Although its odd English title might suggest some kind of racially themed thriller, “White Vengeance” is actually Hong Kong director Daniel Lee latest Chinese historical epic, following up on “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” and Donnie Yen vehicle “14 Blades”. This time, Lee has chosen a weighty subject in the Hongmen Banquet, a landmark event which took place over 2000 years ago when various factions were vying for control after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. The prestigious blockbuster has a typically all-star cast, headlined by Leon Lai (“Bodyguards and Assassins”) and television star William Feng (“Palace”), with support from the legendary Anthony Wong (“The Untold Story”), Zhang Hanyu (“Assembly”), Jordon Chan (“Once a Gangster”), Andy On (“True Legend”) and actress Crystal Liu (recently in the “A Chinese Ghost Story” remake).
The film begins in China during the last years of the Qin Dynasty, with the capture of the fallen Qin capital city Xianyang likely to decide who becomes the next Emperor. Although currently leading the race is Western Chu leader Xiang Yu (William Feng), an ambitious warrior determined to rule the land, it’s actually his sworn brother Liu Bang (Leon Lai) who reaches Xianyang first. Initially persuaded by the other warlords to claim victory and the throne for himself, Liu Bang soon realises he will not be able to match Xiang Yu in battle, and agrees to swear allegiance to him and hand over the city. However, Xiang Yu’s strategist Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong) believes Liu Bang has other motivations, and advises him to hold a banquet to try and settle things for once and for all.
This synopsis really only scratches the surface, and there really is a great deal going on in “White Vengeance”, Daniel Lee clearly aiming for an exhaustive cinematic exploration of events. Although anyone hoping for a glimpse of ancient Chinese cuisine might be disappointed by the lack of an actual banquet at the Hongmen Banquet, the film packs a huge amount of historical detail and an extensive cast of characters and subplots into its two hours and fifteen minute long running time. Lee does a decent good job of handling all of this without overloading too much, though things do get a bit hard to follow at times, audiences with a basic grounding in Chinese history being more likely to get to grips quicker. There’s a great deal of talk along the way, and to be fair, the film’s middle section is a little dense, requiring a fair amount of concentration – itself not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the viewer’s disposition.
Thankfully, the story is a powerful and fascinating one, enough so to hold the interest throughout, and Lee wins points for attempting to flesh out the event and its players rather than simply using it as an excuse for action and drama. The film shows a pleasing focus on tactics and strategy along with character, with a philosophical approach to its constantly shifting allegiances and scheming, and this is a definite strong point, giving it a different feel to other historical epics. The cast are generally up to the task, even if Leon Lai’s performance feels oddly reticent at times, and this adds an all important shot of believability to the story that grounds some of the inevitable melodrama and impassioned speeches which crop up during the final act.
Lee is of course thought of primarily as an action director, and after the build up “White Vengeance” certainly delivers in terms of battle scenes, with some magnificent and ambitiously large scale engagements. The film is visually very impressive, with some excellent sweeping aerial camera work that lends the proceedings both excitement and a touch of pomp, underlining the sheer scale of its conflict. The action and martial arts sequences are all well choreographed and frequently bloody, and the film benefits from not showing the kind of stylistic overload which has proved so distracting in many of its peers, Lee instead aiming for a somewhat grittier look and feel.
As a result, “White Vengeance” comes across kind of like “Red Cliff” with more depth, mixing brotherhood and epic clashes with an engrossing line in historical detail. Although it may lose a few viewers during its long first and second acts, it’s a very worthwhile and in many ways quite laudable effort, and both one of Daniel Lee’s best films and one of the better Chinese period epics of late.
Daniel Lee (director) / Daniel Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Shao-feng Feng … Xiang Yu
Leon Lai … Liu Bang
Hanyu Zhang … Zhang Liang
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … Fan Zeng
Yifei Liu … Yu Ji
Jordan Chan … Fan Kuai
Andy On … Han Xin