Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-10-11
Summary: Looks great, but...
“Warriors of Heaven and Earth” is a great looking movie. It has sumptuous and highly detailed set design along with occasionally astounding and almost always impressive cinematography. The costume design is astonishing to behold—every rivet is precisely placed, every helmet fits its assigned head at just the right angle and leather breastplates are burnished until they shine. The colors are breathtaking—the red sand of the desert, the deep blacks and pure whites of the costumes (especially the all white robes worn by the villain Master An. Even the camels in the caravan looked like they had been given a wash, blow dry and set—not a hair out of place. It looks like a Merchant/Ivory action movie, which is not necessarily the highest praise. The elegant look and attention grabbing camera work is no substitute for characters that develop into people we care about—and it takes half the movie before the characters seem more than cardboard cutouts who look great but aren’t able to catch the interest of the audience.

The plot is simple—caravan of sacred Buddhist texts from far western China must get to the imperial court. After a sandstorm—very well realized, at least on the small screen—wipes out all but one of the armed escorts, Lt. Li stumbles (literally) upon it and takes control of the situation. He is well equipped to do so, since he has recently made his living defending caravans much like this one from marauding bandits. Li is forced to scratch out a living in the inhospitable desert because he is a wanted criminal, having refused an order by a superior to slaughter a cage full of captive women and children. Lai Xi, an imperial agent with a sword and credentials allowing him to kill any enemies of the state that he encounters—much like a Tang Dynasty James Bond—has tracked Li to this all but uninhabitable part of the world and is determined to bring him to justice. He has also been saddled with transporting a beautiful and noble young woman safely to the capital.

Defending this caravan is more difficult than most. It is the target not only of bandits but also of “Turks” and the evil Master An and his deadly minions. The cost in lives (this movie has a very high butcher’s bill), treasure and effort that is spent to capture this caravan seems much out of proportion to the texts it is carrying, sacred though they may be. And there is something else, something much more worth having than all the documents of Buddhist thought combined. The “Turks” and Master An’s forces want the secret objects so they can do evil, while the caravan’s defenders just want to get it to the imperial court and are willing to cut their way through the massed foes.

There are several scenes in which the painstaking design and cinematography are telling and beautifully deployed none more so than the revelation of the hallowed object. It would be telling too much to say what the object is, but the scene in which it is unveiled is worth the price of admission (or rental) in itself. There is another scene, early in the movie, in which the attention to detail is perfect and perfectly placed. It is simple and actually a part of the exposition—the printing of a wanted poster for Lt. Li. Rice paper is pressed onto a wood block paten on which the image and description of Li is carved. It is pulled up and a bright red imperial stamp put upon it—and it is handed to Lai Xi.

Much of the look “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” is due to the camera work, of course. Zhao Fei, the cinematographer, has some very substantial mainland credits and obviously knows how to translate a director’s vision into what he wants onscreen. Many of his long shots, and there are a lot of them, have almost extravagant depth of field—on the big screen the audience might have been able to pick out individual leaves of trees seen across a very wide valley. While this can be stunning when employed sparingly, constant use can overwhelm the narrative and make entire scenes no more than strings of pretty pictures. There are a number of shots that almost cry out “Look at how I did this”. Crane shots, helicopter shots, scenes that could only have been filmed on a tracked camera above the set and a shot in which the camera follows a character walking through a courtyard and then down a huge flight of stairs—and follows him from high above the set, so that the stairs look as steep as a ladder. This one is used at least twice—the first time it was intriguing, the second it was “hey, there’s that shot again”. One extended set of scenes in which everything came together--narrative, cinematography, set design, action--was the night attack on Lonesome Fortress by the "Turks". The few defenders left, after hacking and stabbing all the invaders the could retreated to the fort and unleashed their secondary defense, fire fueled by barrels of oil which were hurled by catapult type devices. A striking set piece, very well done.

Nakai Kiichi and Jiang Wen as the protagonists are well cast and decently directed. We have more empathy at first with Kiicki’s character because we know a bit about him—he has been in China studying warfare at the imperial court for 25 years and desperately wants to return to his home in Japan. While he wants to leave he is fiercely loyal to the emperor—a loyalty and trust that is not returned—and is proud to serve as an imperial agent in the trackless desert. Jiang’s character first appears as a picture on a wanted poster, then in a briefing given to Lai Xi, but we don’t actually see him until he falls down the face of a very tall sand dune. After taking over leadership of the caravan his face is covered, apparently by a traditional “Turkish” scarf, so the audience doesn’t actually see Lt. Li—the only reason we know he is important is that Li becomes the focus of the narrative.

Vicky Zhao Wei has a very odd role. We hear her voice as the narrator in the beginning of the movie—this is a story that she tells—but she has almost nothing to do for most of it—an extremely underdeveloped character and one that might be in the cast only because they needed to break the monotony of the all male roles. Her main function until toward the end when she is given a weapon and some armor is to use her patented “Vicki” look, straight into the camera. Anyone who has seen her knows the look—straight into the camera, head tilted slightly forward, looking from beneath her brows. In “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” she plays someone almost without affect, as if she is neither interested in nor capable of coherent thought and willing to drift through the events around her. A real waste of talent. Wang Xueqi plays the scoundrel who you love to hate. He is somewhat effete, always dressed in pure white and often playing the one-stringed cello-like instrument. He is completely untrustworthy, willing to sell out either friend or foe. And, unusually enough, he is a brilliant military leader, the most accomplished swordsman for hundreds of miles and a brutal infighter.

There are general types of action scenes—massed cavalry charges, as bandits and “Turks” attack the caravan. These are very well done and the melees of men on horses trading sword thrusts are savage, vicious and exciting. The other action is individual swordplay with one swordsman against another—or a few others. These scenes are very choppy with a lot of constructive editing, seemingly unnecessary close-ups and an air of discontinuity. From the evidence in this movie, Hoh Ping is much more comfortable deploying mobs of men and herds of animals than single combat.

A couple of quibbles: First of all, the constant use of the term “Turks” to refer to foreign enemies. Their leader is a Khan, so they could be Mongols or other Central Asian people, but I doubt if they are supposed to be from what is now the country of Turkey. Will post this as a question on the forum.

The other is a line that Lt. Li says when he brings the caravan to the oasis where his former comrades in arms have created a sedentary agricultural life. They assume that he has arrived to recruit them for a new adventure, obviously having to do with the caravan he has brought with him. He says (at least the subtitles say) that “I just dropped in and must be on my way”. What he actually did was detour hundreds of miles through a trackless with scores of camels while being hunted by several bands of armed men”. May have been just a poorly translated subtitle, of course.

Recommended, but not very highly.
Reviewer Score: 6