I'm going to cheat again. The Warlords was made in 2007 and has been available on import DVD for some time now. The reason why it is important that it is playing at TADFF is that this film has rarely played anywhere outside of China and Hong Kong. This is a rare opportunity because this film is currently being held down by, wouldn't you know it, a squabble within the production. And as I have other plans this afternoon before joining everyone for Zombie Night I offer up this review of the DVD though I understand this cut of the film you're seeing today to be slightly shorter. Enjoy!
Jet Li plays General Pang Qing-Yun. He is the lone survivor of a battle when he pretended to be dead and hid beneath bodies of his slain men. He walks away from the battlefield and roams the countryside riddled with grief and shame when he comes across Lian (Xu Jinglei). They shack up in an abandoned house for the night and Pang wakes up to find her already gone. Soon after Pang meets Jiang Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a baby faced bandit who works for Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau). Their gang fends for itself by attacking and stealing form soldiers. During one of these raids Pang jumps into action to save the lives of Jiang and Zhao after which they want to make him a part of their gang.
When they have returned to the home of this bandit gang Pang discovers that Lian is Zhao's wife. Uh-oh, conflict of interest and emotions. What we learn is that Zhao had rescued Lian years before; at least he thought he had, but Lian doesn't quite like Zhao as much as he does her. After a battalion of soldiers come to their village and take away all their provisions, never mind that they are provisions the bandits stole from the soldiers in the first place, the village is tossed into turmoil. This is when Pang suggests that these bandits join the army themselves to earn money and food. Zhao and Jiang agree, but not until Pang takes a "blood oath" to insure that he will not betray them. And so Pang, Jiang, and Zhao each kill an outsider, three guys not from the village basically, and swear to each other to defend their brotherhood until death. Under Pang's leadership and personal drive this army of bandits establish victory after victory and no sooner are they on the radar of the political powers that be. What unfolds is a tale of betrayal, brotherhood, motivations and morality highlighted by fine action sequences.
The Warlords comes as close as any Hong Kong film will in matching the commercial appeal of a Hollywood action drama film. You've got your big name cast; you don't get much bigger than your three leading men: Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro. All three actors give very good performances, especially Li who is normally not involved in films demanding large dramatic roles. It is the best dramatic performance he has ever given but there is more than enough of that Li of old so that his fans do not have to worry. He does not fight his battles behind a desk, thank you very much. He is right there in the thick of if, leading his men headlong into battle.
You've got impressive set pieces and production values. You've got enough action sequences and battle scenes with an appropriate amount of carnage to impress action aficionados. The battle scenes are authentic, bloody and taxing on the armies involved. We're into the 19th century history of China now and firearms are a common weapon in any army now. The distance between armies is ever increasing but that doesn't keep them from clashing together and that is where the preparation really shows with incredible action sequences and shocking violence.
Peter Chan has made about as inclusive a Chinese film for the international market more than anyone else. The Warlords is a Chinese film solely by the fact that its cast is Chinese and speaks Mandarin. The rest of it, the story, the plot, the action, can fit into any other scenario and any other culture. Political powerplaying and personal vendettas are nothing new. Love triangles are a common plot device in any good drama. As far as the conflict and the history of the war itself Chinese audiences will have already been familiar with the background to know what the setting is. For an international audience this is hinted at a touch but won't matter because the themes and plot devices are enough to move this movie along at a brisk enough pace to entertain and keep our attention. Personally, I wish there was attention paid to the reason of the conflict, especially when one of the characters pulls out a cross that he took from a body of one of the enemy soldiers and later in the film Pang's soldiers talk about rumors they've heard about a man named 'Jesus' who brings fish and bread to the citizens of a city they have been seizing for months. The script goes as far as that to allude that the reason of the conflict in the first place has some religious undertone to it so it is obvious that someone with a faith such as myself would be interested in knowing more about that. But that's just me. As open as Chan can be with his film he has still made it with a Chinese audience in mind, who doesn't need the full background check before things start rolling.
The Warlords is simply a good action drama. The original cut was a shade over 2 hours and and it would have been interesting to see what was cut for this international cut. I found that with the original cut that wrapping up the story once their army's goals were completed on the battlefield surged ahead full steam, perhaps taking away a bit from what they intended to be very dramatic and intense relationship breakdowns between the three leaders. Took quick I thought. But for a film of this scale and quality I make no gripes. One of the few costume epics, from China, of which there are many, to come off really well done and executed, pardon the pun.