Peter Chan Ho-Sun is one of the Hong Kong directors I rather admire. Many of his works in the 90s are considered classics today, namely COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY and HE'S A WOMAN, SHE'S A MAN and his 1993 time-travelling film that starred two Tony Leungs, HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY FATHER. Being one of the co-founders of the UNITED FILMMAKERS ORGANIZATION (UFO), he's also responsible for many of the finest commercially and critically successful Hong Kong films in the 90s as producer.
I had mixed feelings about his previous work, PERHAPS LOVE (mini-review here). Impressed with the acting, liked the songs, awed by the visuals and think that the film is overall a pretty good film. But with THE WARLORDS, Peter Chan is venturing into foreign territory by making a medieval war epic instead of his usual subtle romantic films.
This film is set in the 1860s, during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1871) in the late Qing Dynasty of China. Three sworn brothers (played by Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) join the army to help suppress the rebellion, despite their battle victories, the trio ends up turning against each other because of a woman (director/ actress/ famed blogger Xu Jinglei). The film is a remake of 'Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema' Chang Cheh's 1973 film, THE BLOOD BROTHERS, though Peter Chan denies this, saying that his film is merely heavily influenced by THE WARLORDS.
I'm sure the plot is more or less the same, just that this one is done with a much bigger budget (US$40 million) and more CG effects.
And hell, the large-scale battle scenes are REALLY impressive to look at. In fact, I think the battle scenes here may be some of the best I've ever seen in recent Chinese films. One-trick pony Peter Chan is not. I was definitely awed by the action setpieces for their gritty realism and intensity. And instead of glorifying war, this film gradually shows that war is a necessary evil, that even the noblest of heroes would lose shreds of their humanity in war, and ugly incidents that stemmed from a battle began the internal conflict between the protagonists.
Plot and characters ended up feeling underdeveloped due to the major effort put in staging those spectacular battle scenes. The sketchy characters are aided by the fact that they were played by Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro, so because they are who they are, audiences will feel for them. Even so, film seems to stall once the visual spectacle is out of the way. But things get messy during the second half of the film when we see less battle scenes and the love triangle between Zhao er Hu (Andy Lau), General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) and Zhao er Hu's wife, Lian (Xu Jing Lei) is brought to the forefront of the film. Everything unravels into a tragic tale of betrayal.
It's really angsty, and we see lots of manly men crying. It's really over-the-top, and you just MIGHT start getting putt off by the film's sheer melodramatic emo-ness. I was enthralled at first, but I got cynical, and started feeling that the film might have gone rather overboard. And since character development and interaction were sacrificed in favour of the BLOODY AWESOME battle scenes, the tragedy that unfolds towards the end of the film feels forced and tacked on instead of genuinely emotional.
Despite a promising start that stems from a chance encounter, the relationship between Lian and Pang is rather meh-inducing. I suppressed a groan (but I cringed) at a scene where they chase each other through the army camp for a late-night tryst. Um, you'll know when you see it.
On the other hand, I don't think I've ever seen Jet Li weep that much in a film. (BTW: his salary in this film made him the highest-paid Asian actor)
Not a horrible film, not a good film either. First half is pretty good and badass, but second half... not so much. The battle scenes might worth the price of the ticket, but despite my relatively low expectations (good as he is, I don't expect Peter Chan to immediately craft a masterpiece from a genre he's never worked on before), I still think the film could've been so much better.
THE WARLORDS trailer