A genre that dominated the 00’s in China and culminated with the massive success of John Woo’s Red Cliff. And Peter Chan’s The Warlords. The war epic has been much scarcer in the 10’s, and much less successful in general, as indicated by the high-profile underperformance of passable examples of the genre like Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang, not to mention the downright flop of Frankie Chan’s Legendary Amazons. It remains to be seen if Gordon Chan’s God of War can re-ignite the Chinese war epic’s popularity. But it is, on its own merits, one of the finest examples of the genre.
Set in the 16th century and based on historical events. It follows the efforts of Ming general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) and commander Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) to defeat an army of Japanese pirates and Ronins led by Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata), and that has been pillaging the Chinese coastline for the enrichment of a Shogun whose son Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide) is among the pirates but disapproves of their treatment of civilians. General Qi enlists local peasants and trains them into a new and better-equipped army.
Gordon Chan, like many of Hong Kong cinema’s creative forces, can be an incredibly hit-and-miss director; this is the man who directed Fist of Legend AND King of Fighters. Luckily, God of War (Oai Khau Than Binh) finds him on top form: it is a lavish, gloriously old-fashioned epic. With its theme of an underdog army taking on a invader, God of War may be considered Red Cliff-lite. But the level of detail it brings to its depiction of war does not pale in comparison to John Woo’s epic. And even bests in some areas. Shot in gorgeous blues and reds by Takuro Ishikzaka (cinematographer of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy). It achieves in just two hours a remarkably detailed depiction of war. Strategy is of course a main focus (as often in Chinese epics) and beautifully illustrated, but training and weaponry are also taken into account.
A beautiful training sequence on a beach brings back memories of the legendary main titles from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China, while the metallurgy of blades and the resilience of shields, as well as the design of various contraptions (the “mud horse” is a favorite and a truly new sight in a film of this kind), are portrayed succinctly but efficiently. The bureaucracy, politics and publicity of war are also interesting details that Gordon Chan adds to his film. Sword-fighters depend on pencil-pushers and bean-counters (a system already depicted in Peter Chan’s The Warlords).
A general must lobby for funds, placate his supporters, and carefully advertise his victories and his defeats. Troops on both sides are composite, with the Japanese side made up of pirates, brutal Ronins, as well as Samurai and well-equipped soldiers, while on the Chinese sides, there are guest troops alongside the newly-trained peasants-turned-soldiers. While we cannot comment on the historical accuracy of it, the verisimilitude of it all is impressive, and the screenplay juggles all the different aspects very efficiently.
There’s also a fairly balanced portrayal of both sides. The Japanese are of course the go-to adversaries of Chinese cinema. But just as he did in Fist of Legend. Gordon Chan doesn’t depict them as villains, per se. There are many shades of grey among the Japanese, from the brave but brutal and raucous Ronin (led by in-house villain actor Ryu Kohata) to the more honorable Samurai ways of Keisuke Koide’s Yamagawa. And Yasuaki Kurata’s Kumasawa is a wily but honorable adversary, a man who is doing his Shogun’s dirty work out of a sense of honor. He lets his troops rape and pillage so that his master, whose interests this expedition serves, won’t be perceived as the mastermind behind it.
And amid all the heavy considerations. The complexities of strategy, logistics of an army and casualties of war. Gordon Chan still manages to hit a few light-hearted notes. From the loving and almost screwball relationship between Qi and his brave and headstrong wife. Where the general must resort to strategy almost as much as on the battlefield, to good-hearted camaraderie and the ridicule of officials who send men to war but soil themselves at the mere idea of combat. And alongside the truly gorgeous battle scenes that are superbly choreographed by Donnie Yen’s partner Kenji Tanigaki with a fine balance of brutal melee and balletic shows of force.
There are also two playful action scenes: One a delightful staff fight between Vincent Zhao (Trieu Van Trac) and Sammo Hung. And the other a brawl between Zhao and Timmy Hung.
Vincent Zhao has gained some charisma with age. But he’s still a bit too squeaky-clean. Especially as one of the film’s shortcomings is to paint General Qi in too saintly a light. This man is Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu wrapped with a dash of Guan Yu. And this martial arts film (phim hanh dong vo thuat) doesn’t bother showing anything nuanced about him. Save for a quick scene showing that he is clumsy in politics. And indeed someone with more star power might have sold that image of perfection a bit more convincingly. But where Zhao shines is in his warm and playful interaction with his wife. Played with steely resolve by Regina Wan, who deserved more screen time.
Screen time is also an issue when it comes to Sammo Hung, who though generously featured in the film’s marketing, is more of a guest star than a co-lead or a supporting role: he vanishes from the film in its first half-hour. But still has enough time to fight and look majestic. Still, his interesting dynamic with General Qi. And Hung’s formidable presence makes it a bit of a pity to have him just stop by.
Timmy Hung and Wu Yue make the most of their earthy supporting roles. Though Jiang Luxia is sadly mere wallpaper. But the absolute scene-stealer of the film is Yasuaki Kurata as the commander of the Japanese army. As mentioned before, it is a fascinatingly contrasted character. And Kurata, looking like a fierce old wolf in human form. Sells every nuance of it with the kind of worn charisma that belongs to the old world. His final fight against Zhao is a stunning finale.