The Warring States
China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 126 mins.
Director: Jin Chen 金琛.
Seamless technique and some fine performances help turn a rich mix into an entertaining whole.
China, mid-4th century BC, during the Warring States Period. Caught in the crossfire between the eternally warring states of Wei and Qi over a border town, dopey military scholar Sun Bin (Sun Honglei) is recognised by a Wei officer and prevailed upon to help his side in a battle. Sun Bin makes use of a solar eclipse to smuggle Wei soldiers into the Qi ranks, and the Wei win. Afterwards, Wei general Pang Juan (Wu Zhenyu) realises it was the same Sun Bin with whom he once studied military strategy under hermit scholar Guguizi and to whom he was a “sworn brother”. Meanwhile, to compensate for the disgrace of her general father, Tian Ji (Jiang Wu), in losing the border-town battle, Qi warrior Tian Xi (Jing Tian) kidnaps Sun Bin and brings him back to Qi. Recognising that Sun Bin is a descendant of famed military scholar Sun Zi, who wrote the hard-to-obtain manual The Art of War 孙子兵法, the Qi king (Nakai Kiichi) hopes Sun Bin will help with his knowledge of military strategy and assigns Tian Xi to look after him. Sun Bin, who has fallen for the beautiful Tian Xi, co-operates, though Pang Juan, who is painfully aware that Sun Bin was always superior to him as a student, manages to get Sun under a trade for the border town. Back in Wei, Pang Juan tries to persuade Sun Bin to write down all his knowledge but Sun Bin prevaricates. Under pressure by the Wei king (Feng Enhe), who is married to his younger sister Pang Wan’er (Gim Heui-seon), to extract Sun Bin’s knowledge, Pang Juan resorts to torture. But even after having his kneecaps removed, Sun Bin still refuses to comply. Pang Wan’er invokes the help of Tian Xi in having Sun Bin rescued, and eventually Sun Bin, who has been feigning madness, makes it back to Qi. In 354 BC, as Wei prepares to attack the neighbouring state of Zhou, a final confrontation between Sun Bin and Pang Juan looms in the future.
Starting off as a visual effects-laden costume comedy in the vein of the recent Don Quixote 魔侠传之唐吉可德 (2010), and subsequently morphing through a historical rom-com and psychological cat-and-mouse drama into a grand tale of tragic love, The Warring States 战国 is a hugely ambitious mix of so many competing elements that by rights it should never have crossed its two-hour-plus finishing line. Set slap in the middle of the Warring States Period – when rival kingdoms battled for power prior to China’s eventual unification in the 3rd century BC – it’s also not helped by an eccentric performance from Sun Honglei 孙红雷 as the historical figure of Sun Bin, reputedly a descendant of famed military strategist Sun Zi (The Art of War 孙子兵法), who finds himself in demand by two competing kingdoms (Wei and Qi) for his vital knowledge of warfare. No Mainland actor does dopey-clever better than Sun Honglei – witness his epic turn in the classic TV spy drama Lurk 潜伏 (2008) or his deputy police chief in A Simple Noodle Story 三枪拍案惊奇 (2009) – but his spaced-out playing here, in long hair and whiskers, is so contrary and at odds with the rest of the cast that it often threatens to capsize rather than to enhance the whole grand structure.
At the end of the day, however, the film proves itself bigger than just its central performance, not least because it’s in the hands of an accomplished director and crew, and strongly cast elsewhere. In by far his biggest production to date, director Jin Chen 金琛 brings the same precision to the sprawling script as he did to his early gem, Chrysanthemum Tea 菊花茶 (aka Love Story by Tea, 2000), and even his less successful prison drama Crossing Over 凤凰 (aka Phoenix, 2007). Jin marshals clean-lined production and costume design (dominated by blacks and greys, with whites and reds for contrast), fluid editing and use of dissolves, graceful camerawork by South Korea’s Gim Hyeong-gu 김형구 | 金炯求 (Musa 무사, 2001; The Host 괴물, 2006) and solid action by a team of Hong Kongers into a seamless flow. What could have ended up as a bitty, episodic tale – especially given the to-ing and fro-ing from one side to another – emerges as a single unit, further knitted together by an elevated symphonic score from Japanese composers Fukaura Akihiko 深浦昭彦 and Katsuki Yukari 胜木由佳里.
