What makes Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip’s Warlords — which plays this evening on the first night of the New York Asian Film Festival — such an extraordinary historical epic is its focus on the mercenary attitude of its “blood brother” protagonists. These three men, played by Hong Kong stars Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and Jet Li, lead Qing soldiers in a siege of the occupied Nanjing not because of a sense of national pride, but rather because of a gaping hole in their stomachs. Only Li’s General Pang is strictly dedicated to his country’s cause — but even he feels deep hunger pangs. Zhang Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro), our narrator, describes Pang’s fleeting affair with Lian (Jinglei Xu), Zhao Er-Hu’s (Lau) woman: “He doesn’t know if it was the woman or the soup that brought him back to life.”
Food is so scarce that stealing it is even more serious a crime than killing someone to get at it. That harsh reality paves the way for a now destitute Pang to form an allegiance with bandits Er-Hu and Zhang. Er-Hu in particular knows exactly how to get his men to fight in the service of something bigger than them, namely promises of gain at a later date. When 200 bandits are needed to rush head-on at the Kui army in order to let the archers get within striking distance, Er-Hu entices his initially reluctant troops with the promise of paying their families twice the promised amount. Instead of a traditional battle cry, they bellow in unison, “Take their money, their food, their women!”
During the best times, the three only vow to fight “as long as there’s hunger, oppression and injustice”, just before a hearty cry of “Dole out the wages!” rings out. That kind of desperation makes for a remarkable period piece, one so willing to immerse us in the festering muck that these warriors went through that it never really comes clean.