The Chinese historical epic has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” through to John Woo’s mega budgeted blockbuster “Red Cliff” bringing the past to life in increasingly grandiose fashion. One genre outing which has stood out from the ever growing crowd of pomp and spectacle obsessed productions is Peter Chan’s “The Warlords”. Originally released across Asia back in 2007 and having since enjoyed a successful run on screens in the West, the film is a very different proposition, being far more downbeat and thoughtful than its peers. A loose remake of the 1973 Shaw Brothers classic “Blood Brothers”, the film was not only a massive hit at the box office, but also won over the critics, grabbing a slew of international accolades, including Best Film at the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards. The film has now been released on Blu Ray via Metrodome.
The film is set in the 19th century, during the Taiping Rebellion near the end of the Qing Dynasty, a time when China was descending into chaos as rival warlords struggled to seize power. A Qing general called Pang (played by martial arts legend Jet Li) survives the crushing defeat which claims the lives of his men, and wanders the land until he comes across a young bandit called Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, recently in “Red Cliff”). The outlaw takes him back to his village, and introduces him to Zhao (Andy Lau, “Infernal Affairs”), the leader of his gang. The three seem to be kindred spirits, and decide to team up and to gather an army of their own to serve the Qing in the hopes of gaining fame and fortune. Unfortunately, their friendship is soon soured as personal ambition takes over, leading to tragedy and betrayal.
“The Warlords” is an impressive balancing act in that it manages to be a contemplative and markedly gritty production, in many ways the anti-thesis of luscious affairs such as “Curse of the Golden Flower”, whilst at the same time serving up plenty of exciting spectacle. Indeed, although Chan styles it as a meditation on the pointlessness of war, he is careful not to neglect the need for audience-pleasing heroics and bloody battle scenes. Visually, the film is gorgeous, though at the same time down to earth and believable, with the superstar cast spending most of the film covered with dirt and dust. This adds a certain edge to the proceedings, and makes the violent scenes of conflict even more visceral and hard hitting. Perhaps more importantly, Chan’s main achievement is to demonstrate that the costume epic genre can still offer directors the chance to work in social commentary and even some historical revisionism, through a more realistic and morally complex approach rather than employing the usual larger than life heroes and villains.
The film is a natural for the Blu Ray format, with the glorious high definition transfer bringing out the very best in its powerful imagery. Although its landscapes are desolate, the film is packed with moments of stark beauty, and the battle scenes are breathtakingly epic and large in scale. The quality is a marked improvement over the original DVD release, whose grainy picture tended to undermine the impact of Chan’s eye for historical realism. The Blu Ray also comes with a number of interesting extras, including a production journal, historical and making of features, and some deleted scenes which for once are actually worth watching.
As such, “The Warlords” stands not only as one of the best Chinese blockbusters of recent years, but also as a superior Blu Ray release. By combining thrilling action and anti war ruminations, Chan offers viewers the best of both worlds, and the film should appeal even to those not normally fans of the form.
Peter Chan (director) / Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Jiping He, Jianxin Huang, Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Lan Xu, James Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li … General Ma Xinyi
Andy Lau … Cao Er-Hu
Takeshi Kaneshiro … Zhang Wen-Xiang
Jinglei Xu … Lian