By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Peter Chan’s Chinese battle epic, “The Warlords,” opens with a creepy voice narrating, “He told me — that dying was easy and living was hard.” But who is speaking? And who is he speaking about?
The film continues with an air of mystery. Crucial elements in the characters’ war-ravaged lives remain hidden. Certain elements may seem confusing to the moviegoer. Sometimes, the mystery adds depth to the saga. Other times, it seems calculated to cover the plot’s weak spots.
The international version of “The Warlords” runs sixteen minutes shorter than the original version. In the international version, significant material seems to be left out. Characters change their minds for no identifiable reason. Some crucial battle sequences fly by with very little time devoted to their unfolding.
After the opening narration comes a massacre of the Qing Dynasty army by the Taiping rebels in China during the 1860s. General Qingyun (played by Jet Li) ends up being the only survivor on the losing side. He hides under a pile of corpses and digs himself out after the enemy departs.
The massacre occurred as a result of another general’s decision to back out last minute. He refused to aid Qingyun’s troops. We never get a firm grip on why two separate armies that are technically on the same side try to undermine one another.
A wandering and despondent Qinyun meets a rag tag bandit army led by Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Erhu (Andy Lau). Qingyun respects the courage and grit of the two bandit leaders. Soon, the three bind together and prescribe death for anyone who goes against the other two.
Qinyun must kill a man he doesn’t even know to fulfill the trio’s oath. He shows a slight hesitation and oddly enough, warmth and respect to his victim. In this scene, Li proves to be an impressive and sadly underrated dramatic actor. He expresses suppressed rage, futility, or deep love using only the simplest facial expressions.
Unlike many films in this genre, “The Warlords” doesn’t wholly celebrate war. Director Chan matter-of-factly demonstrates the machinations necessary to keep an army together. The blood brothers know how to spark their soldiers’ egos and manipulate their men into accepting dangerous and possibly suicidal missions. They just don’t know what to do when they lose confidence in one another.
At one point, the three fight amongst themselves to determine the fate of some captured enemy forces. Two of them prevail, but they lose confidence in the third.
Unfortunately, Li doesn’t have many chances to demonstrate his world-famous fighting skills. Li puts on martial arts moves unequaled in film history since Jackie Chan slowed down. But “The Warlords” concentrates on huge battles sequences filmed with no sense of underlying rhythms.
Li needs an up close and personal approach to best portray his skills. With the exception of one masterfully choreographed match near the end, Li is not given the opportunity to showcase his skills.
The film deserves credit for Li’s striking performance and its sobering look behind the scenes of combat. A little more footage, I’m thinking, would help it make a lot more sense. ♦
“The Warlords” opens Friday, April 16, at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.