Brothers in blood
A Hong Kong director chooses a Bangkok venue to debut his epic war drama
Published on December 13, 2007
Thai-Hong Kong director Peter Chan is well aware that Hong Kong movies no longer pull Thai audiences the same way they did 20 years ago but that didn't stop him from deciding to launch his latest film in Bangkok.
And he did succeed in drawing the crowds to Sunday's premiere by bringing with him the three Asian superstars who play the leading men in the war drama "The Warlords". After all, what self-respecting movie fan in Thailand could resist catching Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the flesh?
"It's for my Thai side," says the 45-year-old director in clear, accented Thai. "Since the Hong Kong filmmaking scene is in hiatus, I'm trying my best to boost the industry as well as bringing my good wishes to Thailand."
Chan grew up in Thailand before heading off to study in the US. He started his film career in Hong Kong while his parents were still living in Bangkok.
At the SFW Cinema in CentralWorld fans waited patiently, screaming and applauding wildly when the trio of stars finally made their entrance.
"The Warlords", Hong Kong's most expensive production to date at US$40 million (Bt1.35 billion), also marks a change in genre for Chan, who is better know for slow-moving romantic dramas.
But audiences shouldn't expect a no-holds-barred action flick. Under Chan's direction, this take on China's Taiping Rebellion, the mid-19th-century civil conflict that killed more than 70 million people in 13 years, is a realistic war film, with no slings, no wires and no flying. Even action hero Jet Li has a more dramatic role and while he still fights, it's as a warrior not as a Wushu champion.
The director, who prefers romantic and gangster films to action movies, says he picked the project because the story interested him.
"I had intended to revive a gangster film from the '80s, maybe John Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow'. In that too, there are strong themes of brotherhood and comradeship but there is also betrayal just like in this movie," he points out.
For "The Warlords", Chen switches from the usual colourful Chinese costumes to dark tones that reflect the sombre backdrop of wrecked villages in the middle of the 14-year war. "It's like Afghanistan today," he says.
"Nobody can fly in this film. That challenged my action director Ching Siu-Tung," says the director, who is trying to offer viewers an alternative style of Chinese period/action drama.
"When Westerners watch Asian films, they don't think of us as ordinary humans but as exotic beings, which I personally find insulting. Chinese period films have been like fantasy worlds. They may be beautiful but they shouldn't be thought of as our history. We look at western period dramas and we get an idea of the past. What they see in old Chinese films is just fantasy," says the director.
The film tells the story of three sworn brothers - imperial Chinese general Ma Xing Yi (Jet Li), bandit leader Zhao Er-hu (Andy Lau) and young outlaw Zhang Wenxiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) - during the chilling battle against the Taiping Rebellion. They turn against each other over a woman.
All three protagonists are splendid in their roles. Kaneshiro proves again his dramatic mettle as the youngest of the trio, observing the changes in his elders, while Li is brilliant as the pragmatic general and fallen hero.
Li accepted the role 15 minutes into reading the script, very unusual for a superstar of his calibre.
"It's a very interesting story, one that speaks volumes about the worthiness of peace through the brutality of war. Most films only show violence," says the martial arts star, on his first official visit to Thailand since 1977.
"Besides it's been a long time since I had the chance to play such a multi-layered character. I usually play men that are much more black and white in nature.
Chan decided to use Kaneshiro again after working with him on "Perhaps Love", even though his staff tried to convince him to use young Chinese heartthrob Jay Chou.
"Chou was right age-wise, but Takeshi, though he's now 30, can make audiences cry as the youngest brother," he says.
For his part, Kaneshiro called the film "a valuable learning experience".
Chan adds that "The Warlords" took on a life of its own when they started shooting. He found himself editing the script as they went along, happy to give the actors room to shape their characters' lives and make changes as necessary.
But he admits making a big budget film put him under a lot of pressure. Although fully conversant with the movie business as the owner of Applause Pictures, Chan still had to put together a complicated deal to get financing for his film.
"The bigger the film, the more politics you have to confront. I wasn't tired from filmmaking but I was ground down from dealing with the producers," he says.
"Big markets like China prefer big-budget movies. Martial arts or action films are easier to get pass the censors," says the director.
"Making 'The Warlords' with three major stars is the only way I can attract audiences, I accept that. But at the same time, I'm pleased with the content. It's a good story, presented with emotion and drama."
"The Warlords" goes on general release today.