Movie Review: Bladesman of Glory

By Yong Shu Hoong 

The Lost Bladsman

Action/109 minutes

3.5 stars

PLAYING the swashbuckling hero should be second nature to Donnie Yen by now.

The Hong Kong action star, finally on the A-list after his years of toiling led to box-office hits like Ip Man (2008) and Bodyguards And Assassins (2009), takes the lead in The Lost Bladesman.

Here, he not only plays the hero again, but one who is also a deified historical figure.

And Yen definitely makes the cut, look dashing in the title role of Guan Yun Chang (or Guan Yu, as he's also called), a loyal and upright general whose deeds are recounted in the Chinese literary classic, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms.

Set in the warring period of the Three Kingdoms, the film starts off with Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) attacking and driving rival warlord Liu Bei (Alex Fong) out of Xu Province to flee northwards.

Liu's sworn brother, Guan, surrenders conditionally to Cao, so as to protect Liu's family members who are left behind and taken into custody by Cao.

While fight sequences are dazzling, as one would expect from a Donnie Yen flick, what's interesting is how the film's co-directors and writers, Alan Mak (Infernal Affairs) and Felix Chong (Once A Gangster), humanise the legendary hero.

For example, Guan is no match for Cao's cunningness and onslaught of words, and is later persuaded to fight against the army of another warlord, Yuan Shao.

In another scene, he has to resist the temptation of consummating the secret love he bears for Liu's concubine, Qi Lan (Sun Li), after Cao spikes his wine with an aphrodisiac.

After receiving an honorary title for his battlefield achievements, Guan still insists on leaving the warlord's camp so that he can escort Liu's family back to where he is stationed.

The unwavering sense of idealism and innocence with which he upholds loyalty and honour impresses Cao, who agrees to let him go.

Acting-wise, Jiang almost steals the show with his multi- textured portrayal. Indeed, one can't quite figure out if his version of Cao is an archetypal villain or a maligned politician who truly believes in his plans to unify China.

In a revisionist departure from what's depicted in Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, the filmmakers make it a point to soften the warlord's vilified persona, by highlighting some of his virtues. Some viewers may even declare that this film is more about Cao than Guan.

Still, politics could be better explained and exploited for dramatic twists, especially where it involves the puppet emperor (Wang Bo-chieh) who is manipulated by Cao.

It's ambiguous whether Cao eventually goes back on his word, by ordering his men to kill Guan. But, as our hero fights his way through mountain passes to rejoin his sworn brother, there will be exhilarating scenes that showcase Yen's skills in wielding his blade on a long staff against opponents that far outnumber him.

Granted that the feature-film format provides only a limited canvas to properly explain the entire history and myriad of characters of that era, it's clear that at the core of the film is the treachery of politics that even heroes can't get untangled from.

And it's the added depth and drama that help lift The Lost Bladesman above the typical action- driven period films that Chinese cinema has been churning out of late.

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