Tau ming chong (The Warlords) (2007)
Director: Peter Chan. (Co-director Wai Man Yip.)
Starring: Jet Li (General Ma Xiny), Andy Lau (Cao Er-Hu), Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhang Wen-Xiang), Jinglei Xu (Lian).
set against Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), a large-scale revolt against the Qing Government by the army and civil administration
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
China in the mid-19th century. The suffering of its people under the corrupt rule of the Qing dynasty set the stage for the Taiping Revolution. During the chaos of the fourteen year long civil war, 70 million people died in battle or from starvation. The casualties equaled the recorded death toll from WWII.
There is terrific fighting on the battlefield. After the battle there are dead bodies everywhere on the field. A fellow forces his way up from under dead bodies. The man would later say to his bandit friend that from the day he crawled out he was a dead man. He slowly walks along a road. A woman walks ahead of him. She begins to feel that he is following her. She stops to let him pass her. The fellow goes past her but soon collapses on the road.
The man awakens to find himself in a deserted house with the woman whom he passed on the road. She gives him soup. He tells her that all his men died. The woman says that he was lucky. The man says he played dead. He lost all his brothers and more than 1,600 men. They fought for more than three days and nights. The Kui army, which was supposed to join in the fight, just stayed behind them and watched them get slaughtered.
The man and woman spend the night in the deserted house. She sleeps closely beside him. In the morning when the man awakens, he finds the woman gone. He is very disappointed to be alone. He sells his military equipment to get some money.
Bandits come on horses into town. The leader sees the warrior's military boots and without warning attacks him. But the bandit gets a surprise. The unarmed warrior subdues him. The bandit tells him: "You sure know how to fight!" The warrior goes with the bandits. The group of bandits is large enough to form a small army. The group he is with starts running and the warrior asks where they are going. He is upset when he learns that they will be robbing from the rebel army. The bandit narrator says that famine was everywhere and it was a situation of rob or die for them.
The bandits catch the army in a very narrow passage way through the mountains. They attack. The bandit leader gets surrounded by a group of soldiers. He kills many of the soldiers, but is in deep trouble. Seeing this, the warrior jumps into the fight. He kills a number of soldiers and then kills the commander of the soldiers. The army runs away.
We finally learn the name of the bandit leader. They call him Brother Jiang. The warrior, named Pang, goes with the bandits to their home village. Pang sees the woman of mystery as he comes into the village. They stare at each other as they pass. But a little later he sees the woman with the bandit leaders. Back at their house, the bandit leader has sex with the woman. Pang thinks about his conversation with the woman in the deserted home. She told him that she had run away from home. He recognizes that she has a Yangzhou accent. When she was 15 she was supposed to be sold to a rich man. But she was stolen away by a childhood playmate. He killed a few people and had to become a bandit. She says he is a good man. (His name is Jiang Wu-Yang. Her name is Lian.)
Pang comes to see Lian. She retreats from him, but he keeps coming. He finds her and they talk. She says that she ran away many times, but always came back to the village. Pang tells her that she should decide for her own life. At this moment a gunshot is heard. The Kui troops have invaded the village. The troops have Wu-Yang surrounded. The Kui leader shouts at him: "You think you can keep the food you robbed?" The soldiers start taking all the food in the village. The troop leader says consider this as pay back.
Soon the villagers are starving. Pang has a suggestion. Why don't they join the army. The Kui army doesn't need them, but Lord Chen's army desperately needs men. He suggests that leader Zhao Er-hu use this opportunity. He accepts the suggestion. But one of the men asks Pang why they should trust him. After all, he deserted the Qing army. To trust him he must take the blood oath. Part of this oath is that Pang and the two leading bandits have to kill in order to cement their becoming blood brothers. The three men are Pang Qing-Yun, Zhao Er-Hu and Jiang Wu-Yang. The three each kill a man. The victims had been caught and tied up. They were killed with the ropes still around them. (Pang says to his victim: "Remember my face and take revenge in the next life.")
The bandits march off to join Lord Chen's army. Shi and his men leave the group saying they won't fight for the Qing army. As Pang rides out he and Lian stare at each other again.
