27 April 2008 | janos451
Jet Li's War and No Peace
From the Warring States Period going all the way back to the 5th century BC, wars have wracked China seemingly without pause. During the second half of the 19th century, and the late Qing/Ching/Manchu dynasty, some 50 million soldiers, bandits, and civilians died in the endless conflict.
Watching "Warlords," screened for the first time in North America Saturday night in the Castro Theater, part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, at times one might have thought that most of those casualties are shown - often in close-ups - in the film.
Beginning with a view reminiscent of the Normandy invasion sequence of "Saving Private Ryan," the film by Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip depicts combat vividly and intensely. Chung Man Yee's production design peaks at times in virtually unprecedented battle-field spectacles.
There is no resolution, no peace, and only a quasi-relevant love story (featuring Jinglei Xu), but "Warlords" goes well beyond just fightin' and killin' and dyin'. Right from the beginning, as Jet Li's General Pang picks himself up from under the bodies of his dead soldiers, you notice two things: Jet Li's complete lack of vanity and the ability of this martial-arts star to act convincingly and well.
The Manchu style of the head shaved in front and the hair gathered in a ponytail in the back looks hideous when it's all messed up, especially with blood. Jet Li not only appears half dead in his first appearance, but he is taking a bad-hair day to its absolute worst. And then, you also notice that Famous Jet Li - who is NOT flying through the air in this film - has been replaced by an honest and talented actor who brings to life a complex, conflicted, tragic character.
With shifting alliances, goals, and always at the edge of extinction, Pang and his two "blood brothers," Takeshi Kaneshiro's soulful Jiang Wuyang and Andy Lau's towering Zhao Erhu (perhaps Lau's best-ever performance), struggle from small-time wars all the way to the taking of Nanking on behalf of the fast-fading central (so to speak) government in Beijing. The same history-based story has been told, in more modest terms, in Zhang Che's 1973 "The Blood Brothers." A historical war film, a brutal but not gratuitously violent drama, "Warlords" impresses, even stuns, but in the end fails to provide catharsis or even an attempt to make sense of the senseless - something Zhang Yimou came close to in "Hero" (also with Jet Li, playing a similar historic character).