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REVIEW : The Warlords (2007)

April 2, 2009

This month’s issue of Videovista has recently gone up and it contains my review of Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007).  It is not a bad film at all and it draws attention to two interesting characteristics about contemporary Chinese cinema.

Firstly, that while Chinese films are lagging behind the West in matters of digital jiggery-pokery, they have acess to material resources such as sets and extras that render a lot of these techniques largely moot.  For example, I suspect that had The Warlords‘ battle scenes been shot for an American film, the armies would have been mostly digital and, as a result, much much larger.  After all, why have a few dozen ships when you can have thousands?  I call this the Troy Effect.

You can also see the impressive material infrastructure of Chinese cinema on display in Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers (2007) ,which I also reviewed for Videovista.  The film’s opening scenes are set in the Chinese country-side and instead of a few internal shots and maybe some location work, the film benefits from having been shot on what apears to be the kind of vast back-lot that Hollywood has long since transformed into theme parks.

Secondly, both films are set at times in Chinese history when there was a good deal of foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs.  Indeed, Blood Brothers is set in 1930s Shanghai, which hosted a large British ex-pat community including J. G. Ballard.  Similarly, The Warlords is set in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the wars between China in Britain that not only netted Britain Hong Kong but which opened China up to foreign trade and cultural influence.  However, despite this both films are completely free of British characters and Western faces.

Since the apologetics of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), it has become tempting to see all Chinese cultural exports as exercises in nationalist propaganda and the degree of cultural re-appropriation going on in both films invite us to consider them in this very light.  However, this strikes me as a rather egocentric vision of Chinese cinema.  Not every film (or song) is about the West or even for Western consumption.  As a result, it seems more reasonable to see this kind of historical airbrushing as being an expression not of ideological projection but of yielding to popular tastes.  So just as American audiences prefer to think that their country won the Second World War single-handed, I suspect that most the Chinese audience would react badly to films that remind them of their country’s quasi-colonial status.

4 Comments
  1. April 2, 2009 10:26 am

    I suspect that’s right, it is too easy for us to imagine these films are made for us, when it’s quite unlikely they are (well, excepting Zhang Yimou’s films which I quite enjoy at a rather obvious level – though query whether they have any other – which plainly are made for us).

    Have you seen Shanghai Dreams? It’s very much an internal film, about the children of intellectuals sent to the countryside as part of Mao’s reforms. China has some interesting cinema now, but we tend only to get the big budget stuff over here, just as we tend only to get bittersweet comedies from Italy or middle class angst from France.

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  2. April 2, 2009 10:54 am

    I don’t think that studios in South-East Asia are even remotely interested in Western audiences.

    However, I think that some countries like China and Japan do have government bodies who use successful films for political purposes. I remember when I went to see Mongol all the adverts before the film were for Chinese tourism and I get the impression that some Chinese (and Japanese) films get state subsidies in order to encourage Western distributors to show them. But I think that’s quite different to films being explicitly political and ‘about’ our perception of those countries.

    I haven’t seen Shanghai dreams but it sounds quite interesting and will keep an eye out for it.

    To be fair, I think France does produce a LOT of middle class angst. They do do other stuff but if you look at the Cesars awards, I think French cinema sees itself as being in the business of making those kinds of films despite the fact that France is probably the one of the strongest genre film producing nations out there and also has a very vibrant comedy output. similarly, in Japan nowadays it is mostly genre stuff that gets released. Decent Japanese drama is comparatively difficult to find compared to the 1950s when its mainstream was essentially equivalent in aesthetics to the European art house scene.

    So while I think that we do have certain types of films from certain types of countries, I think they’re exaggerations of existing trends rather than complete fabrications.

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  3. April 2, 2009 12:10 pm

    That seems fair, Italy is very fond of bitter-sweet comedies after all, we don’t cherry pick an unrepresentative part of their output, we just ignore a lot of other stuff.

    I do think where there is complexity in domestic consumption, that is often simplified for an overseas audience. French comedy doesn’t cross over much, French crime normally only reaches us if produced under the Droit D’Auteuil (which requires that at least 50% of French film provide a key role to Daniel Auteuil).

    Japan has a strong comedy output, which doesn’t travel much (though in fairness, what I’ve seen of it doesn’t translate well which may be why it doesn’t travel). Italy does do French style middle class angst, and sometimes surprisingly stylish contemporary pieces such as L’Ultimo Bacio (The Last Kiss), but they don’t fit our view of Italy so we don’t see them.

    I agree that which we get is an exaggeration of a trend, rather than a creation, but I think it’s no less potentially stultifying for that. Spanish cinema in particular, we get hardly anything of interest, if it’s not Almodovar distributors seem to assume we won’t be interested, and so we’re locked out of a potentially interesting cinematic tradition.

    Agreed on the use by China of successful films for political purposes, I wasn’t aware of it with Japan but it doesn’t surprise me terribly.

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  4. April 2, 2009 2:28 pm

    Usually when I go over to Switzerland I go to the local DVD as it really is incredibly rare that French crime films get released over here. For example, there’s a Derek Raymond film adaptation and a film version of Total Kheops, neither of which I have seen.

    They also did Engrenages which was a very good crime/politics miniseries that I think got picked up by a digital channel but had only minimal impact compared to lesser American series.

    A lot of this is also down to the laziness of English-speaking audiences. And the fact that French DVD companies tend to be rubbish at putting english sub-titles on their titles.

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