Most of the time, historical war epics are shooting for classic, high stakes, resonant drama; the kind that produces a film-going experience capable of mixing a heavily cinematic depiction of war and conflict that teeters on the verge of spectacle, with a potent character study that makes the audience actually feel something for those whose plight is being depicted on screen. The desire for most filmmakers, then, is to strike the right balance between the two, delivering a competent and compelling drama that's as much about the people fighting and, more importantly, why they choose to fight, as it is about the actual warfare itself. When it comes to the buoyant wannabe war epic 'Saving General Yang,' however, the end result is nestled somewhere deep in the latter camp – that is: it's all spectacle, and very little story, as the film's paper-thin script struggles to make the most out of the expansive cast that comprises far more than just the seven sons of the titular General Yang (Adam Cheng).
Director Ronny Yu ('Freddy vs. Jason,' 'Fearless') returns to make his first feature-length film in seven years, and finds himself the caretaker of a project that was once envisioned as a tale of the many widows of the narrative's central Yang Family. That narrative was quickly scrapped in favor of the legend surrounding the seven sons' battle to save their father, after a rival army abducted and used him as bait to lure the brothers into a trap. To his credit, Yu manages to make the most of what he's working with, as certain deficiencies in the story and characters don't necessarily deter him from attempting to construct some kind of emotional connection between the seven siblings and the audience, despite their being little more than ciphers, even to one another. While his attempt is not necessarily successful, he does manage to deliver enough of a visual spectacle in the slight 102-minute runtime to at least make the film feel somewhat solid.
When the two youngest of the Yang clan, Yan Zhao (Wu Chun) and his brother Yan Si (Fu Xinbo), compete in a duel for Yan Zhao to claim the hand of the beautiful Princess Chai (Ady An), despite her being betrothed to the son of a rival clan leader. Not only do the impetuous young men disobey their father, but their actions also stir up bitter rivalries and unsettled conflicts that threaten the continued existence of the Yang clan, as well as the kingdom they inevitably must fight to protect. The film segues so quickly from mawkish love story, to martial arts competition, to the public punishment of Yan Zhao and Yan Si that the viewer hardly has time to realize the consequence of their actions has already started the war their father feared. Not long after, General Yang winds up in a losing battle against his revenge-driven adversary Yelü Yuan (Shao Bing), and is forced to take shelter amongst the ruins of Wolf Mountain; his enemies, meanwhile, use his plight to lure his seven sons into a trap intended to kill them all.
The problems with the script emerge early on when the brothers assemble to rescue their father. Rather than regard one another by name, they simply refer to their siblings by birth number. All of this certainly makes it easier on the audience, as those watching are not required to know who is who, technically; they simply have to match up a number with whatever weapon each brother is particularly proficient in using. While ease of comprehension for the audience is one thing, it points to the lack of character these fierce warriors are actually given. Beyond the recognition of their brotherhood the plot grants them, 'Saving General Yang' fails to give the audience a sense of how these men actually relate to one another, as sons, brothers, or even warriors. There is so little interaction between the members of the Yang clan that doesn't concern moving the plot forward, one showpiece battle at a time, it's almost as if the film were suggesting some sort of uncanny form of communication existed between them.
Of course, that's not the case, and the longer the film plays out, the more it becomes apparent how dramatically improved the narrative might have been had these brothers and their relationships been fleshed out a little more. The movie says a lot about family, loyalty, and honor, but it does so without showing why any of it means so much to these characters. The seven brothers are without a doubt superb examples of honor and loyalty, but they none perform any action offering the slightest indication as to why. It's as if in writing this screenplay, Edmond Wong, Scarlett Liu, and Ronny Yu wished to play up the importance of the Yang clan as a whole, without recognizing how the conceit of the narrative requires some understanding of the individual beyond his place in the chain of siblings. The film attempts to rectify this by giving some of the brothers a signature moment, but the disparity between their efficacy is dramatic.
