Dir. Tony Ching. Hong Kong/China. 2008. 93 mins.
Celebrated action choreographer Tony Ching's latest and most ambitious directorial outing is a case study in the dangers of setting out deliberately to make a martial arts epic with wide territorial outreach and broad audience appeal. A light yarn about a female ruler's attempts to reconcile affairs of state and affairs of the heart, An Empress is certainly a good-looking package, its lavish costumes, flashy sets and pin-sharp widescreen photography testifying to the technical bravura of the Hong Kong studio system. But in attempting to be both Asian star vehicle and Western crossover title, battle-scarred actioner and slushy romance-with-a-message, the film will end up irritating most of its viewers at least some of the time.
Following an average mainland opening on March 7 the film's Hong Kong haul three weeks later was disappointing: it had already dropped out of the top ten by its third week (tellingly, grittier historical actioner Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon continued to ride high in the chart as The Empress faded). Non-Asian sales to date include Splendid in Germany and the UK 's Showbox Media Group.
Comparisons to other recent Asian high-kicking period epics like The Warlords, The Assembly or Battle Of Wits seem obvious, but in the end An Empress plays more like a Bollywood take on Hero, sans the musical numbers. Such a meld could be fun, of course, and initially the film's old-school approach to action and story is rather refreshing. But after a peppy opening act the script runs out of ideas, getting bogged down in a dramatically inert mid-term forest idyll and never really recovering.
Set during the Warring States period but bearing little relation to the historical record, An Empress and the Warriors centres on young princess Feier (Kelly Chen), who is forced to take over the Kingdom of Yan after her emperor father dies in an attempt toavoid the conflict which would ensue if his chosen successor Muyong (Donnie Yen) took over the reigns instead of his power-crazed nephew Wu Ba (Guo Xiaodong).
As he teaches her to be a warrior, Muyong and Feier fall in love, but she is attacked on Wu Ba's orders and wakes up in a forest dwelling belonging to handsome Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai) - a mysterious, tree-hugging man of the woods who turns out to be running away from something in his past. The feisty warrior queen's suspicion turns to admiration and then love as Feier's forest interlude goes on, and on, and on, drowning the tightly-paced opening in a vat of comedy-romance treacle, culminating in a ride in a hot air balloon that looks more like a huge old sock to the strains of a Mandarin pop ballad.
Kelly Chen makes an odd choice for the main role: she finds it difficult to repress a comedy strain that sits uncomfortably with the story's darker tones. Leon Lai is a rather wooden romantic sidekick; only Donnie Yen (who gets a stirring lone warrior fight scene at the end) and Guo Xiaodong fully inhabit their roles.
Costumes are spot-on, and the action choreography is efficient but suprisingly tame, given the director's background in the field. Though the battle scenes are well-edited, only a climactic sequence featuring Muyong in a solo fight against successive waves of assailants really gets the pulse racing.
United Filmmakers Organization
Polybona Film Distribution
Mei Ah Entertainment (Asia)
Golden Network (rest of world)