Silk Road, The

In its grand, sweeping style, The Silk Road, the new Chinese-Japanese co-production, will remind viewers of the movies of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa. Set in China, in the eleventh century, during the Song Dynasty, this sumptuous saga contains all the ingredients for a great epic film: romance, warfare, power, friendship and betrayal.

However, director Junya Sato, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tsuyoshi Yoshida, fails to integrate the fascinating historical detail, spectacle, and human story into a compelling and entertaining movie.

The narrative, based on the l959 prize-winning novel, Dun Huang, chronicles the adventures of Zhao Xingte (Koichi Sato), an earnest young man who, unexpectedly, fails the civil servants exams. His uncertain fate changes, when he saves the life of a beautiful slave woman (Yoshiko Mita), who is about to be sliced up and sold in sections. The woman rewards him with her only valuable possession, a permit to enter a small desert nation. The passport is written in the newly-created language of Xixia, a language he has never seen before. Suspecting that Xixia is not as backward as the Chinese authorities believe, Zingte sets out to prove his point by studying its culture and people. He joins a group of artisans, whose mission is to restore Buddhist frescos at the desert outpost of Dun Huang, a center of Buddhist study and a strategic stopover for pilgrims on the Silk Road to India and the West.
In an ironic turn of events, carefully documented in the movie, Xingte is reluctantly transformed into a warrior. During a

battle, he saves the life of Tsurpia (Anna Nakagawa), a dashing swordswoman, and falls in love with her. The story gets more complex, when Zingte discovers that his erstwhile friend and commander, Zhu Wanglie (Toshiyuki Nishida), is also in love with Tsurpia, who is now the mistress of Li Yuanhao, the King of Xixia.

The movie contains awesome long shots of the vast desert and extraordinary sunrises and sunsets. In his color scheme and compositions, director Sato may have been influenced by David Lean and Kurosawa's great spectacles, Kagemusha and Ran. The recreation of armor, costume and weaponry is meticulous. And the pageantry, the extravagantly choreographed combats, with the warriors in their uniforms preparing for warfare, are spectacularly shot and framed.

However, unlike Lean and Kurosawa's grand-scale movies, which combine spectacle and humanism and feature strong and complex characters, The Silk Road is an epic film without an epic hero. The characters in this film have no interior lives. The film's style is so rigid and formal and its narrative strategy so detached that its chief characters are not engaging emotionally.

Xingte is potentially a great epic hero, a wide-eyed scholar who reluctantly becomes a man of action and a warrior. But at the end of the film, Zingte's enigmatic hero is only slightly more understood than at its beginning. What The Silk Road needs is the kind of thick narrative and human characterization that Hollywood's better swashbuckling adventures (say Ivanhoe, or Gunga Din) had. In The Silk Road, however, the story of a young scholar's self-discovery and coming of age is simply not compelling.

The very ending of the film is also a letdown, negating the epic spirit that preceded it. A narrator, speaking in English, informs the viewers that the Buddha Caves and scrolls of religious texts, which Zingte fought so hard to save, were actually discovered in l900.

Set against a large canvas of desert welfare and chivalry, The Silk Road is extremely effective in conveying the feel of the war-torn tribal fringes. And the sight of the famous caves, where artisans created their art in honor of Buddha, is truly exciting. Shot on location, in China's Gobi Desert, the visuals of The Silk Road are strong, but they can carry the movie only up to a point.