Now in limited US screenings, the Peking Opera-flavored melodrama MY KINGDOM is notable for being one of the handful of recent Chinese films to get a day-and-date release in the US and Asia. That’s a trend I’d like to encourage, and since the film was playing here in Boston, I decided to check it out yesterday. I’m glad I did, although it’s something of a disappointment for action fans. MY KINGDOM (aka DA WU SHENG) was conceived by director Gao Xiaosong as a way to interest young Chinese people in traditional music and theater. The story is set largely in Shanghai in the 1920s. After a prologue in Beijing, where a master of opera-style kung fu (played by Yuen Biao) is challenged to a duel by a Shanghai upstart (Yu Rongguang) and forced to give up a ceremonial plaque and retire from the stage, his two young proteges vow revenge. Fifteen years later, they travel to Shanghai and challenge the Shanghai master on stage, humiliating him, forcing him to commit suicide and then taking over his troupe. The older disciple, Yi Long (Wu Chun), revels in his new fame, but the younger one, Er Kui (Han Geng), has another agenda. Years ago, his family was massacred by a Qing prince, and he’s vowed revenge on the prince’s sons. Meanwhile, there are undercurrents of discontent in the opera troupe. Could the lead diva, Mu Lang (Barbie Hsu) be plotting revenge? A sinister police captain (Louis Liu) keeps close watch on the actors, with his own plans in mind.
First, let’s look at the positives. Number one is the action choreography courtesy of Sammo Hung. The former Little Fortune must have had a ball mining his youthful experiences on the opera stage. The best fight in the film comes early in the story, in the spear duel between Yuen Biao (another veteran of the Little Fortune troupe) and Yu Rongguang. The point where their encounter snaps from dance-like stage maneuvers to a real life-threatening attack is electric. Despite a smattering of stunt-doubling for some jumps, the body of the fight is made up of these two experts demonstrating solid spear technique.
Overall, the best action in MY KINGDOM is front-loaded. After the spear fight, we’re treated to training sequences featuring two kids who appear to have real opera background, playing the heroes in their early years. The challenge match in Shanghai is also beautifully done, with a small army of stunt actors augmenting the leads. Pop idols Wu and Han, as well as actress Barbie Hsu (REIGN OF ASSASSINS) trained hard for their roles, but their lack of a real martial foundation is unfortunately obvious to the trained eye. Once Yuen and Yu have left the screen, the story reverts to drama, drama, and more drama, with only a few brief action sequences interspersed. A late broadsword fight between Hsu and Han, in a wine cellar, with casks exploding in scarlet spray around them, is fun. I mean, Sammo is the man – he could make Betty White look like a kung fu hero. But the movie sorely lacks a grand finale of a fight scene, something both lengthy and awesome.
Mainstream reviewers in this country have grumbled about the over-the-top melodrama of MY KINGDOM, but I really didn’t mind that. It was a good, old-fashioned story that I could imagine Chang Cheh making with Ti Lung as Yi Long and David Chiang as Er Kui and Ching Li as the female lead. Louis Liu looked way too young to be a high-ranking police officer, but he’s also a dead ringer for 70s villain Chang Yi, so that worked for me. But a Chang Cheh film would have ended with a fifteen minute blowout of a fight scene, and dozens of bodies littering the floor. I also liked the way the story highlighted the lore and traditions of the opera schools, and the way the students strove to fulfill their Confucian obligations to their surrogate families. But it was terribly distracting, especially given how meticulously the sets and the costumes for the older actors recreated the era of the story, to have the young leads consistently appear to have just stepped from the pages of a GQ photo shoot. Bottom line: as I said, a mixed bag.
If only the filmmakers had cast real opera actors and maintained a consistent design, this film could have been a gem. I understand the market demands – pop singers equal built-in box office, and idols have to look cool. But I can’t help regretting the lost opportunity here, for both kung fu and a window into the (imagined) past.
MY KINGDOM trailer:
Watch real Peking opera skills in this video of a Shanghai troupe:
My Kingdom • Sammo Hung • Yuen Biao