Synopsis: A sweeping story of love, honour and revenge set against the backdrop of Chinese opera during its heyday in 1920s Shanghai. Two sworn brothers quest to regain their master’s honour, leading them to fame and love, but also to their own downfall.
Corny martial arts melodrama loses its kick.
Set in the exotic world of Peking Opera, My Kingdom is an untidy mishmash of genres: period costume drama, martial arts actioner, romance and unadulterated soap opera.
The cliché-riddled plot revolves around the themes of love, jealousy, betrayal, murder and revenge. The performances by the two young leads are amateurish and the fight scenes rarely rise to dazzling heights despite the prowess of veteran action director Sammo Hung.
The third directorial effort from Gao Xiaosong following Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Rainbow, the film probably lacks sufficient kick-arse action to satisfy hardcore kung fu fans. As for the soap opera elements in Zou Jingzhi’s screenplay, well, we’ve seen it all before, often delivered with more finesse.
In the promising opening in the final days of the 19th century, the Prince Regent of the crumbling Qing Dynasty orders the beheading of the Meng clan. Awaiting execution, a five-year-old Meng boy named Er-kui sings an aria. Deeply moved, opera star Master Yu Shengying (Yuan Biao) and his seven-year-old pupil Guan Yi-long rescue the boy and the two orphans become as close as brothers.
Yu wins a coveted golden plaque from the Prince Regent, is challenged to a duel by a Shanghai rival, Master Yue Jiangtian (Yu Rongguang), loses and is forced to retire.
Master Yu trains the boys as “wu sheng,” male warriors in the Peking opera which combines colourful, elaborate costumes, acrobatics, mime and singing. He counsels them to never do three things: perform “low” circus acts, have an affair with an actress or duel with other opera warriors, which telegraphs that each edict will later be broken.
As young men, Yi-long (Wu Chun) and Er-kui (Han Geng) travel to Shanghai to avenge Master Yu’s humiliation by challenging Master Yue to a spear fight on stage, a confrontation that involves the entire troupe. That scene represents Hung’s best work in the movie although it’s not as impressive or exciting as his efforts in Ip Man or Ip Man 2.
After that, the narrative veers into corny melodrama as Yi-long becomes a vain, arrogant and philandering opera star and Er-kui turns into an assassin pursuing the Prince Regent’s sons as retribution for the slaying of his family.
The love interest is Xi Mulan (Barbie Hsu), Master Yue’s former lover and a famous opera actress who attracts the attention of both brothers.
Hung’s touch is evident later in a high-energy swordfight in a wine cellar, where bottles and barrels are among the props. The violence is stylised, with little blood shed and combatants often emerging without a bruise or scratch.
A major flaw is the casting of Wu Chun, who shot to fame in Taiwanese boy band Fahrenheit and has starred in The Butterfly Lovers and 14 Blades, and Han Geng, a Chinese pop star and former member of Korean boy band Super Junior, who makes his feature debut here.
They’re handsome lads but Wu has a limited range of expressions while Han is slightly more animated but lacks depth. Hsu looks stunning in full costume and make-up but isn’t asked to register more than basic emotions.
Another piece of curious casting is Louis Liu, a popular magician, as General Lu, the head detective of the British Concession in Shanghai and another admirer of Mulan’s. The fop-haired Louis looks way too young to be convincing as a senior official in that era, another shortcoming which detracts from the film’s credibility.
Oh and one last question: I’m no opera buff but how come there’s so little singing in the opera excerpts depicted?
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