Chinese historical stories have no lack of its own heroes who display virtues of courage, and loyalty, and the Yang Family of the Song Dynasty has been celebrated in countless of books, plays, operas and of course, film. There are many variations to the adventures of General Yang (Adam Cheng) and his seven sons in the face of deadly adversary, and this Ronny Yu directed period action film is yet another take that's done right, wiping off the unworthy stink that Legendary Amazons in 2011 had laced upon the family of valour.
This production brings back the creative talents of those behind the scenes of the successful Ip Man movies starring Donnie Yen, such as Producer Raymond Wong, his son Edmond who served as one of three co-writers, and musician Kenji Kawai who provided the score, and you'll be assured for that attention to detail, and high production values put into this retelling. There's good balance between the more dramatic moments in the film and the requisite war action scenes, but it only did adequately enough without pushing boundaries to have made it from good, to instant classic.
Admitedly, there are many characters here in the story, given the General and his 7 young sons, in addition to the women in the film, primarily represented by the General's wife (Xu Fan), and the Helen of Troy equivalent Princess Chai (Ady An), who drives a rivalry between the Yang family and the Pan family further when Pan's son vies with Yang's seventh son (Fu Xinbo) for the Princess' affection, only for the former to perish, and sets in motion the Pan's patriarch (Leung Ka Ying), appointed supreme commander against the invading Khitan forces led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing), to betray his fellow Song citizen by feeding him to the wolves with a lack of backup, and rescue troops.
Cornered at the Wolf Mountain, this film then takes on 300 proportions, with soothsayers boldly predicting unfavourable outcomes, while the strengths of the few, in this case just seven and an assortment of a handful of loyal soldiers, venture out to rescue their father/leader from impending doom. While the opening big battle sequence involving all seven brothers was a treat, this soon gave way to a fight choreography that bordered on repetition, with shots on characters on horses wielding their weapons around, and because of their bring grossly outnumbered, finding themselves backpaddling and fleeing most of the time.
But Ronny Yu, knowing the constraints of the story he wanted to tell, which is for the seven brothers to bring their father back home to their mom, while under pursuit by the Khitan Yelu Yuan possessing a personal vendetta against the Yangs, managed to keep the narrative moving at breakneck speed, leaving you breathless for its continuous swarm attacks of many against a pitiful few. It's a challenge featuring an ensemble cast battling it out against a stunt team, but these were action scenes crafted that managed to convey the sense of claustrophobia, frenzy, panic, and at times, fear. There's also that art house sensibility that found its way into the story through some shots that lingered around for a tad too long, giving us that detailed glimpse into the production effort in recreating that era.
At times though you'd feel that you want to get to know more about the individuals in the story, rather than to just get acquainted for a short period through flashbacks that highlight the brothers' diverse characteristics. While that would likely stretch this to television series proportions, I thought it would provide some deeper understanding, at least of the characters played by headliners such as Ekin Cheng, Vic Zhou and Wu Chun. The villain Yelu Yuan is obviously of one track mind and objective, and it's a good thing that we didn't get superhuman with the Yang generals, which was quite the surprise with injuries sustained from the get go, once again keeping things real, with that element of danger lurking around.
It's been a long gestation period ever since the movie was introduced at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, while making its world premiere recently at this year's festival edition. It's as close to a Chinese blockbuster as can be with a lightweight narrative propped up by heavy duty battle scenes. Who would have thought though, that the more dramatic moments in the film, turned out to be its key strengths, together with Xu Fan's limited moments as the wife/mom who harboured as much hope as dread as she waits out the return of her husband/boys. Recommended!