The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century and chronicling the years of constant warfare between kingdoms that marked the end of the Han Dinasty from 169 to 280, has always been the source of many films and TV series, most notably John Woo’s Red Cliff parts I & II, and a few months ago the Donnie Yen vehicle The Lost Bladesman. A sprawling epic, it provides a bonanza of characters, events and battles, which means filmmakers can always come back to the tried and tested Three Kingdoms source material, each time focusing on a different set of characters or a different chunk of the storyline.

Daniel Lee’s Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon follows Zhao Zilong, one of the “Five Tiger Generals” of the Shu Kingdom. The film fashions itself as a biopic of sorts, but takes more than a few liberties with the source material, which itself is already semi-mythical. We follow Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau) from his enlisting in the Shu army, where he forms a long-standing friendship with Luo Ping An (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), to his becoming a general nicknamed “The Invincible”, to his heroic death during the Battle of the Phoenix Heights, where his outnumbered army was annihilated by Cao Ying’s (Maggie Q) Wei Army.

A sizeable box-office success in itself, Three Kingdoms had the misfortune of opening the same year as John Woo’s mammoth Red Cliff two-parter, and thus was over-shadowed by it. It is indeed a smaller production, but not a less ambitious one. For a biopic of sorts, it runs at a surprisingly short one hour and forty minutes, but Daniel Lee crams them with a potent reflection on the meaning and price of heroism, impressionistic battle sequences, and balletic duels.

The director has a fantastic cast to work with: Andy Lau is superb as ever in the lead role, credibly illustrating the shift from wide-eyed rookie to grizzled warrior legend numbed by years of warfare. He is ably assisted by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (also the film’s choreographer), who reminds us, in a kung-fu-free role, that he is an excellent actor in his own right. His character is a wannabe war hero who never even manages to rise in rank, but keeps calling the more illustrious Zhao Zilong “little brother”; the relationship between the two is at the center of the film and their chemistry is flawless in its awkwardness. The supporting cast is no less superb: Ti Lung, the legendary Shaw Brothers actor, makes a short but memorable appearance as the general Guan Yu (later elevated to godhood), Maggie Q is a vision as Andy Lau’s ruthless enemy, and special props must go to Yu Rongguang, an actor too often underused, but here given the heart-breaking role of a general who has to send his three sons to certain death.

Daniel Lee won a Hong Kong Film Award for his production design, and one can see why: he eschews historical accuracy in favour of a pot-pourri of inspirations ranging from WWII helmets (Andy Lau’s army have what looks like British WWII helmets, while the enemy army has seemingly German WWII helmets) to 20th century fur coats. It looks much better than it sounds. Lee directs the battle sequences in his usual impressionistic style: you can’t quite make out who fights who, but you get a perfect sense of the confusion of a battle, not in the scattershot, headache-inducing way of today’s Hollywood blockbusters, but in a poetic way by which every blow, every burst of blood, every falling body, every rearing horse coalesces into a striking impression of war as just colors on a canvas. But there is one duel scene between Andy Lau and Maggie Q that is shot very clearly and fluidly, with a grace and sense of style that just left me speechless.

What Daniel Lee has to say about war and the meaning and price of heroism is pretty striking (the film is adapted from a book he wrote). Zhao Zilong has simply been hollowed out by his ascent to the status of hero: he complains about the loss of his memories (most notably a love interest in his native village), and is denied any significant military assignment, simply because his prime minister thinks that if “The Invincible” were to lose his first battle, the moral of the troops would be dealt a deadly blow. Without memories and without purpose. This notion of “hollow heroism” is to be found in most of the director’s films, but never has it been as well formulated as in Three Kingdoms, an epic that pales, as far as scale is concerned, compared to John Woo’s version, but dwarfs it in terms of substance and poetry.

Long Story Short : A visually sumptuous study of heroism, carried by great performances and a magnificent score by Henry Lai. ****1/2 

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