Blade to order
The director-scriptwriter duo Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung made their names with crime thrillers such as Infernal Affairs and Overheard.
While these movies brought them awards galore and fame aplenty, they also shaped what financiers and film-goers expect from them.
'Since as far back as five or six years ago, Felix has been wanting to do a costumed martial arts movie about stories from Romance of the Three Kingdoms,' Mak says.
'But we've been doing crime thrillers all along, and new investors always ask us to do the same thing.'
The breakthrough came when an investor approached them with a particular historical figure - the legendary blade-wielding hero Guan Yunchang - in mind as the subject of a new movie.
'His thinking is that Guan Yunchang is a well-known figure among Chinese so it will be easy for him to market the film in the region and abroad,' Mak says.
The result is the duo's first historical martial arts movie, The Lost Bladesman, which revolves around the struggles faced by Guan (played by Donnie Yen Ji-dan). He is held captive with family members of his sworn brother Liu Bei (Alex Fong Chung-shun) after Guan's admirer Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) defeats Liu's troops. Guan escapes and sets off to reunite with Liu, during which he famously slays six of Cao's generals at five mountain passes.
Mak and Chong merge the portrayal of Guan in the historical chronicle Records of Three Kingdoms with tales from the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But Chong says the movie is not just another recounting of Guan's heroic life.
'Audiences pay to watch a movie only when there is something new in it. I haven't attempted to revamp Guan - what I've done is present him from an angle that nobody has ever seen before,' Chong says.
'If we'd kept Guan as the god-like figure people worship on the altar nowadays, it'd be very difficult [to make an impact],' Mak adds.
'We must treat him as a mortal - show how he reacts to challenges, what his romantic relationship is like and where his loyalty finally lies - so Guan can be seen as a flesh-and-blood human being.'
In the movie, Guan faces several tests. First, he has to be tactful in the face of Cao's insistence on retaining him in his camp, trying not to offend the warlord while keeping his irrevocable attachment to Liu intact.
Guan also has to uphold loyalty over passion, as he is put in the same bed as the immobilised Qi Lan (Sun Li), a woman he has known and loved since he was young but who is destined to be Liu's concubine.
Guan's conscience, however, is constantly troubled by the killing he has to do on his journey. He also struggles with the decision to leave Cao, an ambivalent character whose thirst for power is offset by his respect for Guan and a seemingly genuine intention to restore peace to his people.
'We aimed to explore the idea of yi hei [fraternal loyalty]. Since we were young, we have been told to sustain yi hei, but in a modern context it's often difficult to achieve that,' Chong says.
'I don't think it was easy for Guan to uphold yi hei in his time, either, and I became curious about how he did it despite the challenges. Guan is the epitome of loyalty and righteousness, so we create lots of temptations and obstacles for him to overcome, like in [Martin Scorsese's] The Last Temptation of Christ.'
Cao - an equally important role in the movie and the character the duo think has the most influence on Guan - is also portrayed in a different light.
'We wanted to show the bright side of Cao, as previous depictions of him have always been about his dark side,' Chong says. He says they needed an exceptional actor to pull off the transformation - and Jiang instantly came to mind.
It wasn't easy convincing Jiang, a director who was shooting Let the Bullets Fly when they approached him. But the persistence of their producer and Jiang's liking for the script brought him on board.
They succeeded in fulfilling their aspiration to make a movie that, as Chong puts it, features a 'duel between two heroes, each rich in intelligence and military talent'.
The increasingly close collaboration between Mak and Chong echoes the interplay of intellect and brotherly bonds in their film. The pair have worked together since 1999, moving from playing distinct roles as director and writer in Stolen Love (2001) to co-writing the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003) and co-directing and co-writing Moonlight in Tokyo (2005) and The Lost Bladesman.
While Mak sees the blurring of their roles as an organic evolution of their partnership, Chong says it is as much a practical development as it is a natural one.
'With two people, we share the workload between us, which is good for the movie as a whole, as long as we have a good division of labour without both putting in the same work. Because our characters are different, we move in different directions, which in the long run will improve things. I'm more about overlooking the creative process, while he will spend more effort on the production,' Chong says.
'It has tended to be like that all along, as we started out in those capacities. But we also pay attention to and show concern for each other's work, which enables us to learn from each other.
'As time goes by, each production will be like a practice for the next one. The more difficulties you face, the more improvements you can make.'
One of the things the pair learned making The Lost Bladesman was how to adapt to the different working approach of the crew in Beijing, where they spent six months shooting the movie. While they knew more time would be needed to prepare and co-ordinate the large-scale war scenes, the fact that in a costume drama every single detail would have to be recreated was new to the duo.
'You can shoot a contemporary movie anywhere you like. But for a period movie, everything that appears on the screen has to be recreated. There is this scene we shot in a wheat field, and we were surprised that we had to plant the wheat ourselves,' Chong says.
'It requires a great deal of patience. We planned to start shooting in April last year, but as spring arrived late, we had to postpone until June.
Mak says such challenges enhance their development.
'There will be times when we have different opinions and argue over our approach. But each time, there will be improvements and new sparks,' he says.
'That's why we always get back together for new projects. As a director, having the right partner to work with is very important.'
It's a view Guan Yunchang, who was fortunate enough to have great partners in warfare, might agree with.
The Lost Bladesman opens on April 28