing that the review goes mainly about commercialism. No offense, just a 17 year old Hong Kong cinema fan trying to get some opinions from more senior fans. Thanks again.

No offense taken. I didn’t see the phrase, “you sir, are an idiot” in your email, so I’m perfectly fine with your comments. Hopefully my answers at least explained where I was coming from. Unfortunately, some of my answers were probably not the preferred ones, as they sometimes came with the admission that I was running out of time. Probably not the most professional thing to say, but at least it’s the truth.

Generally, two things occur when I review films. One, sometimes when I review a film I get carried away and write way more than I should. Unfortunately, if the review is 1300-2000 words long at the end of the process, then we’re kind of in No Man’s Land. All I can do then is look it over at a couple of times, see if I can cut some words here or there, try to keep the flow consistent, and then let it go. I wish I had an editor to look at the review before it gets published, or I could attempt multiple drafts of what I write, but this isn’t my full-time job. It’s just a hobby, and time is limited. If I finish, then I just throw the review up there and hope that I managed to cover everything I needed to - or, more important, that what I wrote made sense. Judging by some of the feedback I get, I’m not always successful.

The second thing that occurs when I review a film is that it gets filtered through my perspective, which is called “my” because that’s what it is: mine. It’s not necessarily better or more perceptive than anyone else’s. The only difference between the guy who sits behind you in the theater and me is that I choose to spend lots of time putting my opinion online. Sometimes when I write, the review goes in directions that I didn’t necessarily plan, meaning I sometimes leave out details that some people want to hear about. The Warlords review is one instance. I’ve also read complaints on some forums that I waste time talking about story or content or expectations, and don’t acknowledge the acting improvement of the Twins or Edison Chen. I can’t please everyone all of the time.

Anyway, the bottom line to this is a review is just an opinion, and I fully expect and even hope that people disagree with me. Watching film is subjective, and much of a person’s film experience is dictated by what they personally bring to it. I think a good film reviewer is not someone that people always agree with, but someone who is knowledgeable and can communicate well enough such that the person reading the review can make up their own mind. I keep this in mind whenever I write about a film, which is why I’m not incredibly effusive when I write. You won’t usually catch me saying, “This is one of the greatest Hong Kong films ever made!” because after seeing the number of movies I have, it’s hard to be so declarative. I’m not a person who’s into hype. All I do is watch movies, assemble my immediate opinions, and hope that what I write makes enough sense that people will be able to agree or disagree, and not simply say, “This person is an idiot.”

Though people say that, too. I know, because I save all their emails.

Let’s close this post with a picture:

Jay Chou could be colorblind
“Sorry. It’s laundry day.”

12 Responses to “Kozo’s Mailbag: Why I didn’t rave about The Warlords.”

  1. LT Says:

    On the topic of the Green Snake score, is there some soundtrack somewhere that can be located? Sites where I can buy other fairly old (circa early-mid 90s) HK movie soundtracks would be appreciated too.

  2. TD Says:

    i wonder if the filmmakers ever wanted us to feel the “brotherhood” between pang, jiang, and zhao? it seems to me that both pang and zhao never completely accept the brotherhood, and that jiang is the only one truly committed. jiang’s voice-over certainly pushes the audience toward identifying with him, and thus to seeing the brotherhood as more than it actually is, but the “perfunctory” brotherhood seems less problematic to me then the voice-over (and possibly the ending, though pang only allows jiang to kill him after he knows he will die). Is it obvious that everyone involved (director, actors/characters, audience, etc.) should be cynical about this brotherhood from the very beginning? I think so.

  3. Webmaster Kozo Says:

    TD, I also agree that the view of the brotherhood in Warlords is cynical, and that the characters (other than the increasingly loopy Jiang) never seem to buy into it. IMHO, I think this works against the movie, which is why I don’t find it that compelling. I’m not a huge fan of straight pessimism in films, unless it can really do more than just make me feel bad.

    There needs to be some loss felt, or it’s hard to care. If cyncism is obvious from minute one, and there’s really nothing beyond a sumptuous production to deepen the experience, then why wait 2 hours for the obvious, expected ending? The journey has to do something for the audience.

    About the Green Snake OST, the best bet at this point is probably eBay. I’m sure there are copies floating around. Oddly, YesAsia doesn’t even have a listing for the CD anymore, though I’m sure it’s no longer in print.

  4. shellie Says:

    that picture and quote of jay chou is super funny! LOL thanks for the laugh.

  5. shellie Says:

    oops, i meant caption.

  6. blueheart Says:

    I have to agree to Shellie, the caption is hilarious and maybe just the sentence of the last part about the acting improvement of Edison Chen. Sorry, that my comment is just as useless, but I still didn’t get to watch ‘The Warlors’ although I guess I seriously need to.

  7. willow Says:

    I didn’t read your review but I read this blog. I didn’t intend on watching The Warlords and I’m glad I’ve read more about it (here). I’ll save on shipping from an online DVD store bc I’m just gonna wait ’til I can pick up a VCD in SF Chinatown…someday. The film was not compelling enough for me to view immediately anyways. I’m a fan of TK but your description of how he portrayed his character is something I’d rather avoid seeing. ;D

  8. willow Says:

    addendum:
    But I am very curious to see Jet, the actor, in this one.

  9. anotherlonelyday Says:

    this only er repeats what we already know but i thought it’ll be interesting to say that i’m a member of alivenotdead.com, the site created by the alive members for thriving hk/pan asian talents..

    anyways derek tsang has a page there and i commented about my appreciation of his hilarious role in ‘av’, thought it was interesting to see his name behind the camera (credits on isabella) and just generally gave an interesting comment if i may say :D compared to the generic ‘hey love your work! wish to see you posting more!’

    he replied with ‘thanks for the comment’ and i was like wtf?! and replied ‘come on man, don’t give me this generic sh!t, i’m genuinely asking you here!’

    to my surprise he private messaged me a with lengthy reply and answered my questions in some depth, starting with something along the lines of ‘no offence man but you know how many crappy comments we get, not sure who are real etc’. on that basis alone, he seems like a pretty cool guy.

    i think one of my questions was asking how did he get into cinema and semi-joking, bet it was his dad’s contacts? he explained that most of the stuff he was interested, his dad wouldn’t have heard of and yes it was his dad that got him into the business so to speak by working as ‘ah sei’, which is cantonese for ‘guy who does everything’, in peter chan’s company; continuity guy, script delivering etc.

    he said working for peter was great because he was a good mentor and added he had a great eye for combining commercial projects with artistic projects. further more to my surprise again, he said he actually wants to be a director and was working on a film..

    anyways i’ve babbled on a looooooot. so to cut my story short, check out his short film, it’s good and shows he’s one to look out for in the future. i have a sense that i’ll dig his work as much as i do for ppl like edmong pang, which is a lot.

  10. willow Says:

    Derek sounds pretty cool in his message to you. Does he share this in his blogs at that alive site? I wonder who anotherlonelylady goes by at alive.

  11. Damn you, Kozo! Says:

    […] about how I “hate everything”, so I understand why it happens from time to time. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am not the most effusive of writers. After 2003, I generally stopped using major declaratives in […]

  12. Damn you, Kozo! Says:

    […] wanted to let me know their opinion on my review of THE WARLORDS. That particular review was also the subject of an earlier edition of Kozo’s Mailbag, though that email actually contained questions. This one doesn’t. It’s worth sharing […]

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