3 June 2017

Movie Review: God of War movie (《蕩寇風雲》)

The movie God of War is truly a breath of fresh air from the China's cinema scene. From the unimaginative bog that's choke-full of overused, money grabber adaptions of Romance of Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and fictitious Wuxia stories, we finally get a proper historical war epic! This fact alone is enough to convince me to reach for my wallet, and the attention to details as well as accurate unfolding of historical events are just icing on the cake. What a pleasant surprise!

With that being said, I must also point out that the film has its share of weaknesses and inaccuracies. Some of them are probably deliberate modifications to make the story more interesting, while others are most likely due to oversight. I also feel some of the plots are a bit forced, and certain scenes I feel should be given more screen time are cut short. My biggest gripe however, is that the director forcibly turned the legendary general Yu Da You (俞大猷, starred by Sammo Hung) into a tactically inept idiot in order to emphasise the awesomeness of Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光, starred by Vincent Zhao), but failed to deliver any of the tactical geniuses of Qi Ji Guang anyway.

Okay, let's cut off the fluff and go straight to the point. Here's a list of what I like and dislike about the movie:

What I like

Accuracy of historical events

The events as portrayed in the movie are for the most part accurate. For example, Qi Ji Guang really fell three Wokou (倭寇) leaders with three arrows, and Ming army really took down the stronghold of Cen Gang (岑港) in a night raid. Qi Ji Guang also raised his new army after witnessing the gang fight between two villages over a disputed mine, and his wife really did command the defence of Xin He (新河). Even the political backstabbing, the portrayal of Qi Ji Guang as a wife fearer, Hu Zong Xian (胡宗憲) as both noble and corrupt, as well as the military running cadence, are all highly accurate.

There are also some passing mentions of the wrongful execution of Zhang Jing (張經), fifty-three rōnin (sixty in the movie) that threatened Nanking, and Qi Ji Guang's mentor Tang Shun Zhi (唐順之).

The shields and the grunts

Shield wall!
These Ai Pai (挨牌) are some of the best reconstructions I've ever seen!  They are of correct size, the dragon head paintings on the shields are accurate (if a bit too modern-looking), and even minor details such as wooden beads on the shield are present! That being said, Ai Pai should be hung around the neck, not handheld.

Chinese Ming infantry
Ming troops as depicted in Kang Wo Tu Juan (《抗倭圖卷》).
The vast majority of Ming troops in the movie are based on the scroll painting Kang Wo Tu Juan (《抗倭圖卷》), and thus accurate. THIS is how you do a Ming Southern army!

Yu Da You kicking ass with a quarterstaff

Although I really dislike the director's decision to portray Yu Da You as a militarily incompetent idiot, I still love this character to death. Rare is the day when one will see this Chinese hero and martial arts legend on the big screen, and rarer still to see him kicking ass and taking names with a humble quarterstaff.

For those uninformed, real life Yu Da You's skill in quarterstaff was the stuffs of legend (pun intended). Yu Da You's own teacher proclaimed him to be the best in the world, and he was unimpressed with Shaolin martial arts and later TAUGHT his martial arts to the monks. He even single-handedly (literally, as in he worked completely alone) subdued several powerful bandit and Wokou factions using his fearsome reputation, clever diplomacy and, on one occasion, by straight up killing the bandit leader.

Incidentally, in his younger days actor Sammo Hung once played as a Wokou leader that fought against Yu Da You in an obscure movie called The Valiant Ones.

The mandarins

The mandarins in this movie are portrayed with accurate costumes: Mandarin hats without jade hatpins (hatpin was a Qing practise) and plain, undecorated mandarin robes in appropriate colours with rectangular rank badges. Took them long enough to finally get the details mostly right (although the sleeves should be narrow and the belts look odd).

Hu Zong Xian can be seen in the movie dressed in a red mandarin robe with a tiger badge, indicating him as a military official of the third rank (outranking both Qi Ji Guang and Yu Da You), while the fat Zhao Da He (趙大河) pictured above is wearing a blue mandarin robe with a bird badge (most likely a mandarin duck), indicating him as a civil official of the seventh rank (thus ranked below Qi Ji Guang, a fourth rank military official).

