Monday, December 01, 2008


Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali

I would like to know for what reason(s) director Zhang Yimou and frequent collaborator Gong Li signed on to this ridiculous Hong Kong production. Appearing between superlative projects by its stars (JU DOU, RAISE THE RED LANTERN) the film's foolishness is only magnified.

Zhang - in a rare dramatic role - plays Meng Tian, Qin Dynasty general and advisor to an obsessive first emperor of China who demands that 500 virgins be sacrificed for an elixir of immortality. Our hero falls for the suicidal Snow (Gong Li), deflowers her, and is discovered post-coital by one of the emperor's alchemists. Rather than face burning at the stake, Meng opts to be smothered in clay and placed in the emperor's crypt as a terracotta warrior. Snow has stolen the alchemist's "immortality pill," and passes it to Meng before she throws herself in a bonfire. The general awakens in 1930s-era China to find Lily (also Gong Li), an air-headed actress, and stumbles upon a plot by Lily's matinee idol and co-star to raid the crypt. We have gunfights, swordfights, booby-trapped caverns, and a lot of desperate fish-out-of-water humor.

The straight-faced opening act is decent, with an affecting romance made credible by the two leads. I wonder how much of the story is extended in alternate prints; Meng and Snow’s growing attraction feels rushed, and the DVD clocks in at 105 minutes when various sources list a running time of over two hours.

When we leap forward to 1930, emphasis is on action and slapstick, none of which is the least bit imaginative. Director Ching Siu-Tung (A CHINESE GHOST STORY, THE EAST IS RED) favors murky, monochromatic photography and low-angle shots -- an all-too-typical approach of HK genre filmmakers. Zhang has one amusing bit where befuddled Meng tries to extinguish a light bulb, but Gong (playing Lily) is trapped as an audience-identifier even someone of her caliber cannot make appealing. The second half almost comes alive when, appropriately, a legion of terracotta warriors rise from the dead to do battle - a sequence that might be intense if we could actually see what was happening.

CODENAME COUGAR (1989) is another unusual Zhang Yimou/Gong Li collaboration that was attacked by critics, had barely-if-any U.S. release, and is often ignored in analysis of the director and star's films. I wonder if it's any improvement on TERRACOTTA WARRIOR.

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