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Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan (2011)

November 30, 2011 2 comments

Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is a film that could have been very good with a large cash fund made available by producer Jackie Chan. It’s is set in a period of Chinese history where myths combine nicely with what we suppose was the reality, and gives film-makers the chance to really get their teeth into a good story. Set in the eleventh century, we follow on from the television series, the Young Warriors of the Yang Clan where most of the male line of Yang Generals has been wiped out thanks to the usual duplicity of senior court officers. The only General left is Yang Zongbao (Richie Ren) and he’s apparently cut down in a border confrontation with the army of Western Xia at Tianmenguan Pass when Pang (Ma Wu) refuses to send reinforcements (the standard way of disposing of a rival). With the invading army looking a real threat, the corrupt Emperor sends out all the widows plus a token army of men to defend the Song Dynasty from ruin. For those of you not into this particular piece of history, legend says the women of the Yang family were efficient and effective fighters, equally as good as their husbands but, because of the usual sexism of the day, they were always left behind to guard the children. In this case, however, there’s no choice when the Emperor’s command comes in. To protect the last of the male line, Yang Wenguang (Xiao Ming-Yuh), who is designated the leader, Taijun (Pei-pei Cheng), Mu Guiying (Cecelia Cheung) and the legendary Amazons set out for war.

Richie Ren as a warrior and before becoming a guerilla

 

At this point, I would like to be able to say we have an intelligent use of military strategy through which the outnumbered and physically weaker Amazons slowly wear down the invaders, pulling them into situations where their physical superiority will not overwhelm the women. Except the initial battle featuring Yang Zongbao set the tone for the rest of the film. The invaders pulled up just short of the city and attacked it with trebuchets. A few well directed stones brought down the walls at a conveniently limited point and out stepped the Yang hero to keep the invaders at bay. He whirled his guan dao around a bit, seemingly invincible, then ran back inside so he could send off a carrier pigeon to tell his wife he’s in trouble. During this time out, the enemy waited respectfully outside the city. When the bird was released, the enemy also released two predator birds, but two convenient archers on the city walls shot them down. Our hero then walked back out and started fighting again. In other words, it’s laughable as a siege. The walls are breached in minutes and then a few soldiers come forward to fight one man. I hadn’t realised battles were spectator sports for both sides.

Cecilia Cheung as a warrior at bay

 

Anyway, this sets the trend for fights to be very small scale, with ludicrously inept wire work and almost no martial arts skill on display. Wherever possible, these fights seem to be shot on a sound stage with green screen generated scenery around the actual fighters. Frankly, I can’t remember seeing a war film being shot in this incredible way. Under normal circumstances, you have waves of soldiers, backed up by cavalry, charging at each other and generally hacking each other to pieces. These have to be the worst choreographed battle scenes I have ever seen on a big screen. Indeed, most efforts for made-for-television series are better. To add further embarrassment, television companies are usually too professional to speed up the action. Not our director Frankie Chan. Here we have obviously trotting horses moving rapidly across the screen and, wherever possible, the fight scenes are accelerated and cut in a vain attempt to hide the fact most of the women couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

 

But the real highlight comes when a section of our Amazon army gets itself caught in what should be a kill zone. This is supposedly a dead-end canyon. They are herded in and the enemy roll down burning tumbleweeds. Fortunately, the Amazons can retreat into a massive cave system — no attempt has been made to block the entrance. It’s sufficiently massive that everyone can run through it and all the burning bundles can bounce their way through after them. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more silly, the Amazons run out on to a ledge. There’s a chasm to cross. So, quick as a flash, they take off their chain mail and unravel it, platting the chains into two ropes. Archers then shoot these cables across the chasm, soldiers inch across and lie on top of these wires as the aged Pei-pei Cheng and others walk across their backs to safety.

Pei-pei Cheng as a matriarch getting ready to march to war

 

To cut a tediously long story short, it inevitably turns out that not only did our Yang hero survive, but he was also able to recruit and train guerillas who infiltrate the enemy and cause havoc in various unlikely ways. There’s a little incomprehensible politicking as Pang threatens not to send any reinforcements (again) and then victory as the enemy leader is cut down (although many of the Amazons and the older Yang hero die).

 

Frankly, I can’t imagine what the production team thought they were doing. Absolutely everything is at an unprecedented level of amateurishness. It’s cringeworthy from start to finish. The acting is wooden and, to be honest, I gave up trying to work out which Amazon was which. In any event, the individual characterisation was irrelevant. All the women were required to do was kill a few men, often with blood spurting out from unexpected places, and then perish in these individual acts of heroism. Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is the second worst film of 2011 and you should only pay to see it if you can find humour in completely inept film-making.

