Eastern Bandits is the heroic story of rebels with a fortune to gain, and everything to lose. Leader Fang Youwang (Huang Xiaoming), with his compatriots Kuei, San Pao, and Lady Dagger - lead a posse of roving bandits that are fearless, enterprising, and loyal to the death. Their baby-faced masks make them terrifying; their underground lair untraceable. And now, they're plotting a double-scam - a heroic rescue and a kidnapping mission - that will make them legends…if anyone gets out alive.
The conflict between China and Japan leading up to World War II has been well documented in film. Not only does it allow filmmakers a chance to portray a moment in time that helped shape the country's history in dramatic fashion, it also affords them the opportunity to play within a particular era, and explore the style and look of the culture at the time. And for filmmaker Yang Shupeng, it seems that dipping his toe into that era with 'Eastern Bandits' means being allowed to work with an unusual aesthetic that walks a fine line between historically accurate and the fantastic.
Originally titled 'An Inaccurate Memoir,' Shupeng's film has now been given more suitable, but still mostly generic moniker of 'Eastern Bandits,' likely in the hopes that the new title would at least be able to garner some interest from casual passers by. In that sense, the new title succeeds in giving some idea of what the film is about, as well as suggesting some kind of outlaw action is bound to take place. And in this case, that kind of action is well suited to the ornate set dressings and production design Shupeng utilizes to set his tonally uneven and sometimes ludicrous story apart from the myriad other Chinese films set pre, post, or during World War II.
At the onset, 'Eastern Bandits' evokes the visual stylings of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The film's conceit revolves around a group of rebels led by a man named Fang (Xiaoming Huang) who have formed a small posse intent on disrupting Japan's military at every turn. But more than being a gang of bandits or rebels, Fang's group is a group of outsiders (which is where the Jeunet influence seems to fit best), each with his or her own distinct personality and visual quirk. Those quirks actually work as something of a storytelling cheat: each character like Gao (Yi Zhang), Jen (Xinyi Zhang), or the improbably named Lady Dagger (Jingyang Ni) don't really have to become full-fledged characters, their style and outward personality fill in for actual substance.
For the most part, that visual aesthetic as stand-in for substance is a great way to describe the movie as a whole. Much of the plot revolves around Fang's wild plan to kidnap a Japanese prince in an effort to ransom him to the group's – and by extension, China's – benefit. Naturally, the actual kidnapping takes most of the film's 107-minute run time to plan, and then a few quick minutes to unfold. During that time, the titular bandits go through a series of scuffles with one another, prisoner/new recruit Gao, and a deadly Japanese general who will stop at nothing to see Fang and his fellow compatriots dead.
There're a handful of subplots floating around that attempt to color Gao and Fang's world. Sadly, the extent of the attempt at substance ends at examining both men's romantic lives. Gao, falls in love with Fang's sister, Jen, while Fang apparently has a complicated past with none other than Lady Dagger. Not much of either romance serves much purpose within the confines of the narrative, and the characters only seem to be aware of one another's feelings to help serve the a particular scene, causing most of the character threads to fall flat, and/or wind up being largely superfluous.
Unfortunately, that same kind of superfluity permeates the rest of the film as well, and no amount of visual whimsy is going to offer 'Eastern Bandits' much intrigue beyond the surface level brand offered in lieu of a coherent and compelling storyline. And at a certain point the film's structure offers another example of how the narrative ultimately falls short. Shupeng begins the film in medias res, featuring a showdown between Feng disguised as a newspaper reporter, and the Japanese captain who has been (and will be shown to be) doggedly pursuing him. The story then cuts back on itself to set up the narrative, whose stakes have essentially been established, so that the audience can try to piece together how, when, and why the showdown will eventually occur. And considering so much of the film takes place inside Feng's super-secret lair, and explores the relationship between him and Gao, the build-up to what is the film's climax feels tonally incongruous.
The narrative isn't helped by the addition of a coda, which comes well after a climax that is certainly action-packed, but lacks clarity – thereby making the addition less of the icing on the cake and more of an explanation of the significance of what just occurred. And it is this, not the visual aesthetic that ultimately separates 'Eastern Bandits' from the myriad other WWII films coming out of China. It knows its story, and believes in its significance, but doubts the audience's ability to understand that information on their own. That lack of trust in the audience undermines what could have been a fun action flick and turns it into slog of manufactured importance.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Eastern Bandits' comes from Well Go USA Entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. The disc comes with a paper insert that details three other Well Go releases. Aside from the trailer, the disc does not contain any special features.
'Eastern Bandits' features a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that offers a clear, detailed picture that is only occasionally interfered with by the image's sometimes-overwhelming golden palette. Still, the image offers a great amount of fine detail that often shines in close-up, while maintaining a consistent level in wider shots. Texture is also on display for much of the time, as the costumes are richly detailed, and the underground lair of Feng and his group is always on point. Color is rich and vibrant – although it does favor golden hues most, which, when mixed with the sandy landscapes typically on display, it can begin to feel like the environment is a little one-note.
Contrast is generally quite high. Black levels are strong, resulting in inky, full-bodied shadows that create crisp edges and are free from signs of crush, though banding is detectible on occasion. Whites can run a little hot, and one or two daytime scenes are more blown out than they really should be. This can affect the depth from time to time, but overall the image features great depth and is free from noise or other troublesome elements.
Overall, this is a very good image that offers a great amount of detail that is only undone by some overbearing aesthetic choices.
The Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is just a step above the image in terms of quality. The sound here is presented with a great deal of emphasis on the dialogue – despite the presence or a very cinematic score, and an overabundance of action-oriented sound effects. That focus on presenting the character's dialogue first, and utilizing the other portions of the mix as secondary elements help create an evenly balanced and highly atmospheric sound.
Most of the dialogue comes through the center channel speaker and rarely goes beyond until the fantastic shootout that occurs near the film's third act. Most of the score and the sound effects are spread around the front and rear channels, utilizing the dynamic range quite well. As mentioned above, balance is key to the mix, and imaging also plays an integral role in creating an immersive listening experience. Though nothing else in the film quite lives up to the excitement of the underground battle, complete with echoing gunshots, voices, and loud rumbling explosions, that short sequence will please any action movie fan.
Aside from a few instances where the sound feels a little flat and tinny, this is a superb audio mix.
Trailer (HD, 2 min.)
'Easter Bandits' has a lot going for it in the visual department. It is a striking film to watch, but it simply doesn’t have the narrative to back up the luscious visuals or Yang Shupeng's ability to make an average action sequence something fun and exciting. Still, with good image and great sound, this one might be worth a look if you're in the market for a thin, but expressive action flick.