by Jay Seaver
Fans of action cinema respect the Peking Opera School - it's where Jackie Chan and many others trained, finding their way to martial-arts-movie-stardom when they graduated to find little demand for traditional Chinese opera. In "My Kingdom", we see a tale from the form's heyday, and while it maybe overdoes some things, it seems like bad form to complain about this movie being too operatic.At the turn of the twentieth century, a Prince Regent ruled China, and part of the way he solidified this rule was to execute whole clans martial artists, including children. One boy, Meng Er-kui, sang as he was led to the headsman.and was rescued and taken in by Master Yu Sheng-ying (Yuen Biao), to be trained and raised as a brother to Guan Yi-long. How the Regent favored Yu did not go unnoticed, and Yue Jiang-tien (Yu Rongguang) journeyed from Shanghai to challenge Yu for the title and golden plaque of the country's greatest Opera Warrior. Fifteen years later, the grown Yi-long (Wu Chun) and Er-kui (Han Geng) journey to Shanghai to make their fortunes and challenge Yue, despite their Master's demands they do not. They find their old enemy to be the star of the city's most popular troupe, engaged in a taboo romance with his leading lady, Xi Mu-lang (Barbie Hsu).
"'Opera Warriors'? Sure, even if the movie is more opera than war."
Say what you will about the rest of the movie, but there can be little argument that it is gorgeous to behold, especially the first half, which is filled with opulent costumes and elaborate recreations of 1920s Shanghai. There's not a frame that doesn't seem to have some sort of detail that makes the audience grin: General Lu (Louis Liu) lounges in the back of the theater like something you'd see in a movie from the period. The brothers' wardrobes show them assimilating to the city, going from the traditional costumes of the rural Chinese to a more western hayseed look to Yi-long's spiffy suits and top hats. And the make-up jobs are utterly fantastic, transforming some faces into masks while still letting emotion come through.
It's against this colorful backdrop that we get a pair of amazing action scenes choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, who shines in going back to his operatic training here for sequences that should be able to appeal even to those who don't like kung fu. These are "opera duels", where the object is much more to demonstrate smoothness of form than to inflict injury, so we're treated to dances of colorful costumes as opposed to clashing fists, with wire work occasionally used to augment the action as opposed to defining it. It's wonderful action as storytelling and character development; the battle between Yi-long & Er-kui and Yue (with Mu-lang on the periphery) is as revelatory and emotional as any scene of tearful confession.
There are a couple of fights at the other end of the picture, too, though they're less exciting (as action skill goes, Barbie Hsu is a bit of a step down from Yuen Biao, even with the latter in his mid-sixties). In some ways, that reflects the plotting, which introduces what seems like a promising plotline - OK, guys, you've bested Yue; now how do you work with the Shanghai actors who were his friends and disciples? - only to push it to the background, separates Er-kui and Yi-long when it seems like the two really should be putting pressure on each other, and otherwise takes steps away from tension, rather than toward it. The funny thing is, director Gao Xiaosong and his co-writer Zou Jingzhi actually do a good job of pulling everything together in the end in terms of how this, that, and the other thing connect, but Gao has a hard time giving these revelations the same zing that the set-up has.
It may, in part, be a result of losing the more seasoned members of the cast early on: Yu Rongguang is fantastic during the first act, quickly establishing Yue Jieang-tien as a cunning, hissable villain and then, without a lot of dialogue, gaining our sympathy as pride and age deliver a deadly one-two punch. Yuen Biao, though not as spry and acrobatic as he was in his youth, settles into the mentor role quite well indeed. Compared to their elders, Han Geng and Wu Chun are just okay; they establish individual characters and play off each other and Ms. Hsu well enough, but neither can quite grab the audience. Louis Liu sketches an interesting supporting part and potential villain), but never gets enough to do, while Barbie Hsu does her best to make a character who must be various different things at different times work, only coming close to really pulling it together.So "My Kingdom" has weaknesses, and while it addresses them, it doesn't quite do so smoothly. It's also got bits that are just dazzling, though, and if they were spread more evenly through the movie, the problems wouldn't be so noticeable. Instead, it peaks early, and while that's a problem, the peaks are high enough that the movie can afford to coast downhill for a while.
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originally posted: 09/10/11 14:56:49