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The Warlords
     

(left) Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro, and (right) Xu Jinglei in The Warlords.
Chinese: 投名狀  
Year: 2007  
Director: Peter Chan Ho-Sun  
Action: Ching Siu-Tung  
Cast: Jet Li, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei, Guo Xiao-Dong
The Skinny: Big, loud, entertaining and somewhat hollow. The Warlords is a solid commercial motion picture that should prove popular. And yet, it's predictable and safe in the power it wields. You'll see it anyways.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Hong Kong movies don't get much bigger than The Warlords, and Peter Chan seems to know it. Hong Kong's canniest filmmaker, Chan brings together an impressive cast in Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Xu Jinglei for this period war epic partly based on Chang Cheh's classic Blood Brothers. The three male superstars play Qing-era warriors drawn into the turbulent history of nineteenth-century China. The Taiping Rebellion has plunged the country into chaos, with General Pang Qing-Yun (Jet Li, in a career-changing dramatic performance) emerging as the lone survivor of a particularly nasty conflict between the Jesus-worshipping Taiping and a Qing company under his command. Pang survived in a surprising and decidedly un-Jet Li-like way: he pretended to be dead and hid beneath the bodies of his slain men. His shame and cowardice haunt him, but that evening he finds solace in a chance encounter with the comely Lian (Xu Jinglei). She comforts him through the night, but disappears the following morning, leaving him alone and without direction.

Pang soon meets Jiang Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a boyish bandit who works for charismatic bandit leader Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau). The gang earns their daily keep by stealing from and sometimes murdering soldiers. It's during such a raid that Jiang discovers that Pang can kick ass, making him a welcome addition to the bandit ranks. Pang makes his own discovery: that Lian is actually Zhao's wife, though there is a discontent with that arrangement that gives him hope. Things change when Qing soldiers confront the bandits, shaming them and taking all their spoils. The bandits are now bitter and destitute, but Pang comes up with a nifty idea: why don't the bandits join the army themselves to earn money, food, and maybe even fame? Zhao and Jiang agree, but since Pang is a newcomer to the bandit group, they ask him to take a "blood oath" to insure that he won't betray his new pals. Pang, Jiang, and Zhao each kill a nameless outsider, and swear to each other to defend their brotherhood until death. Soon, the three begin a quick rise to military glory, highlighted by epic battle sequences and some obligatory male bonding. However, given the moral compromises of war, the treachery of politics, and the thorny issue of women, that brotherhood is soon challenged, with a very high price to pay.

Peter Chan normally creates love stories, and The Warlords is basically a love story, too - it's just about the platonic affection between manly men instead of gooshy heterosexual romance. Chan is pretty damn good at handling the latter, as can be seen in his classics Comrades, Almost a Love Story and He's a Woman, She's a Man, but he doesn't bring any of that expert handling to The Warlords. The love triangle between Zhao, Lian, and Pang is treated in a largely perfunctory manner, serving as a primary reason for the ultimate dissolution of the film's central brotherhood between Zhao, Jiang, and Pang. However, the brotherhood seems very perfunctory too. Even though it's the primary theme of the film, the brotherhood seems to exist solely to push the plot along. Sure, they go through the onscreen brotherhood ritual, and there's some horsing around that implies that they like one another, but the characters aren't felt enough to make their ultimate fall more potent. Both Pang and Zhao seem to be loyal primarily to their own personal codes, and Jiang's adherence to the brotherhood plays like zealotry more than anything else. Despite an abundance of meaty war-related drama to chew on, the characters never resonate enough to make the brotherhood work.

The film also doesn't take advantage of its historical context. Chinese audiences won't need a primer on the film's historical and political background, and may find The Warlords to be richer than it overtly seems, but international audiences could probably use a few hints as to what all these conflicts mean. The Taiping Rebellion has much to do with religion and cultural ideology, but those issues are downplayed for themes of brotherhood and war - a disappointing choice considering some of the symbols and motifs that get employed by the screenwriters. Presumably, the concentration on war themes and brotherly betrayal makes the film more universal, and there is some effective drama mired in the brothers' opposing ideologies on war and righteousness. However, the missing cultural details reduce the film's depth, rendering it less effective than it could be. There's plenty to comment on in China's tumultuous past, but the film seems to gloss over its subject matter. Ultimately, the film's historical trappings feel less like history and more like just a setting, meaning it's great for big battle sequences and ornate costumes, but not for anything truly more telling.

In many ways, The Warlords feels like Hollywood-style Hong Kong filmmaking, in that it uses scale, CGI, and strong, but expected drama to create a predictable experience. There's emotional complexity in the characters and their conflicts, but it's all rather rote, and possesses little or no surprise. Intermittent voiceover from Takeshi Kaneshiro is used to force-feed lessons and observations, and there isn't much to be gleamed beyond what's put out there on the screen. A total of eight screenwriters (Aubrey Lam and James Yuen, among them) are credited on The Warlords, making the end credits resemble the written-by-committee crawl you might normally see attached to a Hollywood film. This is a large, impressive production, but The Warlords is dwarfed by its own sense of commercialism. It's got big stars, grand production values, overwrought drama, predictable conflicts, and even a China-safe aversion to tougher themes. This is an easily digestible and very impressive-seeming motion picture, but the ability to impress beyond the expected just isn't there.

Does that make The Warlords a bad film? No, not really, and the commercialism at play isn't very surprising, considering Peter Chan is at the helm. Chan's work in the new millennium has been all about tapping into markets beyond the shrinking Hong Kong one, and he's done it in a variety of ways: international casting, smart co-productions, and above all, the creation of a sellable product. Chan has done just that with The Warlords, delivering a product that both Chinese and international audiences will find palatable, and he's seemingly done all the work for the would-be suits wringing their hands over marketability. The Warlords is exceptionally marketable, possessing commercial qualities that make it sellable all over Asia, and also the apparent prestige and cultural uniqueness that make it attractive to the West. Also, the film has Jet Li, who will sell to audiences beyond your art house cinephiles. Basically, The Warlords has everything it needs to be a desirable event film - except, perhaps, that mega-mega happy ending that will make people in Nebraska like this movie too. If they really wanted to sell this thing, couldn't they have put a kid, a dog, and a wacky sidekick in it too?

Well, that would be pushing the commercialism too far, and obviously Peter Chan knows where to draw the line, choosing to deliver a powerful film that still plays it safe. The Warlords is both a victim and a beneficiary of commercialism; it delivers a predictable experience, but also a peerless spectacle that should please mass audiences. Aside from the excellent art direction and cinematography, the film features terrific battle sequences that feature both heady strategy and spectacular, but not too bloody violence. The action from Ching Siu-Tung isn't the high-flying variety, and stays earthbound in a comparatively realistic, but still very exciting manner. There's plenty of solid impact, hacked-off limbs, and melodramatic battlefield drama to excite mass audiences, and the actors hunker down and deliver as much manly weeping and overwrought emoting as they can possibly muster. The Warlords is not subtle, but it's not embarrassing either, and possesses an air of quality and an obvious commercialism that make it a must-see. Peter Chan made The Warlords for as big an audience as possible, and judging by the film's programmed sense of power and initial box-office receipts, he knew what he was doing. Inclined audiences will choose to see The Warlords, regardless of any naysaying. The majority of those people shouldn't be disappointed. (Kozo 2007)

 

Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
2-DVD Special Edition
Media Asia
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Media Asia

   
 
 
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