'The Warring States', An Epic Chinese Historical Drama, Should Dazzle, but It Doesn't

by David Maine

11 January 2012

Given all the nods toward the by-the-numbers romance, family drama and slapstick comedy that clutter much of its running time, the viewer is apt to get a little antsy by the time the climactic showdown arrives.
cover art

The Warring States

Director: Jin Chen
Cast: Francis Ng, Sun Hong-Lei, Jing Tian, Kim Hee Seon

US DVD: 15 Nov 2011

China’s Warring States Period, from the fifth to the third centuries BC, offers a sweeping backdrop to this epic film production of the same name. The action sequences are suitably huge, with vast armies of CGI horsemen and flesh-and-blood extras hurling themselves at each other. Sadly, those sequences are mainly limited to the opening and closing portions of the movie, with much of the rest of the time given over to a complicated plot that’s frankly not worth the effort expended in trying to follow it.

Longhaired hermit Sun Bin is reputed to be a military genius, and he is subsequently pressed into service for a local warlord out to make a name for himself. Sun Bin’s blood-brother Pang Juan envies his brother’s reputation and sets out to hijack his career—or perhaps derail it altogether. Before that can happen, though, Sun Bin develops a flirtatious quasi-romance with the beautiful Tian Xi who, besides being an audacious battle strategist and a masterful swordswoman, also enjoys the benefits of some truly outstanding hair.

Sun Bin allies himself with the Qi warlord even as brother Pang Juan is working to match his exploits to the advantage of the rival Wei clan. It may come as a surprise that there is more than military ambition fueling this rivalry, but it should surprise no one that the result is a series of violent confrontations eventually culminating in an earth-shaking—literally—climax. Along the way there are chariot races to be run, prisons to be sent to and gotten free from, and any number of betrayals, back-stabbings and slow-motion sequences to be revealed.

If all this makes the storyline sound Byzantine and confusing, well, it is—and made all the more so by a screenplay that constantly cross-cuts among locales and characters, and even timelines. The story is quite demanding, considering how stock the situations are—rival brothers, militarily ambitious rulers, young would-be lovers—and few of the story elements really justify all the effort expended in following along. More than anything else, the labyrinthine plot exists to justify the final, epic battle; the whole movie is moving toward that last confrontation, and much that happens beforehand is only marginally interesting.

Character development and relationships are treated as if they are important—and the swelling soundtrack isn’t shy about letting you know how you’re supposed to feel—but really, this type of movie is all about the action. Given all the nods toward the by-the-numbers romance, family drama and slapstick comedy that clutter much of its running time, the viewer is apt to get a little antsy by the time the climactic showdown arrives.

Although in no way a martial arts film, The Warring States nevertheless offers up numerous scenes of close-quarters hand-to-hand fighting, flashing swordplay, cavalry charges, and disasters both natural and man-made. The first bloodshed takes place within seconds of the opening credits and there soon follows much more, although the audience is then left waiting—or is it wading?—through the interminable storyline before the action picks up again. Action scenes, when they so occur, are tremendously visceral and visually engaging, if a bit preposterous at times, and all perfectly entertaining as long as you don’t mind the idea of violence as spectacle, presented here in almost purely unadulterated form.

The cinematography is excellent throughout, with suitably epic landscapes, battlefields and palaces. Costumes are terrific; colors are muted but richly saturated, while the sound adds to the impact of action sequences. The acting is capable throughout, although broadly played, as this is not a film which calls upon its actors to give nuanced performances. The widesceen transfer is crisp and sharp, adding to the eye-candy effect of the disc. There are no extras whatever on the DVD, unless you count subtitles as an extra.

Despite the visual appeal, it’s hard to say what kind of viewer would come away happy with this movie. Fans of action films who have grown weary of gunfights and space aliens might want to give this film a look for its opening and closing sequences, but much of what happens in between is likely to glaze their eyes. Viewers interested in other elements of storytelling—characters, for instance—are likely to come away dissatisfied, as well. There’s a little bit of everything here, and not enough of anything. By investing such bland archetypes as with an abundance of pseudo-significance, The Warring States manages to be average in too many ways.

The Warring States


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