An Empress and the Warriors
China Hong Kong 2008
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.


For a little while, there, Chinese movies once again had international audiences, the size of which they hadn't seen since Bruce Lee. For that, they had to thank Ang Lee's Croutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002). In addition the mainland market was for the first time wide open, provided that films were made as "co-productions" including mainland cast members, and did not concern themselves with banned politically charged topics like, say, letting the bad guy get away at the end of a movie, or showing supposedly real supernatural events, or, I don't know, mentioning Tibet. So what better way to rake in cash in both the international and mainland markets than to create a big, slick, epic, historical action picture? But the boom years are over. Chinese cinema forgot to diversify their portfolio, and the epic market has crashed. And burned. Or, if not the market as a whole, certainly, AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIOR did. And considering the next big upcoming epic film is directed by John Woo, I can only assume the slide to mediocrity is all but complete.

That's not to say there may still be some good epic movies to be made. Battle of Wits (2006), for example, was superb. It is simply that no one will care.

Look at the attention paid here to bring to life ancient China, with each character's armor individually crafted, and each main character with their own specially distinct sword. The image is lovingly color-graded in post production, to give it that glossy "expensive-movie" glow. Almost the entire cast plays their roles as if they were making something as profound as Shakespeare, and as visually exciting as Lord of the Rings.

Ah, but it just isn't so. The direction, by the legendary action choreographer and Director Ching Siu-Tung, is perfunctory. I waited through the entire film hoping to see an interesting angle, a new way to stage an entrance or develop a dramatic scene, but it never came. I believe that a person could actually assemble this film, shot for shot, out of movies already made. Let's see -- slow motion horse's hooves, galloping through water -- found it! And what have we here: oh! Applying medicine to a woman who is very shy about the violation -- yes, yes, here! And so on, and so on.

Though the direction is disappointing, the story, such that it is, must out of all elements be the one that wears the dunce cap. Kingdoms at war, King dies, wants to pass Kingdom on to orphan general Muyong Xuehu (played by Donnie Yen) instead of his blood relative, not realizing that will lead to civil war (apparently a bit of an idiot King), so princess (Kelly Chen) assumes the throne instead. She gets attacked, then is mended by peaceful man Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai) living on the outskirts of civilization. They fall in love, she advocates peace instead of war, complications ensue.

The trouble here is in the moral conception of the world. War = bad? Peace = good? Maybe. But this isn't explored in any detail, it is just assumed. Compared to the political complexity of Battle of Wits, this movie is simply moronic.

It looks good, though even this strength turns against the film when we are taken to Duan Lanquan's peaceful home, which overspending by the Production Design department has made it look like it was built by the Swiss Family Robinson, or maybe the set from the Spielburg misfire Hook (1991). It is utterly ridiculous, and yes, while the princess is there, he also invents a backscratcher and a hot air balloon.

There are some good moments to be had. The cast is entirely competent, and though as expected Kelly Chen never quite convinces, she isn't completely horrible, either. And in the end, Donnie gets an action scene that would have made Chang Cheh proud (when reassembling this film out of previously made films, look for some Chang Cheh/Ti Lung films for this part). And it may be more enjoyable the second time around, once the expectations game has been played out. Then again, I can't really envision watching the movie a second time, considering there are no additional layers or subtext to the film. You'd be better off going back to watch a more complex historical love story, like House of Flying Daggers (2004). All style and no substance leaves AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS feeling old, tired, and spent, like the Chinese historical epic genre as a whole.


Rating: Not Recommended (Not Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on October 28, 2008.


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