A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

September 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled

August 8, 2011

Hard Boiled

I’ve seen quite a few of John Woo’s movies over the years. Why, I remember going to see his first American film in the theaters. Of course Hard Target, and indeed most of Woo’s other American movies lack the irascible charm and chaos of his earlier work. I do enjoy the intricate artistry of his later movies and seeing what he can do with a big budget, but when I think John Woo I think insane firefights in spectacular Eighties Chinese action movies. When I think John Woo I think The Killer and A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I think Hard Boiled.

This was the pinnacle, the last, the greatest of Woo’s Chinese shoot-em-ups. It’s not big on plot, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense most of the time, but what it does have is more awesome and insane shootouts than just about any movie ever made.

The movie follows two characters for the most part. Super-cop “Tequila” Yuen is out to stop a triad gun smuggling operation, come hell or high water. It starts with a sting in a tea house that, predictably, goes horribly awry. Not only does Tequila’s partner die in the resulting shoot-out but a key informant is killed as well. (In point of fact Tequila shoots the informant point blank in the face, spraying his blood all over the place. This kind of pisses off his commanding officer, who spends the entire remainder of the film butting heads with out hero and stupidly not telling him about the other lead character.

Tony is introduced as a cold-blooded killer and loyal henchman of a kindly but old fashioned mob boss, but of course in reality he’s a cop deep, deep undercover who is trying to get close to a crazy young gun runner called Johnny Wong. His problem is that he’s basically a nice guy, even if he’s cool and slick as hell, but in order to make it into Johnny’s gang he has to turn on his benevolent boss Mr. Hoi and all his well-fed henchmen. He has done so many dark things that he doesn’t even see much light in himself any more.

Of course the two lead characters end up with guns pointed at each-other’s heads, and of course they resolve their differences so they can team up to take on Johnny Wong and kill hundreds of his goons. There are several great gunfights in this movie. In fact I’d say sixty percent of the movie is nothing but squibs and guns and explosions and stunts. There’s the initial tea-room shoot-out. Then there are three action scenes compressed into one when Wong’s gang shoots up Mr. Hoi’s shipping facility in a car factory, then the police ambush Wong, then Tequila, Tony and Wong’s right-hand-man Mad Dog have a three way duel with automatic pistols, shotguns and grenades. But it’s the hospital standoff that really defines the movie.

Wong has a giant cache of guns hidden under the morgue of a local hospital. When Tequila and Tony show up at the hospital and tip off the police as to where the guns are hidden all hell breaks loose. All the hospital security guards are Wong’s men, and he has more thugs with guns than you can shake a stick at, so when the police show up he closes off the hospital doors, sets snipers to shoot anybody trying to escape, blows up some ambulances and police cars for good measure, and takes all the patients and doctors (and a maternity ward full of newborns as well) hostage. Except that Tequila and Tony are already inside, and they have what appears to be an unlimited supply of ammunition. (That’s pretty much a given in a John Woo movie – nobody ever runs out of ammo. If there’s ever a break in the shooting it’s only a momentary break for dramatic effect before getting back to the constant gunfire.)

For at least twenty solid minutes this movie is nothing but gunfights as the police swat teams try to get into the hospital, Tony and Tequila try to shoot their way out, and a small handful of police dressed as doctors try to rescue the hostages. Oh, yeah, and there’s Tequila’s ex-girlfriend who spends the whole climax of the film trying to save the babies.

There’s just nothing out there like this movie. It has Chow Yun-Fat at his absolute prime as Tequila, flying through the air with a pistol in each hand and a toothpick clenched in the corner of his mouth. It has Tony Leung as Tony Being completely badass in his shades. It even has a cameo appearance from John Woo himself as Mr. Woo, the bartender. (I enjoy the fact that many of the actors play characters with similar names. It makes the film seem more personal somehow, more a labour of love.)

