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The Warlords
cast: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Xu Jinglei

director: Peter Chan

126 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I admit that I have something of an unhealthy relationship with south-east Asian action films. I yawn my way through lavishly produced epics such as Tsui Hark's Seven Swords, and grind my teeth throughout works of visual poetry such as Zhang Yimou's Hero, only to emerge from the cinema moaning about politics and characterisation. However, given that I am the proverbial moth to the flame of lavish south-east Asian historical epics, I braced myself for disappointment as I slipped the DVD of Peter Chan's The Warlords (aka: Tau ming chong) into my DVD player. However, for once, I was not let down. This is a genuinely good film with interesting things to say.

The film opens with Pang Quing-yun (Jet Li) crawling out from beneath the piles of corpses that once made up his army, betrayed by a rival general who refused to commit his men to the battle. Slogging his way towards the nearest town, he collapses at the feet of Mi Lan (Xu Jinglei), who takes him to a barn and feeds him as he cries about the shame and the horrors of his failure. Come the morning, the mysterious woman has disappeared and Pang makes his way into town where he sells off his armour and sword in order to buy food. However, as he sits eating, the bandit Jiang Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) rides into town and immediately identifies him as a kindred spirit (and one who knows how to fight at that).

Whisking the general and a load of peasants back to the bandit's village, Jiang introduces Pang to Er-hu (Andy Lau). The two do not initially hit it off but, upon discovering that Mi Lan is Er-hu's wife, Pang decides to stick around. After the village gets raided by the troops of the rival general, Pang convinces Er-hu and Jiang that the only way to keep the people safe and fed is to make the bandit gang into an army. This army goes on to win battle after battle, winning Pang prestige and glory. However, Pang is not happy... he claims to be driven onwards not by political ambitions but by a desire to implement dreams of a just world where peasants live free of the horrors of war. Bound together by this shared vision and the loyalty of 'blood brothers', the group decide to attack a major city without the support of the empire's other armies. This battle results in a year-long siege that is only broken when Er-hu sneaks into the city and negotiates surrender in return for sparing the lives of the city's remaining soldiers. Realising that the city's food supplies cannot feed both his army and 4,000 prisoners, Pang orders the enemy soldiers to be butchered. This shatters the bonds between the three blood-brothers and sets in motion a series of events that will result in all three meeting grisly deaths at each others' hands.

Despite the location shooting, the epic battle scenes and the presence of Jet Li in the cast, The Warlords is primarily about the relationship between the three central characters. These three characters complement each other perfectly by virtue of their differences. Jet Li, usually an impassive and coolly detached cinematic presence, plays Pang as a simmering pepper-pot of a man, forever barking his irritation at friend and foe alike whilst attempting to support both a traditional Quing dynasty queue and an unconvincing comb-over. Despite professions of idealistic virtue, Pang is clearly a man driven by ambition and resentfulness towards other people in positions of power. Even his purported desire to create a world full of peace and free of suffering, is less an expression of political conviction than it is an ambition to do better than rival generals. Clearly, the character of Pang is very much about expediency cloaked with virtue, making him a figure with considerable resonance in the current political climate.

Andy Lau's Er-hu, by contrast, is the exact opposite. He appears as a bearded mad man, a bandit, murderer, and warlord who cares little for the rules of war or protocol when they stand in the way of victory. However, it emerges that this apparent savagery hides a man who is not only deeply romantic but also moved by profound convictions and a desire to help people and make the world a better place. In a nifty piece of visual storytelling, Chan has Er-hu shave off his beard once his true nature starts to surface.

With two characters so utterly at odds with each other (particularly over the love of Er-hu's wife Mi Lan), it is perhaps obvious that they were going to enter into conflict but the writers were clever enough to include Takeshi Kaneshiro's Jiang Wu-Yiang as a foil for both of them. Where both Pang and Er-hu are big picture thinkers who do what they do because of great ambitions, Jiang - in a way that is almost childlike in its endearing innocence - is devoted to people. He loves both of his 'big brothers' and sees their conflict not as one that arises from moral or political differences but as a battle for Mi Lan. Indeed, interestingly enough, the film actually plays down the role of Mi Lan's character as someone who clearly had a fling with Pang and who still fancies him but who is devoted to her husband. However, because Jiang sees people rather than principles and because Mi Lan is around when the final bloody denouement lumbers into view, Jiang sees Mi Lan as central to the story.

Visually speaking, The Warlords is a gritty film. Unlike the colourful silks of Zhang Yimou's House Of Flying Daggers, or the gilded cage of his Curse Of The Golden Flower (2006), the film is shot almost entirely outside and in mountain country so desolate it could double for Afghanistan. There's even one sequence filmed in trenches full of dead bodies and blackened faces. However, despite this bleakness, the film's battle sequences are still visually stunning. The epic battle early on features some incredible scenes with hundreds of extras and the fight scenes within the battle are quick, brutal and mostly well shot. There's also enough action spread out through the film to stop things from bogging down meaning that Chan effectively produces a film that functions both as an epic action film and a drama.

Historically, the film seems sadly to be more in the tradition of Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), than Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008). Despite the second disc containing some text about the historical figure Ma Xinyi, whose murder did inspire the film's final scenes, Pang himself seems to be a composite. Along with Ma Xinyi, Pang contains elements of the military leader Li Hongzhang, who had thousands of prisoners of war put to death, and the British military commander Charles George Gordon, popularly known as 'Gordon of Khartoum' and whose statue currently graces one of the plinths in London's Trafalgar Square.

Other extras included on the second disc contain a theatrical trailer and the usual "we all had a really great time and the director was amazing" PR guff but there's also a second far more interesting making-of documentary that is incredibly honest in its depiction of production difficulties, the director moaning about the crew, the star moaning about the director and quite a bit on the hardships of filming in such a remote location. This featurette also gives a fascinating insight into the creative process on films as huge as this one. For example, it is immediately clear than Chan arrived with only the vaguest sense of what kind of look he wanted the film to have. As a result we see Jet Li mocking up a Wuxia-style sword fight only for Chan to moan about it looking 'too much like Wuxia'. This prompts Li to moan about the production while the director repeats that he wants someone to come into shot, hit someone and then run out a bit like in an American football game. After a while, some common ground is discovered and the fight-related crew manage to give the film the realistic and brutal look that Chan wanted. Also refreshing is the extent to which this featurette recognises the role of the second unit director in shooting the fight scenes.

In conclusion, The Warlords is a thoroughly decent piece of film-making. The fight scenes are brutal and well designed, the battles are epic and visually stunning, the film is well directed and all of these visual elements serve to augment a wonderful character-based plot. While I regret that Chan decided to smooth-out historical fact for the sake of his story, the final story carries a powerful anti-war message that makes for an interesting viewing experience.

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