China Lion // 2011 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // February 18th, 2012
Revenge is a dish best served as soon as you can manage it.
Although not in favor with the current government of China, Chinese opera is one of the oldest art forms in the world. Forget any notions of large women with Viking hats hitting notes so high they break glass; this version of opera (at least as depicted in the film) is full of amazing acrobatics and martial arts moves. Think Cirque du Soleil meets MMA. As you might expect, this combination provides a logical setting for a martial arts film, which is fitting; after all, said films are Chinese opera's direct descendants. My Kingdom does take some liberties -- women, for instance, would not have been allowed in operas during the film's given time period -- but that's okay. It's worried less about historical accuracy and more about entertainment.
Guan Yi Long (Chun Wu, 14 Blades), adopted son of the master of a Beijing-based Chinese opera company, and Meng Er Kui (Geng Han, Beginning of the Great Revival), last descendant of a deposed royal line, grow up as close as brothers. After their master is humiliated and forced to give up opera for good by a master from Shanghai, the two swear revenge. That would have been more than enough of a plot for your typical kung-fu film, but the two get their revenge before the film's first thirty minutes are over. Once that's settled, they become the new owners of the Shanghai Opera Company, and soon Yi Long is living the high life as the star, while Er Kui stays quietly in the background. Again, there is enough space in this premise to make most other films happy; one brother gets the spotlight while the other sulks bitterly, right? But no, My Kingdom continues to eschew traditional formulas. Er Kui isn't jealous of Yi Long's greater fame because he has other things on his mind. Specifically, the need to take revenge on the remaining sons of the family that murdered his. In the meantime, the members of the opera company may or may not be plotting revenge of their own.
As the summary probably makes clear, My Kingdom is about revenge. But it's not in the typical in-your-face way. There is no gloating, no long epitaphs, no disseminating confrontations to let the victims know why they have to suffer or die. This isn't a gangster film where rivals get gunned down and everyone rejoices. There is no sense of joy or even catharsis; it's all about ancient codes of honor. At best, the moment of vengeance is bittersweet; at worst, it's as heartbreaking for the avenger as it is for the victim. It's hard to say more without giving too much away, so suffice to say that this is a film with few true innocents.
The atypical plot is enough to make this film stand out from the crowd, but that's not the only thing it has going for it. The acting is pretty good across the board. Chun Wu has enough screen presence to make Yi Long's early arrogance and later concern convincing. Geng Han has a similar dual-natured role, but doesn't have quite enough subtlety to master Er Kui's bitter, vengeance-filled soul. He is sweet, quiet, and accommodating at the beginning, with only hindsight hints that there might be a plan for revenge hatching in the back of his mind. The Er Kui of the second half is a completely different character than the one from the first half. Both Louis Liu, as police chief and competing suitor General Lu, and Barbie Hsu (Connected) as Xi Mu Lang, the opera's star actress, fare well in reasonably detailed roles. The most engaging actors in the show are the child versions of the brothers.
The direction and writing are less successful. Director Xiaosong Gao (Rainbow) is unable to keep the frenetic pace of the first half of the film going, so the second half bogs down. There is intrigue, but much of it is not explained adequately, and Er Kui's vengeance spree carries no tension simply because it isn't focused on. Instead, we get to see Yi Long covering for his absent brother and having an affair with a general's wife, a far less interesting series of events. The film wants there to be romantic tension between Mu Lang and Er Kui, but the script skirts around the issue too long; by the time they hook up, they've lost whatever spark of chemistry they once had. After the brothers take their revenge for their fallen master, the Opera performances are shoved into the background, taking their sparkling color and excitement with them. Gao also strains the proverbial "fourth wall" by having his actors do an occasional pose while looking into the camera. The fight scenes are well choreographed, but are hampered by distracting slow-motion shots and close-ups that cut out much of the action. Tie all this together, and you get a formula that sucks a lot of life from what should be an exciting, twisted ride.
The Dolby 5.1 sound does a decent job of spreading the love among the surrounds, although the score often covers up much of the ambient noise. The alternate Dolby 2.0 sound loses the ambience completely but has a nice warm tone. The sub-woofer, alas, is underutilized. The 2.35:1 standard definition picture is good, with nice vivid colors and a deep palette, as it should be for something as over-the-top colorful as opera. There is minor pixilation from time to time and a touch of grain, especially in dark scenes, none of it in sufficient quantity to distract. There are no extras.
My Kingdom is a unique take on a genre that could use some new ideas, with twists and turns that make for some tense and surprising moments. There is a lot to recommend here. But the frontloaded action drains the second half of much-needed energy; the film starts out at a sprint but limps across the finish line.
Guilty of the misdemeanor of Failure to Capitalize on a Setting.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: China Lion
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated