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Warlords (Tau ming chong)

dir: Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip
[img_assist|nid=1180|title=It must be serious, after all, look at all that facial hair|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=319|height=444]
I never thought that Jet Li, at this advanced stage of his career, could surprise me in a positive way. No-one in this world, regardless or sometimes because of their age, stops finding ways to surprise me negatively. But I was surprised here by Jet Li’s dramatic chops, which hasn’t occurred once in the twenty years I’ve been watching his flicks.

He’s always been a tremendous fighter onscreen, and good enough playing his usual, stoic, heroic roles in the wuxia (martial arts) flicks. But he’s often been quite terrible whenever he tries to do anything dramatic or comedic or tragic or acting in general.

This lack of acting ability has never stood in the way of his career, because his arse-kicking ability is so incredibly amazing. Amongst his peers he’s par for the course, but with age comes, if not wisdom, at least an appreciation for looking like you have the emotions and stuff the director is telling you to have.

Right from the start it’s obvious that this is a very different film for Jet Li. He’s in his forties, and still looks amazing fucking people up, but he’s been doing this stuff since he was a kid. He wants to do more dramatic work, less fighting, but they won’t let him play Hamlet, the cruel masters of Chinese-Hong Kong cinema that they are. Bastards.

The compromise is to have him play Qing-Yun, a forlorn general during the twilight of the Qing Dynasty (during the reign of fearsome Empress Dowager Cixi), when China is riven by civil war as the Taiping rebels rebel all over the place. The general has emotions and stuff, all of which Li’s tired face is better able to convey these days, I guess just because he’s finally lost that perpetual babyface look of his. Still hope for you after all, Leonardo DiCaprio.

This general is the last survivor of a battle, and he’s ever so weary. He shacks up with Lian (Xu Jinglei), some strange woman along the road - ships passing in the night - and then hooks up with some bandits, who quickly glean his qualities as a fighter and commander of men.

It should come as no surprise that the attractive woman Jet’s character hooked up with at the beginning happens to be the kept woman of the bandit leader Zhao Er-Hu (played as woodenly as ever by Andy Lau). Complications, longing looks, stolen glimpses abound.

But this isn’t a romance, is it? It’s really a story about three men who become blood brothers, vowing an eternal pact of ‘bros before hos’, which I guess is a form of romance. The third part of the man-on-man threesome is Zhang Wu-Yang, played by Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro. The three men, especially Kaneshiro, give looks of such longing, adoration and hurt aimed at each other throughout this flick that it really is quite funny. Funny in a humorous sense, not in the sense that anyone’s going to accuse me of making lame homophobic gags. After all, some of my best friends are violent skinheads.

There’s a lot of historical stuff here, in that the main characters actually existed in Earth history, and were not solely invented as an excuse to have lots of war scenes, surely. This is, overwhelmingly, a war film as opposed to a martial arts flick, which might sound confusing to someone who equates any Chinese flick with being of the floaty sword-fighting kind.

This is really about the stuff of war, with far more in common with John Woo’s recent Red Cliffs or Kurosawa’s Ran than it does with the Once Upon a Time in China flicks. If war scenes bore you, and you’re expecting Crouching Tigers dancing with Hidden Dragons across water drops and bamboo branches, then go elsewhere, pleasure-seekers.

A lot of the flick is taken up with scenes where Qing-Yun and his brothers lead their former bandit brethren, now made an official part of the imperial army, in battle against the Taiping rebels. Qing-Yun has his own score to settle; not with the rebels, but with another General who abandoned him at the first battle we saw the remnants of.

Much of the film’s ‘seriousness’ comes purely from the look of it. Seeing all these protagonists looking dirty and grimy from war goes a little way along towards grounding the flick. It’s filmed in a monochromatic, colour desaturated way which is a constant reminder that war, in case you didn’t realise, is a nasty business.

