As part of their “Celebration of Chinese Cinema”, Facets released a pair of historical epics set on the Chinese mainland. Warriors! Swordsmen in Double Flag Town and Journey to the Western Xia Empire appear familiar to western audiences in many ways, but at the same time they retain a unique identity of their own.
Warriors! Swordsmen in Double Flag Town stands in the tradition of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, though instead of gunslingers it’s populated by swordsmen. It’s sparse, desolate, and deliberately paced, and though the film is not driven by action, it always lingers on the brink of bloodshed and mayhem. When violence does occur, it erupts in quick, brutal bursts that come and go as part of the routine landscape. A man can be sliced open in public and everyone else will go on about their business.
Haige (Wei Gao), a young traveler, journeys into the lawless to Double Flag Town in order to find his arranged bride. Double Flag Town is the kind of place where they boil horse heads for food, and “a slip of a tongue can kill a man.” The ruthless outlaw Lethal Swordsman and his gang, terrorize the citizens. When Haige kills a man who is attempting to rape his bride, he sets off a chain reaction of carnage and vengeance that engulfs the town.
Things in Warriors! Swordsmen in Double Flag Town are never as they appear at first glance. Initially the townsfolk shun Haige because he looks like a little twerp with no intrinsic value. His betrothed wants nothing to do with him, and his father-in-law-to-be initially refuses to honor the marriage arrangement because Haige is such a pipsqueak. Yet he ultimately proves that there is more to him than meets the eye, while the supposed hero turns out to be a braggart, con artist, liar, and coward.
In Journey to the Western Xia Empire a band of soldiers are sent to a remote village to collect a blood tax in the form of ten male babies who will be raised as warriors. When they lose one child while drunk, the commander conscripts a pregnant woman, which is the nice way of saying he kidnaps her. They call her Lady Mute, though she isn’t completely mute, when she is angry she curses like a sailor.
After she gives birth to a baby boy, the soldiers abandon her in the wilderness, but she doggedly follows them on foot across the high desert plains, even after they take her boots. Through sheer determination she wins the begrudging respect of the commander, and plays an integral part in their survival.
The soldiers are hard men, raised from infancy to be battle hardened warriors, but they also have touching, human moments, as when the youngest of their cadre sacrifices himself to save Lady Mute. The commander watched the young man grow from the time he was taken as a blood tax himself. They are willing to die to protect the babies, whom they view as their new brothers.
Chi Xiaoning’s cinematography does for the high desert of Northwest China what John Ford’s westerns did for Monument Valley and the American West. The film is comprised of long, sweeping shots of expansive landscapes.
Both Swordsmen in Double Flag Town and Journey to the Western Xia Empire are hybrids of American Westerns and Chinese Wuxia martial arts films, mixing the tropes and norms of each genre. While they are immediately recognizable as belonging to a type, they simultaneously stand apart. In these movies, showdowns at high noon and riding off into the sunset mix naturally with swordplay and emperors. Themes of devotion, dedication, sacrifice, and camaraderie in the face of overwhelming odds, run throughout the films.
While the films are beautiful, visually and in a narrative sense, the DVDs don’t bring much to the table. Swordsmen in Double Flag Town comes with a quick introduction from Chinese film scholar David Buckley, and both discs come with a list of honors and awards each movie won, but there is nothing more.
Still from Journey to the Western Xia Empire Courtesy Facets
Warriors! Swordsmen in Double Flag Town
Journey to the Western Xia Empire