The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007)
The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007) is an epic tragedy out of Hong Kong directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. It uses the the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion in the period between 1850 and 1875 to explore the balance to be struck between individual friendship and the national interests. In a way, this is not dealing with different issues. People become friends for a wide variety of reasons. They stay loyal to each other through thick and thin. But in a way, the nature of the bond between them is always caught up in what they are doing with their lives. If they are lowly peasants living in a war-torn land, the purpose of their combined strength is to survive. If they cannot do so on their own, they rally the villagers and steal food from wherever it can be found. Morality is put aside as food is the greater need. If those who have the food will not willingly share, the need justifies killing them to take the food. It may not be pretty but that’s the way the world works when hunger and death stalk the land.
So here comes the first question. If you rally enough people to become effective in robbing others to accumulate all the supplies necessary to keep the village safe, you attract attention. More starving people come and ask to join your village so they can share in your success, but troops patrolling the neighbourhood may not be so happy with the military potential of your followers. The question is: what price peace? Let’s say troops come to your village and take all the food you have stolen, how do you react? They have guns and a willingness to kill anyone who gets in their way. Because you cannot defend the weak and helpless, you let them take the food. But you have a duty to your people. Suppose you could get weapons, you could defend the village against all who threaten it. This gives birth to the next question.
This is a country in civil war. Worse, the power of the Qing Dynasty is corrupt so there’s unlikely to be help from above. That means selling yourself and your brothers to a local lord in return for. . . Well, the local lord is not going to give an unknown, untested group anything. So you have to do a deal. You will fight to take a small city. If you win, you will take all the food and wealth you can pillage. The lord smiles. You fight and win. Your villagers are mostly happy. They now have enough food to last them a year and wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Of course a significant number of the men from the village have been killed. But that was a price worth paying, wasn’t it? Except, here comes the next question.
You have proved yourself formidable. The lord you sold your service to wants more from you. There are other cities to take and battles to fight. Can you deny him? If you do, how will he react? Will he let you live quietly in your village with all your food and wealth? You see, that’s the trouble with roles. Once you fit into a role, you are expected to stay in it. As a friend, you stay loyal. As a villager, you work for the good of all. As a soldier you fight to survive and for the greater cause. As the successful leader, you are given more troops and new targets. In all this, you tell yourself you retain a moral core. You are fighting for peace so that the poor never need fear oppression again. Except in the Qing Dynasty, you should know that’s always going to be a lie. So it all comes down to expediency. For so long as you are a winner in war, all the people within your growing power can be safe. That’s what you tell yourself. But at some point, the Empress is going to see you as a threat. Your power has increased. You are now protecting a large number of people from her. That can never be tolerated. Death is the only release from this cycle because it means you no longer have to fight.
Cao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) have organised their village into an armed band of robbers. They meet up with General Ma Xinyi (Jet Li), the lone survivor of a major battle. In early fighting for food, they save each others lives and become blood brothers. Unfortunately, General Ma covets Lian (Jinglei Xu) who has an intermittent relationship with Cao. This makes everything precarious because personal morality will draw the two villagers in a different direction to the general, and sexual jealousy will further drive a wedge between them. People grow into habits and, unless care is taken, habits become obsessions. When you see something you want, the drive to take it grows stronger. That can be for abstract “things” like power or for personal satisfaction (whether just for sex or for the more easily lost love). Andy Lau is a simple man who never really wants to be a hero, but he becomes one because all those around him see an honest man doing his best. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a weaker man who tries to keep the peace between the other two, but ends up being dazzled by the brilliance of the General. He should be the stabilising factor. Sadly he ends up souring the relationships because he loses track of what’s right and wrong. Jet Li is pragmatic. He will do deals with anyone to get the results he wants. He wants to be a winner and, if his blood brothers get in the way, they will have to be sacrificed. He has learned the ways of the Qing court and is trapped by that knowledge and experience. He cannot be honest and loyal because no-one around him before now has ever shown those virtues. He’s incapable of trust. He commands. The others are mere followers.
The result is all rather depressing. There’s a lot of bloody fighting and we see large numbers killed, some in battle and others executed simply because they were soldiers and there was no food to give them as prisoners. Only Andy Lau’s character comes out of all this looking good. Everyone else is a victim of their own selfishness and weakness. If such a tragedy of military adventurism and political opportunism is your cup of tea, The Warlords or 投名狀 will not disappoint. My own preference in storytelling is for something slightly more uplifting.