Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Warring States

Another Chinese movie playing at Boston Common, another somewhat sparse crowd, even on opening night, which surprised me a little bit; it's a movie that certainly seems commercial enough, and even if the pirate DVDs are already on the way (it appears to have opened in China a week and a half earlier, and Chinese pirates are are fast and shameless), it's the sort that people like to see on the big screen, or so you'd think.

(Surprisingly, there seemed to be a fairly impressive turnout for the Boston International Film Festival across the hall. I tend to take that one for granted, and in fact have made something of a deliberate effort to ignore it since they moved their dates to conflict with IFFBoston a couple years ago. Seems like they draw an audience, though.)

I must admit to being a little disappointed that this was the only Chinese movie opening in Boston this week. Well Go opened Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen in New York, Los Angeles, and a couple other markets this weekend, but not Boston. They didn't open either of the Ip Man movies here, either, and I don't get that - the other Chinese movies do okay here, there's a couple of theaters right next to Chinatown and the Kung Fu Video store. Plus, there's a not-entirely-illegitimate claim that he's local; he went to school at Newton North high school for a while and his parents are still nearby (heck, I think mother Bow Sim Mark still teaches tai chi). And Boston does like to support its local guys; I think The Company Men lasted longer here than anywhere else, and, heck, I remember Gerry sticking around.

Thankfully, Legend of the Fist is going to play Boston, just not for a month; it's scheduled to open at the Brattle on 20 May, the same day as China Lion has their next day and date release, A Beautiful Life. That one's a romance with Shu Qi, and considering that their biggest hit in the USA thus far was her in If You Are the One 2, I'm guessing that will do pretty well.

Zhan Guo (The Warring States)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2011 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run)

The Warring States is the sort of movie that, for one reason or another, only China seems to make in quantity: The period melodrama about the clash of nations and individuals, with playful comedy existing side-by-side with romance and horrible betrayal. It's perhaps not the grand epic that some of its fellows are, and may be a bit confusing to westerners, but it's diverting and pulls together by the end.

The time is roughly 355 BC, in the middle of China's "Warring States" period. Military strategists are a precious commodity and are often free agents - or, just as often, kidnapped for their expertise. That's what happens with Sun Bin (Sun Honglei), the greatest student of the legendary Gui Guzi - he is first recruited by the Wei army to help them take a border city, and after that plan is successful, the daughter of the Qi general he defeated (Jiang Wu) has him kidnapped. That's not so bad, though - Tian Xi (Jing Tian) is young, beautiful, and spirited, though initially not quite so taken with Sun Bin as he is with her. However, this skirmish has made the other kingdoms nervous, and they come together to make peace. This reunites Bin with the general of Wei's army, Pang Juan (Francis Ng). Juan is Gui Guzi's other student and Bin's sworn brother; his sister Fei (Kim Hee-seon) is the princess of Wei. Of course, there's more going on than may first appear, and despite being a savant in the area of military strategy, Bin will likely be hurt by his nature as a trusting pacifist.

Bin's a bit of a weird character, at least as presented in this movie. A quick glance at his Wikipedia entry suggests that, at a minimum, the events have been reordered somewhat, and he's become as much folk hero as historic figure over the centuries; I'm not sure how much of his backstory the film's main audience would be expected to know. There's an enjoyable contradiction between his genial personality and his skill at planning war; at times the audience may wonder how he got to that point. We don't get that story, but Sun Honglei embodies the contradictions amusingly, finding the line between Bin being childlike and understanding the basic facts of war enough to want no part of it. Especially toward the beginning, it's a funny, larger-than-life performance, but that works to give some extra heft to the end, when the clownishness of the Bin we meet at the start is no longer appropriate.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: