Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review - Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior

November 14, 2013

Fight and Love With a Terracotta Warrior­ – Hong Kong, 1990

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, few film collaborations were more respected and more highly anticipated among patrons of art house cinema than those of director Yimou Zhang and actress Li Gong. Their pairings began with 1987’s groundbreaking film Red Sorghum and ended with Shanghai Triad in 1995, the year in which their personal relationship reached its unfortunate conclusion as well. Six of their collaborations are fairly well-known, for they found audiences both inside and outside their home country. However, for every genre-breaking film they made about the plight of women in both modern and ancient China, there are at least two or three movies featuring Li Gong that did not play at film festivals or art house cinemas worldwide. These films run the gambit from supernatural thrillers (Semi-Gods and Semi-Demons) to period comedies (Flirting Scholar), and from contemporary dramas (Mary From Beijing) to historical films (The Great Conqueror’s Concubine). Some of these films did not receive positive world of mouth, and I imagine that others were deemed inaccessible to non-Chinese audiences. In fact, I can imagine a studio executive looking at Gong’s 1990 film, Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior (a.k.a. A Terra-Cotta Warrior) and being at a complete loss as for a way to market it.

Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, which stars, but was not directed by Yimou Zhang, is a bit of a head-scratcher. For the first fifty minutes, it is a straightforward drama about a good man named Tian Fong Mong (Zhang) who is loyal to China’s utterly ruthless first emperor. The film takes an interesting turn when Mong meets and falls for Winter, one of the emperor’s concubines. She is played by Li Gong. Through a plot device that works surprisingly well, the second half of the film transports viewers from B.C.E. China to 1930’s China. Here we meet a young actress named Lily, again played by Li Gong, whose life is soon endangered by her association with a group of relic hunters disguised as a film crew and looking for the Emperor’s mausoleum. It is of course Mong’s job to stop them.

Li’s two characters are like night and day. Winter is depressed by what life has reduced her to, suppressed by rules and traditions, and suicidal. Lily, on the other hand, is bubbly, energetic, materialistic, and slightly egocentric. She speaks in a high-pitched voice that seems designed to make her sound simultaneously more appealing, yet also less intelligent. I suspect that Winter is the kind of character audiences expect to see Li Gong play on the silver screen. However, as I watched the film, I got the sense that she was having much more fun playing Lily.

The film was released at a time in which the subject of the first emperor was of renewed interest in China. The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor had been designated a World Heritage Site just two years earlier, and films would continue to question whether the first emperor, credited with unifying China, yet using extremely draconian methods to do so, was a figure that should be praised or loathed. This cinematic exploration can be seen in 1996’s The Emperor’s Shadow, Kai-ge Chen’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998), and Yimou Zhang’s 2002 film Hero. Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior begins like many of these films, and thus it lulls viewers into a false sense of confidence, for the film is not about Mong’s inner struggle between his loyalty to the emperor and his disgust and shock over the emperor’s brutality. Instead, the film is about his loyalty to both a place and a woman he swore to protect.

The film will remind some of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn, yet the narrative thread in Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior is much stronger and more consistent. The film also owes a lot to the conventions of mummy films, movies in which tombs are places with booby-trap, and long-dead figures can magically come to life.  Its soundtrack reflects the tonal shift of its two halves, expressing the seriousness and tragedy of Mong and Lily’s forbidden love and the slapstick, comic nature of certain aspects of the film’s second half. In addition, its dialogue reflects the changes that take place concerning our perceptions of historical figures. In one scene, Mong rattles off the names of people who were important during his time, yet Lily does not recognize any of them. She then mentions the only name she can recall, that of a general who tried to assassinate the emperor. It says something that he is now regarded as a hero.

Sadly, like many films from Hong Kong and China, Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior has not been preserved well. The only available DVD is clearly not a remastered version, and heavy distortion can be seen throughout the film. In addition, the film’s white subtitles are often too small and dark to be read clearly, and they occasionally change so quickly that even a speed reader would have trouble keeping up with them. There are even a few moments in which subtitles appear on the screen despite the fact that the actors are not speaking. It is as if the subtitles were made using an early version of the script and someone didn’t notice that these lines had not made the final product. However, at least the translations are accurate grammatically.

Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior is a dramatic, silly film that works better than it probably should. Credit for this goes to the film’s cast; its director, Siu-Tung Ching; and its writer, Pik Wah Lee, all of whom take the film’s subject matter very seriously and work their best at making it seem as realistic as humanly possible. Gong Li shows an array of acting range, and Yimou Zhang demonstrates that he could easily have had a successful career in front of the camera. The film will never be confused as one of their seminal collaborations, but it is both fun and heartfelt. It is a must for fans of Zhang and Gong and, I suspect, a decent piece of mindless entertainment for other people. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior is in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.

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