An Empress and the Warriors is dumb fun - with an emphasis on dumb. Directed by Ching Siu-Tung, Empress is an epic costume action-drama featuring an ill-supported storyline and a cast that requires a double take. Casting Donnie Yen as a badass warrior/officer is a no-brainer, and Leon Lai is at least imaginable as a tree-hugging doctor/lover. But Kelly Chen as a warrior princess? Imagining the ethereal Chen as a princess is easy - but when I say that, I'm thinking of one of those Disney heroines that talks to animals and acts sassy and spunky before getting swept off her feet by her knight in shining armor. Musical numbers would be a must.
However, that's not the type of character that Chen plays in Empress. Here, she's required to portray a determined young princess who takes up a difficult challenge: heir to an entire kingdom that happens to be at war. You'd think that responsibility would require a serious, focused young woman with a tremendous chip on her shoulder, and not a ditzy, pouting princess who has time to act silly. But we get the full gamut - serious to silly to pouty - with Chen's photogenic and bewildering performance, and the whole is too inconsistent to take seriously. Empress and the Warriors mirrors that inconsistency, and is ultimately not a film to call quality. But amusing? It can be that.
Chen stars as Yan Feier, daughter of the King of Yan, who is seriously wounded in battle with the opposing Zhao army, and chooses to pass his command to adopted orphan Muyong Xuehu (Donnie Yen). The assignment is a bit surprising since Xuehu - who's also called Brother Hu by Feier - is not blood-related to the Yan family, and nephew Wu Ba (Guo Xiao-Dong) is ready, able and willing to take command. However, the King knows that Wu Ba is a power mongering rat bastard and chooses to pass him over, thereby earning Wu Ba's ire, as well as a quick assassination when no one is looking. Feier happens upon her dying father, who tells her to give the symbolic Swallow Sword to Brother Hu, bestowing upon him the mantle of Yan's ruler.
However, when the time comes to reveal this news to the army ranks, they balk because they're a bit leery of an unrelated orphan taking command. Hu pulls a fast one and tricks the assembled men into thinking that the King intended to give his kingdom to Feier instead, meaning *gasp* that a woman will now be in charge of the kingdom! But Wu Ba and company are still not convinced of her ability to lead the attack against the encroaching Zhao forces, so Feier pledges to learn to kick ass. This leads to an inspired training montage that features plenty of shots of Donnie Yen knocking the tar out of Kelly Chen. Right about now there should be plenty of popstar naysayers cackling at that thought, and indeed, it's guiltily amusing seeing the fair, slight Chen getting smacked around by the muscular Yen. These scenes are strike one on the film's credibility, as the very idea that Chen could even last one minute against Yen is difficult to buy.
But that's not the end of the film's lack of credibility. Brother Hu states that Feier should lead the kingdom because she's the only one who can unite the people. As he says, "The people love you." Really? Where are these people that Hu is talking about? Despite being a film about warring kingdoms and a nation under seige, Empress and the Warriors seldom depicts anyone outside a handful of soldiers. There are some glimpses of larger armies before some of the battles, but by and large this is a curiously empty film. In more than one scene, Feier surveys her land or her city, but nobody can be seen during these sequences at all. Her coronation is talked about but never depicted, and the sense of scale implied by the film's story and dialogue never seems to register. Ultimately, Empress and the Warriors feels very light, despite being about the potential destruction of an entire kingdom. The script (written by James Yuen Sai-Sang, among others) possesses all your usual checkpoints of this type of story (betrayal, loyalty, mercy, humanity, etc.), but nothing here feels that compelling. As such, supporting details like Mark Lui's bombastic score and Yee Chung-Man's ornate production design feel more than a tad overblown.
Nothing is sillier, however, than Kelly Chen's acting. The singer-actress tries valiantly, and reportedly worked very, very hard on the film's action sequences. But her bearing is not regal, and her acting marvelously inconsistent. She acts tough and determined in the early going, but midway through, she becomes the silly, fussy Kelly Chen of old. After an assassination attempt leaves Feier missing and mortally wounded, she's found and nursed back to health by kindly doctor Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai), who lives in an elaborate treehouse that looks like it was shipped over from the planet Endor. Lanquan spends his time communing with nature and building a primitive hot air balloon, and the time Feier spends with him is idyllic, cute, and jarring in its lack of continuity. Basically, it's like it should be in another movie entirely.
Feier goes from serious and directed to silly and sassy, and the film doesn't provide enough backstory to give her personality switch much credibility. Perhaps the idea is that she can finally let her hair down outside of the stifling walls of the palace, but the film doesn't convey that well. If one reads through the lines, Empress can make much more sense, as the outline of a workable, if clichéd plot are present. But really, the audience shouldn't be required to do that work for the filmmakers. The storyline and emotions in Empress and the Warriors feel exceptionally, exceptionally perfunctory, as they're not really given the focus or support needed to make them affecting. Even The Promise managed to tug more heartstrings than this film.
What works in Empress? Well, the action is decent, though it's a tad underwhelming until the finale, when Donnie Yen goes Donnie Yen on hordes of soldiers who can't fight the manly uber-stud that is Donnie Yen. Usual overactor Yen keeps a lid on it for a large portion of the film, and handles his character's unrequited love for Feier well enough to earn the audience's sympathy. When he goes over the top, though, everyone had better watch out, because it's time for even more Yen muscular posing and badass glares - and as anyone whose seen Dragon Tiger Gate or Flash Point knows, Yen overacting is the height of entertainment. Still, Yen is an accomplished thespian next to Kelly Chen, who forever seems to be attempting roles outside her rather limited range. She's still a very beautiful woman, but her fussy faces and pouty expressions belong in a romantic comedy and not a big-budget wannabe costume epic. Maybe if they had added some talking animals, then her performance would feel more appropriate.
Empress and the Warriors is in many ways a combination of new and old Hong Kong Cinema. Its settings, scale, and the grandeur it implies are very much new, keeping with the vogue for elaborate Ancient Chinese action-dramas that started with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and continued with a zillion other movies starring Zhang Ziyi. However, the glossed-over details, deliberate cuteness, and shifting tone feel more like those early nineties wuxia that mixed flying kung-fu with sloppy production values and bizarre hijinks. Those films were frequently uneven, yet still entertaining, and Empress almost pulls off the same trick here.
The problem is that the old Hong Kong Cinema formula doesn't really work here, as the film's production values are too ornate and serious, and don't fit the film's odd, borderline cheesy combination of elements. Nonetheless, the parts can sometimes amuse and entertain. The action can be diverting and the performers are pretty close to A-list. They don't really turn in quality performances, but they're photogenic, likeable, and good for audiences who like a little popstar connection with their big-budget moviegoing. Stuff like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves qualifies as an A-list Hollywood crowd-pleaser despite the fact that it's uneven, silly, and features completely miscast performers. If one looks at Empress and the Warriors the same way - as well-produced commercial crap with very low expectations attached - then it's possible to have some fun. A year from now, nobody will remember the film, but for ninety minutes, it can pass the time. Many audiences believe that's what movies are all about. (Kozo 2008)