Veteran filmmaker Gordon Chan’s God of War is a rarity among modern Chinese blockbusters: a smartly written, lavishly mounted period action epic with nary a bit of fantasy or slapstick comedy to be found. Most serious, historically minded epics coming out of China these days are dour, flag waving affairs, and while God of War comes with a  healthy dose of jingoism, there’s a decided balance and conflict to be found in this tale of Chinese soldiers battling invading Japanese pirates in the mid-16th century. It feels, quite appropriately, like a film from a bygone era, and its storyline is so nuanced and complex that it demands a viewer’s attention more than the average blockbuster. Sure, there’s plenty of spectacle and martial arts displays for viewers who want something a tad more visceral, but in terms of overall substance, God of War is quite the surprise.

God of War begins in 1557, mid-battle, as embattled Commander Yu Dayou (legendary performer Sammo Hung) and his troops have been trying to keep invading Japanese forces (cobbled together from mercenaries, samurai, and Ronin) from pillaging and claiming the Chinese coastline. Their efforts seem to be reaching an end thanks to an increasingly despondent and stressed out Commander and a thunderous Japanese offensive. The Japanese pirates see the resistance of the Chinese troops to be lacklustre and underwhelming. All that changes with the arrival of General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) to the front lines. Qi has no desire to be a war hero, and he knows his mission is potentially suicidal in scope, but some gutsy, cunning battle plans and hard-to-make choices will prove that he was the right man for the job.

I’m sure that the story behind God of War isn’t coming without a certain degree of political bias and patriotic slant, but it is a film that seeks to examine thought processes and decisions on both sides of the war. While the Chinese have to deal with coming back from crippling losses, the Japanese troops are facing a battle of ideologies. Established Japanese leader Kumasawa (Kurata Yasukai) wants to slowly bleed the Chinese dry in an effort to minimize casualties and injuries to their troops. Up and coming tactician and warrior Yamagawa (Koide Keisuke) wants to continue charging and pressuring the Chinese for a more glorious victory.

Both sides are dealing with their share of backstabbing, in-fighting, and treachery, but more importantly Chan (Fist of Legend, The Medallion, The Four) seeks to illustrate the differences and similarities between two up and coming military forces being used as pawns for grander imperial gains. The Japanese might be painted as the aggressors here, but both sides at this point are historically going through pronounced political, military, and ideological growing pains.

God of War is the rare kind of character drama that fleshes out each of its primary players in loving detail to underline what each of these figureheads means in a grader picture of history. These characters aren’t perfect avatars for what each of their respective countries are going through, but they constantly feel the brunt of their leaders’ demands. They are duty bound to things they never quite understand, making God of War a uniquely humanistic war picture. Again, I would strongly hesitate to call it historical gospel (particularly the notion that 3,000 Chinese soldiers were pitted against 20,000 Japanese fighters), and calling the Japanese “pirates” feels weirdly off-putting to me by western definitions of what that term entails. Chan’s desire to find empathy in most of these characters means there’s a unique balance that fosters respectability.

Chan bookends his film with a pair of elaborate, lengthy battle sequences, one rural and one urban (the latter of which takes place in two different cities concurrently). These bloody, brutal skirmishes comprise the bulk of the first and final thirty minutes, but while they appropriately underscore the hellishness of war, Chan also makes sure that character development doesn’t stop during them. Viewers always have something exciting to look at and something to think about and feel as everything is literally exploding around them. These characters are war heroes in their respective countries, but Chan and his writing team make sure that the viewer knows them not as historical signposts, but as flawed human beings with emotions of their own. Zhao, Keisuke, and Yasukai all get to the hearts and minds of their characters wonderfully, as does actress Wan Qian, as Qi’s wife, a strong woman who bravely helps to defend her community after a risky decision made by her husband to leave their village unprotected.

Outside of a few fleetingly obvious moments of CGI gore and fire, most of God of War’s elaborate effects are practically rendered, giving the battles and fights an earthy, gritty aesthetic that most modern period pieces from any culture tend to overlook in favour of the cheapest possible options. This sense of scale and attention to detail makes Chan’s film a lot more immersive than many of its brethren. Admittedly, it has a bunch of cool sword fights (especially the final showdown between  Kurata and Zhao) and rousing moments of troops charging into danger while arrows whiz dangerously about, but Chan wisely never forgets that war is nasty, brutish business, and often impossible to win without sacrificing hugely. It’s a great balance of scope, stakes, and storytelling that gives the audience what they want and a bunch of substance that they probably weren’t expecting to get.