6/28/11

The Lost Bladesman (Alan Mak and Felix Chong, 2011)

While watching The Last Bladesman with a room full of fellow Dynasty Warriors nerds, I could not help wondering how somebody unfamiliar with China’s Three Kingdoms era would react to it. I suspect they would be bored. I also suspect that the ones that would not be bored would be looking for “Little Red Book” references, contemporary political issues coded onto historical ones, and barely veiled nationalism or Han racial superiority. I might have too, except that I couldn’t really be bothered to when Donnie Yen is playing Guan Yu. Yes, that Guan Yu, the one to whom Chinese gangsters offer their prayers in return for protection. Can you say -- Testosterone EXPLOSION!? Don't worry, it's not.

The Lost Bladesman is actually a slightly embellished adaptation of one of the most memorable parts of Luo Guanzhong’s The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Captured by duplicitous duke Cao Cao after a lost battle, General Guan Yu finds himself courted by his captor, who admires his incredible physical strength, tactical skills, and loyalty. Guan Yu agrees to kill warlord Yan Liang for Cao Cao, but only under the condition that he lets his hostages, including the wives of his sworn brother and Shu leader Liu Bei, go free. Cao, with the greatest reluctance, allows them to leave, but as they journey, Guan and his retinue come across armed opposition from Cao’s allies and subordinates, not least of which are former allies of Guan Yu’s, even soldiers whose lives he had previously saved.

The film’s epic melodrama comes from the very Confucian sense of duty and reciprocity that governs Guan Yu’s actions towards Cao Cao, the puppet emperor Xian, and the mostly absent Liu Bei. The script portrays Guan as a somewhat na├»ve true believer; he cannot go against the emperor, the son of heaven, even though he is weak, even though Cao Cao sees no issue with manipulating and disrespecting him openly. He must repay Cao’s kindness, but cannot do so at the expense of Liu Bei, with whom Cao has a nearly personal, ongoing feud. He cannot make his feelings known to Qi Lan, Liu Bei’s betrothed with whom he is hopelessly in love, much less consummate them (this is one of those embellishments previously mentioned).

Writer/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong clearly want to show the tragedy inherent in idealism. No matter what Guan Yu wants to accomplish, he cannot wring rightness out of the corrupt political machinations of powerful bureaucrats like Cao Cao; and pursuing his own ends earns the resentment of peasants and soldiers tired of war and chaos, willing to compromise with the despotic Cao in return for some semblance of peace. The Lost Bladesman probably marks the first time that the legendarily powerful, physically monstrous, magnificently bearded Guan Yu seems powerless -- helpless even. It actually resembles, a little, Zhang Xinyan’s 1986 martial arts film, Yellow River Fighter thematically, although The Lost Bladesman eventually reaches more believable conclusions (Zhang was something of a left-wing idealist, and, ironically perhaps, it hurts his work).

But while aiming for high pathos, the film often finds itself hitting rank bathos. Part of the problem is rote direction. The cinematography is nice, as far as it goes, but with the cheesy cross-fades that segue between important scenes and Donnie Yen’s non-presence as Guan Yu, The Lost Bladesman feels, somehow, like half-baked leftovers. Scenes of expository dialog spoon-feed themes to the audience, even when the shown events make those themes quite clear. Yet it seems almost like the real meaty thematic concerns get lost in the spectacle of the production, which is appropriately expensive looking – just like every other recent film of this type, of which there are many.
Too often, the film looks for a fight sequence to keep its momentum going, like a genre flick rather than prestige picture. And given that the mainland market is largely middle class, and also willing to compromise with ruthless governmental clout for the sake of maintaining stability, Chong and Mak might have thought it prudent to diminish their own themes. Nobody likes to know that their compromises hurt strong, moral people. Nobody likes to hear a message that indicts them for their cravenness.

Or maybe the script needed another revision to trim out the unnecessary dialog, to more precisely show the tragedy of Guan’s situation, rather than tell it in between spectacular set-pieces.

Either way, it’s unfortunate, especially for poor, miscast Donnie. The fight scenes are well-done (I say this as somebody who has never been fond of Yen’s weapon choreography), but they seem like filler, especially given that they are filmed in a way that would not require a physical talent like Donnie to pull them off; they could have been as easily made with a double filling in for a less martially inclined, real thespian. And a real thespian Donnie Yen is not. He spends much of the film looking lost, and suffers in his scenes across Jiang Wen as Cao Cao.

But, for all that, I think that The Lost Bladesman is almost a nice counterpart to the unrelenting bombast and bromance of John Woo’s Red Cliff. Jiang Wen is the highlight here, as his Cao Cao is believably perspicacious, and even convincingly literate (historically, Cao was a prodigious literary talent). The somber, elegiac atmosphere really works well, and, in spite of a weak lead performance, The Lost Bladesman adequately renders the sorrow of a man caught up in the chaos of an awful, turbulent time in history.
I actually really liked this movie, in much the same way I like the messy films of Hong Kong’s earlier decades. The way I liked Red Cliff, to be frank. It’s much more watchable than some of the blunt political allegories that gained, to my astonishment, so much critical praise in the west. It’s certainly better than Resurrection of the Dragon (Daniel Lee, 2008), but that’s not setting the bar very high. The fact that the guys behind The Lost Bladesman actually tried to make a real movie with a real point makes it stand out amongst its competition.

So it’s a flawed, uneven success, in my book.

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