Some films just don’t know what their best assets are. Take Gao Xiaosong’s My Kingdom : it benefits from the considerable talent and gravitas of two great martial arts actors, Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, and as long as it is concerned with them, it’s a riveting film. But as soon as the plot calls for their exit, we are left with something far more plodding and average. They play rival Chinese opera stars, master Yu (Yuen Biao) and master Yue (Yu Rongguang). Yu has two pupils, Yilong and Erkui, the latter being the last surviving member of a clan that was executed by the prince regent of the Qing dynasty. One day, as master Yu is being awarded a golden plaque honoring him as the greatest opera performer of his time, master Yue challenges him in a spear duel, and wins. Yu’s defeat means he is not allowed to perform on a stage anymore, and he spends the rest of his life away from the world, teaching his two students the art of opera fighting. When they are ready (and have grown into Wu Chun and Han Geng), they leave for Shanghai with the intent to reclaim the plaque from master Yue and carve out a career in Chinese opera for themselves. They quickly defeat Yue and take over his troupe, among which Mulang (Barbie Hsu), his former mistress. But Yilong and Erkui have different ways of dealing with their newfound stardom…
For roughly half an hour, My Kingdom is a powerful story of rivalry. Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang bring considerable weight to the proceedings while the story focuses on them. Both excellent actors and still quick and agile past their fifties, they elevate the film both in immaculately choreographed spear duels (Sammo Hung is the action director here) and poignant dramatic scenes as one deals with forced retirement and the other with burning pride. Then, as the two pupils take on master Yue and his entire troupe in an exquisite action scene, the films peaks. Yue takes his own life (a moving moment deftly and beautifully acted by Yu Rongguang), and we are left with a fairly by-the-numbers story of love, vengeance and betrayal.This is not to say what follows is bad, far from it, but no film should reach its dramatic and visual apex in the first third. When it comes to action, we do get Barbie Hsu fighting in a nightie, a very welcome sight indeed, but the three young stars are often obviously doubled and their fighting generates no real excitement. And whoever had the idea of casting effeminate magician Louis Liu as a general ? The guy has all the authority and mystery of a toothless comb.
The plot takes a few interesting turns, but another disappointment comes from the fact that beyond the first few scenes (those involving Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang), Gao Xiaosong doesn’t seem to care to delve deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese Opera. He uses the art form more as a fancy wallpaper than a well-documented setting. As a result, we’re left with a handsome but superficial film, one that is passable where it could have been memorable.
Long Story Short : My Kingdom underuses its fascinating setting and distinguished supporting cast in favor of serviceable drama and charisma-challenged leads. Still, Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, as well as Sammo Hung’s stunning choreography, elevate the proceedings. ***1/2