The three blood brothers kneel before three older men, one of them being Lord Chen. Pang's whole battalion perished in the battle against the Taiping rebels in Hechuan. Then Pang disappeared for two months. Lord Chen asks: "How dare you return now?" Pang explains that the loss in battle happened because Lord Jiang of the Kui army left them on the battlefield. The three elderly men want to know how many men they have. They have 800. The old men laugh at the small amount. Pang tells them to give him another 800 men and he will capture Shu City within fifteen days. Lord Jiang says: "Don't jest with me!" Pang becomes even more bold, saying he will take Shu City in ten days.
The older men confer and Lord Chen says he will give them 1,500 troops, but no wages. Wu-Yang is upset at this remark, but Pang says they don't need wages. They will take one-half the spoils they will take from Shu City. The elders agree. The new army will be called "Shan".
The commander of the 1,500 men, the last of Lord Chen's army, has grave misgivings about attacking Shu City. He will go with Pang but will hold back. They will just give the impression that Pang's army is larger than just his 800 men. Pang in disappointed and tells the commander that he is missing a real opportunity. He must strike while the iron is hot or else his army will always be at the mercy of the Kui army.
Pang tells the men that they will be facing 200 rifles. He asks for 200 volunteers to take the first volley of the 200 rifles. This will allow Pang's archers to get close enough to fire on the riflemen. It takes awhile, but Pang gets his 200 volunteers.
On the battlefield the 200 volunteers lead the way. They lose quite a few men, but many bullets bang off the metal shields of the attackers. Hundreds of arrows are launched at the riflemen killing many of them. Then it becomes hand to hand fighting where the attackers with swords and spears have the advantage. The enemy commander sends part of his force to fight the successful attackers. Each side commits more and more of its forces. The three blood brothers are right in the middle of the fight. They soon become surrounded. The commander of Lord Chen's army is impressed by the great fighting skill of the three brothers. They are 800 versus 5,000. He decides finally to join the battle. He and his men attack. In the battle Jiang Wu-Yang kills the enemy commander, chops off his head and holds the head up to show to everyone.
The three brothers are back before their three elders. They took Shu City. Lord Chen now says to Pang that he will give him command of five battalions. Lu Da-Shan will be under his command. Lord Chen then brings out Pang's nemesis, He Kui of the Kui army -- the one who laid back while Pang's men were killed. Wu-Yang says that they will take Suzhou and then Nanking. The three elders laugh. They think the idea is so bold as to be humorous. The three blood brothers leave. Pang says that the Kui army is only being sent with them to keep an eye on them.
The former bandits return home. Lian sees her husband. She asks him where is Pang. He is staying outside the village. He actually stays in that old deserted house where he first met Lian. Later Lian runs all the way to the deserted house. But standing outside the house, she decides not to go in. She turns and goes back home.
The three blood brothers go back to war. They capture a number of villages. Two young men rape some women. This infuriates Pang. He wants them beheaded. Wu-Yang pleads with him not to kill the young fellows. The bandits have always raped. Pang says it doesn't change their fate. There must be structure and order. Wu-Yang keeps up the talking, but Pang cannot be convinced. Finally, Wu-Yang himself kills the two offenders.
Pang says to himself: "We must take Suzhou!"
Lord Chen is a bit disturbed by Pang. He says that he will leave Pang stranded in battle. He thinks that would be best in the long run for everyone.
One year later. Pang and his men are outside the fortress of Suzhou. they have built trenches to get very close to the fortress. But right now they are at an impasse. Both sides will starve to death at this rate and then the Qui army will swoop in to take all the credit and the spoils. A problem for Pang, however, is that by attacking Suzhou he has defied the three elders.
Pang and Wu-Yang return to the three elders to get provisions. They are denied. Then they go to the Qui army. Pang makes a deal with He-Kui to take Nanking in exchange for the provisions. The three brothers will get the provisions. .
Lian shows up in the trenches. The troops are entranced by her appearance on the battlefield. Er-Hu is especially pleased.
