This is an extremely silly film on which a startling amount of money was spent, and on which some very fine talents worked. Puzzling. One thing is for sure: just as the sheep is not a creature of the air, so Chen Kaige is not Tsui Hark. Hark is renowned for his ability to make superb fantasy, films that have a beauty and grace that transcend their often-humble special effects. No-one who’s ever seen A Chinese Ghost Story or its sequels can deny that Hark is a master of fantasy. Not so Chen, alas.
It seems that Chen couldn’t decide whether this film should be a parody or a serious epic, so he split the difference and made it both. Not a wise decision. Moments that could not possibly be taken seriously are followed by moments that are very serious indeed, and there’s a leavening of mindless action to confuse the viewer further. This jumble confused me a lot: Chen is a highly-respected arthouse film-maker who’s responsible for such magnificence as the beautifully tragic Farewell, My Concubine, and I just can’t believe that he could fail to see what he was making.
It’s not that the film is terrible: in fact, I rather enjoyed it, in a perverse fashion. The cast is strong, and their performances individually made sense, although Cheung didn’t seem too lovable, Jang wore an obseqiuous slave face throughout, and Sanada tended to seesaw between stern warrior and pleading swain. It was only when they were combined that it seemed some of them were in the wrong film. And it’s a rollicking adventure fantasy, albeit one with plot holes you could pilot a helicopter through.
What is inarguably successful is the costuming and set design. Someone, or more likely a great many someones, put a great deal of effort and much artistry into conceiving a dazzling Asia-that-never-was, and you could watch the entire film just for the costumes. Lots of floaty draperies, elegant fabrics, and painted screens, with splashes of martial red on the armour and plenty of gilded wood on the fairytale retreat. I’d pay serious money for just one of the his ‘n’ hers robes worn by Cheung and Sanada: I’d pay serious money for just about any item from the wardrobe, to be honest.
The biggest let-down is probably the CGI: it looks amateurish and poorly-timed, and is a jarring addition to a Cecil B DeMille style epic. Why bother with a cast of thousands, then add such cheesy effects? The running sequences in particular, in which Kunlun (Jang) outruns a horde of horned (not just horned, in fact, but horn-ed. It’s important) cattle: there’s a definite Road Runner feel that completely spoils the effect. The wirework, too, is out of balance, giving the film a low-budget air that it definitely doesn’t deserve.
The high point, for me, was Nic Tse. Not just because he’s extremely nice to look at, but because his performance gave the film some zest that it would otherwise have lacked. And, like the recent Korean swordsman flick Duelist, this film fetishises a male character, to an extreme degree. Fortunately, Tse knows how to work with this, and gives his Duke Wuhuan the coquettish air of a talented courtesan, all sidelong glances and catlike grace, blending this seamlessly with the capricious cruelty of the classic villain. Elegant, beautiful, and quite deadly, he slinks through the film like Basil Rathbone, completely overshadowing the entire rest of the cast.
So. While this much-anticipated film looks like a rough pastiche of half a dozen unmade films stitched together, it does have some redeeming features. Watch it if you like costumes more than credibility, or if you have a hankering to see an old-fashioned smooth-talking villain wearing a fetching feather ensemble.