God of War (Gordon Chan, director) Michael Carlson

It’s a nice piece of synchronicity that the next film I saw after Blade Of The Immortal was God Of War, a Chinese wuxia war drama based on historical events of the 16th century. The film opens with Chinese soldiers under General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) being defeated by Japanese pirates who are preying on the coast of China. Yu is stymied by a lack of tactical imagination, inferior troops, and the politics of the Ming dynasty. Young General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) arrives to take charge, and wins the chess game against the pirates, driving them away. So far, so simple. The battle scenes are done well, and the tensions within the Chinese camp have a nice parallel with the Japanese invaders: the ‘pirates’ are largely ronin, battling for plunder and women, being supervised by samurai. The young Lord Yamagawa (Kaisuke Koide) is offended by this affront to the samurai ethos, but the commander, his sensei Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata) is playing his own chess game with a sort of zen patience which General Qi visually is shown to echo.

With the battle won, General Qi eventually wins his argument to recruit and train his own army, why General Yu is arrested by the Ming government. And when the Japanese return in force, Qi is put in a dilemma of having to defend three towns, including the one where his army’s families have been left behind, against a vastly superior force. Fans of non-stop action will be disappointed, not least because Sammo Hung plays such a small part (in fact I was half-convinced he would be released from prison and ride to the rescue in the final scenes). He and Zhao get one scene, in the prison cell, where they display their individual fighting skills, but Hung’s presence, his calm acceptance of his political fate is somewhat wasted here. That kind of fighting is not the point, however, because God Of War is a real historical drama, and so intent on proving the superiority of the Chinese to the Japanese it resembles wartime propaganda. That it was scripted by four writers reflects a somewhat disjointed structure, as it veers between action, intrigue, and even domestic drama. But at its best it reminded me of John Ford and his cavalry trilogy. Not only are there distinct echoes of Fort Apache in the training scenes (borrowed by Kurosawa for The Seven Samurai, then again by John Sturges for The Magnificent Seven), but it’s easy to see Capt. Kirby Yorke in General Qi. I might be stretching things to suggest a brief homage to Chariots Of Fire in one training scene, though without the Vangelis.

I found the historical backdrop fascinating, and the Ming subplot intriguing. Even more compelling is a subplot which recalls Ford’s Rio Grande: General Qi’s petulant and impulsive wife hen-pecks the great leader, before his men (including the leader of the miners Qi has recruited to form his new army) but when the Japanese attack comes, and his base city has to be defended by its population, Lady Qi (Regina Wan) stops being Maureen O’Hara and turns into a warrior as well. The battles are exciting, with new technologies introduced, three-eyed muskets and multi-pronged lances disguised as tree branches, as well as a ‘Crouching Tiger Cannon’ which is a bit deus ex machina, but for all the explanation, cheerleading, and historical details, what makes God Of War work is the interplay of characters, and the final showdown between Qi and Kumasawa reduces the vast scale of the drama down to great man. It’s effective. Zhao is hamstrung somewhat by his need to play humility, but Kurata is outstanding as the Japanese sensei, and Wan, who is the centre of virtually every moment she’s on screen, is worthy of O’Hara in her fiery scenes, and dynamic in her fight scenes. Ryu Kohata gets to have fun as the leader of the ronin, and the leader of the miners is played by Sammo’s son Timmy Hung, which ensures another individual fight with Qi.It’s uneven, and fans of non-stop action might be bored, but God Of War is a sort of thinking man’s wuxia, a return to form for director Gordon Chan, and a showcase for some personal conflicts within an epic backdrop.

GOD OF WAR is released on blu-ray, DVD and digital on 16 October.

 

This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)