And yes, no kowtow!

Contrast between Chinese and Japanese

I am sure many of us wage slaves can relate to the terrible workplace environment of Ming generals—uncaring superior that decides the target and deadline for you, but has no expertise/understanding on the actual situation and provides zero support (if not actively working against you). On top of this, he pins all the blame on you if you fail, and robs you of your accomplishment if you succeed. Your colleagues are either incompetent, or they too are caught up in their own troubles (caused by the same uncaring superior) and thus helpless.

This is in stark contrast to the Japanese/Wokou side, where wisdom and experience are respected, and leaders are given full freedom to carry out the mission in any way they see fit. Yet subordinates do not shy away from voicing their own opinions or even questioning their leader's decision, while leaders readily listen to advice and criticism. When push comes to shove, the leader took up responsibility with grace and dignity to give his talented underlings a second chance.

Now I am sure not all of these are historically accurate, but they add to the depth of the story greatly. I am especially appreciative of the superb performance of Yasuaki Kurata (倉田保昭). There are something unique, something nuanced, in the ways that Japanese people speak, interact with each other, and in their general mannerism that cannot be done right unless the actors are actual Japanese.

The insane mudsleds

I literally went "yeeehaw" when I saw this scene. As ridiculous as these so-called "mud horses" look, they are real, and Qi Ji Guang really did use these sleds against the Wokou (although not in the way depicted in the movie).

Treacherous terrain

It opens and closes with epic battles in settings that range from narrow city alleys to treacherous mud flats.
— The Washington Post movie review

Now you know why Ming army favoured small unit tactics. Too bad the movie fails to make full use of it (see below).

No crossbow

Awesome. Crossbow was so last century anyway.

What I dislike

Inaccurate equipment and weapon misconceptions

This is actually par for the course for most "historical" movies from China, so I am not especially upset about it. That being said, the director at least spent some efforts to make the costumes appear slightly more historically accurate and not overly gritty (although some helmets still look like they are modified from Jacky Chan's Dragon Blade), so credit where credit's due.

Many inaccurate portrayals of weapons are explained elsewhere in this blog. Notable ones include spears that are way too short, Lang Xian do not work that way (and Qi Ji Guang did not invent the weapon), Qing-era tiger forks in place of Tang Pa (鎲鈀), and bulletproof rattan shields.

Japanese side is full of inaccuracies as well. Notable examples include the lack of sakayaki (月代) hairstyle, reflective golden fans, out of place manga illustrations, explosives that can blast through a freaking town gate, lack of spears, mobile shields, and zillion-folded lightsaber katana that cuts through other swords like they are made of tissue paper. Also, as much as I applaud the director's effort to reconstruct an accurate Japanese-looking ship, Chinese junks would be far more appropriate for the last escape scene in the movie due to general unseaworthiness of Japanese ship.

Oh, if you are wondering why some Chinese troops can be seen wearing sashimono (指物) or back-mounted banners, that's because historically they did. However Chinese back banners are likely triangular, not rectangular.

Vincent Zhao's sloppy archery

He is not even looking at his target!
While Vincent Zhao is undoubtedly a great martial arts actor, he and most actors in this movie clearly have no understanding of the art of archery. One of the most glaring errors is that there's no thumb draw! Korean movies certainly have the Chinese soundly beaten in this particular field.

Besides, I am sure many kyūdō (弓道) practitioners will cringe at the sight of the ridiculous "jump and shoot" scene.

No, ō-deppō (大鉄砲) is not supposed to fire explosive shells

While large enough to be considered a handheld cannon, ō-deppo (大鉄砲), more commonly known as kakae ō-zutsu (抱え大筒), can only shoot solid musket balls or incendiary bō hiya (棒火矢). It is also usually shot from a lean forward body position, not standing upright.

