All Part of the Plan
Writer-director Daniel Lee's recent obsession with period action thrillers like Three Kingdoms: Ressurection of the Dragon and 14 Blades have been at best, a mixed bag. Granted they star A-listers like Andy Lau, Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen, the films were lacking in a solid story to complement the set action sequence. Ressurection sure didn't look like your classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its treatment, and 14 Blades suffered from burn out in the second half. But before you write Daniel Lee off, here he comes charging with White Vengeance, as if the earlier films were practice runs prior to delivering what is arguably his best film to date.
Granted it did start off in rather disorientating factor, especially if one is not acutely aware of the historical event known as the Feast at Hong Gate between rivals Liu Bang (Leon Lai) and Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng), warlords who have been pitted against each other by the last emperor of Qin in order to seek the benefits from bickering amongst the insurgent ranks. Both are serving King Huai of Chu, but in essence both are seeking the highest post of the land, each with very different characteristics and styles that will determine the kind of rulership should either ascend the throne, with Xiang Yu seen as the more ruthless of the duo, and Liu Bang the more compassionate.
But of course this is not a history lesson, and while most of the proceedings at Hong Gate were fairly covered, Daniel Lee's input for artistic license and merit served the film well. The introduction had been jarring no thanks to flashbacks and rapid fire introductions to a multitude of historical and fictitious characters that will serve to confuse the clueless (like myself initially), but do hang in there as soon after you'll start to see past all the bearded men, their ranks and their loyalties in each faction of the rivalry and center upon the characters who matter. It is the buildup to the events at Hong Gate, and the Hong Gate proceedings itself which is truly impressive, that White Vengeance truly shifted into top gear, and never relented in its pacing all the way to a gripping finale full of twists and turns, conflict and schemes.
Like the game of choice in Go / Weiqi, White Vengeance played out like a measured chess game, with each side pondering and second guessing the opponent's move, and plotting its own counter-strategy way in advance. The strengths of the story lay in its effortless balance between brawn and brain, with action left to the likes of Andy On, who played Han Xin, a general who jumped ship and swap loyalties for appreciation, and even Jordan Chan himself to bring along that rebellious streak always out to look for a good fight. But the spotlight was definitely on Anthony Wong as Xiang Yu's counselor Fan Zeng and his rival Zhang Lian, played by the very charismatic Zhang Hanyu, serving on the side of Liu Bang.
Both men inevitably stole the show for their brainy schemes to allow their respective masters to gain a leg up against the opponent, and the shifting advantages made this film very much engaging to sit through, culminating in their initial face to face meeting at the iconic Hong Gate which is filled with treachery, betrayal, and a simultaneous five game of Go that serves as the highlight. And this came pretty early in the film as well, in fact setting the stage for more plotting outside of this one time event, that will serve as the catalyst for an elaborate, extrapolated scheme.
Daniel Lee seemed adamant this time round in balancing action with plot, and has his craftsmen to thank for in setting up gorgeous looking interior sets with CG landscapes, forts and castles that no longer exist, that didn't look as fake as those found in his earlier two films. Cinematography by Tony Cheung was also beautiful, especially with its shadow and light play and balance, allowing the film to stand out as one of the more gorgeous looking films to capture the action on screen, and the quieter moments that Lee's story called for when exploring options, and its characters.
Between the two leads who play the rivals Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, Feng Shaofeng seemed to have a lot more spectrum in showing Xiang Yu's obsessive and ruthless side, as compared to the Leon Lai, whose singular expression served him well in this role of Liu Bang of having his truest innermost thoughts held extremely close to his chest, nuanced in a way that will make you sit up and evaluate just who amongst the lot is the master schemer. And then there's Anthony Wong versus Zhang Hanyu, veterans in their respective film markets playing opposing strategists, chewing up the scenery with their sheer screen presence, although the latter actor did edge out on screen charisma thanks to a longer screen time that allowed audiences to understand a bit more about Zhang Liang, as compared to Wong's portrayal of Fan Zeng who seemed more like an eccentric shaman.
If there's a weak link in the film, it's the unfortunate introduction of Liu Yifei's character Yu Ji, as the lover of Xiang Yu who should also have some sort of romantic dalliance with Liu Bang to further their rivalry, but this was not quite to be since it wasn't fleshed out in detail. It could have brought the hatred between the men to another more personal level but that was not to be, instead the Yu Ji arc can be totally omitted, and not serve to diminish the story any one bit. I suppose Liu Yifei is included as a need to balance the level of testosterone in the film.
But the payload of the film, even if you've been entertained by the bloodbath and battle of wits on screen, came in the final act that truly sealed this as a masterpiece effort from Daniel Lee. It hammers home points about the wielding of power and how man's pursuit of that absolute leads to natural paranoia as seen in so many madmen dictators, that the mantra of trusting no one rings home, giving rise to regrets and remorsefulness in not having done better than to succumb to the trappings that power brings about, with what price ambition. And the tying up of some loose ends, with nuances now magnified, served to unmask true intentions, and that sometimes one can never know the truth about someone, until perhaps it's a little too late.
White Vengeance had surpassed expectations coming on the heels of two rather average at best works from Daniel Lee, but this is the surprise package that is highly recommended for those itching for that one big Asian blockbuster.
White Vengeance opens in cinemas 1 Dec 2011, watch for it!