Rating: 3 stars out of 5
To live in the time of the Warring States Period in China, sometime between 400 to 200 BC, is to live in an absurd age where little is certain or secure.
Depicted in this period piece by Chinese director He Ping (Warriors of Heaven and Earth), entitled 'wheat field' in literal terms, the era appears to be one where strange, haunting imagery, abounds.
There are peaceful, golden fields of wheat ready for harvest, interposed with scenes of war and violence. When soldiers from the state of Qin track down a couple of deserters, they behead their victims with relish, an action eerily reminiscent of the act of harvesting with sickles.
One also observes a village full of women of all ages, whose menfolk had left for war. Cut off from the conflict engulfing their native state of Zhao, they cling onto hope and spin hearsay into news.
There are moments of darkly bizarre comedy in this film, as the protagonists are a pair of Qin soldiers, the noble warrior Xia (Huang Jue) and the cowardly Zhe (Du Jiayi), who stumble into enemy territory, and pretend to be Zhao survivors in order to stay alive.
The squabbling pair, on the run from their own troops, who would kill them for deserting, and the enemy, end up at a village where the placidly beautiful wife of the absent Lord, Li (Fan Bingbing), rules sullenly over an impoverished population of men-starved women.
He's film is a beautiful one, with memorable scenes and strong performances, although its shifting mood and ultimately unfulfilled promise undermines its brilliance.
When the men are questioned, and cook up a story of their origins, they reveal the humour inherent in the vastness of China and her diverse cultures – even people from the same state know little about their so-called countrymen; how does one tell friend or foe in such circumstances?
Then, there is the darkness of the turbulent times. War has long been a constant in these people's lives, such that the changing of the seasons no longer matter, nor does the desire to farm and harvest.
Xia, an elite soldier, had deserted in order to go home and harvest. (Coincidentally, Jackie Chan's soldier character in Little Big Soldier also longed for a life of peace and farming.) He opines, early in the film, that his life is nothing more than war, followed by harvest, followed by war, and so on.
In one of the most riveting scenes of the film, a drunken Zhe speaks of a massacre that had taken place recently, at the historical battle of Changping. The Zhao women react to his bloody tale with much amusement, but the audience knows the tragic truth of the matter.
Director He divides his film into five segments, to correspond what transpires with the five classic elements – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood – of Chinese philosophy, which permeates through all aspects of life.
At the end of it all, though Fan is luminous in her role, Huang rugged, and Du cartoonishly comic, there is a sense of an unfocused story left unfinished.
And trying to associate this with the incomplete lives of the doomed characters would seem a rather tenuous link, as tenuous as life in volatile times.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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