Famed for their triad themed films, writer-directors Felix Chong and Alan Mak turn their attention to what would be the recent flavour of Chinese period films set in the Warring States period, dramatized in Luo Guanzong's classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with Daniel Lee turning in a fantastical Ressurection of the Dragon starring Andy Lau and Sammo Hung, and John Woo presenting his two film epic Red Cliff, which was marketed as staying true to supposedly real events if not for a vanity ending that let the cat out of the bag, aligning itself more closely to Woo's universal themes and stylistic brand of action. Romance of the Three Kingdoms had plenty of stories in its tome, and it's no surprise that Chong and Mak chose their preference of a story from that of Guan Yun Chang, aka Guan Yu, whose moral values and principles alike have turned him into a revered deity worshipped by people on both sides of the law from the Chinese territories.
The usual portrayal of Guan Yu is caricatured in films, meaning the default choice of actor would normally be as tall as possible, with a charismatic regal presence, long beard, garbed in green and wielding a mean looking halberd known as Green Dragon Crescent Blade (Guan Dao), and normally with a red face. Ti Lung played this role in Daniel Lee's film, while Ba Sen Zha Bu took on the role in John Woo's, both very much looking their parts, with fight scenes incorporated to display his tremendous strength. Personally, from impression, books read and computer games played, Guan Yu is the more complete general on the side of Liu Bei (the cameo here played by Alex Fong), being a lot more level headed than Zhang Fei, while possessing intelligence and fighting abilities to rival some of the best. But what made Guan Yu amongst the favourites is his unrelenting loyalty toward his sword brother, despite being courted and enticed by Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) with the latter putting in his utmost efforts to recruit Guan Yu to his ranks of mercenaries.
The story of Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen, focused on his short stint of plying his trade for Cao Cao - for one of the honorable reasons of protecting Liu Bei's wives who were captured by the enemy - followed by his exodus based upon a caveat that he would leave once he knows the whereabouts of Liu Bei. This provides for the perfect balance for a film in having ample drama to portray two large historical characters, while yet having enough action sequences during Guan Yu's flight to satisfy action, and Donnie Yen fans as he ploughs his way through the famous crossing of the five passes. But here's where the film, which started off and had good potential and promise, started to falter, resulting in a less than satisfying, and choppy narrative.
For starters, Donnie Yen as Guan Yu certainly raised a few eyebrows, although you realize the filmmakers may have wanted to break conventions. I can live with that, having Guan Yu more of Donnie's physical stature, although traded off with being a little bit more nimble. While Yen's portrayl of Guan's fighting prowess is excellent par none, with the actor also taking up action choreography responsibilities, his dramatic range is undoubtedly hampered, nary breaking into a smile (which is a good thing after that very smiley performance in All's Wel, Ends Well 2011). Thankfully this got compensated by the presence of Jiang Wen as Cao Cao, adding much needed gravitas to a role that Jiang excelled in making Cao both a hero and a villain, who on the outside does and makes everything fine and dandy for Guan Yu, but harbouring deep evil beneath the facade that we see behind closed doors amongst his most loyal of generals.
And given that the set action sequences are spaced far apart, it is Jiang Wen who prevented the film from sagging in its middle act, as we see Cao Cao's dogged pursuit to build camaraderie with Guan Yu, and wonders just what it takes to have men of quality joining his ambition to rule all of China. Meanwhile we have a romantic interlude that deals with Guan Yu's infatuation with Qi Lan (Sun Li) the woman he loves but cannot woo because she is betrothed to Liu Bei. While this was inserted to show how Guan Yu is a man who sacrifices personal happiness for others, what with his saving of her skin a number of times and with his escorting her back to Liu Bei's camp, this was perhaps the weakest link in the story given Yen's unconvincing performance, and Sun Li's role being nothing more than decorative and a pretty face to build on the temptation factor.
But the second half picked up from where the first scene left off, with large action pieces to thrill audiences with Guan Yu in full battle, despite not having his famed Green Dragon Crescent Blade with him, nor the story of the Red Hare steed incorporated, which would be a nice touch to build on established mythos. Yen shows why he still has it in him as a top notch action star and choreographer with a variety of fighting styles and mano a mano battles against opponents hell bent on slaying his Guan Yu to gain instant recognition and fame. The characters Guan Yu come up against are adapted from the infamous Five Passes Crossing, which happened because of Cao Cao's instruction to go against his own word, or that of his subordinates' defiance of orders (which is why Jiang Wen is best here as an astute politician presented with a dilemma with trying to please one man at the risk of losing loyalties of the others), and becomes almost like a computer game with the clearing of one boss level after another.
There's Kong Xiu (Andy On) refusal of safe passage resulting in a fight within a constricted passageway getting in the way of weapons in full swing (sort of reminiscing Yen's swordplay in Tsui Hark's Seven Swords), Han Fu's betrayal and his poisoned dart episode, Bian Xi's ambush with hundreds within a temple, and the governor Wang Zhi's fight with Guan Yu in a snow covered landscape, which is probably the best amongst them all despite losing plenty of backstory that builds up to the fight. Come to think of it, there was a conscious drop of background to how Guan Yu got to each stage which removes plenty of drama, and made it really look like Guan Yu going on a rampage to rid all who stood in his way.
The cinematography also was found to be left very much wanting with one extended fight sequence shot very much in the dark so much so that you can hardly see anything, except knowing that Guan Yu is dispatching a lot of goons repeatedly, and Bian Xi's episode was also quite the let down in a cheat sheet of shots, stylistically quite innovative, but with doors closed and plenty of noise coming from within before revealing the obvious winner, you would have hoped the camera was placed on the other side instead. Perhaps it will be there as a deleted scene in the DVD. And while I mentioned this isn't your usual gigantic Guan Yu, Donnie Yen's fight choreography may have confused him with Chen Zhen which Donnie also played in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (directed by Andrew Lau), having Guan execute dexterous moves as seen in that film running around in a circle and dodging arrows which seemed to have been fired from a machine gun. I'm all for reinterpretation, but adopting something so recent from one's own film (perhaps he really liked those moves to repeat them here again), is shortchanging fans and audiences, coming so recent.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms cannot possibly be made into a one off feature film, but it contains a lot of stories and characters that serve as a wealth of resource material to tap upon for translation to the big screen. This probably isn't the best and won't be the last of the lot, and despite its flaws, still managed to turn in some pure entertainment, although with the pedigree of talent involved, one can be forgiven to have expected a lot more.