Strike the head and the body will fall.

the warlords jet li andy lau takeshi kaneshiro

In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being

Aysha Taryam

The Warlords  (2007)
Also known as
The Blood Brothers   &   Tóu Míng Zhuàng  
Action,    Historical,   Tragedy,   War
Written by
Xu Lan,    Chun Tin-nam,    Aubery Lam &  others
Directed by
Country of Origin
China   & Hong Kong
Running time
127 minutes

oh! … brief

A horrific battle between loyalists and rebels during the Taiping Rebellion (China 1860’s) has one sole survivor, General Qingyun. Wandering the barren land, as a man who has lost face after losing all his men in battle, he stops in a village and finds comfort in the arms of a woman called Lian. The next morning, she disappears.

As he makes his way across the countryside, he encounters a raiding brigade of bandits led by Wuyang and accompanies them back to their makeshift village where he meets Er-hu, the leader of the brigade.  A blood pact involving the slaughter of three enemies to the bandits between Qingyun, Er-hu and Wuyang seals their fates.

Qingyun convinces the bandits to join the military to feed their starving families and as a plot to enact his own revenge on a double-crossing commander. The three form their own loyalist-war band under Qingyun’s command – a perilous arrangement that will test their loyalty to each other.

Unbeknownst to all, except Qingyun and Lian, is that the affair both reignite, had previously started before the blood pact and knowledge of the bandit brigade. The bitter love triangle brings about the demise of the three warlords.

oh! … talks film

The era of this film is the 1860’s and the main character, General Qingyun, is loosely based on Ma Xinyi and kung fu classic, The Blood Brothers (1973).

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film!

The multiple writers of the screenplay did a fine job in creating a hypothetical story based on the historical figure Ma Xinyi (an eminent military general and later Viceroy) who was murdered, the felon never caught (assassination of Ma Xinyi) and the reason for his assassination was never understood.

In Western society, we tend to gloss over or ignore heroism, hypocrisy, and the bloody hell that war is, so I really appreciated the sentimental ideology, lengthy narration on heroism or hypocrisy, and the bloody depiction of war written in the screenplay. The language is simple and the dialogue is minimal compared to westernised kung fu features that often go off on tangents and unrelated BS. For the most part, the screenplay keeps the characters’ motivations consistent and

The journey to the final scenes is written and narrated thoroughly and I can little fault in the story, narration and depiction of the characters. I did enjoy the conflict that tests the kinship between all three men and the moral and philosophical stances the three take – Qingyun is heartless, Er-Hu not as heartless as you initially believe and Wuyang is trapped between the two. The writers relied on the rise-and-fall arc to their story which was disappointing, they could have taken their reimagination to extreme heights, but instead decided to keep things simple.

Under Peter Chan’s direction, award-winning Arthur Wong’s cinematography was quite spectacular. The opening battle scene is detailed and speaks to the choreography which typically goes hand-in-hand with camerawork. The Chinese film industry has a habit of creating stunning, visually aesthetic actions films retelling historical events. This is another of those instances.

There are some outstanding scenes captured. General Qingyun emerging from a mountain of corpses on the battled field, dual shots of Qingyun and Er-Hu rooted in the middle of a field of corpses. Arthur Wong used his cameras to reveal the colossal loss of life, a consequence of war. Undoubtedly this is following direction from Peter Chan’s, known for his stance on war. He takes every opportunity he can to highlight the aftermath of war and the insignificance of the lives of their citizens for the governments (especially his own) that involve themselves in war.

I liked how the cameras captured the depiction of suffering in dull grey tones, perfectly visualising the desperate starving masses and physically suffering evidenced in the bloody and brutal war. In fact, the Taiping Rebellion is one of admittedly between 20-30 million people died in the war due to famine. People were off fighting the war and no crops were farmed or harvested, so people had no food and subsequently died. Horrific!

The fight sequences were detailed and captured well by the camera. One scene snatched an extraordinarily intimate moment between a warrior and a recently stabbed corpse flung over him and lends itself well to the casual violence that Peter Chan likes to portray. Each of the battle scenes was intense, especially the ones early on, where ambushes and trap instead of more modern weaponry was used.

There are no wires or martial arts in this production, instead, the blades of swords plunge into various body parts and blood splatters everywhere, bathing the ground in pools of deep red. It’s as horrifying as it is beautiful!

As is true with most Chinese productions of this magnitude, the costumes were impeccable and good quality. Makeup for the blood, gore and dirt on the faces of all was authentic and not over the top which it can be sometimes with an Asian production.

I was interested to see the cast for this production but was pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie between the three leads who complement each other.

Jet Li played maniacal General Qingyun splendidly. The development of the character and Jet Li’s interpretation was insightful. From famed General to shamed survivor and then rising back to power, Jet Li used a combination of his honed acting skills, facial expression and body language to deliver a realistic rendition. His illustration of Qingyun’s slow descent into madness (ordering the execution of more than 4000 starving enemy troops) was impressive – you can see the conflict between good and bad in every decision he makes – it’s visible in every expression and line on his face. He did a good job!

Zhao Er-Hu, leader of the brigade of bandits was played by Andy Lau. I’ve always admired Andy Lau’s low-key acting. He’s just so good at bringing his characters to life with his minimalistic approach. Of the three lead actors, Andy Lau (in my opinion) is the best. And he doesn’t disappoint in this role. I applauded Andy Lau’s persistence in pushing his character’s limits and in doing so pushed the limits of Qingyun – the sparring between the two was mesmerising.

