Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
If anybody could explain the career of Zhang Yimou, I would gladly have a listen. From color-soaked neo-noir to elegant palace intrigue, from glossy wuxia spectaculars to small-scale dramas, this filmmaker has charted a course that defies logic (and sometimes seems dictated from on high, as is the case with some Chinese directors). Oh, and there was also The Great Wall. I don’t get it.
But the man can make a movie when he puts his mind to it, and his latest, Shadow, plays at the Grand Illusion Cinema this week. I use this release as an excuse to recall what his martial-arts extravaganzas Hero and House of Flying Daggers looked like when they arrived in Seattle in 2004 (Hero was delayed for a couple of years). Here are those reviews, originally published in the Everett Herald, and fingers crossed for Shadow.
The wide release of Hero suggests that somebody thinks this colorful Chinese film has the Crouching Tiger touch. It’s not at that level, but it’s definitely a kick.
Sometime in ancient China, a nameless warrior (played by martial-arts superstar Jet Li) returns to the king who sent him out on a mission. Received alone in the great room of the king’s palace, the warrior recounts, in flashback, the great feats he has accomplished: namely, victories over three assassins who were threats to the king. These assassins are two men known as Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Sky (Donnie Chen), and a lethal female warrior called Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Each flashback is suspenseful and strikingly staged.
And yes, as in Crouching Tiger, the warriors seem to have the inexplicable ability to defy gravity as they fight.
The king, sagely played by Daoming Chen, listens to these stories, but is suspicious. He begins suggesting his own possible version of events. This aspect of the picture—the nameless warrior in a battle of wits with the king—is actually as intriguing as the physical battles.
Hero is directed by Zhang Yimou, whose films Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern catapulted him to international prominence over a decade ago. Here, Zhang gives himself over to spectacle, serving up a slice of entertainment that requires no translation in any language.
And what spectacle. A duel fought on a lake, its protagonists skirting the water, a mountain reflected on the surface. A showdown in a field of yellow leaves, their hue somehow morphing blood-red as the fight goes on. The deeply saturated color brings back the early days of Zhang’s movies, when he was drunk on color (Ju Dou was actually set at a dye factory). Hero is a pictorial explosion, a comic book come to life.
I couldn’t help thinking Zhang was working a little below his talent, but he can certainly fill the screen up with pretty pictures as well as anybody else. Plus, he’s got the powerhouse cast of actors, including the awesomely cool Maggie Cheung (In the Mood For Love) and the splendid young Crouching Tiger ingenue, Zhang Ziyi. Needless to say, Jet Li is more than up to the task of taking on all comers.
Hero played to big box-office in Asia in 2002, but its stateside release has taken a while. Finally it’s here under the banner of “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” which simply means Mr. T liked it. If that’s what it takes to jump-start this movie’s release, so be it.
The House of Flying Daggers
Has Zhang Yimou turned himself into the James Cameron of China? Zhang, who began his career directing fascinating character studies such as Raise the Red Lantern, has lately given himself over to splashy epics aimed at the international market. Earlier this year, Zhang’s Hero proved a swashbuckling hit. Following it closely is House of Flying Daggers, another color-soaked, action-packed picture.
Like Hero, Flying Daggers is a fun exercise. And its dizzying cinematography and production design will have you needing an eye bath when it’s over.
The story has some nice surprises which should be withheld, but we can say this much: during a time of rebellion in the Tang dynasty, two government deputies, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are informed that a spy is employed at a lavish brothel. This is the excuse for a dazzling dance sequence, in which the suspect, the blind Mei (Zhang Ziyi), does a dance involving a circle of drums and her own five-foot-long sleeves.
Not long after, Jin helps her break out of jail and escape through the countryside to her rebel group, known as the Flying Daggers. What follows are some exciting action sequences (Jin is a mean hand with bow and arrow, while Mei excels at throwing knives), as well as the spectacle of Jin falling hopelessly in love with Mei. And Leo is going to come back into it, too.
The action is pretty awesome. A sequence in which Jin and Mei must fight their way through a bamboo forest, as sharpened bamboo shafts come raining down at them, is a blast. It all builds to a sequence that has an operatic feel: big emotions, played out on a broad canvas. The battle is set against an autumn forest that eerily changes colors.
Along with their martial-arts appeal, I have a theory that these movies are catching on with American audiences because they are so openly, broadly emotional. Most Hollywood genre films are couched in irony, but not most Asian thrillers.
The serious-faced Zhang Ziyi, who has been Zhang Yimou’s muse on his last few pictures (and was the ingénue of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), continues to enchant. Her dancing’s pretty impressive, too.
As well made as Hero and House of Flying Daggers are, they still strike me as confections, less filling than Zhang’s earlier movies. As desserts go, they’re just fine.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.