House of Flying Daggers
I suppose that, at some level, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a marital-arts action picture, and a pretty terrific one at that. The thing is, and this is no surprise for someone who knows a thing or two about Zhang Yimou’s history as a dramatist who uses color, framing, and motion to define mood and texture, it just doesn’t feel like an action film, and it functionally has almost no interest in being one. Yimou is a great director of action, but not necessarily an action director, if that makes sense; he takes what would be action in another film and transforms the excitement into a far different beast, much less about what is happening and who is defeating/ battling who than the motion of the filled-in spaces on screen and their battle with the empty spaces dancing around them. House of Flying Daggers is an exciting film, but its excitement is far too abstracted, too cognitive and distanced and reflective, to fit comfortably into the bounds of “action” as it is conventionally defined.
Nonetheless, the film’s fight sequences are a stunning combination of craft and art, constructed not as brutal beat-downs but as theater, openly artificial but nonetheless imbued with direct performative flourishes and transcendental luster. An early scene literally transitions from dance-performance to fight, but the rest of the film is a study in how the two are one in the same. Characters dance around each other with transitive grace. All the while, shots sway in and out of the trees and the fields and follow the people as they move with the rhythm of poetry. An extended sequence in a field moves with such precise beauty it cannot be contained, with the camera following knives which flow around and into the characters’ hearts. The people themselves move around the field not like scrappy fighters clinging to life but like proud masters of an art, their swords extended outward to flicker against the tall grass and caress the weeds as they bend toward the whims of the breeze. The camera becomes a person in the middle of the fights, paradoxically, as the people become stagecraft and part of the scenery.
Throughout, color takes center-stage in both the film’s mythical, open-ended natural hunting ground and its occasional detours to man-made backdrops, enhancing and separating colors so that they play out a battle among themselves. Yimou bleeds the two environments, natural and artificial, together later in the film with a rebel group that makes its home in the forest. A mid-film dramatic height centers a fight in a bamboo field which takes on the appearance of an art installation in the making, with combatants almost working together to leave the most lasting impact on the land they can. This sequence is tremendous, and is perhaps more self-conscious of and expressive with motion than any action scene ever filmed. Later on, in the film’s final confrontation, two men duel on a lush, grassy, even sickly green high-contrast field that suddenly frosts over in the contemptuous, forbidding white of a blizzard carried in on their emotional torment and fury. The white cuts through the frame and galvanizes the fight, enticing the gods of time to paint the quarrel as an endless battle through the seasons of human conflict.
For such a visual filmmaker, Zhang Yimou also has a remarkable grasp of sound. From the metallic clang of bending swords to the effervescent fury of a babbling brook to the aforementioned positively stunning internal battle between bamboo thrown into the air and the wind venturing through its hollow center, this is a stunning film to listen to. Every sound carries earthy weight yet flies with the essence of a magisterial mythic land not of Earth. The fights play like the tribal clatter of music that makes up the soundtrack to a landscape of the mind. It’s perhaps poetically fitting as well, since one of the main characters is blind and sound takes a central role in how she interprets the world. Yimou understands this power and does the same for the sounds of the film and his world.
Does it make logical sense? The base narrative tracks guard captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) as he courts Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a courtesan who may secretly be a member of the House of Flying Daggers rebel group, plotting to take down the oppressive Tang dynasty, when Jin’s affections get the better of him and complicate the mission. Its not thematically nuanced material, nor always especially sensible from a logical perspective, but it is filmically lush and gloriously uncomplicated in a remarkably emotionally sensible, fluent way. Things unfold with the air of classical tragedy (Yimou’s specialty), or the sensual, sensory aura of an ageless tall tale, eschewing the specifics of character sense and favoring the histrionics of pure emotion. Characters show up for the battles right on time not because it makes logical sense, but because it makes emotional sense. The film follows a certain ennobled poetry of action which dictates its narrative beats, and this is Yimou’s way. The story is second to, and defined primarily by, the film’s visual logic. This is, above all, the finest ballet of its decade, and that, more than anything, is what matters most.
