Excellent Period Piece Delivers Big Visuals With Little Investment In Character
Apr 21, 2014
Sometimes I need to pause to reflect on one honest fact for those who stumble across my reviews: I’ve seen scads and scads of foreign releases, and this sometimes means that – because of that vast library stuck in my brain – I may not enjoy one film as much as the next reviewer. That doesn’t make my review any less credible, nor does it the other person’s. Instead, I think it ends up providing a kind of ‘critical balance’ between those just discovering some of the wonderful surprises found today in, say, Korean or Chinese cinema that I’ve been experiencing for going on three decades.
That being said, I’ll freely admit that I didn’t enjoy SAVING GENERAL YANG as much as others; however, I still give it an enthusiastic endorsement for you to discover if wartime epics are in your wheelhouse. It has everything you could possibly want – epic themes, heroic characters, all backed with a hint of romance.
What didn’t I like? I’ll try to convey that better below.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Seven sons must take on an army of thousands, brave treacherous mountain terrain, and find a way home alive – all to rescue their beloved father.”
The explosion of CGI has helped fuel a renaissance with the epic war story, and that’s a tremendous plus for today’s audiences: no longer does a director have to corral a billion extras on camera in order to effectively portray what a vast and brutal landscape ground war looked like centuries ago. Special effects have given studios a chance to do it on a cinematically grand scale while leaving the creative folk – storyteller, director, and actors – free to concentrate their work in other areas. SAVING GENERAL YANG is a picture that, decades ago, would’ve been a daunting undertaking, one involving huge casts of extras, travel around a great nation in order to capture the various castles and locations, and as many artisans working behind-the-scenes to bring it to life as were working in front of the camera. This is one of the benefits to this modern era of filmmaking: it just makes the unimaginable possible.
Narratively, there’s a downside directors much keep in check, and – to his credit – director Ronny Yu has performed miracles with SAVING in that despite the prevalence of effects work there’s a very human story very close to the core of the picture: it’s a tale that involves country, family, and honor.
However, I found SAVING to be a bit too clinical in its approach to the other elements. The canvas is suitable large, and there are always new colors and new shades added compliments of Yu’s handiwork that I found myself watching too many of those storytelling tricks. In the process, I cared just a wee bit less and less about the characters. As this story is based on a Chinese tale of legend, it isn’t as if Yu could’ve effectively eliminated, say, three brothers in order to offer more screen time to just four heroes. While each of them is gifted with his own unique skills on the field of battle, I just didn’t care as much about them as individuals to honestly find much honor in their respective deaths. Yes, they were tragic … but, for some reason, I kept wondering how the next one was going to fall, and I suspect that wasn’t the director’s intent.
There’s nothing decreasing the film’s visual accomplishments. Yu has delivered a terrific war-time fairy tale that offers up some outstanding detail, some of which kinda/sorta appears as if it were rendered in post-production instead of in-camera. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it!) The picture is certainly a site to behold; I’m simply nitpicking the fact that I would’ve liked to have cared more for these individuals than the film had time for in its usually trim 107 minutes.
SAVING GENERAL YANG (2013) is produced by Pegasus Motion Pictures Production and Pegasus Motion Pictures. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by one of my personal favorite distributors: Well Go USA Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Chinese spoken language production with English subtitles available; or – should you prefer – there is an English-dubbed track. (I rarely watch those as I prefer to hear the original language.) As for the technical specifications? BOOM! This is one immaculately engineered piece of entertainment, and no expense was spared in delivering it with the highest quality sights and sounds. Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then there are some rather obligatory making-of interviews with the cast and crew, along with the theatrical trailer. It’s a nice collection.
RECOMMENDED. SAVING GENERAL YANG is kinda/sorta done in the same thematic vein as, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN because, like the Spielberg film, the story is fundamentally more about surviving than it really is ‘saving.’ Still, the exquisite cinematography and effective fight sequences – no doubt all put together by director Ronny Yu – wound up feeling a bit too clinical for me to love this as much as the next critical bloke. Perhaps I’ve seen so many far more interesting stories from that part of the world that this one didn’t strike me as exceptional as it did others.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of SAVING GENERAL YANG by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form influenced by opinion of it.
Ronny Yu, the director who made his name with 1993’s “The Bride with White Hair”, Jet Li’s “Fearless”, and even such American films such as “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Bride of Chucky” returns to Hong Kong cinema in 2013 with “Saving General Yang”. It is a straightforward retelling of the story of the Yang family that has been adapted numerous times in past. The Shaw Bros. classic “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” and … more