An Empress and the Warriors (2008)
Ching Siu-Tung has a chequered history as a director - he has been behind some of the finest works in Hong Kong cinematic history (Duel To The Death, A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II), but also some of its biggest turkies (Wonder Seven, Naked Weapon). Many have long suspected it's more a case of who he knows than what he knows (in directorial terms - his action and aesthetic sense are rarely doubted).
One of the people he knows is Zhang Yimou, who has used Ching as action director in all his martial art/period movies. Since these have been some of the most successful Chinese language films of the past decade, it's probably not surprising that Ching thought to himself "I'll have a go at that".
AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS feels (and looks) a lot like Zhang's last two historicals, Curse Of The Golden Flower and House Of Flying Daggers, were put together in a blender and mixed vigorously. There's seasoning from any number of other period epics too, but precious little that's new to the genre.
Ching Siu-Tung does not seem to have a natural talent for creating convincing emotions on screen (when he doesn't have a writer/director like Tsui Hark to guide him) - perhaps he doesn't feel them himself? He is also not known for understanding when subtlety can be used to greater effect than bombast (he doesn't seem to have picked it up from Zhang Yimou). The combined effect of this is that unconvincing emotions are often hammered into the audience's skull with melodramatic music, camerawork and acting - probably not producing the intended response in most viewers.
Speaking of acting, Kelly Chen isn't usually regarded as being any good at it (Leon wasn't either until recently), but has clearly tried hard to improve her range and skill for this project. Whilst she's still not a natural acting talent, she does manage to carry off her character here. An odd casting choice, but somewhat successful.
Production values are of course very high, as is expected of a Chinese historical epic these days, with enormous armies of extras decked out in armour, great sets, beautifully filmed vistas and top notch cinematography and CGI. It goes for a more realistic aesthetic akin to The Warlords or A Battle Of Wits than Zhang Yimou's hyper-real looks... with one scene that's a regrettable exception.
A Ching Siu-Tung film is usually assured to have some decent action at the least, though the film's more realistic look does not lend itself to the stylised interpretation of martial arts that he pioneered... there's a lot more grunting and cleaving than flying and posing. The battles are pretty brutal and exciting, but I do miss the more asthetic, impressionist action choreography of the SWORDSMAN II days.
Overall AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS is a film that lacks focus or originality, feeling too much like a "me too!" project. The big budget means that it at least delivers on spectacle, but it really fails on drama. There are too many better examples of the style already out there for this one to be worth too much of anybody's time or attention.