A tyrant forces the greatest warrior in the land to battle his greatest friend by holding the woman they both love hostage. Donnie Yen plays Chinese legend Guan Yu whose weapon of choice is a long handled blade, and the actor also directed the 'elaborately choreographed' action scenes. SBS Movies critic Peter Galvin says 'it’s the close quarter combat bits that are the best; acrobatic flying leaps, close hand-to-hand combat with long swords and spears... and all of it is pretty exciting and in a way exquisitely beautiful'.
The bladesman of the title refers to a character famous in ancient Chinese history and literature, Guan Yun Chang (Donnie Yen). Here, as played by Yen, a major Chinese star, he’s a living legend, which is to say he’s charismatic, magnetic, stoic and completely enigmatic. A great warrior, all Guan Yu seems to have to do is take one long hard look at the various heroes and villains he encounters here and they seem to start quaking on the inside. Once he takes out his guan dao – a long handled 'crescent moon’ blade that it is said was Guan Yu’s weapon of choice – and swing away at the legion of bad guys who confront him, it’s like watching an artist at work.
The reputation of Asian filmmakers working in mainland China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore have accrued over the past, say, four decades, for staging elaborately choreographed action sequences has achieved its own kind of fame; as well as the special kind of burden that comes with a standard of excellence.
It’s way too early to gauge how the action fan base will take to The Lost Bladesman. For myself, and I’m no expert in this genre, the action here is good, but it’s not a movie of innovation or experimentation in either the shooting style or the staging; it seems very much in the tradition of Hero or the recent Red Cliff (which derived from the same literary source as this). Yen himself is credited as being responsible for the action and its strong stuff. There are epic panoramas of massed armies in battle, but it’s the close quarter combat bits that are the best; acrobatic flying leaps, close hand-to-hand combat with long swords and spears and what seem like millions of bows and arrows; and all of it is pretty exciting and in a way exquisitely beautiful. The body count is, typically for this kind of picture, astronomical, yet the violence is not really deeply felt, even if the dangers the characters face are palpable. That’s probably because the emphasis is not on blood and death but tension.
No matter that the plot revolves around palace intrigue and civil war, the real energy of the movie emerges from what is essentially a series of half a dozen cliff hanging episodes where Guan Yu is confronted by a series of formidable opponents and has to fight his way out; they’re lengthy, complicated vignettes of action where Guan Yu brings into play various martial art skills. It’s riveting as visceral excitement, but not especially involving emotionally, at least at first.
What The Lost Bladesman is really about, aside from some good action, concerns honour and betrayal. The villain responsible for Guan Yu’s dilemma is General Cao Cao (Jiang Wen from hit Let the Bullets Fly). Since China at this time around AD200, during the final years of the Han dynasty, was at war with itself, with three competing kingdoms all vying for primacy, Cao Cao uses Guan Yu to win a crucial battle and therefore seal his position with the Emperor. After this first round of bloodshed Guan Yu sets out to return to his ally Liu Bei (Alex Fong) providing an escort for his concubine Qi Lan (Sun Li), who was taken hostage by Cao Cao before the battle. Worried that Guan Yu is a threat to his power base, Cao Cao secretly orders for Guan Yu to be killed.
The writing/directing team of The Lost Bladesman are Alan Mak and Felix Chong, famous for the Infernal Affairs series, and they give the movie a serious tone, a huge scale and a sense of importance as befits a movie abut a Chinese character that has achieved a kind of deification as the Saint of War. They do all this without it playing too earnest. Still, the movie’s feel has more to do with the fact that the filmmakers are responding to the history of a genre, more than they are paying homage to any reverence for a lived history. Much of the movie is pure spectacle; but way into the movie’s last third there’s a human shape to the one-on-one scenes that wasn’t there at the film’s long attenuated set-up. The emotional heat rises rather late in the movie when Guan Yu starts to develop a passion for Qi Lan, who reciprocates; but how can Guan Yu betray a brother, Liu Bei, over a woman? Honour for Guan Yu is everything.
Yen may be playing a legend; he’s gone on record declaring his fear that in taking the role he risked defiling the rep of a man revered throughout China. But as the movie rolls on he reveals a vulnerability that’s rather touching. At the beginning of the film he’s described by an old foe in admiring tones: 'He was a wolf with the soul of a lamb..." The Lost Bladesman starts off big and rather cool and ends up an intimate epic hot and heavy with spent passions and an aura of sadness that’s unexpectedly moving.