With so many Chinese historical epics continuing to clutter up the box office, films are having to offer something increasingly special in order to stand out from the stampeding herd. “The Lost Bladesman” does just that, being based on the legendary historical “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” figure Guan Yu and starring the one and only Donnie Yen, a combination which has translated into massive success at the domestic box office. With Yen unsurprisingly handling the action choreography as well as taking the lead role, the film was directed by duo Alan Mak (“Infernal Affairs”) and Felix Chong (“Once a Gangster”), who also worked together on the popular thriller “Overheard”, and has an illustrious supporting cast, including acclaimed Mainland actor and director Jiang Wen (who recently helmed the excellent “Let the Bullets Fly” and the powerful “The Sun Also Rises”), Betty Sun (“Just Another Pandora’s Box”), Andy On (“True Legend”) and Chin Siu Ho (“Revenge: A Love Story”).
The film begins with Guan Yu, then a general in Liu Bei’s army, having been taken prisoner by prime minister and power behind the throne Cao Cao (Jiang Wen), who urges him to switch sides. Desperate to bring an end to the fighting, and with Cao Cao holding his beloved Qilan (Betty Sun) hostage, Guan Yu agrees to lend his enemy his mighty skills during a key battle. With this done, Cao Cao apparently grants him leave to return to Liu Bei with Qilan, and Guan Yu sets off on the long journey home, hoping to put the fighting behind him. Unfortunately, Cao Cao’s generals believe that in doing so they are unleashing a tiger, and make plans to have him killed.
Attempting any film about a figure like Guan Yu, or indeed “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in general, is always an ambitious undertaking given the sheer density and complexity of the material involved. As such, it’s not too much of a surprise that “The Lost Bladesman” doesn’t really try to be a proper biopic or origin story, and instead settles for summarising one of the key periods of the great man’s life. It does this fairly well, and although it skims tantalisingly over important events, in particular by starting with his funeral and later only referring to his actual death in parting, it benefits from some solid storytelling and pacing. The film certainly doesn’t skimp on the historical detail, and while viewers unfamiliar with Chinese history, or who haven’t at least seen “Red Cliff” (both parts) or played a “Dynasty Warriors” videogame, may well get a little lost at times with all the names of characters and different warring factions, this does give the proceedings a pleasingly substantial feel.
The plot itself holds the interest, and by starting out in the middle of Guan Yu’s life it avoids most of the clichés of the usual warrior’s journey style character arc. In fact, if anything, Guan Yu comes across as being merely a player in the bigger scheme of things, which seems to be the intent of the film, with him spending most of the running time being manipulated into taking action and essentially struggling against the various forces and loyalties vying for his might. Donnie Yen is on good form in the lead, managing to portray Guan Yu as a righteous though conflicted figure, and the film gives him the chance to stretch his acting muscles a little beyond his usual charisma. However, fittingly enough, the film arguably belongs to Jiang Wen and his Cao Cao, who steals pretty much every shot he appears in, achieving a compelling and persuasive balance between humanity, humour, and cold hearted ruthlessness. Providing the plot with most of its Machiavellian scheming and moral ambiguity, he again shows himself one of China’s most talented actors, and his scenes with Yen, whether revolving around banter or veiled threats are undoubtedly the highlights of the film.
Of course, most audiences will be expecting action, and the film certainly delivers, with an exciting mix of epic battle scenes and furious duels. Yen’s choreography is as stunning as ever, never relying too much on slow motion and showing a creative use of light and shadow during many of the set pieces. There are several stand-out scenes, with Guan Yu frequently taking on hordes of opponents, with a thrillingly claustrophobic spear battle in a tight alleyway being particularly memorable. Things do get bloody and violent at times, and the film as a whole has a grounded look, whilst still managing some impressive vistas and gorgeous scenery, making good use of its obviously high production values.
All of this suggests that real effort went into making “The Lost Bladesman” and to doing justice to Guan Yu, both from Donne Yen and from directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong. The result is one of the better Chinese historical epics of recent years, and one of Yen’s more substantial outings, a film which provides plenty of martial arts thrills without dumbing down the story too much or simply relying on his trademark skills and winning smile.
Felix Chong, Alan Mak (director) / Felix Chong, Alan Mak (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Guan Yu
Wen Jiang … Cao Cao
Andy On … Kong Xiu
Alex Fong … Liu Bei
Betty Sun … Qi Lan