An Empress and the Warriors (2008)
By: Stuart Giesel on November 4, 2012 | Comments
Icon | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | 94 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Tony Ching Siu-Tung
Starring: Kelly Chen, Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Guo Xiao Dong
Screenplay: James Yuen, Cheung Tan, Tin Nam Chun
Country: Hong Kong, China
External Links
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In ancient China, two kingdoms - the Yan and the Zhao - are at war and Yan Feier (Kelly Chan) is poised to become empress (and taking control of the symbolic and unfortunately named Swallow Sword) when her father becomes grievously wounded despite the best efforts of his General, Xuehu (Donnie Yen). An arsehole soldier played by Guo Xiaodong wants to become Emperor, however, so he poisons the old man but not before Feier is anointed Empress. Arsehole tries to poison Feier, who escapes in a forest and meets a weirdo named Duan (Leon Lai) who nurses her back to health. Of course, arsehole's men want her dead, and Xuehu wants to restore her to her rightful place on the throne. Now, if that writeup sounds a little blah, I assure you that An Empress and the Warriors doesn't play it out in any more interestingly a fashion.

The film, which shall henceforth be referred to as AEATW, blunders from battle scene to stodgy political discussion and back again, before the audience is dropped into a dopey love story. The biggest problem with AEATW is that it's deathly serious and so badly wants to be an epic in the vein of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. The performers do their best with the dull material but they portray their characters so earnestly and without a hint of levity that it's difficult to care what happens to them, while the central romance between the empress and Duan is almost as dull as the political mechanics of the royal palace. And Duan's Ewok-village setup is just ridiculous - for some reason he's a self-exiled warrior who is able to build all sorts of constructions and devices including a goddamn zeppelin, that is when he's not spouting philosophical nonsense. The dialogue and voiceover used in the lovey-dovey scenes are vomit-inducing, but since I don't know if that's a problem with the original script or the English translation let's just let that slide.

Still, AEATW has one of the best lines ever, when a character cries out, "There will be no fighting in the Hall of Swords!". I know, it's meant to be a sacred place, but it just sounds funny - there's something very Dr. Strangelove about that line (" can't fight in here...this is the War Room!").

It's not that the film is terrible, mind you, it's just that there are a lot of niggling issues which aren't specific to just this film but to the epic 'wuxia' genre in general. Take, for example, the CGI rain. Why spend millions of dollars on costumes and horses and extras when you overlay some crappy CGI rain in post-production to cheapen the effect? Akira Kurosawa was legendary in his perfectionism - when you saw rain in his films, it was the real deal (of course, he didn't exactly have CGI to play with back then). Yes, Kurosawa was Kubrick-like in his attention to detail, but it paid off. Here, it's no big deal for filmmakers to overuse CGI in key battle scenes, and all it does is cheapen the impact. There are other problems, mainly with stodgy dialogue that doesn't sound like anything anyone would say in real life ever. Scenes that are supposed to carry emotional weight fall completely flat. It doesn't help that none of the lead actors are particularly good, even Donnie Yen who, admittedly, is better kicking people in the face then looking stoic and shouting his lines with all the gravitas of a cylinder block.

What lighthearted moments AEATW does possess are hamstrung by an overbearing score that is never shy about explaining what you're supposed to be feeling at any given moment. Something amusing happens, says the score. Now this is an exciting bit. See how amazing it all looks! I usually only notice the music in a movie when it is either sublime or awful, and in AEATW's case the music is pretty damn bad. It doesn't just underscore a scene, it does its damndest to overtake it. It tries to sound majestic and sweeping but just winds up sounding corny. In a cringeworthy scene involving the lovers and a hot air balloon, the music punctuates the action with inappropriate Scottish melodies. And Hans Zimmer might want to check out the part of the score that's used in the final battle, which sounds like outtakes from his Gladiator score.

The action is for the most part competent although, as I've mentioned, overuse of sub-par CGI is an issue. There are also some spots which make odd use of a weird slow motion effect which detract from the swordplay. And Donnie Yen can't really compensate for his dull character and poor dialogue with the sort of amazing moves we're used to seeing in far better movies like the Ip Man series, Flash Point and SPL when he's buried under unwieldy armour. Director Siu-Tung Ching (who has directed much better stuff like A Chinese Ghost Story) needed to look back at excellent period fare like Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China trilogy for a period piece that blends interesting characters with an eye-catching look and superb action set-pieces, whilst still commenting on China's history in a way that isn't ham-fisted.

EATW can't make up its mind whether it wants to be an action epic, a sweeping romance or a political drama, and therefore doesn't end up doing any of these things well. The empress and her lover are immensely uninteresting characters. Still, at least Leon Lai injects a little bit of interest into his recluse character; Kelly Chan looks completely out of place, especially when she's decked out in full armour and supposed to be rallying the troops. She's meant to look heroic and noble, the sort of person you'd willingly follow into battle and die for. Unfortunately she just looks constipated. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was genuinely moving thanks to superb direction from Ang Lee, a tight script and fantastic performances from Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang - any one of these players would have boosted EATW immensely, but then again when you have Donnie Yen in your film and don't let him bust through the screen in his typically charismatic fashion then it's doubtful even Chow Yun-Fat could have saved EATW from itself. It feels like it's a three hour war epic when, surprisingly enough, it only runs a shade over ninety minutes - never a good sign.

An Empress and the Warriors is probably only of interest to viewers who believe the presence of Donnie Yen is enough to validate a film, regardless of its other merits. Otherwise it's pretty standard stuff, and it's not even epic or bloody enough to maintain interest. Do yourself a favour and watch the immeasurably better Red Cliff (the bum-bustingly long five hour version, that is).
AEATW looks good in hi-def, I'll give it that. Clarity is sharp, with tons of detail to catch the eye, such as the armour embellishments. In fact, things look a little too sharp, and there is some distracting edge enhancement at times, particularly in interior scenes and close-ups. The picture also serves to show up some of the detail that the makers might not have intended, like the use of rubber swords. Still, the presentation is commendably handsome, with some striking use of colour.
The quality of the music score aside (which I hated), AEATW sounds the business as you would expect from a historical war action epic film thingy. The 5.1 DTS-HD Mandarin track provides sufficient warlike sounds to immerse you in the battle scenes. I would suggest you crank up your sound system and enjoy; unfortunately, for every nicely mixed fight scene there's a scene to follow it that bleats some god-awful music that tempts you mightily to hit the Mute button. Still, there's no faulting the audio on the Blu-Ray disc itself.
Extra Features
Nothing but a couple of trailers that play before the main menu loads.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
An Empress and the Warriors - the name says it all, really. It's a generic, prosaic and unimaginative name for a film that shares these exact same qualities. Donnie Yen is always watchable, but even he can't do much to save this one. A dull love story, an obtrusive score and bland characters rate this as one for Yen completists only, with some competently staged action and some nice cinematography being the only highlight.

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