Director Daniel Lee’s White Vengeance (2011) follows a long precession of Chinese period action epics which have been released in the UK with growing frequency. Yet, Lee’s film represents a refreshing shift of focus – albeit a shift which may prove to alienate the target demographic – the casual chop-socky action fan seeking the mandatory martial arts mayhem may be left somewhat disappointed.
Lee’s previous efforts, 14 Blades (2010) and Three Kingdoms (2008) featured numerous tightly-choreographed set pieces to compensate for an overall lack of narrative cohesion. As if aware of this shortcoming, White Vengeance is the direct opposite. It’s all about the story, and what a story it is. Drawn from the rich pool of Chinese narratives set in and during the Qin Dynasty, the film focuses on the rebellion of the competing Han and Chu Kingdoms to take command of the nation, all played out at a seemingly innocuous banquet.
Lee’s film makes no apologies for demanding some foreknowledge of Chinese history. By forfeiting per-functionary exposition, reducing the historical contextualization, the film utilises the considerable running time to instead focus upon the engrossing and dynamic relationships of the key protagonists, generals Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. Whilst not as successful as John Woo’s epic Red Cliff (2008) in exploring the intricacies and intimacies of masculine brotherhood, Lee’s film still manages to make for a compelling take on such a thematic staple of the genre.
The banquet itself features a series of riveting and enthralling battles, not of the sword or the arrow, but of wits and mental dexterity. Lee’s direction of these key scenes is at times impressive. As if aware of the staid and tedious nature of watching two men effectively talking, he stages the sequences with an over-the-top visual bombast which whilst jarring, is effective in generating a sense of brevity and overarching significance.
Given the film’s sense of scale and context, will it be all too much for an audience uninitiated into the finer points of Chinese history? The aforementioned distributors of Red Cliff certainly thought so, excising huge amounts of footage from two films to produce a single ‘action-packed’ cut for international release. If you know (or would like to know) your Xiang Yu and Liu Bang from your Guan Yu and Zhu-ge Liang, then White Vengeance is a flawed, yet entertaining starting point.