Judge Josh Rode once witnessed two referees fighting over a call. It was a clash of umpires.
When East and West clash, a legend begins.
Based on the Malaysian legend of Merong Mahawangsa, purported to be a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, Clash of Empires (also known as The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines) had a short international run before arriving in the US as Malaysia's first ever Blu-ray release. It is rumored to have been released internationally as an attempt to share Malaysia's history and culture with the world.
Facts of the Case
It should be noted up front that the title doesn't really match its premise. Clash of Empires sounds like two…well, empires going head to head. Rome at its peak versus China during the second Han dynasty!
In fact, the opposite is true: Marcus Carpenius (Gavin Stenhouse, Off the Hook) is a Roman prince who is supposed to marry Chinese princess Meng Li Hua (Jing Lusi, The Missing Day), thus uniting the two empires. They arrange to meet in Malaysia, a neutral point between. Unfortunately, the local tribal communities are in the middle of a period of unrest, and the collection of tribes that are currently in control massacre the wedding party and make off with the princess. It's up to local vagabond Merong (Stephen Rahman Hughes, Highlander: The Source) to realize his destiny, unite the remaining tribes, combine them with what's left of the Roman and Chinese forces, and take back the princess and the island.
Thought it's not what it seemed, the premise isn't bad. Done right, it holds a great deal of latent tension that could be exploited to make a really good film, and Rahman-Hughes does his charismatic best to carry it to something great. Alas, his efforts are undermined by a number of factors, starting with the dialogue and diction. There is an inconsistency in the way everyone speaks. Carpenius sounds much like a current-day teen, whereas his guardian uses phrases that hint he's trying to sound like an ancient Roman ("What manner of spectacle is this?"). Further, everyone seems to have Shatner Syndrome, speaking…their lines…with…long unnatural…pauses. Maybe it's because dubbing was involved, but if so it's done really well, 'cause everyone's lips match their words. Also, the Malaysians speak in their native tongues with subtitles, so it seems odd that the Chinese speak to each other in stilted English instead of Chinese.
The diction makes the acting seem worse than it probably is, but still, none of the men besides Rahman-Hughes rise above average, and even he stands out more for his energy than his slightly over-the-top performance. He is the only male in the film who seems totally invested. Stenhouse's Marcus acts more like a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old than a twenty-something member of the Roman aristocracy. His father had to have been training him since his early years to navigate the inner workings of Roman politics; he cannot be a bright-eyed innocent, nor is it remotely believable that he doesn't have lovers all across the empire. The bad guys are drawn straight from the "aging master/impetuous student" handbook and do little but sneer and make threats and kill.
The women fare better than the men. Lusi and Nell Ng (Lips to Lips) have some funny moments as the princess and her handmaiden, but once they get captured, they are given little chance to participate further. Their storyline—the princess wants to be free, not married and caged—has been told a thousand times before, and the film doesn't bring anything fresh to it.
The entire movie is a flashback of sorts; a story told via voice-over as someone from the distant future is writing the chronicles of Malaysia (the Kedah Annals, the real-life manuscript the film is loosely based on). Neither voice-overs nor flashbacks are necessarily evil in the right context, but Clash of Empires uses them for the purpose of fast-forward exposition in the form of poorly-rhymed poems. They're painful to listen to and reek of lazy, short-cut writing that tells the audience little that it couldn't figure out on its own.
The fight choreography is fast-paced, with decent spacing and clean sightlines, but the editing is jagged. Too many close-ups and severe cuts keep the battles from flowing naturally, and there are several instances where the film stutters in the middle of a fight. Rahman-Hughes, once again, stands out, especially during his first fight; you don't see many scimitar-versus-chained-manacles battles. Stenhouse does a pretty good job too, but his fight is completely out of character. He's a Roman prince, presumably trained in the ways of the Centurions. So what's with the Chinese-style fighting sticks and kung-fu action? Other than that and the amulets that make the bad guys impervious to harm, the film does bring a sense of reality to the battles. The good guys get their butts whupped early on and even in the finale they nearly lose.
The film looks surprisingly good, with a clean transfer free of pixilation. They did not take advantage of their location, however; the set pieces, especially the native compounds, are claustrophobically packed, leaving little space for the natural beauty of Malaysia to shine. When the jungles and waterfalls do get a moment's notice, the muted colors suck the life right out of them. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a decent job, although the surround speakers carry little but ambient noise, and the subwoofer is not used to its full advantage. Give us some boom during battles!
There are no extras, which is an unfortunate oversight. If this film was meant to give international audiences a picture of Malaysian culture and history, they did themselves a great disservice by not throwing in some extras showing just that. There is a twenty-minute making-of video (albeit spoken in Malaysian without subtitles) on YouTube. Why isn't it here?
There is potential in Clash of Empires, but borne under the weight of its frailties, it never comes close to becoming the film it could have been.
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