An Empress and the Warriors
Hong Kong Filmart
HONG KONG -- Mars and Venus fight for ascendancy as a warrior-princess must choose between personal romantic fulfillment and patriotic duty in "An Empress and the Warriors." Thematically, the film sustains this dichotomy with atmospheric alternations between a saccharine fairy tale love plot and strapping martial arts duels and battle scenes.
As the first feature since 2000 to be helmed by renowned martial arts director Tony Ching Siu Tung (who choreographed "The Curse of the Golden Flower" and "House of Flying Daggers"), this could be the most anticipated Chinese period action blockbuster since "The Warlords" aside from "Red Cliff." Although it doesn't thrill like Ching's seminal "A Chinese Ghost Story" or "Swordsman II" of the golden 1990s, it doesn't disappoint as a swashbuckling romance that puts its big-name cast to good hard work. The film already has sold to many Asian territories.
Set when China was still 10 warring states, the story has greatness thrust upon Princess Fei'er (Kelly Chen) when her father dies. She forces herself to develop martial prowess and lead her kingdom, Yan, first to repel invaders, then to squelch the mutiny of cousin Wu Ba (Guo Xiao-dong), who covets the throne. She is trained by Gen. Muyong Xuehu (Donnie Yen), who is both a big brother figure and secret admirer.
While fleeing an ambush set by Wu, Fei'er is rescued and nursed to health by forest dweller Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai). She falls for her hippie healer and becomes skeptical of her kingdom's warlike culture and her own royal destiny. Notwithstanding a flirtation with bandages and a hot air balloon ride over spectacular landscapes, the romance is like the multigrain porridge and organic yams that Lanquan prepares -- wholesome but bland.
Chen, better known as a singer and pretty face in escapist romances, takes up the gauntlet to play an Amazonian heroine. She achieves a breakthrough in image, but screen partners Yen and Lai remain typecast.
The exquisitely wrought armor forms an integral part of overall art direction in creating a sense of Arthurian majesty. The outfits' ungainly weight also means high-wire pyrotechnics are ruled out in favor of earth-bound, puissant clashing of swords. Nothing happens at breakneck speed, but there are no lulls in the succession of fight scenes.
As the spotlight is on the three leads, the best martial arts choreography is reserved for one-on-one battles set against ravishing natural backdrops, such as a floating log on the river or Lanquan's fight with some ninja-like assassins in his tree house in the film's most elaborately designed set piece.
Although the film sports fashionable anti-war jargon, it does not skimp on the body count. Battle scenes and two chases through the woods are graphic but skillfully lensed by Zhang Yimou regular Zhao Xiaoding.
AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS
Polybona Film Distribution and Big Pictures present an United Filmmakers Organization production sales agent: Golden Network Asia, Mei Ah Entertainment (Asia)
Director: Tony Ching Siu Tung
Screenwriter: James Yuen
Producers: Yu Dong, Claudie Chung
Executive producers: Yu Dong, Eric Tsang, Li Kuo-hsing
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Music: Mark Lui
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Tracy Adams
Yan Fei'er: Kelly Chen
Muyong Xuehu: Donnie Yen
Duan Lanquan: Leon Lai
Wu Ba: Guo Xiaodong
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating