Based on a Chinese legend from the Song dynasty about seven brothers who fought Khitan invaders to rescue their father, “Saving General Yang” reps a curious cross between brawny machismo and sexy eye-candy. Veteran Hong Kong helmer Ronny Yu (“Fearless,” “The Bride With White Hair”) delivers reliably robust action but shows little concern for emotional finesse. Nevertheless, the shrewd casting of pan-Chinese pop idols alongside veteran actors lends a hip spin to an old-fashioned tale of chivalry. Pic did middling biz in China, which is showing signs of war-epic fatigue, but sales to Europe and Asia have reportedly been satisfactory.
The historical saga of the Yang family, whose members dedicated their lives to defending the Chinese border from invasions by the Khitan people (nomads from Mongolia and Manchuria), has been recounted in serial novels and opera for centuries, and has also spawned several films and TV series. However, the Yang wives usually took centerstage in prior tellings, as in 2011’s “Legendary Amazons,” helmed by Frankie Chan. Yu recharges the old conceits by bringing the men back to the fore and representing them as spunky, studly dudes rather than straight-laced patriots, giving the film a go-for-broke masculine intensity reminiscent of Andrew Lau’s “Young & Dangerous” (1996). Edmond Wong’s screenplay also brings a welcome degree of narrative coherence to a chronicle that spans three generations in prior versions, singling out one decisive episode that took place around 986 A.D.
While competing for the hand of childhood sweetheart Princess Chai (Ady Ang) in a martial-arts championship, Yanzhao (Wu Chun), the sixth son of Gen. Yang Ye (Adam Cheng), accidentally kills the son of deadly rival Lord Pan Renmei (Leung Kar-yan). When the Khitan forces attack the town of Jinshatan at the northwestern border, a conciliatory Ye agrees to subordinate himself to Pan, who has angled for the position of commander of a 60,000-strong defense army.
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Pan orders Ye to lead the vanguard, but retreats as soon as the enemy advances, leaving Ye stranded, and in a rousing battle scene distinguished by sweeping panoramic shots, the general is injured and cornered on Twin Wolves Mountain. He’s held hostage by Khitan commander Yeluv Yuan (Shao Bing), who is bent on avenging his father’s death at Ye’s hands years ago, and who knows that Ye’s seven sons will come to his aid. Ye’s wife, Saihua (Xu Fan), hears of the news and consults a clairvoyant, who delivers an equivocating prophecy: “Seven depart, only six return.” On the night before the expedition, eldest son Yanping (Ekin Cheng) promises his mother he’ll lay down his life to ensure his brothers’ safety.
Riding out with a small brigade, Ye’s sons locate their father with a handful of other survivors. But they’re soon ambushed by the Khitan soldiers, in a breathtaking coup that merges whirlwind movements with thundering explosions, choreographed by Stephen Tung Wai and designed by a Korean special-effects team to show off the speed and ingenuity of Yeluv’s military manoeuvers. From this point onward, director Yu maintains a vigorous pace and a varied range of action setpieces, from chases across treacherous terrain to combat scenes showcasing the Yang brothers’ signature weapons. The violence is unabashedly graphic and bloody, as framed by ace Hong Kong lenser Chan Chi-ying against the majestically barren backdrop of Henan province (standing in for Shanxi).
To make the male-centric plot more palatable to female audiences, the cast includes several pop idols, notably Wu Chun (a former member of boy band Fahrenheit), Vic Chou (from band F4) and Hong Kong it-boy Raymond Lam (“The Sorcerer and the White Snake”). Cheng and Xu anchor the drama with an air of authority as the clan elders, but sadly, there are so few scenes in which Ye and his wife interact with their children, or with each other, that there’s little ensemble acting to speak of. The other wives and handmaidens in the story get no more than a scene or two, and even then, they tend to disappear into the ornate decor. Princess Chai, the story’s catalyst, makes a grand entrance but fizzles out completely after the prologue.
Production design reps one of the film’s most impressive tech elements, reinforcing the Yang clan’s hallowed heritage through ornate architecture and a courtyard designed to look like a coliseum. Other craft contributions, particularly the lighting with its high contrast between indoors and outdoors, are above average for a standard Hong Kong-mainland co-production.