Tuesday, September 04, 2012

White Vengeance: The Birth of the Han Dynasty

Power corrupts and the pursuit of power corrupts just as absolutely.  This is the lesson an ancient mystery man has for a pompous scholar and his students, startled paying their respects in the first Han Emperor’s tomb.  He will tell them the real story of the Hongmen Banquet and the struggle to succeed the fallen Qin Dynasty in Daniel Lee’s mistitled White Vengeance (trailer here), which is now available on DVD and BluRay today from Well Go USA.

The tyrannical Qin Emperor is dead and nobody misses him, least of all Han leader Liu Bang and Chu nobleman Xiang Yu, rival generals who forged an uneasy alliance against the Qin.  Of course, the emperor’s death prompts a rather obvious question: who will succeed him?  Fearing for his own neck, the caretaker emperor decrees the first to control the Qin capitol of Xianyang wins the throne, hoping to play the warriors against each other.  It works.

As sworn brothers turned bitter rivals, there are still a lot of unresolved issues between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, particularly concerning the royal consort Yu Ji, the latter’s lover entrusted to the former for safekeeping.  Among many things, Vengeance is an elegantly austere, almost chaste, love triangle.

There is also plenty of period warfighting in Vengeance, rendered with grit and scope.  Lee is definitely in his element staging huge clashes of armies.  He really shows viewers exactly what it means to be outflanked and why it is a bad thing.  Yet, the film’s real battle is that between the military strategists, Xiang Yu’s longtime family advisor Fan Zeng and the freelance Obiwan Zhang Liang, who sides with his rival because of Liu Bang’s professed lack of ambition.  When the two counselors match wits during a game of weiqi, the stakes are significant and bloody.

Boasting an all-star HK and Chinese cast, Vengeance features memorable supporting performances from top to bottom.  Not surprisingly, Anthony Wong dominates the film as the blind but all-seeing Fan Zeng, instantly bringing the gravitas necessary for the cunning yet classically tragic figure.  Still, as the crafty Zhang Liang, Hanyu Zhang holds his own with the recognizable Johnnie To veteran. 

Unfortunately, neither Feng Shaofeng nor Leon Lai displays the same commanding screen presence as the rival generals.  Actually, they are rather bland.     In contrast, Jordan Chan packs quite the late inning punch as Han loyalist Fan Kuai, while (Crystal) Liu Yifei is appropriately orchid-like as Yu Ji, but she also makes the most of a bigtime dramatic close-up down the stretch.

Lee rather dexterously shifts viewer sympathies in ways that might even be considered subversive.  Indeed, there is a definitely a point to Vengeance about the high cost of taking and keeping power.  What they say about good intentions still holds true.  An ambitious historical epic with plenty of action, White Vengeance is recommended with considerable enthusiasm for fans of Hong Kong cinema.  It releases today (9/4) on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.