It was with some trepidation that I recently went to the theater to see director Yimou Zhang’s latest wuxia film, Curse of the Golden Flower. Not because I didn’t enjoy his two recent contributions to the genre, Hero and House of the Flying Daggers – quite the contrary, I enjoyed them both very much and own them both on DVD – but because I was worried that he might be overdoing his work in the genre. (In fact, I’ve been more anxious to see Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, the more traditional, humanist film Zhang did in between Daggers and Golden Flower – slated for release on DVD in the next month or so.) My concerns, however, were somewhat unfounded. Golden Flower is quite different from its predecessors, with much less emphasis on martial arts and instead focusing more upon the complex relationships of the ruling family.

While different, fans of the previous films will still be familiar with many of the elements Zhang uses in Golden Flower. There may be less action utilizing wire technology, but it’s certainly not gone altogether, as best evidenced by the film’s climatic epic battle scene. And the scenery and cinematography is still beautiful – golden3.jpgalthough it’s been moved largely away from the expansive outdoor scenes and into the interior of grand palaces, where an overabundance of artifical looking colors is actually a bit of overkill. The cast, too, may be familiar to some American audiences, particularly Chow Yun-Fat and Li Gong.

Most importantly, however, is that Golden Flower, like its predecessors, has a strong, intelligent story. The theme of this film is the (dis)harmony of Heaven and Earth. The history of Imperial China was founded on the belief that the emperor had been handed the Mandate of Heaven to rule on earth in harmonious accord with the heavens above. The emperor, thus, was aligned with Heaven, and his earthly subjects, in theory, were to fall in line with him on down to the lowliest peasant. It is this idea on which Confucianism is largely based. The film starts out with a striking scene of harmony, juxtaposing yin-yang type imagery as it goes back and forth between female palace maidens preparing for the day and powerful, armored soldiers on horseback galloping through the wilderness. Yet, such balance quickly disappears as one becomes increasingly involved with the lives golden.jpgof the royal family, all of whom – including the emperor – have let their human ambitions lead them down dangerous paths of plots and counterplots. It is their attempts, in the end, to control their own destinies that leads them so far away from the Mandate of Heaven and threatens to tear the family apart at the seams.

Honestly, I did not enjoy Curse of the Golden Flower near as much as Zhang’s martial arts films, but I was happy that he tried to take the wuxia genre in a slightly different direction. It is only by taking such chances that further installments will stay fresh and be able to keep an interested audience. I might not see Golden Flower numerous times again in the future, but the story and some of the breathtaking scenes was certainly enough to make it worth seeing once.

Fearless (2006)

October 11, 2006

I promise that reviews more apropos of the Halloween season are forthcoming. However, some tedious fearless.jpgNetflix drama has currently set that schedule back a little. Instead, you’ll get the rare treat of a relatively new foreign release (rare because our local theater does not seem so keen on films with subtitles).  H and I went this past weekend to see Fearless, the Chinese film starring Jet Li. The film depicts the life of Huo Yuanjia, an influential martial arts master from the turn of the twentieth century. It was a time of turbulent change for China, which had come under the influence of many foreign powers. Yuanjia’s willingness to challenge foreign fighters in highly publicized matches made him a national hero. Fearless is based upon a true story, but apparently Huo Yuanjia’s legendary status in China has made it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction (Wikipedia isn’t always a reliable source, but it’s page on Yuanjia seems to give a fairly good intro to what we do and don’t know about his life). Regardless, the film does seem to do a good job of capturing the spirit of Yuanjia’s life, and, even more importantly, it shows why he is held in such high esteem by the Chinese.

It’s important to note that Fearless is not a wuxia film, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers. Personally, I love those films and find their blending of the real and the fantastic works wonderfully with their aesthetic objectives (I think I wrote a little about this in my review of Hero), but I know many people feel quite differently. I think such people might want to give Fearless a try. While it still has many of the elements present in the wuxia films – beautiful scenery, exciting fight scenes, etc. – the story is much more accessible to Western audiences. In fact, the basic storyline will likely seem quite familiar – a young person with limitless potential rapidly rises in the world, subsequently loses everything due to his/her arrogance, and must then go back to basics and learn that talent is meaningless without some higher purpose. fearless3.jpg(I know there are many American movies that follow this basic plot, but for some reason the only one I can think of right now is Rocky III. So if you imagine Rocky III without Mr. T, without “Eye of the Tiger,” without the Philadelphia accents. . . – aw, forget it, they’re nothing alike, just believe me when I say the basic plot will seem familiar.) Although this skeleton plot might seem common, the various subplots are actually quite sophisticated, dealing skillfully with many difficult subjects such as imperialism, patriotism, love, and friendship. As a result, what could easily have been just a straightforward martial arts movie becomes a moving film that effectively delivers many important life lessons.

Overall, I really enjoyed Fearless. It is a martial arts film, so of course there’s a lot of fighting. However, it’s a very mature film with many poignant themes, so even people who don’t typically enjoy a lot of action might still very well get something out of it. 

