The Chinese historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” was written in the 14th century and set during the turbulent Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. It has been retold countless times on television, manga, anime and film, based partly on historical fact and the sweeping fictional tales that also take place within its 120 chapters of epic storytelling. Cinema has returned to this tale several times in the last few years, including Daniel Lee’s Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon and John Woo’s Red Cliff. Writer/directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong (Infernal Affairs) have once again dipped into the Three Kingdoms well with The Lost Bladesman (关云长).
It is a time of civil war. General Cao Cao (Wen Jiang, Let the Bullets Fly) is the real power by Emperor’s throne. He enlists the muscle of the greatest warrior in the land, Guan Yu (Donnie Yen, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen) to help him gain control over the land, although the bladesman is fiercely loyal to Liu Bei (Alex Fong, Triple Tap). Cao Cao takes the beautiful Qi Lan (Betty Sun, Just Another Pandora’s Box) hostage to ensure Guan Yu’s compliance. However, after General Cao Cao has ensured his victory, he decides that Guan Yu is too great a power to be left unchecked in the Three Kingdoms.
In addition to having lost a bladesman, Mak and Chong’s script also seems to have misplaced any semblance of a coherent narrative as well. Those familiar with the ‘sweeping martial art epic genre’, for indeed it has become a particular subset of an existing sub-genre, will know that the best of its kind manages to captivate with the segments that link the frenetic martial arts wizardry together just as much as the slicing and dicing itself. For those unfamiliar with this particular tale within the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, The Lost Bladesman does a poor job at contextualising the parts and players in the important era of Chinese history. The important character of Cao Cao is much more than a cardboard cut-out villain, demonstrating incredible kindness at times and fierce loyalty at others, but his ultimate motivations or greater place within the kingdoms is obscured in a convoluted plot made all the more confusing by the obligatory action sequences. Indeed, Donnie Yen’s central character of Guan Yu is one of the central legends in Chinese history (as his full title of “Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven” might indicate), but the only knowledge us outsiders truly gain of him from this production is that he is particularly good with a blade.
The film is not without some staggering highlights, especially one rapid-fire fight sequence within the close confines of an alleyway. Donnie Yen, who has done his share of both historical epics and modern dramas (not to mention the odd rom-com) over a thirty-year career, is more than a capable match for the epic grandeur of this ambitious film. Yet for all of the grand-scale choreography, Mak and Chong (who Yen was instrumental in bringing on board) occasionally show their inexperience in dealing with historical material. Despite a lengthy list of Infernal Affairs, Initial D and other modern action flicks under their collective belts, the incredibly restrained scene in which the only action witnessed is a Morning Star flying though a closed door. The net effect is that the whole film feels rushed and disjointed, with the plot secondary to the action and in turn, the action taking a back seat to the technical process of putting something pointy through another human.
The Reel Bits: An ambitious historical epic from a very talented group of people, let down by a mixed bag of action, a confused plot and a superficial treatment of some of the biggest figures in Chinese history and legend.
The Lost Bladesman was released in Australia on 28 April 2011 from Icon.