A war film directed by Oxide Pang – a Hong Kong director whose career, whether solo or with his brother Danny, has consisted mostly of visually elaborate horror films and quirky detective stories, with the odd detour into CGI-heavy fantasy or disaster film – was an intriguing prospect. My War chronicles the trials and tribulations of a battalion of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) fighting the Americans during the Korean war in the early 1950’s. Front and center are commander Sun Beichuan (Liu Ye), his friend and subordinate Zhang Luodong (Tony Yang), and Meng Sanxia (Wang Luodan), an army musician they both pine for.
This is a propaganda film through and through, where attractive young soldiers enthusiastically volunteer as sunbathed Chinese flags flap in the wind. The enemy is almost literally faceless (so faceless one almost expects some kind of twist where it’s revealed they don’t exist), barely glimpsed during battle scenes, and only heard – talking like Gweilo villains of the eighties – in a hilarious scene at the US headquarters: think Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. The horror of war is addressed through a few scenes of grief or amputation, and the startlingly hellish battlefield cinematography of d.p. Chen Weinian, but overall this makes Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior look like the work of a revolutionary firebrand.
What’s worse is that My War doesn’t even succeed as pure entertainment. The film has an episodic structure that makes it feel like a whole series cut down to feaure-length. The numerous, often redundant battle scenes benefit from the aforementioned efficient cinematography, but are shot and edited without the least sense of geography : they’re basically a jumble of images of Chinese soldiers shooting, ducking and jumping with plentiful slow-motion (often with barely less restraint than in Zack Snyder’s 300) and a few misguided go-pro and ‘first-person-shooter’ shots, on various battlefields that end up all looking the same.
The characters are all cardboard-cutouts, valiant soldiers reminiscing about their hometown and sparking up romances, but always absolutely ready to die for their country. Liu Ye has incongruously become a sort of poster boy for the People’s Republic of China’s propaganda – with this film, The Founding of a Republic, Beginning of the Great Revival, but also the upcoming The Bombing and The Founding of an Army – and his considerable talents are wasted here, though he still manages to create a lovably oafish but courageous character. Tony Yang has charisma to spare, and Wang Luodan gives the film a far better and more affecting performance than it deserves.
Long Story Short: My War is clumsy propaganda that doesn’t even succeed as pure spectacle, with jumbled battle scenes and uninvolving drama. *1/2