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.
The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading
Here, in its final month, is where the National Cinemas project functionally comes undone and reaching for something a little broader becomes preferable, if not essential. You see, it is notoriously difficult, for reasons that exist far outside the world of film, to determine the nationality of many films with partial funding from mainland China. The greatest difficulty comes into play when Hong Kong is involved, and at the risk of avoiding the issue, the debate over Hong Kong’s nationality is very much a topic I am not sufficiently informed in to make my own decision on what shall qualify here. For this reason, this month will include films where the primary language is within the broadly defined group of Chinese languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin etc, and where the funding comes from any combination of the nations of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Not necessarily the best solution, I know, but for the time being It’ll have to do.
Edited for Clarity
If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their universal status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human loneliness and the passing moments of connection that counterpoint but only further contour that loneliness. His films reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still-young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Continue reading
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fifth film as a single director saw him win a shiny new award out of some ramshackle little French town somewhere, and moving up from the lil’ independents to the big ones across major US cities (for once outside of festival strongholds LA and New York) and even the much-dreaded small town release tour. We might take this to mean it is his best film, or his most “artsy”. Then again, even Cannes isn’t exactly running over itself to get to Guy Maddin, and David Lynch only gets us there these days because he’s American (and even then Cannes hasn’t been his buddy in a while, although there is a sense that even David Lynch is not David Lynch’s buddy properly). Weerasethakul’s earlier films were, if anything, too idiosyncratic and iconoclast for even a festival like Cannes to fall in love with, and Uncle Boonmee sanded off the edges just enough to get him there.