While the historical-fiction narrative of Daniel Lee’s “White Vengeance” may prove illuminating for Chinese viewers who are already familiar with the history of the Qin Dynasty, particularly the Hongmen Banquet event in 206 B.C., it’s safe to say that nearly every foreign viewer will be lost by the half-hour mark. Only the gist of the central drama–two sworn brothers in arms become competitors in overthrowing the Qin and assuming emperorship, despite their prior allegiance to one another–is entirely accessible to Westerners. Unfortunately for us, this core conflict plays like an overwrought Shakespeare imitation, not a motivator to work to understand the vast historical minutiae surrounding it.
Lee’s writing and direction are needlessly confusing, even for a film aimed at a specific audience with prior knowledge about the material. The filmmaker’s main weakness is that he does not build tension that signals consequence, monotonously delivering each plot development as if it were the same as the ones before and after it. Significant battle strategy discussions come and go, and unless the viewer is really tuned into the material (again, unlikely for those unfamiliar with the history behind it), they will miss important content. Further, the film is structured in a disorienting fashion, with flashback-within-flashback, perhaps as Lee’s attempt to create the aforementioned tension. But all he achieved by implementing non-linear storytelling was further obscuring already intricate details.
The grand battle sequences don’t offer much of a respite from the talky exposition, either, proving that audiences need to have a vested interest in the outcome of action to be engaged by it. Because of the convoluted nature of Lee’s storytelling, viewers aren’t likely to develop great sympathy for the leader who Lee settles on as protagonist. As a result, the battles come across as mere loud commotion, wherein all the usual stops–galloping cavalry horses, savage stabbings–are brought out. While Lee’s depiction of ancient warfare is probably more accurate than many other filmmakers, I could have used some of Zhang Yimou or Sergei Bodrov’s visual fluorishes to give the experience some spice. Even when the body count surges, “White Vengeance” remains humdrum in execution. It will prove entirely forgettable for anyone outside the Lee’s Sinophile target audience.
Blu-Ray Video and Audio: This is yet another great transfer from Well Go, following last week’s exceptional presentation of “The Viral Factor” (a much better film, by the way). While the digitally-shot “White Vengeance” has some inherent cinematographic faults, such as excessive judder in an early overhead shot and weak contrast, the Blu-Ray is nonetheless striking and demonstrative of fidelity to the source. Fine detail is rich and the gold-and-grey color palette is well represented. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is as strong as the video, making the most of every channel in your home theater system.
Special Features: While it’s unlikely that most of the film’s detractors will want to watch the extras on the disc, there is a solid helping of this material if one is so inclined. Well Go has included nearly an hour of B-roll footage that shows how many of the action scenes were filmed (regrettably presented in standard definition) and an additional half-hour of cast and crew interviews. Also included are a pair of trailers for the film.
Movie Grade: D+
Disc Grade: B+
The Verdict: Only consider renting if you’re versed in Chinese history