2008 seems to be the year for Chinese epic dramas. "An Empress and the Warriors" was released before the "Romance of Three Kingdoms" related films by Daniel Lee (Three Kingdoms) and John Woo (Red Cliff). The film is helmed by Tony Ching Siu Tang (Naked Weapon) and if you are familiar with this director's past works, you'll know that he is a good action director. However, I do believe the skill of good storytelling eludes him--"An Empress and the Warriors" is pure brainless fun, with decent production values and may well be a good "date" movie.
After the kingdom of Yan is mortally wounded after a battle with the Zhao army, the king chooses to leave command to an orphan, named Muyong Xuehu (Donnie Yen) who is not related to the royal family. This bold decision raises the ire of Hu Ban (Guo Xiao-Dong), the king's nephew who is ready and willing to lead. Yan Feier (Kelly Chen) is the king's daughter and was bestowed the sacred "Swallow sword" (I know!) as her father's dying wish, to give to Muyong. However, when the time came to announce Muyong's promotion, Hu Ban and Diao Erbao renounces the claim saying that the king should not be one with no royal blood in his veins. To keep the peace and avoid mutiny, Feier seizes power with Muyong's support--and undergoes military training to prove her worthiness to lead. Hu Ban plots to discredit the princess before she is crowned as the empress, assassination is even an option --a power struggle threatens to weaken the foundations of the Yan Kingdom.
I'm not sure how to begin, the film's plot is so flimsy and uninspired. It abandons the potentials of a conspiracy during a period when leadership is important in favor of a budding romance between Feier and Duan (played by Leon Lai) which makes rather fun but definitely predictable and boring. The character of Feier does look like a princess but the way she is portrayed by the script is rather silly and lacks credibility. Kelly Chen does look like a beautiful princess, but the kind that would act in a disney movie. The script by James Yuen Sai-sang is also very light, the threat of destruction is overshadowed by romance? I'm not sure, Feier and Muyong kept on referring to her as the "one to unite the country" but just what is this "Yan Kingdom"? All that came to view are buildings and shacks and aside from the ninjas and Duan, no common folk is visible. I do feel that the war backdrop is just meant as a plot device to gain sympathy and to set up the scenes of overdone sentimentality.
While I also disliked its use of the usual histrionics, the film does have some charm. However, unbelievable and stylish Kelly Chen's training sequences with Donnie Yen, it has somewhat diverting. However, the film abandons this device rather quickly and falls to the usual romantic gimmicks. The romance between Duan and Feier may be nice to the female species but it just kills the film's overall impact. I thought I was in a dumb teen flick, and while the screenplay has the usual elements of loyalty, sacrifice, duty, compassion and betrayal, it never executed them well enough and opted for a perfunctory romance to add complications to its premise of a "threatened kingdom". The storyline just wasn't interesting and lacked inspiration, the film isn't compelling and interesting.
The acting for the most part is a mixed bag. Kelly Chen is very pretty and charismatic but I had some reservations as to how convincing she was as a strong-willed princess. I would give her the benefit of a doubt since the script is so dry that it gave her so little to work with. Her acting is very cute and charming, her interactions with the tree-dwelling Duan may appeal to the female audience, but it suffers from a lack of consistency that doesn't fit into the film's plot. The film does have huge continuity issues and feels undercooked. Donnie Yen will be Donnie Yen--complete with his overacting.
Now as for the action sequences, there are quite a good number of them. Director Tony Ching knows his stuff when shooting action sequences. He uses multiple camera angles and the moves are visually impressive. The ninja-like assassins and the chase sequences were very cool. The assault in the tree-home of Duan is fast-paced and stylish, complete with cool close-ups with attitude. The battle scenes were decent but not in the same caliber as other Chinese epics of this kind. There is some blood as folks are stabbed and impaled in some very sensitive places. The action has a lot of posturing with attitude complete with the wind blowing strands of hair. Donnie Yen is a very showy actor but none can deny that he does have a presence as a martial artist. Yen is complete with bone-crushing machismo as he fights hundreds of Hu Ban's foot soldiers in the final act. Truly exaggerated and unrealistic appeal for an epic but good enough for an action movie.
So what is the final verdict? Well, the usual stereotypical Hong Kong "cuteness" just would never match the tone and feel of Mainland China's epic Wuxia films. You can tell that the film should have a serious tone and to incorporate a cute romance into its premise just bores the heck out of me. The action choreography does prove diverting and all it all the film is just a practice of a mainstream stylish action flick. The leads are definitely photogenic and the visuals were decent; this film is definitely geared to fans of these performers who would watch anything they appear in. "An Empress and the Warriors" is just another of those stupid commercial flicks that should be watched with VERY low expectations. It is watchable for 90 minutes but definitely a forgettable experience; it just fails in comparison to the best China has to offer.
AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS Let me say from the start of this that this is indeed a good movie, it is far from perfect but it is a good film. "An Empress and the Warriors" is a wonderfully done and shot some what epic war film that really is a romance at heart. That is kinda were the flaws are in this film, it did not pick what it wanted to be. Or better yet I feel that it failed in blending the different styles together perfectly. Still … more
I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't just another Chinese action movie, but rather had a more interesting plot. Except for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, most of those fighting movies are eminently forgettable. Sometimes I get sick of mindless gore in such movies. An Empress and the Warriors is different. The movie is more of a love story set in a mythical ancient China. The empress is about to accede to the throne after her father dies, but she is soon diverted by an enemy army. She is … more
In the tradition of Seven Swords comes the action saga of a kingdom locked in a desperate battle for survival. Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen (Seven Swords) and Hong Kong Film Award winners Kelly Chen (Infernal Affairs) and Leon Lai (Seven Swords) team up as sword-wielding heroes on a quest to unite a divided nation and wage a massive war against an invading horde. Created by the celebrated action choreographer and cinematographer behind Jet Li’sHeroandHouse of Flying Daggers,An Empress & the Warriorstakes epic action to new heights.
Stills from An Empress and the Warriors (Click for larger image)