If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?

Like I said, I’m not going to complain. I love big, overblown historical epics, and for the most part, those coming from the Hong Kong/China partnership have been, at their worst, generically enjoyable. A few have been absolutely stunning., and they’re helping keep the false mustache and wig makers of China employed, as well as whatever guy first rendered that CGI scene of thousands of arrows flying through the air toward waiting enemies, which is important in these economically tumultuous times.

Jet Li, happy no doubt to be allowed to act again after years of playing the emotionless killing machine, stars as Pang Qingyun, a Q’ing Dynasty general who ends up being the last man standing in a brutal slaughter between his troops and those of rebels fighting in the name of Taiping, where resistance to the Q’ing Dynasty was based. Disillusioned and distraught, Pang abandons his career as a soldier, wandering off into the war-torn countryside and sharing a night of passion with a woman he meets in passing, both of them lost and desperate for human contact in some form other than warfare.

Pang soon finds himself in a village controlled by two benevolent bandit brothers — the younger Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the elder Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau). While Kaneshiro and Li both seem to be sporting their own facial hair, Andy Lau opted to paste a giant, thick, jet black fake beard onto his face, sort of like the facial hair version of those bad wigs and dye jobs modern day Chinese politicians are so fond of. Zhang wants to welcome Pang into the village, but Zhao feels that having a deserter, especially a high ranking one, will bring nothing but trouble.

And trouble begins almost immediately, as Pang discovers that the woman with whom he had his one night stand, Lian, (Jinglei Xu), is actually Zhao’s wife. Rather than back off, as a wise man should when confronted by a bellowing noble guy with a thick beard and army of bandits at his command, Pang becomes increasingly obsessed with the one night of passion he shared with Lian. When Q’ing soldiers arrive to procure food stolen by the bandits, Pang suggests that by becoming soldiers themselves, the village men will never have to suffer bullying again. Initially wary of enlisting, the two bandit brothers eventually agree with Pang, forming a quick friendship and willingly submitting to his judgment in all things soldierly.

Things go well at first. Pang’s new regiment is accepted into the larger Q’ing army and enjoys a number of stunning victories against hopeless odds. But Pang’s success, as well as the ambition he has peeking out from a round the corner now that he has suddenly rediscovered his passion for warfare, puts him at odds with rival generals and government officials. They throw his army into increasingly unwinnable battles, then are shocked when Pang and his army of hicks manage to keep winning. Within the regiment itself, Zhao is starting to have second thoughts about being a part of Pang’s increasingly ruthless drive to conquer, though Zheng councils him that victory often comes at the price of principles, and the eventual ends justify the brutal means. The bind between the three fcracks, however, when Pang orders the execution of Taiping soldiers who surrendered because Zhao promised their honorable leader their lives would be spared. And then things manage to get even worse once the war is won.

Warlords is a remake of the old Shaw Bros. classic Blood Brothers, based on the actual murder of a Ch’ing Dynasty governor. As far as I can tell, the historical fact upon which the story is based is, “this governor got murdered,” and Shaw Bros. screenwriter extraordinaire I Kuang used that to launch a story about sword brothers who are torn apart by the lust for power and, obviously, by a conniving dame. Warlords retains most of the basic story, adds a lot more grimness, removes a lot of color, and ends up being a pretty intense and accomplished film. At its heart, it’s an old fashioned morality play, but one in which there is no clear right answer to the problems the three men face.

At no point is Pang malciously evil — he truly believes what he’s doing is just, and he recognizes and regrets the monstrous things he feels he has had to do in order to bring his country out of the darkness of warfare. He’s definitely the villain of the piece, but he’s a tragic villain, well played by Li, who makes powerful use of both his still boyish grin and his surprisingly frightening determined scowl. On the other end is Andy Lau’s noble bandit, ostensibly the good guy, but one whose beliefs simply cannot work in the grim reality the army faces. Standing between them is Zheng, who sees that Pang’s way is perhaps the only way to maneuver through these murky waters, but who is still disgusted by what he agrees to. All three men turn in great performances, pulling off the pathos and sense of doomed tragedy I expected but did not receive from John Woo’s stab at the martial arts epic, Red Cliff.

