Based on events from the Chu-Han Contention period of Chinese history, Liu Bang (Leon Lai) and Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng) are sworn brothers-in-arms rebelling against an oppressive regime. As the war comes to a close, the matter of succession begins to drive a wedge between them, so begins a bitter game of tug of war played out not only for power but for the heart of the woman they both love, Yu Li (Liu Yifei).
Daniel Lee’s White Vengeance is truly epic in scale and contains many breathtaking moments. The film may be based on historical events but only loosely, giving the director license to throw in some stunningly over the top action sequences; it’s not quite the same level of action fantasy as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it’s close.
Visually speaking, White Vengeance is a pleasure. In the opening scene, the camera glides over jagged peaks to a snow blanketed gilded hall, before diving headlong into chaotic waves of battle. Over its substantial running time, the audience is treated to feast of visual delights as the diversity of the Chinese landscape is showcased.
At one point, a match of the ancient board-game Wéi Qí is played out in a scene which might have made tedious viewing but instead becomes one of the film’s most engaging moments. The game itself serves to reflect the subtle art of war and the delicate manoeuvres underlying victory, which are explored throughout the film.
Shaofeng smoulders as the arrogant leader of the insurgent army, utterly justified in his right to take whatever he desires while Lai’s Liu Bang is a picture of wide-eyed idealism, seeking power so that he may help the people, but ultimately finding he cannot escape power’s taint. Caught between them is Liu Yifei as Yu Li, an irritating portrait of near total passiveness.
The epic is not without its flaws. The introduction of a love triangle early on hints at high drama which never manages to materialise and this plot thread remains woefully underdeveloped.
At 135 minutes long, it tends to drag. Scenes are repeated, then slo-moed, and the viewer is left wishing they could hit the fast forward button. The last half hour in particular devolves into a maudlin snore-fest as we trudge through tragic endings and the aging of characters. Not to mention the film’s framing device, which proves more infuriating than helpful.
While it is a feast for the eyes with many moments of heart-pounding action, White Vengeance overstays its welcome and could have done with another round in the editing suite.
Seán is an Irish journalist who is currently living in Barcelona. More reviews can be found on Seán's blog here.