If you enjoyed the balletic elegance of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the epic scale and outrageous haute couture of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, you might still enjoy director Peter Chan’s The Warlords, a Chinese historical drama from 2007 only now receiving an American theatrical release (it opens at the Shattuck Cinemas this Friday, April 9).
However, as the title suggests, this is a much grimmer affair than the aforementioned films — so if you associate contemporary Chinese cinema with Chow-Yun Fat balancing effortlessly on a bamboo stalk or a tight-bodiced Gong Li waltzing through an imperial palace, come prepared for something a little dirtier, a little sweatier, and a whole lot bloodier.
Jet Li stars as General Pang, the last survivor of an army abandoned on the field of battle by erstwhile ally General Ho. On his last legs, Pang is rescued and nursed back to health by Lady Zhao (Jinglei Xu), who introduces him to hubby Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and brother-in-law Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), co-leaders of a ragtag gang of bandits.
The grateful Pang transforms the undisciplined bandits into a well-oiled fighting machine, and the three men swear a blood oath to defend each other to the death. In an effort to align themselves with the winning side during China’s ongoing civil war, the threesome join the Shan Army as it battles towards Nanking. One problem, though: one of their new allies is deceitful General Ho, who is none too happy to reacquaint himself with Pang.
Off the battlefield, Pang and Zhao make eyes at each other, putting a strain on their relationships with Er-Hu. A rift further develops between the blood brothers when the increasingly ambitious Pang orders the massacre of prisoners captured after the siege of Suzhou, setting up a tragic third act finale in which the trio’s blood oath will be thoroughly put to the test.
How many ways are there to eviscerate a man? I don’t know, but judging from The Warlords, more than you might imagine: there’s a lot of blood shed in this film, in ways both unique and disgusting. There’s also more mud, filth, and dust than you’ll see in a season’s worth of Dirty Jobs, especially during the grueling trench warfare scenes. These are amongst the film’s most powerful, if least historically accurate, moments.
The Warlords has clearly been cut for American consumption, which is a shame, as I suspect some crucial dramatic material didn’t make the grade. The love triangle between Lady Zhao, Er-Hu, and Pang is woefully underdeveloped, and there’s careless editing elsewhere, resulting in some awkward and choppy sequences. Variety’s review indicated a 130-minute running time, whilst IMDb clocks it at 126, but the print playing at the Shattuck is a mere 110 minutes in length.
Nonetheless, The Warlords still has much to recommend it, not least the performances of Li, Lau, and Kaneshiro and the superb cinematography of veteran DoP Arthur Wong (Once Upon a Time in China, Shanghai Express). It won’t come close to matching the U.S. box-office success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but is still well worth seeing on the big screen, where Wong’s widescreen compositions will be best appreciated.
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.