Friday, September 09, 2011

My Kingdom: The Art of Stage Fighting

Early Twentieth Century China was a rough and tumble place. If the Shaolin monks could mix it up with warlords and imperialists, why shouldn’t the actors get in on the act? Two adopted brothers will play parts in a high tragedy of almost Biblical dimensions in Gao Xiasong period action revenge drama, My Kingdom (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Young Er Kui’s singing voice saved his life. Unfortunately, the rest of the Meng clan, including his little sister, were beheaded by the cruel Prince Regent. Adopted by Master Yu, a revered opera performer, raises Er Kui with the slightly older Guan Yi Long to be his apprentices. Opera is serious business in 1920’s China, especially when Master Yu is awarded a golden plaque designating him “The Mightiest Warrior.” Drawing a full contact challenge from the resentful Master Yue (with an “e”), Yu must “break his spear,” and retire from the stage after losing the duel under somewhat questionable circumstances.

Now both brothers yearn for vengeance. Yi Long is determined to regain their master’s golden plaque from Yue, while Er Kui is determined to bring down his wrath upon the Prince who bestowed it. The first proves relatively easy, but enormously cinematic. The latter will be more difficult, considering the offending Prince is dead. He had seven sons though, but maybe not for much longer. Further complicating matters is Xi Mulan, Yue’s lead actress and former lover. She now shares the stage with the brothers who have taken over Yue’s Beijing Opera troupe, which is more than a little awkward.

Kingdom is somewhat akin to Kon Ichikawa’s truly classic Revenge of a Kubuki Actor, combining a behind-the-scenes view of traditional theater with a good old-fashioned payback story. However, Kingdom has far less angst and much more melee, with Master Sammo Hung serving as action director (as he did for Detective Dee and the Ip Man franchise). He puts quite a stamp on the film, choreographing the fight scenes with appropriately theatrical flair.

As the showboating Yi Long and the slow burning Er Kui, Chun Wu and Geng Han are respectably solid action protagonists. However, Barbie Hsu is an awesome femme fatale, smoking up the screen and keeping viewers guessing as Mulan. She also looks great in the 1920’s fashions. Surprisingly (but pleasantly so), Kingdom does not have the requisite stereotypical western bad guy increasingly common in popular Chinese cinema. Though General Lu of the Shanghai police (playing with icy reserve by Louis Lu) is most definitely villainous, but he is also all Chinese.

An artfully crafted period piece, the design team, including art director Yang Haoyu and particularly costume designer Gino Xie, create a sense of genuine spectacle on screen. Gao Xiasong also keeps the drama charging along nicely, not overplaying the Cain and Abel themes. Hugely satisfying, Kingdom is one of the best martial arts imports of the year. Enthusiastically recommended for action fans, it opens today (9/9) in New York at the AMC Empire, Village 7, and Fresh Meadows, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.