Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

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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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Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992)

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“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong

“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung

“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun

Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar

I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself

In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.

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Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991)

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Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.

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Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets

 

So Jiang Wen made a Wong Jing movie. . .

I saw the Thai DVD, which is the first version I’ve seen that has English subtitles. The running time is 119 minutes. Wikipedia and IMDB give it a running time of 140 minutes, with a 120 minute international cut, while Screen Daily‘s review from the Berlin Film Festival says it’s 134 minutes. I have no idea what’s been removed for this international cut, but I doubt the added footage would make the movie any more or less coherent.

Jiang plays a conman in 1920s Shanghai. In an opening parody of the first scene of The Godfather, he agrees to help the youngest son of the local warlord general launder his money. To do so, he spends it all on an extravagant pageant to crown the Best Hooker in Shanghai, complete with musical numbers (“a song so new Mr. Gershwin won’t even write it for ten years!”), fireworks, live radio coverage around the world and Shu Qi offering to sleep with 30 rich men in 30 nights and give all her proceeds to the poor. Shortly thereafter, she proposes to Jiang (they are old friends and lovers), he tries to talk her out of it in a melange of artificial sets and dizzying cutting (every line gets its own shot, the effect of which, given the screwball pace of the exchanges, is something like watching a Baz Luhrmann movie on amphetamines), culminating in an opium dreams of a wild musical car trip. The morning after, Shu Qi is dead and Jiang spends the rest of the movie on the run, accused of her murder.

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Running Out of Karma: A Moment of Romance III

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

For his final film before launching the Milkyway Image studio, Johnnie To took a super-generic script, applied a Steven Spielberg visual aesthetic, and almost made an FW Murnau movie out of it. A rarity for To, a period film, a romance set during the second World War, with Andy Lau as a pilot who crash lands in a remote village and is nursed back to health by Jacklyn Wu (these two stars are the only connection to the other A Moment of Romance films: in Hong Kong, spiritual sequels can be numbered as actual sequels, they need not be in any other way related). They fall in love and when he returns to the war effort, she follows him to the big city, splitting the film neatly into country/city halves like Crocodile Dundee.

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Running Out of Karma: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

A straight-to-Netflix multinational English language collaboration that is the sequel to the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history, Sword of Destiny reunites star Michelle Yeoh with the action choreographer from the first film, Yuen Woo-ping. Belonging more rightly to the CGI-driven Chinese wuxias of the 2010s (and the cheaper ones at that: it’s more Reign of Assassins than than Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) the digitally-aided filmic art house wuxias of the early 2000s, the new film is worlds apart from Ang Lee’s original, and that’s, as much as anything, the difference between Lee and Yuen. What made the first film truly great is the combination their two sensibilities: Lee’s character-based approach to personal drama, romantic relationships constricted by social rules reflected in carefully composed, controllingly symmetrical compositions added to Yuen’s gorgeous choreography, every movement of the actors and stunt performers motivated by an ideology of fighting, reflecting their personalities, their worldview (Chow’s patient precision, Cheng’s wild flailing, Zhang’s exuberant virtuosity, Yeoh’s passionate intellectuality).

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Running Out of Karma: All About Ah-Long

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

We’re now over two years into this project, intended as both a chronological journey through the work of Johnnie To and a highly digressive exploration of Chinese cinema. The digressions were in full effect in 2015, as I wrote and talked about the careers of Hou Hsiao-hsien and John Woo in detail. However, I’ve fallen farther behind than I would have liked on the filmography of To himself, with only two films covered over the past two years. I’m hoping to correct that this spring, with the goal of getting through To’s pre-Milkyway Image period by the end of 2016. We’ll see how that goes, but here’s the story so far:

After an auspicious, if commercially unsuccessful, debut with the New Wave wuxia The Enigmatic Case in 1980, To spent the early 80s working in Hong Kong television. In 1986 he returned to film working under Raymond Wong Bak-ming at the Cinema City studio, he he made the popular, if not especially distinguished comedies Happy Ghost 3 and Seven Years Itch. These were followed in 1988 by a pair of films, the smash hit farce The Eighth Happiness and the contemporary crime picture The Big Heat. He followed that up in 1989 with All About Ah-Long, a domestic melodrama that became the number one film of the year at the Hong Kong box office, the second year in a row a To film had accomplished that feat. The film reunited To with Eighth Happiness star Chow Yun-fat and Seven Years Itch star Sylvia Chang. Like all of To’s previous four films it was produced by Raymond Wong for Cinema City, but it is a much more dramatically ambitious work. Cinema City at their best was a freewheeling, anarchic studio where anything was possible. The loose atmosphere was responsible for some of the greatest films of the decade (in Hong Kong or otherwise), but also a whole lot of just bizarrely silly nonsense (the Yuen-Woo-ping directed Mismatched Couples, for example, in which Yuen tried to make Donnie Yen a star with a breakdancing comedy). The Eighth Happiness exemplified the lunatic side of the studio, an improvisational, tasteless and often hilarious comedy that helped establish the template for a certain type of all-star Lunar New Year comedy (a tradition that continues to this day).

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