The Warlord

The Warlord (1972) is known primarily today as the film debut of Michael Hui. Hui had been a very popular TV comedian with a show that I am told had the irreverent tones of the American show Laugh In. Over the course of the 1970’s Hui was to almost reinvent Hong Kong comedy with a series of brilliant films and to a large degree, he was also instrumental in bringing back Cantonese as a cinematic language. The first four films that he appeared in though were not of his own making. They were instead the works of director Li Han Hsiang.
During the 1950s and 1960s Li Han Hsiang had directed many large spectacular historical costume dramas for the Shaw Brothers such as The Kingdom and the Beauty and Empress Wu Tse Tien. In 1963 though he left the services of the Shaw Brothers to form his own film production company called the Grand Motion Picture Company (Guolian). He made a number of successful films but his productions tended to be lavish and by the end of the decade the company had gone bankrupt. He returned to Shaw, but his films during the 1970s were very different from his previous ones. He now seemed to focus on films that were crass and commercial and dealt with prostitution, sex, bordellos and other unsavory but entertaining subjects. Some of these films are Legends of Lust, Tales of Larceny, Illicit Desire, Crazy Sex, That’s Adultery and many more. To some extent he was a precursor to the Cat III films of the 1980s and 1990s.

Though The Warlord has moments of this (though I fear my Malaysian vcd edited them out), it is primarily a comedic and yet semi-serious look at the rise and fall of a warlord in the first decades of 1900s. Hui takes on this character with great zest, playing him very broadly and with just the right elements of charm and cruelty. Certainly the character has none of the subtlety or shadings of Hui’s later characters, but there is a definite self-mocking tone to it all and some fairly amusing moments within.

Hu Chin
In the animated opening credits the film tells us that Pang (Hui) was a fierce brigand from the north of China, but that the Russians paid him to fight and defeat the Japanese. After doing this he became the warlord of Shantung and ruled with only a nodding obligation towards the law. He is judge and jury and generally someone ends up at the wrong end of a firing squad. In one case Madame Kao (Hu Chin - The Fate of Lee Khan) comes before him and accuses her brother-in-law of raping her. Pang suspects something is amiss and in a very un-PC move orders two of his men to rape her in the court. When she resists just fine, Pang knows she has made up the story.
Tina Leung, ?, Lily Ho
The film follows further actions of his – such as raiding the tomb of the Empress Dowager or having to surrender Peking in a game of chance – but eventually the period of the warlords begins to die out and the days of Pang and his many wives looks numbered.

This film is certainly no classic – and likely would be forgotten if not for Hui – but it has excellent production values – a huge cast of extras – and an enjoyable performance from Hui. Hui was to make three more films for Li and the Shaw Brothers (The Happiest Moment, Scandal and Sinful Confession) before he was to break away and join Golden Harvest and begin making his own splendid films.

My rating for this film: 6.5

This film can be found on a vcd released by a Malaysian company called Zestbase. The picture is fine, but is not letterboxed and the sub-titles run off at the sides. I also needed to watch it on my computer or the subs fell below the screen. As I mentioned, I think parts of the film may have been edited out as whenever a bit of snuggling was about to take place there were some very ugly cuts.