Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)


There’s a little making-of featurette on the Miramax DVD of Hero[1] that has some decent interviews with the cast and crew along with some breathless Hollywood narration. Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen speak impeccable English, which makes one wonder what might have been if Hollywood wasn’t so racist and dumb, while Ching Siu-tung sports some questionably-dyed hair and Christopher Doyle complains about the lack of bars in the remote deserts of Western China. After the usual rigamarole about shooting challenges and directorial perfectionism, someone asked Zhang Yimou what he thought the film was about, which he either answered honestly or deftly dodged by asserting that what he wanted people to take from the film, long after they’ve forgotten the plot, are the memories of certain images: two women in red fighting among swirling yellow leaves, two sorrowful men flying and dueling on a lake as still as a mirror, a sky of black arrows, a desert moonscape haunted by lonely figures in white. Taken at his word, he undoubtedly succeeded: Hero builds upon the aestheticization of wuxia begun with Ashes of Time and made popular by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: it’s undeniably beautiful. His two follow-up films, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are as well, but where the former luxuriates in the irrational melodrama of tragic romance and the latter is consumed by the emptiness at the heart of its own baroque decadence, there’s a reticence to Hero, a by-product of its episodic structure, narrative instability and potentially repellent politics.

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This Week in Rankings

The last few weeks have been eventful here at The End. Since the last update I made a list of 150 of my Favorite Chinese-Language Films and announced a grand restructuring of my now four-year long and seemingly never-ending project on The Chinese Cinema. It was also awards time, and in addition to the 2016 Endys, I handed out fake movie awards to the films of 1989 and 1988.

Over at Seattle Screen Scene, I wrote about Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. At the Mubi Notebook, I wrote about Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

First Avenue, Seattle, Washington, No. 8 (James H. White) – 1897
Romance of a Fruit Peddler (Zhang Shichuan) – 10, 1922
Romance of the Western Chamber (Hou Tao) – 8, 1927
The Goddess (Wu Yonggang) – 18, 1934
Song of China (Fei Mu & Luo Mingyou) – 25, 1935

Sunday in Peking (Chris Marker) – 30 1956
Diao Chan (Li Han-hsiang) – 18, 1958
Eight Taels of Gold (Mabel Cheung) – 10, 1989
A Fishy Story (Anthony Chan) – 18, 1989
Miracles: Mr. Canton & Lady Rose (Jackie Chan) – 30, 1989

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (Karen Thorsen) – 40, 1990
Once Upon a Time in China IV (Yuen Bun) – 71, 1993
Once Upon a Time in China V (Tsui Hark) – 45, 1994
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Derek Kwok) – 6, 2013
Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo) – 12, 2013

Blanket Statement #2: It’s All or Nothing (Jodie Mack) – 54, 2014
Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo) – 10, 2016
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck) – 15, 2016
Curses (Jodie Mack) – 47, 2016
Cave of Sighs (Nathan Douglas) – 53, 2016

A Chinese Odyssey Part 3 (Jeffrey Lau) – 79, 2016
The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou) – 99, 2016
Weeds on Fire (Chan Chi-fat) – 109, 2016
On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sangsoo) – 1, 2017
Get Out (Jordan Peele) – 2, 2017

Chang-ok’s Letter (Shunji Iwai) – 3, 2017
Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back (Tsui Hark) – 4, 2017
The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay) – 5, 2017
John Wick Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski) -6, 2017

The Chinese Cinema

Four years ago, in the spring of 2013, I caught a particularly vicious strain of cinephilia. I’d been a guest on the They Shot Pictures podcast a couple of times, talking about Josef von Sternberg, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, and we decided to sneak in an episode on Johnnie To before my second child was due at the end of March. To was a director I thought I knew fairly well, having caught a handful of his works over the years, but I quickly learned that his filmography was far more extensive, and varied, than I’d imagined. I spent six weeks watching almost nothing but his films and still didn’t manage to see them all before we recorded the show, which as a result covered only his Milkyway Image period. The next few months were a blur, as anyone who’s had a newborn in the house understands, but by the middle of May, I was pretty regularly heading into Seattle to pick up a week’s worth of movies from Scarecrow Video. It was usually the kind of eclectic blend that I’d been watching and writing about for years: silent films, Classic Hollywood, European movies, along with a sidelong glance at the new action cinema then trending under the Vulgar Auteurism label. But one day I snagged Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors on a whim: I’d never seen a Sammo film before, I knew him only from his late 90s CBS TV series with Arsenio Hall, and from then on there was no escape: I’d caught the Chinese Cinema bug.

Within a week I’d declared the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo, and spent the next three months devouring Hong Kong films, more than 80 of them in the end, ranging from Shaw Brothers classics to hard-to-find New Wave masterpieces to oddball 80s and 90s comedies. The Summer ended, but I couldn’t let it go and by November I’d begun the Running Out of Karma project, which was intentionally designed as a digressive, rambling look at Hong Kong film history with a chronological exploration of Johnnie To’s career forming the spine of the work. But the digressions quickly took over: I covered To’s first three films in the final two months of 2013, but then only wrote about one film each in 2014 and 2015, and two in 2016 (I did write about six of his other films during that time, but out of order). In that time I’ve seen over 340 Chinese-language films, and written long reviews of more than 100 of them. So clearly, roping it all under the rubric of a Johnnie To project has become increasingly absurd, and the index I’ve used to link to all my reviews has become unmanageably long. Compounding my organizational trouble is that halfway through the project, I moved from blogger over to wordpress, which meant that all my old links, in both reviews and indices, go to the old website, and all my old reviews look poorly formatted on the new website.

So what I want to do is scrap the whole chronological To conceit and reorganize all the old reviews, from Running Out of Karma, the Summer of Sammo, and my pre-Sammo years, along with all my future writings, into one massive project called The Chinese Cinema. The callback to Andrew Sarris’s book The American Cinema is intentional: I’m going to sort everything by director, and group each director in slightly modified versions of Sarris’s categories (Pantheon, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica, etc). It’s not the only possible way to organize such a large subject, or the only valuable one, but it’s the one I’m most comfortable with both because I’m a classical auteurist at heart and because it’s the most open-ended approach, the one most easily built-upon and revised over time.

This will entail a lot of editing of those old reviews, some of them are in pretty poor shape, not just in formatting but grammatically and orthographically. But it will create a much firmer foundation for the work going forward, and should make the site much easier to use and to read. And it would even allow me to compile it all into some kind of a book format, if there’s any interest in such a thing. As it stands now, the whole work is well over 200,000 words. And I’ve still got a massive number of Subjects for Further Research. Because the great and terrible thing about cinephilia is that the more movies you watch, the more you understand how many other movies there are that you absolutely need to see.