Terracotta Warrior (1989)

Directed by
Interesting but not quite compelling
Reviewed by Simon on 2006-07-04

The tyrannical first emperor of China wishes to live forever, and doesn't really care how many of his subjects get sacrificed in the quest for immortality. A soldier (Zhang Yimou) becomes his most favoured general after thwarting an assassination attempt, but falls in love with an unwilling concubine (Gong Li). When their affair is discovered they are sentenced to death, but she slips her lover an immortality pill before he is coated in terracotta to become a statue in the emperor's tomb. Many centuries later, a presumably reincarnated Gong Li is a shallow, vain actress filming near the undiscovered tomb...

Zhang Yimou and Gong Li were famously lovers in real life, and probably Chinese cinema's hottest couple after making Red Sorghum, though as far as I know this was the first time Zhang had appeared in front of the camera. When Ching Siu-Tung and Tsui Hark decided to shoot the film on the mainland, they apparently concluded that the pair were the best local candidates for the lead roles - a somewhat inspired casting choice... though I wonder if the requirement to use local actors was mandated by the Chinese authorities.

TERRACOTTA WARRIOR has long been near-impossible to see, and as a Tsui Hark/Ching Siu-Tung collaboration with such unusual leads, it was something of a "holy grail". Thankfully the film finally received not one but two dvd releases recently, in China and France. The problem with waiting to see a film for so long is that the anticipation can build up a level of hope/expectation that no film can match... though in this case I think I'd gone through that and out the other side, so I think my assessment is fair - it's an ambitious and interesting film that's good, but not great.

The production is certainly a grand one, aiming to recreate both ancient China and the less ancient China of the 1930's. The use of real locations and a small army of extras certainly helps with the former, but the latter is mainly accomplished through some old-fashioned clothing and a car or two. I'm not sure if it's because of the contrast with the ancient setting that the 1930's sections seem quite contemporary, or just that they're not that well realised. It didn't seem unconvincing, so I'll assume it's the former.

Gong Li is of course one of the most famous, popular and talented actresses from China (and beautiful too), and she gets chance to show some range here - her concubine character is a reserved, sophisticated and melancholic character like those she is most well known for playing. Her 1930's character is the complete opposite - air-headed, shallow and noisy... quite strange to see her acting so, but she is just as good. I watched the film in Cantonese, which is not her native language, but whoever dubbed her voice(s) did a good job. I'd like to see how the film fares in Mandarin some day.

Zhang Yimou is famous for eliciting exceptional performances from his cast, having nurtured both Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi into stardom. This suggests he has an excellent grasp of the art of acting himself - but unfortunately this does not translate to being a great actor himself. His performance lacks the depth of those around him, making his character seem a bit forgettable.

Yu Rong Guang fares much better as the villainous playboy actor Bai Yunfei, calling on all his over-the-top charm and menace to make far more memorable use of his screen-time. Villains always have the advantage that they can get away with over-acting, of course.

Peter Pau's visuals are mostly impressive, though not his greatest work. Things do sometimes look a little cheap, probably because of the equipment being used and because the special effects scenes actually were done on the cheap (relatively speaking). Ching Siu-Tung often has ambitious ideas that far exceed the budget he has to implement them, but credit to him for trying anyway.

The last thing worth mentioning is probably the score, which is another fine effort from Romeo Diaz and James Wong.

Overall, TERRACOTTA WARRIOR is a film that has a lot going for it, but fails to really deliver on the emotional level. Although the story is a potentially compelling one (enough for them to rip off huge parts of it for The Myth anyway!), elements seem poorly thought out and don't quite make sense - which took me "out of the film" too much. Additionally, Zhang Yimou's rather wooden performance makes the romance between himself and Gong Li seem quite unconvincing (ironically), which cuts out the emotional heart of the film. As such, it engaged me more intellectually and aesthetically than emotionally, which is enough to prevent it being "great", though it's sufficiently enjoyable despite this to be a strong "good".