Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Lost Bladesman (2011) Film Review
Directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong gave international audiences one of the most revered Hong Kong films of recent decades with Infernal Affairs nearly 10 years ago. Now they're teaming up with action star Donnie Yen in historical epic The Lost Bladesman. It seems like a dream ticket for Asian cinema. So it is a shame that this lushly shot martial arts epic suffers from a confusing plot and some awkward dialogue that overwhelms good performances, fine action scenes and a dark take on the often glorified Chinese warlord period.
The story is set during the war-torn Han Dynasty period, a era of battling warlords, rebel armies, betrayal and revolutions which will probably not be immediately familiar to non-Asian audiences or those otherwise not steeped in Chinese history. The specific story itself draws from Luo Guanzhong's classic tale Guan Yu Crossing Five Passes And Slaying Six Generals from the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Donnie Yen pays the titular 'lost bladesman' Guan Yu , an epic martial figure extremely well known to Chinese audiences.
During this warring period of the three kingdoms, ancient China is in turmoil - many characters throughout the film bemoan how the entire nation seems to be going to hell. To unify the country and end this chaos the charismatic but ruthless general and warlord Cao Cao (Jiang Wen), enlists the aid of the greatest warrior in the land, Guan Yun Chang (Donnie Yen) who is currently his prisoner. However, Guan Yun Chang is a loyal friend of Cao Cao’s enemy Liu Bei who is his sworn brother. Cao Cao has Guan Yun's brother's sister Qi Lan (Sun Li) hostage and so Guan is forced to fight, which he does very well in an intense battle in the film's early scenes outside Cao Cao's main fortress. His main weapon of choice is the distinctive guan dao spear/sword with an elongated and elegant staff handle, which he wields with deadly effect.
Following this victory, Cao Cao welcomes Guan Yu into his army and even allows him to leave with Qi Lan, though he clearly has designs to manipulate Guan Yun that conflict with what appears to be a genuine respect for him. As Cao Cao says, Guan Yun is possessed of the soul of a lamb, but this is a world ruled by wolves.
The film follows Guan Yun's increasingly tortured attempts to break free from Cao Cao's influence, reunite with Liu Bei, and evade the desires of various factions to enlist his skills. All he wants to do, it seems, is find a place where he can stop killing. This is rendered all the more confusing by the fact that he and Cao Cao share a rapport, despite all their differences, and Cao Cao might be the only man stopping the emperor from killing Guan Yun himself. As a dislluioned Guan Yun travels across China, he is forced to battle a series of enemy generals, armies, and assassins whilst trying to protect (and resist falling for) Qi Lan. Though many of the fight scenes become exhausting after a time, there are some inventive fighting techniques and locations to savour, in particular a spear battle in an claustrophobic alleyway that flips between foot and horseback.
Donnie Yen is a legendary martial arts star and has no problem carrying off some impressive set piece action scenes here (which he helped direct), whilst displaying virtuoso handling of an unusual and distinctive weapon. Though he complements well the charismatic and nuanced performance of Jiang Wen as Cao Cao, Yen is not helped by some awkward make up and costumes that seem to stiffen his performance. The cinematography takes in some stunning locations and the fight scenes are competently shot. But the plot and character positioning is confusing (why for example is Liu Bei hardly in this film when so much is made of him?), and there are few concessions made to those not better versed in Chinese history. The Lost Bladesman also comes at a time when the market is saturated with Chinese historical epics so it struggles to assert its identity, though the narrative at least seems to take a more cynical view of the warlordism of the period than other more conservative films. For a superior Chinese martial arts film starring Donnie Yen, try Ip Man.Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2011