Martial Arts Films: (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; House of Flying Daggers; Curse of the Golden Flower)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ("Wo hu cang long", 2000, Sony Pictures Classics/Columbia Asia, dir. Ang Lee) was this director's most famous film before "Brokeback Mountain." It is the ultimate martial arts tale in western China (Sinkiang) with combatants climbing walls and levitating through the air as in a dream. To a westerner, the story is a bit artificial. Chow Yun-Fat is Li, pursuing Yu (Michelle Yeoh), as a mysterious assassin intrudes into the story involving pursuing a stolen sword as if it were a kind of grail. The plot outline, much of it centering around unveiling the assassin, bears some structural resemblance to Clive Barker's fantasy Imajica, for whom Mr. Lee would be a leading choice for director if the latter project were to be attempted by a studio with about a hundred million to spend..

 I mention Hero, from dir. Zhang Yimou (Miramax, 99 min, PG-13, 2002) is a stylized marital arts movie that takes the hero concept and also crosses into the art genre and science fiction through abstraction.  High school students may now be learning in world history how China came into being from a union of some kingdoms starting with Qin in the 3rd Century BC, but what we have here is an abstract art map that presents ancient China on location as if it were another planet. There is a grandeur and other-world creation here that could almost rival LOTR.  There is the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) confronted by Nameless (Jet Li) who claims to have killed all of the King’s potential assassins. This leads to the a series of stories that map to various colors, art and landscape themes and martial arts methods, that defy gravity and make you think of Superman flying but really transcend manipulations of personality and character. Robert Ebert provides a detailed explanation (or, rather, a “solution”) at his site at suntimes.com.  What matter here is first the film-making itself: with the manipulation and assmbly of natural colors, the Yimou attains the most surreal on-location landscape photography I have ever seen—perhaps the surface of Titan, soon to be explored by Cassini, will look like the Nobs desert. Then the hero concept itself—it seems to come from within rather than by putting on costumes or going through rituals (even the calligraphy)--- in that way the underlying paradigm is like Smallville. The effects, where objects (not always swords) people and light move in a hypnotic synchronicity, communicate a reality of living in a different world—another planet, have you—where all assumptions about what matter are up for grabs. The 2.3 to 1 Super Panavision print that I saw had precision and detail that I have seen in few films since VistaVision or ToddAO.  Film museums like AFI will show this for years. Perhaps this was a 70mm print, it seems like it had to be. This film was made before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I’m not sure what legal issues held up it’s release. China is certainly up to world-class filmmaking. This film is a real experience. 5 stars! 

 I was not quite as impressed with the cinematography of the similar House of Flying Daggers (2003, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Zhang Yimou, PG-13, 119 min), apart from the autumn-to-winter scene and the battle in the high trees. But Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, who looks part Caucasian), mostly clad in blue, is a fine gentle hero, too, in a convoluted plot about a Robin Hood-like group, dynasty intrigue, and a woman Yee (Sang Dandan) who impersonates a blind woman.

 Curse of the Golden Flower (“Man cheng jon dai huang jin jia”, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Yimou Zhang, play by Yu Cao, 115 min, R, Hong Kong, in Mandarin with subtitles) is visually the gaudiest yet, with the palace interiors always like crystalline rainbow prisms, and fields of gold chrysanthemums. The story has the complexity and intrigue of Shakespeare, and lots of weird intrigues, including hidden incest, and a plot to poison a rival lady with a fungus so that she develops what amounts to Alzheimer’s Disease. There is even involvement of the court eunuch. The martial arts are more clearly “explained” with ropes and strings, as in a sensational attack on a rural outpost from cliffs above. There is plenty of gore by the sword, with the suggestion of amputations. But, unlike the previous films, there is little to admire in any heroic characters. The emporer (Yun-Fat Chow) makes a lot of the fact that as lord, he giveth and he taketh away, and that the lives of all of his children are extensions of his own functioning sexuality. This film really does ask us to live in a different dominion for two hours.  

Other films about heroes (like "Superman Returns" etc.) here.

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