Dir: He Ping. China. 2003. 119 mins.
He Ping, best known internationally for Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, is better known in China as the pioneer of the so-called Chinese western like Sun Valley and Swordsman Of Double Flag Town which are set in the vast and unpopulated western territories. Warriors Of Heaven And Earth takes that genre and combines it with the historical epic a la Kurosawa or last year's Hero to create a grand entertainment which has all the pacing and action of a Hollywood film.
In fact, seen alongside The Last Samurai or The Missing, Warriors holds up extremely well - both in terms of production values and storytelling savvy - and was made for a fraction of their cost. Of course the fact that it is a production of Columbia Film Production Asia might have something to do with its mainstream sensibilities.
Already a huge hit in China, its performance in the US (Sony has yet to decide through which division it will be released) will be dependent on positioning, and it's far from a sure thing. The audiences who would go to a specialised Asian film might consider it too mainstream, while mainstream audiences might consider it too artsy. Lacking the crossover magic of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is nevertheless a muscular box office prospect across Asia and some dubbing territories like France, where Zhang Yimou's Hero scored a big hit last year.
The film, which is China's official entry for the best foreign language film Academy Award, is set in the seventh century AD along the legendary Silk Road, a trading route which ran from central Asia to China and was beset by bandits.
It initially focuses on Japanese emissary Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi) who has served the Tang emperor for 25 years and longs to return to his homeland and his ageing mother. While escorting Wen Zhu, the daughter of a Chinese general, back to the capital of Changan, he is charged with one final mission - to hunt down and capture one bandit who has eluded capture for many years, Lieutenant Li, a heroic soldier who has been declared an enemy of the Tang court after refusing to slaughter Turkish women and children.
Cut to Li, who finds himself rescued from a sandstorm by an imperial guard who is the sole survivor of a troop of soldiers escorting a camel caravan to the emperor in Changan. Together with a monk who has also survived the storm, he and the guard carry on the Silk Road with the caravan. Li enlists some of his old soldiers to help with the caravan, but just as they are setting out, he is discovered by Lai Xi and the two fight to a draw. Lai Xi agrees that they will fight again in Changan once the imperial caravan is safely delivered.
Meanwhile a local warlord Master An (Wang Xueqi) has been enlisted by the Turkish leader The Great Khan to capture the caravan and, after an initial skirmish, Lieutenant Li and Lai Xi question the monk about what they are carrying in the caravan. The monk reveals that he is transporting a reliquary containing remnants of the bones of Buddha himself. Whoever controls these artifacts can control the believers of western China.
Li decides to lead the caravan across the desert to the Lonesome Fort where the final battle between Chinese and Turks takes place and the full power of the reliquary emerges.
There is much to enjoy in Warriors Of Heaven And Earth including the robust performances of Jiang Wen and Nakai Kiichi as Li and Lai Xi respectively and the camaraderie between all the men in the caravan which infuses the action with humour and affection. The religious-mystical element of the reliquary seems like it would be more at home in a Jackie Chan movie than here, and the deus ex machina resolution to the climactic battle is a disappointing end to an otherwise exciting western-style chase movie.
Also of note is the rousing music by Indian composer AR Rahman, who composed the memorable score for Lagaan.
Prod cos: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, Huayi Brothers, Taihe Film Investment Co Ltd, Xian Film Studio Corp, China Film Co-Production Company
US dist: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Exec prods: Song Dai, Wang Zhonglei, Chen Kuo Fu
Prods: Yan Yiyun, Wang Zhongjun
Scr: He Ping, Zhang Rui
DoP: Zhao Fei
Prod des: Yang Gang, Teng Jie
Ed: Kong Jinglei
Music: AR Rahman
Main cast: Jiang Wen, Nakai Kiichi, Zhao Wei, Wang Xueqi