From right to left: Hong Kong director Peter Chan, Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei and Andy Lau. Jiang Dong
Hong Kong director Peter Chan cast Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in The Warlords (Tou Ming Zhuang), but the three famous faces are covered in mud and ash. He hired production designer Yee Chung-man, creator of the magnificent costumes in Curse of the Golden Flower (Mancheng Jindai Huangjinjia), but the film's hues are gray. He teamed up with action choreographer Ching Siu-tung, famous for the dazzling kungfu scenes in House of Flying Daggers (Shimian Miaofu), but forbade him from using a single wire.
Set in southern China in the 1860s, the film opens with a bleak battlefield scene which sets the tone. The screen is filled with the bodies of soldiers impaled by spears, blood seeping out of their armor, and yellow dust in the air.
Pang Qingyun is an ambitious social climber played by Jet Li, who has two blood brothers Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau) and Jiang Wuyang (Kaneshiro). Theirs is a tale of betrayal and revenge. The stage is set against the backdrop of civil war, the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), a large-scale revolt initiated by village teacher Hong Xiuquan, who formulated an ideology combining the ideals of pre-Confucian utopianism and Christian beliefs.
"This is a down-to-earth blockbuster," says Chan, who has won plaudits for his delicate love stories Perhaps Love (Ruguo Ai) and Comrades, Almost a Love Story (Tian Mimi). "Why should ancient China always be so lavish?"
Chan is not a fan of the early Chinese swordsman films because he thinks they are too far removed from real life. The Chinese costume epics of recent years, he believes, have developed from the swordsman genre.
"I wanted to shoot a different ancient China. The one we are used to seeing in films is special enough to arouse the curiosity of Western audiences, but what I'd like to show is neither exceedingly good nor bad. It has these aspects, just like any other nation, but it does not always have to be gorgeous."
Production designer Yee recalls that Chan asked him to "represent the war through actors". At one of the studios, the crew spent a month shoveling tons of earth on the streets, before pouring water on it to create a muddy set, on whihc the crew had to wear boots all the time. Chan even researched the Afghanistan civil war to get the feeling for what a real battlefield looked like.
Li has only several minutes near the end of the film to show off his kungfu skills, while Lau jokes that he has never been made to look so poor and ugly. Rising mainland actress Xu Jinglei, who plays the only female character, Zhao's wife and Pang's lover, looks like a coal miner when she shows up.
When promoting the film at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Chan showed international distributors a 35-minute trailer, in which Li and his soldiers besiege the city of Suzhou. International buyers were surprised to find that, for the first time in a Chinese period film, there were no martial arts.
"What I wanted to convey is that Chinese films can also win over audiences through drama, not only by kungfu scenes," Chan says.
The $40 million film, which will premiere in China today, will screen in 2,000 theaters in America next autumn. Jet Li, who has starred in several successful Hollywood productions, says the first aim is to win over the Asian market.
"This film is not the kind of Chinese blockbuster Western audiences are familiar with, so, as for the Western box office, we can only hope for the best. We know very well the old type (Chinese movie), which puts together many money-friendly factors, but this time it is a different story," Li says.
As eye-catching as the war scenes are, Chan strongly believes the film does not use violence for the sake of it. Rather, he says, the depiction of war's cruelty is different from the "violent aesthetics" of many other Chinese films.
"In many Chinese action films, fighting, even killing someone, must be in a beautiful, or so-called cool style. That is the really dangerous thing. War is cruel and violent. All the fight scenes serve the main theme - the horror of war. If the film does not show the horrors of war, how can I expect my viewers to detest war?"
Li says he accepted the role of Pang Qingyun because the film is not about action but is anti-war.
"What I want to tell the audience is holding a broadsword is dangerous, not beautiful."
Chan and Li agree that it is the war that pushes the characters' fates. Li's "elder brother" character betrays his two close friends; the wife of Lau's character betrays him; while Kaneshiro's role experiences a dramatic twist in the understanding of brotherly love, at the end. Chan, however, insists these are not bad men, because the environment plays a role in their choices. Although the story is fictional, he says, their characters unravel as they would in real circumstances.
The middle and late 19th century was a time when the world was experiencing great changes. The German empire was established, there was the American Civil War (1861-65); Japan was to enjoy the fruits of the Meiji Restoration; while China was yet to recover after two disastrous Opium Wars. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was collapsing, while a new system had not arrived. In such times, Chan suggests, old moral standards faced a severe test.
"There are no bad people in my stories, only bad events," he says.
Scenes from the The Warlords featureing Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. File photos
(China Daily December 12, 2007)