(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan
In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.
Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.
He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.
Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.
During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.
Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.
The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.
The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?
Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.
I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.
In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.
Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.
REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.
HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Max Payne