Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Qin yong / A Terracotta Warrior (Hong Kong/China, 1989)

It is a real shame that a film that starts out so promisingly as this one ends up being such a mess. Like so many an Asian film, A Terracotta Warrior is one strange mixture. But unlike the best of the Hong Kong mixtures, this Chinese mélange doesn't quite work and comes across a bit as if two completely different films incorporating the same main actors were edited together to make one feature-length release.
Director Siu-Tung Ching tries to have the best of both worlds and divides his tragic love-story-cum-socky-chopy film into two main time frames, the first half taking place 3,000 years ago and the second half around 1930. And, before getting to the real action in the second half, he makes the change of scenery twice as jarring by completely flipping the film's tone from that of high tragedy to base slapstick. The combination of the two is common enough in most Hong Kong products, especially the costume adventures, but seldom has a film been so savagely split down the middle in terms of tone, feeling and location. Either half of A Terracotta Warrior could have been developed into their own individual and interesting film, but combined into a single feature they cause the final product to become alienating and annoying. All the more so because Ching unexpectedly drops the excessive and broad comedy of the second half during the final 15 minutes of A Terracotta Warrior, thus making the film even more schizophrenic.
Lovers of Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon (2000/trailer) and its forefathers should make a point to turn off the movie as soon as Winter (Gong Li) runs into the fire. Others, well, the final battle scene is an impressive achievement, but oddly out of place after the preceding hour. The action and choreography are excellent, but the film in itself is simply not as completely entertaining as some of Ching's more consistent directorial or co-directorial efforts, including A Chinese Ghost Story I (1987/trailer) and II (1990/trailer) or The Heroic Trio I (1992/trailer) and II (1993/trailer).
But giving credit where credit is due, A Terracotta Warrior obviously does not skimp in the budget department, and features excellent sets, effects, costumes and production values. In general the acting isn't that bad either, but for Gong Li's excessive and annoying overacting in the movie's second half. She is fine for such serious fare as the art house favorites Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), The Story of Qui Ju (1992/trailer) or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006/trailer) but as a comic actress she leaves a lot to be desired. (Interestingly enough, the male lead of A Terracotta Warrior, Yimou Zhang, directed all four of those films just listed.... as well as the deservedly popular films Hero (2002/trailer) and House of Flying Daggers (2004/trailer).)
A Terracotta Warrior begins some three thousand years ago during the Qin Dynesty, with the architect Tian Fong (Yimou Zhang) heading some monumental building project for the country's choleric and brutal ruler, Emperor Qin (Suk Bung Luk). After saving the emperor's life, Tian becomes part of the emperor's military court. Qin is obsessed with immortality and is also building the famous terracotta army of China as part of his royal tomb, encasing the executed and loyal in clay shells as part of his immortal militia. Qin also has a number of (comic) alchemists working on the formula for eternal life, which they actually eventually discover but do not pass on to the emperor. An aspect of the plot involves some 500 virgins, one of which is Winter (Gong Li); she and Tian naturally fall in love and, after he pops her cherry, they get sentenced to death. She commits suicide and he gets encased in terracotta, but not before she manages to give Tian the magic pill which makes him immortal. And, just when the tear ducts begin to go to work, the movie hops savagely forward to the 1930s, when a film crew arrives in pre-revolutionary China to make some movie. The shoot is actually a front for a scavenging operation led by the movie's star Bai Yun Fei (Rongguang Yu) out to rob China of its ancient treasures. Before you can puke over all the misplaced comedy, the emperor's grave is found and Tian awakes, mistaking the movie extra Lili Chu (Gong Li) as his beloved Winter...
As said, Gong Li is a lousy comic. Yimou Zhang manages to handle his part with aplomb, no matter in which century he is running around in. The climactic fight scene is breathtaking and entertainingly excessive, but somehow over much too quickly. The semi-tragic ending (before the final scene) isn't necessarily unexpected, but at least it returns to the movie's original tone. All in all, A Terracotta Warrior isn't a complete loss; it is just that it should have—and could have—been much better... had it been two different films, for example.

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