God of war is a thoroughly grand affair of wits vs wits in Gordon Chan’s latest ancient actioner, which sees the supremely ambitious Japanese pirates going against weary, at times disillusioned troops of the Ming Dynasty army. Both sides are steered by seasoned, calculating strategists-an ironically Sun Tzu adoring Kumasawa (Kurata Yasuaki) with samurai blood coursing through his veins, and the stoic, wife-fearing Chinese general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) who assumes overall command of the military after his predecessor Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) gets forced into early retirement behind bars as a consequence of unsubstantiated accusations.
Throughout the 2 hour long film, both sides strive their hardest to anticipate each other’s moves in various trying circumstances. On one hand Kumasawa is a consummate practitioner of deception, on the other a curiously gentlemanly Qi abides by the virtues of being patient. Brains aside, the physical actualization of conflicts on the battleground are satisfactorily depicted-gallons of blood spilled, numerous heads lobbed off and amusing pieces of technology such as the 3-eyed cannon and mud donkey-like rider introduced to give audiences a crash course in warfare innovation. Then again, some fights must be personal, as Chan milks the skills of seasoned martial artists including Vincent Zhao and Sammo Hung to showcase heady scenes of sparring with cudgels, swords and bare fists. Most unfortunately Hung’s presence onscreen is a paltry 10 minutes give and take; he vanishes entirely from the story after indulging Zhao in a one-on-one friendly exchange of blows.
Familial themes constitute sub-plots woven into the main story arc: a quick-tempered, protective brother bearing only the best of intentions, a wife consistently playing games of hot and cold with her spouse and an over-eager disciple who is at times crushed by his teacher’s decision to take things a wee bit slower. The result: scenes of coincidental hilarity which put the true human condition on full display.
A special mention about Regina Wan Qian, who turns in a decidedly excellent performance as the feisty other half of Zhao’s general Qi. An amalgamation of the oriental wonder-woman underneath and a contrasting nubile exterior, she brings to mind Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Her alternating moods of frustration and delight were superbly articulated in the subtlest of postures and nuanced facial ticks. The costume department could have worked harder on her warrior woman uniform though, which somehow attracted more amusement than respect for the character because of her small frame seen obviously struggling to adapt to the bulky armour as she sauntered comically around in it.
As things draw to a close in a sprawling scene of carnage amidst burning fires and the scattered dead alongside a frozen vessel, the sagely Kumasawa on his last mile remarked: “ He who prevails in chaos is god.” Certainly a sincere yet tragic tribute of words to the realities of being conquered.