Taking place in the wake of the second Sino-Japanese War, a Chinese double agent infiltrates a stronghold belonging to a band of criminals who’ve commandeered weapons and supplies left-over by the defeated Japanese.
Between the late-30s and mid-40s, the Japanese made another play at expanding their tiny island empire into the broader Pacific and in this case into China. It took Europe (in particular the Russians) and the United States to help China defeat the Japanese. The atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki halted not only their war against the Americans, but had the added side effect of demoralizing the Japanese’ and ending their imperialist push into China and other countries.
For China, however, the problems didn’t end with the defeat of the Japanese. Soon after they had to contend with the various criminal organizations that blossomed out of the vacuum of war to take over large provinces no longer policed by the many able men who by this time had either perished during the larger battle and/or who were still far from their homes and unable to help. The result was that thousands of innocent villagers died during this period as the criminals gobbled up the arms and resources left over by the many dead and defeated factions. This is where the film’s story takes place. It’s a great place to plot a heroic yarn of brave men risking all to help the little guy. We’ll get to whether or not they succeed in a moment.
There’s Something On Your Face
Let’s talk about the visuals for a moment. In telling this film’s narrative, director Tsui Hark takes inspiration from the modern Peking Opera presentations of the 60s. Like those popular stage presentations the look and feel of the film emphasizes flamboyant costumes and bright colorful makeups. Huge helpings of blush and eye shadow and wardrobe designs with a stagey flare. It’s an intentional choice that he even alludes to in the movie’s opening bookend sequence; I get the impression it’s his way of reinforcing that this possibly true story will be told with more than a little imaginative license. Accurate history this is not. The results though give the film a unique and pleasing look that will give the viewer something to keep them interesting to glom onto in every frame of the picture.
What’s going on in the foreground isn’t all that’s worth looking at either with some equally beautiful snow covered outdoor landscapes and beautiful interior production designs. The bandit stronghold stands out quite strikingly with it’s rich gold, blues, greens, and crimson tapestries against the weathered military assets.
There Be Tigers
The action is entertaining enough, but tempered compared to the Tsui Hark of old. There are 3 or 4 significant action sequences spaced throughout the length of the film including several max-payne-bullet-timey skirmishes between the bandits and soldiers; a harrowing fight between one of our principle characters and a man-eating tiger; and a CG-filled fight on, under, and in a Biplane culminating in a precarious fisticuffer on a cliff. Not really anything we haven’t seen before, but ably handled nonetheless.
The CGI is hit and miss with the seemingly tougher sequences fairing better whilst the ones that should be old hat being the ones that are less seemless. The Tiger fight works better than the final Biplane sequence, for example and some of the action freezing shootouts just feel poorly realized. I’ve seen worse of course so, it’s not so bad that you won’t enjoy yourself, but you’ll notice it’s not so convincing. The more discerning viewer will probably like their experience less as the result.
Back To Irregular Programming
So, the film looks good and the action is worth a look too, but how does the drama do at connecting it all?
Well, the brief and briefly mentioned bookends take place in the present (modern times). Poorly acted and horribly staged; the dialog — cringe-worthy. Thankfully they’re a very small part of the overall movie, but their awfulness unfortunately still sets a tone that affects the rest of the narrative.
The main story fairs considerably better, but falls short of having the intended impact. The movie suffers from too many characters, none of them get enough characterizations to be meaningful. Hark would have done better to pair down the storylines to the ones that were either necessary to getting across his intended themes.
The mother and son who are separated by war are compelling. Both the little boy and the actress who played the mother stood out in their performances and would have benefited from a tad bit more fleshing out.
Hawk, the head bandit, is a necessary creature along with the soldier who infiltrates his stronghold. Both could have benefited from a bit more humanity, but instead we got caricatures. The spy had virtually no personality; a cold, unlikable protagonist. The gangster played like he was plucked right out of Superfriends central casting, albeit with the added bouts of jealous voyeurism towards his women slaves.
The narrative was completely salvageable; just a few tweaks to character here and there.
This won’t make the top of your list for Tsui Hark productions, but the entertaining action and above average (for a film of its ilk) cinematography will probably not leave you completely disappointed. If you go in with expectations in check you’ll have a good time.