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 the TV drama “The Yang’s Saga” depicted the decimation of the general and his son which led to an almost female clan led by She Saihua. This story in turn was then told in the Shaw Bros. classic “14 Amazons” which was recently remade as “The Legendary Amazons” which can be seen as a sequel to this film if you want to jazz up your Chinese history.
Details in the plot may differ since it all depends on the writing. But all movies tell of the Song-Dynasty era Yang Family and they all have one common denominator; the men all die. I guess this is some kind of spoiler for newcomers, but really, it wasn’t that these men died but rather how they died that made such a compelling tale of courage, filial piety and loyalty. Ronny Yu co-writes with Liu Shijia and Edmond Wong to bring forth the familiar story with a very straight-forward approach. Having a little knowledge to this part of Chinese history may be essential just so one could relate to the tragic irony in the story of the Yang family and it helps give some emotional attachment to an otherwise battlefield-oriented action drama.
The Yang family has been charged in defending the Song dynasty’s Northern borders. This task has put them at odds when the son of the Pan family ends up being killed in a duel by the 7th Yang son, Quilang (Fu Xinbo) who was fighting on behalf of the 6th son, Yansi (Wu Chun) who were competing for the hand of the princess Chai (Ady An). Yeah, an age-old cliché where fathers arranges marriages and sons fight over daughters. So when the Khitan army invades led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing), General Yang (Adam Cheng) is ordered to lead the frontline with Pan Renmei becoming the supreme commander of the Song army. Abandoned to their own resources, Yang and his forces flee to Wolf Mountain and become trapped. The seven sons then mobilize together with what was left of the Yang army to rescue their father. But Pan refuses to send reinforces, and the Yang family is left to fend for themselves. The prophecy “Seven sons will leave, Six will return” may indeed come true, and Saihua’s sons may indeed be destined for a tragic end.
I do have to admit, the screenplay was pretty straightforward, and it loses the many intricacies that led to this story. It does not have a strong set up but it does improve later on in the film. Once the film establishes its stakes, and the Khitan forces lay siege to the mountain, the film does begin to pick up. Most of the action and battle sequences were pretty competent, Ronny Yu was able to communicate a sense of chaos and urgency especially in the siege scenes. Hyper-kinetic fight sequences were made to generate intensity as the sons become defined by their skills in battle. The quality of the action set ups may not be consistent, but Ronny Yu did handle the scenes well. After the siege, the emotional content in the encounters became much stronger, as the sons attempt to escort their father back home. It is all about the son’s determination to meet their mother’s wish that their father be brought back home, and the direction was able to express such powerful emotions with the stages of strategy and sacrifice. The film manages to gain a footing as each sacrifice carries a respectful tone.
Ronny Yu was able to create a sense of urgency and a feeling of dread as the main characters face off with the Khitan forces. I did have some mixed feelings to its lack characterization, as the sons appear to be in a space where they were helpless, and yet a viewer could only see what was at its surface. I guess Yu and company wanted to create a focus on the themes of family, bravery, honor and sacrifice; they did not want to create a pretension on some of its romantic and political elements. I respect this, as such subplots may upset the film’s balance, and it creates a simplicity that worked for what it was intended. However, much as I appreciated the effort, the film does become predictable (okay, anyone who knows this part of history would know the story) and it comes a little too short in becoming exceptional. Yes, “Saving General Yang” tells only a part of the entire story, that it may have benefited if it was longer (but perhaps as with “Fearless”, Ronny Yu may have a longer more dramatic extended cut).
The performances were quite good. Given with what they were given, the actors did quite well with the limited script. I do have to give special recognition to Erik Cheng who plays the eldest son, Vic Chou (the son who is a superb archer), Adam Cheng and to Shao Bing who became quite a good antagonist. The links to the Yelu and Yang families may appear to be a little cliché, but it was able to produce that needed extra power in its narrative. Xu Fan, even with her limited screen time as fantastic as Yang’s wife and mother to the seven sons. She was the embodiment of strength and determination that created the film’s more dramatic elements. It was just so easy to root for the sons’ cause because of this woman. As with most Chinese period epics of this kind, the costumes and cinematography were real good, and one could easily feel that he was at this period in time.
I love martial arts epics and have a strong fondness for historical epics. The film may feel a little light on the storytelling aspects, and it became a little too close in becoming a practice of CGI excesses and bloody action scenes but overall, I thought the film was pretty entertaining. Stephen Tung’s action choreography had power behind such hack or slash, that along with the musical score by Kenji Kawai, the film made sure that the action sequences were abundant and the theme of sacrifice came into its surface. The film did have the action and emotion, but played it a little safe, it lacked cleverness and style for the film to get to new heights. It is still a solid flick and the Yang family should be proud. Recommended but a Rental first is advisable. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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