Apart from the growing misery of conducting a campaign that takes years and years, against the walled cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, complete with trench warfare, disease, dwindling resources and random bullets, there’s the growing rift between the three men, arising from the different places that they’re coming from in life. Qing-yun wants to win at all costs in order to get into the Empress Dowager’s good graces. All Er-Hu wants is to return to mountainfolk in order to fuck his woman. All his woman wants is to fuck Qing-yun. All Wu-Yang, the third of the blood brothers, wants is for the three men to keep loving each other as passionately as they did at the beginning of the film.

When they argue about the treatment of some Taiping prisoners, it causes some tears and hurt feelings. When Wu-Yang sees Lian hooking up with Qing-Yun on the sly, then it seems to set the stage for an inevitable showdown that will tear their underpants and the nation asunder.

In reality, the Yoko factor doesn’t really come into it, because the real source of the enmity between them is the fact that Er-Hu has no stomach for stuff like executing thousands of prisoners because they are an inconvenience, especially since Er-Hu tearfully gave them his word that they’d be unharmed.

In the strangest, and my most favourite, part of the film, in trying to force a quicker end to the siege of Suzhou, Er-Hu sneaks into the city, with the intention of perhaps assassinating the leader of the Taiping rebels. There is not enough time and space to explain who the Taipings were, and how kooky they were, but suffice to say they started a pretty kooky and occasionally successful rebellion, initially led by someone who thought he was the reincarnation of Jesus. It’s quickly revealed, considering the fact the city has been cut-off from the outside world for a year, that someone might notice a new, studly face newly arrived, at least one as studly as Andy Lau’s. But when the long-haired, frilly bathrobe wearing Taiping leader confronts him, it’s not the showdown you might expect. I think we’re even more surprised than Er-Hu by the way it ends.

Qing-Yun’s subsequent actions after the siege, before he becomes a new hero and is praised to the high heavens by all and sundry (except for the jealous lords under the Empress who compete for her scraps and live to destroy the presumptuous), set the stage for further betrayals, all seemingly misunderstood and misinterpreted, which results in even more sadness, stubbed toes, skinned knees and mutilated corpses bodies than you’d normally expect.

I actually found the film pretty engaging. It’s not anything I haven’t seen before a bunch of times, but it was enjoyable enough. As a war film it’s interesting to see something which depicts trench warfare in (what is for a Western audience) an alien context, being China in the 1860s.

And most of all it’s interesting to watch Jet Li play a role with a bit more humanity and a lot less gravitas than before. He has a bunch of strong scenes throughout the flick, but the three standout scenes for my money all feature him acting like he’s trying to convince someone three thousand miles away of the necessity of his actions without having access to a mobile phone: The scene where the three blood brothers debate what is to be done to some of their soldiers who have been caught raping and pillaging; where the fate of the surrendered rebels is nutted out, and then a scene where Jet explains to someone who’s dead as to how he’ll still keep in touch with him every year, all the while wailing like a little girl who’s scraped her knee bad enough to draw blood. It was over the top, but I still found it affecting.

About the only part of the story that is probably accurate is that there is a place called China. And some guy was murdered through court intrigue more likely than a falling out between bros over some hos. That’s okay. Truth is, I could care less about the historical accuracy or inaccuracy. The era depicted, like most eras depicted in Chinese flicks, is fascinating to me more from the perspective of what stories they can tell with it, and how it all looks and comes together. History class stuff takes a distant backseat, oh so far back that it ceases to matter.

Maybe that’s petty, but it hardly matters. What truly matters is how much the lives and deaths of people and cultures I don’t know entertain me.

Surely, lover of films that you must be, to have read down this far through the review, you can’t possibly begrudge me that.

7 times Jet Li crying reminded me at times of a bulldog trying to get rid of a chilli pepper caught in its throat out of 10

“It’s okay, Qing-yun, she’s dead now. Now we can all be brothers again.” If only t’were that simple, my simple-minded Taiwanese friend, Warlords.