Saving General YangReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/31/13 02:03:32
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The tale of the Yang Clan is something special, even in a culture already packed full of martial legends. Its combined simplicity and grandeur makes it an excellent source for Ronny Yu's latest, and apparent labor of love that does the legend proud, even for those who have never heard it before.General Yang Ye (Adam Cheng siu-Chow) is one of the greatest warriors of the Song Dynasty and the proud father of seven sons. Well, mostly proud - there was the recent mess where sixth son Yang Yanzhou (Wu Chan) defeated the favored suitor for the hand of his beloved Princess Chai (Ady Ang Yi-Xuan) and youngest son Yansi (Fu Xinbo) accidentally killed the man when he attacked Yanzhou afterward. Now, though, the empire is under attack by the Khitan, whose general Ye Luyuan (Shao Bing) lost his own father at Yang Ye's hand. The emperor makes Yang Ye the front-line general, but he is soon trapped at Wolf Mountain, and it is up to his sons - pike-fighter Yanping (Ekin Cheng), ax-wielder Yanding (Yu Bo), archer Yan-an (Vic Chou), betel nut-loving swordsman Yanhui (Jerry Li), doctor Yande (Raymond Lam), Yanzhou, and Yansi - to rescue him.
The crawl before the closing credits of Saving General Yang informs the viewer that the Yangs are still venerated today as paragons of filial loyalty, but in the hands of Yu and co-writers Edmond Wong and Scarlett Liu, it is a fine story of how the love and loyalty can become twisted into something tragic, as not only are the sins of the father visited upon the son, but vice versa. It's a simple theme that shows up in every facet of the story throughout the film, but simple is good here: Many martial epics will be filled with minutia and various vaguely distinct factions, but there's not a single character in this movie whose motives aren't crystal clear and don't resonate with the audience, hero and villain alike. The way they act on this emotions is grand and operatic, but Yu and company engage the audience fully.
There's just enough complexity to the story that the audience gets the pleasure of seeing intrigue played out, but a war and a rescue mission means action, and that's something Yu and action director Stephen Tung deliver in spades. All seven Yang sons have distinct fighting styles for those who watch particularly closely, and the staging makes good use of them, splitting them up into smaller groups so that each can be showcased or used in tandem. There are grand battles where mighty armies face off against each other, chases, ambushes, and moments when a fierce skirmish against multiple opponents turns into a one-on-one. Some of the larger-scale stuff is a bit dependent on CGI that could improve a little (although even if the catapults and the boulders they hurl aren't perfect, they make their point quite nicely), but the close-in combat is great, with the sort of intricate choreography that looks spontaneous and which also communicates emotion.
The cast is more than a group of nice fighters, but it can't be denied that there are perhaps too many of them for most to break through. Wu Chun and Fu Xinbo get a bit more screen time and direct involvement in the plot of their characters and it makes a huge difference in terms of relating to the audience; they communicate Yanzhao's romantic soul and Yansi's impulsiveness nicely. The movie is close to over by the time the audience knows the others individually, but some make good impressions regardless - Vic Chou is pretty cool as bow-wielding Yan'an, for instance.
The characters other than the sons do stand out a bit more. Adam Cheng makes a wonderful Yang Ye; though our first impression of him is that he is not one to spare the rod, it's not long before warmth and nobility displace fierceness as the first traits associated with him. It's maybe not a perfectly balanced performance, but it is one that inspires affection. Xu Fan is brittle steel as Yang's wife She Taijun, wiser than the men in her family but clearly deriving no comfort from it. Shao Bing, meanwhile, is an excellent villain, pumping out enough raw charisma to be a match for the eight Yangs aligned against him and hitting the spot where Ye Luyuan is believably motivated but not at all sympathetic.
Ronny Yu and company make the movie look and sound nice, with ornate but tasteful design all around, from the Emperor's library to the isolated fort. There are little moments throughout the film that make it better than it could be, like the way Li Qian never quite just stands in the background as the sister (in-law?) assisting Taijun with the men at war. It does pile things like prophecy and visions in a little too much when they ultimately don't matter - the ominous warning Taijun receives does nothing but worry her, and that's going to happen anyway - perhaps because they felt like they made the story feel more classically epic.Not that "Saving General Yang" needs that; the story itself does the trick. Sure, any story can fail in the telling, but that never proves much of a problem in this case; Ronny Yu and company give it both the action and weight it needs.
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