More historical and epic action from Asia in this dramatisation of a classic Chinese novel. Andy Lau, Maggie Q and Sammo Hung fight it out in the story of Zao Zilong…
Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon is freely adapted from one of the classic novels of Chinese literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Its great success at the Asian box office was that of beating John Woo’s Red Cliff movies to the punch and mining some of the same events as Woo for modern action fans first. Both films ramp up the action set pieces, deploy CGI and boast some of the biggest stars of the continent in order to deliver on epic stories of war and nation building.Where they differ in approach is Woo’s reverence for his alliance of characters, and the film on review here settles on a more individual hero for its focus. Zao Zilong goes from poor villager to invincible general, and finally back to a chess piece sacrificed for the greater good. We follow him over 30 years from his friendship with fellow villager and soldier Pingan to his skirmishes with Cao Cao and his final battle with forces led by his foe’s granddaughter. Zilong is persistent, loyal and chivalrous, a man who has achieved the impossible when asked and found the renown he sought because of it.
The eventual circle of the story told in this film is one where the personal is worked through with the background of war. War is all spectacle, carnage and opportunities for personal endeavour – as it is represented it is merely a battle for power between people we don’t really get to understand. In the place of such explanation is a sort of woolly philosophy that aren’t we all used as pawns in a greater chess game, a dumb fatalist thinking which allows the film to decry war as arbitrary and cruel whilst enjoying the blood and guts it presents.
In addition to his epic story, good cast, and martialled resources, director Daniel Lee brings a facile soapy insight to love, war, and friendship. Actors are forced to emote wildly to inject emotion into a story which concentrates on the personal with no ability to actually make this feel authentic. So when our hero learns of deep betrayal that has killed his loyal retainers, he merely forgives the scamp responsible because of their gurning grief. The empty-headedness of the film could best be summed up as war can look great, but it hurts people.In fact the film’s strength is also its chief weakness as the surface is so beautifully presented, that there is no time, or desire, to truly look underneath. There is also annoying nonsense about chivalry which allows one character to sacrifice his sons as part of a ruse, and then to sacrifice himself rather than be a failure in the eyes of his glamorous general. that general,Maggie Q, is a very beautiful and able actress, but here her supposed physical equality with Andy Lau’s Zilong is clearly achieved through editing and endless use of wires rather than martial arts ability.
In my eyes, the worst crime of Lee’s film is that it wastes two of my favourite actors, Sammo Hung and Andy Lau. Any attempt to build camaraderie between these supposed brothers is flawed by their lack of real interplay and the film’s unyielding focus on Lau. Hung is relegated to watching from the sidelines and playing the underachiever in the shadow of his friend. It’s not that I have a problem with Hung asked to be dramatic rather than rely on his action skills, and he is getting on, but here playing against type it just doesn’t work.
The real star of the film is the music. Henry Lai shamelessly apes Ennio Morricone, and does it with such charm and commitment that he actually succeeds in making some of the silly drama here affecting or stirring. His score almost offers the cohesion and continuity that the direction doesn’t, but finally the shallow approach to an epic subject can’t be hidden, and the superficial is all that we are left with to enjoy.This has been done so much better and of recent Chinese epics this is one of the weaker efforts. For any one interested in this flick after seeing Red Cliff, I would advise you to let the other fade from your memory before seeing this. That way the superiority of action, acting, and general purpose of Woo’s efforts will not bother you so much. If though, you fancy a big dumb epic with hokey soapy action then this will suit you well.
Transfer and Sound
There are a few high definition presentations of this film available and I am sure that many will shell out a few extra quid rather than pick up this transfer. It isn’t bad, but it does struggle with detail and contrast at the beginning, has a small element of noticeable edge enhancement and, worst of all, burnt in subs. these subtitles contain some odd choices of words -“encircle” instead of surround or overcome – and some lapses in grammar which do draw attention to the subtitles permanence.Better though are the thumping bitrates of the sound options which augur well for the options on the blu-ray release. On both tracks I felt that the mixing of effects was too low and both seemed treble heavy with voices and music dominating. Once I twiddled with the bass though, both tracks improved and the effect of the best battle sequences on the DTS option is quite splendid in terms of immersing the listener, even if ambient sounds throughout are still too low. I imagine my complaints are source based ones though so it’s unlikely that better options are available on standard definition.
Discs and Special Features
This is a two disc set with 70% of the first disc used on the film itself and one subtitled trailer. The second disc has the same mixture of poster art and scene excerpts on the menus and includes four interviews, along with a 90 minute making of documentary. Now I must admit that the life of a reviewer must seem rather good to yourselves – free movies, the chance to interview movie stars, and cocaine sent directly from Colombia to the thighs of your particular loved one for you to snort as you will. Still, having to sit through making of documentaries for films that you haven’t enjoyed greatly is an occupational hazard. These documentaries are sometimes as long as the film itself, filled with PR hype, and nonsense where ordinary actors and shoddy directors are fêted as gods, and full of the kind of delusion you don’t usually find outside of Gordon Brown’s cabinet. There are times when reviewing such “product” is akin to having your veins tapped and being exanguinated very, very slowly whilst the most boring person you know tells you about their wedding/children’s births/DIY. Now this was one of those times. The documentary is an hour and a half of footage shot whilst the film was being made with no narration, intertitles, or explanation for the order of what you see. Sporadic English subtitles pop up to poke you into consciousness and, hey presto, you’re 93 minutes older having seen Maggie Q be sheltered from getting sand in her hair and Andy Lau get a nick on his face. Perhaps you may like the film more than me and this will all prove fascinating to you, perhaps.
The interviews feature the director and three leading cast members. Andy Lau astounds us all with the notion that this film is not a “documentary” and claims that the film is serious about taking a stand in the modern world. He praises Hung as an actor whilst his eyes wander off suggesting he’s left the oven on, and he paints the director as a collegiate visionary type. Hung is much more fun and animated, talking about his previous experiences acting in stories based on the same source. He explains how he muscled his way into his role and is far more convincing from a promotional point of point of view. Maggie Q speaks in English and says the least before the constantly nodding director talks about how he prepared the project, how he cast the project, and how it all turned out so well.
Bar Maggie Q, there are burnt -in English subs throughout.
I sometimes like a big dumb movie but Three Kingdoms is simply too superficial and empty and pompous. If you enjoy it more than I did and can bear burnt-in subs then this is a handy set to purchase.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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