The Lost Bladesman (China: Guan yun chang), 2011.
Written and Directed by Felix Chong, Alan Mak.
Starring Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Yu Ai Lei, Hong Chen and Siu-hou Chin.
In ancient China, the legendary warrior Guan Yun Chang (Donnie Yen) is forced to fight for a rival warlord during the warring period of the Three Kingdoms.
If your new film is a box office smash in China there’s a good chance you’ll never have to work again; unless you were just in charge of fetching the coffee and sandwich orders on set. Everybody knows the Chinese population is practically a whole other world full of people crammed into the confines of one (albeit large) country. But these days they’re not just statistics briefly gawped at in GCSE Geography lessons. Scrap that, they remain figures for most of us in little old England, but now they’re far less distant and a lot more accessible and relevant.
America has just lost its top credit rating, Europe remains poised on a perpetual precipice of financial collapse, whilst emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and also India, look set to pick up the pieces of global influence. Historians, politicians and commentators have been debating the apparent shift from Western to Eastern dominance for a long time now. But even as the evidence continues to suggest a more uncertain future for us in the West, along with greater strength and security for the likes of China, it’s Western cultural phenomena and trends that continue to capture the world’s imagination, as well as drive the entertainment sectors of the international economy. It’s undoubtedly significant that China’s ascent in the last few years has coincided with increasingly Western elements to its economy and society.
Last year, according to Film Business Asia, China’s box office receipts grew by 64% to $1.53 billion. This is just a part of an increasingly Western feel to Chinese leisure time. With such a huge market for Hollywood studios to target, you wonder why they bother with our British pennies at all.
The Lost Bladesman is a film about old China, made in China. It was a hit at the Chinese box office and arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray today. It isn’t a Hollywood production but it’s a reasonably accurate representation of the way Western culture has portrayed China on film over the years. This is a period martial arts epic, with plenty of high kicking choreography and obviously important talk of honour. So far we haven’t really caught up with the changing times and “new” China hasn’t been properly explored at the cinema.
One reason for this is that huge fights scenes full of ninjas and sword slashing are very popular. Martial arts films continue to have a dedicated fan base around the world. The moneymen behind the filmmakers like to stick to safe bets, hence endless editions of identikit Jackie Chan thrillers. But as I’ve said The Lost Bladesman is a Chinese production, so clearly within China itself there is also a reluctance to abandon the old for the new.
If you like kung fu and karate shenanigans then there are certainly a few set pieces in The Lost Bladesman that are worth a look. However if you’re after something plot driven then don’t invest too much hope in this. There isn’t much of a story and what there is you may not be able to comprehend (I was frequently confused) amidst the battle scenes, slow mo duels and serious, subtitled dialogue. Appropriately, given the film’s title, it seems to lose its way a great deal, lurching messily from one painstakingly choreographed set piece to another.
Without the production notes and its synopsis I would have had no clue what was happening at times. There are too many enemies to keep track of and it’s difficult to remember why any of it is happening. It all begins on the battlefield. Despite the scale of these scenes they are mostly uninteresting. Then with impressive scenery as a constant backdrop, Donnie Yen’s Guan Yun Chang goes on the run. It says that he’s trying to return his “sworn brother’s” concubine but it’s really not clear whose side he is on as he travels through China, killing a lot of people on the way and failing miserably to fall in love, whilst warlords talk grimly about, well, war.
Yen’s meticulously planned and noisily realised scenes of ninja combat are the only real reason to see The Lost Bladesman. They are far more impressive than the handful of battles on show. After the first proper mortal duel in a narrow space had me gripped though, even the rest of Yen’s dances with death began to lose their appeal. I was glad to see the credits.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)
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