Vet Hong Kong action director Ching Siu-tung evokes an earlier, less complicated production age with the fast-moving crowdpleaser "An Empress and the Warriors."

Bucking the trend toward grungier, more psychological Chinese costumers — repped most recently by “The Warlords” — vet Hong Kong action director Ching Siu-tung evokes an earlier, less complicated production age with the fast-moving crowdpleaser “An Empress and the Warriors.” China-shot yarn about a young warrior empress and the two beaux in her life recalls Hong Kong action dramas of the early ’90s (plus nods to classic Shaw Bros. pics) in its straight-arrow escapism and disdain for anything deeper. Set for pan-Asian release this spring, star-driven big-budgeter should notch up a comfortable body count and segue smoothly to ancillary in the West.

Set during the Warring States period some two millennia ago, but hardly troubled by any historical exactitude, the story opens as the Kingdom of Yan is battling for survival against its rival, the Zhao (roughly the same setting as in Andy Lau starrer “A Battle of Wits”). Yan general Muyong Xuehu (Donnie Yen) defeats the Zhao, but at the last minute the Yan monarch is murdered by his nasty nephew, Wu Ba (Guo Xiaodong).

Muyong is declared successor, much to the chagrin of Wu Ba and the other generals, especially as Muyong is only a “bastard orphan.” To avoid civil war, Muyong nominates as successor the late king’s only child, daughter Yan Fei’er (Kelly Chen), with whom he’s been secretly in love for some time.

A striking-eyed singer-actress who’s mostly known for contempo dramas and romantic comedies (“Infernal Affairs,” “Tokyo Raiders”), Chen surprisingly steps up to the plate here as a young woman thrown into a male world. Adopting a severe look, and clad in knockout military duds by production designer Yee Chung-man, she holds her own in the warfare training scenes with vet action star Yen and has a commanding presence that evokes old-time Mandarin actresses such as Ivy Ling Po.

Good, old-fashioned romance enters the picture when Fei’er is wounded by an assassin and saved by the handsome Duan Lanquan (heartthrob Leon Lai), a forest hermit who’s invented a hot air-powered flying machine. Love blooms, Fei’er eventually returns to save her kingdom, and Muyong puts his feelings for her on hold to join the fray.

Between the gutsy warfare, political shenanigans and (literal) romantic flights of fancy, pic has no downtime, driven along by tight editing and Mark Lui’s wall-to-wall score. But though not as rushed and breathless as many late ’80s/early ’90s Hong Kong action costumers and Ching’s earlier directing forays, it has no special texture or psychological depth. Pic plays resolutely to average Asian auds, not upscale ones or fest circuiteers. Only in the final reels does the pic finally take on a genuine, over-the-top, tragic grandeur.

Every cent of the reported $16 million budget is on the screen, even if the movie sometimes squanders its visual detail (especially Duan’s elaborate forest hideout) in its desire not to bore. Of the two male leads, Yen emerges the stronger, emphasizing character over martial artistry, and, like Chen, gains extra presence from the catchy costuming. Action is grounded and light on wire-fu.

Chinese title is the same as that of the 1959 Shaw Bros. opera classic “The Kingdom and the Beauty,” but the two pics are completely unrelated. At Berlin market screening caught, pic was shown in a DV copy but was a finished version.

An Empress and the Warriors

Hong Kong-China

Production

A Polybona Film Distribution Co. (China)/United Filmmakers Organization, Big Pictures (Hong Kong) presentation of a United Filmmakers Organization production. (International sales: UFO, Hong Kong.) Produced by Yu Dong, Claudie Chung. Executive producers, Yu, Eric Tsang, Li Kuo-hsing. Directed by Ching Siu-tung. Screenplay, James Yuen.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoding; music, Mark Lui; production designer, Yee Chung-man; art director, Sen Lau; sound (Dolby Digital); special visual effects, Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design Co.; assistant director, Gary Mak. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 9, 2008. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Donnie Yen, Kelly Chen, Leon Lai, Guo Xiaodong, Kou Zhenhai. (Mandarin dialogue)

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