An epic, historical, action film loosely based on the story of Chinese folk hero, Guan Yu in the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong of “Infernal Affairs” fame, the film stars Donnie Yen as Guan Yu, with Yen also serving as the film’s action director.
Donnie Yen stars as “Guan Yunchang/Guan Yu”, a revered Chinese historical figure. Guan Yu was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the dynasty and the establishment of the state of Shu Han, founded by Liu Bei, during the Three Kingdoms period.
As one of the best known Chinese historical figures, Guan’s true life stories have largely given way to fictionalised ones, most of which are found in Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui dynasty and is still worshipped by many Chinese people today. He is a figure in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to Guan are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants. He is often reverently called Guan Gong (Lord Guan) and Guan Di (Emperor Guan).
Jiang Wen, a noted Chinese dramatic actor, plays “Cao Cao”. A real-life historical character, Cao Cao was a warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty. One of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid the foundations for what was to become the state of Cao Wei and was posthumously honoured as “Emperor Wu of Wei”. Often portrayed as a cruel and merciless tyrant, in subsequent literature Cao Cao has also been praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius who treated his subordinates like his family. He was also skilled in poetry and martial arts and wrote many war journals.
Hailed as “China’s Queen of Television”, Betty Sun Li plays “Qilan”, Liu Bei’s concubine and subject of Guan Yu’s affection. Martial arts fans will know her as the blind girl “Moon” from the Jet Li film, “Fearless“.
Alex Fong is “Liu Bei”, a warlord and Guan Yu’s sworn brother. Historically Liu Bei was a warlord in the late Eastern Han dynasty who founded the state of Shu Han in the Three Kingdoms period and became it’s first ruler. He fought at the famous Battle of Red Cliffs and was widely considered a benevolent and humane leader.
In supporting roles, star of “Mr. Vampire” and “Fist of Legend“, Chin Siu-ho has a brief cameo as “Yan Liang”, one of Yuan Shao’s generals. Action star Andy On (“New Police Story”, “Invisible Target“, “Fatal Contact“, “True Legend”, “Special ID“, “Zombie Fight Club“) plays “Kong Xiu”, a general defending Dongling Pass. Calvin Li who played “Wisdom” in “Reign of Assassins”, here plays an archer tasked with stopping Guan Yu. Popular Chinese actor and star of the award-winning “Black Coal, Thin Ice” Wang Xuebing is “Wang Zhi”, the official in charge of Xingyang.
During the late Eastern Han Dynasty, the warlord and Chancellor Cao Cao eliminates his political opponents, before turning his attention towards rival warlords Liu Bei and Yuan Shao. To avoid fighting a war on two fronts, Cao Cao decides to attack Liu Bei first. Liu Bei flees north to join Yuan Shao, while his family is captured by the enemy. Liu Bei’s sworn brother Guan Yu, surrenders to Cao Cao to uphold his oath of brotherhood and preserve his honour.
Cao Cao knows Guan Yu is a great warrior and persuades him to fight for him. Guan Yu slays Yuan Shao’s general Yan Liang and wins the Battle of Baima. As a reward, Cao Cao recommends to the emperor that he should grant Guan Yu the title of “Marquis of Hanshou” and allow him to live in peace.
Guan Yu is secretly in love with his sworn brother Liu Bei’s fiancé Qilan, but is afraid to express his feelings to her. Qilan reproaches Guan Yu for serving Cao Cao. Receiving news of Liu Bei’s whereabouts, Guan Yu prepares to leave Cao Cao to deliver Qilan to her betrothed. Cao Cao is unable to stop Guan Yu and gives orders for the defending generals at the various passes to allow Guan Yu through. Cao Cao’s followers believe that a warrior as great as Guan Yu will become a threat to them if he succeeds in escaping, and plot to have him killed. Not realising what lies ahead, Guan Yu embarks on a long and dangerous journey through the various passes to reunite with Liu Bei.
The action commences not with martial arts, but with an appropriately epic reconstruction of the Battle of Baima. Flaming arrows fly overhead, the horse-mounted cavalry charge forward with their lances, and all are surrounded by thousands of soldiers fighting with swords, spears and hand-to-hand. Chinese movie makers have become extremely adept at these types of sequences. You can almost smell the burning flames and the sound effects and filming techniques make it seem as though the arrows are flying out of the screen. The huge loss of life in ancient battles is not shied away from, but it is not gratuitous either. Donnie Yen makes a very brief appearance to confront Chin Siu-ho, but there is little to report in the action department from him.
At the Dongling Pass, there are hundreds of men practicing their martial arts forms in rows, just like the classic tennis court scenes from “Enter the Dragon”. When Donnie arrives, he is surrounded by dozens of soldiers. Initially he uses his brute strength to fling them from his path, before grabbing Guan Yu’s famed “Guandao” weapon.
