Film review – The Lost Bladesman (Felix Chong / Alan Mak, 2011)

The Lost Bladesman is a historical biopic that portrays the story of Guan Yu (Donnie Yen), a general in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. During this period, the land of China was divided into three main states: Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳).

The kingdoms are at war, and China is in turmoil. Guan Yu has sworn himself to the warlord Liu Bei, but is taken prisoner by opposing warlord Cao Cao (Jiang Wen). Forced to fight for his enemy, Guan Yu leads the Cao army to victory. He is granted freedom but amongst Cao Cao’s supporters he is seen as too great a threat to remain alive. Six of Cao Cao’s most capable supporters embark to kill Guan Yu.

The film is not a traditional telling of the Cao Cao-Liu Bei-Guan Yu story, as director Felix Chong describes in the bonus features: “We wanted to avoid the pre-established image of Guan Yun Chang. We have lots of stories about how he charged into battles, but this time we see him fight his way out of one entrapment after another… The film also concerns itself with his internal struggles and disillusions.” This is certainly something that Donnie Yen pulls off with ease, with the payoff being the drive in the battle sequences – you really believe this is a man unwilling to give up or give in.

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Donnie Yen in one of the more memorable action sequences.

It is, admittedly, a story you either need to know the historical relevance of before watching, or something you need to concentrate on in great detail for the first half of the film. As an English-speaker with no knowledge of the Chinese language, trying to keep up with the names of the characters was nigh-on impossible.

Fortunately, pretty soon we are treated to some beautifully-choreographed battles as Guan Yu rips his way through hundreds of men sent to kill him, driven by his loyalty to Liu Bei and his secret passion for the woman betrothed to Liu Bei: Qilan (Sun Li).

The pairing of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in this film means it is now of great interest to any fans of Star Wars, with both set to appear in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as characters Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively. Certainly Donnie Yen was brought on board for his martial arts capabilities – not only is he regarded as one of the greatest martial arts actors in film, he is also his own choreographer and is an ex Wushu world champion.

Those martial arts talents are shown in abundance in The Lost Bladesman and anyone looking for a masterclass in the variety of styles of martial arts on show here won’t be disappointed.

For anyone unfamiliar with Chinese cinema, this is a great example of the kinds of high-budget productions typical of the region. The large-scale battle sequences are truly epic and stand up to anything coming out of Hollywood at the present time. Cinematographer Chan Chi-ying clearly works well with the director pairing to deliver shots that are both true to the setting and appealing to the modern audiences.

The climax of the film is, however, a complete anti-climax. Unexpectedly, a paragraph of text appears to wrap up one element of the story, before a brief clip of Cao Cao precedes a second paragraph of text. I couldn’t help but think the money had run out and they were forced into this ludicrous ending, robbing us of a final stand-off or battle of some kind.

Pacing issues aside, the Donnie Yen action sequences make this a film well worth picking up and are a fantastic introduction to his capabilities as a martial arts expert.

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