Pang says he will take Nanking before the Qui army can take any of the credit. But they only have enough supplies for ten days. Pang says they must act quickly. They will capture Suzhou within two days.
Lian is with Er-Hu. He is going into the city. Er-Hu tells her that if she does not see a red flare by dawn from inside the city, his men will take her to safety.
Gen. Pang is back. And the provisions have arrived. Pang then learns that Gen. Zhao has entered the city. In the city Er-Hu speaks with the commander. The commander tells Er-Hu that they have no food.
Pang says that he promised his troops would just be gone three years, but it's been five now. He says that they will attack at dawn. Pang sees Lian in the trenches. He follows her. In an isolated section of the trenches he grabs her. They embrace. She pushes him away. He grabs her again.
The Suzhou commander says that for him the city has become one big prison. He asks Er-Hu if he remembers Shi. Yes. When Er-Hu joined the Qing army, Shi followed the commander.
In the morning there is no red flare. Tears come down the cheeks of Lian. Pang gives the order to escort Lady Zhou away. Before she goes, he tells her: "If I survive I will marry you."
Er-Hu wants to get the commander to surrender. He says that 4,000 soldiers crazed with starvation are outside. The commander replies that eleven years ago he joined the Taiping rebellion. Er-Hu asks him to please resign. The commander says that when he joined he removed the word surrender from his vocabulary. He then attacks Er-Hu, who fights with the commander with greater skill. Er-Hu places a sword blade up to the commander's mid-section, but does not push it in. The commander stops. Then suddenly he thrusts his body into the sword. He says that since he can't surrender, as long as he lives his people will not be free. So he kills himself to allow them to be free. His last request is to spare his soldiers and the civilians. Er-Hu agrees.
Pang's men are ready to attack. But just as they make their last preparation and await the order, the doors to the fortress open and the civilians start pouring out. When Er-Hu comes out the men go wild chanting his name over and over. Pang is shocked. Wu-Yang happily greets Er-Hu. Pang smiles at Er-Hu and starts to go to greet him, but he stops when Er-Hu puts a stern look on his face.
Inside the fortress the soldiers call repeatedly for bread. Er-Hu wants to give them bread, but General Pang says there is not enough bread for both his troops, the enemy troops and the civilians. Er-Hu still wants to give the enemy soldiers the bread and so orders it. Pang stops him. He says only winning matters in war. Some soldiers knock out Er-Hu with part of a tree limb. The archers are called forth. The order is given to fire and they start killing all of the 4,000 soldiers below them in the courtyard. Er-Hu shouts not to kill them. He is chained up. Many of the archers close their eyes when they shoot their arrows. Pang and Wu-Yang also have tears in their eyes. Wu-Yang the narrator says that from that day on Er-Hu never said a word to him. It hurt him, but big brother Pang was right.
When Er-Hu is released from his chains he walks into the middle of the massacre site. The bodies are thrown into the trenches and then covered up with dirt. Er-Hu cries out to his men: "Let's go home! Whose with me?" He and his supporters start walking away. Pang rushes over to him and tells him he can't go. He says the dead were soldiers and soldiers are prepared to die. He says that they have to get to Nanking. If He Kui gets there first, heaven help the one million civilians. Er-Hu is not convinced, so Pang asks him please don't go. There will be mutiny among the ranks. One fellow starts to take out his sword. Wu-Yang jumps forward shouting: "I'll kill anyone who touches Er-Hu." Pan gets on his knees before Er-Hu. He tell Er-Hu that the Kui army has already left for Nanking. He then promises peace after Nanking. Er-Hu finally relents. He says: "If you are right, I'll knell before you. If you are wrong, I'll kill you.
The battle for Nanking begins. Nanking falls. The victorious troops chant: "Long live the Empress Dowager!"
One month after the capture of Nanking. Er-Hu starts paying out wages to the soldiers. Pang comes to him and tells him the money belongs to the imperial coffers. Er-Hu won't listen to him and Pang does not insist that he stop. Pang leaves.