Andy On leaps in with his spear to duel Donnie, with the pair using a mix of wushu skills, and real weapons applications. The fight progresses to a narrow-walled street, forcing the two gladiators to adapt their weapons technique as they strike the brickwork. Their timing is impeccable as Andy On ducks just centimetres under Donnie’s swinging blade, with Donnie himself slipping from side-to-side to avoid getting a spear in his eye. The camera whizzes around in overhead and tracking shots, but always gives a clear view of the action.
In Han Yu’s blacksmiths, Donnie faces dozens of soldiers armed with spears, swords and shields. For this scene, Donnie uses the Dao, or Chinese broadsword, adopting the hacking and slashing moves associated with this weapon. The elaborate set has wooden staircases and balconies, and a watermill, all of which are incorporated into the fight choreography. When Donnie reaches the upper levels, he manages to snatch a Guandao from one of the soldiers. Using some of the more flamboyant, twirling, wushu techniques, he applies them in an authentic-looking manner to dispatch multiple foes. Slow-motion filming gives us the opportunity to observe the application of the weapon, and also serves to give Donnie’s technique power.
At the next pass, the audience may feel a trifle cheated. The scene is set as Donnie walks into a courtyard full of soldiers, vividly dressed in purple robes. As the fight commences, the doors slam shut, and we just hear the noise of clashing blades. As the doors open, we see Guan Yu standing in the middle of the aftermath!
Thankfully at the next vibrantly coloured pass, Donnie is confronted by Wang Xuebing. The choreography takes a turn again with Donnie’s Guandao pitted against Wang’s Shuang Shou Jian (two-handed straight sword), and this time they have plenty of space to swing their weapons. If anything the pace is upped from the previous duels, and the tracking camerawork gives the swirling weapons a certain frenetic beauty.
As he approaches his destination, Guan Yu’s caravan is ambushed by archers in a misty woods. Donnie runs through the trees zipping this way and that to dodge the myriad of arrows, taking out archers as he does so. In the final action scene, armed with a sword in each hand, Donnie engages the surrounding soldiers.
Although “The Lost Bladesman” was a financial success in China, it received mixed reviews. The character of Guan Yu holds a lot of interest for many Chinese people. Both the historical writings and heavily fictionalised stories about him, especially in the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, make for fascinating and exciting reading.
Guan Yu is historically portrayed as a big, powerful man, with a long flowing beard. The filmmakers intentionally avoided the traditional image of Guan Yu when casting the lead role and Donnie Yen initially declined the part, feeling, quite rightly, that he was not physically appropriate. The directors convinced him it would be a chance to display his dramatic skills, as well as his martial arts ones, and he changed his mind. Indeed, casting Donnie makes Guan Yu more human, more vulnerable.
With Donnie as Action Director, he decided to use more realistic weapons choreography. He successfully blends the grace of the wushu movements with the authentic applications of the martial arts techniques used. The use of wires is still evident, and occasionally even a little CGI, but on the whole Donnie’s choreography always prioritises each individual weapon’s modus operandi. In the few instances when he does use his fists and feet, it is done with an extra “weight” and power, as would befit the legend of Guan Yu.
As Cao Cao, Jiang Wen delivers a brilliant performance giving the story the appropriate dramatic gravitas. A subtle look or change in body language conveys exactly what he is thinking, even if you miss the subtitle, or there is no dialogue at all. The production has authentic looking sets and costumes, good cinematography and is backed by an epic and exciting music score.
However, I can see why there were mixed reviews. Donnie gives a perfectly adequate performance, but fans at this point had been spoiled by seeing him in the likes of “Ip Man“, “Hero” and “Flash Point“. The three standout action scenes are excellent, but they are spread somewhat scantily over the drawn out story.
This film also has a lot of competition; “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” starred Andy Lau and had epic battles and action choreographed by Sammo Hung. Jet Li’s “The Warlords” blended the drama with the action more successfully. And John Woo’s “Red Cliff”, which also features many of the same historical characters, is a modern masterpiece.
I enjoyed the dramatic performances, the soundtrack and the cinematography, and the action when it happens looks great and left me smiling. Martial arts fans will probably yearn for more fight scenes and history fans will crave a “proper” Guan Yu movie. But if you want a good-looking, Chinese historical epic, with some top-notch weapons choreography and a great acting performance from Jiang Wen, “The Lost Bladesman” is worth your attention.
- During a fight sequence, Sun Li accidentally elbowed Donnie in the eye! Sun Li was also injured after banging her head on a tree branch on the back of a galloping horse.
- The spine of the plot takes its inspiration from Luo Guanzhong’s classic story “Guan Yu Crossing Five Passes and Slaying Six Generals”.
- The Guandao weapon, a Chinese halberd, was named after Guan Yu. His was named the “Green Dragon Crescent Blade”, and according to legend, it was so heavy, only Guan Yu himself could wield it!
- Jiang Wen who plays “Cao Cao” is due to appear alongside Donnie Yen once again in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”.
- Alex Fong who plays “Liu Bei”, would later star as “Chief Inspector Lam” in Donnie Yen’s “Kung Fu Killer“.