Kung Fu Hustle
Update 2019: Watching (and adoring) Kung Fu Hustle all over again, I’m enamored not only of its Bugs Bunny physicality but the way it finally and ultimately mocks the stereotype that all Asians know martial arts while still honoring that tradition, not as a given but, rather, as an empathetic portrait of working-class community found in unheralded locations. All the while, it deliriously pokes fun at the then-recent Hong Kong films, all of which seem to comment on Westernization by analyzing the 1930s as another era of severe social transformation and Westernization in Asia.
Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle does many things, nearly all messily, and nearly all of them are monumental fun and perfect in their delightful imperfections. This is less martial arts film than a cartoon where characters happen to know martial arts. It plays, first and foremost, like a genial parody of the genre, although it pays attention to the first major rule of parody: love what you mock, and mock not out of love but rather than smug superiority (that would be satire territory, and Kung Fu Hustle is not vicious or bile-spewing enough to qualify as satire).
Things begin with rather intentionally inauspicious characters living together in an apartment block in 1930s Shanghai (which seems to exist out of time and space, more like a limbo where these cartoon characters have been pulled together for no apparent reason) being bullied by the local Ax Gang (named so because they too have a rather cartoonish sameness to their love of axes, as if to say “Yes we are a gang”). This gang explicitly blends dancing and killing in a commentary on the intentional floridness of many martial arts films where-in characters seem less interested in killing their opponents than in showing off for an unseen camera. Out of nowhere, a number of characters, such as the tailor, the butcher, and a coolie, jump out of nowhere to defend the apartment block and reveal they have accrued an almost superhuman ability in martial arts. Why? Because EVERYONE in kung fu movies, and everyone in China, knows martial arts, of course!
The film’s apartment block, conceptually, seems out of time because these characters exist out of time, not as real people but as screenwriter’s constructs, the sort of random, everyday workers who would just happen to know kung fu out of nowhere for the needs of a story rooted in high camp. At some point Stephen Chow jumps in as a would-be Ax Gang member turned heroic savior, a figure who inexplicably attains a sort-of true martial arts prowess in the cinema’s greatest mocking pastiche of the post-Matrix “all story” haze that so populated early 2000s filmmaking. The whole film also doubles as a rather biting and wonderful knock against the Matrix films and the larger tendency in action/ sci-fi films to manufacture a Jesus-figure out of thin cloth and narrative contrivance to save the world from itself.
As the film progresses, said martial arts is increasingly transformed into slapstick comedy, with a particularly subversive scene having the characters literally run like in a Looney Tunes cartoon, their legs not really moving so much as transforming into tornadoes of dust. Two assassins play a comically large musical instrument and inexplicably render it an instrument of murderous magical power because, of course, all Chinese people have a sort-of unbroken connection to a triangulation of music, spirituality, and ass-kickery. The film emerges as a jab at a sort of modern Orientalism found in martial arts films which uphold the land as a mystical place where, around every corner, one can find overly-ornamented, explicitly choreographed displays of derring-do for no other reason than of course “that’s what China is like”.
It also avoids the obvious pratfall of many martial arts parodies which make the mistake of poking fun at awful kung fu films from the ’70s, those which are already steeped in self-parody. Here, the target is more the modern “high-brow” martial arts films and their portentous sense of import, as well as the Western films which have taken up the mantel and abused the form for their own Orientalist presuppositions. The end result is a particularly unique, cutting variant of comical commentary on the way in which Western audiences view martial arts as a cartoon and see Asians in film as something other than real people.
It also helps that this film doesn’t concentrate, like most comedies, on “jokes” and goes more for the more elusive, and funnier, sense of “vibe”. It doesn’t, like most other martial arts comedies, just try to “be” a bad martial arts film. It has its own sense of vision and identity, predicated on a dangerous go-for-broke zaniness that is as much an homage to old silent physical comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as it is a martial arts critique. It doesn’t rely on specific targets and put-ons as much as a general sense of non-narrative anarchy and quasi-surrealism where sense and character identification turn in on themselves and the functional laws of filmic storytelling come undone under Chow’s all-consuming vision. It is, in short, a beautifully absurd and artificial film about absurdity and artificiality, a work where technique and subject are almost identical, and a truly special mixture of aloof shenanigans and fluid, zealous tomfoolery.