The Lost Bladesman: Film Review

Unadventurous, self-conflicted costume martial arts film that does not put its valuable stars to proper use.

Felix Chong and Alan Mak wrote and directed the martial arts film, starring Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen.

UDINE, Italy – The martial prowess of Donnie Yen and acting chops of Jiang Wen are squandered inThe Lost Bladesman, a pseudo-historical blockbuster that’s wordy and ponderous, interspersed with (rather than driven by) sturdy but never mind-blowing action sequences. The subject is Guan Yu (a.k.a. Guan Yunchang), a fictional hero from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, who is widely enshrined in temples and deified by police and triads alike for chivalry and manhood. Directing-writing duo Alan Mak and Felix Chong (Overheard, Infernal Affairs) can neither decide whether to humanize or glorify Guan, nor make up their minds about shooting an action-entertainment or political drama.

Though the film falls way short of epic status, Yen’s bankability as a premier action star will help The Lost Bladesman find its way into overseas genre ancillary markets. In China, it reportedly made around $24.4 million in just under a month.

Set in 198 A.D., when the Eastern Han Dynasty has collapsed into civil war, and the young Emperor (Edison Wang) is a puppet of prime minster and generalissimo Cao Cao (Jiang), the film singles out two famous chapters from Guan (Yen)’s many heroic adventures: his hostage period in Cao Cao’s camp in Baima City, and his dangerous mission to escort Qilan (Sun Li), concubine of his lord Liu Bei (Alex Fong, completely under-used) to safety.

Guan’s captivity occupies the film’s dawdling, 45-minute first act, during which Cao (the film’s narrator) ponders how to turn Guan into his “chess piece.” This ranges from boring him with propaganda on benevolent dictatorship to drugging his food with aphrodisiac so he would cross the line with Qilan, whom he had an adolescent crush on. The historical context of Guan’s and Liu’s strategic situation vis a vis Cao’s and the Emperor’s is blurrily related, with interpolations of names and places that overwhelm rather than clarify. The love plot, with its potential for challenging taboo, has as much spark as damp firewood.

The second act finally breaks free from the sluggish, enclosed atmosphere and allows a number of action setpieces to be designed around various eye-catching natural locations. Guan’s journey, known in Chinese folklore as “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” involves him crossing five barriers and defeating six generals sent by Cao’s aides to halt him. A fight on horseback along a circular alley impresses with moves devised to fit around the tight, curving space, caught by a nimble, swiveling camera. But the narrative scurries and scrambles, never achieving a headlong thrust in pacing.

One expects physically demanding knockouts and elaborate moves from Yen but there’s not enough innovation or exertion in his martial arts choreography. As the bearded hero known for his towering build, Yen’s petite, albeit sinewy figure diminishes his stature. Yen is also hampered by the need to brandish Guan’s signature “guan dao” — an unwieldly blade on a stick that circumscribes fancier moves utilizing his superb boxing skills.

Mak and Chong, whose expertise lies in setting taut psychological dramas in urban, westernized Hong Kong, are out of their depth when projecting a historical vision steeped in ancient folklore. A move to modernize the protagonists by besetting them with philosophical doubts about their raison d’etre and values of their time is not developed in line with their course of action, which remains orthodox. Jiang bestows gravitas to his role but his scope of acting is limited to delivering turgid political treatises.

Venue: Udine Far East Film Festival
Sales: Easternlight Films
Production companies: Star Union Skykee (Beijing) Film & Media Advertising Co Ltd, Shanghai Film Group, Anhui Media Industry Group presents a Pop Movies production
Cast: Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Sun Li, Edison Bo-Chieh Wang, Alex Fong
Directors-screenwriters: Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Produced by: Li Junhao, Xia Huajun, Anson Leung, Zheng Gaofeng
Producers: Liang Ting, Wang Tianyun
Executive producers: Liang Ting, Ren Zhonglun, Li Jinhua
Director of photography: Chan Chi-ying
Art director: Liu Jingping
Music: Henry Lai
Costume designer: Zhang Ling
Editor: Kong Chi-leung
No rating, 107 minutes

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