The Warlords (Peter Chan, 2007)
Mandarin Title: Tau ming chong
The Warlords is something of an anomaly in Peter Chan's career. Chan is most famous for charming romances and comedies like Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996), a love story between two Mainlanders (Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung), both of whom migrate to Hong Kong and later to New York, that spans several decades and Perhaps Love (2005), which details a love triangle that arises in the set of a musical film. Going Home, the episode he directed for Pan-Asian horror triptych Three (2002), is about a father (Eric Tsang) and his son who moves in a dilapidated residential building where longtime resident (Lai) keeps a gruesome although ultimately heartbreaking secret. Chan's films have always featured strong female characters (Cheung in Comrades, Zhou Sun as feisty movie star in Perhaps Love, Kate Capshaw as forty something divorcee who gets intimate with a younger man in The Love Letter (1999), or even Eugenia Yuan as Lai's dead wife in Going Home).
Thus, The Warlords, which Chan claims as his attempt to bring back themes of male camaraderie and loyalty of 80's and 90's Hong Kong cinema, is a totally different creature in Chan's growing filmography. In fact, The Warlords features no strong female character. Lian (Xu Jinglei), the object of desire of both General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) and Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau), is treated more as a plot device rather than a definite character. She indistinctly beds with both men, with her motives and aspirations conveniently overshadowed by the men who dominate the picture.
Notwithstanding this evident departure in themes, Chan succeeds in crafting a genuinely engaging picture. Inspired by Cheng Cheh's The Blood Brothers (1973) which is based on a historical event wherein a governor was assassinated in the late nineteenth century, The Warlords is about three men, Pang, Zhao and Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) whose fraternal pledge is tested under the pressures of surviving starvation and violence dealt upon by the Taiping Rebellion (whose death count supposedly outnumbers that of the second World War) and later on, the political ambitions and intrigues that accompany their wartime successes. Chan indulges in detailing the three men's intricate relationship, starting from explicating their personalities, differentiating their goals and motivations, inevitably leading to a clash of gargantuan egos, especially of Pang and Zhao's, who nearing the end of the film have come into a deadlock in their objectives.
More gargantuan than the clashing egos of the film's main characters are the battle scenes, choreographed, directed and shot with masterful precision and an exquisite attention to detail by Chan and his crew. The battle scenes do not have the operatic flourish of Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) or the theatrical affluence of Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet (2006). Chan approaches the battles with a grittier and more realistic tone, with dust and grime filling up the frames and severed limbs and fallen bodies punctuating the action. The battle scenes are simply spectacular. There's an undeniable visual splendor and energy beneath the pandemonium and violence that Chan adeptly orchestrates.
The Warlords also features one of Li's best performances. His embattled general, the lone survivor of a failed campaign where all his soldiers died, is vulnerable and emotional, traits that Li's usual cinematic personalities hardly possess. He performs alongside Lau and Kaneshiro, actors who have earned acclaim from more dramatic roles, and gives the most memorable performance of the three. Above everything, The Warlords, proves that Chan is a formidable filmmaker, with the ability to stage stunning and sweeping battle scenes without sacrificing characterization and storytelling.