Peter Chan: Man of War
The Straits Times, December 12, 2007
by Boon Chan
“We cannot afford to waste our energy, time and money in killing. We have to spend our time and energy in love and in building peace. Because if we don’t stop the war right now, everyone knows we have no time for anything else. Maybe the winners in war and the losers in war may die sooner than the war ends, if our planet ends.”
Supreme Master Ching Hai
Peter Chan’s battle strategy to steer his new film from conventional period epics is to portray the gritty reality of 1850 China amid civil war.
A top drawer cast, a big-name director, a period epic with pulse-racing action sequences. The description applies equally to any number of films including Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, and the upcoming Red Cliff and Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon. But this is filmmaker Peter Chan’s The Warlords, a tale of three sworn brothers set against the tumultuous backdrop of epic battles and political intrigue.
The Thai-born director is, after all, better known for his intimate romantic drams including the now classic Maggie Cheung-Leon Lai film Comrades: Almost A Love Story, and the gender -bender He’s A Woman, She’s A Man. But even he, it seems, is not immune to market forces.
In town recently to promote the film, Peter Chan says, perhaps with a touch of resignation, that it is a question of giving the audiences what they want.
He says: “Audiences have been really spoiled in the last few years, starting with Hollywood blockbusters and then Chinese blockbusters. So they feel they need to see more on screen. It has become a vicious circle driving the industry which, in turns, spoils the audience even more, who then wants even more.”
So the director admits in English during the interview at Mandarin Oriental’s Axis Bar that he has been driven to bigger projects even though it is not something he envisioned doing. He says: “Step by step, I’ve started to change from the intimate, smaller movies I used to make to things that are more elaborate. I never thought I’d do that when I was younger. I never wanted to be a big director. I just wanted to be a good one. But the situation in the industry have forced you into that. Otherwise, your movies won’t be watched on the big screens.”
So, far his latest film, Peter Chan, 45, has marshalled formidable forces in the form of martial arts superstar Jet Li, Hong Kong Heavenly King Andy Lau, Taiwan-born heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro, with Chinese actress-director Xu Jinglei providing the romantic spark. Hollywood trade rag Variety’s Asian film blogger Grady Hendrix has offered a cheeky comparison of the different posters featuring Asian stars in period armour. The publicity material on Variety Online all look suspiciously similar, with the stars staring stoically ahead.
Actor Andy Lau, 46, who was here this past weekend, has a pragmatic explanation for this sudden proliferation of period epics – the tastes of China market :”When you need a market, you have to make certain adjustments. And periods films are a more stable source of income for the mainland market.”
Drawing on his own experience, he notes that contemporary films such as Protégé, about the heroin trade, can hover only around 70 to 80 million yuan mark. “It is very hard to cross the 100 million yuan threshold.” Period epics, on the other hand, have popular appeal which translates into box-office bucks: Hero took in 250m yuan while Curse of the Golden Flower earned 270m yuan.
Hopes are equally high for the US$40m The Warlords, which is based on Assassination of Ma, a Qing dynasty story about killing of general Ma Xinyi.
It was previously filmed as Blood Brothers by Chang Cheh, a leading Hong Kong martial arts director in the 1970s, although Peter Chan has been at pains throughout the project to emphasise that his film is not a remake of this classic.
While his film might be built with box-office potential in mind, the director also distances The Warlords from other films of the same ilk. “Most of them in the past few years have not been story- or character-driven. The emphasis has always been on the looks, the set design, and everything else,” he says. “The Warlords is the gruesome and gritty reality of 1850 China amid civil war. Not only should it not be classified with the other big movies, but it is also the complete antithesis of them.”
He explains: “Period action is a very wide genre and there are still immense possibilities – so many dynasties, so many different kinds of movies. Filmmakers should do their homework and not repeat themselves over and over again.”
Peter Chan has taken the advice to heart with this film, given how different it seems from earlier entries in his body of work. One of the things he’s proudest about are the battle scenes. Referring dismissively to conventional gongfu flicks, he lets on that, “I’ve always aspired to do such scenes so that it is not about humanly impossible feats and not a freakshow.”
What he was after was to “recreate a period battlefield with Chinese fighting Chinese, with swords, axes and horses.”
“Chinese martial arts choreographers are great with one-on-one fights, but they’ve never done thousands fighting thousands,” he adds.
Another challenge was working a in genre which has tended to sideline women characters, given his past penchant for strong female protagonists. While the female character of Lian Sheng plays a pivotal role in the relationship among the sworn brothers, Peter Chan admits, “It’s still less than my other films. I’ll try to do better next time.”
For actress Xu Jing Lei, 33, however, accepting the role was a no-brainer. “It’s too simple, if you had the chance to act with Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jet Li, would you take it?” She adds: “The size of the role doesn’t matter to me. Even if it’s just to work with those whom I’ve seen on the silver screen since I was young, that’s pretty good in itself.”
Similarly for Andy Lau, who claims that there was no clashing of egos about the three top-billed male stars, despite the columns of ink generated over Jet Li’s record-breaking US$13m pay cheque. He did not want to be drawn into the touchy topic but he is unstinting in his praise for his co-stars’ performances and adds: “If I wanted to quibble over the size of the role, I would not have accepted it in the first place.”
He also has this to say of The Warlords: “The director has thought of what the audience needs and, at the same time, has kept his own style. This is very difficult to do.”
Peter Chan has this to say to fans who think he might have sold out for box-office success: “What attracts the audience to the cinema is not what they eventually get, which is still the typical Peter Chan intimate story.”
Here’s a quick rundown on some upcoming Chinese period epics.
Director: John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Lin Chi Ling, Takeshi Kaneshiro
The story: This US$80m movie is the most expensive Asian-financed film so far and will be split into two episodes. It is based on material from Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of The Three Kingdoms, one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature. The tome spans the turbulent years from the end of Han dynasty in 168AD to the land’s reunification in 280AD. In the film, Tony Leung plays Zhou Yu, chief strategist and supreme commander of the the kingdom of Wu, while Takeshi Kaneshiro is Zhuge Liang, chief strategist and prime minister of kingdom of Shu.
The Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon
Director: Daniel Lee
Cast: Andy Lau, Maggie Q, Sammo Hung
The story: Another film with Romance of the Three Kingdoms as its source material. It has a reported budget of US$25m. Andy Lau stars as Zhao Zilong, a top general of the kingdom of Shu who takes a last stand against the invading forces from kingdom of Wei. Maggie Q is Cao Ying, granddaughter of warlord Cao Cao, whose eldest son becomes the first emperor of kingdom of Wei,
An Empress and The Warriors
Director: Tony Ching Siu Tung
Cast: Donnie Yen, Kelly Chen, Leon Lai
The story: The film is set in ancient China and has a reported budget of 80m yuan. Kelly Chen plays Yan Fei-er, who is thrust into battle when her father is killed in the war. She is aided in her attempts to defend the kingdom by her cousin Murong Xuehu (Donnie Yen). Leon Lai is Duan Lanquan, who saves her from assassins, and she has to choose between the fate of her kingdom and personal happiness.
The Water Margin
Directors: Andrew Lau, Johnnie To
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Andy Lau
The story: With a reported budget of US$250m being bandied about, this three-parter is about the battles between 108 rebels and feudal officials set in the 12th Century. Names attached to the project include heavy-hitters Andrew Lau and Johnnie To for parts one and two respectively. Infernal Affairs co-stars Tony Leung and Andy Lau may team up again for the project.