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The Warring States

From left to right: Jiang Wu, Kiichi Nakai, Jing Tian, Sun Honglei, Kim Hee-Sun and Francis Ng.


Year: 2011  
Director: Jin Chen  
Producer: Lu Zheng
Total Expediting: Guo Shuobao
Writer: Shen Jie
Cast: Sun Hong-Lei, Jing Tian, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Kim Hee-Sun, Kiichi Nakai, Jiang Wu, Guo Degang, Feng Enhe, Ma Jingwu, Lei Kesheng, Wu Jun, Xu Jiao, Hao Hao, Sun Hao, Huang Haiting, Waise Lee Chi-Hung, He Yunwei
The Skinny: Average costume epic that's helped and hurt by a bewildering turn from Sun Honglei. Given the glut of similar productions in recent years, Warring States disappoints. Possibly better as small-screen rather than big-screen fare.
by Kozo:
The Warring States gets points for trying to be a straightforward and entertaining costume epic, though it loses just as many for its average storytelling, small-screen direction and inconsistent performances. Director Jin Chen helms this commercial affair about historical figure Sun Bin (Sun Honglei), a renowned strategist who becomes the focus of an underground war between the Qi and Wei Kingdoms. The two kingdoms square off privately to retain Sun Bin in hopes that his knowledge of warfare will allow domination when they eventually meet on the battlefield. A disciple of the legendary Sun Tzu, Sun Bin reputedly knows more than Pang Juan (Francis Ng), Wei's leading military strategist and also Sun Bin's sworn brother. However, unlike the honorable Qi, the Wei are not above using underhanded methods to ensure Sun Bin's cooperation. Who will gain Sun Bin's services, Qi or Wei? And given Sun Bin's sometimes moronic behavior, will the winner end up regretting it?

The Warring States detours from actual history for obvious dramatic purposes. Historically, Sun Bin is known for writing his own handbook on warfare, appropriately called Sun Bin's Art of War, which was lost for over 2000 years before being rediscovered in the 1970s. The film supposes how Sun Bin's work might have been lost, and features as crucial events two of Sun's greatest triumphs, the Battle of Guiling and the Battle of Maling. Also likely dramatized is the film's portrayal of Sun Bin as comically eccentric. Sun Honglei plays Sun Bin as a doofish manchild who only takes on a grave demeanor after betrayal and degradation have turned things a tad more serious. Until then, Warring States resembles very nearly a comedy, with Sun Bin's silly courtship of Qi warrior princess Tian Xi (Jing Tian) taking up mucho screentime. Unfortunately, Sun Honglei's quirky performance seems left out on a limb by the filmmakers; Sun Bin is convincingly odd but never becomes endearing. By the time the film asks for sympathy for Sun Bin, the audience may be unwilling to comply.

Despite having an intriguing web of conflicts and characters, Jin Chen doesn't draw every last element out successfully. The screenplay cuts back and forth between Wei and Qi sides, but not enough is done to support every relationship or event. Pang Juan's sister and Wei consort Pang Wan'er (Korean star Kim Hee-Sun) is given long history with Sun Bin, and her actions go a long way in determining Sun Bin's fate. However, the connection between the two is not properly supported. Likewise, there seems to be a lingering past between Pang Juan and Tian Xi, lending extra oomph to the Pang Juan/Sun Bin rivalry, but thatís also played too subtly. Having Francis Ng helps matters; Ng underplays his role effectively, and can change from a despicable character to a sympathetic one with little more than a couple of blinks. However, the other actors either can't or aren't given the space to do the same, and Jin Chen doesn't draw out those emotions through his direction. At times, Warring States resembles little more than a large-screen television drama, with verbal rather than visual exposition doing the heavy lifting.

Also, the film's widescreen canvas feels underutilized, with battles never convincing of their stakes or the intended-for epic scope. Action choreography (led by Hong Kongers Xiong Xin-Xin and Yuen Bun) is solid but the editing lackluster, with quick cuts and too many whip pans making things a difficult-to-follow mishmash. Action improves when handled by leading lady Jing Tian, though that's more a product of filmmaker focus than her actual action chops. As was famously bandied about in the Chinese media, Jing was elevated to star status by the film's backers, and with that knowledge it's difficult to view her performance without added scrutiny. She acquits herself decently in the role, but her petite figure and world class pout seem more suited for princess rather than warrior princess roles. In supporting roles, Kiichi Nakai (as the Qi prince), Jiang Wu (as Tian Xiís father) and Kim Hee-Sun perform with dignity and/or grace.

Costuming is of solid quality but visual effects are unimpressive, with green screen set-ups obvious in their confined spaces and cramped blocking. The filmís storytelling is equally workmanlike, with conflicts and characters revealed slowly and assuredly through scene after scene of chamber-set conversation. Ultimately, however, all the elements are assembled into only a functional, competently-diverting whole, with little of the urgency or emotion that one expects from a production of this size. Also possibly at fault: Sun Honglei, who proves difficult to relate to and fails at establishing chemistry with Jing Tian. While ill-fitting for big-screen fare, the film may shine brighter on the small screen where the routine plot progression and statements of character are more easily absorbed. Warring States is like a condensed television drama or an only average one-off film, delivering a solid story and decent characterization without the cohesive, forthright directorial vision that raises a film from average to exemplary. As such, average is where the film remains, decidedly and somewhat disappointingly. (Kozo, 2011)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
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image credit: Mei Ah Entertainment Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen