It wasn’t until 2013, a full seven years after directing FEARLESS (and four years after not directing BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE), that Ronny Yu released another film. In interviews he credited the hiatus to only being offered horror scripts in the U.S. “I don’t want to do this kind of thing anymore,” he said. Instead he wanted to “learn more about my Chinese roots.”
Written by Yu with Edmond Wong (DRAGON TIGER GATE, IP MAN 1-4, MASTER Z) and Scarlett Liu Shi-Jia, SAVING GENERAL YANG is based on The Generals of the Yang Family, a famous set of stories about a real military family that lived early in the Song Dynasty. (I didn’t figure this out while watching, but EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER comes from the same story, as do THE 14 AMAZONS and several other films.)
Adam Cheng (SHAOLIN AND WU TANG, ZU WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, SEVEN WARRIORS) plays the titular General, and this is the story of his seven sons (deliberately cast with hearthrob actors, many of them pop stars) coming to rescue him during a battle. But in the opening scene he’s at home, about to whip Sixth Brother Yanzhao (Wu Chun, 14 BLADES) and Seventh Brother Yansi (Fu Xinbo of the boy band BoBo) for “breaking Family Law.”
You see, Yanzhao is in love with Princess Chai (Ady An), whose hand in marriage was offered as the prize in a fighting tournament. The General forbid Yanzhao from entering, because the Emperor’s brother-in-law Pan Bao, son of his rival in the military Lord Pan Renmei (Bryan Leung, who played the title character in Yu’s THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK), also has his eye on Chai. “If you fight Pan Bao, relations will completely fall apart” when “the Yang and Pan families need to stand together” against their enemy the Khitan. Yanzhao entered anyway and then Yansi also entered in solidarity, but in his match Bao fell, broke his neck and died. So that national unity Dad wanted so bad is not gonna be forthcoming.
Wouldn’t you know it, right then smoke starts billowing from the borders, signaling an invasion by the Khitan, led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing, THE LOST BLADESMAN), son of a general killed by General Yang ten years ago. As a result of the fighting tournament fiasco, the Emperor (Liu Jun) chooses Pan to lead the troops while Yang gets the lesser (and more dangerous) assignment of leading the charge. Unfortunately for everybody, Pan sucks at his job, Yang gets trapped behind enemy lines at Wolf Mountain, and petty motherfucker Pan refuses to send anybody to rescue him. At least he’ll die in a place with a cool name, I guess.
Unwilling to stand idly by, the matriarch of the Yang family, She Shaihua (Xu Fan, RAILROAD TIGERS) sends her seven sons (even the two youngest, who have never been in combat) with a small group of soldiers to rescue their father, which is actually what Yelu was hoping for. The old man was bait to lure in the whole family for maximum revenge. During the attempted rescue the General is hit with a poison arrow, and they do their damndest to carry him home, first alive, then for a proper burial, at least. But for the most part things do not go well, is one way to put it.
Yelu is a high quality antagonist with many good villainous moments. He wears fancy white and gold armor and sits carving and snacking on an apple while heartlessly explaining to the Empress’ inspector (Wang Chun-Yuan, ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI) why losing 200 of their men in a battle was “worth it to know their strength.” A highlight is a shot of the same inspector continuing to criticize Yelu as they’re riding on horseback and as they go out of view behind a stone wall we see the tip of a sword swinging and the inspector’s bloody head flying through the air.
When they come back into our sight Yelu is sheathing his sword and the inspector’s horse has nobody in its saddle. “Go!” Yelu says. “Report to Empress Xiao that her inspector has sacrificed his life for the Khitan Empire.”
Production designer Kenneth Mak had done FEARLESS and many of the historical martial arts movies that followed in its wake (BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, IP MAN 2-4, THE GUILLOTINES). SAVING GENERAL YANG is the largest scale film of Yu’s career, not quite John Woo’s RED CLIFF level, but definitely headed in that direction. There are enormous digital mobs, catapult bombardments, a couple different battles with soldiers on fire, a great one-on-many last stand spear fight in a mountain pass, and a few more intimate (but brutal) duels. The action director is the great Stephen Tung Wei (A BETTER TOMORROW, HERO, REIGN OF ASSASSINS) and the style is not wuxia, it’s pretty grounded. On the DVD/blu-ray extras Yu keeps talking about wanting the battles to be authentic, and “with a fast and clear tempo.”
