This is a film that could make the heads of the “Own Voices” cultural segregationists’ heads explode. It is a Japanese film, adapting a Japanese manga, starring Japanese actors, portraying Chinese warriors during the Warring States period. Let us dispense with issues of so-called authenticity and deal with the film’s cinematic merits, because they are considerable. A slave find himself caught up in a palace coup, but that also means opportunities for freedom and social advancement, if he can survive that long in Shinsuke Sato’s Kingdom, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Li Xin and Piao were born into slavery and slaves they shall remain, unless they can hack and slash their way to freedom. All their free time is devoted to fencing training, but it appears to pay off when they catch the eye of Lord Chang Wen Jun. Alas, it is only Piao he is interested in—for a very particularly reason. It turns out, he bears a striking resemblance to the King, for whom he was to act as a double.
Unfortunately, Li learns this when Piao returns to the farm mortally wounded. The King of Qin, Ying Zheng, was usurped by his serpent-like younger brother, with the backing of the generals and ministers at court. Reluctantly, Li takes Piao’s place protecting the king, even though he (not unfairly) blames the deposed monarch for his sworn-brother’s death. However, the more he and the king fight together, the more they will come to respect each other.
Kingdom has just about everything you could ask for in a historical costume drama. There is gritty, blood-drawing action, both on an epic scope and at a one-on-one level. There are all kinds of betrayals and scheming going on. Plus, there are a number of outlandish looking Dick Tracy-esque villains. Yet, above all, the characters display the sort of tragic heroism of the best wuxia and Chanbara films.
Sato has become Japan’s blockbuster director of the decade thanks to movies like I Am a Hero, Inuyashiki, Gantz, and Bleach, but Kingdom is his most sweeping film yet. He is working on a big canvas, but he still gets some good work out of his cast. Kento Yamazaki is bug-eyed and hyper-active as Li, but not to the level of shtickiness. Ryo Yoshizawa plays a nicely differentiated double role as Piao and the King, but it is Masahiro Takashima who really commands the screen as Lord Chang. Yet, the surprise star might be Masami Nagasawa, who steals scenes and shows off impressive action chops as Yang Duan He, the chieftain of the Hill People.
Even in Japanese wuxia movies like Kingdom, we still get a triumphant celebration of the forcible unification of China, which seems rather unnecessary. Nevertheless, the whole point of the film is the fight scenes and action coordinator Yuji Shimomura does not disappoint. This is exactly the kind of film that made action fans fall in love with martial arts cinema in the first place. Very highly recommended, Kingdom opens August 16th in the U.S. and Canada, following its screening at this year’s Fantasia.