Lord of East China Sea
Reviewed by YTSL
Wong Fei Hung. Fong Sai Yuk. Emperor
Chien Lung. The (last) empress dowager. The "Great Conqueror"
Xiang Yu, his ladylove, his main rival and the woman behind that man.
The Soong Sisters, their spouses and their parents (but not their brothers).
Kawashima Yoshiko. These are some of the real individuals whose exploits
and life stories have been the subject of Hong Kong movies (many of which
-- it ought to almost go without saying -- often are inclined to take liberties
with, and stretch, quite a few historical truths). One more of these
is Luk Yu San, a near illiterate seller of loyong pears who became a wealthy
tycoon and powerful individual in the turbulent first half of the 20th
century (primarily by way of getting a share in the economically lucrative
but morally debatable business of importing and distribution of opium to
The first of two 1993 films that purport to
be a two set biographical picture (albeit of a man whose surname was actually
To rather than Luk), LORD OF EAST CHINA SEA (I) covers a time period that
starts in 1913 and ends rather abruptly -- especially so in light of its
being a 148 minute length movie -- in the late 1920s (with the (first)
coming face-to-face of Shanghai's "King of the Gangsters" with Kuomintang
leader, Chiang Kai Shek). In Chinese historical terms, that puts
this dramatic work of epic proportions -- and a cast of hundreds, if not
thousands -- in the temporal region of the era of the Warlords plus that
in which the Nationalists were trying -- apparently more often than not
by foul rather than legal means -- to neutralize the Communist movement
and threat to them. With regards to geography, the movie looks to
have been entirely set in China's most cosmopolitan city and its vicinity.
With these facts in mind, the potential viewer
of LORD OF EAST CHINA SEA surely cannot help but have expectations for
this Michael Mak period production's title character having led a colorful
life that was entirely in keeping with his remarkable times. When
this is coupled with the person in question having had by no means insignificant
parts to play in many action-packed affairs and serious intrigues that
often had wide-ranging repercussions, it all ought to have made for an
extremely eventful movie as well as epoch. While there were portions
of the film when this was indeed so, this (re)viewer has to confess that
she generally did not feel as drawn into proceedings as she had anticipated
she would be. As such, much of this lengthy saga is not likely to
stick in the viewer's memory (though it has to be said that those select
portions of it that do -- including a woman's having to run through a truly
nightmarish gauntlet along with the offering's few sweetly romantic sections
-- are ones whose sight will -- for worse as well as better -- not be easily
forgotten, at least by me).
Perhaps things would have been different and better
if one had been made more aware of the greater and wider contextual circumstances
surrounding Luk Yu San's personal trials, progress and eventual maturation.
Unfortunately, for this non-reader of Chinese writing, English language
translations failed to be provided for the many explanatory notes that
appeared at different times in this movie for the benefit of readers of
Chinese characters. Alternatively, my (relative) lack of historical
and cultural knowledge as well as linguistic familiarity ought not make
me feel that all of this visually sumptuous effort's authentic period look
could not compensate for or cover up many elements of LORD OF EAST CHINA
SEA not feeling quite "real" as well as "right".
Issues of intelligibility and authenticity
notwithstanding, I feel that by far the biggest flaw that afflicts LORD
OF EAST CHINA SEA is the hollowness of its emotional anchor and center
(which presumably manifests itself in the person of the character frequently
referred to as (Older) Brother San). Put another way: The wanna-be
epic's primary personality somehow comes across as being more akin to the
innocent but dumb Forrest Gump, who survived and prevailed because many
a bad experience easily washed off -- rather than scarred or proved to
be learning experiences for -- him.
Although some people might think so, I myself
don't believe that this just resulted from the chosen lead actor, Ray Lui,
failing to bring the requisite gravitas, dynamism and heroic persona to
the title role. Instead, this unsatisfactory state of affairs seems
to stem more from the work's main character being one which was not much
less weakly written than all the rest of those who featured in a film whose
makers had rather obviously lavished more attention and care on costumes
and sets than script and character development.
At least Ray Lui -- and Kent Cheng (who plays
a morally dubious Chief Inspector of Police of the French Concession who
came to have a very mutually financially beneficial relationship with Luk
Yu San), for at least the first half or so of the film -- was accorded
ample screen-time to shine. Although the third billed Elvis Tsui
Kam Kong (whose mercenary General Yuen Siu Kwan -- a.k.a. "Killer King"
--character spectacularly as well as literally leapt into the frame midway
through the movie, he faded into the background once he entered into a
business partnership with Luk and Cheng's Chief Inspector Wong and became
Additionally, all that Cecilia Yip (whose Donna
character was Brother Luk's first love), Carina Lau (whose Ms. Liu -- like
the woman she portrayed in "Intimates" -- deserved better than the men
drawn to her) and Siqin Gaowa (who had the thankless task of playing Chief
Inspector Wong's wife) are each accorded are but a couple of scenes in
which to make a significant mark on an ambitious effort that was more wide-ranging
than it should have been. IMHO, LORD OF EAST CHINA SEA suffers a
great deal from those three female characters being given short shrift;
not least since they possessed the essential moral ingredient and humane
outlook that Luk Yu San and his bio-pic lacked.
My rating for this film: 6.5