It’s funny how every few years, two movies based on the same topic come out almost simultaneously. It’s even funnier how one film usually aspires to be sophisticated art while the other only pretends to be.
There were competing Truman Capote films of mid-decade (Capote and Infamous), the killer-asteroid flicks of 1998 (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and the Wyatt Earp biopics of the early ’90s (Tombstone and Wyatt Earp). In Hong Kong, there were opposing Wong Fei Hung movies (Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II and Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China series). Now there are two Chinese films hitting American DVD shelves at the same time, and they bear similar titles and tackle identical subject matter. One is An Empress and the Warriors, and the other is Battle of the Warriors.
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Recently released by Dragon Dynasty, these martial art movies deal with the never-ending war between the Zhao and Yan kingdoms during China’s Warring States period. They use fertile historical soil to plant some interesting cinematic seeds, but what grows out of those seeds are two totally different crops.
Clash of the Kung Fu Movie Plots
Action-star Donnie Yen (Yip Man and Shanghai Knights) headlines An Empress and the Warriors. He portrays a Yan general who must help a princess ascend to the throne when her father is assassinated. His task is to mold her from green princess to warrior queen—all under the threat of a Zhao invasion and an insurrection by jealous officers.
In Battle of the Warriors, Hong Kong icon Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers) plays Ge Li, a lone mercenary who must help a tiny city-state stop the Zhao army from using the village as a supply depot in its war against the Yan state.
Both screenplays promise action and drama on a grand scale, but only Battle of the Warriors delivers the goods. An Empress and the Warriors mistakenly splits its focus between Donnie Yen’s general and the titular monarch, played by a miscast Kelly Chen. Rather than meld the two main characters’ goals, the writers can’t find a singular purpose for their script: Is it a coming-of-age story for Kelly Chen or another star vehicle for Donnie Yen? Unfortunately, neither. The resultant screenplay is a mash of overused plotlines and cardboard characters.
Fortunately, Battle of the Warriors renews my faith in Hong Kong’s period-piece action epics. How can Ge Li help 4,000 town folk fight back an army that’s 100,000 strong? That’s the question writer-director Jacob Cheung answers effectively and smartly in his adaptation of a Japanese comic book.
Ge Li’s gargantuan task allows the thrust of the main story to shine and be free of unnecessary subplots. But even then, the supporting characters are given substance despite their limited screen time—from the group of peasants who become turncoats to the doubtful Liang prince who grows to admire the mercenary’s Sun Tzu-like military strategy and Mohist philosophy. Thanks to Jacob Cheung’s deft storytelling and characterization, the movie develops into a suspenseful nail-biter that combines action, intelligence and history.
Kung Fu Fighting
A large part of Battle of the Warriors success is the tone of Jacob Cheung’s action scenes. To match the script’s realism, the combat stays as historically accurate as filmmaking conventions allow. Plenty of praise must go to Stephen Tung Wai, the action director (a role that doesn’t exist in Hollywood but encompasses being in charge of stunt coordination, fight choreography, camera angles and sometimes editing).
Stephen Tung Wai is best-known as the student who lacks “emotional content” in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. He’s obviously expanded his stunt aesthetic since then to include historical archery, ancient pole arms and castle-siege tactics. In fact, the cataclysmic clash in which the Zhao forces attempt to storm Liang’s fortress is almost on par with such classic combat scenes as the Battle of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
While it is this type of action that pushes Battle of the Warriors’ story forward, the combat in An Empress and the Warriors is made to look cool for coolness’ sake. In the climactic battle, Yen’s general charges the Zhao army solo. He challenges not a small squad, not even a platoon—but the whole army. Ridiculously enough, he kills several soldiers before finally being stopped. I’m no history professor or war re-enactor, but I’m pretty sure one master wouldn’t last more than 10 seconds against an army wielding spears, axes and arrows.
This lack of combat smarts is particularly surprising because Tony Ching Siu-Tung—the fight choreographer for Jet Li’s Hero—serves double duty as director and action director in An Empress and the Warriors. His battle scenes are becoming like inferior photocopies: duplications that diminish in quality as more versions are made.
Which Kung Fu Film Wins?
Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s camerawork in An Empress and the Warriors is all faux visual poetry lifted from other sources, such as Ang Lee’s slow-mo angles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Ridley Scott’s hand-held and high-speed camerawork in Gladiator. In Battle of the Warriors, Jacob Cheung’s beauty is his straightforward Michael Mann-style storytelling, and his photography and edits are meant to evoke a sense of tension, not to induce vomiting. (Think Michael Mann’s Collateral.)
Although both filmmakers deal with similar source material, their divergent takes on the subject matter make all the difference. Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s An Empress and the Warriors plays like an average period film that fails to live up to its potential. Jacob Cheung’s Battle of the Warriors stands as one of the freshest, most suspenseful entries into the genre in recent years.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)