Director He Ping’s film Warriors of Heaven and Earth clearly owes a debt to the American Western as well as the films of Akira Kurosawa. It has been a while since a Chinese historical sword flick has been made with this sort of lineage and it is interesting to consider the ways in which this film deals with its somewhat traditional subject matter.
Much like Kurosawa, who insisted that motion pictures should be full of motion, He Ping makes sure that each scene of Warriors of Heaven and Earth shakes with movement. He Ping shoots above, below, and around the characters. He creates a great sense of space but also allows the scenery to dictate who the characters are. The one fight scene between Lai Xi (Jiang Wen) and Li (Nakai Kiichi) shows them trading similar fighting moves — showing their similarities — while they also duel with wooden walls separating them — showing the barriers of hunter and hunted that lie between them. By the end of the film they are enclosed in the same space, friends, of a sort, fighting back to back against a common enemy.
The progression between the two states mirrors certain conventions of the Western. When the honourable Li turns renegade he ‘disappears’ into the Gobi Desert. In a sense he becomes a nameless hero, losing his honour by replacing it with the simple need to live and remain anonymous and out of trouble.
But heroes in the Western are not allowed to lie fallow. His wake up call comes in two forms. First the caravan — read ‘wagon train’ — he is guarding is engulfed in a sand storm, nearly killing him until he is saved by one of the two other survivors, a soldier. Li decides to stick with the caravan, the soldier and the other survivor, a quiet, meditative monk, in order to pay back this good deed.
Meanwhile equally honourable imperial agent Lai Xi is hot on his trail, the bounty hunter whose bounty is Li, as the traditional ‘one last job and then you can go home’.
You know it will end in comradeship and tears right there and then: Warriors follows the tropes of the Western fairly closely. Soon enough, the two form a tenuous bond, one strengthened by admiration, in the face of a common foe, the evil bandit king, An.
An is morally bankrupt. For him food, dancing and playing music are no different than swordplay and power — all sources of pleasure. Compare this with Lai Xi — who longs for nothing more than family and a return to home – and Li, whose nature cannot help but serve and protect.
Li is also a man who lives ‘in’ nature and this too contrasts with An who treats nature with contempt, most noticeably in the water scene where our heroes struggle with dehydration while An pours water over his head and spits it into the breeze.
He Ping appears to mock that which signifies sophistication (such as music and dancing) when attained by those who are truly savage. Meanwhile he admires the natural when lived by those who are noble of purpose. So Li survives by drinking the blood of a camel, melds into the desert (which gives the film a particularly Western look) and dreams of a life of comradeship in the wilds of the mountains.
Unlike the complex alliances of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which this film aspires to, He Ping’s film takes a softer, simpler notion which shows men bound together by the best interests of those around them.
Violence in Kurosawa’s film is ambiguous and rife with meaning. In Warriors the violence, while partly cathartic as the bandits and renegades fight, is quickly subdued into nothingness when it seems a religious miracle occurs. After this all violence is either just trivial or mean or, bizarrely, a justifiable means of defence against the morally corrupt.
In fact the appeal of Warriors is somewhat marred by the intrusion of the supernatural and further harmed by a superfluous romance between Xai Li’s young charge (played by the lovely Vicky Zhao Wei) and Lieutenant Li, which leads to a very odd and abrupt coda.
But these are small nitpicks. Warriors rises above these limitations. It stirs when it needs to, is beautiful to watch and, in Jiang Wen and Nakai Kiichi, has two actors more than capable of playing the iconic heroes they are meant to be.