Infernal Affairs (2002)

September 20, 2006

Netflix had recommended the Chinese police-thriller Infernal Affairs to me numerous times before, and even though the plot sounded pretty cool, I had never checked it out – probably due in large part to the video cover that, when combined with the title, internal.jpgmakes it look like a late-night, softcore porn movie. I should have recognized this as that peculiar brand of racy Hong Kong film marketing and realized it would have absolutely no bearing on the film itself. I did not realize this, however, and so it was not until I recently heard about Martin Scorsese’s remake of the film (titled The Departed, coming out next month) that I decided to actually sit down and watch it. I was really glad I did.

Contemporary Asian films have been garnering an increasing amount of attention from the West and with good reason. Infernal Affairs is an example of one of the fine films currently being produced in China. From top to bottom, the production is high quality – the acting, the directing, the editing, but most of all with the story. The basic plot is simple: both the mob and the cops have infiltrated the other side with a mole; both sides know it; and both sides are in a race to discover the mole and get rid of him first. The script is well-written and suspenseful throughout. The one area I felt it was a little thin (and I feel pretty certain Scorsese might try to rectify this in his version) was in its internal2.jpgcharacterization of the two moles. While the story looks at the whole question of whether one can pretend to be somebody they’re not and still remain essentially the same, it gives the question only a cursory glance, failing to dig deep into what would be a rather engaging issue. Recognizing this led me to notice a certain trend. While I’m no authority on Asian cinema, from my limited experience, I have found that characterization in its films is often much less introspective than it is in western films. This led me to wonder for a while if this were indeed true and, if so, if it might not be due to cultural differences – i.e., due to Asian societies’ emphasis on conformity and unity over the individual – but I couldn’t come to anything conclusive on this. Anybody have any thoughts?

At any rate, it’s interesting how much American film is currently drawing from Asia. The J-horror and the wuxia/wire-fu films are, of course, the most obvious examples. The influence of such films are infusing American cinema with some much-needed originality and vitality. Movies like The Ring and The Grudge, for example, helped reinvigorate the American horror genre at a time when it seemed struggling to remain relevant. Sometimes taking the original premise of these films and tweaking them for American audiences and putting a huge Hollywood budget behind them can arguably make these films even more enjoyable than the originals (something that doesn’t always happen with remakes). Considering that it’s the skilled hands of Scorsese who’s remaking Infernal Affairs, I am hopeful that such might be the case with this film. One thing’s for sure, if he just sticks to the basic story of the original, then The Departed should certainly be a riveting tale.

Hero (2002)

August 30, 2006

hero.jpgI also had a chance this past weekend to revisit Hero. This was the second time I had seen the film – the first being when it was initially released in American theaters in 2004. My reaction now was virtually identical to what it was then. It’s a great film, beautiful and complex; however, when compared to 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, it seems, is the inevitable comparison), Hero falls short of its esteemed predecessor. (Perhaps I should break in with a brief caveat at this point: Crouching Tiger is one of my favorite films. I feel it blends narrative and style perfectly, and that it has a whole lot of everything cinema aspires to be. Needless to say, the bar is set pretty high when I start comparing other films to it.) The film has an impressive cast, not only starring the two Chinese actors most recognized by American audiences – Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi – but also Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, two of China’s stars who came to the world’s attention in In the Mood for Love and 2046. Hero follows Nameless (Li), a prefect whose slayings of the King of Qin’s greatest enemies permit him to hold royal audience within ten paces of the ruler. The king, however, begins to suspect that the supposed slayings never actually occured but rather were faked in order to bring Nameless within striking distance for a potential assassination attempt. A series of conflicting narratives unfold, and the film keeps you guessing until the very end as to what really happened.

Like both Crouching Tiger and House of the Flying Daggers, Hero is a modern-day wuxia film (a Chinese genre blending martial arts, chivalry, and philosophy) that utilizes wire technology for its impressive and beautiful action scenes. Though used all over the world now, the wire technology and its aesthetics seem particularly appropriate in these Asian films, where there is no definitive boundary between art and the martial arts (Hero, not coincidentally, compares swordplay to both music and calligraphy). The use of this wire technology, the breezy cinematography, and the colorful scenery are all hallmarks of these films, which use them to brilliant effect. Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, Hero has a tendency to overuse these elements. hero2.jpgDirector Yimou Zhang occasionally becomes so enamored with the colors and landscapes that they seem to preempt the story – which is the real heart of the film. As transfixing as the visuals are, their excess threatens to transform the film into one of those cases of “too much of a good thing.” This really is the only problem I have with Hero, and I certainly intend it as only a minor complaint.

On the other hand, the script is undeniably good. As Nameless gets closer to the king, not only are the viewers coming closer to the truth of the story, but as it turns out, they are getting closer to understanding the heart of the king himself. The complexity and texture of the narrative make Hero one of those films you can watch over and over again and still discover something new with each viewing. Not only that, but the quality of the acting and the film’s overall aesthetic appeal (though, as I said, it can be a bit much at times) mean that repeat viewings are hardly tedious. Overall, Hero is just another fine example of why China’s contemporary wuxia films have gathered such a following worldwide. I highly recommend it.