 

Out of the Waters by David Drake

Out of the Waters

Well here’s an author who’s managed to reinvent himself over the years. He started off life writing military SF in the Hammer’s Slammers series. Now he’s more a fantasy writer in a historical vein. Out of the Waters is the second in a new series called The Books of the Elements, and this sees us back in a Roman context. In fact my favourite book of this subgenre is Killer by Drake and Karl Edward Wagner which is an SF/horror/Roman mix. So it was interesting to come back to him with another classical mythology setting. Although, truth be told, we do get our mythologies rather mixed up in this series. Frankly, I thought the first, The Legions of Fire, was a mess with a hopeless conflation of different mythologies and universes, so I was not exactly looking forward to this second instalment. And, after some 100 pages, I was at the point of giving up. To say the characters are wooden and the plot leaden is to understate the level of boredom created.

The set-up is a stage spectacle that gets hijacked by supernatural powers. Instead of a tedious recycling of the exploits of Hercules, the crowd in this arena are suddenly shown what appears to be the destruction of Atlantis by a giant sea monster (or perhaps it’s really a very nice man having a bad day). Whatever the cause of the destruction, the city is very thoroughly flattened, leaving everyone suitably baffled as to what they have seen and why they have seen it. Now our key characters start independent investigations based on their interpretation of this vision. One can talk to trees. Well, to be precise, he can talk to the dryads who live inside trees which is very useful because ordinary humans never think that trees can witness a kidnapping or any other activity for that matter. Another can trip into another dimension and talk to a sybil who’s distinctly annoyed that her quiet life is disrupted by a not very bright human magician who refuses to get serious about his magical abilities. And the trippy guy’s sister goes flying off on the back of a gryphon and falls back through time. So it’s a routine day for most of them.

David Drake showing good things can come in little packages

Anyway, around halfway through the book it vaguely wakes up with two kidnappings. Now suddenly, we have glass men, flying ships, a cyclops and divers other magical inventions all competing for our attention. So let’s begin again. Once upon a time, there was a city full of magicians. One was a royal pain in the afterburner because he was forever messing around with people — just like he’d read The Island of Dr Moreau. None of the others could stand against him except, possibly, one. He’s powerful but gentle. This lack of a killer instinct is a worrying feature so he has to grow into his role as a warrior. Time after time he loses but he keeps on growing stronger. Soon the humans around the conflict will be collateral damage. But, hey, that’s all right as long as the bad magician ends up dead.

After this summary, you’re wondering what all this has to do with Ancient Rome — a reasonable question. The answer is we’re in a multiverse story. The battle from the past is not limited to one timeline or dimension. It can spread and threaten life in all the sequential times or parallel dimensions. Once our hero recognises the risk to his time in Ancient Rome, he’s joining the battle. He may not be the world’s greatest warrior in the military sense of the word, but he’s prepared to sacrifice himself if that’s what it takes to save his version of the world.

So let’s be clear about this. The heart of the story is a not unpleasing metaphor for the process a person has to go through to become a soldier. We’re used to reading about the psychological problems faced by seasoned warriors after they return home from extended tours of duty on active service. Doing what it takes to survive in a theatre of war requires adjustments that do not sit comfortably alongside civilian life. So if David Drake had been prepared to insist TOR publish something the length of Hammer’s Slammers, i.e. around 300 pages in a mass market paperback, we might have had a reasonably good fantasy tale. But this is a 400 page hardback. The result is a story padded out way beyond a sustainable length. Whatever emotional power might have existed in the final resolution is washed away by the blindingly dull recital of facts about the Roman lifestyle, class structure, freeman and slave upward mobility, and so on. We even get taken on a shopping trip to buy dresses and, as all husbands who’ve waited around while their wife tries on yet another dress will know, this is not the most exciting experience in the world.

So if you’re a long-time fan of David Drake, Out of the Waters is yet another book for you to savour. It has all the trademark detail on life as it was in Roman times, plus folk with supernatural abilities, plus a new kind of naval engagement, and some sword (and claw) fighting. But if you’ve not previously tried David Drake, don’t read this. Instead, you should go back to read his earlier military SF which is economically written, excitingly heroic in its action, and often interesting in its assessment of the politics behind the various conflicts.

For a review of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
The Road of Danger.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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