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Empress and the Warriors, An
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by Jay Seaver

"The "Titanic" formula - first love for the ladies, big action for the guys."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "An Empress and the Warriors" has ambitions of being a full-on action romance date movie, which makes it sound like more of a mess than it actually is. At any given moment, it is absolutely certain of what it wants to be, and gives that audience all it has.

It is the time of China's ten kingdoms, and the Yan are fighting the Zhao. The Yan king is, like all of his line, a fierce warrior, and his daughter Feier (Kelly Chan) is less the cloistered-in-the-palace-wearing-fine-silks princess than the one who straps on some armor to help out on the front lines. When the King dies in battle, there are three candidates to rule - Wu Ba (Guo Xiaodong), the king's ambitious nephew; Muyong "Hu" Xuehu (Donnie Yen), an orphan who has risen to the position of Lord; and Feier, though women do not traditionally rule. Wu Ba plots to kill Feier before her coronation, thus disgracing Hu, but she is rescued by Duan Lan-Quan (Leon Lai), a doctor who lives in seclusion. Outside the royal circle for the first time in her life, she falls in love with the handsome pacifist, but once her injuries are healed, she must return to the Hall of Swords to deal with Wu Ba and the Zhaos.

Director "Tony" Ching Siu Tung isn't messing around, no matter what part of the movie he's working on: The battle scenes are big and loud, as are the training scenes, the palace scenes, and the... Well, not the romantic stuff; those are extraordinarily earnest, with the music suddenly going from martial to lilting, the costumes going from leather to simple cloth, and combat chick Feier gets fairly girly fairly fast. It's not exactly uncommon for the romantic subplot of a Hong Kong action film to be a sharp detour from the rest of the movie, but the effect is somewhat magnified here: There is a lot of testosterone in the first act without any form of comic relief, so going from Feier sparring with Muyong to getting cute with Lan-Quan is a major tonal shift.

It would be tempting to say Ching is overcompensating, since most of his skill is in the martial arts and action choreography side of direction, but he does have the action cranked to eleven as well. The set pieces are massive, often feeling more akin to western sword-and-sandal epics like Gladiator or 300 than even the wuxia films of recent years. We're talking about battle scenes rather than fight scenes, pretty good ones, with chariots, shields, volleys of arrows, and plenty of blood spilled. The scale at times threatens to swallow Donnie Yen up - what's one great martial artist to do amid thousands? - although he does come roaring back to take on an army by himself.

Unlike some martial artists, Yen is also a pretty decent actor. He does a nice job of making Muyong's feelings for Feier clear without having to come out and say them directly, whether it be the expected unrequited love or brief perplexity at her sparing an enemy's life. Kelly Chen handles a part that could be a minefield very easily, as much as the movie tends to pull her character in opposite directions. She doesn't forget who Feier was at the start of the movie despite having her eyes opened to a world containing more than war, as others might be tempted to do, and she is able to make the character more compassionate and feminine without making her less tough. Leon Lai sometimes can't avoid falling into the sensitive guy trap of seeming a little simplistic, but most of the time he's all right. Guo Xiadong plays Wu Ba as evil right down to his beard, but that's what the character needs.

"An Empress and the Warriors" does tend to lurch between extremes, and there were guys in the festival screening audience ready to mock it for its occasional excesses. It comes together better than one might expect, and it wouldn't be a true epic without the love story to go with the action.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17592&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/18/08 02:39:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

1/07/12 matthew T. Dalldorf A very well done martial arts drama.Slow at times, but worth it 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 21-Jul-2009

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Tony Ching Siu-Tung

Written by
  James Yuen
  Cheung Tan
  Chun Tin-Nam

Cast
  Donnie Yen
  Kelly Chen
  Leon Lai
  Guo Xiaodong



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