Saving General Yang
Hong Kong/China, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 102 mins.
Director: Yu Rentai 于仁泰 [Ronny Yu].
Handsome yarn of a Song general and his brave sons sports good action but weak drama.
Northeast China, early Northern Song dynasty, AD 986. As a Khitan army, led by Yelv Yuan (Shao Bing), prepares to invade the Northern Song in revenge for a massacre 10 years earlier, the Yang and Pan families are still fighting between themselves over old grievances. However, in the cause of solidarity against the Khitan threat, Yang Ye (Zheng Shaoqiu), a general, forbids his sixth son, Yang Yanzhao (Wu Zun), to court the princess Chai (An Yixuan), in whom Pan Bao, son of the lord Pan Renmei (Liang Jiaren), is also interested. When Pan Bao accidentally falls to his death, the Pan family demands that Yang Yanzhao is punished. As the Khitans invade, the Song emperor initially tells Yang Ye to lead 60,000 troops against them; but when Pan Renmei requests to lead the army, the emperor reassigns Yang Ye to lead the frontline troops instead. Yang Ye’s wife, She Saihua (Xu Fan), and sons worry for him, but he is unafraid of doing his duty against the Khitans. During the battle, Pan Renmei retreats, leaving Yang Yetotally exposed; Yelv Yuan captures Yang Ye and keeps him alive on Wolf Mountain in order to lure his seven sons into a trap. Led by the first son, Yang Yanping (Zheng Yijian), the seven – of whom the sixth, Yang Yanzhao, and seventh, Yang Yansi (Fu Xinbo), have never experienced combat – set out with a small force. Pan Renmei, on Huanzhou Mountain, is ordered to join in and help, but he deliberately delays. Left alone, the seven sons manage to avoid Yelv Yuan’s trap and rescue their wounded father. Yang Yansi goes off alone to Huanzhou Mountain to find out why Pan Renmei has still not arrived. The rest start a long journey home through dangerous, Khitan-occupied territory.
Drawn from the same collection of folkloric writings (known as The Yang Family Generals 杨家将) that’s provided the basis for numerous films, TV dramas and operas over the years, Saving General Yang 忠烈杨家将 deals with an earlier period in the patriotic clan’s history than the recent Legendary Amazons 杨门女将之军令如山 (2011) and has none of that movie’s campy, retro tone. Tightly focused on an event in the life of general Yang Ye and his seven sons who set out to rescue him from invading Khitan hordes, it’s a big-budget, very masculine, military drama that, after a bumpy first 20 minutes, settles down into a bring-dad-back-alive odyssey that is solid, good-looking but not very emotionally engaging entertainment.
Running a modest 102 minutes, Yang, which began shooting in Henan province in August 2011 and has been slow to reach the screen, has the feel of a much longer original version that’s been progressively sliced down during post-production. The finished result certainly keeps moving but characterisation is a major casualty along the way: apart from the problem of keeping all seven sons clear in one’s mind (especially when dressed up in armour), none of them has much individual personality or background. This reduces the second half, as they battle their way home through hostile territory, to simply a series of setpieces rather than an involving drama of heroism and filial duty on a scale to match the production values. The thunderous music by Japanese composer Kawai Kenji 川井宪次 tries to compensate but just ends up, like so many of his scores, sounding bombastic.
On paper Yang looks being like a handsome showcase for its pan-Asian male cast, but even Hong Kong’s Zheng Yijian 郑伊健 [Ekin Cheng], the most exerienced and immediately recognisable name, comes over weakly as the eldest son. Of the rest – made up of two Mainlander actors (Yu Bo 于波, Li Chen 李晨), singers from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (Fu Xinbo 付辛博, Lin Feng 林峰, F4’s Zhou Yumin 周渝民 [Vic Chou]), plus Brunei-born, Taiwan-nurtured singer-model Wu Zun 吴尊 – none make much individual impression and, with little development of their roles prior to the rescue expedition, their eventual fates even less. Ensemble chemistry is weak.
