After enjoying some early success in the action genre with Jet Li's BLACK MASK, writer-director Daniel Lee struggled to maintain any real momentum, which culminated in the truly ridiculous DRAGON SQUAD in 2005. Since then he has moved into directing period wartime epics, firstly with the rather uninspiring Andy Lau/Sammo Hung vehicle THREE KINGDOMS: RESSURECTION OF THE DRAGON, followed by the notably better but still rather unexceptional 14 BLADES, starring Donnie Yen. With his new film WHITE VENGEANCE, Lee has been trusted with a bigger budget and a considerably larger canvas, for an epic story of loyalty, betrayal and the thirst for power.
The film centres around a famous incident known as the Banquet of Hongmen, where opposing Generals Xiang Yu and Liu Bang met under the guise of friendly terms, but which was in fact arranged in order to assassinate Liu. Originally they had been sworn brothers, united in their efforts to conquer China in the wake of the collapsed Qin Dynasty. Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng) commanded the Chu forces, on behalf of the temporary King Huai (Zhao Huinan), but fully intended to take over for himself. He forms an uneasy alliance with Liu Bang (Leon Lai), who has no aspirations of power and fully supports Xiang Yu. However, Liu's loyal forces insist that he seeks the leadership for himself.
It transpires that whomever takes control of the city of Xianyang first will become the rightful leader and take possession of the Qin Imperial Seal. When Liu accomplishes this - while Xiang Yu's beloved Yuji (Liu Yifei) is in Liu's care - Xiang Yu determines to kill Liu and take back what he believes to be his, and so organizes the Banquet at Hongmen. Both men arrive with their most trusted generals, only for their military advisors to engage in a bizarre duel of Weiqi (better known by its Japanese name, "Go"). As Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong), the loyal advisor to Xiang, has lost his sight, both he and Liu's advisor Zhang Liang (Zhang Hanyu) agree to play blind - and to play five rounds simultaneously from memory, in front of the entire assembly.
This battle of wits and military strategy becomes an epic struggle of increasing intensity for the two participants, but for the audience it is breaking point. At this moment the film begins to lose its grip and become unintentionally amusing. From this point on - and this pivotal encounter occurs at the midpoint of a 130-minute film - WHITE VENGEANCE begins to drastically change historical events to suit the drama, and as the story and relationships unravel, so does its structure and our interest.
At the centre of the film is the character of Liu Bang, a general who rose out of the peasant classes to become a military leader, and would ultimately become the first emperor of China's Han Dynasty. He evolves from a man with little ambition, persuaded by his own men to take a more proactive interest in his own success, into a paranoid and fearful leader suspicious of those same advisors who helped him succeed in the first place. Torn apart by guilt, distrust and paranoia, Liu Bang's inner turmoil is the rotten core of the story, but Lee's script and Leon Lai's cold, detached performance give us nothing. We never feel we get anywhere close to this tormented anti-hero and while we understand the concept of his predicament, we never feel it to be true.
Only marginally better is Feng Shaofeng's Xiang Yu, a man desperate for power and success, who is also dealing with trust issues and has been polluted from day one by the machinations of Fan Zeng. It is another adequate yet flat performance, with whom the audience struggles to engage. His burgeoning relationship with courtesan Yuji is more of a plot device than anything genuinely romantic, and poor Liu Yifei is never asked to do more than sit in a carriage and wait impatiently for the men to stop fighting. Early on there is a hint that Liu Bang has feelings for Yuji, but the film never bothers to explore the possibility of a love triangle - although the finale suggests that it was there under the surface. While Feng and Lai's performances are rather unexceptional, Anthony Wong delivers a stand-out bad performance as blind tactician Fan Zeng, whose lazy overacting and occasionally woeful hamminess only underpin that this was a role he clearly couldn't pull off with his eyes closed.
Far better is Zhang Hanyu as Zhang Liang, Liu's chief advisor and eventually one of the victims of his faltering trust. His every move and decision is to ensure success for his leader and when Liu turns against him to save himself, it literally breaks the man's heart, sending him into a spiral of flip-flopping loyalties that take centre stage in the film's final act. Jordan Chan is rather good as Fan Kuai, Liu's brother-in-law and the most vocal of his loyal supporters, and Andy On ensures that the film includes a couple of quality fight sequences as ambitious General Han Xin.
In fact, the action throughout the film is rather impressively staged. There are a few sweeping shots of CGI battles that could have used more detail, but once the camera gets up close to the action there is little to complain about. Lee does choose to punctuate every sweeping sword blade with a roaring bass note reminiscent of the audio accompaniment to the bullet time sequences in THE MATRIX, and his choices of music vary wildly from atmospheric lutes and flutes to more contemporary rock that often jars with the action onscreen. That said, the film's lush interiors and beautiful costumes deserve to be acknowledged.
WHITE VENGEANCE is Daniel Lee's best stab yet at the medieval epic, but he still has a long way to go before he can compete with the likes of Peter Chan, John Woo or Zhang Yimou in this genre. The money is all up there on the screen and when the action gets going the film is certainly entertaining, but the complex nature of the story demands characters who are better fleshed out who we can understand and hopefully even relate to. As it stands, the script lacks the depth to effectively service the ethical and moral dilemmas at play in the story. The result is a film that is all surface and no feeling, and at well over two hours, just doesn't have the strength to keep its audience engaged.