Magnolia’s Magnet releasing is fast becoming the go-to distributor for Chinese period epics no one else knows how to release. Mere months after unspooling a truncated version of John Woo’s 2008/2009 two-part blockbuster epic Red Cliff, director (and former John Woo assistant) Peter Chan’s equally enthralling 2007 Warlords receives its long overdue release. Though less splashy than Red Cliff, or for that matter Hero, or even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the picture nonetheless embraces a classic melodramatic approach to an otherwise familiar Ching Dynasty tale, delivering one of the most bracing Asian period films in many years. That few such films have managed to equal the unrealistically pitched expectations that emerged in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has largely limited their distribution patterns, forcing most to settle for significantly less coin than what might have been the case when Miramax and New Line were launching them more enthusiastically. In keeping with that pattern, The Warlords, which arrives in the U.S. some 17 minutes shorter than its original running time, can expect to notch just slightly lower than Red Cliff while garnering a similarly strong push down the line on DVD and Blu-ray.
For the uninitiated, Ching Dynasty tales typically hold a place in Chinese cinema similar to the place of the Westerns in American cinema. Their frontier tales of easily chartered morality—noble, oppressed Hans usually battling for freedom from the evil, imperious Chings—have given bloom to literally hundreds of beloved tales since the silent era. The Warlords situates its story in the latter part of that period, specifically the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, when several renegade provinces openly revolted against the authority of the Empress Dowager. When the lone survivor of one particular battle, General Pang (Jet Li), is rescued and taken in by a community of bandits, he forges a bond with its joint chiefs, Zhao Er-hu (Andy Lau) and Jiang Wu-yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), eventually enlisting them and their entire band in the Empress’ army where their subsequent efforts to beat back the rebellion expose deep and abiding fissures that threaten to tear their blood friendship asunder.
The “brothers torn apart by war and women” scenario is obviously nothing new to either Asian or American cinema—any sophisticated filmgoer will quickly discern the film’s eventual trajectory. There’s an almost neo-Shakespearean quality to the players from the very beginning, loudly heralding the tragic eventualities long before they occur. But Chan also clearly knows this—having paid his dues in Hollywood (The Love Letter), Chan here seizes on the chance to emboss an oft-told tale with topnotch production value and major star power. Both calculations pay off—with three of the most popular Chinese actors in the world at his disposal and enough cash to fuel the demands of a glossy period epic, The Warlords emerges an enthralling emotional journey from beginning to end. Arthur Wong’s cinematography and the great Ching Siu-tung’s action direction are the most obvious standout contributions, along with Yee Chung-man’s extraordinary production design.
That the film is loosely based in real events—or, rather, that it extrapolates a history based on questionable circumstances surrounding a real event—won’t likely matter as much to stateside filmgoers as to native Chinese audiences. Neither are Americans likely to much care about the film’s politically charged reinvention of the era’s players—with the authoritarian Chings, long the villains of such films, given a more favorable footing, a shift that would never have taken place prior to the Chinese government extending a more active hand into China-Hong Kong co-productions. Nonetheless, there’s still much to enjoy, battles enough to enthrall, intrigue sufficient to engage even newcomers to Asian films of this genre. With luck and careful handling, it may even be enough to once again earn such pictures the broader releases they are due.
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Cast: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wu Jing-lei
Director: Peter Chan, Wai Man Yip
Screenwriter: Jianxin Huang, Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Jiping He, Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Lan Xu, James Yuen
Producers: Andre Morgan, Peter Chan
Genre: Period Adventure; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: R for sequences of strong violence.
Running time: 113 min.
Release date: April 2, 2010