Browsing around fandango.com, I lucked out when I found an Asian period epic playing nearby. Much like the films “Three Kingdoms”, “Red Cliff” and “The Warlords”, a knowledge of this tumultuous Chinese period in history may be a must to truly and fully appreciate the historical epic “The Warring States” (aka. Zhan Guo, 2011) Much like “Three Kingdoms”, director Jing Chen and writer Shen Jian goes straight to the jugular, grabs references to the real historical event and never stops to allow those with no knowledge of this part of China’s history to settle into their highly episodic and almost disjointed screenplay. The film covers the period 476-221 B.C. and it is one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history.
Sun Bin (Honglei Sun, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop) is an eccentric young man who together with his ‘brother’, Pang Juan (Francis Ng) are among the last two students of Sun Tzu (yes, the one who wrote “The Art of War). Bin seems to want no part of any state, let alone to take part in war; that is until the beautiful Xi’er Tian (Jing Tian) of the Qi state catches his eye and to get her attention, he allows himself to be convinced and form a strategy with the opposing Wei forces. Bin is a master tactician and soon, he defects to the Qi kingdom so that he could soften the heart of Xi’er. But his reputation and the belief that any warring state with him on their side would win any war, Bin finds himself at odds with Juan and his childhood friend (played by Korean actress Kim Hee-Sun) as the Wei state tries to convince Bin to give up his knowledge of war strategies, that causes him to be tortured and get his knees amputated. Sun Bin is stuck in a middle of a war he wants no part of, as he yearns to be in the arms of the beautiful Xi’er.
I’ll get right to the point, if you have no knowledge of Chinese history or at least have some background on the story of the Qi, Wei and Zhao states (and the other 4 states) then it would be quite a chore to understand and follow this film. It can be quite frustrating, as Jing Chen doesn’t hide the fact that he made this film for Chinese audiences; most of this was covered in grade-school Asian history, so he knows people who lived in Asia would have no issues following the story. The film isn’t exactly a history lesson, but rather it grabs certain significant events during this period and meshes them with commercial sensibilities. As a result, the film feels very episodic and a little incoherent on many parts. I know a little bit about Chinese history but even I found it a tad challenging to keep up; the script had a lot of weaknesses, as it scrambles to attempt a biopic on the much vaunted Sun Bin. (it is fact that like Sun Tzu, the real Bin did write an “art of war”)
Much of the film focuses on the Qi and Wei kingdoms, as it fleshes out the relationship between Bin, Juan, Tian and the beautiful mysterious ‘sister’ given as a gift to the Wei prince. As such, the film merely touches upon the political situation during this time, and does express the idea that the struggles have been going on for such an extended period that most generals don’t even know what they are fighting for. It becomes a struggle for power than a way to enhance the people’s livelihood. We know that the four have a relationship, and a huge history, but most of them come from nowhere, as the direction rushes to cover as many bases of the story as possible. While I can relate to the story, I found the screenplay rather clumsy. I understand what it is trying to do, but this is one Chinese film meant for the Chinese and anyone who has a knowledge of its history. Most western viewers would be left out in the cold despite its commercial sensibilities, as things jumps around with the script.
Now if you are looking for rousing battle scenes, you will be a little disappointed. There are some battle sequences, but they weren’t made to become the film’s highlight. There are two major battles in the film, one was good while the other a little too short. There is action to be had with “The Warring States” and admittedly the fight scenes looked very cool and somewhat done correctly, but they are a little too far in between (there is also an ala-"Ben Hur" chariot race). Jing Tian does look quite capable in those martial arts sequences, and the choreography was decent. However, rousing battle scenes and fight sequences take a back step to the film’s melodramatic elements. The direction wants desperately to develop the characters and show as many scenes of elaborate set designs and costumes to satisfy mainstream sensibilities.
The acting by Sun feels rather eccentric and Ng is his usual self. Kim Hee-Sun appears significantly underused but thankfully Jing Tian, Huang Haibing and Wu Jiang were capable enough to handle most the film’s burden. “The Warring States” is a gorgeous film and I wanted to like it. True it was uneven and a little rough around the edges, it can be quite a chore to follow the screenplay as it does feel very episodic but it isn’t the worst historical film I’ve seen. It just feels to be overreaching at times in making a grand epic that it lived around the assumption that only Chinese moviegoers would go see it. The film feels very superficial as it seemed to have forgotten to develop the story and characters.
I wonder if American studios highly edited this film as they have other Asian films in the past? Makes me wonder....I will have to find an official Asian movie release of its dvd to verify. (They have butchered John Woo's "Red Cliff" and "Shaolin Soccer" after all)
THE WARRING STATES is a curious film, at times capturing the ‘bigness’ and ‘boldness’ that only the best period pictures can muster. It feels rich, epic and lush – precisely the way a film embracing key moments in a nation history should be – and it loudly cries out to say something definitive about ‘The Warring States Period’ of Chinese history … but, for the life of me, I have absolutely no idea what that statement may have been because … more