Thursday, 21 January 2016

Film Review - 'The Lost Bladesman'

The Three Kingdoms period of ancient China was a point in history defined, largely, by violence. It was a period of almost continuous conflict and constantly changing loyalties, as three different kingdoms struggled for dominance. Sure, it may not have been particularly pleasant period of history to have to actually live through - but, as a source for some great stories, you would probably have a hard time finding any point in history with as much potential.

The usual source of inspiration for these stories would have to would have to be the original - Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictionalised account of this period of war and strife that has come to be considered one of the classic works of Chinese literature. It is the elements that make up this original work which often serve as the basis for modern interpretations - particularly memorable sequences, for example, or the portrayal of certain characters.

This particular example, The Lost Bladesman, once again seems to draw its inspiration directly from Romance of the Three Kingdoms - telling a story which is, essentially, an interpretation of a single chapter from that sprawling epic (for trivia fans, the chapter in question is one informatively titled 'Guan Yu Slays Six Generals Through Five Passes).

After being separated from his own Lord, Liu Bei, Guan Yu (Donnie Yen) finds himself temporarily entering the service of the Emperor's adviser, Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) - a man skilled in the art of manipulation, and who is commonly considered to be the true power behind the throne. In an effort to win the loyalty of a man known to be a powerful warrior, Cao Cao immediately sets about lavishing Guan Yu with gifts, and the promise of power and authority if he would officially abandon his lord. Despite his best efforts, though, Cao Cao is unable to shake Guan Yu's loyalty to Liu Bei - and, when the time finally comes for Guan Yu to depart, Cao Cao keeps his word and allows him to do so. Others in the Emperor's court are angered by this, though - believing that Guan Yu is simply too dangerous to be allowed to leave, and that letting return to Liu Bei would only result in more conflict in the future.

Despite Cao Cao's apparent determination to keep his word, soldiers are sent to prevent Guan Yu from reaching his Lord - and Guan Yu, believing that Cao Cao has betrayed him, is forced to fight his way through in increasing number of dangerous adversaries.

The Lost Bladesman is, in many ways, a very impressive film. It is often a visually stunning film - one that is well able to make good use of some fantastic sets and filming locations.The film's many action-sequences are also, quite often, very well-choreographed and genuinely entertaining - as you would likely expect from a film of this type. The overall style of these action-sequences is also very impressive - toning down the occasionally overly flamboyant elegance of a Wuxia film (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that either, of course) in favour of something a little more 'realistic'.

Even with only the most cursory knowledge of the source material, you would have to be aware of exactly how important the right casting would be for a film like this (these are, after all, well-known characters in China). But, thankfully, the film's cast also do a great job, overall. Donnie Yen has earned a great deal of, entirely justified, respect for his work as a choreographer in martial arts films, over the years - but, it would be possible to make the argument that many of his appearances on screen are based more on his skill as a martial-artist than on his qualities as an actor. Behind the scenes rumours about the making of this film even suggest that Donnie Yen, himself, almost turned down the role of Guan Yu when it was offered to him because he wasn't convinced that he could play the part. In the end, though, he proves to be well able to handle the mix of stoic determination and inner turmoil which makes up the character of Guan Yu - and, of course, his already mentioned skills as a martial-artist are put to great use.

Similarly, the casting of a character like Cao Cao would, I imagine, have to be treated very carefully. He is a complex figure, after all - intensely charismatic and highly manipulative. It's a role that seems to practically demand someone capable of the right level of gravitas. Though here, too, the character is well served by the performance of Jiang Wen.

There are so many great elements which, taken individually, would seem to suggest that The Lost Bladesman would be destined to become a genuinely great film. There is, in fact, only a single major issue that I had with this film, in the end - though, unfortunately, it proved to be a fairly significant one.

The film's basic structure, and pacing, became an increasingly serious issue as we moved toward the end - with the film moving from scene to scene, and plot-point to plot-point, so rapidly that I often had genuine difficulty following what has happening on-screen. Once Guan Yu sets out on his journey to track down Liu Bei, the film enters a sequence of scenes where a series of new characters are introduced only to serve as obstacles in his path - obstacles which, of course, Guan Yu is required to fight his way through. These characters were introduced for no other reason than to be cut down by Guan Yu - and, the entire sequence became increasingly disjointed as any semblance of plot or story as lost in a series of (admittedly still very entertaining) action sequences. It got so bad, in fact, that I often wasn't entirely sure if Guan Yu was actually still intent on returning to his distant Lord, or if he had instead set off on a 'soldier killing detour'. I wouldn't have thought it would be possible for a film like this to be so focused on action that it actually became a detriment to the film, as a whole - but, that seems to be what happened, here.

In the end, as impressive as some of the individual elements of this film may have been, they all added up to something which is not quite as satisfying as you would hope. Though, all that being said, if you have an interest in this period of history, or if you are just a fan of martial arts films, it is still well worth your time.

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