I began viewing Warriors of Heaven and Earth with the high hopes that it would join the ranks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Curse of the Golden Flower, but instead I found it to be a film that’s all style and no substance. While the story has potential, unfortunately director He Ping seems too infatuated with visual trickery to craft a tale of much significance. After years under the service of the Chinese Emperor, Lai Xi, a Japanese emissary, wishes to return to Japan, but is instead sent to the west to capture wanted criminals. It’s a simple story about vengeance and action with enough narrative to justify some mighty fighting scenes.
I strangely found myself becoming attached to the characters, and I forget that this is an alternate reality of 7th century China. Warriors of Heaven and Earth is set during the Tang dynasty, when ancient China covered most of Asia. Lieutenant Li Zai was a honored soldier in the Emperor’s service until he refused an order to slaughter a group of Turkish women and children who had been taken captive. That is where the famous quote from the movie, “Sometimes killing is not a crime, and not killing is”, came from. The fight choreography is blocky, and the storytelling is often confusing. Cinematographer Zhao Fei, redeems these aspects by exposing the beauty of the western provinces.
We’re all familiar with Italian spaghetti westerns, and last year Japan gave us Sukiyaki Western Django, but what if the film is Chinese? The key visual attraction becomes not the sword fights, but the vistas of the Gobi desert shot. It’s a shame that the this movie contains supernatural qualities, because the film really doesn’t need the fantasy element, but the special effects are at a bare minimum.
Epic films like this live and die by the sword and by their stories, and Warriors of Heaven and Earth is unfortunately found lacking in both action and script. Also, clever close-up camerawork effectively conveys the confusion of battle while panoramic long shots reveal what’s happening more clearly. If you are still interested in this film after reading all of that, Warriors of Heaven and Earth should not be missed by anyone who loves historical period pieces or by folks who crave glorious, epic adventure in general.