Sunday, October 12, 2008

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (Daniel Lee, 2008)

The voice of Luo Ping-an (Sammo Hung), a recruiter for the army of Liu, greets us in Daniel Lee's Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, an imperfectly executed but altogether interesting take on Luo Guanzhong's 14th century The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a revered piece of Chinese literature that details the power struggles between the warring successors of the Han Dynasty. Luo Ping-an recalls the first time he met Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau), an ordinary foot soldier whose only ambition is to provide for his future family, a modest ambition compared to Luo's dreams of returning to his hometown a celebrated city. As Zhao Zilong starts to showcase his fighting prowess rise from the ranks to become one of the Liu army's generals, Luo Ping-an remains a low-ranking soldier.

It is this perspective from Luo Ping-an's forgotten onlooker that makes Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon a worthwhile film. He becomes the film's unsteady heart. As an adaptation of The Romace of the Three Kingdoms, the film feels hurried and truncated. As an ode to heroism and bonds of brotherhood, it is actually quite engaging, if not moving. During one of the film's final moments, Luo Ping-an and Zhao Zilong share a scene where both become defenseless to each other, with Luo Ping-an's admission of his repressed envy and Zhao Zilong's revelation of his weakness. It is a beautifully directed and composed scene, where heroes and icons are unmasked and become human. Ready for their final battle, Luo Ping-an beats the war gong, announcing to the invading forces that Zhao Zilong, the undefeated hero of Liu's army, is ready for his attack. Given that momentary but enduring glint of humanity, Zhao Zilong's final battle, its aftermath we can only guess from the film's end notes, becomes laced with an emotional depth that has been absent in the film's numerous battle scenes.

The film struggles through its initial sequences, accommodated by some stunningly choreographed (by Sammo Hung) although haphazardly shot and edited action sequences, before being fast-forwarded decades past Zhao Zilong's rise to the top, with several other characters (the four other generals and Zhao Zilong's transitory love interest) of little importance to the film's narrative being introduced only to be killed off or totally forgotten in the next ten minutes. The narrative and emotional bulk of the film happens during Zhao Zilong's final expedition. With Luo Ping-an at his side and his favorite lieutenants (all of whom are given little or no characterization) behind him, Zhao Zilong faces the army headed by Cao Ying (Maggie Q), the graceful yet ruthless general of Cao's superior army.

Here, the film starts to take a different cue and becomes a grounded observation of fleeting heroism and both the necessity and expenses of warfare. Lee makes an effort to equalize both factions, characterizing Cao Ying as cunning yet noble, in a careful step to blur the lines between good and evil in the battleground. Lee decreases the tempo, allows his camera to fully linger and capture the vast plains and deserts, and gives ample room for his audience to understand the conflicts boiling within Zhao Zilong's aging hero and Luo Ping-an's pathetic onlooker. Like one of Sergio Leone's grand Westerns where genre conventions and characters are maintained yet enlarged to encapsulate a bevy of themes, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon almost succeeded in doing the same with the genre, if not for the film's clunky storytelling and its need to placate commercial forces.

While Lee clearly has the vision and the ambition to mount a film adaptation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the film seems adequately justified as a whole, the film feels problematic on many fronts. The technical aspects of the film mirror Lee's grand ambition: the armies are fortified with thousands of extras, the production is littered with astounding details, the music is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's memorable melodies for Leone's famous spaghetti westerns, the art direction is both apt and astounding, the cinematography is breathtaking, especially when Lee's camera covers the almost endless expanse of the country that is being fought for. However, amidst the luster of the film's production values, Lee seems unable to cohere the elements into a clearly flowing narrative. The film ultimately suffers from inconsistent plotting and incongruous action filmmaking.


Visual Velocity said...

hey oggs!

i think i saw you kanina in gateway. did you go there today, past noon? i saw a guy there wearing white polo who looks exactly like you. he asked the ticket girl when cinemanila will be starting.

Oggs Cruz said...

Yeah, That's probably me. Ate lunch in Gateway because I had a hearing in Rizal at 2pm so I wanted to schedule my day. Nothing came out of the visit though, hehe.