The Warlords is a thin slice of Chinas turbulant history , on an epic scale. Set during the Taiping Rebellion, it focuses on the famine and war that engulfed the country for many years, during the Qing Dynasty. It is also based on the true story of an unsolved crime.
The film revolves around three men, bonded together by a blood oath, that is stretched to breaking point by the tragedy and desparation of war. Jet Li is Pang, a general whose troops have been slaughtered in a massacre, and is then taken in by a bandit village. Their leader, Zhao (Andy Lau), with his right hand man, Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) lead their small bandit army on raids to steal food for the villagers, in order to survive. Pang manages to convince them to join the army with him, using the incentive of regular money and food for all, so they can bring the war to a quicker end, and regain some of his dignity in the process.
The film is spread over a few years (the passing of time only evident by the varying degrees of our heroes facial hair) and pulls no punches in its portrayal of war and the harrowing effects on both sides. The battle scenes are spectacular when on a large scale, and wince inducing when focusing on close up combat.
The blood brothers are played magnificently by three of Asias' finest. Jet Li proves just how powerful an actor he can be, effortlessly demonstrating a blinkered obsession with his need to rid his country of oppression, at any cost. Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, Battle of Wits) gives a scene stealing performance as the bandit leader, loved by his followers, and respected by his enemies. The taking of Suzhou and his pleas for the prisoners, is all the more heartbreaking, knowing it is based on truth. The youngest of the three, Jiang (House of Flying Daggers, Takeshi Kaneshiro) is possibly the most tormented, frequently having to choose between loyalty to Zhao, his life long friend, and following Pang as he does what is best for their country.
A sub plot is the love triangle between Pang and Lian, ( Xu Jinglei) wife of Zhao. It in no way distracts from the story, but is pivotal in its development.
The Warlords was released across China in 2007 and won eight of its twelve nominations in the Hong Kong Film awards. They included Best Actor (Jet Li), Best Film and Best Director (Peter Chan). I was fortunate enough to see this film at the cinema. It had only a limited release, and consequently did not do that well. Yes, it is subtitled, and yes, you will probably only know Jet Li, but it is well worth watching. A hugely enjoyable film, amazing performances, and not a wire in sight.