HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Director Ching Siu-tung (A CHINESE GHOST STORY) and co-producer Tsui Hark (THE BLADE) are among the creators of A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR (1989), a Hong Kong actioner that  starts out like one of those sweeping Chinese historical epics and then suddenly turns into a cross between BLAST FROM THE PAST and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

If that sounds like a curious combination, it's even more disorienting trying to figure out how to react to all of this while it's coming at you.  Especially since the first forty minutes of the film are such a sober, self-assured, and utterly enchanting tragic love story that we want the whole thing to be this good instead of taking an abrupt left turn into screwball comedy.

We begin in ancient China, where there's a really, really nasty Emperor in charge who's a homicidal narcissist obsessed with finding immortality.  Fearing for their lives lest they fail, his alchemists have assured him that they're developing a longevity formula which, for some reason, requires them to sail to some faraway islands with 500 male and female virgins.

The Emperor is like "Fine, but if this doesn't work I'm having you all beheaded" and the alchemists are like "Not if we don't come back, you won't." 

Meanwhile, there's this very good man named Meng Tian Fang (Zhang Yimou) who was recently promoted to Lord Chamberlain for saving the Emperor's life.  He's been put in charge of the project and thus ends up falling madly in love with one of the lovely young virgins, Dong'er (a lovely young Gong Li). 

When the two lovers are found out, the Emperor sentences them both to death.  But before she dies, Dong'er manages to slip an immortality Mickey to Meng, who is then encased alive in terra cotta in order to guard the Emperor's tomb forever.

While this segment of the film lasts, A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR is a sumptuous mini-epic that's often quite exquisite in its visual beauty and emotional resonance.  The two leads gain our sympathy with their earnest performances and there's a sincerity to their love story that tugs the old heartstrings.  This is intensified by a lovely musical score and some eye-pleasing photography.

Then, after one of the more jarring transitions this side of THE DEER HUNTER, we're suddenly thrust into the first half of the 20th century, where a Chinese film crew is getting ready to do a contemporary Asian knock-off of GONE WITH THE WIND called "Going With the Wind." 

One of the extras, Lili, dreams of taking the leading lady's place with handsome actor Barry Chi and becoming a star. As is obvious just by looking at her, she also happens to be the reincarnation of Dong'er.  

Barry meanwhile, is actually in league with a bunch of gangsters who are trying to locate the Emperor's ancient tomb for profit, with the film production being a cover for this.  So when Lily accidentally finds the tomb herself and reawakens Meng, comic complications ensue.  Repeat--comic complications ensue.

This is where I started to really lose my handle on A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR.  Not only was it no longer the tragic love story I'd been enjoying, but now it was veering into "zany farce" territory. 

In one scene, Barry takes Lili up in his airplane and then parachutes out, whereupon the crippled plane not only safely lands itself but then falls through the earth's crust into the Emperor's tomb.  And then takes off again when Lily and Meng need to escape from the bad guys and lands safely again.  By itself.  It's as though Warner Brothers cartoon physics had suddenly taken over.

Meng's character, mercifully, is allowed to keep most of his dignity through all the ensuing "fish out of water" gags (Lili takes him to a restaurant and he tries to eat the menu) which would work better with Brendan Fraser in the role. 

But the reincarnated Dong'er doesn't fare so well, since Lili is a screwball ditz of the first order and we no longer really care about the story's love angle all that much until there's a last-minute effort to serious things back up a bit. 

There is plenty of action, however, as when the gangsters all start coming after Meng to make him lead them back to the tomb and he fights them all off using his ancient martial arts techniques.  Once there, Meng, Lili, and Barry go through a gauntlet of deadly booby traps in a scene that's clearly derivative of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. 

There's also a good number of satisfying old-school special effects and the requisite pyrotechnics to go along with them, leading to a suitably explosive climax.

The DVD from Warner Archive Collection and Golden Harvest is in 16x9 widescreen with Dolby 2.0 soundtracks in Cantonese and Mandarin, and English subtitles. No extras.

For awhile, it looks as though A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR is going to be one of those epic love stories that spans the ages, like THE MUMMY (both Meng and Im-ho-tep get buried alive and return thousands of years later to seek their reincarnated lovers).  But as it turns out, watching this movie is like being served a filet mignon appetizer followed by an entree of microwave popcorn.

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