None of the recent wuxia martial art epics can seem to avoid the the endemic schlockiness of the genre, so as a viewer we are just content to find one that isn’t altogether too offensive in this regard. We think that Three Kingdoms manages to do that. There’s some good action, though nothing you haven’t seen before — the hail of spears and arrows, the beheaded enemies, the evil vixen (Maggie Q) playing pipa while men are being slaughtered, and of course, the de rigeur moral message about the evils of war and humanity’s inability to end violence with violence.
The film is based on one of the classics of Chinese literature, The Three Kingdoms> (三国演义), and focuses mostly on the character of Zhao Zilong (赵子龙), one of the legendary warriors in the book. There’s nothing too deep or particularly memorable about his journey from being a nobody in the army to becoming legendary heartthrob general, but Andy Lau (刘德华) does a competent enough job of it, even though his perfect teeth don’t really jibe with the character.
There are great actors like Ti Lung, and then there are not so great actors, like Maggie Q, Vanness Wu (he of F4 boy band fame), and Sammo Hung.We’ve been reading some reviews, and most of them seem to say something alone the lines of what we read in Cinema Online:
With “Kingdoms”, you feel that it could have been a five star film if a few things were improved here and there. Before John Woo’s “Red Cliff” hits the screens, it’s still a good bet for almost-there entertainment. One thing though – Vanness Wu should never be in the same picture as Lung Ti. Harshly said, boy band members have no place in war epics, at least not one with Shaw Brothers’ icons in it.
Twitch has a slightly more critical view of the film:
These days with so many period epics on the way or already released, you can literally create a checklist for their requisites. Beautiful costumes: check. Stylish weapons: check. Breathtaking landscapes: check. Armies of thousands: check. Exciting martial arts and action sequences?
This genre has really gone the way of “all style and no substance” which is somewhat ironic, given that the whole reason why the Three Kingdoms is such a classic in the Chinese world is not just because it’s a good yarn, but because it’s moving. The characters are moving. Their relationships, their words, deeds, and actions are memorable. People know so much of these stories by heart. That’s a challenge to any filmmaker, so believe us that we aren’t trying to slag off this director as not worthy of the challenge; few directors could be. However, you’d think that character development would not be as short-shrifted as it regularly is.
Fans of wuxia and Three Kingdoms might like this one, the rest of you should not encounter any existential crisis if you miss it.
Cross-posted at China Film Journal