A fascinating historical anecdote about a Taoist priest’s mission to halt Genghis Khan’s conquests is recounted in ponderous textbook fashion in mainland Chinese helmer Wang Ping’s “An End to Killing.” Despite its pacifist claims, this 13th-century saga revels in military regalia, bloody battles and martial rumbles; just as well, since the ideals of “children and world peace” spouted here are as generic as those voiced by Miss Universe contestants. Nevertheless, the breathtaking natural vistas and lavish production values impressed Universal Pictures Intl. Entertainment enough to acquire this $12 million Chinese-Korean-Japanese co-production for release in France and the U.K.
With: Zhao Youliang, Tu Men, Park Ye-jin, Geng Le, Yu Shaoqun, Li Xiaoran.
(Mandarin, Mongolian, Khitan, Uyghur, Kyrgyz dialogue)
In 1217, an aging Genghis Khan (Tu Men) leads his invincible army, pushing westward from an empire that extends from Mongolia to Afghanistan. As he cradles his young grandson on his horse, he imparts to him his “eye for an eye” credo, even as his troops succumb to the bubonic plague, shown in a stunning image of soldiers toppling from their horses like dominoes. Still, the incorrigible conqueror refuses to accept the inevitability of death, and dispatches a convoy to China to request the counsel of Qiu Chuji (Zhao Youliang), a Taoist priest believed to know the path to immortality.
The convoy, led by Gen. Liu Zhonglu (Geng Le), rolls into Shandong province, where the reclusive Qiu is less than thrilled by the invitation. Though rumored to be more than 300 years old, the septuagenarian Qiu has nonetheless divined that he’s got only 300 more days to live. When Liu threatens to raze his village, the priest reluctantly agrees to accompany them, along with disciple Dao’an (Yu Shaoqun, “Forever Enthralled”), bringing a coffin as luggage.
The roughly 12,000-mile journey takes two years, and will feel nearly as long for auds, spanning half the film’s running time. Arduous as it seems, it also reps the story’s most entertaining segment. An encounter with a voluptuous Khitan innkeeper (Li Xiaoran) channels the intrigues of “Dragon Inn,” followed by two ferocious fight sequences against Uyghur assassins that make effective use of rugged, mountainous terrain. Equestrians will delight in setpieces featuring thousands of horses in spectacular motion.
Liu the haughty warrior also becomes likably humbled in the company of Qiu, who teaches him to respect life by honoring death. Their exchanges render the later ones between Qiu and the Khan somewhat redundant; in fact, the eventual meeting of these two polar opposites generates no sparks, due not only to the platitudinous dialogue, but also to the film’s chauvinistic notion of Han Chinese “civilizing” warlords. Thankfully, Qiu’s role in the reconciliation of a rift between Khan and his beautiful, passive-aggressive wife (played with glacial melancholy by Korean thesp Park Ye-jin) lends some substance to their relationship.
While Tu lends Khan a majestic countenance of inscrutable composure, Zhao leaves a faint impression as the venerated sage. It doesn’t help that Ran Ping’s inconsistent screenplay sets out to de-mythologize a figure popularized in martial-arts novels such as Louis Cha’s “Legend of the Condor Heroes,” yet makes him perform all kinds of hocus-pocus for dramatic effect.
Tech credits are sterling, except for some gratuitous and shoddy CGI. The scenery of rare locations in Ningxia, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, captured by Sun Ming’s old-school lensing, is a wonder to behold. Plaintive Mongolian songs are expressively integrated into Japanese composer Kenji Kawai’s too-dominant score.
The Chinese title comes from a quote by Qing Emperor Qianlong, who praised Qiu for “stopping slaughter with a single utterance.”