I get the idea behind jazzing up historical dramas. It’s one thing to learn about battles in school whilst staving off the urge to nap, but to see them played out before our very eyes is a different beast. Forget facts and statistics; straight-up bloodshed is much more photogenic. Such is the approach taken by An Empress and the Warriors, a Chinese epic cast in the same meddle as Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero. Here we have a film that ups the ante in nearly every department; it’s big on visuals, big on action — and, unfortunately, big on convention. While its scope is expansive and doubly impressive, An Empress and the Warriors can’t conjure a story to match, succumbing to that most cruel and crippling of maladies: melodrama.
As our story begins, the kingdom of Yan is in tumult. The nation is engaged in a struggle against the invading Zhao armies, a skirmish that takes the life of Yan’s ruler (Liu Wei Hua). With the throne now vacant, it’s fallen upon trusted soldier Xuehu (Donnie Yen) to lead Yan’s people to victory. Xuehu quickly abdicates in favor of Princess Feier (Kelly Chen), whose reign proves to be short-lived. Ambushed by the forces of the traitorous Hu Ba (Guo Xiao Dong), the princess finds shelter with a kindly doctor (Leon Lai) who turns her on to the plight of her subjects. Feier sets out to use her newfound humility to rid Yan of war, but there’s still some work to be done. Hu Ba has designs on the throne and has amassed an army to help him seize it, coaxing Xuehu and Feier into battle one last time for the good of the kingdom.
Convention is a double-edged sword. Familiarity with a certain type of story can put viewers in the right mood and give them an idea of what to expect. But it can also be used as a crutch for creatively sterile filmmakers who wish to be excused from having to use their imaginations. In the thick of this thematic fray is An Empress and the Warriors, a well-intentioned and by no means lazy work that nevertheless feels like it’s been glancing at someone else’s homework. In technical terms, the film is as ambitious as they come. While not as gob-smackingly gorgeous as a House of Flying Daggers, it works wonders with a modest budget of $15 million. Capturing your gaze right off the bat is the costume design, ranging from heaping helpings of armor to the simple yet fetching attire Feier dons while bonding with the good doctor. Well-balanced as well is the action, suitably epic and punch-packing without outliving their effectiveness. Even a little visual pizzaz enters the mix, particularly in an assault on the doctor’s treehouse pad.
But, my friends, there comes a time when a film feels too good to be true. So much has gone in the picture’s favor to start, the inkling of an imminent catch puts your optimism in a half nelson. Such an occasion arrives with An Empress and the Warriors, and its source isn’t the slightest bit surprising. In the tradition of numerous stories that shot for the moon, this one disregards the humanity of its characters in the name of making a Statement. Not a mere moral nugget to tide the masses over, mind you, but rather a message of such apparent importance, the next hour and a half must be devoted to explaining it in great detail. It gets to a point at which the viewer is all too aware that he or she is in the presence of characters, not people whom they’ve grown to empathize with respect on their own terms. ‘Tis a shame, since the acting is consistently solid; Dong gets jilted as a cookie cutter bad guy, but Yen is in prime period ass-kicking form, and Chen plays the strong-willed princess well without delving into the realm of stereotypes.
Watching An Empress and the Warriors reminds me of the lake scene in Frankenstein. You know, the one where Karloff’s monster plays ever so delicately with a little girl, only for things to turn grim when confusion sets in. It’s an extreme example, yes, but An Empress and the Warriors operates on the same wavelength. When it sticks to basics, it works like a charm, but when the story enters territory that requires a certain amount of tact, the film ends up chucking its subtlety out with the Tuesday trash.