Beyond the Yang Family sons, other roles are much more strongly drawn, with Hong Kong’s Zheng Shaoqiu 郑少秋, now in his mid-60s, bringing a quiet dignity to the father, fellow veteran Liang Jiaren 梁家仁 an equal amount of craftiness as a rival general, and the Mainland’s Shao Bing 邵兵 hefty as their Khitan enemy. Most of their performances, however, are during the first half; thereafter, the film dips as the young cast takes over. Female roles are largely decorative, apart from top-billed Mainland star Xu Fan 徐帆 as Yang Ye’s equally dignified wife.
However, where the movie does score an extra point is in its look, with a massive sense of scale to the sets by Hong Kong’s Mai Guoqiang 麦国强 [Kenneth Mak] (Ip Man 叶问, 2008; Bodyguards and Assassins 十月围城, 2009; A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂, 2011), and in its action, staged with grisly theatricality by the experienced Dong Wei 董玮. Hong Kong director Yu Rentai 于仁泰 [Ronny Yu] has had a chequered career since his most notable period during the early 1990s (The Bride with White Hair 白发魔女传, 1993; The Phantom Lover 夜半歌声, 1995) but as he showed with his last film, Fearless 霍元甲 (2006), he can still pull the stops out at a visual level. Visual effects, done in South Korea, get the job done. The Chinese title means “The Valiant Yang Family Generals”.
Presented by Henan Film & TV Production Group (CN), Henan Film Studio (CN), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Pegasus Motion Pictures (HK), Pegasus Film & TV Culture (Beijing) (CN). Produced by Pegasus Motion Pictures (HK).
Script: Huang Zihuan [Edmond Wong], Liu Shijia, Yu Rentai [Ronny Yu]. Photography: Chen Zhiying. Editing: Drew Thompson. Music: Kawai Kenji. Art direction: Mai Guoqiang [Kenneth Mak]. Costume design: Han Zhong. Sound: Wang Zhe, Steve Burgess, Mo Jiajia, James Ashton. Action: Dong Wei. Visual effects: Gim Tae-hun, Ryu Huei-jeong (Next Visual Studio). Second unit photography: Zou Lianyou.
Cast: Xu Fan (She Saihua, Yang Ye’s wife), Zheng Shaoqiu (Yang Ye, general), Zheng Yijian [Ekin Cheng] (Yang Yanping, 1st son), Yu Bo (Yang Yanding, 2nd son), Zhou Yumin [Vic Chou] (Yang Yan’an, 3rd son), Li Chen (Yang Yanhui, 4th son), Lin Feng (Yang Yande, 5th son), Wu Zun (Yang Yanzhao, 6th son), Fu Xinbo (Yang Yansi, 7th son), Shao Bing (Yelv Yuan, Khitan general), An Yixuan (Chai, princess), Li Meihui (Zhou Yunjing, Yang Yanping’s wife), Wang Xizhi (Geng Jinhua, Yang Yanding’s wife), Zhang Xiaoyan (Dong Yue’e, Yang Yan’an’s wife), Chen Ziyan (Meng Jinbang, Yang Yanhui’s wife), Li Qian (Yang Paifeng, She Saihua’s personal maid), Liang Jiaren (Pan Renmei, lord), Liu Jun (Song emperor), Liang Aiqi (Xiao, empress), Ting Leung (Eighth Prince), Chen Zhihui (Hu, captain), Liu Jun
Yang Zhong), Wang Chunyuan (army supervisor), Zhang Dong (Tu Alang), Wang Yupo (Xiao Feng), Bao Di (Wu Tietou), Tsagaanekn Bayaertu (Wu Tiebei), Wang Deshun (master Guigu), Liu Xinyi (old signal-tower guard), Tan Xiao (young signal-tower guard), Hu Xianxu (young Yang Yanding), Lin Yuyang (young Yang Yanhui), Lei Haowen (young Yang Yande).
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Gala Premieres), 28 Mar 2013.
Release: Hong Kong, 4 Apr 2013; China, 4 Apr 2013.
(Review originaly published on Film Business Asia, 28 Mar 2013.)