In ancient China, with rival kingdoms at war, feisty princess Yan Feier (Kelly Chan) stands beside her father, the King of Yan (Liu Wei-Hua). Shortly after naming his greatest warrior Muyong (Donnie Yen) as successor to the throne, the King is mortally wounded in battle and murdered by his power-hungry nephew Wu Ba (Guo Xiao-Dong). With rivals objecting to his “lowly” status, Muyong diverts the throne to a reluctant Yan Feier, who trains herself for war against the neighbouring Zhao warriors. Attacked by punk-haired blowpipe wielding warriors, the poisoned Feier is rescued by hunky hermit Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai). He heals her wounds and opens her eyes to a peaceful life, as they slowly fall in love. But with Yan threatened by enemies, Feier must choose between love and duty.
Apparently, Chinese audiences found the sight of Kelly Chan talking tough and wielding swords, utterly ridiculous. Sort of like seeing Britney Spears in a medieval epic. Western viewers unfamiliar with Chan’s pop star celebrity won’t find her too disconcerting. She is gutsy, if one-dimensional. Continuing the welcome revival in costume action epics in Hong Kong cinema, An Empress and the Warriors sees Ching Siu Tung return to the director’s chair, five years on from the lacklustre Naked Weapon (2002).
Having fight choreographed Zhang Yimou’s recent forays into the wu xia genre, Tung evidently fancied a go at a large scale historical epic. The killing of the king mimics a similar scene in Gladiator (2000), although Tung has lost none of his ability to conjure eye-catching images or stage a turbo-charged action scene. Unlike his sumptuous yet studio-bound classics, a hefty budget allows for handsome locations allowing his camera sweeps over jagged cliffs and sun-scorched deserts and bathes in turquoise pools. However, even in his New Wave heyday, Tung tended to flounder when not partnered with a strong co-director like Tsui Hark or Johnny To. Here he races helter-skelter through his story with scant pause to let the grace notes or grandeur sink in.
While the pacifist idealism and self-reliant philosophy of Duan Lanquan - who lives in a treehouse full of crazy contraptions including his own hot air balloon - evokes some of the lyricism of Tung’s early works, his attempts to weave an air of tragic romance don’t catch fire until late in the day. As the pacifist message takes hold, both the film and the Empress (actually, never referred to as such) come into their own, amidst moments of pathos and camaraderie. The central message that “young or old, weak or strong - all deserve to survive” is winning, even if served up alongside bruising action sequences. Production values are exemplary, although Mark Lui’s synthesiser led score conspires to make things seem cheaper than they really are. The English subtitles lean unfortunately towards British vernacular, as when a stripped to the waist Donnie Yen shouts “who wants some?!!” to the invading army.