Reviewed by: cal42
Summary: Hysteria, violence and corruption
The Boxer Rebellion was a real-life uprising of Chinese nationals against the threat of foreign rule and the Christian church at the turn of the 20th Century. This film is partly based on fact, but ignores the role of religion entirely (the Boxers would openly attack Christian missionaries on sight), and also downplays the role of the British in the affair presumably as Hong Kong was still under British rule at the time the film was made. Instead, the film focuses on the Germans and the Japanese as the main culprits in instigating the uprising, although in reality there were many nations wanting a slice of China.
Reviewer Score: 8
The word epic is probably overused in this genre, but can comfortably be used for this film, which weighs in at a staggering 137 minutes. Its span takes in everything from the uprising to the flight of the Empress Dowager Cixi (which is historically accurate she fled to Xian in August 1900) and the subsequent siege and rape of the city of Peking.
Almost everyone in this film gets a raw deal. The boxers are shown to be gullible at best and cowardly at worst (with a tendency towards corruption). Those in charge of the rebellion are worse convincing the rebels that their spells and special training will make them impervious to the foreigners weapons (again, this is a more or less true account of the methods employed). Early on, a raid on a Japanese outpost ends in a rout with the Boxers either slain or fled. The lead priest rallies the troops and, pointing to the fallen rebels, proclaims that they must have faith to stop the bullets or the spells wouldnt work, and these clearly didnt have enough faith.
The foreigners are of course pretty nasty - although they are not quite the comic-book villain portrayals you would expect. Add to that the opulence of the Empress Dowager, who sits watching Opera throughout the troubles, and you have a whole bunch of pretty unsympathetic characters.
Woven throughout this tapestry are three blood brothers played by Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun and Leung Kar-Yan. Although Chinese patriots, they avoid the fervour of the Boxers and are pretty much passive throughout the early stages of the film. In fact, it seems they are more like casual observers at times, allowing us to see events through their eyes and to draw our own conclusions. One particular scene is worthy of note. The Boxers are sent to the Empress Dowager and put on a display of their skills. All goes well until the Boxers display their invulnerability to weapons which of course leads to inevitable deaths, which are covered up with a bit of showmanship. The Empress Dowager, oblivious, is delighted. Our heroes, knowing all, are disillusioned further still. They eventually find themselves drawn into the struggle (despite the rebellion rather than because of it) and stand up for their own beliefs, free of the zeal and misplaced faith of the Boxers.
It seems somehow odd that this is a kung fu film, given the broad scope of the piece. It feels at times like a melodrama, a war film, and an historic documentary (there are still photographs from the period shown on screen from time to time). However, a kung fu film it is and a pretty good one at that. Fu Sheng is remarkably acrobatic and steals the show completely. Elsewhere, solid performances by all and some well thought out choreography by the sublime Lau Kar-Leung.
It should also be pointed out that the budget is noticeably high for this film (the dodgy miniature standing in for the exploding walls of Peking notwithstanding!) and it also has a cracking score.
The 137 minutes just fly by.