On the performance side, Hong Kong’s Wu Zhenyu 吴镇宇 [Francis Ng] is especially good as Sun Bin’s “sworn brother”-turned-adversary Pang Juan, playing down the character’s all-consuming jealousy to a point where the line between friendship and hatred with Sun Bin becomes intriguingly blurred. Japanese veteran Nakai Kiichi 中井贵一 (like Wu, smoothly re-voiced) brings a quiet stature to his Qi king and Mainland actor Jiang Wu 姜武 a blustery menace to his untrustworthy general. Way better here than in her last Chinese outing, The Myth 神话 (2005), South Korean actress Gim Heui-seon 김희선 | 金喜善 (Bichunmoo 비천무, 2000) manages to create a real character out of the conflicted Wei queen who sides with Sun Bin rather than her ambitious elder brother.
The biggest surprise, however, is the playing of up-and-coming actress Jing Tian 景甜 as Tian Xi, the Qi warrior for whom dopey Sun Bin falls. Almost unrecognisable from her cute role in the ultra-slick, enjoyable rom-com My Belle Boss 我的美女老板 (aka My Beauty Boss, 2010) with which she made her big-screen name, the petite Jing is convincing both in the cartoony action sequences (up there with Chen Huilin 陈慧琳 [Kelly Chen] and Maggie Q as recent female generals), the early rom-commy scenes with Sun Honglei and the later straight drama, holding her own against way older and more experienced actors. Though on paper the role would seem better fitted for a more mature actress like Yao Chen 姚晨 (to repeat her successful teaming with Sun in Lurk), 21-year-old Jing makes it her own – and is the revelation of the movie.
With this kind of technical and acting heft behind it, the script by TV drama writer Shen Jie 申捷, who also wrote Jin’s Crossing Over, emerges as a rich drama of friendship, betrayal and love over several decades, sticking fairly close to known facts but weaving in fictional elements like Tian Xi and the central love story in a highly cinematic way. The story of both sides wanting to get their hands on Sun Bin’s military knowledge is more of a MacGuffin than anything else: the real drama lies in the failure of all sides to see the bigger picture beyond an endless cycle of tit-for-tat warfare and love-hate. The Warring States is much more mainstream entertainment than a movie like the similarly-themed Sacrifice 赵氏孤儿 (2010) by Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, but it’s quality entertainment, beautifully packaged and (apart from Sun Honglei) played.
Presented by Beijing Starlit Movie & Television Culture (CN). Produced by Beijing Starlit Movie & Television Culture (CN).
Script: Shen Jie. Photography: Gim Hyeong-gu. Editing: Chen Qihe [Chan Ki-hop], Cai Yulin, Peng Wei. Music: S.E.N.S. [Fukaura Akihiko, Katsuki Yukari]. Art direction: Wu Lizhong, Zhou Yisha. Costume design: Hou Yunyi. Sound: Xu Chen, An Wei. Action: Yuen Bun, Xiong Xinxin, Chen Hu, Luo Lixian [Bruce Law], Lu Jianming [Jamie Luk]. Visual effects: A Donglin, Zhang Gang, Wu Wen. Executive direction: Fan Jianke.
Cast: Sun Honglei (Sun Bin), Jing Tian (Tian Xi), Gim Heui-seon (Pang Wan’er, Wei queen), Wu Zhenyu [Francis Ng] (Pang Juan, Pang Wan’er’s elder brother), Nakai Kiichi (Qi king), Jiang Wu (Tian Ji, Qi general), Guo Degang (Zhou king), Feng Enhe (Wei king), Ma Jingwu (Qi prime minister), Lei Kesheng (Qi senior official), Wu Jun (Jia Bo), Xu Jiao (Gouzi), Hao Hao (Yuzi), Sun Hao (Pei Feng), Huang Haiting (Zhao king), Li Zixiong [Waise Lee] (official proclaimer), He Yunwei (prison doctor), Mao Hai (Qi soldier), Liao Jingsheng (Lu king), Xiong Xinxin (assassin), Fang Zige (Han king), Xue Cun (Zhao messenger), Liu Yajin (Qin messenger), Yu Ailei (assassin), Zhang Xiaojun (Wei messenger), Bak Min-seong (Pang queen’s bodyguard).
Release: China, 12 Apr 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 24 Apr 2011.)