The Lost Bladesman is a film adaptation of a portion of the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which has been the basis of many popular adaptations, most recently Red Cliff, the anime series Ikki Tousen and the popular Dynasty Warriors series of video games.
This particular film follows Guan Yu, here played by Donnie Yen (SPL, Ip Man, and Shanghai Knights), a great warrior and general who is more or less a prisoner to Cao Cao (Jiang Wen), a warlord of the Han Dynasty. Guan Yu helps Cao win a battle against one of his enemies, in an effort to stop the fighting and reduce the overall casualties for both sides. A grateful Cao offers Guan an official position, which he takes briefly before hearing word that his true lord and sworn brother Liu Bei (Alex Fong) is awaiting his return. He leaves Cao and prepares to travel back to Liu’s side with Qilan (Betty Sun), one of Liu’s three wives. Unfortunately the generals under Cao feel that letting Guan, one of Liu’s greatest generals, walk out the door without even attempting to kill him would be a bad idea. So begins the journey home.
I’m not a great fan of martial arts films. Sure, I have a few films in my collection that I enjoy — Ong Bak, SPL and Police Story to name a few — but in general it’s not usually my sort of thing. Having said that, I did like that this film didn’t use much wire-fu; it stays very grounded for the most part, only pulling out the wirework once or twice to accentuate certain moves. One fight scene in particular that I enjoyed involves a horse chase, a narrow alley and a long pole with a bladed attachment that I believe is called a Guan Dao. It was interesting to see a fight with these long poles, the participants hindered by the narrow width of the alley.
However, I do have a complaint that will probably annoy other viewers as much as it did me. It feels like many of the fight scenes and many of the more interesting events of the story are never shown. We are told at the start of the film of Guan Yu’s death, for example, but we never see it on screen and get only a screen of text describing his eventual fate. There was a fight scene that appeared murky and difficult to see, though this could have just been the print I saw and may not be the case for everyone. Another fight is only heard as the camera is positioned on the other side of a closed door. It also didn’t help that the action sequences in general are shown with quick cut editing, with not much time to digest what is actually happening.
None of that would have been a problem if the story had been better told in terms of the greater significance of events. Why is it important that Cao Cao wins the many wars he is trying to fight? Why are there any wars to begin with? I don’t think these questions were answered, although that could have been a lack of concentration on my part or just a lack of perspective due to unfamiliarity with the source material or Chinese history in general. It’s quite likely that a native Chinese audience would have a better handle on Guan Yu and Cao Cao’s background.
In the end, the ponderings on the nature of loyalty — between friends and enemies, to one’s country and one’s own desires — won’t elevate this average film to great heights. Yes, I said average. There are far worse ways to spend two hours of your life, but also quite a number of ways that are better.