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Chinese period piece “My Kingdom” is a film which has whipped up a fair bit of interest as an East-West coproduction that attempts to inject a little action, romance and glamour into the world of Beijing Opera, not least since it stars top Asian pop duo Wu Chun and Han Geng in the lead roles. The two certainly took the film seriously, undergoing six months of training with the one and only Sammo Hung in order to convincingly play ‘wushengs’, actors who combine martial arts and opera in performance. Directed by Gao Xiao Song (“Copy Cat”), the film also has a fine supporting cast, including Barbie Hsu (“Reign of Assassins”) as the boys’ chief love interest, magician Liu Qian (here making his screen debut), Annie Yi (“Four Women Conflict”) and action veterans Yuen Biao (who also recently showed up in “The Legend Is Born – Ip Man”) and Yu Rong Guang (“Little Big Soldier”).
The film kicks off during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, with the Meng family being put to death by the Prince Regent for apparently supporting the anti-monarchy revolution. Meng Erkui, the youngest son of the family, is saved by wusheng Yu Shengying (Yuen Biao) who adopts him into his troupe as an apprentice alongside Guan Yilong. Sadly, not long afterwards, Yu is defeated in opera combat by southern rival Yue Jiangtian (Yu Rong Guang), who claims the Best Wusheng gold plaque, taking it back to Shanghai with him. Years later when their wusheng studies are completed, Yilong (Wu Chun) and Erkui (Han Geng) head off to take revenge on Yue, humiliating him in an onstage duel and being crowned as the new kings of opera. Life becomes more complicated despite their success, with Yue’s disciple Xi Mulan (Barbie Hsu) trying to play them off against each other and with Erkui still craving vengeance for the murder of his family.
“My Kingdom” is an interesting prospect, and the idea of offering a different, flashier take on Chinese opera is a good one, combining enough detail authentic touches for buffs, whilst at the same time making the subject more commercial and accessible to general audiences. Although the film may sound like an odd mix of genres and ideas, the plot essentially boils down to a fairly familiar and predictable story of brotherhood and revenge. However, the central story is engaging enough and well handled, working in sufficient subplots and twists to keep things fresh, if convoluted and at times unfocused. Wu Chun and Han Geng are both fine in their roles, and though more convincing during the film’s less serious scenes, this is mainly due to their characters being written with broad strokes and without too much depth rather than any fault of their own. The film is in general a bit too overwrought to be taken seriously, though its melodrama is amusing enough and there are a fair number of amusingly camp and hysterical scenes which help to keep the viewer entertained.
Also enjoyable are the film’s frequent action scenes, which showcase some great choreography by the ever-dependable Sammo Hung, which serve well to inject a little pace. The opera showdowns are the best of the fight sequences, in particular the early bout between Yuen Bio and Yu Rong Guang and the elaborate set piece which pits Yu against Wu Chun and Han Geng, both of whom acquit themselves well enough.
The film’s visuals are undoubtedly its greatest strength, with some opulent costumes, excellent set design and production values that are colourful and eye catching. At the same time, the film occasionally dips into noir territory, making good use of light and shadow to create a suitable atmosphere of danger and subterfuge. The period recreation has a convincing, lavish feel, bringing to life the glory and elegance of 1920s Shanghai without much in the way of obvious CGI. Although Gao Xiao Song doesn’t really excel as a director or add any kind of personal stamp to the proceedings, he does a competent enough job and the film is stylish without being too excessive.
“My Kingdom” is certainly one of the more interesting period blockbusters from China of the last year, and whilst it doesn’t quite fulfil its potential it’s creative and fun, not to mention incredibly handsome. Chinese opera is always a fascinating theme, and the film makes good use of its premise, making it an entertaining watch, especially for fans of the lead duo.
Xiaosong Gao (director) / Jingzhi Zou (screenplay)
CAST: Chun Wu … Guan Yi Long
Geng Han … Meng Er Kui
Barbie Hsu … Xi Mu Lang
Louis Liu … General Lu
Biao Yuen … Master Yu Shengying
Rongguang Yu … Master Yue