Sunday, March 6, 2011

Far East Specials: An Empress and the Warriors

An Empress and the Warriors (2008, Tony Ching Siu-Tung)

There are only so many action adventure epics that feature a woman in the starring role, particularly those whose stories transpire in the past. For long stretches of human history, women have been relegated to third and fourth string roles in power politics. Military campaigns? Forget it. The empowerment of women on the international stage is a recent phenomenon, which partly explains why, in film, period epics frequently fail to highlight female characters.  Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s gloriously decorated An Empress and the Warriors tries to play ball with a female lead, the beautiful Kelly Chin from the Infernal Affairs films, who, as an empress, has at her command legions of armed men to protect her kingdom after the mysterious murder of her father. Even when a movie legitimately tries to empower a female character, there are always some forces pulling the weight of her depth back down to stereotypes. 

Set in a non-defined period in Ancient Chinese history (which permits the filmmakers to play loose with costume design), at a time when the powerful Yan kingdom is rife with internal rivalries and bombarded by outside forces which hope to see it come undone, An Empress and the Warriors follows princess Yan Feier (Kelly Chen), who becomes the new Empress after her father is murdered by a bitter cousin, Hu Ba Guo Xiao Dong) during yet another battle to defend their land. Before embracing her position as master and commander, she opts to fulfill her military training under the tutelage of childhood friend Muyong Xuehu (the indelible Donie Yen) a captain in the army. One day, while training on her own, Feier is viciously attacked by mercenaries hired by Hu Ba. Before completely escaping her pursuers, the empress is shot with a poisonous dart, but thankfully a lonely doctor who dwells in the woods (Leon Lai) comes to her rescue. Very soon, Yan Feier must choose between her throne and the peaceful existence available to her with the handsome, zen-like man in the woods with whom she is falling in love.

The fact that so few movies venture to make their central protagonists females may in of itself be part of the problem. Most movies are written, produced and directed by men, especially in China, so while the decision to make a grand scale action movie which follows a female lead character is to be applauded, the execution ends being slightly muddy. Most disappointingly, in the case of An Empress and the Warriors, it falls back on certain recognizable stereotypes on the treatment of women in films throughout the decades. The story is not based on any sort of historical knowledge, in fact it is complete fiction, which in some respects makes the end result all the more disappointing. Had the events depicted in the movie actually transpired as such all those years ago, then the filmmakers could be partially forgiven. Such is not the case. The writers and director had free reign to do whatever they pleased, and still they chose to weaken, to a degree, the character of Yan Feier.

Director Ching and his team succeed in giving audiences some worthwhile moments of storytelling and craftsmanship despite whatever shortcomings hinder the overall plot. For one, the costumes are both elegant and command awe. The featurette on the Blu-ray disc I have mentioned how not limiting themselves to a specific period in Chinese history enabled the filmmakers to play around with concepts and ideas to decorate both the people of this world and the buildings they live in. It was the armour worn by the warriors and by Yan Feier herself which stood out the most. Sleek, almost designer-inspired, but still very firmly built to be menacing and ready to withstand blows. There is one moment when Yan and her troops engage a longstanding rival from outside the kingdom in a forest. Yan, now fully battle ready after much training with Muyong, duals with the leader of the opposing force in a ferocious sword fight, a fight that features truly excellent choreography, editing, and fantastic close up shots of sparks flying whenever the blades clash against that beautiful armour.  The scene also ends with Yan delivering an emotionally deep rant against the ways of her elders and that of her counterpart’s elders, who constantly waged wars for small bits of land, with thousands of people suffering and dying with precious few results to show for it. It is arguably the best scene in the entire film. An Empress and the Warriors has a lot of professional, exquisite photography which takes advantage of some beautiful Chinese countryside and marvellous set design. On a purely visual level, there is little fault in the production. Little surprise that Ching made a name for himself as an action scene choreographer.

The actors all fair relatively well. Kelly Chen has the right amount of grace, sense of entitlement and power, depending on what her character needs to display in a given situation. Leon Lai as the wise doctor and former warrior who is now one with Mother Nature is appropriately handsome, kind and sophisticated in that currently popular, counter-culture sort of way. Donnie Yen, strangely enough, feels like the odd man out even though he is perfectly fine as the noble warrior who wishes to serve the kingdom and the empress with whom he has been friends since childhood. The early section of the movie makes one believe he will be major player in the plot, but once Yan finds refuge at the doctor’s tree house hideout (another nice touch of set design to be discovered in the film), he is relegated to second fiddle for a large stretch of the picture until the final battle when he challenges several hundreds of troops under Hu Ba’s command who attempt to storm the castle. There is not a terrible amount of depth to the characters as they all seem rather one-note, but that is an issue which can be attributed to the writing and directorial choices as opposed to the work of the actors and actresses.

