Sad to say, I've only read the epic Romance of the Three Kingdom novels once in my lifetime to date, and an abridged English version at that. My only other contacts with this classic Chinese literature is with the China television series that I had to struggle with because the initial episodes came without English subtitles (i.e. akin to watching a Shakespearean play for the very first time and marvelling at the richness in language used), and of course, the Koei computer game that so many peers of my generation would have played at one time or another.
And of course, one of my favourite general characters, was Zhao Zilong. Outside of the Liu-Bei-Guan-Yu-Zhang-Fei brotherhood together with their unsurpassed military strategist Zhuge Liang at their side, Zhao Yun had qualities like valour which I thought was exemplary, and an episode, though taken on a whole new spin in presentation where he goes rescue the infant son of Liu Bei, to demonstrate that, gets its fair share of airtime in this movie. As I mentioned in an earlier review of An Empress and The Warriors, we're getting plenty of such period war movies coming out in recent months, culminating perhaps with John Woo's highly anticipated Red Cliff, but amongst the recent releases, Three Kingdoms draws first blood.
But I suspect that Red Cliff will probably blow all competition out of the water going by the trailer, though the final product remains to be proven this Summer. Three Kingdoms rode on its star power to carry its relatively bland storyline forward, with Andy Lau as Zilong, Maggie Q as nemesis Cao Ying (who's male in the novel), Sammo Hung as newly created character/narrator Luo Pingan, and a whole host of supporting acts in Vanness Wu, Andy On, and even Ti Lung in a surprisingly nicely presented Guan Yu. You cannot fault the designs of the sets, the costumes (though of course some would complain it looks so Japanese), and I thought the weapons were eye-poppingly beautiful and intricately designed - you just have to take a look at Guan Yu's Green Dragon Crescent Blade!
It's impossible to try and distill the entire classics into a 3-hour long movie, or even a trilogy would do its richness injustice, let alone a 2 hour one. While the runtime for John Woo's movies (in two parts?) is still not finalized, at least his focus is on one key, primary battle. Resurrection of the Dragon's focus is on one man - Zhao Zilong, and in doing so, fairly summarized his tale from beginning to end, with plenty of artistic and dramatic license taken of course, where purist will probably have a field day discussing all the inaccuracies and departure from the source material. However in doing this, we do get to see familiar characters sharing the stage, albeit some given very little screen time.
And I don't think it's me who's feeling quite jaded from the clanging of weapons against armour. Here the one on one action scenes between characters are wonderfully choreographed by Sammo Hung himself, but the quick cuts, close ups, tight shots and dizzying camera work marred it all. The battle sequences were worse, with fake blood splattered all over, and the usual hacking of limbs and demonstration of superhuman strength by its chief characters. It did offer some simple philosophical gems to ponder over in between all the chaotic fighting, but really the feeling you get out of the battle sequences, was that it was like a distant cousin to 300 styled choreography.
Don't expect any depth injected in most characters here too, as you can smell the plot revelation a mile away from the get go. I thought Maggie Q was wasted with a flower vase role that took less than 20 minutes of screen time just to snarl nastily, while Sammo Hung really relegated himself to the backseat choreographing the action. Andy Lau, a real life hero, was probably the top draw here in putting bums in seats, but even he can't save the story from having to insert a needless hint at unattainable romance because of Zilong's sense of duty and obligation to serve his country, putting it first before (the starting of) family.
On the whole, it's aesthetically beautiful but ringing really hollow. Let's hope John Woo's Red Cliff, with the return of some of our beloved characters from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, does some justice in its film adaptation of a key battle, even if we have to contend with flying doves and slow-motion handling and twirling of swords. Keep your fingers crossed!