Movies

[Review] Saving General Yang – Fangirls Unite!

Flashback to August 2011, I still remember a friend and I were on a bus going from the airport into Taipei city. We just bought our Taiwan sim cards and decided we should try out the mobile connection there by watching some live video streaming. That video was the press conference of “Saving General Yang” – Ronny Yu’s historic film on the legend of Yang family, already made famous by numerous television and film adaptations. Although the connection wasn’t too good (we didn’t really see much of that press conference), our anticipation had been building ever since this movie was announced. How can any fangirl not get excited over a film that unites handsome guys from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan?

If you don’t know the story already, “Saving General Yang” is a tale about the patriotic Yang family in the Song dynasty. The film begins with lashing of the 6th and 7th brothers – punishment for disobeying their father. (Maybe it’s important to note the first scenes feature Wu Chun and Fu Xin Bo topless, just in case anyone wants to know…) They were punished because their father told them not to get themselves involved in a ‘fight for marriage’ type event, where potential suitors fight for hand of Princess Chai (Ady An). Father Yang did not want his sons involved because one of the competitors, Pan Bao has his eyes on the ‘prize’ and he has a powerful family. (His father being one of the most highly ranked Commanders in the kingdom.) As Princess Chai and the 6th brother are childhood sweethearts, he defies his father’s orders. During the fight, the 7th brother also got involved to help his brother but unfortunately for the Yang family, no 7 accidentally kills Pan Bao.

As this is unraveling, the King also has to deal with the invading Khitan warriors, led by Yelu Yuan who has a personal grudge against the Yangs. Unfortunately for our family, the King also appointed Father Pan as the Commander in Chief for this battle, so really, his ‘ally’ is not really an ally at all. This sets in motion a series of events which led to Father Yang being trapped in Wolf Mountain without backup. Of course as the title suggests, this is where the seven sons come in to try to save their father.

To make a film that arguably has eight (plus Mother Yang!) main characters is a challenge, but the filmmakers managed to gather some big names catering to audiences across Asia. From Hong Kong, we have Adam Cheng (Father Yang), Ekin Cheng (Eldest Brother) and Raymond Lam (Fifth Brother). From Mainland China we have Yu Bo (Second Brother), Li Chen (Fourth Brother) and Fu Xin Bo (Seven Brother). Last but not least from Taiwan we have Vic Zhou (Third Brother) and Wu Chun (Sixth Brother).

In 100 minutes it’s difficult to give equal screentime to everyone, so for this story the main characters are really – Father Yang, Eldest Brother and Sixth Brother. (With Fifth Brother also has a few more lines but I may be biased because Raymond Lam is one of my favourite actors.) I think it would really help if you already know the story and/or some/all of the actors because in battle, it’s difficult to distinguish between them. In an interview, director Ronny Yu said the brothers each have their distinctive weapons, plus they have different colour scarves! Honestly, the scarves you can hardly see amongst the blood and gore of battle. Whilst for the weapons, I could only see Third Brother’s bow and arrow being more distinguishable than the others.

Speaking of blood and gore, the battle scenes are quite brutal. Don’t watch this if you cannot stand the sight of blood, lots of blood. Although violence was in abundance in this film they were done quite well overall. Of course there will be some CGI but there remains a sense of realism throughout the film. I watched the cast promoting this film on KangXi Lai Le (a Taiwanese variety show) and they had paid so much attention to details while filming. Ronny said he chose the actors based on their height (they all had to be around 180cm) and even the horses were especially chosen for each actor.

Extended battle scenes pretty much dominate the second half of this film but for us to care about the action, first we have to care about the characters. As I’ve said above, it would definitely help if you know/like the actors because just looking at the film itself, very little is given on the brotherly bond except one or two flashback scenes. The theme of the Yang story focuses so much on family honour and integrity but there was a real lack of interaction between all of the brothers for the audience to establish some sort of bond with them. Each brother is an interesting character and has a story to tell, but unfortunately in 100 minutes it was probably impossible to give each of them their time of day.

I came into this movie as a Raymond Lam fan with an interest in Zai Zai (Vic) and Wu Chun. I was not disappointed because although I already know the ending – the journey there kept me interested. (I secretly hoped something different will happen!!) Raymond Lam fans should know although the Fifth Brother wasn’t a flashy character, his knowledge in medicine (and therefore, more of a pacifist type) does earn him more screen time and is a calming presence compared to his brothers. Zai Zai fans will need to know that he probably had about five lines during the entire movie, and he was silent for the first hour and ten minutes. (I checked!) But he owned the only scene in the film that remotely resembles comic relief and can definitely contribute to the ‘cool archers’ club made famous by The Hunger Games and The Avengers.

Wu Chun carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film and he was okay I guess. His acting needs improvement but it wasn’t too distracting because even though he had more screen time than the others, it was still very little compared to other lead film characters. As Father Yang, Adam Cheng does not disappoint even after an absence of over 10 years in films. For the eldest brother, I would have preferred the original casting of Louis Koo (he had to pull out due to an injury) but Ekin Cheng is adequate here. I just think Louis Koo has a more commanding presence than Ekin.

The three actors from Mainland China Yu Bo, Li Chen and Fu Xin Bo I knew the least of but they each had their moment. Second Brother Yu Bo shares an emotional scene with Eldest Brother Ekin Cheng which was rather memorable but on his own his personality wasn’t really distinguishable – he just shares the burdens and responsibility of being the older amongst the seven. At some point I probably got confused between Yu Bo and Li Chen so I knew very little about Fourth Brother apart from his scene with the Fifth Brother. (Also a memorable scene complete with a flashback, I wish there were more of these…) My least favourite was probably the Seventh Brother Fu Xin Bo because his character was the most impulsive and immature.

Despite my biases there was some ingenuity with the casting. Even though Zai Zai, Raymond Lam and Wu Chun are all similar in age, each person was cast based on their looks and personality. As battle rookies, Wu Chun and Fu Xin Bo looked rather pale and in need of sunlight compared to their tanned brothers which is an interesting contrast. Zai Zai looks much more mature than his real age just with a mustache and the observant (cool, calm and collected) type really suits Zai Zai’s existing image. I just realised as the third brother, Zai Zai is younger than the fourth, fifth and sixth brothers!

So in summary, if you’re a fan of any of the brothers (or the father haha) you really didn’t need to read this – just watch the movie already! Fangirls of handsome Asian guys also don’t need convincing because variety is in abundance here. Main female characters are lacking here (apart from Mother Yang and Princess Chai) so don’t expect too much from them. I’m sure mums and dads will also appreciate some of the messages being presented in this movie – honour, integrity and strong family values which are not valued as much in today’s society. So really, it’s a film for the whole family.

The legend is so rich in history a film cannot possibly fit everything in. So don’t expect too much characterization. But “Saving General Yang” is still solid entertainment, which surprisingly, can be enjoyed by a Pan Asian audience, especially if you know the story and characters already. Now I want to go back and watch the classic 1985 TVB version, which I highly recommend because it’s easy to watch (only five episodes!) and has a stellar cast (Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Tony Leung and Carina Lau just to name a few!).

Oh, and there has been rumours that they want to reunite the cast for a modern version – YES! PLEASE! How about now?

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