Daniel Lee is clearly working his way up on the budget tables. After years of operating in (elevated) B territory, White Vengeance [Hong Men Yan] is Lee's first true big budget feature. Those of you expecting an overpowering action-fest should take notice though, White Vengeance might look like it's filled to the brim with epic battle scenes, the reality is quite different. Then again, the decision to cut back on action is one of this film's biggest perks.
White Vengeance follows the same course that many other recent Chinese/Hong Kong historic war epics have been sailing. Sure enough there is massive warfare going on, with poor soldiers being clubbed, perforated and trashed to death. But battles are not decided by brute force and man power, instead wars are won by strategic decisions and elaborate plans to lure enemies into well-considered traps. Films like Battle of Wits, Red Cliff and Lee's own Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon have been leading the way, White Vengeance is the first film to truly get it right.
The film follows the epic battle between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Two sworn brothers fighting the oppression of the Qin dynasty, but ultimately torn apart by the call of success. When Bang goes behind Yu's back to seize the capital (and the throne), Yu feels betrayed and plans for revenge. There are other parties to consider though (fact: Chinese warfare is never simple), so Yu organizes a banquet that will decide the outcome of their feud.
As I said before, not much actual warfare is required to bring the feud to its conclusion. Bang and Yu are both assisted by their respective counselors, two extremely respected figures who aim to beat each other by trying to predict the emotions of their adversaries and turning that into a tactical advantage. Where earlier films in the genre still depended on grand scale battles to bring everything to a conclusion though, White Vengeance keeps his focus rigidly on the metaphorical chess game.
On a visual level, Lee is definitely capable of handling his budget. This results in lush and richly detailed settings and elaborately planned camera work. Every frame is a marvel to behold, even the CG is handled with the proper care. The scene where a small army is escaping a valley, surrounded by enemy fractions closing in on them is without a doubt one of the greatest epic warfare scenes I've ever witnessed. Only the battle close-ups felt a bit lacking, luckily the nature of the film limits these occasions to three of four short scenes.
The soundtrack is considerably lesser in quality. A pretty generic soundtrack with many epic-sounding tracks, but quite emotionless, predictable and boring. As long as you don't pay attention to the music you probably won't be too bothered by it (since it seems constructed to be nothing more than background noise anyway), but if you take a minute to really listen to the songs it becomes increasingly clear that this is a missed opportunity. Films like these aren't known for their great scores, but Lee lands his' on the wrong side of standard.
Luckily the acting is top notch. Shao-feng Feng and Leon Lai are both great as sworn adversaries, but it's Hanyu Zhang and Anthony Wong that steal the show as counselors. Wong proves again just how versatile he really is, Hanyu Zhang (The Message, Bodyguards and Assassins) is a very pleasant discovery and could turn into a very dependable actor for the future. Add good secondary roles of Yifei Liu and Jordan Chan and you have a very solid cast to get you through some of the slower, more thoughful scenes.
The first fifteen minutes are probably the most crucial of the film. Lee takes little time to properly introduce all his characters and because of that you really need to pay attention to understand the setting and the relationships between various people. I'm not sure if this story is a well-known part of Chinese history, but for Western people the first fifteen minutes can be quite confusing, especially if you're in "sit back, popcorn ready, big epic movie coming up" mode. Instead Lee chose to take his time to elaborate on the various little details that make up the tactical battle of the two counselors, but if you've missed out on the beginning chances are you're not going to catch up during the rest of the film.
That said, it's not exactly rocket science either and if you pay attention during the first fifteen minutes the story should be clear enough to enjoy the rest of the film. Personally, I really liked Lee's focus on the tactical side of things. I'm not a big fan of epic battles anyway, so to see things play out on more neutral territory was a lot of fun. The games of Go (Weiqi) in between made it all the more interesting. Not that I understand much of the finer points of the game, but I appreciate the air of epic seriousness with which it is played.
Sure there are a couple of action scenes, but not what you'd expect when entering a 140 minute war epic. If you're into bloody battles and grunting, sweaty men this film is probably not for you. Instead you get a slice of tactical warfare that, at least to me, is a lot more challenging and interesting to follow. The climax is both exciting and emotional, the ending is smart and a small punch in the gut. Lee proves very capable in handling this material and I'm hoping he'll keep at it for a while as this is clearly what he's truly good at.