A couple years ago John Woo made a sequel to this movie. It was a video game called Stanglehold where you played as Tequila and you could slow the action down with “Tequila time” so as to more carefully place your shots and cause the most carnage. I had the demo on my 360 for a while although I never bought the game, and I was impressed by how perfectly it captured the mood of this movie. John Woo’s films feel like video games most of the time anyhow, and watching this again has made me very desperately want to go out and buy Stranglehold so that I can be a baddass like Tequila. Let’s face it. John Woo knows his shit.

August 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 423 – Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower – April 27th, 2011

Going into this movie I knew next to nothing about it. Chinese period piece with lovely visuals and Chow Yun Fat? Yes, that was pretty much it. And that does describe it on one level. It’s a very pretty movie and it is indeed a period piece and Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor who looms over the entire story. But there’s a hell of a lot going on in this story and in this movie. It’s a brutal story, full of characters who seem sympathetic but aren’t, but then again they are.

I really wish I wasn’t fighting a head cold right now because I’d love to spend more time on this review and I simply can’t. Not without losing precious sleep. This movie deserves more attention and time than I can invest in it tonight, which is a real shame. Because it’s beautiful and tragic and after listening to a little bit of the director talking about it, I’ve got things to say about a few of the character and I’m afraid I’m going to end up glossing over too much. So I apologize for that right now. And I would highly recommend this movie with a couple of caveats: There are no happily ever afters here and the movie has some incestuous relationships. If you’re not up for dealing with either of those, just walk on by.

I’d rather not spoil the specifics, but one incident of incest is rather crucial to the plot and comes out very early on. Set in the Imperial palace in ancient China, the movie follows the implosion of the royal family. The Emperor has three sons: Wan, the eldest, was his first wife’s. Jai is the next, followed by Yu, both of whom are the sons of the current Empress. For the past ten years the Empress has been taking medicine every two hours as ordered by the Emperor. For the past ten days it has been poisoned with a plant that will drive her mad, also as ordered by the Emperor. The Empress is having an affair with her stepson, Wan, who doesn’t want to continue it. Jai has been stranded out on the borders to be taught to respect his father’s control. And then there’s Yu. Whom no one seems to pay any attention to. And they all come together for the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival, where the schemes and plots and secrets they’re all hiding and planning will come to a head.

What strikes me about this movie is the contrast between the overtly lavish sets and setting – clearly made for the purpose of showing just how opulent the Imperial palace and lifestyle is here – and the very personal views we get of the various desperate characters. As I mentioned before, very few of the characters are completely sympathetic. Jai, yes. His brothers? Not so much. And I should feel sympathetic towards Wan, who’s stuck in an impossible situation, but his actions make it difficult to feel completely one way or another. It’s the same with the Empress. On one hand you feel terrible for her, stuck in a loveless marriage with a cruel husband whom she knows is poisoning her, but on the other hand she’s forced her step-son into a clearly unwelcome sexual relationship. And the Emperor? He’s so far on the nasty end of the spectrum it’s amazing. It’s an impressive display of characters who have all been so hurt and twisted they end up hurting others and perpetuating a cycle that’s leading inexorably downwards. But really, it’s all the Emperor’s fault at the root.

