Three Kingdoms Review
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the seminal works of Chinese Literature that claims a place alongside Journey to the West and Water Margin as one of The Four Great Classical Novels of China. Daniel Lee’s latest film: Three Kingdoms (Resurrection of the Dragon) is most definitely not destined to be held in the same regard. Lee’s goal was to condense the events of the epic tome into a feature film told from the ground level of soldiers Zhao Zilong and Luo Pangan, two simple men from Changshan who become wrapped up in an endlessly ongoing military dispute between the kingdoms of Wei, Wu, and Shu. Idealistic Zilong fights for a peaceful unified China while Pingan seeks fame and glory, but only Zilong has the fighting talent to achieve any merit and rises through the ranks to become one of the Shu army’s top generals, while the bungling Pingan watches enviously from the sidelines. The men are reunited for one final mission that will decide the ultimate fate of the kingdom of Shu.
The latest in a long line of Chinese historical “epics” Three Kingdoms fails to bring anything new or exciting to the table. Daniel Lee’s had a career that has been inconsistent to say the least, and he fails to successfully reinvent the story of the Three Kingdoms of China; instead producing an aggressively paced blur of a film that treats its viewers as if they have the attention span of a gnat. The general theme of Three Kingdoms is that war is meaningless when there’s no definite goal or end in sight and soldiers are ultimately dehumanised and senselessly slaughtered on the whim of puppet master generals. We know this because characters keep repeatedly referring to military tactics as a game of chess, and whilst these themes do tend to lend themselves to stirring melodrama, the characterisation in Three Kingdoms is so shallow that you really don’t give one hoot as to their fate. Most unforgivable though - and I never thought I’d be saying this about a film with Sammo Hung as action director - the action sequences are atrociously directed. There’s never more than three moves in a single shot and the frenzied editing makes the fights about as coherent as Oliver Reed on live TV after downing multiple bottles of Whiskey. Three Kingdoms has clearly had a bit of money thrown at it, so why are the visuals so bland? Lee just stumbles from close up to close up and shows little of the visual flair he demonstrated in his debut: What Price Survival. As a huge fan of Sammo Hung and (to a lesser extent) Lee’s early work, watching Three Kingdoms evoked a deep sense of uneasiness in me, as it gradually became clear that the film is ultimately a testament to their faded talent.
The Disc: Presented in 1080p at 2.35:1, Three Kingdoms is not a particularly colourful film, which is reflected in this transfer. Lee favours earthy tones in the daytime sequences and blues in the night time, with skin tones tending to be a little pallid. Contrast fluctuates a little, but in general whites are a little hot and blacks occasionally look crushed. Brightness levels are generally solid, as are black levels and shadow detail. The print used is in excellent condition and there’s mostly only a very light layer of grain throughout, which sometimes breaks out into a moderately light layer. The main failing of this transfer is that it tends to be slightly lacking in detail - particularly fine detail, evoking the look of a transfer that has been hit by noise reduction; compression too is a little wishy-wash, so fine noise and contouring is evident in darker scenes while the burnt-in subs exhibit mosquito noise. Edge Enhancements are noticeable in the day time sequences as well, but there’s no doubt that this transfer is a definite step up from DVD.
Audio comes in Mandarin dub form only with DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DD5.1 tracks, this is the original language of the film but I call it a Mandarin dub because it has that artificial studio recorded sound with excessive slurping sounds whenever a character is eating, stuff ruining the atmosphere of the film somewhat. With that in mind then dialogue on the DTS-HD track sounds extremely clear and distractingly loud in the mix, although elsewhere the audio dynamics are pretty solid. Bass has punch but is definitely a little loose by usual HD standards, but on the plus side the full 5.1 soundstage is pretty expressive. The DD5.1 track sounds pretty much identical to the DTS-HD, maybe a little less smooth if anything.
Extra features consist of interviews with the director and primary stars and a lengthy Making Of that at 45mins long is still only half the length of the Making Of present on the DVD release of this film. That might sound like HD buyers are being ripped off, but in truth 45mins is more than long enough for generic behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s shoot. The interviews were conducted for the HK video release of the film so are made up of boringly obvious questions and answers, the Andy Lau interview is particularly useful as the basis for a drinking game, simply take a shot every time he comes out with a vapid, stock promo statement and you’ll be cheerfully inebriated after five minutes. At one point he states with an impressively straight face that he was impressed by how different Three Kingdoms was from other modern Asian films of this type because it focuses on story over action. Later on he muses: “Three Kingdoms is quite realistic in portraying acrobatic combat”. That’s the moment I collapsed from alcohol poisoning! Daniel Lee’s interview is pretty informative though, so just skip straight to that if you only want to dip your toes in the extras.
Note: All extra features are presented in standard definition PAL, and therefore may not play on Region A players.