My Kingdom: Film Review

Solid fighting vies with sensationalist plotting in this uneven period action drama.

1920s martial arts drama set in the world of Peking opera has enough revenge, betrayal, taboo love and corruption to fill a dozen traditional repertoires.

“Operatic” is the very word for describing Gao Xiaosong’s My Kingdom, a 1920s martial arts drama about the deadly rivalries between “wusheng” (male warrior roles in Peking opera). Splendidly shot and styled to recreate the gilded existence of pre-World War II Shanghai, the film is bookended by duels choreographed with balletic grace by Sammo Hung. In between is an overlong potboiler plot entwined in more revenge, betrayal, taboo love and corruption to fill a dozen traditional repertoires.

Despite its shared background with Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine and Forever Enthralled, Chen’s arthouse disciples will find My Kingdom too commercial. A popular audience may be less averse to the lurid material, cosmetically improved by fine art direction.

My Kingdom follows the rise-and-fall-out of Yi-long (Wu Chun) and Er-kui (Han Kyung), two wusheng novices raised like brothers who go to Shanghai to avenge their master Yu’s (Yuan Biao) humiliating defeat by rival Yue (Yu Rongguang). Before they leave, Yu lectures them on the three taboos of their profession. Of course, they proceed to break each of them, especially when they meet Mulan (Barbie Hsu), Yue’s alluring disciple-lover.

The first half hour is tightly narrated and packed with elegant traditional one-to-one sparring. It peaks with Yi-long and Er-kui challenging Yue to a spear fight on stage that deploys the entire opera troupe. Kwong Ting Wo’s and Lam Wah Chuen’s lush cinematography makes deft use of top shots to foreground the beautiful symmetry of acrobatic movements and bright costumes representative of Peking opera.

However, the screenplay by Zou Jingzhi and Gao loses credibility as three more revenge plots kick in, veering more and more off course from the initial theme of how fraternity is tested by ambition. The momentum of earlier martial arts scenes does not return till near the end, with a smashing swordfight between Er-kui and Mulan in a wine cellar, where bottles and barrels are used imaginatively as props.

Sumptuously clothed in vintage fashion, pop idols Wu and Hsu may bring in a younger crowd otherwise indifferent to the dated subject, but their performances are unimpressive. Hsu, who made her ruthlessness seems sexy in Reign of Assassin, fails to generate similar charisma.

Opens: September 9 (China Lion)
Production companies: DW Films Limited, Celestial Pictures Limited
Cast: Wu Chun, Han Kyung, Barbie Hsu, Liu Qian, Yuan Biao, Yu Rongguang
Director: Gao Xiaosong
Screenwriters: Gao Xiaosong Zou Jingzhi
Producers: Andre Morgan, Zoe Chen
Director of photography: Kwong Ting Wo, LamWah Chuen
Production designer: Yang Yaoyu
Music: Joachim Horsley
Costume designer: Gino Xie
Editor: Christopher Blunden
Sales: Celestial Pictures Limited
No rating, 97 minutes