The major flaw in the system which brings the entire project down a few notches is in the story arc provided to Yan Feier. When her captains and advisors see to make her the next leader of the land shortly after the death of her father, it seemed as if the film would enter very intriguing territory about a woman taking command in a traditionally male dominated field. Unfortunately, the story only flirts with that idea. It is teased every now and then as the story evolves, but never tackled head on. Rather, Ching and the writers are content to land Yan in a cute, pretty safe love story (complete with ‘aw shucks’ moments in which she at first dislikes him, only to warm up after a series of comical scenes) in which the doctor opens her eyes to a whole new world where people can live in peace with nature and apparently among themselves. Her rescuers charm and way of life are significantly attractive, to the point that she falls in love with him. The personal choice of leading her minions or living with her beaux becomes the main issue of contention for Yan during the majority of the film instead of any bold character study. I almost wonder if the exact same plot but with the sex of the roles reversed (a funny female doctor in the woods and a strong male emperor who needs to be taught about things other than war) would have had more of an impact. How much, we shall never know since that is not the movie the filmmakers gave us, but at least the stereotypes of the sexes would have been challenged on a minimal level. There is even a scene in which, despite there being knowledge of growing forces that conspire to invade the kingdom, Yan abdicated from the throne, hops on a horse, and rides off to reunite with her lover. Ah, yes, and sweeping romantic music fills the soundtrack as this takes place. Really? I can be a ‘guy’s guy’ just like the next bloke, but sometimes embracing stereotypes about women will embarrass even me. I shall refrain from even describing what happens when Yan returns to the doctor’s tree house. Who knows, some of you might find it funny and I would not want to spoil a good laugh.

There is nothing wrong with a film advocating peace over war. There is nothing wrong with a story which has characters, male or female, giving in to love instead of harsher ways of life. On the contrary, those are very good things. That being said, there is a way to tell and develop such ideas that do not make a movie comes across as uninventive and far too safe. So An Empress and the Warriors wanted to be a crowd pleaser. Another thing with which, in concept, there is absolutely nothing wrong. John Woo’s Red Cliff wanted to be a crowd pleaser and made use of some Hollywood-esque moments, but it ended up being great. Siu-Tung’s efforts and that of his team do not fair as well. What bugs me is that there are hints of greatness and hints of what the crew might have been going for. A warrior woman being tamed by a gentle man…I get it. It just does not work well in this movie. Recommended for the costume and set design (which are great), some of the acting (which is good enough), but I will not vouch for much else.


Sean Gilman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Gilman said...

Female protagonists are not so unusual in kung fu films, going back to Come Drink with Me in the mid-60s. Recent examples include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Ching Siu-tung (Ching is his family name, BTW) has had a long and interesting career as well, directing the great Jet Li film Swordsman II (in which Brigitte Lin attains ultimate power, but it turns her into a woman) and the Stephen Chow Royal Tramp films.

edgarchaput said...

@sean: I have been owned by your film knowledge.

More seriously though, I have seen 'Come Drink With Me' and it is great. Just a small point of contention if I may permit, don't you feel like the second half of 'Come Drink With Me' focuses more on the drunken master than on the Golden Swallow character? Even in that movie, as much as I love it, I didn't feel as though it had enough confidence in its female central character.

I admit that my comments in the review were somewhat too categorical, as can be exemplified by the examples of films you suggested in your comments post. I need more convincing that female leads are really popular, per say. I guess there is Michelle Yeoh too.

I'll correct the name mistake in the review. Ching as the family name, thanks!

Jack L said...

Most excellent review!

I do enjoy a good Asian Epic so I might check this one out, it seems entertaining enough. The idea of the female lead intrigues me as well, sounds different.
Glad you mentioned Red Cliff, that film was amazing, it completely blew me away with how great it was, that film is the reason I've been getting back into Asian Epic films like these, for after disliking Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon I went off the genre for a while.

Sean Gilman said...

You're right about Come Drink With Me, though the de-emphasis on Cheng Pei-pei was more an imposition on director King Hu by the Shaw Brothers than his own idea. IIRC, they were suspicious of a film with a female lead. When the movie turned out to be really popular, Cheng herself became a star and female-centered kung fu films became a prominent subset of the genre (though certainly never as popular or as numerous as the man-heavy ones).

Check out Johnnie To's superhero movie The Heroic Trio, with Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh. It's like Charlie's Angels with flying guillotines. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember it being a lot of fun.