Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau), left, and Gen. Pang (Jet Li) ponder their next move… (Magnet Releasing )
"The Warlords," a sweeping saga set during the Taiping Rebellion of 1860s China, begins in silence. A field of broken, bloody bodies fills the screen, stiff like toy soldiers piled thick on a floor. Then a single face overtakes the space, a man lying among the dead; he is alive, but his eyes tell us that in a field of fallen comrades, life is not enough.
And so begins this paean to men in battle, bonds forged and broken, starring a troika of Asian stars -- Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro -- as blood brothers and Xu Jinglei as Lian, the enigmatic beauty with the power to wound far worse than knives.
Like the best war movies do, director Peter Ho-Sun Chan has woven together an intimate story of men against a backdrop of history writ large. It's a departure for the filmmaker, far better known for his comedies and romances or the horror mystery of "Three . . . Extremes," but then "Warlords" is as much about relationships as it is about war.
For the most part, Chan seems at home with the scale of the film too, which in combat is massive, with warrens of bunkers cut through the land outside city gates and major battles waged. Missing, though, are the tightly choreographed fight scenes that so often grace Asian films.
Instead, the filmmaker opts to swing between the crushingly claustrophobic and legions of men and horses making suicide runs -- all of it raw and rough but with images often as beautiful as they are tragic in that war-is-hell kind of way.
The survivor of that first deadly clash is Li's Gen. Pang, who joins the line of refugees heading away from the battlefield, with Chan using Li's face in close-up to do a lot of the storytelling. He is brought back to life in the night by a mysterious beauty, Lian, and soon falls in with a village of bandits led by Lau's Zhao Er-Hu and Kaneshiro's Jiang Wu-Yang, blood brothers in crime who soon make Pang one of their own.
(Lau and Kaneshiro are probably best known here for their costarring turn in "House of Flying Daggers," while martial-arts master Li first burst on the scene as "Lethal Weapon 4's" villain and now has a string of U.S. films to his credit, including "Romeo Must Die.")
The writers -- Xu Lan, Chun Tin Nam and Aubrey Lam -- are concerned with all the major themes of love, loyalty, honor and betrayal, and though they play them across the larger historic canvas of China, it is in the smaller portraits of the four central characters that the film is at its most moving. All are excellent, with Li in particular unforgettable.
From the outset, Li's Pang is the man driving the action. Once a general, always a general, and Pang has soon turned the bandits into a sanctioned fighting force that can rely on soldiering rather than stealing to put bread on the table.
If anything, it is devastating rural poverty as much as the battles that color the mood; a world coated in the dust kicked up by fallow fields. Even inside the city strongholds, the film is a study in want, with bread and rice the most valuable weapons of all.
As is always the case in war, there are the men on the ground and the politicians in the palace, but the palace intrigues -- a group of elders who play games both literally and metaphorically as cities burn -- are handled too lightly and become the film's weakest link.
For all the talk, there is a whole lot of carnage on-screen, and in contrast to the rest of "Warlord's" muted palette, blood gushes crimson red. Although the narrator intones early on that "death is easy, living is hard," death is a difficult mess, often protracted and sometimes morbidly comic; apparently, being run through by a Chinese sword again and again is not enough to finish someone off.
But it is the rising friction between the blood brothers that holds the story together. The arguments about loyalty and larger missions that tear at their alliance feel both age old and completely current. Within that tension, particularly between Pang and Er-Hu, all the classic questions of war's ultimate cost are raised. Within "The Warlords' " final resolution, everything and nothing is answered.