Thursday, July 16, 2009
Fantasia Film Fest Review: The Warlords (2007)
The Warlords aka Tau ming chong (2007) imdb Fantasia
Directed by Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip
Written by Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Jiping He, Jianxin Huang, Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Lan Xu and James Yuen
Looking at the list of writers involved in this project, it is a fraking miracle that this film is as good as it is. While it is no The Banquet, it is a solid historical epic which features the most layered and complex performance of Jet Li's career.
Loosely based on the Shaw Brothers' 1973 film The Blood Brothers as well as the life and death of General Ma Xinyi, this is a tragedy in the Greek or Shakespearean sense. Jet Li plays General Pang Qingyun, a general of the Ching army whose command is slaughtered by the Taiping rebels while Pang's allies the Ho Army watch and do nothing.
Injured, delirious and with no one left to command, Pang is nursed back to health by a beautiful woman who turns out to be the wife of Andy Lau's bandit leader Zhao Er-Hu. When the Ho Army raids Lau's village, steals their supplies and kills one of his men, Jet Li convinces Er-Hu and his lieutenant Zhang Wen-Xiang (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) that if they join the Ching Army they will get the respect, money and guns necessary to protect themselves and their village. Pang, Er-Hu and Zhang swear a blood oath to stand together with death as the penalty for oath-breakers.
This starts Pang on his quest to save his country from itself, building an army from the unwanted, the poor, the brigands. In the process, Pang must fight Imperial politics as much as the enemy Taiping rebels. Each step along the way, Pang has to barter away a little piece of his soul to achieve victory, with Zhang reacting with hero-worshipping approval, while Er-Hu becomes increasingly disgusted.
The down side to working with a star of Jet Li's caliber is that in every role he is Jet Li, bringing with it his quiet heroism and idealism. This film turns that drawback into an advantage by casting Jet Li as a man who does increasingly villainous things for the purest of motives. Like a Chinese Robespierre, Pang is trying to build a free, united China on a pyramid of corpses.
The film that The Warlords reminds me of the most is John Ford's The Searchers.
Like The Searchers, The Warlords starts with a massacre. Both films feature characters who leave their homes on an obsessive quest that seems impossible and takes them years to complete.
John Ford uses John Wayne's iconic, heroic status and subverts it, as the obsessive quest slowly destroys Wayne from within. Jet Li's character in The Warlords follows the same arc, beginning his quest with idealistic purity and finishing just inches from total madness. Both men succeed in their quests, Jet Li's Pang in saving his country, Wayne's Ethan Edwards in rescuing his niece, but in both cases their quest is ultimately futile, because what they saved was the reality and what they wanted to save was an ideal. Both men end their films framed in a doorway that they can no longer cross, because their journeys have turned them into men of war who have no place in the world of peace on the other side of the doorway.