Stephen reviews: Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011)

Legend of the Millennium Dragon [鬼神伝, Onigamiden] (2011)

Starring Kenshō Ono, Satomi Ishihara, Shidō Nakamura, Kentaro Ito, Yasuyuki kase, Takashi Kondō, Shotaro Morikubo, Akio Nojima

Directed by Hirotsugu Kawasaki


I love mythology. Myths are the oldest stories we have, and they are a tie to what stories are and why we tell them. Those stories have captivated audiences for centuries and millennia. I am always fascinated by how potent they are, and how they strike to the core of human nature. As an anime fan, it should come as no surprise that I have a special love for Japanese mythology. Legend of the Millennium Dragon is based heavily on Japanese myths, taking some of the more important characters and throwing them into an action film with a hefty dollop of magical explosions. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to see. Except that Millennium Dragon is boring as hell. I really don’t know how you can make huge explosions, hectic sword fights, and furious monsters dull, but they certainly can be. If you doubt me, go ahead and watch this. You’ll learn the sad truth.

Part of this film’s problem is its overuse of computer effects. I don’t just mean that I hate CG and it makes the film look ugly (and boy is that the truth as well), but that Kawasaki seems far too enamored of his ability to pan the camera around. Whole scenes seem devoted to the fact that he can show a panoramic view of the room. He tried to infuse a sense of awe through the film, but it’s only awe at what the computer can do, not at the characters or events. It doesn’t impress, and it doesn’t entertain.

The plot adds nothing of value to the experience either. It’s just a generic tale of a young man who finds out he has some amazing power, and then needs to save the world, or at least ancient Japan, from a rather uninspired villain. Add to that a cheesy “why can’t we all just get along?” theme to the whole thing, and we get a wholly uninteresting story.

I liked the designs for the Oni, and the idea that they are just people wearing war masks rather than monsters, but that was about the only good thing this movie has to offer. Well, there’s also the goofiest and most impractical looking catapult I have ever seen, but that was just unintentional humor. Millennium Dragon tries to impress by making everything huge, and the climax is a contest of one-upmanship with each side simply pulling a bigger monster out its ass, back and forth while you yawn away the evening. But like a cat arching its back to look more menacing, it’s all just fluff.

Red Cliff: Part II (2009)

Red Cliff Part II [赤壁] (2009)
AKA The Battle of Red Cliff

Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Shidō Nakamura, Lin Chi-ling, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, You Yong

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate to high. I enjoyed the first one a lot and I hoped that Part II was as good.


So the question is this: Does Part II live up to the expectations built up after watching Part I? Yes, yes it does. I liked this 140 minutes of Red Cliff more than the first 140 minutes, not necessarily because it’s better, but because of familiarity. Part II opens with a brief rundown of what happened in Part I over the credits. The first new shot is of troops opening the gate into Cao Cao’s camp. The music swelled and I broke a smile. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both films (Rings & Cliff) were made as one movie and then chopped into parts for release. So instead of the feeling of watching a sequel, with a slightly different production style, you are watching more scenes from the same movie. It’s a good, nostalgic feeling of revisiting something you love and finding treasures you had never seen before.

From there, Part II just consistently entertains. I especially enjoyed the part when Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) is infiltrating and mapping Cao Cao’s camp and when the Southerners use a very inventive way to get the 100,000 arrows they need. The end battle of Part II is nothing short of spectacular. It’s a part naval battle, part castle siege, part kung fu action extravaganza. Like Part I, this end battle fills up the final hour of the film. The review would not be complete without mentioning how awesome Zhang Fengyi is as Cao Cao. Absolutely perfect in the role. All the actors are great, but Zhang Fengyi’s performance really caught me by surprise.

Continue reading Red Cliff: Part II (2009) →

Red Cliff: Part I (2008)

Red Cliff Part I [赤壁] (2008)
AKA The Battle of Red Cliff

Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Shidō Nakamura, Lin Chi-ling, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, You Yong

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate. I loved John Woo when I was a teenager, but I am more realistic about his strength as a filmmaker these days.


No one films action like John Woo. He is known for it and he does it very well. The action sequences in Red Cliff: Part I are outstanding, specifically the battle at the end of the film. The final battle fills up most of the last hour and it flies by. Without a doubt, one of the best action sequences in recent memory. It’s incredibly inventive and it feels like new ground, which is hard considering the massive legacy of kung fu pictures.

But to lump Red Cliff with standard kung fu films is wrong, because it really is more than that. It’s epic in its scope and its production design. It’s a kung fu film for the post-Lord of the Rings film era. But this is also where it falls a bit short for me. This first part of the film runs 146 minutes. It’s long. It feels long. There are times when certain scenes don’t seem necessary, so I found myself waiting through them, hoping for a better one next time. But a lot of my disappointment stems from my expectations. I came in to this film expecting a John Woo action picture. It delivers on that promise, no doubt, but it just takes a while to get there, so plan accordingly.

Continue reading Red Cliff: Part I (2008) →

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