Home > Film > The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang (2011)

The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang (2011)

It’s always interesting when history collides with fantasy and our modern sensibilities. In one sense, The Lost Bladesman is a glorification of fighting skills seen through a lens now more comfortable with arcade and online games where our hero must navigate various levels, using different weapons, to reach the winning destination. Yet, for all the virtuosity of the set-piece combat elements, the film transcends mere fighting with sword, spear and guandao, and becomes an interesting examination of what it means to be righteous.

 

This is a part of the story of Guan Yu Chang who was a sworn brother to, and general for, Liu Bei. It focuses on the crossing of the five passes and the slaying of six generals as described in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, coming before the battles portrayed in Red Cliff and Red Cliff II.

 

In this, it’s important to recognise that Guan Yu was deified not long after his death. He’s still respected in the Confucian religion and worshipped as a guardian deity in Taoism and as a bodhisattva in Buddhism, becoming a more general figure of worship in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and other places where Chinese culture has gained a foothold. So when you bring this character to the big screen, you have to show his primary features as loyalty and righteousness.

Donnie Yen wondering why his horse is the wrong colour

 

I suppose we don’t have to worry too much about the historical accuracy of what’s shown save that most of the military tactics and the basic fighting skills are realistic. Even the repeating crossbow, capable of being fired one-handed, is accurately reproduced. Whether Guan Yu invented and used the guandao, aka podau, rather than the more likely dagger-axe — a form of halberd — is also irrelevant. Long pole fighting was common at the time. The key to understanding the film comes from the contrast between Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen, and Cao Cao, played by Wen Jiang.

 

Let’s think of Cao Cao as a pragmatist working towards the unification of the kingdoms. He has captured Guan Yu and wants to recruit him. Almost without exception, all the other senior officers who surrender or are captured, are mercenary and agree to fight under new colours. Such is the practicality of the day and fighting men of skill do what they must to survive. But Guan Yu is not an ordinary man. He confirms his primary loyalty will always be to his sworn brother Liu Bei. It’s clear that, as soon as Guan Yu finds out where his “master” has gone, he will leave Cao Cao’s service.

Jiang Wen congratulates Shao Bing for looking good in the armour

 

Because Cao Cao is willing to accept even temporary allegiance in the hope of eventually convincing Guan Yu to give up Liu Bei, he introduces the man to the Emperor Liu Xie. Unfortunately, Guan Yu soon learns that Liu Bei has moved south to join Yuan Shao. Despite Cao Cao’s attempt to use Guan Yu’s sister-in-law Qi Lan, played by Betty Sun, to keep his allegiance, Guan Yu sets off to find Liu Bei with Qi Lan in tow. Cao Cao is content to let him go, believing it better to have an honourable opponent than a forced servant. Unfortunately, Liu Xie, played by Bo-Chieh Wang, refuses to accept this decision, challenging his position as the puppet Han Emperor. His role in the kingdom is equivocal. In theory, he’s the ruler by divine right, but all the Ministers and senior officials accept Cao Cao as the de facto ruler. The Emperor fears Guan Yu will resume his status as a military tiger and, without Cao Cao’s knowledge, orders the man’s death. When first attacked, Guan Yu simply intends to fight his way south but, with Qi Lan later recaptured, he sets off on a revenge trail north again, believing himself betrayed by Cao Cao.

 

First the fight choreography by Donnie Yen under the overall direction of Felix Chong and Alan Mak. This is spectacular and, although one part of the sequence involving Han Fu’s ambush in a building with a waterwheel is shot in partial darkness, and the fight against Ban Xi’s troops is out of sight behind closed doors, the overall effect is simply wonderful. This is one of the best martial arts films of the last year. But it’s the interplay with Cao Cao that gives the film depth.

Betty Sun worships from afar

 

Planning the military campaigns in their country retreat, we can watch the inner circle formulating policy. When Cao Cao discovers the Emperor has overruled his instruction to grant Guan Yu safe passage, his initial anger is calmed by the thought, “It’s better to be wrong than wronged.” When you have the power of life and death over others, there’s no penalty if you are merely in error. But there can real problems if others wrong you, for then you have to decide whether to accept the “injustice”. He realises that, to the Emperor, he’s simply considered mistaken — a view actually accepted by most of his inner circle. The Emperor does not intend Cao Cao to lose face. In reviewing the decision, he decides he will probably win without Guan Yu on his side and so changes his mind. If Cao Cao was righteous, he would have been honour-bound to insist Guan Yu be allowed to leave without further action against him.

 

The second pivotal scene is the discussion between Cao Cao and a monk who berates the Prime Minister for being more interested in personal power than serving the needs of the people. This does not mean Cao Cao is not generous to the people. He feeds them and, when prompted, finds work for them. But this is only a way of buying their peaceful submission. It’s not done to empower them or to improve their position in any real way. Indeed, arguably, their position grows worse through their dependence of Cao Cao’s generosity. Having nothing to lose, Cao Cao accepts the monk’s view as correct and leaves with a smile.

 

Taken as a whole, this is a thoughtful martial arts film with Wen Jiang finding real depth in his portrayal of Cao Cao. This is not the simple black-and-white, evil prime minister who traditionally graces the screen as the manipulative back-stabber. This offers a real counterbalance to Guan Yu’s code of morality requiring loyalty to his brother and virtuousness in support of the people. If it was left to Guan Yu, there would be no fighting or, if it was unavoidable, it would only be on the battlefield. Cao Cao is more practical and kills anyone who gets in his way, no matter where they are. In the end, they go their separate ways because that’s the fairest way of resolving this episode. It may not be quite the same as written by Luo Guanzhong in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but that doesn’t stop The Lost Bladesman being one of the best “historical” dramas of the last year.

 

For reviews of other films directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, see Overheard or Sit yan fung wan and Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2.

 

  1. Kayne
    May 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I don’t get the ending.

    • May 19, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      According to the source history, Guan Yu and Cao Cao must meet up again. On the second occasion, after the battle of the Red Cliffs, Guan Yu lets Cao Cao go. Taking the story as a whole, it’s all yin and yang. Cao Cao must let his honourable opponent go at the end of this film to allow history to flow.

  2. August 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    You can definitely see your expertise within the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: