Yang Yanzhao (Wu Chun) is one of seven brothers, and son to the great General Yang (Adam Cheng), commander of the emperor's army. Yanzhao is in love with Princess Chai (Ady An), but when he tells his father of his plan to marry her, General Yang tells Yanzhao to back off, as the princess is also being pursued by the son of his longtime rival, Pan, and he hopes to ease tension between the two families in case there is a war. Yanzhao ignores his father's request, entering a sparring tournament to win the hand of the princess, and accidentally kills Pan's son. Shortly thereafter, the Khitan army -- led by Yelu Yuan (Bing Shao), who has a personal grudge against General Yang -- moves in, and the emperor forces General Yang to work under Pan in subduing the threat. When Yelu Yuan springs an ambush on the army, Pan cuts Yang loose, leaving him and his men to die in the desert, surrounded by the Khitan. Although they are greatly outnumbered and likely to die, all seven of Yang's sons head out in hopes of rescuing their father.
Saving General Yang is a distinctly uneven, but mostly successful movie, stumbling slowly toward sure footing in the story. Directed by Ronny Yu (Fearless, Freddy vs. Jason), the film is packed with dazzling action sequences that impress with both fluidity and impact, but Yu's grasp of the film's ensemble cast of characters is not as firm, with at least 40 minutes of build-up passing before the movie manages to develop some dramatic thrust.
A brief amount of research suggests that the story of the Yangs is well-known in China, so maybe the fact that Yang's sons are mostly referred to by number ("Fifth Son") rather than names is all the information Yu felt the audience needed, but it only accentuates how anonymous most of them are, with a couple differentiated by story details, but not personality. Character-wise, the film picks up after General Yang is stranded, which gives the Yu a chance to catch his breath -- most of the scenes that come beforehand feel rushed or truncated, as if Yu is hurrying to get to the core of the story. The sons are generic, but Cheng imbues Yang with an impressive amount of humanity in a short period of time. Scenes of Yang's nobility and selflessness are simple, but in one early scene, he creates a well of chemistry in just a few minutes with his wife (Fan Xu), who is rightfully concerned about the position his assignment puts him in. Later, his moments with some of his sons do the same, crafting a sense of family and familiarity that the film could use more of.
Another source of unevenness comes from the film's visuals, which are seriously hampered by budgetary constraints. Economically, it's understandable why the movie industry, even the majority of the films produced in the US, is no longer making grand period epic with lavish sets and costumes, but that doesn't excuse how ugly so many of Saving General Yang's obvious greenscreen vistas are. When the camera is on the ground in the middle of one of Yu's larger battle sequences, he does a good job at spreading out his extras to give the illusion of scope and scale, but any wide shot instantly ruins the illusion with poorly composited, glaringly artificial landscapes. The brief scene where Pan's son dies takes place on an inexplicably foggy rooftop, as if the effects budget simply ran out. Thankfully, the film mostly switches to practical locations in the second half, but for awhile, it's hard to distinguish Saving General Yang from a "digital backlot" movie like Sky Captain or Sin City.
Still, that action and what character beats work infuse the picture with a satisfying amount of excitement. Despite having at least seven (and usually more) characters to deal with, Yu and his editor Drew Thompson skillfully cut between brothers in battle, clearly illustrating their spatial relationship to bad guys, and capturing their fighting skills with clarity, but without sacrificing speed or intensity. Throughout the film, Yu paces himself between drama and action, wisely scaling forward or backward as necessary. The film's final fight sequence is far from unexpected, both in the context of the film, and as a standard climax of the action genre, but Yu's work throughout helps turn it into a surprisingly satisfying moment.
From the color desaturation to the ugly font, the key art for Saving General Yang is quite underwhelming, especially considering how many other countries were able to produce art that doesn't make the film look quite so silly. The back cover has a bit more class to it; why the same fonts weren't used to make the front look a little better is a mystery. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Vortex Blu-Ray case with a glossy, cardboard slipcover with nearly identical artwork, and there is a flyer inside the case advertising other WellGo USA releases.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC, Saving General Yang is quite impressive on Blu-Ray. On close inspection, a little bit of banding is visible from time to time, and the cheap digital effects are only more apparent in this crisp home video presentation, but fine detail is excellent, lending depth to the image. Colors are nicely saturated, and I saw no artifacts or aliasing. Similarly, I have no complaints about a thunderous, aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which simply roars to life whenever the Yangs ride into battle (which is constantly). Explosions and hoofbeats will rattle the room, without dialogue or other lighter sound effects being swallowed up by the mix. On all fronts, this is a very impressive disc. An English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also included, as well as both tracks in standard Dolby Digital 5.1, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The extra features listed on the case don't sound like much, but there's a shocking amount of extra material on the disc. The major player here is the lengthy reel of on-set interviews (1:34:12), running nearly as long as the film. Yu, Cheng, Chun, and the rest of the brothers are all interviewed. The downside is that these interviews are presented unedited, without music. Although it's great to hear Yu's reasons for making the film, and on-set anecdotes from the cast, it's hard to imagine most people taking their hand off the remote as this section moves toward the hour mark, much less the full 90 minutes. Some of these interviews re-appear in one of the segments in a reel of making-of featurettes (8:58), possibly produced for the internet.
An original theatrical trailer for Saving General Yang is also included, and trailers for The Wrath of Vajra, On the Job, and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon play before the main menu. All of the video extras here are presented in HD.
Saving General Yang has more than its fair share of flaws, but director Ronny Yu turns out to be the film's saving grace, holding the film together with sharp editing, smart casting, and great action. It may not be a must-own title, but for a low price, for fans of the genre, consider this lightly recommended.
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