It comes out later on that his first wife didn’t die as he claimed, and that revelation and its implications are what truly start to rock this already sinking boat. While the Empress apparently rapidly loses her grip on reality it ends up seeming as though perhaps she’s unwittingly set up the ultimate in revenge on the man who put her in the position she’s been trapped in. And according to the director, one of the things he wanted to highlight in the movie was the horrible situation a woman would be in at the time period in the movie. He seems to have wanted to show just how bad it could be and in the comments made on camera he’s speaking of the Empress specifically, but I believe there are two others who are far more sympathetic and clearly caught up in a world in which they could never have won. Regardless, it’s an interesting note for the movie and if I had more time I’d want to really explore it.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the plot – which I believe is based on a play from the 1930s and I’d love to see that too – I haven’t really taken the time to talk about the visuals. But they deserve some time. They are astounding. And that’s a lot of the point. They should be gorgeous and opulent and amazing. The vast numbers of servants, the lavish clothing, the rooms, the carpets, the masses of yellow chrysanthemums. It is, in the true sense of the word, decadent. I loved the feel that this all gave the movie. It turns the palace into a very elaborate and large cage for those living inside it. What I also found fascinating was the huge number of servants who always seemed to be around. Sure, the Emperor and Empress dismiss them with the wave of a hand whenever sensitive topics are spoken of, but given the response time when something is needed? There is always a servant nearby. There is no way all of the scheming and vitriol would stay a secret. Yet the family clearly assumes that no one will speak of their secrets. Because their underlings are only barely people to them. Yet another symptom of their sickness.

I enjoyed this movie quite a lot, even if it was brutal. The cast is fantastic, and I don’t just mean Chow Yun Fat. Gong Li as the Empress brought a much needed humanity to her and all three actors playing the princes were wonderful. Everyone involved seems to have truly nailed their characters, making this a difficult movie in many respects, but difficult in the way that I like movies to be difficult. They aren’t simple characters, or easy ones. They’re complicated and painful and so are their relationships. It was, in my opinion, excellently crafted in every respect to be beautiful and terrible all at the same time.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 409 – Hero (2002)

Hero (2002) – April 13th, 2011

After last night’s bizarre entry in our collection, with its lack of understandable dialogue (in any language) and plodding plot, we decided to go for something very much the opposite tonight. Not in English, no, but far from unintelligible. The plot isn’t fast paced but it certainly isn’t plodding. It’s a slow and beautiful dance and it was a joy to watch from beginning to end. To be honest, even two hours after finishing it I’m not sure I’ve sorted out my feelings on it.

This is part of the problem with this project. Much as I enjoy it most of the time, the review aspect can be a little difficult. It’s not like we get a lot of time to write these. They’re done in the hour or two or maybe three if we’re lucky after we finish the movie. Often we don’t quite finish the reviews until after midnight even if the movie is long over. And some movies are easy. Something we’ve seen many times before and know how we’ll review even before we put it in for the day? Yes. No problem. Something vapid and fun or something thoroughly rage inducing? I can plunk a review like that down in no time. But something like this makes me think and I don’t have enough time to do that in enough depth. Some day I’m going to have to revisit some of these reviews because they simply don’t do some movies justice.

This is going to be one of those nights. This movie was achingly lovely and bittersweet and conflicted and just plain difficult in places, but not in a negative way. And it’s so rooted in Chinese history and culture, I don’t feel well equipped to really dig into it in the way I believe it deserves. Because there are certainly things being said under the surface of the movie. While the director and cinematographer have said that the saturated dominant colors used in each section of the movie were for aesthetic purposes, not symbolism, one can’t help but look at them a bit (and here is a simply fantastic graphic to assist if you want to do just that: Colours in Cultures ). There are threads tied to politics and cultural history that I only know the surface of. I feel like there’s so much I’m missing but the fault lies in my own knowledge, not the movie. Because the movie is fantastic.

I mentioned the colors in each section. They’re impressive, to say the least. We meet our protagonist, Nameless, and learn that he has studied the art of the sword his whole life after being orphaned and never named. He approaches the king of the state of Qin, who has been hunted by three famed assassins. Nameless tells him he has defeated all three and brings their weapons as proof. The dominant color here is black. Lots of black. But it gets splashes of color here and there. The king invites Nameless to tell him how he bested the assassins and Nameless settles in to tell his story. First we hear about his encounter with Sky, who fought with a spear and was bested at a chess house. Were I going to go into this academically, I’d probably be poking at game theory and the black and white of the pieces shown and the black worn by Nameless and the white worn later on by other characters. I’m not going into this as an academic though, so go ahead and do that on your own.

