God Of War (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Well Go USA) Running Time: 129 minutes approx.
You have to hand it to the Chinese – they do historical films arguably better than anyone else, at least on an aesthetic and immersive front. Even if the historical accuracy is open to question, at least we are guaranteed some top notch action.
God Of War is in fact build around General Qi Jiguang a legendary military general of the Ming Dynasty noted for his tactical prowess and martial arts skills, employed in numerous defences of the kingdom he mastermind that made him a national hero. While this film doesn’t offer an in depth biography of the man and his legacy, we are treated to a snapshot of his career, covering the moment that solidified his reputation.
In 1557 Japanese pirates known as wokou have invaded Chinese coastline villages with impunity, taking over Cengang in Zhejiang and despite the best efforts of the Military under General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung), removing them has been successful. The best results came from ideas proffered by Yu’s lieutenant Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) who is given the position of general after Yu’s arrests for failure.
Hopelessly outnumbered by the wokou, Qi is afforded the chance to train a new army to boost his numbers and finds the perfect volunteers in the small mining town of Yiwu that had recently found gold. After training them up and developing some new and innovative weapons, Qi and his 3,000 men prepare themselves to fight against the 20,000 wokou interlopers and send them back to Japan.
Director Gordon Chan is no stranger to historical wu xia epics, having helmed such films as Painted Skin and The Four trilogy although it is fair to say not everything has been sure fire hit. This is his most ambitious work to date in terms of sheer scale, afforded by the increased budgets following China’s expansion as global filmmaking presence, but does suffer from some narrative issues, given that the battles with the wokou lasted almost a decade, which have been condensed into one 129-minute film.
In that respect selecting Qi’s first major triumph as general as the centre piece of the story is a wise move, not in the least in serving as an introduction to Qi for international audiences. Unfortunately not much about Qi the man is revealed, except that he is a generally thoughtful and generous man, and is quite in awe of his wife Madam Qi (Wan Quin), a fearsome fighter in her own right.
Sammo Hung fans will feel disappointed that his screen time isn’t commensurate to his top billing, disappearing after thirty minutes once general Yu is arrested. Despite looking more like a sumo wrestler these days, Sammo does get to see some action on the battlefield, as well as a nifty pole sparring session with Qi in a symbolic passing of the torch scene ahead of Qi’s promotion.
Heading the Japanese wokou contingent is Commander Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata), an old school samurai and experienced tactician to prove a worthy adversary for Qi. Under him is Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide), an idealistic young samurai appalled at the treatment of women and by the presence of hundred of ronin employed as extra fighters. Sadly, this doesn’t really go anywhere despite the tease of possible dissention in the ranks.
As you might expect the tone and narrative is very much a nationalistic one yet in contrast to other films where the Japanese have been portrayed as irredeemably evil, here they are shown to be merely power hungry and obeying their own codes of conduct and honour. All the aggression, violence and bloodshed is saved for the battlefield on both sides, leaving the infighting as purely verbal heated disagreements.
One can sense the times when Chan does want to make this an informative biopic, slowing the pace down to reveal the domestic side of the characters, but these moments are not as substantial as they could be. Madam Qi is presented as a stoic bossy boots and the mighty general is not lord of his castle, the contrast in his demeanour in and out of the warzone being quite stark.
But, the appeal of a film like this is in the action sequences and after a slow start, the second half turns the dial up to 11 in terms of ferocity, energy and graphic content whilst the scale of the locations increases in ambition and execution. Unlike other modern day films where CGI and green screen is the norm, Chan has eschewed this by the looks of things and the cast, along with hundreds of extras, are slicing and dicing on real, solid construction sets for a change.
From the plush palace interiors to the underground mines, the vast open landscapes to the portside villages, no expense has been spared in recreating the architecture, costumes and scenery of the period in loving, accurate detail. It is shame that so many battles occur at night since their splendour deserves to be highlighted more vividly, but the compensation is the paucity of CGI, used only for embellishments.
The choreography of the battles is meticulous and astounding given the sheer number of participants and the multitude of simultaneous fights occurring at any one time, whilst the close up martial arts combat sequences are flawlessly executed. Vincent Zhao, a certified martial arts instructor, gets to show off his stuff in many battles against a variety of foes in as many styles, proving to be a valuable asset to the film.
Credit must also be given for casting Japanese actors to play the wokou and letting them speak in their native tongue to give the impression of historical authenticity a much needed boost. Regardless of how disjointed and partisan the story may be, no-one gives less than their all in their performances from the principal cast to the stuntmen, another positive for this grand presentation.
It may not be the most enlightening historical Chinese epic but God Of War is definitely one of the most spectacular and impressive looking.
Mandarin/Japanese 2.0 Stereo
Mandarin/Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black