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Andy Lau in a scene from The Warlords (2007). The film was originally to be a remake of Chang Cheh’s famous The Blood Brothers, but director Peter Chan had other ideas.

Peter Chan’s The Warlords: Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro star in gritty anti-war film

  • Chan, known for light dramas, jumped on the bandwagon of martial arts blockbusters to make a movie best remembered for its large-scale battle sequences
  • But he didn’t want to replicate Chang Cheh’s The Blood Brothers, on which it was based, and intervened to ensure the fight scenes did not look too ‘Chang Cheh’

Peter Chan Ho-sun had not made an action film before he made The Warlords, the 2007 war drama which features Jet Li Lianjie as an ambitious general leading the Qing army to victory over the Taiping rebels.

Chan was best known for heart-warming light dramas like 1996’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story , but the emergence of the Chinese blockbuster phenomenon, which saw big-budget Hong Kong action films achieving good results at the box office in China, prompted a change of style for the director and producer.

The result was a gritty anti-war film which effectively split its time between the internecine wrangling of its three main protagonists – played by Li, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Takeshi Kaneshiro – and the spectacle of large-scale battle sequences.

Chan’s The Warlords was originally intended as a remake of Chang Cheh’s famous 1973 movie The Blood Brothers , a complex martial arts drama which focused on how romance and lust can strain and break the bonds of brotherhood, but ultimately turned out to be much different.

The story, which had been filmed at least twice before, and had also been adapted for Shanghai-style Peking Operas, is based on a real event which has been called one of the “Four Mysteries of the Qing dynasty”. Known as Zhang Wenxiang Assassinates Ma, it is the story of the assassination of ambitious Qing general Ma Xinyi by one of his associates for a still-unknown reason.

The Taiping Rebellion, which took place from 1851 to around 1860, provides the setting, and is a fascinating period of Chinese history to use as the background for an action film. The Taiping rebels were Christian revolutionaries led by Hong Xiuquan, an unhinged individual who had combined Protestantism with Chinese folk beliefs, and had proclaimed himself the brother of Jesus Christ.

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The rebels, who were predominantly Hakka Chinese, formed an army of around two million men and women that battered the troops of the Qing dynasty, and ruled a swathe of China centred on Nanking (now Nanjing). Between 20 million and 70 million people died in the Taiping Rebellion, the carnage of which has been compared to that of the first world war.

Ma Xinyi, the main protagonist in The Warlords (he has been renamed Pang for the film), was the military genius who helped end the rebellion by capturing the rebel headquarters, Nanking.

He was assassinated by Zhang Wenxiang in 1870, perhaps because of his effectiveness in cracking down on pirates, or a personal grievance, or a dispute over a woman. After seven months of interrogation, the Qing authorities could not find out Zhang’s reasons for killing Ma, and condemned him to death by slow dismemberment.

(From left) Lau, Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro in a still from The Warlords.

Like Chang’s film, The Warlords focuses on the idea that the reason for the assassination was that Ma had an illicit affair with the wife of an associate. The story begins when General Pang (Li), whose army has been decimated by the rebels, joins a bandit group led by Zhao (Lau) and Jiang (Kaneshiro). The three become sworn blood brothers. With the help of his brothers, Pang rejoins the Qing army and vanquishes the rebels, while quietly having an affair with Zhao’s wife Lian (Xu Jinglei).

Zhao disagrees with the tactics Pang uses to hold Nanjing after his army’s crowning victory – he kills all the prisoners – and Pang, who wants Lian for his own, uses the disagreement as a reason to order Zhao’s death. To keep the sworn brotherhood intact, Jiang kills Lian – a major departure from Chang Cheh’s version – but tragedy ensues for all.

Although references to The Blood Brothers are evident, Chan says his film should be considered as something separate. Chan was a big fan of Chang Cheh’s films, and Jimmy Wang Yu was his hero when he was growing up; according to an interview in Eastern Kicks, Chan’s father worked at Shaw Brothers studio in promotion, and the young Chan visited the studio sets and had fun posing like Wang Yu. But Chan wanted to avoid making a “typical” wuxia film.
David Chiang (left) and Chen Kuan-tai in a scene from The Blood Brothers (1973)

“The movie is really different from Blood Brothers, not only in terms of the actual film, but also in terms of the real people it is based on,” Chan told “We decided that we would change the names of the [real] characters, as they are only loosely based on them. The story is completely made up.”

Chan has said that he had avoided making large-scale action films because he prefers a small crew. The Warlords, by contrast, employed a crew of around 1,400.

Chan hired Ching Siu-tung, one of Hong Kong’s top martial arts choreographers, but admits in a documentary about the film that his lack of experience of making such films led to problems between them, and those were exacerbated by a gruelling 117-day shoot in China in extremely cold weather.

Peter Chan, director of The Warlords, in 2007. Photo: Oliver Tsang

Working with the action choreographer became more difficult because Chan did not want the fight scenes to look anything like a wuxia film from the past – indeed, the documentary shows how he tried hard to ensure the fight scenes did not look too “Chang Cheh”.

“I told him [Ching] to go against everything that he’s good at for this film. To try out things that he usually avoids. So it took a while for us to decide how the battle scenes should be,” he recalled.

Chan did not have the action-film vocabulary to effectively communicate how he wanted the scenes to look, and Ching became frustrated as a result. Jet Li diplomatically stepped in to clarify the ideas Chan was trying to express to Ching.

Kaneshiro in a still from The Warlords.

“It’s very difficult to control the action if you have an action choreographer,” Chan said. “The action people have completely different priorities.

“They mainly care about what looks good. But I am a storyteller, and it’s not only about what looks good on the screen – you have to move the audience. It needs to be more than action, and it’s really difficult to get that balance. We finally did, but not without a lot of difficult times.”

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: director’s first action film plagued by its own Dramas