'Saving General Yang' boils down to its action set pieces, which the film manages to stage several of rather brilliantly. There is a prolonged battle atop Wolf Mountain that acts as a bridge between the second and third act, serving as a demonstration of the large-scale effort this film actually wound up being. But the impact of that battle's immense size ends up playing second fiddle to a gorgeously staged arrow fight, featuring the third brother, Ying Yan An (Vic Chou), as he pursues an adversary through a field of shoulder-high grass. While that sequence is terrific and thrilling, its prominence only serves to highlight the unfortunate deficiencies stemming from the film's lack of anything capable of standing next to that moment.
While the film feels more than a little light in the story department, there is enough well-staged action on hand to help push it through to the end. But the sumptuous visuals Yu manages to wring out of the many action set pieces do less to make 'Saving General Yang' a memorable war epic, and more to suggest what this film could have accomplished with more focus on the characters, and less on their circumstances.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Saving General Yang' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. There are a handful of previews ahead of the top menu, but they can all be skipped to play the feature. The disc also includes an extensive interview with the director and cast that's broken up by actor/brother, which is actually quite informative.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer here brings a robust and colorful image to the screen that does a tremendous job highlighting the various battles with equal amounts of clarity and vivid colorization. For the most part, the film has a fairly even, earthy palate that is deliberately offset by the occasions when the battles turn so bloody the ground is literally saturated with the red stuff. This generally makes the red in the image pop and look dramatically brighter (though still realistic) that it would have against a more striking or loud palate. As it stands, aside from the odd spurt here or there, the film does not focus a great deal of bloodshed in the actual moment of battle; instead, it waits until afterward to show the cost of what is essentially a war fought over the hand of a single woman.
The image here does a nice job of presenting those battles, as well as the few slower moments with great clarity and precision. Fine detail is found in most of the shots, but is heightened during the close-ups. Facial detail is strong, and the intricate ornamental stylings of each brother's armor are clearly represented here. There are certain moments where the image appears to go a little soft, and some of the finer detail is lost, but overall, there are no major problems with regard to the film's detail. Otherwise, contrast levels are very high. Blacks are rendered as full-bodied with a very even shadow delineation, and no trace of banding anywhere in the image.
'Saving General Yang' has been given a terrific image through which it can showcase its many elaborate action sequences that essentially make up the entirety of its narrative structure.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is presented in the original Mandarin language with optional English subtitles. As this is a war epic, with great emphasis on the "war" part, it should come as no surprise that the mix delivers a powerful, resonant, and dynamic sound that makes the films many battle sequences feel immersive and lived-in. The initial scenes that set-up the film's paper-thin plot are delivered primarily through the center channel speaker, which is handled in an adequate, but standard fashion. However, when the film begins to move out into the open, so too does the sound field. Once the seven brothers are engaged in battle, the audio mix kicks into gear and begins to deliver the kind of epic sound that's normally associated with films of this kind.
The battles themselves certainly take center stage, as they make terrific use of all the channels at their disposal. Heavier battle noises like swords and shields clanging against one another are typically delivered through the front right and left channels, while the enormous and expansive din of chaos typically going on in the background never feels like it's too far away – in fact, it generally feels as though an army is closing in at all times. The use of the rear channels and the discrete use of LFE help to make these sequences feel all the more exciting and immersive. The use of imaging is top notch and follows precisely with the movement of the camera and the characters on screen. There are a few moments when the whisper soft sound of arrows whizzing through the air is a little unconvincing, as well as a few moments when the film's score tends to overwhelm the other components of the mix, but overall, the sound here is really top-notch.
'Saving General Yang' should please action fans with its lush visuals and terrifically staged battle sequences. On the other hand, the film may leave those expecting an historical epic feeling a little a little shortchanged. There's plenty of history here, to be sure, but most of it is merely surface-level stuff; the kind you'd get from reading the brief synopsis on the back of the box. But if you're in the market for a nice-looking action drama that goes by in a flash, you could certainly do worse. With great picture and audio, and some interesting extras, this movie is worth a look.