If you know a thing or two about martial arts movies, it might be surprising to see the Q’ing presented as the protagonists. After all, they spent pretty much the entirety of the 60s and 70s being the go-to villains to be foiled by daring Chinese knight errants. If the entry of mainland China into the production of Hong Kong movies has meant a much needed infusion of cash, talent, and locations, it has also introduced a tricky political landscape for film makers to navigate. Another of the many reasons historical epics have become so popular recently is because they can be seen to champion the value of country over the individual, sacrifice in the name of the greater patriotic good.

But then, the Taiping aren’t exactly the bad guys. The one Taiping soldier who has any substantial character is shown to be an honorable, skilled fighter, concerned for both the people and his troops, unwilling to surrender as long as he lives, but willing to die so that after his death, his soldiers can surrender with honor. And Pang, as a representative of the Q’ing, is hardly a spotless good guy,though it could be wagered that his commitment to personal achievement and glory clouds his duty to the state, and thus results in his corruption. These epics, I think, and the people who make them have to perform a tricky dance, being apolitical films that have political expectations and obligations thrust upon them. Director Peter Chan and the roughly nine million people who wrote the script (OK, it was eight, but still — that’s a lot of screenwriters) bob and weave through the politics, doing their best to make this a personal story more than a political allegory.

Warlords doesn’t do anything particularly ground-breaking, but what it does do, it does very well. The three leads are at the top of their game, and it’s nice to see Jet Li finally allowed to act again. Li has often been impressive, but rarely scary. This movie changes that, even as it clads him in a suit of armor I don’t doubt is historically accurate but looks ridiculous never the less. As with the original Shaw Bros. film, his character is not a villain so much as he is just a tragically flawed human being. Still, it’s a rare turn for Li as what’s tantamount to the bad guy, and he obviously relishes sinking his teeth into a more complex character, pulling a lot of emotion out of the role. Kaneshiro turns in a subdued but effective performance as the younger brother, and Andy Lau is in the film to be noble and sport that obvious fake beard while Li and Kaneshiro had to grow their own facial hair.

I remember decades ago not liking Andy Lau, but he’s grown into his role as one of Hong Kong cinema’s elder statesmen quite nicely. The quartet of characters who drive the film’s plot is rounded out by Xu Jingli as Lian, the woman with whom General Pang becomes obsessed and who herself is torn between her bond with Er-hu and her desire for the less primitive life with which Pang as governor could provide her. Lian’s character is the weakest of the four, as is often the case with these movies, and if Warlords has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t convey as effectively the turmoil and motivation of Lian, nor the sympathy we should feel for a woman who has been made a central part of a struggle between men, without having any real say in the matter. But still, she’s more understandable than the same character in Blood Brothers, who was substantially more manipulative and shrewish.

Director Peter Chan plays it pretty straight with the martial arts and battle scenes, opting for minimal use of wires and none of the supernatural powers we saw in films like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Warlords, by contrast, is a film that strips its combat and depiction of warfare of all the poeticism, grace, and nobility with which it was infused by other directors and, instead, presents warfare as a horrifying, gory, dehumanizing experience that either corrupts or kills otherwise decent men. The three leads are forced to make tortuous decisions between various no-win options, and the experiences of the men following them are heavy on the misery. Compared to John Woo’s Red Cliff, where the heroes and their army train in an idyllic location and give stirring philosophical speeches to inspire one another, the soldiers of Warlords spend their time huddled in the mud, freezing and starving and dying.

I think it’s safe to say that Peter Chan is considerably less enamored with the “ballet of violence” than other directors of recent epics. Warlords is, as a result, a very well done but considerably harrowing and draining experience. It’s an interesting counter-balance to Hero, the movie I think started it all with these Chinese epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being a film with a smaller focus, and no scene of a million arrows arcing through the air and toward the enemy lines). There is nothing in here of Hero‘s beauty and grace, no billowing silks or gorgeous compositions or artful fight scenes. While Zhang Yimou’s film may play at a vaguely “nation building is hard” lesson, Warlords is starkly and gorily anti-war and never wraps the message up in an attractive package. Nor does it seem to pander to the “sacrifice for the state is noble” pro-China message that some feel tainted the formerly controversial Yimou’s epic. It’s not a better movie — I’m no Hero hater, mind you — just a very different approach to a similar style story. I’m a sucker for big, bloated epics, anyway, but even disregarding my weakness for the “cast of thousands” experience, I still thought Warlords to be an exceptional movie.