Terracotta Warrior, A
China 1989
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.

Director Ching Siu-Tung's hard to find epic manages to both entertain and annoy, often simultaneously. This action-adventure love story story begins in the Qin Dynasty but ends in the 1930's, and once again, Gong Li is there.

Every once in a while you hear of a film which is very difficult to get a hold of. You mark the title down, mentally, and keep an eye open for it, but it never shows up. For me, A Terracotta Warrior was one of those films. I'd say I first read about it some seven years ago, through one of the Thomas Weisser books. In it, he describes the story:

A sprawling, partially historic, action-oriented drama from director Ching Siu Tung telling the story of the emperor's personal swordsman, his loss of innocence, and quest for power. When the swordsman's girlfriend is executed for sorcery (burned at the stake a la Spanish Inquisition), he travels into the twentieth century to find her wandering spirit.

It sounds interesting, I thought. And add Gong Li and Zhang Yimou as the stars, and it sounds like a real winner. So it was with great pleasure that I was finally able to get a copy of the film. I whipped up some instant ramen, got out my notepad, and sat down to enjoy it.

And boy, the description above isn't what the story is about, at all. Well, I suppose the outline is sort of correct. Maybe the review was written by a person who had a friend of a friend who saw the movie? Whatever the case may be, best forget whatever you've heard about the movie before and start fresh.

A Terracotta Warrior begins in Qin Dynasty China, and Zhang Yimou plays Meng Tian, not just some random swordsman, but a General in the Qin army and the man responsible for overseeing the construction of the Great Wall. The First Emperor is nearby, on a hunting expedition, when assassins attack. His guards do nothing to help him, but Meng Tian rides to the rescue, and as a result, is given a position at the captial as an advisor. He leaves immediately.

On his way, he passes Qin troops massacreing scholars and burning books, as they have the habit of doing. He saves a book which an old man was trying to hold on to, and gives it to him. In the shadows, the old man's daughter, Snow (Gong Li), watches, and remembers.

The Emperor has become obsessed with Immortality, and all the scholars and alchemists in the realm attend at his court. He is displeased that they still have not discovered the secret and is about to have them all put to death when one scholar suggests they need to bring 500 virgins out to the three islands on the eastern sea where the herbs reside, and the elixir of immortality will be his. He agrees, and the virgin boys and women of the town are chosen by lottery, young Snow being one of those unlucky enough to be selected.

Snow tries to escape, but Meng Tien captures her and brings her back. She keeps on trying to kill herself, but again, Meng Tien is there. It isn't long before they fall hopelessly in love, and they make love right there, on the floor of an alchemists lab. The alchemist, Xu Fu, has meanwhile created an immortality pill, but he plans to take it with him to the Eastern Sea instead of giving it to the Emperor. Meanwhile Snow isn't a virgin anymore, and Qin Shi Huangdi isn't going to be too pleased about that. So the lovers decide to kill themselves in a suicide pact, but they are prevented by the old alchemist who explains that, if they evaded punishment in this way, the Emperor would surely retaliate and kill all the other boys and women as well. He urges them to wait until he gets underway with his precious cargo of kids. They agree, and it isn't until after the boat sails for the Eastern Sea that the Emperor learns of their treason.

But Snow has filched the immortality pill, and right before getting put to death, she gives it to Meng Tian, who swallows it. She is consummed by fire, and dies (not, I should mention, at the stake). Meng Tian, meanwhile, is punished by being plastered with terracotta and getting buried alive as a guard for the Emperor's tomb. Now, the last time I checked, that wasn't quite how the terracotta warriors were made, but then again, last time I checked, the secret of immortality had not been discovered either. It's fantasy, might as well just go with it.

Fast forward to the nineteen thirties and turn the annoying factor up several notches. A western style film company arrives near the city of Xian to shoot the film Going with the Wind. The actors arrive by plane, the lead, Burt (Yu Rongguang), Francis, the lead actress, and Lily (Gong Li). But they aren't really there to make a movie. Burt planned it all so he can loot the tomb of the First Emperor. He is actually a ruthless criminal, although everyone swoons for his rugged good looks. Lily accidentally stumbles onto his plan, so he decides to kill her by taking her up in his private plane and shooting her. But the plan goes wrong, and she ends up crashlanding in the tomb of the First Emperor, where Meng Tian stands guard. He awakens, and sees she is a reincarnation of his long lost love, and so of course must protects her.

If only this reincarnation of Snow wasn't so incredibly irritating. Nevertheless, he sticks it out with her, despite the fact that she really loves Burt, and is just stringing the poor Qin Dynasty bachelor along. Eventually, Burt makes a deal to sell the living warrior to a friend for experimentation, and goes back to the tomb to uncover its hidden treasures. But he underestimates Meng Tian, who meets him at the tomb for a final showdown, in which Burt and his Shanghai gangsters face off against Meng Tian and the many traps and guardians of the first Emperor's tomb.

A Terracotta Warrior is a really mixed bag. It starts out as a serious Qin Dynasty drama, then moves quickly to nineteen thirties hijinks with Meng Tian as a fish out of water and Burt as a sort of Chinese Indiana Jones. In fact, a lot of this movie has the stamp of Raiders of the Lost Ark on it. Some scenes are strikingly familiar -- Lily tries to operate the prop plane and it starts spinning slowly in circles, Lily tries to get out of the tomb and runs into a room full of skeletons which seem to attack her but are really just falling on her, the tomb is guarded by elaborate traps, and so on.

Zhang Yimou is really great as Meng Tian -- I'm surprised he doesn't do more acting. I suppose he prefers sitting behind the camera and calling the shots for his former girlfriend Gong Li in their mainland collaborations. He is most convincing as a man out of time, certainly more so than many other actors who have done the same thing, before. He never figures out how a gun works, even when, in the last moments, he desperately needs to. And when he is taken to the hospital, he licks his finger and pushes it against a frosted glass window, thinking it would be paper and he could peek through. This little moments add up to a delightful characterization of the famous Qin Dynasty general.

Gong Li is good as the suicidal lover, Snow, but when the action moves to the 1930's, she becomes the most obnoxious woman on the face of the planet, and never lets up. I realize it's a character choice, but it was a poor one, and scenes that otherwise would have a lot going for them get spoiled by her constant whining. Sometimes, Gong Li is just too convincing in her roles for her own good.

Certain directors really put their stamp on a film, and Ching Siu-Tung is no exception. If I didn't know who directed this film, I would have guessed Ching Siu-Tung or Tsui Hark (since they often collaborated). Note that this isn't necessarily always a good thing -- all the action scenes that took place in the underground tomb were shot in wonderful blue-o-vision, backlit, with a little fog. The impression is not so much an underground tomb but a vast soundstage with nothing on it. It reminded me of the many, many blue scenes in the Chinese Ghost Story series by the same director. A cleaner print might reveal more of the action, but watching on an old tape makes these scenes a bit of a muddle.

I have often wondered why this film is so hard to find. One theory I had was that it was just too terrible, and no one wanted to bring it out. But after watching it, I can hardly believe that this is so. The film has its flaws, to be sure, but it is no less entertaining than many other Hong Kong movies from the late eighties. Given the popularity of the A-list stars in the film, and the opportunity to see Zhang Yimou act rather than direct, and the popularity of the DVD format, I can only believe that A Terracotta Warrior will not be languishing in obscurity for too much longer.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.


The review is helpful. Likewise I've been looking for the longest time for the dvd version (that I can watch in North America) since I saw this movie, incompletely, in HK around 15 years ago? Haven't been succesful yet.

Posted by: Stboniface at March 29, 2006 03:10 PM
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