A well-armored, back-kicking, blood-spewing and often furious addition to the Chinese feudal epic genre.
A well-armored, back-kicking, blood-spewing and often furious addition to the Chinese feudal epic genre, helmer Chen Jin’s “The Warring States,” is also a humorous, character-driven and occasionally stirring melodrama that should help spearhead distrib China Lion’s ongoing dissemination of mainland Chinese fare into mainstream U.S. theaters. Various existing auds — ethnic, action and anthropological — should respond favorably to the pan-Asian perfs and audacious storyline.
Amid a cast drawn from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and China, Sun Hong-lei (“The Road Home”) portrays Sun Bin, a renowned military strategist and world-class eccentric: That this goofball character might actually be the savior of the Qi people seems absurd, until his prediction of a solar eclipse — and an attack under darkness — leads to a victory against Wei state, from which Sun has just escaped. Along with his “sworn brother” Pang Juan (Francis Ng), Sun studied under the great Gui Guzhi. Now Pang plans to steal Gui’s strategies and have him killed, thus making the Wei province supreme.
Meanwhile, romance blooms between Sun and the ferocious but beautiful Tian Xi (Jing Tian), daughter of the king of Qi (Kiichi Nakai), an unlikely matchup but one that imbues the film with a sweetness that elevates it beyond the adrenalin-fueled thrill ride it seems to want to be at the start (pic’s opening sequence is such a whirlwind of epileptic editing as to be visually unintelligible). As the movie settles down (too much for some tastes, no doubt) it becomes far more of a love story, and one of ambition and betrayal.
Pang and Tian have a history; so do Sun and Pang’s sister, Pang Fei (South Korea’s Kim Hee-seon, in her first role in five years). The fractured romances may all be preludes to chaos, but they give the film a human texture, and the mayhem meaning.
Set during the Warring States Period, circa 475-221 B.C., the film boasts a cast that’s first-rate, with a standout perf from Sun, who has to take his character from unfocused nerd through calculating genius to tortured war prisoner (these latter scenes are horrific, and serve to shift the tone of the film drastically). And yet, after his suffering, Sun becomes a man who achieves a sort of serenity, but without losing his tactician’s guile. The role is the movie’s centerpiece, calling for unusually broad acting skills.
The special effects, which range from flying bodies to oceanic armies, are often clumsy, as are some of the camera techniques employed by d.p. Hyung-Ku Kim and the post-production crew. Editing is often out of control; the weird dissolves seem anachronistic, the freeze frames are overdone and one sequence involving split screen — split both vertically and horizontally — is simply confusing. Occasionally, however, it all clicks, and when it does, the pic fulfills its promise.