2008 isn’t the Year of the Rat, it’s the Year of the Martial Arts Epics. In the span of a few months, fans of Chinese cinema will be treated to the biggest number of films featuring big stars, big budgets, and big set pieces the likes of which they’ve never seen before. Tony Ching’s “An Empress and the Warriors” is the second of the epics to be released, following in the footsteps of 2007’s “The Warlords”. Still to come: Andy Lau and Maggie Q. in “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” and John Woo’s “Red Cliff”. You can even add the Jet Li-Jackie Chan Hollywood collaboration “The Forbidden Kingdom” to the list if you’re so inclined.
“An Empress and the Warriors” wastes little time jumping into the thick of the battlefield. When we first see him, orphan turned uber General Muyong (Donnie Yen) is leading the charge into battle alongside the King of Yan, while Princess Feier (Kelly Chen) stays behind to tend to the wounded. After the king is wounded, and then later assassinated by his ne’er-do-well nephew Wu Ba (Xiadong Guo), a power vacuum must be filled. Although the King had told the Princess that Muyong should take the throne in the case of his death, Muyong has other ideas — he promises to train Feier as a warrior, so that she may rule the kingdom.
Alas, things don’t quite work out as Muyong had planned. Wu Ba is none too pleased about having his power grab ruined by a chick, and being the conniving power hungry jackal that he is, sets assassins upon Feier during her training in the woods. She escapes, but just barely, thanks largely to the impromptu assistance of woodland medicine man Duan (Leon Lai), who apparently has been spending his time collecting medicinal herbs in the woods and, er, creating wondrous (and incredibly deadly) booby traps just in case he needs to, you know, save a pretty Princess from a wild pack of assassins. Hey, don’t say it can’t possibly happen, because it just did!
The casting for “An Empress and the Warriors” must have been a cinch. “Let’s see, we need a sensitive, handsome guy for the Princess to fall in love with. Hey, is Leon Lai available?” Then there’s this: “Man, we gotta get an action hero for the battle scenes, and he has to have street cred with the kids. Say, is Donnie Yen already taken?” As for the Empress role, it probably went something like this: “We need a spunky, pretty girl who can do martial arts. The Twins girls are booked until 2020? Dammit. Okay, let’s throw a dart at the board and see who wins the Princess Lotto.” Am I being facetious? Was casting the three leads more complex than that? Quite possibly, but probably not very likely.
To their credit, the three leads do what the script and director Tony Ching (“Naked Weapon”) asks of them well enough. They can play their characters in their sleep, and that might be the problem. The casting is so dead-on that there’s little room for surprises, growth, or much complexity; calling them one-note would be giving them too much credit. Of course, it doesn’t help that the script is painfully by the numbers. Everyone, from the evil nephew and his sycophantic General, are drawn so broadly that in an odd sort of way their thinness actually compliments the broad plot strokes in the script. Which leads us to below…
For an excruciatingly long period, the film simply stops to follow a wounded Feier as she lives and recuperates (and predictably, falls in love) with the very single Duan in his tree house. No, really. Duan lives in a series of complex, rigged tree structures, where he shares his pacifist views with the Princess. (We later come to learn that Duan wasn’t always the pure soul he purports to be.) The way he talks, one has to wonder if Duan gets a lot of pretty female soldiers as company, because he sure seems to have his speeches nicely rehearsed. The whole thing would make for a half-decent romance if it weren’t so ridiculously sugary that my teeth started to hurt.
Eventually, it’s back to the grindstone for our Princess, where she must snatch back the throne from her scheming cousin and save Yan from the jaws of defeat. But first, a slow-motion horse ride through the forest with Duan! Yes, I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. There is actually another 30 minutes left in “An Empress and the Warriors” — just in time for a balloon ride through the clouds as a love ballad soars, soars, and soars. And yes, I wish I was kidding you again, but once more, I’m not. Forget believability, we’ve just been dropped into a Cantonese pop song’s music video, boys and girls.
The film does manage to redeem itself somewhat with an action-packed third act that includes an over-the-top sequence where Donnie Yen takes on an entire army by himself. Unfortunately for fans of the action star, his ability to kick ass and not take names is greatly restricted by his battle armor, which, given Yen’s MMA fighting style, must make him feel like a monkey trapped in a cage. Still, once the lovely dovey stuff is out of the way, “An Empress and the Warriors” makes for decent viewing. It’s too bad the film was so plodding up to this point, with the script so overloaded by the insipid romance, but hey, as a member of the audience, I’ll take what I can get.
Tony Ching (director) / Tin Nam Chun, James Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Muyong Xuehu
Kelly Chen … Yen Feier
Leon Lai … Duan Lan-quan
Xiaodong Guo … Wu Ba
Zhenghai Kou … Teng Bochang