REVIEW / PERIOD ACTION
GOD OF WAR (NC16)
129 minutes/Opens tomorrow/4/5 stars
The story: General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) is tasked to deal with the scourge of pirates menacing coastal China during the Ming dynasty in the 1500s. One group of invaders has even taken over Cengang in Zhejiang province. It turns out that masterful Japanese strategist Kumasawa (Kurata Yasuaki) is pulling the strings behind these attacks. He and Gen Qi engage in a battle of tactics as he launches attacks on three different fronts.
Given that Hollywood blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge is now showing, God Of War could easily be dismissed as "the other pirate movie". That would be a pity, for there is quite a bit to treasure here.
At its helm is Hong Kong director Gordon Chan, who can be hit or miss, responsible for helming the overly CGI-heavy fantasy flick Mural (2011) as well as hit Stephen Chow comedy Royal Tramp (1992).
Here, he delivers layered storytelling, gripping battle sequences and an even more exciting battle of wits between Qi and Kumasawa.
Things are more complicated than they appear to be at first glance.
The pirates are a front for Japanese samurai keen on making money for military adventures back home; Qi has a reputation for being unbeatable, but the truth has been bent for the sake of propaganda; and Zhejiang governor Hu (Wang Ban) - Qi's superior - could be corrupt or merely practical.
The characters are treated with some care.
Zhao delivers a convincing performance as Qi, who is heroic without being bland. For one thing, the general occasionally submits to his wife, a strong-willed woman who is capable of taking up arms when enemies attack. Chinese actress Wan Qian, from 2014's Taiwanese drama Paradise In Service, acquits herself superbly in the role.
Unusually, the Japanese villains here are not caricatures - Yasuaki brings a certain dignity and pathos to wily strategist Kumasawa, who has to contend with an impatient and rash young master (Koide Keisuke).
God Of War's engaging storytelling is a pleasant surprise, given that there are four names credited for its screenplay: Xiong Zhaozheng, Maria Wong, Frankie Tam and Wu Mengzhang. Happily, the proverbial broth is not spoilt by the many cooks.