It's about halfway into Daniel Lee's historical epic White Vengeance (aka Hong men yan) that its true leads emerge, and then another quarter of the movie still before they recede into the background. In the battle of military forces and wits, the true protagonists aren't seemingly upstanding rebel soldier Liu Bang (Leon Lai) or his ruthless, power-hungry brother-in-arms Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng); no, the real persons of interest are Zhang Liang (Zhang Hanyu) and Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong), advisers to their respective proxies in a battle of wits over the control of the imperial throne of China.
When these two men are onscreen, White Vengeance comes alive in a battle of wits and game of deception and death, but for the rest of its running time, Lee's film goes through the motions of the same tired old tropes of this kind of movie with bonus shaky cam during its many confusing battle scenes.
From the start, the story follows Liu Bang and Xiang Yu as they join one another in overthrowing the despotic Qin Emperor, with Liu Bang swearing his allegiance to the ambitious younger man. But King Huai of the neighboring kingdom of Chu would rather not have a new enemy rise up next door, and plots to sow dissent between the two rebels. So he makes this decree: whichever army reaches the gates of Qin will become the new Emperor.
Now, we're led to believe that Liu Bang doesn't want it and only wishes to return home with his soldiers, while the throne is all Xiang Yu wants (and he's willing to kill anyone in his way to get it). At this point, the film becomes one of many historical dramas about the ability of power (or even the quest for power) to corrupt, but then Zhang Liang and Fan Zeng show up. The former is a brilliant tactician and gamesman (he's introduced beating a half-dozen rival players at concurrent games of Go) who sees the spark of leadership in Liu Bang; the other man is blind, elderly, and has served as a surrogate father to Xiang Yu and will do whatever it takes to get his man on the throne.
It's so fascinating watching these two actors play out their conflict like a friendly (albeit potentially fatal) game with smiles and geniality. Consider the scene where each attempts to set up the rules for the five concurrent matches of Go they will play for the lives of one of Liu Bang's soldiers: Wong and Zhang sell this scene in part as two men being fussy over who gets to go first and as strategists trying to get the edge in battle. Wong in particular is the single greatest asset the movie has, although the sometime comic actor is a still a little too young to be playing feeble and decrepit.
Their rivalry culminates in the Feast at Hong Gate, a real historical event which was set up as a peace meeting but was in truth both men's attempts to outmaneuver one another and keep their patrons alive. This is the real heart of the movie which involves double crosses, a life or death game of Go, and a stage show that could have ended in decapitation. It's the kind of over-the-top spirit that kept me engaged and really into the movie, and it's a shame that it makes up such a relatively small part of the movie's two hour-plus running time.
The rest of it is kind of generic stuff with a broad message about serving "the people" (although the only real representative of the people we see here are Liu Bang's men who are kind of nuts). I can't say for sure how well-choregraphed the fights are, since Lee shoots each one with a jittery frame like it's some kind of historical Bourne film. I will say if I never have to see another scene of two armies rushing each other and clashing in the middle of a cloud of dust, it'll be too soon.
Besides both the domestic and international trailers, White Vengeance has a pair of additional features that really should have been given an extra pass for accessibility. The first is a 56-minute long behind-the-scenes video which is actually a lengthy reel of the film's stunts being performed by the White Vengeance cast, presented in standard definition. Without any kind of narration or editorial oversight, it can get mind-numbing after a while. The second feature is a collection of interviews with the actors, writers, and director of the film which actually provides some insight into the characters and story behind the historical epic, but curiously, none of the actors are identified with any kind of onscreen titles, so you're better off watching this after having seen the film.
White Vengeance is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.