[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
The Romance of the Three Kingdom is one of those tales that I’ve always wanted to read but just haven’t devled into. It’s the historical epic about the three states of China vying for power and dominance following the end of the Han Dynasty. Donnie Yen admitted he wasn’t all that familiar with the story either going into The Lost Bladesman, which is funny since he plays the main character of the film and one of the prominent warriors of the tale, General Guan Yu.
Then again, not being familiar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is sort of liberating. I didn’t have to consider how the events depicted in The Lost Bladesman stacked up against history. Instead I watched it as an epic adventure set in ancient history, featuring some well-designed action, even though one of the set pieces is a total anachronism.
The Lost Bladesman (Guan Yun Chang | 關雲長)
Director: Alan Mak and Felix Chong
Country: China/Hong Kong
The NYAFF notes that statues of General Guan are found in both police stations as well as Triad headquarters. He’s a figure revered for his strength and courage, and his signature weapon is intimidating, the stuff of brutal legend: the guan dao, a heavy spear with a saber at the end. To portray this major historical and mythic figure, Yen said he had to put on some weight and ate roughly five meals a day. He didn’t become as stocky as Teddy Roosevelt by any means, but there is a little extra meat on his bones in the film. Yen sports a robe almost the entire time to help maintain an illusion of extra body mass.
The Lost Bladesman chronicles the period in which General Guan is captured by Cao Cao (Jiang Wen), eventually released, and then pursued by those in service to Cao Cao’s generals. In the opening sequence, we get a large scale battle scene, with arrows flying everywhere and battering rams, the sort of frantic mayhem like a shook up ant farm. General Guan is asked to fight for Cao Cao’s forces, in a rather stirring cavalry charge.
In terms of scope, it’s the largest action scene you’ll see in the film. The rest of the sequences tend to be General Guan against the world as he crosses five passes and fights six other generals. He does all this while defending his lord’s concubine, Qilan. She’s played by Sun Li, who you may remember from Jet Li’s Fearless. As in Fearless, her character in The Lost Bladesman is an idea of unattainable love and ease. It’s chaos and war out there, with hundreds of thousands of lives on the line; Guan feels he can help bring peace, but only through great effort. So, no time for love.
Sometimes it’s a difficult to evaluate performances in another language. The subtleties of inflection, delivery, and mannerism get lost in translation, and with The Lost Bladesman there’s also the historical baggage to take into account. Yen plays General Guan like a paragon of virtue. There are rarely cracks in that stony facade of his, and his delivery tends to be decisive and straightforward. He carries himself like an idea of courage, a fount of strength. He’s playing a type in a time of legend — it could be Lancelot-like or something to that effect. Greater familiarity with the history of the events and other portrayals of Guan would also be helpful if I really wanted to measure Yen’s acting, but it seems like Yen’s performance fits with the film’s tone.
This is in stark contrast to Jiang Wen’s Cao Cao, which he plays with greater naturalism and, at times, an almost laid back quality. Cao Cao was apparently a merciless ruler and extremely manipulative, and Wen provides an air of scheming to many of his moments on screen. What begins as an innocent round of drinks with General Guan is really an attempt to cause scandal; what seems a moment of sympathy may have an ulterior motive. His long inhales — mostly breath, just a little whistle — can be heard right before he delivers a line, which I assume was intentional. It’s like a pause to think of how he can mold a moment to his advantage.
But this is a Donnie Yen vehicle about a great warrior, so the real showcase is the action. There’s a lot of speed involved in the fight sequences, and just a bit of wire work, but The Lost Bladesman mostly emphasizes power and strategy. The guan dao is such a massive weapon, and General Guan is such a revered figure, so many of his attacks have the destructive power of meteors and lightning. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree with a hatchet, General Guan would have chopped it down with his guan dao in one clean and miraculous slice, one handed.
There’s an especially remarkable fight scene in a narrow alleyway. In general, the guan dao is wielded with wide lateral strikes given its weight and construction, but the alleyway presents an impediment to that. Small and lighter weapons give attackers an edge on General Guan, so the solution is adaptation. It’s a clever bit of action direction on Yen’s part, and a way to help show a keenness for strategy in General Guan’s character. Did something exactly like this happen? Probably not. But did George Washington throw that silver dollar across the Potomac? Nope.
The final battle is the anachronistic one, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It feels less like a wuxia fight and more like General Guan fighting a SWAT team. Writing that sentence makes me smile, but it’s hard to place it tonally with the rest of the film. It’s still a nicely put together sequence, and I wouldn’t mind seeing an entire film with this kind of sensibility. They’ve done modernized westerns to death, but I don’t know if I’ve seen police raids and gun fights brought screaming into the past. Even War of the Arrows (which I probably should have rated higher since I like it more as I reflect on it) didn’t treat its arrowplay this way.
As an adventure story with familiar ideas about loyalty and the impossibility of tranquil love, The Lost Bladesman is a great bit of entertainment and a good showcase of Yen’s abilities. (It’s also a reminder that I need to watch more of Jiang Wen’s work.) I can’t really comment on it as a historical piece, but even then, it’s pretty clear that certain stories about history take place in an area outside of history. That’s where the myth-making of national heroes takes place, and that’s where this story is free to do as it will.