There are still colorful touches like very fanciful armor (including at least one skull-shaped helmet that reminded me of ARMY OF DARKNESS), the occasional acrobatic leap or spin, horses named Thunder and Dragon, and a villainous henchman with what I can only describe as ‘90s skater hair. But maybe that’s authentic, I really wouldn’t know. I’m for it either way.
There’s a beautifully horrific scene where Seventh Brother Yansi journeys alone to Lord Pan’s castle and offers his life in exchange for sending troops to save his father. Pan stands on top of the wall surrounded by soldiers, tears in his eyes as he hears the offer, but he pretends to believe the kid’s a Khitan trying to trick them. In frustration Yansi throws a spear, so archers fire hundreds of arrows at him. There are flashes of lightning just as it happens, so we get this eerie strobe of flying arrows, arrows already stuck in the ground, shadows of the arrows stretching across the ground. He twitches for a bit before he dies, looking like a pin cushion, one arrow even in his mouth.
Like FEARLESS it’s a very impressive production that mostly seems to be shot on location or on huge sets, despite using CG for some extensions and establishing shots. Yu also uses some strategic splashes of stylization. The flashback to the fighting tournament takes place in an artificial looking environment that’s so digitally foggy it’s almost a white void, or a light watercolor wash, and with a jittery frame rate like THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR.
An even more extreme flicker/blur combo is used for the General’s p.o.v. looking at his sons around him while he’s close to death.
And just before dying he has a vision where he’s in sort of a foggy dreamscape. Hopefully this is not the same one where we last saw Jason and Freddy.
I was wondering about the title, and whether it could possibly be meant to sound like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? I don’t really trust my attempt at Google translation so that will have to remain a mystery. Obviously it’s not the same story at all, but it does have a little overlap: these brothers all have a macho thing for martyrdom, but they’re trying to make it home specifically to save their mother from grieving over lost sons. (Mrs. Ryan lost 3 of 4 sons, Madam Yang 6 of 7.) Yelu, bastard that he is, could represent a dark future version of them if they fail to get their father’s body home.
“My father died in battle,” he tells Eldest Brother Yanping (Ekin Cheng, THE TWINS EFFECT) after he impales him on a spear. “I was proud of him. And I’ve never blamed your father. But I can’t let you live… I can’t forgive you for the tears my mother shed. They couldn’t even find his body. She died of a broken heart. I swore to kill your father, and all your brothers one by one, so your mother would suffer a hundred times more than mine.”
There are extensive interviews with Yu and the cast in the extras, and every single one of them keeps repeating that the movie is about “filial piety,” as if they were coached to say that. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it’s a concept from Confucianism about the importance of respect for and obedience to parents/elders. In normal practice that would mean taking care of Mom and Dad as they age, not killing and dying for them. So this is a pretty extreme example. (Maybe not as extreme as Alan, the serial killer in MUMMY DEAREST, who also believes strongly in filial piety.)
Editor Drew Thompson (LITTLE MONSTERS, Mr Inbetween) is Australian, I believe, so I bet Yu wanted to repeat the clever trick he used on FEARLESS, choosing an editor who doesn’t speak the language to make sure the visuals are telling the story. But he really doesn’t seem as interested in international appeal this time, and it doesn’t seem to have played in the US outside of film festivals. After his English and American education, his exodus from Hong Kong, his many international collaborations, and his years working in Hollywood and living in Australia, it’s curious to see Yu end up working in mainland China, where many Hong Kong geniuses go to make films that are beautiful and entertaining and just so happen to fall within certain parameters of exalting Chinese historical figures and traditional values.
As far as I know all Yu intended to do is promote this particular virtue, in the tradition of Mr. T’s song “Treat Your Mother Right.” But whether he intended it or not, I see something more in SAVING GENERAL YANG; you only have to step a half inch back to find a critique of the whole system they’re living under. In the opening, when the two brothers are about to be whipped for disobeying their father, the image is striking because they are two bursts of color in the middle of the frame, while everyone and everything that surrounds them is monochromatic.
That’s because they were right! Everybody else just goes along with what you’re supposed to do, but obeying their dad was not the answer here, and he’ll later admit as much. As we discussed way back in my review of MUMMY DEAREST, Yu has said he has a reoccurring stress dream “of being a general in armor, in old China,” knocked off his horse in battle, surrounded and telling his men “We’re dead.” While filming THE OCCUPANT a monk told him, “In your previous life you were bloodthirsty, you had no consideration for human life. In this life you have to suffer.” Here General Yang finds himself in a similar situation, and trying to prevent his sons from going down the same path. He regrets blocking Yanzhao’s love life in the name of politics, and tells him to go home and marry Chai.
