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Featured DVD Review: Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon

April 12th, 2010

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon - Buy from Amazon

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon is a historical epic based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. It tells the story of the war to unite China during the third century C.E., a war that featured the armies of Liu Bei and Cao Cao. Sound familiar? It should, as it draws from the same period in China's history as Red Cliff did. That movie was John Woo's film-making return to his home after roughly 20 years. It was one of the most expensive Chinese films of all time and earned more than $100 million internationally. So the competition is harsh, but that's not to say that Three Kingdoms doesn't have weapons of its own, as it stars Andy Lau, Sammo Hung, Maggie Q, and others.

Andy Lau stars as Zhao Zilong, who we see in the beginning of the movie as a new recruit in Liu Bei's army meeting fellow soldier, Luo Ping'an. One of Liu Bei's tacticians, Zhuge Liang, orders their regiment to attack one of Cao Cao's armies, despite the heavy numerical advantage of the foe. His plan is to attack under the cover of a thunderstorm, which he predicts will happen that night. During this fight, Luo Ping'an attacks the leader of this army, but is nearly killed. He is saved by Zhao Zilong. The victory is short-lived, as Cao Cao's forces are still too great and Liu Bei is forced to retreat to the Yellowbird Peak. During this retreat, Liu Bei is separated from his wives and his son. Zhao Zilong offers to try and rescue them, an offer that is greeted with violent opposition from Liu Bei's generals. However, when Zhao Zilong proves his worth, he is sent out. Despite overwhelming odds, he rescues the young son. He even gets into a person confrontation with Cao Cao, stealing his sword as a result. (This is an act that will set up the climatic events of the movie.) He returns to his home town a hero, but while he asked Luo Ping'an to go with him, he declines. After the celebrations, Zhao Zilong is named one of the Five Tiger Generals by Liu Bei and he begins a military career where he is undefeated in battle.

Fast forward more than 30 years. At the age of 71, Zhao Zilong is the only surviving member of the Five Tiger Generals. However, the war between the Shu Han and the Cao Wei empires continued with many of the children and grandchildren of the original combatants taking over. That is, except for Zhao Zilong, who started fighting so he could help bring about peace and raise a family. Since no peace was ever achieved, he never did find a wife. Despite still being a general, his emperor doesn't want to use him in battle and risk his undefeated streak, which would be a blow to the morale of the troops. He is able to convince him to send him out on one last battle, but even though his commander relents, this assignment was supposed to be merely ceremonial. However, when Cao Cao's granddaughter, Cao Ying, comes looking for revenge, his final battle could be his most dangerous.

First a note: after the recent string of historical epics based on Chinese history, I think I have enough knowledge on the subject to really embarrass myself if I needed to. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." I think I could really prove that. Fortunately, I'm smart enough to know you should never trust movies to be accurate representations of real history.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon without comparing it to Red Cliff, which deals with the exact same period of history with many of the same people and a few of the exact events making appearances in both. Red Cliff is the bigger movie in terms of production budget, scale, box office numbers, etc. It also earned more critical acclaim and won more awards worldwide. About the only major competitive advantage Three Kingdoms has is that is came out first. Except it came out first in its native market, whereas Red Cliff hit the home market here a few weeks ago. Sadly, it also has many of the same weaknesses. The biggest of these is the epic story being squeezed into a short running time. Granted, this movie focuses on the life of just one person, for the most part, but we still don't get a lot of character development in the 90-minute running time, while it feels like we are missing a lot of the story. Luo Ping'an has some clunky voiceovers to aid in exposition, but it feels like we are missing out on a lot of what makes the characters tick. For instance, the rivalry between Luo Ping'an and Zhao Zilong is barely dealt with, but it is critical to the climax.

That said, there are still some fine battle scenes. The final battle not only has impressive choreography (done partially by co-star Sammo Hung) but it also has the most emotional impact.

Overall, the film tries to deal with too much source material over too short of a running time and that really hurts. The end result is still worth checking out, but it doesn't live up to its potential.

As for the extras on the DVD, there are four interviews with Daniel Lee, the director, and three of the stars: Andy Lau, Sammo Hung, and Maggie Q. Combined, they are just over 30 minutes long, mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles.

The Verdict

For fans of this period from China's history, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon is a satisfying, if not fully successful film. It tries to tell too much story in too short of a time, but when it settles in for the final battle, which takes up the final third of the movie, it hits its stride. The DVD is light on extras, but this is not surprising since it is an import. Call it a solid rental for most, leaning toward a purchase for fans of the subgenre.

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