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February 10, 2009

The Warlords

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Tau Ming Chong
Peter Chan - 2007
Bonzai Media All Region DVD

In spite of it's recent win of the Golden Horse awards, The Warlords victory seems based more on the size of the production and the logistics involved. Better was Chan's previous film, the Golden Horse winning Perhaps Love, a self-referential musical about the making of a large scale Chinese musical. Best for me is still Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Chan's last film before his brief departure from Hong Kong. Chan's last small scale Chinese language film was about the struggles of two people from mainland China portrayed by Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai attempting to earn money and assimilate into a very different kind of Chinese society. In contrast to Chan's previous films, The Warlords is fairly impersonal.

Taking place in 19th Century China, the story is about a general, Pang, who is the only survivor when his army of 1600 men are massacred. Taken in by a gang of bandits lead by ErHu and Jiang, Pang sees the struggle of survival a small town has against a rival army. Pang convinces ErHu and Jiang that their best chance would be to transform their group of bandits into an army aligned with one of the warring forces in order to guarantee food, arms and money. The three take an oath of allegiance to each other. What follows is not only a series of large scale battles, but how three three "brothers" change internally and in their relationship with each other. Adding to the conflict is Pang's love for ErHu's wife, the woman who sheltered him following his trek from the battlefield.

Chan's film is a statement about the human waste of war. The hundreds of corpses strewn on the battlefield quickly become abstract. More successful is the more intimate part of The Warlords as an examination of the uses and corruption of power. Those with the real power are seen playing the game Go, discussing the use of pawns. While any reference to contemporary uses of military force may be indirect, the similarities are inescapable.

Chan has gone on record as saying he wanted to make a film with battle scenes that did not rely on any martial art trickery. The soldiers fight in the dirt and mud with arrows, guns and cannons. Probably the reason why this film has yet to be available by a U.S. distributor is because Jet Li does not show off his athletic ability. Li's one major fight scene is with Takeshi Kaneshiro, a brutal struggle between two former friends, one caught up in his adherence to his idealism, the other attempting to justify his consolation of power at the expense of others. Andy Lau plays the reformed bandit leader ErHu, while a very unglamorous looking Xu Jinglei takes to role as the wife torn between loyalty to her husband and passion for her lover.

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Chan's one Hollywood production was in affiliation with Steven Spielberg, and is could well be that this association may have triggered interest in making an epic. To a degree, Chinese language cinema may remind some of Hollywood fifty years ago with several competing epics, some with overlapping stories and casts, the biggest of which would be John Woo's two part Battle of Red Cliff which also includes Takeshi Kaneshiro. What makes The Warlords different is not only Chan's interest in presenting war as literally dirty business, divested of glamour or heroism, but framing the narrative with a story that is essentially found in most Hong Kong gangster films, a recent notable example being Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers. While Chan has been interested in making films for a pan-Asian audience, his next film presents greater cross-cultural challenges - Waiting will be filmed in English from the novel of the same name by Ha Jin, with Kaneshiro and Zhang ZiYi. Chan might even argue that at The Warlords is a love story. In discussing his other films, he has stated, "You cannot use rationality to watch my movies. If you use your heart, without dissecting the characters, then you will go with the flow."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 10, 2009 12:27 AM