The Warrior’s Way
Let’s get this out of the way: Sngmoo Lee’s The Warrior’s Way is a movie with no pretensions to high cinema. It understands these things: the Old West is Awesome; Carnies are Awesome; Cowboys are Awesome; Ninjas are Awesome. All together they are Awesome. Oh, and babies in the middle of sword fights are adorable.
Yang (Jang Dong-gun) is a member of the Sad Flutes clan of assassins, and the movie starts out as he establishes himself as the Greatest Swordsman Of All Time. He does this by killing all members of their rival clan, except for a baby girl who melts his heart with a look. He can’t bring himself to kill her, and so he spares her life. This won’t sit well with the leader of the Sad Flutes (Ti Lung), and so Yang picks up the baby and leaves to meet and old friend of his who left for faraway lands many years ago.
Yang arrives in the American frontier town of Lode, “Paris of the West”, where his friend had settled. Unfortunately, the town has collapsed and Yang’s friend is gone; the work of a band of marauding cowboys led by a retired union Colonel (Danny Huston). All that’s left are a motley crew of survivors and a traveling carnival that has dreams of building a giant Ferris wheel and putting down roots. The carnival has the usual assortment of characters, including the old drunk-with-a-past Ron (Geoffrey Rush) and the midget ringmaster Eight-Ball (Tony Cox). And among the survivors is Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a rough frontier girl whose family was slaughtered by the Colonel after she scarred him with hot oil rather than let him rape her.
So Yang finds himself at the edge of the desert, “in a busted town full of broken people”, and he starts to make a life for himself. He takes over his old friend’s laundry, plants a garden, and learns the beauty of making things grow instead of cutting them down. But the band of cowboys are still out there, as are the Sad Flutes. This can not end well.
The most surprising thing about the movie is how it seems to have come out of nowhere. I haven’t seen any indication of a comic book source, although the imagery is definitely inspired by comic book movies like 300. And Lee, the writer and director, seems to have sprung from nothing as well. There is no information about him on Wikipedia, and he has no other credits on IMDB, even for minor crew positions in foreign productions. Yet he clearly knows exactly what he’s doing at every step.
What the film lacks in an original plot, or even original characterizations, is more than made up for in how utterly gorgeous it is. Still moments are framed by panoramic establishing shots that emphasize the isolation of a tiny ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Lee balances cold, harsh blues and greys against warm, homey yellow-orange, with sprays of wildflowers somehow making a life in the middle of this harsh landscape.
But the fight sequences are what really make the movie tick. And here Lee brings a jeweler’s eye for detail. The choreography clicks together with clockwork precision, gliding smoothly from one snapshot pose to another. And the action interacts with the sound and the score in some extremely interesting ways. Watch and listen in particular for the polyrhythmic cadence of a machine-gun run amok, and you’ll understand the care that has gone into crafting these works of art.
So I have no idea where any of this came from, but I do know that I want more from the mind and the lens of Sngmoo Lee.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.