As a side note, I also think that the weapon is somewhat anachronistic.

No Chinese matchlock

As noted elsewhere in this blog, Ming army already had access to matchlock weaponry for decades before events in the movie took place. In fact, Ming arquebusiers were explicitly deployed in all major battles in the movie. 

Also, San Yan Chong (三眼銃) only became somewhat more prevalent during the last years of the Ming Dynasty, so even if the director wanted to emphasise the technological backwardness of Ming army, he should have gone for single-shot handgonne like Shen Qiang (神鎗) instead.

The climatic battle

I do like those long Japanese arrows though.
This may sounds anticlimactic, but historically Qi Ji Guang only lost a grand total of THREE MEN in Battle of Hua Jie (花街之戰), the climatic battle depicted in the movie. The battle was so one-sided in favour of Qi Ji Guang that it wouldn't make for an interesting story, so (I think) the director had to intentionally "dial up the difficulty level" by inflating the number of Wokou in that battle and adding a whole bunch of actual samurai into the mix.

Not that it matters, because historically Qi Ji Guang really did fight Wokou numbering tens of thousands as well as unusually well-disciplined and well-equipped Wokou elsewhere. He slaughtered them all the same.

Ridiculous handheld mortar

Mortar does not work that way.
No, no, no, you can't shoot a Hu Dun Pao (虎蹲砲) like that! The cannon is staked to the ground before firing for a good reason. Its recoil will kill you outright!

What irk me the most about this scene is that, for all the supposed tactical genius of Qi Ji Guang, he still has to rely on this timely "cannon-ex-machina" to win the climatic battle, and that is despite the fact that some of his opponents are acting on impetus and disobeying order.

No tactics

If you go to the movie looking for some authentic and historically accurate military actions, you will be sorely disappointed. The war scenes of this movie look like they're coming out of the ridiculous John Woo's Red Cliff, and there's no Mandarin Duck Formation in action either. I can't help but feel that none of the Chinese screenwriters really know how to do a proper war scene.

What a shame and a wasted opportunity, because urban combat and counter-ambush tactic were some of the Qi Ji Guang's most notable specialties. In fact, Qi Ji Guang himself used his success at Battle of Hua Jie as an example to demonstrate his counter-ambush tactic in Ji Xiao Xin Shu (《紀效新書》)!

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  1. I'm looking forward to seeing this movie as well, seems like the reviews coming out are generally positive. Wished that Sammo Hung (one of my fav action legends) has a bigger role in it, but sounds like his is more of a extended cameo.

    Regarding the Hu Dun Pao being fired handheld, I read somewhere that in the Battle of Pyongyang, general Luo Shangzhi actually did carried and fired a small cannon by hand

    What did you think of Fall of Ming?

    1. Sammo Hung only shows up in the first thirty minutes of the movie. The director did give his character (Yu Da You)some respect, as he rescued Qi Ji Guang from some disguished Chinese Wokou, and had a friendly quarterstaff duel with him.

      As for Luo Shangzhi, I heard he used two Korean handgonnes (dual wield?) during the siege. There are indeed some extremely large Chinese (presumably Korean too) handcannons in excess of 20 kg and above, but that's still a far cry from "handheld Hu Dun Pao".

      Fall of Ming did a better job at depicting the matchlocks and firearms in general (although the raised Fo Lang Ji during the first battle is quite insane as well). It is slight better in the accuracy of commander's armour, (although the costume look worse) and worse in depicting the grunts (everyone wears black). Storyline wise it is actually quite good.

  2. Ah I knew would watch this. No mandarin duck? How's the entertainment value?

    1. There's a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo appearance of the Mandarin Duck Formation, but don't expect to see it in action.

      The movie is entertaining for its kung fu actions and some war scenes, and you will get a lot of "Aha! I knew that" moment if you have some background/historical knowledge.

      The storyline however is its weak point. I feel like the characters are pushed around by story (instead of driving it), there's no sense of urgency , nothing feels like it is really at stake, and no rousing speech (man, this is supposed to be a war movie!). There's no memorable battle of wits or clever tactical gambit either.

