Director Daniel Lee is a hack. An entertaining hack, but a hack nonetheless. Lee’s biggest hit for a long time was the 1996 Jet Li vehicle, Black Mask, after which he delved into crappy romantic comedy and television, capping his reign of junk with Dragon Squad a few years back. Things took a turn with the moderately amusing reboot of Three Kingdoms and then got much better with 2010’s 14 Blades (starring Donnie Yen, which always helps). Lee is one of those serviceable directors that can be counted on to handle spectacle within budget and tell a story efficiently, if not innovatively.
So with the Chinese gravy train at full speed, Lee’s latest is yet another spin on a historical watershed that seem to account for every other film coming from the country. Granted there’s a lot of history to draw from (just not The Great Leap Forward, thanks), but how many brilliant generals and genius military strategists can we watch? Newsflash: Lots.
White Vengeance is loosely based on the famous Banquet of Hongmen, where ambitious generals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu sat down at a neutral site — a Qin Dynasty summit meeting as it were — to play mind games and try to kill each other. Liu eventually went on to found the Han Dynasty and Xiang committed suicide after a final decisive battle. The banquet is the pivot upon which the film ultimately turns, but beyond that Lee plays fast and loose with the historical rules.
Liu Bang (Leon Lai) and Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng) are brothers in arms united against the ruling Qin for a better country. Following an initial misunderstanding involving an assassination attempt, the two become allies. The scholarly, upper class Xiang has visions of emperorship, while the working-class Liu could care less about power and status. With the Qin on the run, the last piece of the puzzle is obtaining a seal to secure the throne, which to Xiang’s surprise Liu already has, having conquered the key city of Xianyang to get it. At the resulting banquet at Hong Gate Liu and Xiang’s most trusted advisors are also in attendance and (bizarrely) engage in a deadly game of weiqi that is also somehow a harbinger for the future. To this point Lee was at the helm of a competent if pedestrian historical drama. After the hilarious (for the wrong reasons) and bloated weiqi game, Lee loses control of White Vengeance, precisely because of this crucial scene.
Lee does a bang-up job of either dropping story threads or letting juicy ones slip away. Yu (Liu Yifei) initially looks like she’s going to be The Woman That Comes Between Brothers, but a few wistful glances from Liu is as far as it goes. For the rest of the film she stands around as a fine looking houseplant. Fan and Zhang’s rivalry has the makings of an interesting spin on behind-the-scenes political puppeteering but fizzles away to rote double dealing and honourable gamesmanship. And the frequent references to Xiang’s privilege and Liu’s lack of it and how it impacts both in their quest hints at an exploration of a theme that could resonate with contemporary audiences. That never gets fleshed out.
Like approximately 421,093 films like it, White Vengeance is, at its core, a brotherly drama about betrayal and loyalty as collateral damage of unbridled ambition. Given that, Lai and Feng should be doing the heavy lifting but neither is really up to the task. Lai is typically unresponsive, and Feng is handsome but steeped in television mannerisms. But Lee peppers the film with a fairly strong roster of supporting players: Andy On’s Han Xin, bucking for power of his own, gets his share of action set pieces; Jordan Chan escapes the late-’80s for a turn as Liu’s ultimately disillusioned right hand, Fan Kuai; Anthony Wong squints his way through his performance as Xiang’s mage-like strategist Fan Zeng; and Zhang Hanyu as Liu’s advisor Zhang Liang actually infuses a semblance of humanity into the film, despite his role in the ridiculous weiqi match. He’s kind of like Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen in The Godfather. That’s important considering Vengeance eventually morphs into a less insightful, less nuanced version of that film, with Lai as Michael Corleone. Think about that for a minute … Yeah.