Warriors of Heaven and Earth
Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei
Chinese Title: Tian di ying xiong
Director: He Ping
Writing Credits: He Ping
Cast: Nakai Kiichi, Wang Xueqi, Hasi Bagen, Vicki Zhao, Ho Tao, Linian Lu
Genre: Sword-fighting action
Country: Hong Kong
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 114 min
Rating: Rating: ** (out of four stars)
The official submission by China for the Foreign Film Academy Award next year, Warriors of Heaven and Earth at first glance seems to be a rip-off of Hero, but it is in actual fact more thematically similar to Musa, the Korean/Chinese movie. Unfortunately, it suffers from almost the exact same flaws as Musa a lack of deep characterization, a sole female character that merely exists to be a vase, and most crippling of all, not enough happening in the movie to justify its length (although its thankfully a half hour shorter than Musa, clocking in at 114 minutes).
After many years of service to the Chinese Emperor, Japanese emissary Lai Qi (Kiichi Nakai) is ready to call it quits and return to Japan. However, the Emperor has other plans, and dispatches Lai to the West to track down and kill wanted fugitives. The only way Lai can return to Japan is to capture Lieutenant Li Zai (Jiang Wen), a renegade soldier who incited a mutiny after refusing the Emperors decree to kill captured women and children. Having laid low for several years, there have been rumors of Lis reappearance in the region of the Gobi Desert.
Li and Lai battle, but agree to hold off their showdown when a caravan carrying a mysterious Buddhist artifact to the Capital is almost waylaid by desert bandits, who are commandeered by the scheming Master An (Wang Xueqi). Li and Lai join forces to protect the caravan, together with Lais female companion Min Zhu (Vicki Zhao) and Lis old compatriots. However, Master An wants the artifact at all costs, and unleashes wave after wave of bandits after the motley crew. Finally besieged in a small fortress, the group decides to battle the bandits with all their might even if it means losing their lives in the desert.
One thing that cannot be faulted about Warriors of Heaven and Earth is the stunning visuals of the Gobi Desert. The film looks very good most of the time, aided in part by the breathtaking beauty of the location, as well as Zhao Feis capable cinematography. Costume design is also above par, and the score is suitably majestic for a movie of such scale. However, with the good comes the bad, and unfortunately there are a lot more negative points in Warriors of Heaven and Earth than positive ones.
The script, written by director He Ping, spends too much time in exposition the film takes almost two reels to introduce the characters and set up the story, and it takes a lot of effort to not lose interest in the film even before the first hour is up. Whilst Warriors of Heaven and Earth would probably have worked well as a standard period war epic drama, the addition of a fantastical element to the plot means that the audience has to be willing to suspend their disbelief further. The denouement is also impacted due to this addition, and whilst it causes the film to end with something akin to a Deus Ex Machina, its just too far-fetched in the context of the movie.
Both Jiang Wen and Kiichi Nakai are passable in their roles, but Wang Xueqi hams it up so much as the diabolical villain in the film that his every appearance was more amusing than threatening. It doesnt help that he sports blue eyes and a rather ridiculous-looking head of plaits. Zhao Wei is completely useless in the movie, flitting from scene to scene like an ornamental vase, and even though her character doubles as the narrator, its a performance so devoid of character that she could have been excised with zero impact to the movie. This is not a trait limited to Zhao Weis character. Despite the length of the film, none of the characters are given much depth, and its thus hard to feel involved in the characters exploits. Warriors of Heaven and Earth may aspire to be the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even the next Hero, but unfortunately it falls short. A nomination in the Oscars next year for such a banal film seems highly unlikely.
Final Word: Very drawn out and with much of the movie going absolutely nowhere, Warriors of Heaven and Earth is a bore.