Based on the well-known Chinese historical epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Lost Bladesman is the story of Guan Yun Chang and his legendary feats of crossing five passes and defeating six generals. Guan Yu (Donnie Yen), having been defeated in battle by the enemy of his sworn brother Liu Bei (Alex Fong) and general Cao Cao (Wen Jiang), is forced to temporally switch sides and assist Cao Cao against another warlord. Having defeated this mutual enemy, Cao Cao pledges that Guan Yu will be allowed to leave peacefully and return to Liu Bei should he truly wish to do so. However, not all of Cao Cao’s advisers agree with this decision and Guan Yu’s return to his brother (with his new sister-in-law to be in tow) will be far from peaceful.
Co-scripted and co-directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the writers of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, The Lost Bladesman features a tightly woven and exacting script with plenty of opportunities for duplicity. Seeing as this is a fairly well-known story, the writers have no qualms about starting the story at the end with the bulk of the narrative depicted as a twenty-year flashback. The story then proceeds in a fairly episodic way as Guan Yu fights each of the generals in various places whilst trying to work out who is actually calling the shots.
The action sequences here, choreographed by Yen himself, all feature quite different styles and are all very exciting (including one which almost completely takes place behind closed doors). The long sequence of Guan Yu fighting the forces of Kong Xiu (Andy On) in a narrow passageway and on horseback is particularly thrilling and innovative. Fans of IP Man may mourn the lack of hand to hand combat but a great range of weapons are on show to compensate, from Guan Yu’s famous spear to swords, daggers, assorted blades, maces and even crossbows.
A lot of people might raise an eyebrow upon hearing the names Donnie Yen and Guan Yu in the same sentence; after all, to begin with the novel does paint him as a giant among men and Donnie couldn’t exactly be called a big man. However Yen has the presence and prowess to largely pull this off. Though some may doubt his acting abilities, his performance is actually quite strong here, although he is of course playing quite a reserved character. He is, though, outshone by the master that is Wen Jiang playing the notorious villain Cao Cao, whose every look and gesture seems to have about seven readings and who largely steals the film away. Jiang’s Cao Cao is so subtle and so clever you can’t help being a little in awe of him. The supporting cast is also strong, notably Andy On as the hostile general Kong Xiu.
Alan Mak and Felix Chong aren’t quite as good as directors as they are writers, nor are they quite up to the standard of Andrew Lau who they worked with on Infernal Affairs, but they mostly acquit themselves well with this film. There are some problems with structure and pacing but they are fairly minor and most of the action sequences are covered quite well.
As for the DVD edition of this title, the transfer is pretty good, presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Mandarin 2.0 and 5.1 with forced English subtitles are the only language options provided, which might be irritating if you happen to speak Mandarin or English isn’t your preferred language but it won’t be that much of an issue for the majority of people this disc is available to. The subtitles appear within the image frame and are clear and easily understandable with no obvious grammatical mistakes.
The Lost Bladesman might play fast and loose with history and source material but it’s a very enjoyable spectacle. A decent story with well presented set pieces, strong performances from established actors and high production values make a good recipe for Wu Xia greatness. This might not be the best Guan Yu story you’ll ever see but it’s certainly worthy of your time.