In his historical martial-arts epic My Kingdom, director Gao Xiaosong augments the genre’s typically thrill-packing action sequences by upgrading them to eye-popping “opera battles,” while laying on the expected passions with a characteristically thick trowel. Unfolding during the first decades of the 20th century, the film follows the fate of two (adoptive) brothers over the course of several decades in the British Concession of Shanghai. Trained from youth in the arts of the Beijing Opera, a distinctively Chinese form combining fancy costume, acrobatics, mime, and singing, Guan Yi Long (Wu Chun as an adult) and Meng Er Kui (Han Geng) flee to the southern metropolis from their northern mountain home to avenge the honor of their master.
Because these practitioners aren’t simply actors, but “opera warriors” who live by a specific code of conduct and occasionally, in contradiction to that code, engage in battles of honor, Gao (with the assist of the film’s “action director,” legendary actor/choreographer Sammo Hung) has the opportunity to stage battle scenes that play like a cross between classic hand-to-hand combat and fully costumed opera performances. The first of these sequences, which involves the defeat and forced retirement of Yi Long and Er Kui’s master in a challenge from a Shanghai champion, sets the stage, but it’s the second action sequence, in which the now fully grown brothers head south to retake the symbolic golden plaque of operatic supremacy, that stands as the film’s crowning achievement.
Set on the grand Shanghai opera stage, the scene begins as what appears to be a typical night’s performance with a mass of yellow and blue flags hemming in the gaudily costumed performers. Eventually, the extras fall away along with their accoutrements and the action comes down to thrilling one-on-one conflict between the boys and the older master, the latter’s face memorably caked in white makeup rimmed with black circular lines, granting the imposing warrior a suitably menacing aspect.
Eventually, the brothers have their revenge, Yi Long becomes the biggest star in Shanghai while Er Kui somewhat reluctantly plays his sidekick, and the set pieces begin to peter out. Instead, high passion and inconsistent plotting take their place, as the elder brother lets stardom go to his head, his sib hatches a plot halfway through the film to take his own revenge by murdering the seven sons of the Prince Regent who had his family killed when he was a boy, and both young men skirt a relationship with the defeated Shanghaiese master’s mistress, whose motives in not taking revenge on her lover’s killers remains a source of perpetual puzzlement to the boys.
If this oddly delineated narrative—sometimes almost perfunctorily elliptical, at others floridly educed—often falls between two stools, then the replacement of brightly bombastic opera battles with dimly lit, more conventional action sequences is a similarly unwelcome development. But then, Gao and Hung come through with one last opera-set sequence, combining a three-person performance with a surreptitious assassination. And just when the film seems too beholden to an uncritical emphasis on revenge, a final (admittedly ridiculous) plot twist sets up a sublimely low-key finale in which an acceptance of the absurdity of life mingles with a continued commitment to an undying fraternal bond.