Fans of Chinese action movies will rue the day a Hollywood studio even considers making their own adaptation of the classic historical novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. We should count ourselves lucky that our own Western history is so filled with bloodshed; keeping screenwriters so busy that they don’t do a ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ style rendition of the revered war-story classic. If that were to happen, at least we’d still have recent spectaculars like John Woo’s ‘Red Cliff’ to marvel back to, which has spawned a new interest in the 14th century masterpiece, leading to the newly released ‘The Lost Bladesman’, directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, co-creators or the excellent game-changing Internal Affairs trilogy.
Focusing on chapter 25 onwards of the novel, the film follows the legendary warrior Guan Yung Chang (played by the current top Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen), sworn brother of the great warlord Liu Bei (Alex Fong). After being taken prisoner by Bei’s enemy and rival warlord, Cao Cao (Jiang Wen), and fighting for him on the battlefield, he is promoted to general and allowed to escort Liu Bei’s concubine Qi Lan (Betty Sun) back to his sworn-brother. The journey is fraught with enemy generals and their armies, and in dealing with them Guan must also come to terms with his own repressed feelings for his sister-in law, and his role as a warrior.
The story is extremely confusing if you’re not familiar with the source material, but halfway through the running time things will fall into place and you’ll come to not only learn but appreciate the historical importance of certain scenes. The attempt to focus on this particular section of the epic tale does leave some imbalance however: certain characters show up without the viewer having a proper understanding of their significance, and the point on which the film ends is extremely anti-climactic and clearly only scratches the surface of what Guan Yung accomplished in his lifetime.
Where the script shines however is in individual scenes, wrought with clever dialogue that gives even the smallest character’s dimension and complexity, laced with a style of humour that is mature yet very accessible to even one totally new to the feudal culture. The acting is very solid across the board too; Donnie Yen, whilst known more for his mastery of martial arts, tries his hand at drama and, despite delivering a one-note performance, is made up for when paired up with Jiang Wen, the show stealer in this picture. Bringing unexplored depth to the misinterpreted character of Cao Cao, his commanding presence and undecipherable motives are brought out through an excellent range of emotions and facial nuances.
The action scenes, whilst dragged a little too far apart, are as mesmerizing and impressive as you’d expect with Donnie Yen overseeing them. Kept varied by a mix of close-quarters, one against many and epic siege fights, all offer something new and make use of their supremely skilled main star. There are a dozen moments that demand your full unblinking attention as Yen wields pole arms, blades and fists with startling intricacy, and despite his unmatched skill there still remains tension within most of the bouts.
To the film’s final credit the cinematography is a constant array of beauty: nearly every scene has some kind of set, backdrop or detail that remains gorgeous without distracting. The costumes are up to the standard you’d expect too, so whilst it has flaws as an adaptation it succeeds as a historical rendition.
The Lost Bladesman isn’t the quintessential Romance of the Three Kingdoms screen version, marred by unevenly picked and paced story, but with its mix of great action and great acting thanks to its star and co-star respectively it’s still a recommended watch. The use of small, hard to read subtitles must be criticized however, made illegible in white backgrounds in both the main picture and excellent making of bonus feature.
Words > Graham Ashton