Friday, March 12, 2010

Review – The Warlords

March 12, 2010

The Warlords – China/Hong Kong, 2007

If there is a theme that runs throughout Peter Chan’s award-winning 2007 film The Warlords, it is that sometimes one must do evil to one day be able to do good. It is a theme that has resounded through films such as The Emperor’s Shadow, The Emperor and the Assassin, and Zhang Yimou’s much acclaimed film Hero. (Yes, those films are all from China, and yes, they are all about the violent, bloody history of China’s eventual unification.) However, I must admit that this theme makes me uncomfortable, for it essentially asks me to accept horrendous atrocities as being part of a struggle for a better world. So when four thousand soldiers from Suzhou, men whose general committed suicide in order to ensure that their lives would be spared, are murdered in an effort to preserve food and prevent the soldiers from once again taking to the battlefield against the film’s protagonists, I have to say I was rooting against the man with the long-term vision of a united and peaceful world and for the man pleading for mercy to be shown the defeated soldiers, despite how short-sided his vision of the future was.

The Warlords takes place in the mid-19th century at a time in which corruption is rampant and a rebellion is taking place. The rebellion will ultimately last fourteen years and claim seventy million casualties. The Warlords takes place during the latter years of this uprising, and the film’s opening scene establishes the utter brutality of the times. After showing us retreating soldiers being slaughtered by their merciless foes, the camera pans across a vast desert covered with dead and often mutilated bodies. We even get an aerial view showing us the enormous scope of the carnage. This is not the only scene in which viewers are given such a stark view of war and its aftermath. In addition to these graphic shots, viewers are treated to several very long scenes of Civil War era battles, replete with advancing soldiers rushing head on into a hail of oncoming enemy fire. Some of these scenes work well; some of them simply go on too long. And many of them rely on tried-and-true narrative streams to tell the story within the battle – the undermanned side courageously attacks a massive force, achieves some success before faltering, begins to accept the fact that the day will not be theirs, and decides to keep fighting to the end, only to be made victorious by the sudden and extremely timely appearance of forces friendly to their side. Perhaps it indeed happened this way, but somehow I doubt it.

The film’s central character is Pang Qing-yun (Jet Li). Pang has a vision of a China in which everyone, men and women, rich and poor, are considered equal, a China in which hunger is a thing of the past. He is joined on his quest by Zhao Er-hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the leaders of a group of warlords who out of necessity must steal food to survive. The three of them eventually take an oath of brotherhood, a ritual that unfortunately involves the three of them each taking the life of a complete stranger. Zhao and Zhang commit their murder rather callously. Pang tells his victim to “remember his face” and seek revenge in the next life. As with most films, there is a love triangle. Pang is deeply in love with Zhao’s girlfriend Lian (Jing-lei Xu). She seems to like him also, yet feels obliged to stay with Zhao. Zhao is generally a decent guy who Lian just happens to not love as much as she used to. There are also hints throughout the film that Zhang is also in love with Lian, yet those feelings are never acted on. Strangely enough, the relationship that seemed the most real to me was Lian and Zhao’s. To me, Pang seemed like a man who had simply met a nice woman one day and developed a crush on her. I saw no reason for either of them to have such strong feelings for the other.

Pang, Zhao, and Zhang eventually join the army after promising to take back the city of Shu City in just ten days. They succeed and set their sights on the much more heavily fortified city of Suchou. However, as the years pass, Pang begins to take a much more aggressive leadership role, insisting that there can only be one general on a battlefield. This causes a strain in their brotherhood, and Zhao begins to question Pang’s commitment to the morals he espoused earlier in the film. Further complicating matters is the fact the Zhang increasingly sides with Pang, even when he decides to kill the four thousand unarmed soldiers in Suzhou. The Warlords also gives viewers a rather interesting look at the politics of the time, at how those in power took credit for others accomplishments and were only concerned with their own political survival. In The Warlords, that goal often causes political leaders to target public icons for assassination, and one wonders just how long it will be before they turn against Pang, Zhao, and Zhang.

The Warlords is a good film that would have been better had it focused more on Pang’s struggle for a better country and less on Pang’s romantic interest in Lian. There simply is not enough to that relationship to make it entirely involving. In fact, the two of them have only one real conversation throughout the film, and subsequently spend other scenes staring at each other from a distance. In one scene, they play a game of cat-and-mouse through some well-dug trenches just outside of Suzhou. The scene is meant to show the intensity of their feelings toward each other, but I couldn’t help snickering a bit as the chase unfolded. In addition, it’s never a good sign when you’re watching an action scene and you suddenly say to yourself, “That music sounds a lot like the score for The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

That said, it is the performances of the three main actors that enabled me to retain my interest throughout the film. Jet Li is simply exceptional as Pang. In fact, I can’t think of a recent role that he’s played in Asia that I haven’t been able to say that about. Andy Lau is equally good as the leader that Pang seems to be replacing, and Takeshi Kaneshiro brings the right amount of courage, intelligence, and innocence to a very challenging role. I’m still not sure how I feel about Pang’s quest, but at least it was fun to watch. (on DVD in Region 3; in theaters in the U.S. on April 2, 2010)

3 stars

*The Warlords is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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