Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Saving General Yang: Seven Brothers vs. the Khitan Army

The story of the Yang Family Generals and their noble sacrifices has been told on film before, including twice by the Shaw Brothers. Still, Ronny Yu finds and his co-screenwriters, Edmund Wong and Scarlett Liu, give it a fresh twist and an English title obviously intended to evoke Spielberg’s post-D-Day blockbuster. They certainly have plenty of tragedy and bloody warfighting to work with.  Death comes swiftly but the stain of dishonor is eternal in Yu’s Saving General Yang (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

Nobody is more celebrated throughout the Song Dynasty for keeping the Khitan at bay than General Yang Ye. That also means he has made plenty of enemies, the fiercest being Yelü Yuan, the Khitan commander, who blames Yang for his father’s death in battle.  However, Yang’s more politically astute rival Lord Pan poses a greater snake-in-the-grass danger.  Despite Yang’s proved military leadership, the emperor appoints Pan as supreme commander of the Imperial Army, essentially demoting Yang to frontline general.  He will regret that decision.

Of course, the first chance Pan gets, he retreats, leaving General Yang in the lurch.  Rather than moving in for the kill, Yelü allows the wounded Yang to regroup on Wolf Mountain, fully expecting the Yang Brothers will try to rescue their besieged father. It is not just war for him, it is personal.

Obviously, the Yang clan is in for a lot of mourning, but at least the brothers die spectacular deaths.  Yu and action Stephen Tung Wai know how to stage a battle scene, emphasizing brutal realism instead of super human heroics.  These might be some of the roughest, least exaggerated action sequences you will see in a year of wuxia films. On the other hand, when it comes to romance, Saving largely punts.  At the least we briefly meet Ady Ang as Princess Chai, who definitely seems like the sort of Imperial royalty you would consider taking home to meet your parents. (Unfortunately, both Yang and Pan have a son who had that same idea, which is how most of this trouble starts in the first place.)

As the titular general, veteran HK actor Adam Cheng is aces at projecting a commanding presence.  Likewise, Young & Dangerous franchise alumnus Ekin Cheng is appropriately steely as the first Yang son, Yang Yanping.  However, numbers two through seven are largely indistinguishable from each other.  All we really know about Vic Chou’s Yang Sanlang (#3) is his prowess with bow-and-arrow, but frankly that’s good enough, considering his role in a massive third act archery duel with Yelü’s chief lieutenant.

Saving’s big battle set pieces are quite impressive, with set designer Kenneth Mak and cinematographer Chan Chi-ying crafting a first class period production with epic sweep and down-and-dirty grit. If you like hot-blooded war films circa 986 AD, this one delivers.  Just don’t ask for any extraneous characterization or whatnot.  Recommended as red meat for genre fans, especially those who appreciate the enduring story of the honorable Yangs, Saving General Yang is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.