Now, after we hear about Sky we move to the next section, which takes place at a calligraphy school where the other two, Snow and Broken Sword have been living. They are lovers who haven’t spoken in some time and Nameless explains how he studied them while asking Broken Sword to write him a huge scroll with the character for sword on it. As he tells the story we see it unfold in vibrant reds and scarlets, billowing silk and splashes of ink. He claims to have ignited a jealous fury between the two and used it to make them turn on each other. And when he is done, the king nods and tells him he’s totally full of it.

Not in so many words, of course. The king knows more than Nameless realized. So we get his vision of how things really went, with the saturated reds replaced by ice cold blues and cyans. It felt like the screen had been doused in ice water. When the two versions have been told we see yet more. Things as they really went, with everyone in white and the starkness of it all laid bare. Flashbacks from within the story are told in greens and still the king’s palace and all his soldiers and Nameless are in black. The visuals of this movie are so incredibly stunning you could watch it with no sound and still be blown away by them. The fight sequences are gorgeous and the wire work is fantastic but the cinematography and bold colors make this movie so visually arresting that it took my breath away. It sets such fascinating moods and underscores the various emotional moments and I am incredibly impressed by it all.

What I truly loved about this movie is that even though on the surface it is a story of a man on a mission and how he accomplished that mission. Or didn’t. It’s a story about a king on a mission as well, and whether that mission is for good or ill is, I believe, not entirely settled by the movie. It leans distinctly in one direction, but without giving it away I believe an argument could be made for there being some hesitation there still. A window looking out on the other side, as it were. But despite that surface, it is, on another level, the story of Snow and Broken Sword, who, as we learn, are truly and deeply in love but conflicted over their views of the world around them. It isn’t the full focus of the movie and yet it is so important to its core. Without their relationship and their conflict, much of the movie wouldn’t happen as it does and in the various scenes we see them in we see Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai give performances that made me ache for them. They were phenomenal. People in the US may recognize Jet Li as Nameless and Ziyi Zhang as Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon, before they recognize any of the rest of the cast. But good as they were, Snow and Broken Sword were the heart of the movie to me, largely due to the performances.

I wish I could comment on the messages this movie probably carries for people with more in-depth and personal knowledge of the history of China, both ancient and recent. I can’t and I feel like I should be and that makes me so sad. Regardless, though, I thought it was a beautiful movie. Well worth putting on again if only to have something so gorgeous playing in the background but more likely because I’ll want to see the whole thing again, even knowing that it will make me cry.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hero (2002)

April 13, 2011

Hero (2002)

I’m finding this movie difficult to review. It’s an amazing, gorgeous, poetic masterpiece of a film, and that right there could be everything I have to say about it, but it’s a bigger film than that. Not just larger in its epic scale with its cast of tens of thousands or its great wide gorgeous vistas, either. This is a movie with a grand, impressive central message that overshadows the action and drives the motivation for some of the main characters. It’s a message that I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with, and as a result I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the entire film, though I cannot deny its greatness.

This film takes place in ancient China, before it was even a single country when it was a collection of smaller warring nations. Jet Li is a nameless warrior who has, at the start of this film, somehow vanquished three deadly assassins who have been plaguing the lord of the Qin. How could this single unknown have bested Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, each of them masters of the martial arts who have defeated hundreds of Qin soldiers? The movie is told in flashback as Nameless relates his tale, and as he is questioned by the Qin lord it is slowly revealed that he is not what he at first appears to be. Ultimately Nameless has a fateful choice to make – one which will shape the very course of history.

This was the first of several spectacular and artistic wire-fu action films directed by Yimou Zhang, and probably the most ambitious. The stories that Nameless tells are full of grand emotions and epic swordplay. Within the context of this film it makes sense that these larger-than-life figures are able to defy gravity and the laws of physics. They are more than simple mortals – these almost mythical figures, and these stories being told are like tall tales about vanquishing titans of yore. Beyond that there’s the way the story unfolds. Nameless and the Qin lord take turns telling different versions of events, and so we get to see several key scenes replayed in different ways, which adds to the story-book mythical feel of the movie.

