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 Chinese people).

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.

Ray Lui and Cecilia Yip
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).
Kent Cheng and Siqin Gaowa
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.

Carina Lau and Cecilia
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.
Kent, Ray and Tsui Kam Kong
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 (semi)-legit).
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