  3. I would love to see it, even if I don't know how and when it would be available in my country :/
    As far as the Japanese characters are concerned, although I'm not reliable on Wokou as much as I am with Samurai, I'm curious to see how much historically accurate are the armors.

    Big Movies in Japan like Kurosawa's ones used to have specialized artists behind the armors and the clothes, like members of living-tradition armor maker family.
    Is a shame that this doesn't apply anymore :(

    1. The Japanese that show up in the posters/trailers are regular Japanese troops - samurai and ashigaru, so you can judge their accuracy based solely on your knowledge of samurai equipment.

      That being said, many ashigaru are wearing proper helmets and forehead protectors,and some are seen using Chinese-style(?) socketed spears, so they are not completely historically accurate, but may be appropriate if we consider that they need to fight in urban space/those are looted weapons.

      Wokou and ronins (with the exception of one ronin character and his sidekicks) are dressed in rags (appropriate).

    2. Thanks!
      I'm looking forward to see this movie!

  4. "I am sure many of us wage slaves can relate to the terrible workplace environment of the Ming generals — uncaring superior that decides the target and deadline for you, but has no expertise/understanding on the actual situation and provide zero support (if not actively working against you). On top of this, he pins all the blame on you if you fail, and robs you of your accomplishment if you succeed. Your colleagues are either incompetent, or they are caught up in their own troubles (from the same uncaring superior) and thus helpless."

    Haha...priceless and spot-on

  5. Heard it is a pretty good movie. However, I can tell it is not going to depict weapons, armours, and tactics accurately just by looking at the the trailer and screenshots. Yet I can also see that it has done history miles better than other Chinese movies of the genre.

    1. At the very least, the movie does put in some efforts to depict those stuffs slightly more accurately (not much, but that's still something).

  6. From what I see, they wear what looks like Song dynasty armor.

    From various Ming Dynasty statue, paintings and archeological findings, I believe that those Song dynasty armor are used in the painting of divine figures, although modified in some way. I read in your blog, that those armors are used in the beginning of the Ming. However the few painting I see about contemporary events show them wearing brigandines, not lamellar or Shan Wen Kia. Qing Dynasty painting and modern of Chinese deities or mythology also show them in Song Dynasty armor for example.

    My question is did they still wore those kind of armor that late in the Ming Dynasty (1500s)? Why did they pass out from use, if they did?


    1. Yes, they did, although usually in a ceremonial context.

      However both Kan Wo Tu Juan (《抗倭圖卷》) and Wakō zukan (《倭寇図卷》) scrolls depict Ming generals and guards took to the field against Japanese pirates in older Song Dynasty-style lamellar armour, so this type of armour was still used as field armour in 1500s as well.

    2. Thank You.

      what do you think the armor the Ming wear in this illustration (1600s)




      because they seem to differ from previous armor style with leg guard reaching the ankle and they also differ than Qing armor.

      I am also interested in early Manchu armor (17th century) as described in this forum


      post 67

      What do you think?

    3. @Joshua
      By very late Ming there appear to be another partial shift of Ming armour style, from sleeveless long coat brigandine + armguards two-piece shirt & apron with pauldrons (the "Qing Dynasty" style).

      AFAIK, we don't have 17th century Ming artworks that depict this, however there is a suit of surviving Ming arquebusier's brigandine in the "two piece" style.

      The sources given in Historum are, as far as I can tell, reliable. Since the accounts are contemporary, given by eyewitnesses, and Ming and Korean accounts generally agree with each other.

      Unfortunately we don't have artwork depicting early Jurchen either, but it is highly likely that they just copied late Ming armour.

    4. I think the Wikipedia picture have a source. It is vague like 17th century Ming Dynasty Nurhaci biography made in 1635 because it still depict battles in the early Manchu attack. Does that count as artwork?

      I however never see Manchu mask armor in that encyclopedia.