It has a strong episodic feel to it. Each distinct fight scene has its own aesthetic (something I recognise as a Yimou Zhang trademark) and the various re-tellings of events each have a different color palette, which helps keep them distinct but also heightens the unreality of the film. As we circle closer and closer in to the truth of the past and what has actually happened that led us to the point we are at now it becomes clear that this movie has a deeper message. I would almost say that it has an agenda.

I appreciate the message that there are greater forces in the world than personal gratification or individual vendetta. This movie has at its core conflicted characters having to deal with choices that will alter the course of entire nations. The English version even starts out with a block of text that sets the stage by asking us to think about those beliefs that people are willing to die for or kill for. What I can’t wrap my head around, and what ultimately makes me uncomfortable about the movie is that it promotes the notion of achieving peace through conquest. At least that’s my ultimate interpretation and that leaves me feeling slightly uneasy about the entire film.

I won’t deny that it is mesmerizing and gorgeous. Magical and mythical. It involves some fantastic visual story-telling and awe inspiring scenes with unprecedented scale. It is an epic movie and a gorgeous one. It involves many, many fantastically choreographed and filmed fight scenes. It has great acting and daring costume design. I just happen to disagree on a fundamental level with its core premise, which makes me a little sad. Because I’d really like to simply love this movie on every possible level instead of simply respecting it for its art and its composition.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 395 – Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle – March 30th, 2011

Clearly we need to get more Stephen Chow movies in our collection. And he needs to make more movies. Because there is something so bizarrely awesome about the two that I’ve seen and I think I need more of it in my life. It’s not just that it’s funny and full of good action. It’s the type of humor combined with the type of action. It’s a perfect mix of cartoonish comedy with unreal fighting.

There is something about this movie that puts me in mind of the old Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s not just the chase scene where two of the main characters go racing off along a dirt road with their legs blurred into whirlwinds while the scenery whizzes by. Though that is a fairly iconic image, so it figures in. But it’s that spirit of absolutely everything that happens being so thoroughly over the top and ridiculously dangerous, and while the people involved get banged up, for the most part they bounce back. Okay, so that’s not true of everyone in this movie, but once we pass the halfway mark? Yes, it is.

We begin our story with the introduction of the Axe Gang, who all wear black suits and top hats and carry little hatchets. They dance with them. This is about where I fell in love with this movie, because anything that has men in dapper suits dancing in formation while holding bladed weaponry is a-ok by me. Alas, there’s not much more dancing in the movie, but there is a lot of the Axe Gang, who’ve apparently taken over much of the city. They’ve got a nasty leader who’s not afraid to hack a man to death and they run whatever they feel like running. Then we meet the residents of Pig Sty Alley, who are all too poor to be worth the Axe Gang’s time. The residents are a motley bunch who seem to live hand-to-mouth and all owe back rent to the landlord and landlady of their buildings.

The landlord and landlady are interesting figures here, because while the movie starts out by setting them up as antagonists to the people who rent space from them, they end up being rather heroic. And I like that. I like that while the real bad guys are truly bad, and the good guy ends up being truly good, there’s plenty of gray area for everyone to spend some time in. I am all about the gray area. It’s nice to have characters who don’t neatly slot into Good and Bad sometimes. So anyhow, we’ve got Pig Sty Alley and its denizens and in walks Sing, a petty criminal who’s attempting to extort a little money out of folks by claiming to be with the Axe Gang. Unfortunately for him, and for the folks of Pig Sty Alley, he’s not in the gang at all. So when they show up, they’re not happy. And then the fighting starts.

