Peter Chan's 'The Warlords' Lacks Commanding Presence

Though the War Epic Beautifully Captures an Era in China's History, Its Originality Falters

Photo: <b>Dynasty</b>. Peter Chan's 'The Warlords,' set during China's Qing period, centers around the Taiping Rebellion and stars Jet Li and Andy Lau.
Magnet Releasing/Courtesy
Dynasty. Peter Chan's 'The Warlords,' set during China's Qing period, centers around the Taiping Rebellion and stars Jet Li and Andy Lau.

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Out of the wellspring of bloody chivalry emerges "The Warlords," Hong Kong director Peter Chan's first foray into the vaunted historical epic genre. Released in China in 2007 to significant commercial success, the film weaves a promising account of wartime brotherhood that often falters in both exposition and execution. In the time elapsed between its heavy-handed opening and its melodramatic denouement, a sense of conventional familiarity prevails.

For a mainstream costume drama, the film's historical setting is notable. Taking place during the Taiping Rebellion that ravaged 1860s Qing Dynasty China, "The Warlords" wastes no time situating its audience into its strife-ridden world. Brief scenes of armies clashing gives way to a lifeless battlefield from which injured Qing general Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) rises, barely alive. He aimlessly wanders into the company of Liansheng (Xu Jinglei), who nurses him in a makeshift shack before disappearing into the night.

In time, Qingyun heals and encounters Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau), leaders of a nearby bandit outfit. When a Qing army raid plunges them into desperation, newcomer Qingyun suggests that they enlist in the imperial ranks to ensure their families' stability, joining Wuyang and Erhu in a blood oath that forms the central crux of the film. At this point, the story shifts from blatant Kurosawa homages to echoes of the Chinese literary classic "The Water Margin," though Chan seems reluctant to channel the spirit of either work beyond visual and thematic tropes.

What ensues feels simultaneously grandiose and laborious-the work of a veteran filmmaker working far outside of his comfort zone. Blood spills and limbs fly throughout a series of smartly choreographed battles, during which Qingyun and company fight to gain the trust of provincial warlords. Less convincing is the bond that develops between the sworn brothers and the internal conflict that results from their moral differences, not to mention Wuyang's discovery of Qingyun's affair with Liansheng, revealed to be Erhu's wife.

Their victories earning them both respect and derision from higher forces, the three brothers advance their cavalry through Suzhou before hitting a roadblock in Nanjing, where the tide turns in murderous fashion. Chan follows their exploits mundanely, rarely hitting the appropriate chords. Moments that connect the film's characters within the larger framework of Chinese history fare slightly better, namely when the story moves to the Imperial Palace in Beijing for a bout of political intrigue.

Though Chan elicits intense performances from stars Li, Lau and Kaneshiro, their bond ultimately lacks chemistry. Scripted by no less than eight different writers, the narrative turns plodding by the time its male protagonists become mired in hubris. Perhaps it's no surprise that Chan, whose defining work as a director remains 1996's "Comrades: Almost a Love Story," seems to lose himself trying to navigate thematic territory epitomized by fellow countryman John Woo.

While "The Warlords" feels like one of the weaker entries in Chan's filmography, he deserves some credit for realizing a watershed period like the Taiping Rebellion in cinematic terms. Though his brand of historical fiction lacks the whallop of Woo's "Red Cliff" or Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death," Chan's commitment to period detail at least partially redeems "The Warlords" as another entry in Chinese cinema's recent fascination with its civilization's glorious, tragic roots.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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