Reviews Too Late: Three Kingdoms

by wjw on January 24, 2012

I found myself in a strange relationship with this movie.  It’s a Korean film based on the classic Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, and though I haven’t read the book, I’ve played the video game.  Koei’s classic MS-DOS-based game was one of my favorites from the 1980s, and not only have I played it multiple times, I’ve played all the characters in this movie.  Sometimes I got the feeling that Andy Lau was playing me.

(A version of the game is still available, as Dynasty Warriors: Empire.  I don’t particularly care for its blend of arcade and turn-based action, and the synth0-pop soundtrack makes me want to plunge knitting needles into my ears.)

The novel and its characters are very well-known in China— Mao supposedly identified strongly with Cao Cao, the book’s villain— and this may be problematic for the average Western viewer, who might be inclined to wonder, “Who are these Five Tiger Generals, anyway?”  I watched what I assume is the American cut— the action was very choppy, and characters (like the hero’s girlfriend) appeared meaningfully only to be promptly forgotten. Probably there’s a longer and better Chinese version out there beyond our shores.

But if you’re hip to the novel or the game or the history, or if you’re just into immense spectacle, you’ll completely groove on this.

One of the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop, Andy Lau (Fook Wing), plays Zhao Zilong (a historical character who is probably better known by an alternate name, Zhao Yun).  Lau is one of the great stalwarts of the age, having not only maintained his successful singing career but having acted in over 160 films, and the years have only given him a gravitas that wasn’t visible when he was a prancing young pop star.  (He and the other Hong Kong actors are dubbed into Mandarin for this film.  Not badly, but it was noticeable.)

The film opens at the beginning of the Warring States, when China had been split into three kingdoms ruled by generals.  The North is ruled by Cao Cao, whose motto is, “I would rather betray everybody than be betrayed by a single person.”  The South is ruled by General Not Appearing In This Film, a/k/a Sun Quan.  The West is ruled by the novel’s hero, Liu Bei, with the capable assistance of his sworn brothers from the Oath of the Peach-Tree Garden.

Just to make it clear who to cheer for, the good guys are all given flat helmets similar to those worn by British Tommies in the World Wars, whereas the bad guys wear the German stahlhelm.  Or maybe the filmmakers just thought of it as a Darth Vader hat.  The armor seems mostly to be Japanese, or maybe Korean.

Young Zilong joins Liu Bei’s army and makes the acquaintance of an older, wearier soldier, Luo, played by Sammo Hung (who also did the fight choreography).  Zilong’s unit is ordered to hold a fort in the desert against overwhelming odds, and Zilong distinguishes himself in a surprise night attack, killing the enemy general (though he gives the credit to his friend Luo). Zilong gets leave to go home and has a moving, unconventional romance with a lady puppeteer, who the movie promptly forgets about.

During a retreat, Zilong saves Liu Bei’s infant son, cutting his way through the whole of Cao Cao’s army and riding off with Cao Cao’s famous sword, the Quinggang.  [The historical Zilong not only did this, but rescued Liu Bei’s wife as well.]  Zilong then becomes one of Liu Bei’s famous Five Tiger Generals, each of whom gets a cameo.

TWENTY YEARS OF CONSTANT WARFARE LATER, Zilong’s girlfriend has yet to make an appearance.  Liu Bei is dead and succeeded by the rather ridiculous son that Zilong rescued all those years ago.  The surviving Tiger Generals are superceded by younger men, and the kingdom decides to try one last campaign to unify China.  Except the new generals really can’t get along, no one wants to listen to Zilong, and the whole affair is a disaster.  Zilong is left to defend the same stupid desert fort that made his reputation decades before.

Cao Cao’s army is led by his granddaughter, Cao Ying (Maggie O), who I assume is fictional.  My best guess is that the filmmakers realized they’d forgotten about the film’s only female character and decided they needed another one.  Anyway, Cao Ying is a chip of the old Quinggang— she’s evil, scheming, treacherous, ingenious, ruthless, and a hell of a martial artist.  She likes to play her lyre while ordering men to their deaths.

Zilong is trying to delay the final battle in hopes that reinforcements might turn up.  Ying wants to delay the battle because, well, she’s evil, and she enjoys tormenting her helpless foe.  So there’s a good deal of sparring, verbal and otherwise, between the antagonists before Zilong orders the final, hopeless charge against the villainous army.  The relationship between the hero and the villainness is the best part of the movie.

Since this is a serious historical film set in China, there is no happy ending.  It’s simply not allowed.  [The real-life Zhao Zilong lived a long life and died in bed, rich with honors.)

The real reason to see this film is the spectacle, of which there is lots.  Also action, improbable fight scenes, and gorgeous desert scenery.  Andy Lau is very good, even if his voice is dubbed.

You might want to read the book first, just so you know what the hell is going on.

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