A muddled blood-brothers-turned-enemies saga set during the broad expanse of China's Warring States period (475-221 BC), The Warring States aspires to be sweeping, epic entertainment like Hero or Red Cliff, but gets everything jumbled: the action, comedy and any potential nationalistic undercurrents are all ill-served in Jin Chen's movie, which has shoddy tech credits and far too much talk undermining its narrative thrust. Brief moments of derisive audience laughter at an advance screening bode ill for commercial prospects with Chinese viewers in America, let alone broader audiences.
The Warring States begins with an enjoyable enough battle sequence that looks like a low-rent version of House of Flying Daggers: one woman wields a sword effectively, viewed in majestic overhead. That unimaginative but well-executed set piece is anomalous: the main plot is the relationship between "blood brothers" Sun Min (Honglei Sun) and Pang Juan (Francis Ng), who both studied with the same legendary military strategist. The more commanding Juan betrays the kingdom of Qi and goes over to the kingdom of Wei, while the seemingly buffoonish Sun Min remains behind. Captured and brought to Wei, Sun Min refuses to leave without his "blood brother," oblivious to the depths of Juan's ambitious treachery.
It plays roughly as turgidly as it reads, occasionally jolted into life by Sun's offbeat reading of Sun Min: whether he's an idiot who's bluffing or a genius of military tactics remains impossible to read late into the film. Sun's extended torture at Pang's hands, however bloody, isn't terribly interesting, nor are the stop-start attempts to rescue him. Flashbacks clarify (occasionally confusingly) the shared past the trio have, which actually creates zero resonance for events moving forward.
It comes down to Sun vs. Pang on the battle field, a climactic unleashing that turns completely anticlimactic. Amidst a hail of fake CGI boulders and lots of gray haze everywhere, Sun takes his revenge to precisely zero effect. Despite gesturing towards rude comedy (Sun's plain-spoken bluntness in the emperor's court shocks all the advisors, caricatured as much as the monks in Shanghai Noon to similar effects), battlefield epic or brotherly love/hate drama, The Warring States commits to none of them. The look is especially television-drama-esque during the many interior dialogue scenes, which help the film one bit. Despite all the charged emotions, this is figuratively bloodless filmmaking.
Distributor: China Lion Entertainment
Cast: Honglei Sun, Francis Ng, Kim Hee-Seon and Kiichi Nakai
Director: Jin Chen
Producers: Lu Zheng
Running time: 126 min.
Release date: April 22 ltd.