(Mandarin and English dialogue)
A much-hyped, long-planned project with a clear political message, “The Opium War” is a consistently eye-pleasing historical costumer that’s a superior example of its type without moving any mountains. Further reduction of the running time to the two-hour mark would help its chances in Western markets, though its best bet lies in the six-episode, six-hour TV miniseries to be hewn from the mountain of footage. The reportedly $ 15 million pic has so far been sold in East Asia (at record prices), and will open in China and Hong Kong on July 1, when the latter territory reverts to mainland rule.
The movie is in every respect a major improvement on the previous Chinese treatment of the subject, the stodgy ’50s “Lin Zexu,” and veteran mainland director Xie Jin (“Two Stage Sisters,” “Hibiscus Town”) has come up with some moments of fine drama between the regulation historical stuff that such large-scale costumers are heir to. Hong Kong director Ann Hui, billed as an associate producer, helped out on the action scenes, and senior Taiwan helmer Lee Hsing was a consultant on the project, which also uses some Taiwan-based actors.
Pic delivers an unashamedly political message, dealing with the war between the U.K. and China that led to the Brits’ grabbing of Hong Kong 157 years ago. The ceding of the rocky island was one of the most humiliating events in Chinese history — though ironically a major shaper in 20th-century China’s development , given H.K.’s subsequent success — and in that respect the movie arrives with official fingerprints all over it. The surprise is that it’s not simply a slice of xenophobia, and is comparatively even-handed in its treatment of both sides.
With captions bridging the gaps, the team of four scripters have distilled events into a workable format that can be followed easily by first-timers. Starting in 1838, the story spins round a viceroy, Lin Zexu (Bao Guoan), who’s dispatched to Guangzhou (Canton) by the Qing court to put an end to British traders’ mass selling of opium, which is enfeebling the population. Chief among the traders is Denton (Bob Peck), of the powerful East India Co., who arrives at the home of an old friend, He (Sihung Lung), and soon finds himself blockaded and He thrown into prison by the incorruptible, fiercely nationalist Lin.
A British foreign trade rep, Charles Elliot (British theater actor Simon Williams), arrives to broker a solution that involves the opium being ditched in the sea in a public ceremony and the U.K. government guaranteeing the traders’ money back. As Elliot expected, this does not please the politicos back in London, who in 1840 dispatch massive firepower to attack China’s ports, launching the titular war.
First half-hour sets up a large number of characters who don’t get much of a look in the later stages and are clearly more developed in excised footage. Once the main struggle between the opposing forces kicks in, with Lin sidelined by a new emissary, Qi Shan (Lin Liankun), the movie develops real dramatic steam.
Bao humanizes the character of the upright Lin Zexu as much as possible, but the main acting honors on the Chinese side go to Lin Liankun as Qi, a performance that’s a clever, and sometimes humorous, mixture of duplicity and ignorance, and to Su Min as the ruthless but realistic Emperor Daoguang. Among the Brits, Peck steals the show in several acting set pieces as the bottom-line Denton, with Williams gradually shading his playing as the snooty Elliot. Several other actors, including Corin Redgrave and Nigel Davenport, pop up in minor roles.
Production values are excellent, with all the money up on the screen, and sharp, colorful lensing in widescreen by Hou Yong. Action sequences are undistinguished, especially by H.K. standards, but otherwise the pic is smoothly directed by Xie. Subtitles (which carry on even during English-language sections , causing distraction) are OK and almost error-free, and other credits pro.
All post-production was done in Japan. Print caught was rushed to unspool at the Cannes market; a six-track Dolby dub is apparently in the works for the film’s release.