In the years since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control, filmmaking on the mainland has absorbed elements of Hong Kong's more commercial industry. It has, in effect, loosened up some, with a diverse influx of talent: How else can one account for "The Warlords"?
For a start, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, the director of this period battle epic, went to UCLA film school before directing a string of Hong Kong hits and even a Hollywood romantic comedy ("The Love Letter"). And despite China's longstanding tensions (to put it mildly) with Japan and Taiwan, mainland-born Jet Li and Hong Kong-born Andy Lau costar along with half-Japanese/half-Taiwanese Takeshi Kaneshiro. (Kaneshiro was also one of the leads in John Woo's "Red Cliff," another Chinese coproduction.)
Li plays Pang, a 19th-century general whose entire army has been wiped out when a supposed ally betrays him. Guilt-ridden over his own survival, he only begins to find new meaning after a passionate one-night stand with Lian (Xu Jinglei), another wanderer.
She disappears, and Pang becomes friends with the outlaw Wu Yang (Kaneshiro). Wu Yang invites him to join his gang, but Pang, a born leader, instead persuades the gang to join the army. He, Wu Yang, and the gang's leader, Er Hu (Andy Lau), swear allegiance to one another as blood brothers. ("Blood Brothers," not coincidentally, was the film's working title, changed to avoid confusion with a 1973 classic by Chang Cheh, based on the same historical figures.)
Complicating matters is the renewed heat between Pang and Lian, who, unfortunately, turns out to be Er Hu's wife.
Pang leads his new forces through a series of surprise victories against much greater armies, finally taking Nanking. But along the way he reveals a ruthless streak that alienates the other two.
"The Warlords" nabbed best film and best director awards in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chan, who is better known for comedies and sensitive romances of far smaller scale, proves himself adept on this broad canvas. Certainly, veteran action choreographer Ching Siu-Tung deserves a good share of the credit, since the gritty, exciting battle scenes are the film's heart.
The only thing that diminishes their accomplishment is the inevitable comparison to "Red Cliff," a similar period war film (which also starred Kaneshiro, alongside Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Woo's film was shot later but released in the United States first (late last year), while "The Warlords" came out in Asia in late 2007 and in the rest of the world over the course of the next 18 months; for whatever reasons, it's only now showing up in the US.
As enjoyable as the action is in "The Warlords," it would be impossible to top the battles in "Red Cliff," which also benefited from a much larger budget.
But your relative reactions to these films will likely hinge on their different approaches to character. As is almost always the case with Woo, the people in "Red Cliff" display the kind of idealized "movie movie" qualities that were rampant in classic Golden Age Hollywood – heroism, love, ambition, nobility. Chan's characters evince all those, but in a more realistic, less pure way; for better or worse, all of them are too compromised to fully enlist our sympathy. (Rated R for sequences of strong violence.)
• Peter Rainer, the Monitor's film critic, is on vacation this week.
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