Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Daniel Lee
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Zhang Han Yu, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Jordan Chan Siu Chun, Crystal Liu Yi Fei, Fang Shao Feng, Andy On Chi Kit, Jia Qing, Wu Ma, Chen Kuan Tai, Chan Chi Fai, Ding Hai Feng, Du Yiheng, Xu Xiang Dong
Running Time: 135 min.
Director Daniel Lee has long seemed to struggle to find his identity as a filmmaker in the wake of his breakout 1996 hit “Black Mask.” After that movie, he produced the tournament fight flick “Star Runner” (AKA “The Kumite”) and the English/Cantonese crossover of “Dragon Squad,” both of which received lukewarm reviews. Since then he’s found a niche making historical epics like “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” and “14 Blades,” but something feels missing.
His latest movie, “White Vengeance,” follows in the footsteps of films like “Hero” and “Red Cliff” by mixing real-life figures with fantastical action scenes, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the heights of those genre standouts. Despite decent performances from familiar Hong Kong faces like Leon Lai and Anthony Wong, “White Vengeance” suffers from sluggish pacing and poor action directing. All of this makes me wonder if the visually kinetic and comic book-like flair of “Black Mask” wasn’t the result of producer Tsui Hark playing a more ‘hands on’ role.
Dusty and drab, “White Vengeance” feels bogged down by its own self-importance. The story zeroes in on the events of the Hongmen Banquet, a major event in Chinese history, and then tries to examine the conflict from all sides. In a time of uncertainty, two great military men are vying for the position of Emperor – but they couldn’t be more different. Leon Lai’s General strives for equality and fairness for the people, while Shaofeng Feng’s character seems more driven by personal interests. First impressions aren’t always the most accurate, however, and as they say ‘absolutely power corrupts absolutely.’ The viewer will have their perception of these characters flipped more than once over the course of the film’s 135 minute runtime.
“White Vengeance” features solid acting turns from regulars like Jordan Chan and Andy On, but it’s Hanyu Zhang and Anthony Wong that steal the show as two competing military strategists. Their conflict is illustrated visually halfway through the film with an intense game of chess that actually sees Zhang coughing up blood(!) as he plays. Sure, a game of chess fought with Chi-like powers is a bit over the top – but it provides a much needed boost of energy during the film’s lagging middle portion.
The real issue here is that audiences, even on this side of the globe, are becoming overly familiar with the Chinese historical genre – and “White Vengeance” doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table. The art of military strategy was already depicted wonderfully in movies like “Red Cliff” and “The Lost Bladesmen,” which benefitted from dazzling action choreography to boot. Daniel Lee must have had difficulty getting enough camera coverage for the battle sequences, as he instead relies on a familiar hail of computer-generated arrows to sell the scale of the conflicts. After you’ve seen the best the genre has to offer, it’s hard to go back to shakycam and limp fight scenes in a movie like “White Vengeance.”
Devout followers of Chinese history or the actors involved should find plenty to enjoy in “White Vengeance.” But if you’re starting to feel you’ve seen everything this genre has to offer, “White Vengeance” won’t change your mind. Here’s hoping that Daniel Lee stops looking to the history books for inspiration and is able to channel the manic energy and flair of “Black Mask” into his next project.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5.5/10