GOD OF WAR
Directed by: Gordon Chan
Starring: Zhou Wenzhou, Regina Wan, Kaisuke Koide, Yasuaki Kurata, Sammo Hung, Timmy Hung
During the 16th century, Japanese pirates proliferate along the Chinese coastline. In 1557, the pirates take over Cengang in Zhejiang. After the current commander, Hu, fails to make any headway, he is replaced by General Qi Jiguang, recently promoted after a fierce battle with some other pirates.
After managing to succeed in liberating Cengang, however, General Qi learns that the pirates are actually Japanese soldiers, led by a remarkable strategist. Qi finds himself caught in a miasma of politics and warfare.
At just over two hours, God of War is a long film, but luckily it is one which gathers momentum the longer it goes on. After a dismal attempt at taking the town of Cengang by General Hu, it looks like we are in for a long haul as the "pirates" don't seem to be going anywhere too soon!
Lucky then that General Qi is drafted in to take over. General Yu (Sammo Hung) acts like he's had his feathers ruffled to begin with, but he is won over by Qi's sense of strategy and subterfuge. Not only that but he comes to Qi's rescue during a particularly exciting ambush shortly after the battle is won.
General Qi is portrayed as a humanist, a brilliant strategist but also naïve when it comes to politics. When visiting a colleague who's been imprisoned, Qi lets loose with his feelings and theories, unaware that the secret police are everywhere and keen to report any juicy gossip up the chain. Luckily he's bailed out of the situation but it is a harsh lesson for him to learn. He is also completely in the thrall of his beautiful wife, who embarrasses him by voicing her own opinions in front of his officers. This leads to a very comical (yet also very tense) sequence where Qi attempts to lay down the law with her.
The Chinese and Japanese have a long bitter history together, and that embitterment has often surfaced in how each have portrayed the other in films (think the evil bespectacled officer in Ip Man, for example). So, it is very refreshing to see a much more even handed approach to the Japanese characters in this film. Whilst the "ronin" are amoral and beastly, the samurai caste are portrayed as noble and honourable characters. Yes, they are the bad guys but they aren't a faceless mob, and they have a proper character arc and sense of purpose, which gives the final duel that much more depth and resonance.
China also shows that it is way ahead of the curve with its portrayal of female characters. Although likely to fail the Bechdel test, the film does portray Qi's wife as a brave and heroic person in her own right. Shearguably has the most emotionally resonant action scene as she rallies the citizens of Taizhou to defend their city while waiting for reinforcements.
The action in God of War is excellent all throughout the film, be it the numerous big scale battle scenes or smaller close-quarters fights, such as the one Qi has with Dachen, the foreman of a goldmine who he has to fight to convince him to join the army. As mentioned above, the action scenes pile up at the end, driving the film towards a great climax as Qi ends up in a duel to the death with the head of the Japanese pirates.
Director Gordon Chan will always be fondly remembered by martial arts fans for his collaboration with Jet Li, Fist of Legend. He's done some good work since, such as Beast Cops and The Four (although I'm not a fan of the choppily edited fight scenes, I like the film as a whole). However God of War is on a different level to most of his output. This has been compared favourably to John Woo's Red Cliff, and rightly so.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)