China Lion // 2011 // 130 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 21st, 2011
We will make war to achieve peace.
In the 3rd Century BCE, the feudal Chinese warlords began a major consolidation of power that resulted in seven major states fighting for control of the nation. War and bloodshed became the order of the day. Before it was all settled, countless soldiers died and empires were turned asunder. It's under this historical context that we find ourselves in The Warring States, an epic that should be more than it is.
The Wei and Qi factions of China are at serious odds, each killing innumerable numbers of the other. To turn the tide, both are searching the mountains for the reclusive Sun Bin (Sun Hong-Lei, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop), purported to be the son of the great strategist Sun Tzu. The Qi finds him and forces him into service for their cause. He'd be less inclined to serve if not for the beautiful and savage princess of the Qi clan (Jing Tian), whom he immediately falls in love with. Unfortunately, she was once involved with Pang Juan (Francis Ng, Infernal Affairs 2), military general of the Wei faction and the blood brother of Sun Bin. Former brothers, now rivals, use their armies to crush each other in the name of their respective clans and for the affections of the princess.
The Warring States begins very well, with the truly stunning Jing Tian leading an epic and brutal battle featuring huge numbers and mass death. Along with the gravitas-infused opening monologue, the film starts with a serious bang. The film never reaches those heights again, but it comes close at times. Once it settles down, the story takes on more characteristics of a historical melodrama than a war epic and that's where some people are going to step away from the film a little bit. The Warring States really is a romance under the specter of war, but there's enough sadism and violence that, given a fair chance, most people will find plenty to enjoy.
The action comes hot and heavy at regular intervals, which is what many are going to be looking for in a Chinese movie called The Warring States, but it's punctuated by a very decent melodrama between the blood brothers and the beautiful princess. While I found both to be enjoyable enough, director Jin Chen (Mini) doesn't seem to know which side he wants to focus on, muddling the story a little too much. The savagery the princess displays in the opening battle is supplanted by her becoming the object of affection, but only most of the time. Whenever it is convenient, the character becomes violent, but there's never any consistency there. This is the case with almost all of the characters. As enjoyable as the film can be at points, it's just too confused and inconsistent in tone to really soar.
Chen's inconsistency continues in the film's style, which is drastically busy. There are shots that are simply beautiful, but they don't linger very long as they give way to spinning cameras, out of nowhere wire work that absolutely doesn't need to be there, and unnatural zooms that reminds me of the cheesiest of Italian B-cinema. I appreciate the eye to style that Chen brings to the film, but it's simply too much. Add into that the conspicuously awful computer effects throughout the film and the otherwise good action scenes become something of a joke. A little more realism would have gone a long way in the film, but Chen takes the historical basis and makes it more of a fantasy than it either needs to be or the technical prowess of the filmmakers could really support.
China Lion's DVD of The Warring States is as disappointing as the film, but not a complete loss. The bare bones disc sports a terrible transfer full of defects and a serious lack of detail. This is apparent from the first moments with the snow-covered background hosting the opening credits, which are another shade of white and a virtually indiscernible against it. There is no improvement after that, as the whole thing varies between average and garbage. I'm not sure if it helps to mask some of the poorer CG effects, but it never looks as good as it should. On the other hand, the sound mix is excellent. There are two tracks here, surround and stereo options, but the surround is both the preferred track and fantastic. The iron clashes in all channels and the dialog balances very nicely with the music and ambient effects for a nice, complete spectrum. There are no extras.
The epic story and undeniably interesting historical context had the potential for a fantastic two hours of Chinese cinema. The fact is, however, that The Warring States is a disappointment. What's good is excellent, but it falls short on a number of levels that serve to sabotage much of those positive aspects, and the DVD doesn't help. It's not a bad film, and I enjoyed some of it greatly, but it just isn't what I hoped it would be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: China Lion
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated