Journeyman director Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair, Fearless) delivers his first film in seven years, a solid if unremarkable retelling of the legendary Yang family, with sporadic visual flourishes but a lightweight script that fails to develop its large roster of characters.
Despite being in love with Liulang (Wu Chun), sixth son of revered General Yang (Adam Cheng), the beautiful Princess Chai (Ady An) is betrothed to the son of a rival clan leader. Defying their father's orders, Liulang and his younger brother enter into a duel for the Princess' hand, inadvertently starting a war that will destroy the clan - and much of the kingdom along with it.
General Yang is forced into battle, only to find himself cut off and surrounded by enemy troops, under the leadership of Boyan (Shao Bing), son of Yang's supposed allies. The general is then used as bait to lure his seven sons out and attempt a rescue, who ride right into Boyan's trap.
There is a strong Siege of Troy vibe to the plot of Saving General Yang, as two mighty clans go to war over a woman, and waste the lives of thousands for the hand of just one. But at its heart, this is a story of honour and loyalty, and a family who were willing to put their own lives at risk for the sake of each other, and the stability of the nation.
Local audiences will be familiar with the Yang Family, whose heroic exploits that span numerous generations are chronicled in books, plays and folktales. The most popular chapter follows immediately after Yu's film and depicts the Yang widows, who were left to fend for themselves after many of the clan's men died in battle. In fact, this project was at one point going to be an all-woman affair, only to be reworked into its current incarnation at the last moment. This might have had something to do with Frankie Chan's endearingly poor Legendary Amazons, which arrived in late 2011, just as production on Saving General Yang began in earnest.
Whatever the reason, the last minute overhaul is glaringly apparent, as the biggest problem with Saving General Yang is its flimsy script. It's a story with seven heroes, dozens of superfluous family members, and at least three separate armies of antagonists in a film the clocks in at a brisk 102 minutes. That doesn't leave much breathing room for nuanced character development. Fortunately the seven brothers - played in descending order by Ekin Cheng, Yu Bo, Vic Chow, Li Chen, Raymond Lam, Wu Chun and Fu Xinbo - pretty much always refer to each other as "First Brother" or "Third Son", so names aren't that important.
However, we get very little insight into their relationships - as sons, brothers or lovers. They simply exist - loyal, bonded by blood, and heroic to the last, while differentiating between them becomes impossible. Before long they have become simply "the one with the bow", "the one with the scar on his face" and "the one who started all this". Clearly this is a result of the project being retooled but the results make it difficult to engage with the film on anything more than a surface level.
Adam Cheng, star of such classics as Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain, stars as the benevolent patriarch, who is so loved and respected by his children that even after repeatedly whipping them, they still willingly help him into his armour with a smile. We quickly learn that the real strength of the family comes from its women, particularly Madame Yang (Xu Fan), who supports her husband and sons in their bloody pursuits, but is alone in worrying about the ramifications of their actions.
Unfortunately Princess Chai, the trophy wife-to-be is barely given any time in which to convince the audience that she is worth shedding a single drop of blood for, and while Taiwanese actress Ady An is an attractive young lady, she's hardly a face that would launch a thousand ships.
With characterisation this flimsy, Saving General Yang lives or dies on its action and to his credit, Yu does produce a couple of gorgeously-staged sequences. There is an arrow fight amidst a field of tall grass towards the end that is worth the ticket price alone, but the film really needed more such moments. Had each son been given his own signature scene, or visual motif, then the film might have been excused its lack of narrative nourishment. For a film so reliant on action, the fight sequences are surprisingly bloodless, with the few overtly violent moments that do occur either staged compassionately - when Yang's wounds are tended to - or played for laughs.
Saving General Yang proves a competent exercise in large scale period filmmaking, and certainly more exciting than recent misfires like Andrew Lau's The Guillotines. Had Yu not recently confirmed that he has turned down the chance to direct Silver Vase, Iron Knight, I would be encouraged by what is on display here that he'd do a good job with that (presumably) more substantial material. As it is, the brief moments when Saving General Yang does display genuine visual flair can only tease at what might have been with a better script.