The chemistry between Qingyun and Er-Hu is honest, as is their loyalty to each other (minus the whole I’m banging your wife thing) and it really works both in the performances but as a core element of the screenplay. Audience members, given the choice between one maniacal man, and an equally bad but not insane man will struggle to make the choice between these two characters. It’s not surprising to understand that both are human, both can do good and both can be bad.

I am an adoring fan of Takeshi Kaneshiro. In this film, he played Jian Wuyang, second-in-command to Er-Hu and the bandit brigade. Caught between his long-time friend and new blood brother, he is the most conflicted of the character in this production. Takeshi Kaneshiro delivered a performance equal to the one he gave in House of Flying Daggers.  He cut a fine figure clad in animal skin and fortunately did not shave his head as the other two leads did. He is one of the most handsome actors from China and also one of the most skilled.

oh! … sidekick

I didn’t entirely understand the necessity for the love triangle, but as it was a backdrop to the brotherhood, Liansheng played by Xu Jinglei di as good a job as she could with what was written for her role in the screenplay. She portrayed the lover struggling to juggle her feelings toward her husband and Qingyun her lover. It’s quite intriguing to watch the emotions on her face – fear, love, lust, and conflict.

oh! … that’s a wrap

The Warlords delivered a nuanced, thought-provoking and sobering anecdote of war, kinship and deception. I was surprised to find the screenplay so well written given eight writers involved. Was it perfect? No! But it was good under the circumstances.

I liked that the screenplay didn’t glamorise the Taiping Rebellion.

I also was happy that the love triangle wasn’t the principal theme, instead created emotional depth to the characters and story. Peter Chan has directed some epic romance movies so this is a good contrast for some of his more renowned works.

Perhaps the most courageous decision of the director of this production was to portray the fighting as authentically as possible and stay away from the norms of Chinese film where battle scenes are depicted as being effortless and balletic.

I would watch this film again, I was that entertained. It’s no Zhang Yimou, I don’t know if anyone can compare to his level, but, it stands strong as a great piece of work!

You’ll enjoy this film if you like historical films that feature strong battle scenes, well-developed characters and rise-and-fall stories.

oh! … tidbits

This film won the Best Original Film Score at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2008.

Peter Chan changed the title of the film to The Warlords to avoid confusion with the late Chang Cheh‘s 1973 film The Blood Brothers to avoid confusion and to reiterate the fact that his production was not a remake.

Peter Chan is most known for his epic romance films and The Warlords is more than a few steps removed from that genre. When asked why he chose to produce a historical war film, he pointed out that he wished to make a film illustrating kinship between men after he watched John Woo‘s 1986 film A Better Tomorrow.

Outdoor scenes were shot in Beijing, Shanghai and the town of Hengdian in the Zhejiang Province.

In March 2007, Wang Kewei (Chinese artist) filed a lawsuit against the film company for using his work in the promotional artwork without his consent.

Perhaps the most scandalous information (in my opinion) was the fact that of the US$40 million budget for the film, Jet Li collected US$15 million (over a third of the entire budget).  The producers justified this payment saying Jet Li’s participation ensured international distribution and popularity. Andy Lau’s payment was US$6 million and Takeshi Kaneshiro received US$2 million.

The historical background of the movie is fascinating!

The late Qing Dynasty was a time of turmoil in China and had a lot to do with the European Colonial expansion. Chinese rulers had a negative view on European goods and tradesmen and enforced trade restrictions. The Opium Wars (XIXth century) were this modern concept, a war not for land, not for goods, but a war to open trade. China lost horribly against the British Navy. This led to civil unrest, especially geared against the foreign regime of Qing Dynasty, who were Manchurians. The Taiping Rebellion was the consequence of these events.

It’s almost unbelievable to think that Christianity played a part in the Taiping Rebellion, but it does. Leader Hong Xiuquan said he had visions from God, and that his mission was to get rid of the corrupt government of Qing Dynasty and Confucian system that prevailed in Chinese society. He formed a sect which grew in power, rebelled, won many battles and even established a state – Taiping “Heavenly Kingdom”, with a capital of Tienjing (“Heavenly Capital”, today’s Nanjing). There they enforced new laws: private land ownership was abolished, instead of Confucian classics, statesmen had to study the Bible, women were proclaimed equal to men and allowed to take state exams, foot binding was outlawed, and the society was classless. The Kingdom eventually fell, and Hong Xiuquan died from food poisoning when the city under siege and out of supplies. But, his legacy lived on. Later China’s modernization movements admired these rebels for their ideas, especially the dismissal of Confucianism, which was thought to because of China’s “sleep”, which led to the stagnation of this powerful nation. The rebel’s, most of who were from the lowest classes of society, ideas of state property, sexual equality, and classless society was admired by Mao Zedong, not surprisingly his used them to implement his own ideas. (In The Warlords, this historical aspect is notably paid tribute to when a cross snatched off the body of a dead rebel is given to Liansheng – the symbolism of this act will go mostly unnoticed unless you know the history of the Taiping Rebellion.)

Also, the story behind the three blood brothers is borrowed from the legend of Guan Ti, the red face god. The legend tells he was a simple bean-curd seller, but with a very righteous mind. He killed a corrupt magistrate who forced a poor woman to be his concubine. He was hunted for this but his face changed to red, and therefore he could travel unidentified. Then he met other righteous men – Zhang Fei and Lu Bei and took an oath of brotherhood with them. All together they fought great battles in a chaotic period of Three Kingdoms. They were loyal to each other until death.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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