Producer-director Ronny Yu’s “Saving General Yang” (2013) is avaiable on DVD and Blu-Ray December 10th, 2013 via Well Go USA. This latest interpretation of the legendary Yang Family Saga is a sweeping Mainland mega-production with a cool cast, exhilarating action, and stylish visuals.
In 986, the Song Dynasty’s most trusted martial leaders are Generals Yang Ye (Adam Cheng Siu Chow) and Pan Ren Mei (Leung Kar Yan). During a competition for the hand of Princess Chai, one of Yang’s seven sons accidentally kills Pan’s son. When the emperor dispatches both generals to repel the Northern Liao’s invading Khitan army, the spiteful Pan betrays General Yang, leaving him wounded and trapped by the enemy on Wolf Mountain. Despite overwhelming numbers of Khitan soldiers and their tough commander’s (Shao Bing) personal quest for vengeance, General Yang’s seven sons bravely set out on a perilous journey to save their father.
“Saving General Yang” is a fairly epic contribution to the very epic story cycle The Yang Family Saga. Film viewers are fully expected to already know the outcome of this story, which is chock full of treachery, loyalty, death, patriotism, filial piety and heroism. Prior knowledge is recommended since the screenplay ignores backstory and relies on mostly unexplained, and sadly underutilized, tragic irony.
The screenplay is shallow and lacks a clear protagonist. General Yang is without doubt a riveting character but much of this is due to Adam Cheng’s own performance. Wu Chun as Sixth Brother picks up where the General leaves off but his character is too one-dimensional to command attention. And while there are one or two deeper moments such as the General’s anomalous dream and the inchoate burden of the eldest Yang son (Ekin Cheng), Director Yu’s lofty intention to eulogize the importance of family and Confucian values through this film is only superficially realized.
But seriously, who cares? “Saving General Yang” is about action, not plot. The huge, dramatic production has beautiful mise en scenes and kick ass fight scenes that will knock your socks off.
The work of stupendous veteran Hong Kong choreographer Stephen Tung Wai (aka Dong Wei) sets “Saving General Yang” well apart from recent Mainland productions. Tung, probably best known for “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “Pom Pom and Hot Hot” (1992) and “Hitman” (1998), fuses horses and ancient weapons with his own signature flashy cool to create a unique style of historical battle. The actors do many of their own stunts, adding a sense of realism that heightens engagement and makes Yu’s carefully chosen cool collective of hunks look better in their armor, on horseback, and kicking ass with their signature weapons.
Tung masterfully paces his action within each scene to maximize viewer engagement, and also heightens tension as the film progresses. Starting with large, glamorous, impersonal battles, the numbers of combatants gradually dwindle as individual risk and tension grows. The film climaxes with intense personal fights that are truly engaging entertainment.
Putting a high shine on the action is extremely stylish, well-paced editing. Some shots are derived from films like “300” and “Gladiator” but to be fair, almost every film now embraces these groundbreaking styles. And while big production values are par for the course for current Mainland studios, Yu adds real visual artistry. His mise en scenes are carefully designed, slightly repetitive but often breathtaking, with a rich variety of photography styles: sometimes surreal, sometimes gritty shaky-cam, but always crafted to create an appropriate atmosphere. Enhanced by a terribly dramatic score, fantastic sound mixing and mostly tolerable CGI, many scenes are, just like Yu’s films The Bride With White Hair and Fearless, masterful and compelling.
“Saving General Yang” may not have been successful at the Chinese box office but seems to be faring better with Western audiences. The action is engaging enough, the cast strong enough and the visuals attractive enough to forgive the plot flaws. Fans of the Yang Family Saga will enjoy watching the heroes battle their way across the screen, and those new to the story may want to delve deeper into this exciting, heroic, romantic period of Chinese history.
THE DVD: The Well Go USA DVD is a NTSC 16:9 Widescreen release with Stereo/5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital and works smoothly on dvd player and computer. The film content has not been edited for American release and runs 107 minutes. It is in Mandarin with options for English dub and English, French or Spanish subtitles. Bonus features include a “Making of” featurette with fun behind-the-scenes glimpses of the action; interviews with the director, cast and action choreographer; and the film trailer. There are also trailers for upcoming Well Go releases.