Funimation Films' Kingdom tells an intimate story on a large stage. In this way it reminds one of other epic films, where ordinary characters are swept up in a grand struggle, and few conflicts are more grand than the Warring States period of Chinese history. But this fictionalized account of how the Qin kingdom set about unifying China deftly explores that challenge on a personal level as disparate lives collide on the journey.
This live-action film is based on the adventure-historical manga series of the same name by Yasuhisa Hara and tells the story of two boys orphaned by war and sold into slavery who dream of freedom and becoming great generals. When circumstances plunge both into the middle of China's political upheaval, their choices prove fateful and set them on a course that intersects with a cross section of Chinese society for better and worse.
Their journey from slavery to war is a tumultuous one that lays bare the schisms in society as orphans, slaves, slave owners, peasants, commoners, military officers, officials and royalty intersect or openly clash, including a mountain tribe and its shifting relationship with "flatlanders." In this fictional retelling, a deposed commoner king and his allies seek the aid of ordinary Chinese to defeat his usurper brother and unite the kingdom.
Without giving too much away, the story does an admirable job keeping the boys' relationship at the center of the narrative even when they are apart. The bond they formed as children, their dedication to each other, and the promise they made to both become great generals are recurrent elements from beginning to end. It provides context, motivation and rationale, even when the world forces a different path.
Kento Yamazaki (Li Xin) and Ryo Yoshizawa (Piao) are well suited to their roles, and have a solid chemistry that endures through all the tumult they experience. At times Xin's portrayal can be overwrought but it doesn't stretch credulity too far given the trauma the character experiences. In fact, the mental and emotional anguish as well as physical exhaustion were impressively portrayed and helped convey how dire circumstances were.
Yoshizawa, on the other hand, had a more complex challenge but effectively displayed an appropriate range of characterization that helped sell the story. Indeed, all the actors/actresses helped breathe life into their characters, especially Kanna Hashimoto (He Liao Diao), Masami Nagasawa (Yang Duan He) and Masahiro Takashima (Chang Wen Jun). The ensemble in general works well with each other and the material.
There are also more colorful, larger than life characters that add entertaining elements to the story. A mysterious assassin who mercilessly pursues his prey, a monstrous executioner named Lan Kai that towers over adversaries, and the legendary General Wang Qi that inspired the boys and continues to evoke awe. All reflect a manga influence, whether or not they actually appeared in the source material.
The dialog is generally well conceived and helps propel the narrative with just enough exposition to follow the overall story without getting bogged down in detail. In fact, the film's pacing provides a serviceable balance between quieter moments and action, maintaining a thoughtful, emotional thread in between confrontation and combat. In this regard director Shinsuke Sato has crafted a well-rounded, entertaining film.
Action scenes carry much of the film and complement the story well. Whether scenes of individual fights or full-scale combat, the choreography, camerawork and editing help create exhilarating, tense confrontations involving ranged attacks, melee weapons and acrobatics sometimes aided by wire work. They're at times intense and always satisfying, whether on a plain, in a bamboo forest, in interiors or elsewhere.
Speaking of, the location shoots, courtyard scenes and interiors are all magnificent and help convey the story's epic qualities. Forested gorges, a mountain refuge and a resplendent throne room are among the impressive sights, not to mention the detailed armor, tribal gear, silk robes and everyday clothes worn by the cast. The solid score accentuates each scene instead of undermining, hitting the right notes for solemn or martial moments.
Some elements of the film are weaker than others, including lines of dialog that can feel uninspired, unfunny or just out of place, fight choreography with wires that can come across as showy instead of having consequence, and makeup in the case of Lan Kai that looks more like a Halloween mask than convincing prosthetics. However, these are the exceptions to an otherwise solid and well-made production overall.
The central story of the boys' relationship is a moving one that is strong enough not only to carry the movie but to do so even when they're separated. The fact that their origin as orphans plays into the larger conflict and ties in to the role played by other commoners, peasants and underprivileged Chinese in the effort to reinstate the deposed commoner king is an inspired theme especially in today's divided world.
The film succeeds because of the way it expertly portrays an intimate story of underprivileged characters swept up in the tumult of historic change. The characters' conflicts and how they rise above them mirrors the challenges faced by China, and in a way that allows audiences to be emotionally invested in the overall story. Kingdom in this way is a sweeping epic with heart, that grips audiences while it also entertains.
(This review is based on a screener. Kingdom opens in select theaters August 16. It is shown in Japanese with English subtitles, is rated R for violence, and has a run time of 134 minutes.)
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