The fight scenes are amazing. They’re varied and fun and fast but not too fast. There’s always something happening in screen but not enough to make it confusing or muddled. And during one of the big scenes I pondered aloud “So, this is the movie, right? It’s going to be another hour of fight scenes, right? Cause I can get behind that.” And okay, not quite. There’s plot in between the fight scenes, where we learn that the neighborhood has not one, not two, not three but five Kung Fu masters just hanging out incognito. We see the Axe Gang bring in hired killers to take out the folks who humiliated them. We see Sing try to get into their good graces by agreeing to do just about anything they want if they’ll let him join the gang. We get some background for Sing and find out that he was cheated out of his life savings by a con man who sold him what seems to have been a worthless kung fu manual. There’s a bit with a girl and a lollipop. The girl with the lollipop doesn’t get much in the way of time. She’s basically a symbol of Sing’s lost innocence and hope. Ah well. No movie’s perfect.

So wrapped around this plot are the fight scenes. There are the three masters in the beginning, fighting against the Axe Gang first and then two kung fu musicians, who use a guqin to make music that forms ethereal blades, fists and skeletal warriors to strike at their enemies. There are the other two masters who show up later and fight against the musicians and then against the Beast, freed from an institution by Sing at the Axe boss’s command. There’s Sing’s huge battle against the Beast that I swear takes up a third of the movie. And it’s all fantastic. And I mean that not only in that it’s good, but that it’s fantastical as well. It’s magical and outrageous as a movie like this should be. It’s the perfect combination of comedy and action and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it outside of Shaolin Soccer, which is, of course, another Stephen Chow movie. So I repeat what I said at the outset: I need more of him in our collection. Because this was awesome.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kung Fu Hustle

March 30, 2011

Kung Fu Hustle

Early on in this movie – when there was a montage of men with axes dancing that showed the rise of the “Axe Gang” as their empire of sin engulfed Shanghai – Amanda asked me “Why don’t we own more movies like this?” To which I replied “Because there aren’t any other movies like this.” There really aren’t. It’s a big-budget effects laden kung-fu comedy as only Stephen Chow can do it.

Stephen Chow has such a unique sensibility. As with the brilliant Shaolin Soccer his movie blends cartoonish comedy with ultra-cool kung-fu action for something strange and magical. Something utterly and indescribably weird, but also something you can’t easily look away from.

Humor in kung-fu movies is nothing new. I remember when I was just getting into watching kung-fu movies and had it in my head that they were the epitome of cool action adventures how puzzled I was by things like Jackie Chan’s Half a Loaf of Kung-Fu. The notion that something so cool could also be so goofy struck me then as very odd. This movie takes that core concept of parody and comedy and brings it to the extremes that can only be reached by the modern age of digital effects.

Stephen portrays Sing, a no good vagrant and wastrel who has given up on being good and dedicated himself to his ambition of becoming a gangster. When he tries to use his wannabe gangster moves on the downtrodden people of Pig Sty Alley he inadvertently draws the attention of the dominant local gang – the Axe Gang. These thugs descend on Pig Sty Alley in force, only to be driven off by a trio of kung-fu masters who have been living a simple life of anonymity amongst the other slum dwellers.

From there it’s a plot of escalation. The Axe Gang hire a pair of creepy killers to assassinate the three kung-fu masters. The assassins are in turn stopped by another pair of unlikely masters who also dwell in Pig Sty Alley. The Axe Gang then release from a mental ward a cold blooded killer known as “The Beast” who cares about nothing but finding a worthy opponent. All the while Sing is proving himself to be a very ineffectual gangster, until he ultimately discovers his true potential.

Part of what makes this movie so much fun is the great collection of colorful characters. Every single performance is crazy, over the top and utterly bizarre. A mincing, wailing, flaming gay tailor who happens to also be a master of the kung-fu arts? Yeah. A round-faced clown of a character who spends the whole movie with his ass hanging out of his pants and shampoo on his hair because the landlady has cut off the local water supply? Weird. Sing himself with his ineffectual attempts to be a mean gangster which more often than not result in him being hurt instead is a strange character. (Luckily he has a preternatural healing ability or he’d be dead halfway through the movie.)

