Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Old School Kung Fu ’16: A Terra-Cotta Warrior

He is like the Golem, except more heroic. General Meng Tian Fang was promoted to Lord Chamberlain after saving the life of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The decent Meng quickly starts to doubt whether the emperor deserved saving, but he has no reservations when it comes to the lovely Snowy. Unfortunately, it be another three thousand years before he gets another shot at protecting her in Ching Siu-tung’s A Terra-Cotta Warrior (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of Subway’s Cinema’s Old School Kung Fu 2016, with the support of Warner Archive, which released the era-spanning romance in their series of Golden Harvest classics on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD--to order, fans must visit the Warner Archive website:

Meng does indeed save Qin Number One, so unlike the rest of the Imperial guards on duty, he gets to live. He is also promoted, but he is profoundly disillusioned by the way old Qin conducts business. Seeking to satisfy the Emperor’s desire for immortality, court alchemist Xu Fu has struggled in vain to develop an eternal elixir. To save his head, he convinces the Emperor to back a dodgy pilgrimage involving five hundred male and female virgins. That is how Meng initially spies Snowy. The attraction is mutual, but her virgin status obviously implies trouble.

Love truly hurts when the love of your life slips you an eternal elixir before the despot you ever so loyally serve immolates her before your eyes and then encases you in clay to guard his mausoleum for the rest of time. However, Meng’s lonely vigilance will be interrupted by a Republican era film crew. Actually, the film they are making, a dubious Chinese remake of Gone with the Wind, is just a cover for the treasure-seeking leading man and director. However, star-struck extra Zhu Lili is convinced it will be her big break. She also happens to be the spitting image of Snowy.

Frankly, Terra-Cotta sometimes feels like a film that should have quit while it was ahead. The Qin-era scenes are wonderfully tragic in a wuxia kind of way. There are also some rousing action scenes and some suitably murky intrigue. As the star-crossed lovers, Gong Li and Zhang Yimou (then the real life first couple of Chinese cinema) have immediate, smoking hot chemistry.

Unfortunately, the fish-out-of-water comedy of act two is pretty shticky. The camera still loves Gong, but Zhu is a problematically shallow character. Still, if you persevere, things perk up considerably in the tomb-raiding climax. There are some inventive action scenes, a few “borrowings” from Indiana Jones, and the legion of Terracotta Warriors in all their glory.

The surviving Terracotta Warriors are quite a sight to behold in person, so it is cool to see Ching try to convey that on film. There are also some clever callbacks in the epilogue, especially given the rumored destination of Xu Fu. In comparison, all the bickering slapstick in between just seems like such a miscue. Even (or rather especially) in 1990, most movie fans would much prefer to see Gong and Zhang in a tragic embrace than mugging at each other.

Arguably, that makes Terra-Cotta a good film for home viewing, because you can fast forward the jokey parts. On the other hand, there are some stunning visuals, particularly in the Qin-Era sequences that cry out for the big screen. Of course, when you really get down to it, every Gong Li film is worth seeing. Recommended for wuxia fans who understand its eccentricities, A Terra-Cotta Warrior screens this Saturday (4/9) as part of Old School Kung Fu at the Metrograph and is available for sale online at Warner Archive.