      This is where I found it


      In that historum discussion, I read that Ming Dynasty armor is mentioned to be of lesser quality than previous dynasties, why is this?

    5. @Joshua
      The book was written in 1635, but its accompanying illustrations were added on a later date.

      While I don't think Manchu records mention mask armour, both Chinese and European records mention the use of mask armour. The armour used by Tie Ren (Koxinga's elite troops), which was explicitly copied from Manchu armour, also included a mask.

      I don't get the impression that Ming armour was inferior to previous dynasties (since I think brigandine is in many ways superior to lamellar), but they lightened considerably.

  7. Finally got to see the movie. I mostly liked it but yes it's not a perfect movie. One thing that bothered me was what was the trigger mechanism for the real San-Yan Chong? In the movie they fired it almost semi-auto by just simply holding the shaft. No fuses, no kindling stick, etc. And they also had Hu Dun Paos most of the time but only used it once against the enemy. Minor gripes like that.

    1. Good day Rayray.

      San-Yan Chong is a simple handgonne and does not feature a firing mechanism (unless it is a Zhao Shi Zhen's modified version, although Zhao Shi Zhen was only eight year old at the time period of this movie), but they indeed omitted the kindling stick.

  8. I finally had the chance to watch this movie yesterday. Overall I think it's a good movie, though there are still many inaccuracies. Lack of Ming arquebusiers, lack of Ming cavalry, lack of rocket arrows, inaccurate handheld Hudun Pao, inaccurate bulletproof rattan shields, lack of Mandarin Duck formation, and lack of spears on both sides are some of the things that bother me the most.

    1. Indeed. I still think it is fairly enjoyable though.

  9. What other films would you recommend that depict these or similar events?

    1. If you have time, is there a short list of films you would recommend generally? Favorites?

    2. Good day Tengu and welcome to my blog.

      Historical movie scene in China is as bad or even worse than Hollywood, so good stuffs don't come out that often. Things are slowing improving though.

      A good one that I can suggest is Fall of Ming (2013) although it is a rather old movie already and the costumes aren't that good. Still a big improvement over most semi-fantasy trashes that came out of China though.

      A more recent one is Longest Day in Chang'an, which is set during the Tang Dynasty, and it's a TV series, not movie. I haven't have the time to watch it yet, but I've heard many praises.

    3. Thank you for the recommendations, I will certainly check these out. Are there also older historical films you would recommend, perhaps from the 1960s-1990s?

    4. I think there's one movie called "Meeting of the two Heroes (1984)" that seems to be pretty good (in the costume department).

    5. Thanks again for the recommendations, and your work on the blog. It's among my favorites.

  10. Hello. Have you seen this "China Construction Kit" ebook? Perhaps you might make a review of it one day.


    Thank you for the good work you've been doing.

    1. @Bruno

      Good day, it's been a while.

      I haven't heard of that book, I might take a look and write a review of it.

    2. Yes, it has.

      That would be excellent. It doesn't seem like a bad book, but who knows what details can be wrong or not? You, of course.

      Do you remember the information you gave me on those emails? I edited some of it into posts on english and portuguese. Nearly five thousand people have seen those by now.

      How are you doing these days?

    3. I am doig fine other than in lockdown.

      I will try to check if there's anything wrong in that book as soon as my economic situation stabilise (after the lockdown).

  11. Your post mentioned something that i've suspected for a very long time but have never been able to actually concretely find to be true, which is the fact that a chinese sashimono existed. Looking at other chinese armor emplacements and identification accessories and their similarities to the japanese sashimono made it seem that the sashimono was very likely something that existed in china at one point. What sources have you seen to know this to be true? So far searching "Chinese sashimono" in english and expecting something to come up has been unsuprisingly disastrous. What are your thoughts on it? Were these less commonly used and that's why they're so rarely brought up? I haven't been able to find any artworks that show this either. Thanks.

    1. Qi Jiguang mentioned back banner in the equipment lineup of his cavalry in 《練兵實紀》, also there exist several paintings that depict Qing cavalry with back banners.


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