*The following review is included in the Saturday Shaw Brothers column for its familiarity with several iconic Shaw epics. In fact it is actually another spin on a famous tale which Shaw Bros did tackle more than once in their history.
Ronny Yu’s journey as a director of feature films is eerily reminiscent of that experienced by John Woo. After early success in their native land, Yu and Woo, albeit at different times in their careers, ventured into the Hollywood system with mixed results at best. Action movie legend John Woo returned to Hong Kong and made an extraordinarily grand scale period piece in the mainland, Red Cliff. After Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs Jason, Yu headed back home and made one of Jet Li’s greatest films, Fearless. Now, after a seven-year wait, he returns with a epic period story of his own, Saving General Yang.
There exist an abundant number of stories surrounding the Song Dynasty and its legendary patriarch, general Yang Ye (here played by actor Adam Cheng, several of which have already been translated to the silver screen (Shaw Brothers productions of The 14 Amazons and 8 Diagram Pole Fighter). Ronny Yu’s picture concentrates the heroic mission Yang’s seven sons (Ekin Chang, Yu Bo, Vic Chou and Li Chen among others) among them) acquit themselves with in order to save their beloved father when the latter must flee to Wolf Mountain after a failed initial battle against the invading Khitans, the first of many in a long war to determine supremacy.
Arguably the best thing about watching Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang, apart its qualities, is what it reminds the viewer of. The conception of several characters, locations and plot points are frequently reminiscent of classic Shaw Brothers adventures, the most glaring indication being that the titular general’s warrior sons are not remembered for their actual names but the order in which they were born. First Son, Second Son, Third Son and so on. Even how these attributed titles are displayed onscreen at the outset of the adventure, in an upper corner in English and Cantonese whenever a new face appears, echoes older projects from the famed studio. Locations are given colourful names like Wolf Mountain, which was another popular detail about classic Shaw films. Even the cinematography, albeit far more cutting edge and modern than what doctors like Chang Cheh and King Hu exercised back in the 1960s, 70s and 90s, lends many scenes, from quiet dialogue moments to epic fights, a heightened reality where what admirers is never entirely real, nor too artificially enhanced. One great moment is when one of Yang’s sons duels with a that of a rival clan’s general on a simple wooden balcony with everything around shrouded in fog. Having now seen the movie, it becomes really tempting to imagine it beginning with the famous Shaw Brothers logo and fanfare in addition to those of the other producing studios.
The story itself is a bit convoluted at the outset, with many details relating to family feuds delivered quite rapidly without permitting the audience to really let the information sink in properly. When the aforementioned balcony battle occurs a viewer may be forgiven for still trying to process all the personal tidbits of who is who and what everyone wants. It is thankfully not long before director Yu finds his ground with the material, easing the pace as warfare is in preparation between the Songs and the Khitans. From that point onwards the plot is simplified, which in effect actually helps tell the story of the brothers themselves. As the small, tired band ventures to extract their father from his hiding outpost and return him to friendly territory, the film, through the action, concentrates on the notions of honour, duty and personal sacrifice to right one’s wrongs. A lot of the drama is played on the nose, although it does fit the context as family members risk their very lives for one another in the face of impending doom. When the realization that one’s family is about to become extinct, a little melodrama is permissible.
Surprisingly enough, it is the action scenes which fail to earn top marks. The problem is that despite having obviously envisioned and prepared exciting sequences, Yu and his crew frequently choose to shoot up close and rely on rapid editing. The end product is nowhere near as mind numbingly confusing as a legion of Western action movies where the the cuts happen at a ludicrous pace. Even so, there are an unfortunate number of occurrences when it really is difficult to discern which warrior hit which other warrior and how. On the flip side, the filmmakers show signs of ebullient creativity with a Khitan catapult attack across a gorge onto Wolf Mountain, presented in as a grand a scale imaginable and just as tension filled. A more intimate but no less well realized scene has the archer son engage in a game of cat and mouse (with bows and arrows) in a wheat field, possibly the best scene in the entire film.
It is somewhat difficult to gauge the acting from one performer to the next in a movie the scope of Saving General Yang, not because the actors are poor, only because after a while some characters become a bit indistinguishable. The two who strike the strongest chord would have to be Adam Cheng, who was actually brought out of semi-retirement by Ronny Yu to star in the movie as well as Shao Bing, who pays Yelü, the vengeful Khitan son who vows to make the Song matriarch suffer even more so than his own did when his father was killed in combat. Bing straddles the line between injecting realistic motivation and playing the part to the hilt. It is a fascinating and tremendously amusing role to say the least, one that does not receive nearly as much screen time as the actor deserves.
Saving General Yang perfectly fits the mould of vintage Chinese historical epics. Like Shaw films of old, Ronny Yu offers a large cinematic retelling of an important chapter in China’s military history all the while presenting the picture in such a way that could easily have some recall various signature moments witnessed in movies from the classic studio. Yu, like John Woo, has experienced an artistically successful return to his native land. If audiences are rewarded with more quality period pieces like Fearless and Saving General Yang, then all the better.