Highly esteemed director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) spins an intriguing revenge yarn in his latest film but is undone by lousy editing and largely unimpressive acting.
Scary general Tuan Gu is intent on overthrowing the ruling Zhao clan and assuming the throne for himself. To succeed, he stages a coup that results in the death of all Zhao family members except for the newborn son of the king. The court doctor, Cheng Ying, successfully smuggles the newborn out of the carnage and into his own home where his own wife has also recently given birth to a son. When the general discovers that the royal son is still at large, he orders all newborns to be rounded up and marked for execution unless the prince is delivered to him. Unfortunately, the doctor’s wife gives up the prince when the soldiers come calling, but tries to pass him off as their own, which leaves the frightened couple hiding their own son from detection. The general believes the doctor is still harboring the royal son, so when he finds them he puts the child and the doctor’s wife to death. In the aftermath, the prince is returned to the doctor to raise as his own.
Inconceivably, the doctor remains employed at the palace with the evil general on the throne, and proceeds to gradually set up a godfather relationship between the boy and the general. As the boy ages, he learns the art of combat from the general, eventually sparring with him and going off to war for him. As one of the most protracted revenge plots of all time, taking nearly two decades to play out in the lives of the characters, it doesn’t have a particularly cathartic payoff but gets points for hardcore dedication. But here’s the thing: why would anyone go through that much trouble? The doctor was the primary care physician for the general, so could have easily poisoned him at any time. Instead, the doctor put himself in a position where his livelihood and continued existence were completely dependent on the man he hated most. He didn’t have to make the boy and the general forge such a close relationship, and in fact doing so made his eventual efforts to turn the boy against his godfather all the more difficult. I get that the doctor was destroyed by the loss of his own family and longed for a Zhao to avenge the death of the Zhao clan, but really, he went about it all wrong. This unbelievable motivation mars the narrative and results in the ending ringing extremely hollow.
The film is set during the opulent Yuan Dynasty in the 5th century, giving Chen’s production team the opportunity for some showy set and costume design. Still, the film looks fairly flat, with generally static and tight shots that fail to further enforce the majesty of the era. Where it really fails is the editing, with a particularly confusing opening act that finds us thrust immediately into the rebellion before we can adequately identify the players or plot, then later using some puzzling quick cuts that destroy the impact of a few scenes. Frankly, the well-regarded veteran Chen’s work deserves much better, making it baffling that he was somehow saddled with an editor with only one previous credited feature film. As for the acting, it’s highlighted by the soulful performance of Ge You as the doctor but left without support elsewhere. Wang Xue-Qi is just ok as the nefarious general, but Huang Xiaoming is awful as the wimpering young prince. The role is just a pawn between the two father figures in his life, but it’s difficult to care about the ultimate revenge when its vessel is barely mediocre.