Action star Donnie Yen has teamed with two of the filmmakers behind the hit Hong Kong crime thriller "Infernal Affairs" for what they call a "humanized" take on an icon from China's fabled Three Kingdoms period.
The epic battles of armies and wits from the Three Kingdoms era inspired the classic Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and countless TV and film adaptations.
Some of the more recent major movie productions include John Woo's two-part series "Red Cliff," which starred Cannes-winning actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and Daniel Lee's 2008 film "Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon," which featured Andy Lau, Sammo Hung and Maggie Q.
So how to break new ground when drawing from old material? With "The Lost Bladesman," which will be released across Asia on April 28, co-directors and co-writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong have zoomed in on general Guan Yu and tried to craft a more earthly character out of Yen's portrayal.
Guan is a historical figure who has been deified by the Chinese people as a symbol of loyalty and justice. To this day, statues of Guan are common at restaurants and shops in Chinese communities around the world.
In "The Lost Bladesman," Guan tries to escape after willingly becoming a prisoner to rival warlord Cao Cao so he can protect the wife of the warlord he himself serves, who is also trapped. But Yen's Guan is no superhero, the directors told The Associated Press on the sidelines the movie's Hong Kong premiere late Friday.
"Our perspective is a more humanized perspective. Previous adaptations focused on historical fact and period costume. Our starting point was human nature," said Chong, who co-wrote the script to "Infernal Affairs" with Mak. The 2002 crime thriller, co-directed by Mak and Andrew Lau, was later remade as "The Departed" by Martin Scorsese and earned the American his first best director Oscar.
Yen's portrayal "made Guan Yu into an ordinary person," Chong said. "The Guan Yu we have seen in the past is more like a god. He is so holy he can't even touch a woman. Our story was constructed out of the daily encounters of Guan Yu."
Yen, who also was action choreographer on the movie, said Guan is such a storied character that he is happy he could carry the role at all.
"The fact that I am able to portray Guan Yunchang is a breakthrough," Yen told the AP, using one of Guan's alternative names. "If you portray him this way, people complain. If you portray him that way, people also complain. It is very hard to meet people's expectations."
But Chong said he was impressed with the improvement in Yen's acting skills.
"I think this is the best performance out of all of his movies," the co-director said during the news conference for the premiere.
Besides Yen, now one of Asia's most bankable actions stars after the recent success of his kung fu biopics "Ip Man" and Ip Man 2," "The Lost Bladesman" was also boosted by the casting of veteran Chinese actor Jiang Wen, who played Cao. Jiang's stardom has risen in recent years with his successful directing efforts, most recently the political satire "Let the Bullets Fly."
"Everyone know what a good actor he is. To be mentioned in the same breath as him, to be able to act with him is a big step forward for me," Yen said.
"His acting skills are impeccable. After working with him this time I came away with the impression that he is almost a national treasure," Mak said.