Finally, common sense prevails. Yanzhao was right to enter the tournament. Except… having the tournament in the first place was obviously wrong! The whipping scene cuts quickly to a beautiful flashback of the young couple laying in a wheat field, looking at the clouds and discussing a dream of being humble sheep farmers together.
They’re in love, they want to be together, but a relative of the Emperor calls dibs on her, so they decide her future with a fucking fighting tournament? You know I love fighting tournaments, but this one is every type of fuckery wrapped into one: the patriarchal idea that women are property to be transferred to husbands, the casteist idea that royals should marry royals, the imperial idea that kingdoms can become more powerful by forcing their kids to marry each other, the macho idea that physical dominance proves one’s worth. So yeah, the underdog offended you by trying to “win” the princess (his childhood sweetheart). But he was only in that match in the first place because he was being a good boy, playing by the rules, living by the system. He didn’t have himself delivered in a wardrobe like Inspector Bill in MUMMY DEAREST, they didn’t run away together like in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, they didn’t sneak around like in THE PHANTOM LOVER, they didn’t go on a homicidal road trip like in BRIDE OF CHUCKY, they just did what they were told they were supposed to do. Even though what they were told they were supposed to do was incredibly fucking stupid.
Sorry, your highness, but if you would’ve just minded your own fuckin business and let the people who are in love make up their own minds about what to do with their lives none of this would’ve happened. Pan’s son would be jealous but alive, Yang would’ve been in charge of the troops and would’ve done a better job, he’d still be alive, six more of his sons would be alive, thousands more of your troops would be alive.
But chances are the Emperor never did any reflection on that. What else was he supposed to do – let her choose who to marry? That’s the way we are – we can’t face when our bullshit hangups and traditional ways are denying us a better world. Some people would rather be miserable and make the world miserable forever than swallow their pride and admit there’s a different way of looking at things. And the rest of us are logjammed behind those doofuses.
The fact that all this death ties back to the denial of the love between those two is emphasized when the next to last fight takes place in what appears to be that same wheat field, its beauty now soiled with bloodshed.
The final duel between Yanzhao and Yelu happens in some dirt on the edge of the field, and there’s something very macabre about poor Sixth Brother having his dad’s corpse propped up as if he’s watching. It seems like the kid has to prove himself to his dead dad. But it’s nice that he does that by suplexing, ground-and-pounding, but then stabbing his dagger into the dirt instead of into Yelu’s face, and leaving him alive to think about what he’s done. Holding back the death blow just like Huo Yuanjia’s father at the beginning of FEARLESS and Yuanjia himself at the end.
Unfortunately then Yelu rises up behind him (like Freddy!), which I think kinda ruins it because it’s that old he-was-gonna-let-him-live-but-he-attacked-so-it’s-not-his-fault-he-had-to-kill-him-in-self-defense cop out. At least it’s novel to see it done with a spear instead of a gun.
Of course I agree that you should try to be good to your parents, but this interpretation of filial piety sure doesn’t seem to work out for the Yangs. That’s illustrated succinctly in the coda where the whole family stands together as if posing for a portrait, then all except the people who survive at the end – the mother and her sixth son – fade away. And some of the only good news in the title cards at the end is that after they stopped the invasion “The Song Empire enjoyed a brief period of peace.” Only a brief period. Then back to this shit again.
So there it is. Ronny Yu, Hong Kong kid who grew up with polio, escaped into movies, went to boarding school in England, learned a little about martial arts from Chinese chefs in London, wanted to study film but was more “sensible” and got an MBA in Ohio, upon returning to Hong Kong was convinced to co-write, then co-direct a cop movie with his friend, accidentally stumbling into the career as a filmmaker that his dad had discouraged him from. He did both contemporary and period action movies, some horror comedies, made the first Brandon Lee vehicle, and eventually achieved international acclaim for a beautiful wuxia fantasy that helped turn many of us around the world into Hong Kong cinema lovers for life. After that Uncle Sam wanted Yu, he answered the call, made one of the weirdest children’s films of the ‘90s (a tall order), then two monumental chapters in three different legendary slasher franchises. Finally he returned home and applied all the skills and lessons he’d acquired in his travels to two very good Chinese historical epics that came from his heart.
