WARRIORS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH ***
Starring: Jiang Wen, Nakai Kiichi, Zhao Wei, Wang Xueqi
Director: He Ping
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: R for graphic violence
The Lowdown: A Japanese emissary for the emperor is ordered to kill a fugitive officer in 7th century China while battling Turkish bandits and protecting Buddhist relics. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
The "Wild West" is full of Turkish bandits and the weapons are swords, not rifles, in this fascinating John Ford-style Western from the People's Republic of China.
Writer-director He Ping translates the conventions of the Hollywood Western to an exotically foreign, yet somehow strikingly familiar landscape in this epic drama set in the 7th century of the Tang Dynasty.
There is the theme of man against the elements, the good-hearted outlaw who was wrongfully accused, the ambush in the gully, the trek across the desert (with camels instead of wagons). The spectacular terrain of China even looks like the American Wild West -- rugged cliffs, forbidding desert, a fort built of logs, a rugged frontier outpost. A final showdown at a fort pits embattled heroes using arrows, rockets, a catapult and burning oil against a much larger force.
Japanese actor Nakai Kiichi stars as Lai Xi, a Japanese soldier who has served the Chinese emperor but now wants to go home to Japan. The emperor says he first must hunt down and kill a fugitive, one Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen), who refused an order to kill Turkish women and children prisoners. Lai Xi is also supposed to be escorting Wen Zhu (Zhao Wei), the beautiful daughter of a top Chinese general, to safety.
Li has been working as a mercenary guarding caravans along the Silk Road route from India to China. Li and Lai Xi both end up protecting a caravan that is carrying a Buddhist monk and his mysterious sacred cargo and must fight off a Hollywood-style archvillain named Master An (Wang Xueqi).
According to production notes about the film, He Ping based part of the story on a legendary Chinese monk who studied in India and was a major influence in spreading Buddhism to China. Other elements of the story that would resonate with a Chinese audience (the significance of a Japanese soldier as hero rather than bandit, for instance) will not have the same impact on an American audience.
The cinematography is gorgeous, but two hours of swordplay (much of it very gory) is off-putting. The story is sometimes hard to follow, and it doesn't help that some of the subtitles in the beginning can't be read against white backgrounds. And while the mystical power of the Buddhist relics adds a weird Indiana Jones dimension to the movie, it's still quite fascinating to see the Western myths we think of as our own played out so effectively in a country whose history is so foreign to us.