White Vengeance 鴻門宴傳奇
Costume action drama
2011, colour, 2.35:1, 137 mins
Directed by Daniel Lee (李仁港)
By Derek Elley
Fri, 30 December 2011, 11:50 AM (HKT)
Impressive costume drama about two warring leaders loses the plot halfway. Ancillary beyond Asia.
Shaanxi province, central China, winter, 183 BC. Twelve years after the death of the Han dynasty's first emperor, Liu Bang (Leon Lai), the Grand Tutor (Wu Ma) leads a group of seven young students to the site of a famous meeting in 206 BC - the so-called Feast at Hong Gate - between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu (William Feng), then rival leaders following the collapse of the Qin dynasty. A mysterious figure appears, and tells the story of how Liu Bang and Xiang Yu first met during the period following the death of Qin Shi Huang and the interregnum by King Huai II of Chu (Zhao Huinan). Both agree to overthrow the Qin, but it is Liu Bang who first reaches the capital, Xianyang, along with Xiang Yu's woman, Consort Yu (Crystal Liu), whom Liu Bang has helped protect. In Xianyang, Liu Bang takes on Zhang Liang (Zhang Hanyu), a wily weiqi (Go) player leading a group of six assassins, as his advisor, against the advice of loyalists such as Fan Kuai (Jordan Chan). Zhang Liang advises Liu Bang, who has no ambitions at ultimate power and less forces than Xiang Yu, to stay in the city and win its citizens over to his side. Thinking that Liu Bang has betrayed him, and spurred on by his aged uncle and advisor Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong), Xiang Yu invites Liu Bang to a meeting at Hong Gate. Liu Bang respectfully hands over the imperial seal and says Consort Yu is safe under his protection for the meantime. To resolve the impasse, Zhang Liang challenges the blind Fan Zeng to a game of multiple weiqi on five boards.
Variable Hong Kong director Daniel LEE 李仁港 (Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon 三國之見龍卸甲 (2008), 14 Blades 錦衣衛 (2010)) aims high but starts going seriously wobbly from the mid-point with White Vengeance 鴻門宴傳奇 (2011), an historical action drama based around rival leaders Liu Bang and Xiang Yu during the so-called Chu-Han Contention period (206-202 BC) that followed the collapse of China's first dynasty, the Qin. The era is favourite fodder for Chinese-language TV dramas and received fine treatment in the 178-minute version of Stephen SHIN 冼杞然's The Great Conqueror's Concubine 西楚霸王 (1994), with ZHANG Fengyi 張豐毅, Ray LUI 呂良偉 and GONG Li 鞏俐. Lee's version attempts to be two films in one, initially centring on the famous Feast at Hong Gate of 206 BC, in which Xiang Yu invited Liu Bang to a banquet at which the latter was almost murdered, and then carrying on for another four years up to the former's eventual defeat and his suicide after the Battle of Gaixia. The result is a dramatic first hour leading up to and including the Hong Gate event, followed by a second hour that lets all the air out of the bag.
The Feast at Hong Gate 鴻門宴 — which has since entered the Chinese language to mean "a treacherous invitation" — is also the subject of LU Chuan 陸川's forthcoming The Last Supper 王的盛宴, with LIU Ye 劉燁 and Daniel WU 吳彥祖. From its Chinese title, Legend of the Feast at Hong Gate, Lee's movie looks like a rival production that got first out of the traps; in fact, once his script gets to the eponymous banquet after almost an hour of atmospheric lead-up, Lee jettisons the well-documented dinner and replaces it with an elaborate game of weiqi (Go) between the two sides that then leads to an outbreak of martial arts. That done, the film has a where-do-we-go-from-here feel, literally losing the plot as it wanders all over the map during the final hour in a story of warfare, betrayal, tragic romance and a lesson on the loneliness of ultimate power.
This wouldn't matter so much if the twin personalities of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were (a) well played and (b) dominated the movie. Unfortunately, Leon LAI 黎明 is wooden as Liu Bang (and hardly the bluff peasant general of history), while William FENG 馮紹峰 is not much more than a long-haired matinee idol as the reputedly clever Xiang Yu. There's no chemistry between the two to build a film on their edgy relationship, and they're outclassed by a strong cast in what should be subsidiary roles. As Liu Bang's wily advisor, China's ZHANG Hanyu 張涵予 (Assembly 集結號 (2007), The Message 風聲 (2009)) acts everyone else off the screen with his usual understated intensity, including a monk-like Anthony WONG 黃秋生 as Xiang Yu's equally wily, blind advisor. There's more chemistry between these two actors than between Lai and Feng, though still not enough to make their later scenes together resonate emotionally.
Other roles, though often well-played individually, also don't cohere into a single drama. As Xiang Yu's consort, Mainland actress Crystal LIU 劉亦菲 largely sits in carriages, plays her pipa, or waits on the sidelines looking beautiful, making the love story a non-starter. Among several characterful supports, Hong Kong's Jordan CHAN 陳小春 has the strongest moments but, again, not enough follow-through in the script to justify his final emotional scene.
On a technical level the movie is classy, with dark cavernous sets designed by Lee himself; ominous, uncolourful costuming by Debby WONG 黃明霞 and Eddie MOK 莫均傑; atmospheric photography by Tony CHEUNG 張東亮, and good battles and action that manage to be visceral without much blood-letting. Henry LAI 黎允文's score is, however, weak.
ContactSales: Easternlight Films (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: China, 29 Nov 2011; Hong Kong, 8 Dec 2011.
Presented by Starlight International Media Group (CN), in association with Beijing Starlight Group, JSBC Eudemonia Blue Ocean TV & Movie Group, Wuhan Changyang International Media, Beijing Starlight International Media, China Starlight Times Media. Produced by Visualizer Film Production (HK). Executive producer: Song Guangcheng. Producers: Ni Ying, Wang Zhe, Susanna Tsang, Daniel Lee.
Script: Daniel Lee. Photography: Tony Cheung. Editing: Tang Man-to. Music: Henry Lai. Theme song: Mark Lui. Lyrics: Yao Chien. Production design: Daniel Lee. Art direction: Fang Yiheng. Costume design: Debby Wong. Stylist: Eddie Mok. Action: Alex Leung. Executive director: Chan Chi-leung.
Cast: Leon Lai (Liu Bang), Zhang Hanyu (Zhang Liang, his advisor), Crystal Liu (Consort Yu), William Feng (Xiang Yu), Anthony Wong (Fan Zeng, his advisor), Jordan Chan (Fan Kuai), Andy On (Han Xin), Xiu Qing (Xiao He), Ding Haifeng (Xiang Zhuang), Xu Xiangdong (Xiang Bo), Chen Kuan-tai (Qiu Ran), Wu Ma (Grand Tutor), Chen Zhihui (Xiahou Ying), Du Yuming (Long Ju), Sun Wenting, Meng Tongdi, Cherry Huang (Three Sisters of Nangong), Mark Du (male demon), Jia Qing (female demon), Zhao Huinan (King Huai II of Chu), Zhao Wenhao (Bofu, a student).