The Warlords is a large-scale historical epic told, curiously, in less than two hours. Taking some lesser-known (at least, in the West) history from 19th century China, it’s a tale of brotherhood and war. It’s a humbling piece in two ways. Firstly, most people from the West know much more about the far less bloody American Civil War, happening thousands of miles away at the same time. And secondly, it’s a surprisingly pessimistic, grim depiction of conflict and soldiers mores and attitudes.

The film opens with sole survivor of a bloody battle, General Pang (Jet Li) emerging alone from the corpses. He has been let down by his allies in the Qing Imperial Forces, and is badly scarred, both emotionally and physically. After being nursed back to health by a young peasant woman, Lian, he finds himself taken in by a group of bandits represented by Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Once returned to base camp, Pang, Wu-Yang and the leader of the tribe Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) decide to form a blood pact to look out for each other in a war they have set their hearts on joining. They’re going to sign up for the imperial army.

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They’re about to get involved in the infamous 1860s Taiping Rebellion. It would result in the deaths of between 20 and 30 million people. What makes things more messy is that Pang is starting to fall in love with the young woman who rescues him; this is a young woman who is the wife of gang leader Er-Hu.

The film begins, somewhat weirdly, like a trailer to itself; it’s all stylised credits, plot synopsis (via a hefty wedge of heavy-going scrolling text), slow-motion fighting and fast editing. In some ways it continues thus, delivering quite a fragmented narrative. There are a whole number of reasons as to why this is - the eight screenwriters, the ambitious scope of the film and also perhaps my lack of understanding and knowledge of the period. The result, however, is certain. It’s quite a confusing film, packed full of incident. I felt frustrated I knew little of the history and context of the film, which seriously hampered my enjoyment. Clearly, the Chinese do know their own history, which could partly explain its huge success domestically. It’s one less plot to follow.

Similarly, it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. Individually, however, some of the parts are excellent. The film plays up to Jet Li’s natural on-screen insouciance (some may say, his fundamental lack of charisma), and he is therefore highly effective as the psychologically scarred Pang. There is an aching emotional core to the film, perhaps brought by the director’s previous experiences helming romantic dramas. Although never thoroughly developed, this does act as an effective counterpoint to the blood and dust.

It’s a visually impressive film; the occasionally drained, almost blanched, cinematography is striking and the fight sequences are well choreographed and highly kinetic. The costumes and sets are impressive, and the bloody battles suitably realistic. It’s all set against some stunning, ragged scenery.

However, the film is marred by is ultimately marred by its ambition. It’s quite a change of scene for the director, and he obviously draws influence from Asian-made international crowd pleasers such as Hero and House Of Flying Daggers to make up for his lack of experience in this genre. Also, when he doesn’t seem to know how to set up a scene, he opts for the, quickly wearying, technique of panning out into beautiful, but dizzying, drawn out long shots. It’s hard to follow the story line, and I became very frustrated very quickly, and no matter how many more impressively lit 19th century Chinese city scenes I saw, I was never going to be fully cinematically sated.

So, although far too narratively dense to become the international crossover hit it, and its rather benevolent financiers, obviously wanted it to be, The Warlords is nevertheless a fairly engaging, visually sumptuous film, which will no doubt be enjoyed by fans of mainstream Asian cinema. Potentially a much better film if you’re familiar with the context, it’s nevertheless a fairly respectable curate’s egg.

Reviewed on: 15 Apr 2009
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Nineteenth century battle epic about blood brothers who find their bond is tested.
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Director: Peter Chan, Wai Man Yip

Writer: Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Jiping He, Jianxin Huang, Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Lan Xu, James Yuen

Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Yachao Wang, Bo Zhou

Year: 2007

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: China, Hong Kong


London 2008

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