Hong Kong director Peter Chan is known for his love tales with strong stories; Jet Li, of course, is a martial arts hero; Andy Lau is the good-looking good guy; Chinese-Japanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro is famous for his "flowery roles."
In "The Warlords," however, all the three characters - and the director - break out of character and do themselves proud. The film, screened for critics last Friday, will be released nationally on Thursday.
Making the film, set during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), is a long-time dream come true for veteran Chan. It's a lavish remake of the 1973 classic kung fu film "Blood Brothers" by Chang Cheh, but kung fu isn't the key, though it's part of the mix.
"When I was a child, the story of revenge in the film 'Blood Brothers' inspired me," says the 45-year-old film maker. "I have always wanted to make a film like this."
But Chan made his name with sentimental true-life romance such as "He's A Woman, She's A Man," and "Comrades: Almost a Love Story." Two years ago he made the dreamlike musical "Perhaps Love."
But he always wanted to make a big movie, a remake of "Blood Brothers."
Many critics wondered if he was up to the task. Well, he really is. Pre-release reviews were good.
There are big battle scenes, lavish settings and a tale of sworn brotherhood, betrayal and revenge. The Taiping Rebellion was a popular uprising against the imperial Qing (1644-1911) government.
Director Chan says that much of the US$40 million budget went to the portrayal of big war scenes. Li got 100 million yuan (US$13.5 million) for his role as a complex general - quite different from his martial arts roles.
The story revolves around three sworn blood brothers - the general and two Robin Hood-type brigands. It is based on a Qing Dynasty story about the assassination of General Ma Xinyi.
Pang Qingyun (played by Li), a discouraged general of a defeated army, encounters rustic Zhao Erhu (Lau) and Jiang Wuyang (Kaneshiro), two chieftains of 800 brigands who rob the food stores of the tyrannical government to feed the starving people.
Pang persuades them to join the army and promises a better future if they fight the Taiping rebels. The three become sworn blood brothers and vow never to betray each other. After winning battles against the rebels from the south, they find the nature of their brotherhood changes.
"Though it is a somewhat masculine film, the three male protagonists are not always fearless and strong," director Chan says. "They also have tears and show their usually hidden fragility."
He considers the role of General Pang, who is ultimately assassinated, especially challenging. But Li's performance is superb and the director calls it "the biggest surprise."
"Pang is a very complex character, apparently ambitious and tough but harboring deep insecurity," Chan explains. "Li understands and expresses Pang's personality very well."
The 43-year-old Li isn't satisfied with fame as only a Chinese kung fu star. A good actor is creative and changes over time, he says.
"In recent years, we have had so many Chinese pictures with dazzling martial arts stunts and romantic scenes - sometimes even death is depicted as beautiful and artistic," Li says. "But Chinese mega productions now need a breakthrough. They should be able to provide new and realistic insights into human life and human personality."
Li says revenge is the focus of the 1973 film "Blood Brothers," however, the new film is about more than revenge.
Many of the battle scenes are necessary to show the cruelty of war and can arouse anti-war sentiments, says Li.
The film also represents a departure for Lau, usually the upright, decent good guy - now he's a brigand. But his character is similar in some ways to his own as a young man.
"When I was young, I was as reckless and hot-blooded as Zhao Erhu," Lau says. "I am a person who trusts people easily, just like Zhao. That's why his tragedy in the film moved me to tears."
"The Warlords" is Kaneshiro's second collaboration with Chan. His role as a poor guy abandoned by his girlfriend impressed Chan and he got the role of brigand Jiang Wuyang - also a big change for him.
"When Kaneshiro stared at his ex-girlfriend in 'Perhaps Love,' I read the mixed emotions of love, hatred and even a boyish innocence in his eyes," Chan recalls. "That made me believe he was the right one for Jiang."
Kaneshiro admits that his part in "The Warlords" is very different from his former flowery and melancholic roles. For the first time he appears with a mustache and wears the Manchu hairstyle, shaved head with a queue.
"Jiang is uncompromising about the brotherhood," Kaneshiro says. "It's not easy to portray his helplessness and perplexity after his faith collapses. He assassinates Pang to prove the existence of the brotherhood they once had."
General Pang is assassinated because he betrays his sworn brothers and slaughters thousands of innocents who surrender to the imperial forces.
Chinese mainland actress Xu Jinglei plays the only major female character, Liansheng, and she is caught in a love triangle between her simple husband Zhao and her lover Pang. The role is a catalyst in the men's relationship.
"She has different emotions towards the two important men in her life - for Zhao she holds tender, family love, but her affair with Pang is driven by passion," Xu says.
"Chan has wonderful storytelling skills, which have made his first big movie so appealing and touching," says Zhang Lei, a local correspondent, who attended the pre-release screening.
(Shanghai Daily December 11, 2007)