Enter another epic from the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 14th century historical novel that was also the inspiration for John Woo’s Red Cliff. A Hong Kong action film based on a story called Crossing Five Passes and Killing Six Generals, that’s pretty much what you get – some excellent fight sequences, some noble posturing and some great scenery. Just don’t expect much emotional complexity.
From the highly regarded Infernal Affairs team of Alan Mak and Felix Chong, The Lost Bladesman centres on Guan Yu (Donnie Yen), a much-revered historical figure whose exploits have been fictionalized for centuries. The film opens with him a prisoner of warlord Cao Cao (Jieng Wen) convinced to fight for his captor despite being a sworn brother of Liu Bei – who Cao Cao is trying to defeat. After winning a decisive battle for Cao Cao, Guan Yu is honoured with a new title but refuses to join his new patron’s service, looking only to reunite the beautiful concubine Qilan (Betty Sun) with Lui Bei. It’s Guan Yu’s journey with Qilan that takes him across the five passes and into the path of Cao Cao’s six generals, all out to kill him. Of course he must also resist demonstrating his true feelings towards Qilan as he dodges arrows, blades and spears.
Despite the frequently confusing plotline (it’s worth doing a bit of story homework beforehand), and a distinct lack of emotional authenticity, there is plenty of high adventure in the killing of the generals, and a couple of the fight sequences with the guan do (or long-handled crescent-moon blade) are pure cinematic thrill. Donnie Yen makes for a stoical Guan Yen – perhaps overdoing the thoughtful tweaking of his long wispy beard, and is also credited as action director where his talents are clear. Beyond this though, there’s not much for the audience, with the characterisations thin and the love story hardly rising beyond tepid as impassive warrior meets timid, respectful beauty. Acting honours clearly go to Jiang Wen who plays the politically savvy Cao Cao with more complexity than directors Mak and Chong can find in the rest of their cast. The cinematography and design elements of the film are of the highest standard and it’s a solid enough piece of work in its genre.