Felix Chong and Alan Mak’s The Lost Bladesman (2011) takes a different tact on Romance of the Three Kingdoms by focusing on the episode where Guan Yu “spends some time” with Cao Cao. I appreciate this more subtle approach to the epic tale, even as it has some parts that do not quite make sense to me.
As always, SPOILERS!!!!!
To me, Donnie Yen in a Three Brothers vehicle guaranteed that I was going to see this film. Not only is Guan Yu is my favorite brother, I was also intrigued to see what Chong and Mak was going to do with this episode of the epic tale where Guan Yu actually hangs out with Cao Cao in the middle of the war. They assume you know and why he got there, as well as what happens to him afterwards. With that out the bag, you wonder what they are going to do with the next two hours.
It is refreshing to see how they weave the outstanding action sequences with the more quiet scenes where Cao Cao and Guan Yu discuss the merits of brotherhood and loyalty to the nation.
Let’s take the action sequences first. Did you expect them NOT to be on point? I love watching Donnie Yen’s action choreography because it always fits the film. For example, in Sha Po Lang, Yen spends what seems like forever to get that knife fight in the alley just right. It is fast and slick, and fits the urban feel of the film. So here, Yen does a really great job of showing why everyone fears Guan Yu. I don’t understand why ANYONE would want to confront him, or even think that they CAN confront him. And true to the billing, he is a wolf who only comes to the fore to protect those who are weaker and being exploited by the powerful. Yen channels that classic Guan Yu stance (you know the one I’m talking about, that move with the blade and the beard) very well. He is not to be trifled with. He’s a honorable man, but a powerful one as well.
But the film does not solely feature these action sequences. It also features chit-chats between Guan Yu and Cao Cao. This Cao Cao is more subtle than the one we find in John Woo’s Red Cliff. Rather than a raving egotistical guy mad for power, The Lost Bladesman‘s Cao Cao is more cunning and subtle in his efforts to woo Guan Yu to his side, or completely destroy his ability to capitalize on his good reputation. I was almost convinced that he really just wanted Guan Yu to serve him because he valued him more than Liu Bei. Almost.
Cao Cao’s interaction with his men is also different. They are not flunkies. They honestly seem to have internalized Cao Cao’s thinking, so that even when they go against his direct orders, they survive to tell the tale. Cao Cao also enjoys a good reputation among the regular people. They see him as a person trying to bring stability to the realm. They like him, and Liu Bei and the others are rebels, rogues and destroyers of the peace.
Overall, I liked the film, but there were parts that I was less than enthusiastic about. I’m less concerned about the way that the film diverges from the epic, but can it do so in ways that pay off? First, I’ve always thought of Guan Yu as having an aristocratic air about him, but this Guan Yu is depicted as just a farmer and day laborer. Where is his regal air? He’s hanging out with the oxen!
Second, can we have a treatment of Three Kingdoms that more accurately enlarges the role of the women? There are women in Three Kingdoms, and they can do damage. Do we have to have, even if it is a ruse, echoes of a romantic relationship that impacts the men? IT’S ABOUT THE BROTHERHOOD!!!!
And can we talk about the ending? I mean, I know what happens to Guan Yu, and I don’t really need to see how he goes down, but I felt that the ending left me wanting more. It didn’t feel that the film had something final to say about this man with the soul of a lamb. I would imagine that audiences might want to see how he is received after his time with “the enemy” or how he rationalizes killing people under Liu Bei during his captivity. We are left with Cao Cao still plotting and planning, seemingly to his benefit. Sigh.
Ultimately, its worth it, because it’s Guan Yu!!!!!!