One benefit of China's rise as a global film power has been that bigger budgets and larger audiences are now devoted to productions of stories from the country's expansive history. Films set during China's imperial dynasty era have been around for decades, but only recently have they rivaled in scope high-dollar Hollywood efforts. The latest of these, God of War (from Fist of Legend director Gordon Chan), is a sweeping war epic that on occasion veers into oddly personal territory.
The year is 1557, and Japanese pirates (known as wokou) raid China's coast with impunity. The Ming Dynasty's attempts to dislodge them have failed, until a young general, Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao), takes over the campaign, introducing new tactics and recruiting soldiers with a personal stake in the fight. Referred to as a "god of war" for his successes, Qi isn't merely a skilled battlefield tactician; he's also a legitimate inspiration to his troops. For this reason (and, you know, because he rid China of pirates), he would become a national hero.
God of War's political machinations become a bit hazy (one key early character simply disappears), and the bureaucratic intrigues drag somewhat. But the battles are wonderfully dynamic: They showcase all manner of weapons and fighting styles, and Chan gives them an extravagantly epic scope and an often startling intimacy.
Zhao, a national wushu title holder in China, is understandably the focus of most of the kung-fu fighting, but the legendary Sammo Hung (as Qi's superior, General Yu Dayou) gets to show his stuff in a scene with Zhao that serves as both a literal and a metaphorical passing of the torch. The athleticism on display shames much of Western action cinema's quick-cut hand-to-hand editing, and the final swordfight between Qi and Japanese general Kumasawa (Shaw Brothers mainstay Yasuaki Kurata) ranks as high as any in recent memory.