Clearly I think Yu is a fascinating director. In many ways he’s a journeyman, a craftsman, happy to take whatever interesting jobs come along and apply his skills and perspective to them rather than always create something purely out of himself. But he’s way too imaginative and stylish to come across as what is derogatorily called a “hack,” or someone who’s phoning it in. He puts his stamp on everything but he doesn’t stick to a genre or a technique for long; he seems to grow impatient with doing the same old thing and always wants to try something new, even when we’d love for him to repeat himself. I think this goes hand-in-hand with his experiences being raised in Hong Kong, schooled in England and the U.S., working in the Hong Kong, American and mainland Chinese film industries, and living in Australia, and wanting to speak to all of those cultures and traditions in his movies.
It’s been a decade since he’s made a movie, but as far as I can tell Yu doesn’t consider himself retired. In a 2022 interview promoting a screening of BRIDE OF CHUCKY at the Metrograph, Yu said that CHILD’S PLAY creator Don Mancini asked him to direct episodes of the Chucky TV series, but he couldn’t leave Australia because of the pandemic. “I would love to go back and do it again, and to use the new technology and animatronics nowadays. It would be a lot of fun,” he said.
And in January of this year, in a live interview on the “That Phat Samurai” Youtube channel, Yu mentioned at least one script in development (a science fiction movie) and said, “Oh no, I never retire. I’m lazy, but…”
I dearly hope SAVING GENERAL YANG doesn’t end up being Ronny Yu’s last film, but if it does, it’s a respectable one to end on. It’s not his best movie, but it’s a good one, and his biggest, and in many ways it’s a culmination of techniques from throughout his career. The beautiful sunsets remind me of the kung fu and wuxia films early in his career (cinematographer: Chan Chi-Ying, DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE, DETECTIVE DEE: THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS), while the epic scale, integration of digital effects, and loose retelling of a famous Chinese historical tale to express moral lessons reminds me of FEARLESS.
We may even be able to credit Yu’s experiences making BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY VS. JASON for the climactic suplex and the unusually gruesome details of the battles: huge puddles of blood, mountains of corpses, bodies left impaled on spears, General Yang spewing blood as he slowly dies of poisoning, his son “removing the poison” by cutting a chunk out of the wound and putting it in a dish like he’s removing a bullet, the very graphic shot of a wound being cauterized with a heated blade, the ingenious staging of the inspector’s decapitation (obscuring the event but not the results). There’s also a nasty battlefield shot of the brothers lifting a flag that’s completely submerged in a blood puddle, sloshing it all around.
You’ve got your blood, your beauty, your tragedy and operatic emotion, larger-than-life figures with broken hearts lashing out on a grand scale. Sounds like a Ronny Yu movie all right. For now it will have to do.
So that means that’s the end of this review series. Thanks so much for reading. I hope I’ve made a convincing argument that this is a body of work worth remembering, revisiting, reconsidering, or of course discovering for the first time. I know I found it enlightening and inspiring to watch and analyze these movies in chronological order, traversing across the globe and so many different genres I love, and seeing how all these worlds connect, so I hope you got something out of them too. This has been a dream project of mine for years, and I’m so happy to have completed it, but of course I’d be even happier for it to become incomplete some day. If you need me I’ll be sitting on this mountain waiting for a rare flower to bloom and signal the return of The Director With the White Gloves.
THE UNCLE SAM WANTS YU REVIEW SERIES:
THE SERVANTS (1979) / THE SAVIOUR (1980)
THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK (1982)
THE TRAIL (1983)
THE OCCUPANT (1984)
MUMMY DEAREST (1985)
LEGACY OF RAGE (1986)
(tangent: RAPID FIRE)
BLESS THIS HOUSE (1988)
CHINA WHITE (1989)
GREAT PRETENDERS (1991)
SHOGUN AND LITTLE KITCHEN (1992)
THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)
(sequel not directed by Yu: THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR 2)
THE PHANTOM LOVER (1995)
WARRIORS OF VIRTUE (1997)
(tangent: THE NEVERENDING STORY)
(sequel not directed by Yu: WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2: RETURN TO TAO)
BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998)
THE 51ST STATE (2001)
FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)
Fear Itself: “Family Man” (2008)
(tangent: BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE )
(produced but not directed by Yu: BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE )
SAVING GENERAL YANG (2013)
May 4th, 2023 at 11:40 am
Damn, I audibly gasped when I read about Yu being invited to direct CHUCKY episodes! Fingers crossed that it will happen next season.
Thanks for this series, Vern. As I said in the beginning, Yu has been a director who I would love to see more of, but sadly most of his pre-Hollywood stuff wasn’t released here, so it was cool to at least read about it and discover that he had done WAY more movies than I thought. So I absolutely enjoyed every new entry of this.