The Soldier and The General are diametrically opposed at first: one just wants to live a simple life unmolested by the world’s movers and shakers, and the other is a man who would sacrifice all to further his cause. They argue over that cause: The General says he fights so that “small potato” men like The Soldier can be free to live peacefully, and The Soldier retorts that he was living like that until guys like The General started this war. He makes it clear that it makes no real difference to “the little people” who is in power, because to them all rulers are the same.
The pair soon develop a grudging respect that grows into an almost friendship. They’re each other’s only sort-of allies (one is still technically kidnapping the other) as they’re chased by bears, angry peasants, barbarian hordes, and, finally, the forces of The General’s kingdom.
The General is one of the sons of the Wei king and his younger brother wants to kill him for the throne. The General and The Soldier might not have a common ally but they have multiple shared foes, which forces them together.
Little Big Soldier is the story of the ordinary lives swept up and ruined by supposedly great causes. The General may be the son of a king, but he’s learning that in some circumstances he’s just as powerless as anyone else. He sees for himself the havoc the war he’s waged for his beliefs makes of the lives he wants to protect. The thieving peasants and violent barbarians are simply people just trying to live around the ravages of war.
If the film has any message it’s that some great struggles are in vain. Better to adapt, to be swept along with the tide as The Soldier has, than to try to take a stand for your beliefs and allow others to die in service of them, like The General. It’s telling that The General’s particular cause isn’t really spelled out; it doesn’t matter, because the end result is the same. He goes back to his kingdom and the next time war comes to his doorstep he instantly surrenders. If what he’s truly fighting for is the continuation of his people, then far more are afforded that chance if he capitulates rather than engages in battle.
Americans are used to movies ending on higher or more hopeful notes than this one does. Even if they’re period films, stories where we know that the ending isn’t good for our protagonists, we find a way to follow them to a moment when spirits are lifted. The future seems bright, even if it ultimately isn’t, and then the screen fades to black.
Little Big Soldier’s ending is more somber than that, but it’s not without its hope: we might not have received traditional happy endings for The Soldier or The General, but as we learned through the film their lives are exemplar of anyone else’s. The world keeps turning, China unifies and expands, continues today as ordinary people keep living their lives. Strip away the surface trappings and people get up in the morning and go to bed at night, just as they always have. Maybe the brightest future isn’t a shining Utopia ruled by supreme ideology, but a world where it doesn’t matter who’s in power so long as simple people are free to enjoy simple pleasures.
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