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Heaven’s Mandate

Author: Boris Layupan
Genre: Action/Martial-Arts Epic
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 2
Characterization: 2
Writer’s Potential: 2

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A spiritual nun’s journey leads her to become embroiled in an imperial revolution.


Six-year-old CHING and her family of peasant farmers — along with the rest of their village — are taken prisoner by a Germanic tribe led by LO. Soon after, a half-Turkish half-Iranian warrior named AN LUSHAN leads his soldiers in an assault on the camp, freeing the peasants. Ching’s father sends her into a Buddhist convent, where she learns spiritual enlightenment and swordfighting. When she’s 21, ABBESS YU (her spiritual leader) sends Ching on a quest with another young nun, SENG. Yu gives Ching a sword called the Heavenglaive, which legend says will be incredibly powerful in the hands of the right person — only rivaled by its “brother” sword, the Dragonrill.

Ching and Seng set about on their journey. On their way, they run across Ching’s village and find that her family has died, the victim of overtaxation. She swears to avenge her family’s death. Meanwhile, in a capital city called Luoyang, a woman in her 30s named KEUI-FEI practices with the Dragonrill sword. She is EMPEROR LI LONGJI’s lady — the woman behind the man. He doesn’t make decisions or have opinions — everything he says or does is filtered through her, and she uses this to her advantage.

Ching and Seng arrive at the aftermath of a battle. They meet with an older An Lushan, who rejects them as some sort of joke the Shaolin monks are playing on him. He does battle with Ching, who matches him. It ends in a stalemate, and he acknowledges her skill and allows her presence. Lushan leads his men — accompanied by Ching and Seng — to a mountain pass blocked by Chinese military. Baffled, unable to figure out a way around, Lushan’s angry, until Ching and Seng show him a smaller pass they used earlier.

The following day, Ching and Seng save the day once again, helping Lushan’s forces past a river. He reveals his intentions to go to Luoyang and do away with the emperor. They take the city, then the palace. Longji and Keui-fei are about to make their escape when Ching approaches them with the Heavenglaive. Keui-fei gets Longji out of there, then battles Ching with her Dragonrill. It’s another draw, and Keui-fei leaves before more soldiers can take her out. Lushan takes his seat at the Emperor’s throne. Ching accosts her about soldiers out raping and pillaging in the city. Lushan is unconcerned; he has to plan to continue on to the country’s capital, Chang’an. Chang’an is exactly where Longji, Keui-fei, and many of the imperial ministers have fled to. They prepare a counterattack.

Lushan learns that much of the population hasn’t registered for taxation. He announces that swift punishments will come to those who don’t register. Ching looks on, disappointed. That evening, Lushan and the soldiers celebrate. Ching is unhappy. She takes her grievances to Lushan, and they sleep together. The next morning, Ching is horrified for defying her vows. Lushan decides to distribute grain at lower prices instead of taxing citizens.

In Chang’an, Longji is disappointed to discover that most of the province supports Lushan. They enlist Lo and his Germanic warriors to fight Lushan’s forces. He agrees, noting they have an old score to settle. After doing a lot of good works in Luoyang, Ching and Seng walk through the garden. They’re attacked by Longji’s men; Seng is killed, and Ching is kidnapped and taken back to Chang’an. Keui-fei tries to enlist Ching’s aid on Longji’s side. She refuses. Later, Longji has Ching taken to his chamber to ask why so many are in support of Lushan and not Longji.

Lushan and Lo do battle; Lushan’s side wins and proceeds on toward Chang’an. When Keui-fei sees the influence Ching is having over Longji and his ruling, she tries to have her killed. Longji stops her. Lushan and his warriors strategize their attack on Chang’an. Keui-fei wants Longji to flee to Sichuan, insisting they execute Ching before they leave. Longji refuses, saying Ching should come with them. Keui-fei and Ching do battle with their respective mystical swords; Keui-fei wins, leaving Ching to die. Lushan arrives just a moment too late.

Six years later, return to devastate Luoyang. Apparently they squashed Lushan’s rebellion. Longji insists they will rebuild China.


No characters. No defined personalities, no real character-based conflicts, ham-fisted and cliché-ridden dialogue — all of this made this script an exceptionally tough and lifeless read. What conflicts exist (usually contrived clichés) are settled by the sword, but these action sequences are more tedious than exciting because the author never builds up a level of concern over the characters or jeopardy over what happens. Ching is arguably the main character, and her death should be the most devastating moment in the screenplay, but the author never establishes any kind of characterization, so the death just feels like another hollow plot device.

On the subject of hollow plot devices, the story never takes off. Part of it can be blamed on the lack of interesting characters — nobody seems to have any kind of motivation or clear agendas to do the things they do. Why does An Lushan have such a strong desire to annihilate the emperor? Even before that, why does he disrupt the Germanic tribe’s kidnapping of peasants? The big question for not just Lushan but every character in this script is a big fat “why?!” The only character who comes close to having any kind of motivation is Ching, who is angered over the death of her family. To a lesser extent, Keui-fei’s desire to murder Ching seems decently motivated.

These characters have room for complexities that go untapped: Why do An and Lushan fall in love? It’s the least convincing romance I’ve ever read on paper. What compels them? Why is Keui-fei so obsessed with being a Machiavellian puppeteer of the emperor? What, exactly, is she getting out of it? Is she the sole cause of Longji’s poor ruling? To that end, why does Longji allow her to call the shots? What is it about her that’s so special to him? Why can’t he see through her? On a general level, what’s the point of Lo’s story? He starts the story, disappears for 60 pages, and returns to get killed almost immediately? I’ve never heard of roaming bands of Germanic tribes living in ancient China, so that was an interesting detail, but it amounts to nothing more than that.

Without any sort of motivation for any of the actions, it’s exceptionally difficult to gain momentum in the story. The structure feels weak as a result — there are no clear act breaks, only the vaguest notion of plot points, and nothing resembling arcs. Much of what could be a story arc — Lushan’s rise from successful, supported empire-usurper to utter failure — is eliminated in an abrupt flash-forward in the last few pages. It’s kind of astounding how little this feels like reading a dramatic work. Even with undeveloped characters, it doesn’t tell a compelling story.

Perhaps if the characters are fleshed out, there’s hope for this screenplay. Figure out who these people really are, create character arcs, figure out who the protagonist and antagonist are and clearly define those roles, and pick apart the bones of this story to create something that feels more structured, more interesting, and more entertaining.

Posted by D. B. Bates on July 15, 2006 6:44 PM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Professional Script Coverage

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