An Empress and the Warriors

I arrived in Hong Kong Monday evening for the HKIFF and within an hour I had checked into the Dorsett Hotel on Shanghai St. in Kowloon. I began to unpack my clothes when I realized that the room had no bureau, closet or shelves - just a bit of floor space for storage. Later that night when I laid down my feet were able to touch the wall opposite my bed and I knew I could officially call this my smallest hotel room ever. I long for the days when I used to stay at the Grand Hyatt where the bathroom was larger than my room at the Dorsett, but that was when I was a working lad - now the only cashflow coming my way is loose change I find on the street.

I had two options for my first night. A friend had been able to get me a ticket to a preview of the new Ching Siu-tung film - hopefully a return to the greatness of A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II - called An Empress and the Warriors. Another friend who is involved with the Asian Film Awards said he could get me a ticket to that and perhaps to the party afterwards. Tough call - the Awards last year were suppose to be the nearest thing to death without being shot in the head but it was still a chance to do some celebrity gawking - but I was here in Hong Kong to see movies and so went with An Empress. To my everlasting regret. My friend told me that Shu Qi was a presenter and was at the party. In a low cut gown. Looking really good. Maybe my last chance ever to drool at her feet.

As to the film . . . well the fact that the three main stars are Donny Yen, Kelly Chan and Leon Lai should have been a danger sign - perhaps the three most expressionless actors in Hong Kong - all in one movie - sometimes in the same scene - time basically implodes. They live up to their reputations - Donnie looks like he is suffering from constipation the whole time - desperately in search of a laxative - Leon is so bland he should be a white Republican (is there any other kind?) with one too many meals at the local country club - but Kelly to her credit works up two expressions in the film - one a Charlene Choi shy giggly imitation and the other a poker faced gaze that she must give to her maid when her blouses are wrinkled.

There is potential here that goes sadly by the wayside. The Yan Empire is being invaded by various kingdoms and after the King is killed in battle an internecine struggle brews between the nefarious nephew Wu Ba, the orphan bastard (as everyone calls him) General Muyong (Donnie Yen) and the daughter of the King, Yan Feier (Kelly). Muyong and Feier are allied on the side of good, but Wu Ba wants power at any cost. He hires a band of ninja types to assassinate Feier, but after she is hit with a poison dart she is saved by a hermit woodsman, Duan (Leon) - who has set up an elaborate three bedroom tree house deep in the woods where he tends to lambs, keeps bees for honey, discovers cures for illness, builds hot air balloons and is probably working on creating the Internet. It is his Shangri-la. He professes to be a man of peace who has forsaken war, but who has oddly boobytrapped the entire forest with deadly devices - perhaps just in case a hottie shows up one day being chased after by killers.

A romance blooms and a film dies - as it basically devolves into a glossy music video of embarrassing proportions. I turned to my friend and said "a song should break out right about now" and it does - a duet - then they get into the balloon and sail away into the sunset. But sadly they don't disappear forever. She has to come back for her people and a close-up. Picture Kelly looking stern and very cute in her armour. More women would wear armour if they looked that good. If the film had stayed with the basic premise it could have been a solid if far from inspiring addition to the wuxia genre - the action is well-done with feet firmly on the ground - a big battle scene is nicely staged - some smaller more intimate fights are fine - and a Donnie against about a thousand men fight is right out of a Chang Cheh film - but the forays into puppy love feel like they should be in another film - a very bad one.
Not to pile too heavily on Kelly, but the role is really one that should have been given to a younger actress - an actress who could have more realistically portrayed a young lady caught between blushing youth and the need to grow up quickly to save her people. Sadly, my friend and I tried to think of a current Hong Kong actress who would have been a better fit but couldn't really come up with one.

My rating for this film: 5.5