The Warlords

Bottom Line: A period war epic with brains and brawn.

San Francisco International Film Festival������

HONG KONG -- After a career excelling in highbrow urban romances, Hong Kong director Peter Chan ("Perhaps Love") earns his spurs in his march into war epic territory. ������

"The Warlords" is a classical tragedy of how an oath of blood brotherhood is betrayed by adultery, failed idealism and Darwinian principles. Set under the vast historical canopy of the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China, no-expense-spared battle scenes achieve a brutal majesty, refined by intricately plotted military strategies and Machiavellian statecraft. The casting of Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro was a surefire draw in Asia.������The film recently swept the Hong Kong Film Awards (equivalent to the local Oscars), winning eight prizes, most notably best film, best director and best actor for Li.������

The $40 million hit gained tenfold from the combined boxoffices of seven countries, with China counting for the lion's share (well more than $30 million), leading Morgan & Chan Films to claim its film as the top grosser in Southeast Asia. Overseas distributors or producers eyeing the China market should check this out as an exemplar of what appeals to Chinese viewers. It premieres stateside at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Loosely based on the chronicled assassination of Jiangsu governor Ma Xinyi in 1870 and at first intended as a remake of the Shaw Brothers actioner "The Blood Brothers" (1973) by Chang Cheh, "Warlords" has updated historical insight and is closer in spirit to the Chinese novel "The Water Margin" as it focuses on the social plight of poor men-turned-bandits, exploited by the court to fight its enemies in outnumbered maneuvers. The film's impact springs from its dystopian vision, its unblinking attention to the carnage and desperation it portrays. Stockpiled images of mountains of corpses leave any humanist audience thoroughly depressed by the ending's no-win situation.

Incorporating such Western elements as canons and trench warfare, Chan shows he has the directorial muscle to handle action set pieces commanding thousands of extras wielding an array of weapons. He draws on the strength of action choreographer Ching Siu-tung to give realism to the combat, occasionally with a nod to the gory heroism of "300." Visual effects are of the highest caliber in Asia, though overcast by a production design of dusty gray and dirty brown -- faces are always caked in grit or mud, and even ornate interiors are dimly and menacingly lit.

Doing less fighting than usual, Li gives his best dramatizing the ambivalent leading role Pang Qing-yun, whose social conscience is offset by survival instincts. Lau and Kaneshiro's roles are imbued with less psychological depth, and the brotherhood lacks the gutsy manliness, riveting personality tensions (and intriguing gay subtext) of Chang's original. Although the film is impressive in its physical aspects, the adultery of Pang and his blood brother's wife, Lian (Xu Jinglei), is underdrawn as a sexual skirmish whose influence on events is diminished.

Media Asia Films, Morgan & Chan Films, China Film Group
Sales agent: Media Asia Distribution (Hong Kong), Arm Distribution (international)
Director: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Screenwriters: Xu Lan, Chun Tin Nam, Aubrey Lam, Huang Jianxin, Jojo Hui, He Jiping, Guo Jun Li, James Yuen
Producers: Andre Morgan, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Huang Jianxin
Executive producers: Peter Lam, Andre Morgan, Han Sanping
Director of photography: Arthur Wong
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Music: Leon Ko, Chan Kwong Wing, Peter Kam, Chatchai Pongprapaphan
Co-producer: Jojo Hui
Costume designer: Jessi Dai, Lee Pik Kwan
Editor: Wenders Li
Pang Qing-Yun: Jet Li
Zhao Er-Hu: Andy Lau
Jiang Wu-Yang: Takeshi Kaneshiro
Lian: Xu Jinglei
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating