Movie Review – Saving General Yang (2013)
Director Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang attempts to weave a traditional war story that focuses heavily on themes of familial loyalty amidst a roiling time in Ancient Chinese history when the throne was under siege from an invading barbarian horde. All the ingredients seem to be here including massive clashing CG armies, political gamesmanship and of course, emotionally wringing moments set to an appropriately moving soundtrack. Nevertheless, it all never really works as it should as the final product comes off as inherently bland with occasional bouts of extremely manufactured circumstances that really derail the film, especially as it enters its third act.
The movie spins a tale that starts with General Yang’s (Adam Cheng) Sixth Son (Wu Chun) who falls hopelessly in love with a cute Princess (Ady An) who is unfortunately, promised to a man from the rival Pan family. Disobeying his father, the Sixth and Seventh Son enter a martial arts tournament to show up the rival but tragedy strikes and instead of showcasing their strength they end up killing him provoking the ire of the entire family. Before a punishment can be meted out the country becomes besieged by an invading barbarian horde and the emperor orders General Yang and the Pan family to work together to repulse the invaders.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Pans still want revenge for their son’s death and manipulate the battlefield so that General Yang’s forces are cut off from the main Chinese army and are forced to flee into the mountains where they will presumably be quickly overrun. Hearing that their father is in peril, the seven Yang sons decide to mount an expedition to save him and quickly gather their remaining forces for the adventure.
As a grand historical epic Saving General Yang certainly looks the part with sufficiently ornate costumes and some stunning location shooting that really amplifies the grand, desolate and foreboding atmosphere that the film attempts to weave into every frame. It goes without saying that those already well-versed in the mythology and historical events that the film is attempting to depict will understand the futility of the adventure that is set to unfold but that newcomers will have to rely on only the very basic exposition given that is incredibly bare-bones.
The actual plot to save the General can surely be comprehended but the biggest sore point is that the film only superficially attempts to give life to each son. Having seven main characters in any film presents huge logistical problems and it is unfortunate that the screenwriters for Saving General Yang have fallen back on the easiest solution by painting them all in large strokes and stereotyping each with only one major character trait. Therefore, the eldest son (Ekin Cheng) is the stoic figure who carries a heavy internal burden to care for the rest of his siblings while the sixth son (Wu Chun) is the young passionate lover whose ill-advised romance sets the evil plot rolling.
Non-Chinese speaking viewers will already find it hard to follow as each son isn’t given a name but is recognized by their birth number instead. At the same time the movie clearly has its favorites as only two of the brothers get any real meaty screentime whilst the rest are relegated to small supporting roles. This will undoubtedly result in many viewers completely forgetting which brother is which, a rather dubious problem once the body count begins to rise. Although the film contains some supernatural elements based mostly on a geriatric sage and his prediction that six brothers will survive out of seven it quickly becomes apparent that the prediction has as much worth as the local hack horoscope in the daily newspaper.
This gives Saving General Yang a quasi-disaster film quality akin to something from director Roland Emmerich would churn out like 2012 or Day After Tomorrow where much of the tension comes from introducing a large cast of characters and summarily beginning to kill them off one by one. The draw for these sorts of films lies not only in the depiction of the disaster such as freezing air turning New York to ice in Day After Tomorrow but by also trying to guess each character’s ultimate fate. Saving General Yang substitutes natural disasters like earthquakes or giant volcanos erupting for all-out war between the Chinese forces and the invading barbarians but it certainly keeps the element of having characters routinely drop dead usually in altogether heroic ways.
Except for one or two massive battles between armies the film really narrows its focus down considerably the deeper it runs as the protagonist forces quickly get reduced to a mere rump of its former self. This decision quickly amplifies the tension and the David and Goliath atmosphere where the heroes quickly become outmatched and outgunned in every way imaginable. That doesn’t mean that director Ronny Yu completely disregards the grander story elements or larger action sequences, including a rather stunning mountain fortress attack by the invading horde replete with a ton of CG catapults but that the story’s emotional core really attempts to kick into overdrive once the sons find themselves alone without supporting troops to aid their cause.
However, this is precisely the moment where the film begins to totally unravel as director Ronny Yu and his screenwriters show some questionable pacing and suspect logic that really sends the narrative flying off the rails. That’s because the movie decides to kill most of its characters in the final act and it does so with a series of suspect circumstances that feel totally manufactured to do nothing but illicit strong emotions from the audience. Unfortunately, save for one moment of inspiration, every other sequence makes little sense and instead of showcasing the inherent heroism of each brother it makes them appear as if they had lost all sense of reason by sacrificing themselves in totally ridiculous and melodramatic ways.
The fact that each brother is underwritten doesn’t help matters and the result is that viewers will feel no connection to the characters rendering their sacrifice totally meaningless. A much better strategy would not only be to bolster each character through relevant screentime that can flesh each out but also to properly space out these sequences when they inevitably meet their doom. By ramming them all back to back right at the end of the film it does nothing but alienate and leave viewers no time to properly digest the narrative or sufficient avenue for catharsis.
Think of a film like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which spent its time slowly building up how the characters related to one another to the point that when each got into conflict that the audience naturally wanted them to succeed. That doesn’t occur here in Saving General Yang much to the film’s detriment and it makes the final thirty minutes a boorish slog that feels more like it belongs in a day-time melodramatic soap opera that is tactlessly populated by nondescript guest stars.
Without sufficient character definition or even extended scenes where the brothers can just talk normally to one another there really isn’t much that each actor brings to the table beyond just their physical presence. Ekin Cheng, not normally known for having massive range, makes the most of playing the eldest brother by appearing stern and acting cool under fire but the film only pays lip service to the character’s internal struggle to be the leader of the group. Wu Chun as the passionate sixth son might excite his young female demographic that has followed him throughout his career but outside of that he’s never given anything to do other than appear perplexed and concerned. Vic Chou as the third son who, excels in archery, stands out only because he is the only brother to sport a flaming moustache but at least he gets his own standout action sequence that takes place in a stunningly filmed wheat field where he faces off mano-a-mano with a rival bowman.
One would expect that Princess Chai (Ady An) would at least gain some backstory since it is her budding romance with the Sixth Son that sets the wheels in motion but all she does is appear cute and flirty and quickly disappears. Fan Xu as Yang’s Wife certainly gets more screentime but it mainly focuses on her angst in having her sons leave or the rather poorly staged CG sequence of her climbing a massive mountain just to speak to the sage who, has no reason to stand triumphantly near the summit holding a staff, as if expecting Gandolf to appear from The Lord of The Rings.
The only actor who has any real gravitas is veteran Adam Cheng as General Yang himself but even he is straitjacketed in the Obi-Wan mentor role who spouts words of wisdom even if much of it comes off as awful sermonizing. Every other thespian including the primary antagonist has less than desirable screentime or is shunted to the side far too early.
Saving General Yang can certainly be watched for the pure spectacle but once the sprawling armies get reduced to singular men galloping through various landscapes the film really has a hard time engaging. Without sufficiently built characters and a less than coherent set of events the movie struggles the longer it plays and the emotional payoff just never materializes. Modern Chinese film output has long since been criticized as focusing too much on local ancient history, with far too much emphasis on period dramas but the real issue should not be the time period but rather that most are just too bland and mechanically constructed. Saving General Yang certainly fits that bill and though it’s not exactly a bad movie it is simply exasperatingly forgettable.
*1/2 out of ****
2013, HK/China, 102 Min,
Directed by Ronny Yu
Written by Edmond Wong, Ronny Yu
Produced by Bak-Ming Wong, Ronny Yu
Music by Kenji Kawai
Cinematography by Chi Ying Chan
Production Design Kenneth Mak
Adam Cheng: General Yang
Ekin Cheng: Eldest Son
Bo Yu: Second Son
Vic Chou: Third Son
Chen Li: Fourth Son
Raymond Lam: Fifth Son
Wu Chun: Sixth Son
Ady An: Princess Chai
Fan Xu: Yang’s Wife
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