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“There will be no fighting in the Hall of Swords!”
Countries: China, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles
Starring: Donnie Yen, Kelly Chen, Leon Lai, Guo Xiaodong
Director: Ching Siu Tung
Run time: 94 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Ching Siu Tung is a remarkably accomplished action director. With movies like Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Shaolin Soccer under his belt recently, he is a big name in the action world. Then again, his name is also attached to In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (as a fights choreographer) and the Steven Seagal vehicle Belly of the Beast. Now, to be fair, Uwe Boll directed A Dungeon Siege Tale, and no matter how good the fight choreography was the movie was going to be atrocious. And, to be fair, Belly of The Beast, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it’s utterly bonkers and makes no sense, is just about the best of the Seagal direct-to-DVD era.
The biggest problem with An Empress And The Warriors is not the direction. And the best part is not the action choreography, although it is quite good. No, the biggest problem with the movie is that, for its genre, it’s pretty darn ordinary. Romantic, epic martial arts and swords and costumed war-themed period pieces are, to Hong Kong cinema, the equivalent of romantic comedies in Hollywood. In that they are made every year, given a lot of marketing and budget, and every director seems to try his or her hand at it at some point.
And, like romantic comedies in Hollywood, the war-themed sword and martial arts epics in Hong Kong are pretty formulaic. In this case, they are almost all Shakespearean, in that there is usually betrayal, and someone who appears to be something they are not, and the desire for peace battles with the manliness of war, and honour is paramount, and usually everyone important dies in the end. I have come to expect this.
The films, also like Hollywood rom-coms, are hit and miss. It’s what you do within that formulaic framework that matters. House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower are all examples of the formula done exceptionally well. Legend Of Black Scorpion is an example of the same formula being phoned in. So is An Empress And The Warriors. I really like Kelly Chen, Donnie Yen and Leon Lai. But they are just pieces in the paint-by-numbers picture.
Now, there are a few inspired and exciting scenes. The scene where Kelly Chen is being chased through a forest by ninjas is reminiscent of a scene out of Return of the Jedi (really), and there are scenes later on that are interesting takes on action scenes from Gladiator and Ben-Hur. And the relationship between Chen and Lai, as he nurses her back to health in his idyllic wilderness retreat, is compelling and realistic.
But the stuff I’ve come to expect from these movies feels like it’s there because it has to be, and there is little inspiration. As the traitorous, ambitious would-be king, Guo Xiaodong is a one-not character, and all he seems to do is look devious or look offended. I think he belived that as long as he looked like he was plotting to overthrow the Empress, he was doing his job. And that’s about all he does.
Also there is a love triangle hinted at a few times between Yen, Chen and Lai. But it never really rears its head, because honour trumps intrigue and romance and everyone does the absolute right moral thing at every moment. Well, except for the one or two Cartoon Bad Guys. And one more annoying but entirely expected quirk – when the Empress falls in love with the isolated country doctor, it’s not enough for him to just be a doctor. He has to, secretly, be one of the greatest warriors in history. It’s thrown in, seemingly, because a princess or Empress could only fall in love with someone who can kill people with his pinkie and a doctor just isn’t badass enough for a hot chick’s love.
Now, all these complaints aside, I did in fact enjoy An Empress And The Warriors. For the most part, I like the cast, and frankly I like the formula. Hong Kong does two types of films consistently – police corruption movies and these epics. And I would rather watch a formulaic, average sword and war and honour epic from Hong Kong than a good romantic comedy from Hollywood.