Two thousand years ago, amidst the fall of the Qin Dynasty various factions vie for control of China. Ambitious general Xiang Yu (soap star William Cheng, cast successfully against type) of Western Chu seems poised to seize the Qin capital of Xianyang, which will determine who will become the next Emperor, only for his sworn brother Liu Bang (Cantopop king Leon Lai) to take the city first. Fearing Xiang Yu will become a worse tyrant than the Qin rulers, Liu Bang heeds the counsel of his warlords, including sly strategist Zhang Liang (Zhang Han-Yu), who urge him to take the throne. But, troubled by his growing feelings for Yu’s beautiful mistress Yu Ji (Crystal Liu Yi-Fei) and realising he cannot match him in battle, Liu Bang agrees to swear allegiance to Xiang Yu and hand over the city. However, Xiang Yu’s own master strategist Fan Zheng (Anthony Wong) suspects Liu Bang has other ideas. He advises Yu to stage a lavish banquet wherein things will be settled once and for all.
The rather mystifying international title may mislead English viewers as to the subject matter of this sprawling historical epic. Billing itself a “military mystery” White Vengeance explores one of the most significant episodes in Chinese history: the Hongmen Banquet, wherein an intricate power struggle - as much intellectual as physical - determined the fate of a nation. Influenced by classical Chinese painting and vintage Japanese samurai films, writer-director Lee started out in music videos before making his directorial debut with What Price Survival? (1994), an offbeat re-imagining of the Shaw Brothers classic One-Armed Swordsman (1967). He lost the director’s chair on the Jet Li superhero vehicle Black Mask (1996) after clashing with producer/co-director Tsui Hark, then struck back with stylised populist dramas Moonlight Express (1999) and A Fighter’s Blues (2000) but has latterly specialised in historical action films such as Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008) and 14 Blades (2010).
While Lee is often thought of as a visually-oriented director he has adopted a pleasingly cerebral approach for his latest epic. White Vengeance packs an exhausting amount of characters, subplots and historical detail into its two hours plus running time, though proves notably light on glimpses of ancient Chinese cuisine. It wasn’t that kind of banquet. Though the film does not lack for action sequences, sporting spectacularly bloody battle scenes choreographed by Leung Siu-Heung, it goes a step further than Red Cliff (2008) in focusing on tactics and strategy with a heavily philosophical bent. Unlike the more romanticised John Woo film there is a distinctly Machiavellian tone here. Fortune favours the wily, though by the climax even the victors ponder whether it was worth it. Lee keeps shifting our allegiances from ostensible hero Liu Bang, who emerges a far more quixotic and inscrutable character than we first suspect, and Xiang Yu whose actions move from despicable to admirable.
It is a historical epic for armchair generals. Lee breaks events down to a series of compelling and fascinating plots and counter-plots with the stakes raised increasingly higher. The film does grow confusing in parts. Those versed in Chinese history will find some portions of the plot easier to follow than laymen, though it is worth keeping in mind this was aimed foremost at the Chinese audience. If it occasionally falters under the weight of its own ambition, this is no great flaw given historical action films of this scope are all too rare. At its best the film is intellectually stimulating, visceral, suspenseful, even moving in parts though less of a crowd-pleaser than Red Cliff.