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Warring States (Zhan Guo), The
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by Jay Seaver

"A period epic with occasionally warring states of mind."
4 stars

"The Warring States" is the sort of movie that, for one reason or another, only China seems to make in quantity: The period melodrama about the clash of nations and individuals, with playful comedy existing side-by-side with romance and horrible betrayal. It's perhaps not the grand epic that some of its fellows are, and may be a bit confusing to westerners, but it's diverting and pulls together by the end.

The time is roughly 355 BC, in the middle of China's "Warring States" period. Military strategists are a precious commodity and are often free agents - or, just as often, kidnapped for their expertise. That's what happens with Sun Bin (Sun Honglei), the greatest student of the legendary Gui Guzi - he is first recruited by the Wei army to help them take a border city, and after that plan is successful, the daughter of the Qi general he defeated (Jiang Wu) has him kidnapped. That's not so bad, though - Tian Xi (Jing Tian) is young, beautiful, and spirited, though initially not quite so taken with Sun Bin as he is with her. However, this skirmish has made the other kingdoms nervous, and they come together to make peace. This reunites Bin with the general of Wei's army, Pang Juan (Francis Ng). Juan is Gui Guzi's other student and Bin's sworn brother; his sister Fei (Kim Hee-seon) is the princess of Wei. Of course, there's more going on than may first appear, and despite being a savant in the area of military strategy, Bin will likely be hurt by his nature as a trusting pacifist.

Bin's a bit of a weird character, at least as presented in this movie. A quick glance at his Wikipedia entry suggests that, at a minimum, the events have been reordered somewhat, and he's become as much folk hero as historic figure over the centuries; I'm not sure how much of his backstory the film's main audience would be expected to know. There's an enjoyable contradiction between his genial personality and his skill at planning war; at times the audience may wonder how he got to that point. We don't get that story, but Sun Honglei embodies the contradictions amusingly, finding the line between Bin being childlike and understanding the basic facts of war enough to want no part of it. Especially toward the beginning, it's a funny, larger-than-life performance, but that works to give some extra heft to the end, when the clownishness of the Bin we meet at the start is no longer appropriate.

Jing Tian isn't always quite so adept at marrying her character's two halves; the girl who giggles at Bin's impertinence often seems in stark opposition to the serious warrior we see on the battlefield. There is, perhaps, a sort of confidence that unifies the various elements - she shows us "Xi'er" as proud and strong enough that she doesn't feel the need to look embarrassed after letting her guard down. She and her stunt doubles handle the physical stuff well, too - she gets more action scenes than anybody.

The rest of the cast also does good work, although they could perhaps use a little bit of extra screen time to let us get to know their characters - we see enough of Jiang Wu as Xi's father Tian Ji to see him as a complex character, but seeing his motivations might be nice (he could use a scene or two more with Jing Tian to flesh out the father-daughter relationship). Francis Ng and Kim Hee-seon are fairly impressive as the Pang siblings, though - Ng balances Juan's affection for and jealousy of Bin with the pressures that the Wei king is placing upon him, while Kim adeptly handles Fei's divided loyalties (although princess of Wei, she and her brother are originally from Qi) and how her desire for peace battles her familiarity with palace intrigue.

It takes a bit of time for those threads to come together, but the Shen Jie's script does eventually cover the important bases and comes full-circle in multiple ways. Some elements seem oddly emphasized compared to others, but it comes together well in the end. It's a good-looking movie, too, not quite as sumptuous as some other period epics, but still pretty nice; it's easy to get spoiled by the steady stream of such movies that have come out of China over the years. The action scenes aren't tremendously elaborate, but they're generally striking, at the very least.

"The Warring States" isn't quite in the top tier of China's period epics, but it's a thoroughly watchable example of the genre. It lacks some of the big names that others boast, but still features a nice combination of action and intrigue.

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originally posted: 04/24/11 12:37:57
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User Comments

3/05/17 Ralph Chang As Jay Seaver said, this film is substantially accurate in covering the basic true history 4 stars
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Directed by
  Chen Jin

Written by
  Shen Jie

  Honglei Sun
  Tian Jing
  Francis Ng
  Hee-seon Kim
  Kiichi Nakai
  Wu Jiang

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