A message comes to He Kiu. Now Pang doesn't need the Kiu general's support. And the Empress is making him Governor of Jiangsu. He Kiu replies that all they need to do is get Er-Hu on their side. He Kiu and an aide go to visit Er-Hu. The Kiu general says that Pang was responsible for the Suzhou massacre. And Pang made a fool of Er-Hu. Kiu suggests that they join forces and Nanking will be theirs. Er-Hu calls He Kiu's aide over to him. He tells the aide to get closer, closer. He then grabs the man's head and hits him in the face several times with his fist. Er-Hu then leaves the table.
Lian gets on a boat. Wu-Yang is curious and he walks along the shore keeping his eye on the boat. He sees Pang also on the boat. They both stare at each other for awhile. Wu-Yang is shocked.
Pang meets the Empress. He gets the golden robe award and is officially made governor. Pang asks for three years free of taxation for the people of Jiangsu to recover from the war. The Empress grants his request.
Lord Chen speaks with Pang. He says that he is responsible for the Suzhou massacre and yet saved the people of Nanking. He adds that Nanking may belong to Pang but he has offended Lord Jiang and He Kui along the way. And without allies, how long does he think he will last? Pang does not answer. He does say that the Shan regiment will be the first to disband.
Er-Hu says he wants to go home. He asks Lian to come with him. A messenger comes with bad news. He Kui plans to assassinate lord Pang. Er-Hu goes searching for Pang. But he has not returned from the imperial court. Er-Hu rushes away.
Wu-Yang asks about the new soldiers. They are the new guard replacements sent by the imperial court. He learns that General Pang has invited General Zhao to dine. A messenger comes to Er-Hu to tell him that Pang has asked him to meet for dinner at Jianpu. Er-Hu tells the messenger to tell Wu-Yang to meet them at Jianpu. Wu-Yang asks Lian where is Er-Hu. He went to see brother Pang. Wu-Yang looks around searching for Pang. He sees him in one of the buildings. Wu-Yang bursts through the door and tells Pang: "You're up to something! . . . You're going to kill Er-Hu all because of Lian?" When will Er-Hu be here? At nightfall, says Pang.
Wu-Yang rushes over to see Lian. He wants to kill her in order to save Er-Hu. He stabs her to death so the brotherhood oath will not be broken. Er-Hu arrives in the rain at nightfall. There he is assassinated by numerous arrows shot into his chest. Pang struggles with the killing. He says to himself that it's the imperial court that wanted Er-Hu dead. Wu-Yang arrives to scream to Pang that he no longer has to kill Er-Hu. Lian is dead. In the morning Wu-Yang finds the dead body of Er-Hu. He cries.
Inauguration day for Pang Qing-Yun as Governor of Jiangsu. This is also the day the elders decided to take Pang out by assassination. But Wu-Yang is already there ready to kill Pang for killing Er-Hu. He stabs Pang in the shoulder with his long knife. Pang kicks Wu-Yang to the ground and the knife is pulled out of the shoulder. Wu-Yang says one brother who harms another must die. He attacks Pang again, but Pang keeps hurting him again and again, even breaking a few bones. Pang asks him to stop it, but Wu-Yang keeps coming despite his numerous injuries. It looks like Wu-Yang is finally beaten into submission and Pang walks away. Wu-Yang follows and makes one last attempt. Pang blocks the next thrust of the knife, but suddenly lets it go and the knife goes into his mid-section. That seems strange since Pang had the move blocked. Then we realize that an assassin with a rifle has shot Pang in the back just as Wu-Yang went for the kill. Wu-Yang then stabs Pang several more times and the rifleman shoots Pang a couple more times.
The Governor of Jiangsu, Pang Qing-Yun, was assassinated on the 26th of July, 1870. His assassin Jiang Wu-Yang was executed two months later.
Good movie. The tension is kept up throughout. The love story is not settled until near the end of the film. There are a lot of good fight scenes (but without the flying around stuff that has been popular in Chinese films of late). Jet Li was very good as the obsessed General Pang. The film is based on "The Assassination of Ma," a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) story about the killing of general Ma Xinyi.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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