Thursday, April 29, 2010

Warlords (2007)

This film opened at the end of 2007 in Asia. I saw it on DVD in early 2008. It finally officially reached the US in 2009 where it played film festivals and now thanks to Magnet releasing its getting a wider release and eventual US DVD.

General Pang (Jet Li) survives a massacre when he and his men are betrayed. He does this by pretending to be dead. Wandering from the battlefield he staggers through the countryside. Collapsing near an abandoned house he is saved by a young woman who makes him food. In the morning she is gone. After selling his armor he falls in with a group of bandits who are stealing food for their village. After the village is beaten in an attack by a rival village Pang convinces the villagers to join one of the armies to get protection and food. To assure that Pang will not betray them Pang forms a pact with Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). The blood brothers then lead their men off to war and an uncertain future.

Cutting to the chase, this is a great film. Pretty much everything about this film is top notch. This is an epic action film that has a great deal on its mind. This is a film that has romance; examines war, both its glory and its cost (for example the trench siege of the city); high level politics; honor; the bond between brothers in arms; the promises we make and a couple of other things I'm too overwhelmed to recall. Its been rare that I've seen an action film that dealt with more than just macho notions of honor and right and wrong.

The action is top notch. There is everything from one on one combat to huge scale battle scenes. Its also very graphic and very bloody. Limbs and blood fly. No matter how they did it the action has impact, both in the "oh Wow" sense and the gut turning "this is the cost of violence" sense. The film also knows when to keep things off screen for heartbreaking effect. Its mind blowing.

Need I go into the costuming and set design? You must see this on as big a screen as possible. Its overwhelming in the sense of scale. These are real big places. These are huge armies. I'm floored. Its like the epic Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Banquet or House of Flying Daggers but in a gritty real lived in sort of way.

The score is hypnotic. Several times the score drives the film, lifting it up from the realm of film to something much more lyric and poetic. For me the film is often a tone poem, a visual and aural meditation on the nature of the human condition as portrayed in the film. Yes, I can tell you what is going on logically and dramatically but thanks to the score and its marriage to the visuals both horrific and beautiful the film ceases to touch the intellect but instead touches the heart and the gut. More often than not I felt things more than I "thought things". which is why my words are severely lacking for describing much of the film. (Its also why I have forgiven pretty much any flaws the film may have, I was too emotional to care). If you want an example of what a great score can do you need look no further.

The acting is Oscar worthy. Andy Lau is as good as he always is. He is one of the best actors working in Chinese cinema. Takeshi Kaneshiro is equally good. The real revelation here is Jet Li. I was floored by his performance in Unleashed, but this is so much more. Here he gives a performance that is layered and touching. We feel his pain at the loss of his men in the early scenes, later we ache for the pain of his love that is just out of his reach. If there is any flaw in his performance its perhaps that in the second half as fortunes change and the situations begin to move out of his grasp he becomes too internal. To be certain there is the confusion in his eyes but his face is a bit too impassive.

If there is a flaw its that the film has almost too much going on. There is a large scale scope to the film and it has almost too many plot lines to resolve. It does so, I think satisfactorily, however there are times when I felt that I was missing something.

I can't say enough about this film.

Its not perfect (but pretty close)

Currently in limited US release with the recut International version which removed 15 or so minutes of exposition. See if you can find the longer Asian version which runs a couple of minutes past 2 hours, since I'm told there is a difference in what was cut, including a softening of some characters.

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