An Empress and the Warriors

Bottom line: Soundly wielded chivalric romance delivers undemanding entertainment.

Mars and Venus fight for ascendancy as a warrior-princess must choose between personal romantic fulfillment and patriotic duty to uphold war-mongering ethics 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 Ching Siu Tung (who choreographed "Curse of the Golden Flower" and "House of Flying Daggers"), the $15 million production could be the most anticipated Chinese period action blockbuster since "The Warlords," aside from "Red Cliff."

Though it doesn't thrill like Ching's seminal "A Chinese Ghost Story" or "Swordsman II" of the golden '90s, it doesn't disappoint as a swashbuckling romance that puts its big-name cast to good, honest hard work. The film has already sold to most Asian and some European territories.

Set when China was still 10 warring states, Princess Fei'er (Kelly Chen) has greatness thrust upon her at her father's death. 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, who covets the throne. She is trained by General 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 hippy 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.

Kelly 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 requires a matching sequence of moves. That means high-wire pyrotechnics are ruled out in favor of earthbound, puissant clash of swords. Nothing happens at breakneck speed but there are no lulls in the succession of fight scenes. The best martial arts choreography is reserved for one-to-one combats against ravishing natural backdrops, like a floating log on the river or Lanquan's fight with some ninja-like assassins in his tree house -- the film's most elaborately designed set.

Though 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 with crisp lensing by Zhang Yimou regular Zhao Xiaoding, offer a clean, desanitized version distinct from the filthy power struggles and genocidal bloodletting of "The Warlords."

The Empress and the Warriors
(Jiang Shan Mei Ren)
United Filmmakers Organization (UFO)
Polybona Film Distribution Co./Big Pictures

Credits: Director: Tony Ching Siu Tung; Writer: 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.
Cast: Kelly Chen; Muyong Xuehu: Donnie Yen; Duan Lanquan: Leon Lai; Guo Xiaodong: Wu Ba
No MPAA rating, running time 95 minutes.