When I say that the action in this movie is cartoonish I mean that the movie often appears to be a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon. It might just as well have been directed by Tex Avery. There’s a road-runner style chase scene. There’s constant warping and deformation of people as they’re punched and kicked. There are bodies flung about, flying and falling every which way and smashing through windows and walls alike.

Most bizarrely of all there’s a kind of spirituality to this film. Sing’s ultimate redemption and awakening, even couched in the ridiculous cartoon violence of this movie, has a sort of power to it. This is also clearly a movie aimed at the child inside all of us – a point driven home by the last few minutes of the movie. The irony being that a movie aimed at bringing out a child-like wonder in its audience was given an R rating for its release here in the States due to the violence (I’m guessing because of some of the axe fighting early in the film.) It’s just one more strange contradiction in a movie full of them. Then again – if the Road Runner and Wylie Coyote were live action they might receive an R rating as well.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 283 – House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers – December 8th, 2010

Every so often I will look at our big list of movies and see something and think “That. That’s what I want to watch tonight.” Sometimes there’s a specific reason. Sometimes it just feels right. It took us a little while to get to our movie tonight but we still had about two hours and so I sorted the list by running time and scrolled down a little bit and there this was. Waiting. Full of lovely swordfights and wire-fu action sequences. And Ziyi Zhang. I really like her, so I was definitely excited to see her in this.

It’s a period piece, set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty. A group of mysterious rebels known as the Flying Daggers are wanted by the government. Captains Leo and Jin devise a plan to find the new leader of the Daggers by capturing an agent hiding in a local brothel and letting her think she’s escaped so they can follow her. Once the agent, Mei, has been captured, Jin poses as a former customer from the brothel who’s fallen for her and arranged her escape. He believes that Mei is blind and leads her into the forest. Of course there’s trickery involved. No one is quite who they seem to be at first glance. And of course there’s romance involved. While traveling Mei falls for Jin and Jin likewise falls for Mei, even though neither one is being honest with the other about what’s truly going on. By the time the movie reaches its climax there are reveals of double agents, plenty of fight scenes and a romantic triangle.

The funny thing is that while there’s this whole political struggle going on, with the government soldiers hunting down the Daggers and the Daggers planning ambushes on the soldiers and so on, the politics only really serve as a backdrop and set-up for this semi-Romeo and Juliet plot. As a member of the Daggers Mei can’t really afford to fall in love with a government soldier, even if he has technically quit by the end of the movie. And Jin can’t stay with Mei. He’s not truly on the same side as the Daggers. The specifics of the time period and politics aren’t really dealt with much at all. It’s all there for the setting and the costumes and the general feel to it all, because let’s face it – setting up a couple on opposing sides of a war can be done all over the place. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to keep in mind going into the movie.

I don’t fault the choice in visual settings one bit, really. Apparently the costumes and props were all based on period paintings, and they do lend a particularly vivid touch to it all. Yes, the bold colors are a lot of that, but it’s not just the color choices. It’s the clothing styles and the swords (oh god, the swords) and the armor and everything. It is a visually gorgeous movie, with plenty of care taken not just with the colors, but with the shot composition and cinematography. Every scene is beautiful.

Fortunately for the movie, it’s not just pretty. Pretty movies are all well and good, but they need a good plot and good acting to back them up. In this case I give a ton of credit to Ziyi Zhang and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Andy Lau was excellent as Leo, but really it’s Jin and Mei who make up the vast majority of the movie and they play very well off of each other. I have no complaints about the acting or the overall plot and definitely not the visuals.

My only real criticism of the movie is that even though it has this fantastic strong female lead who can kick ass and hold her own, she ends up being a pawn. The climactic battle isn’t her fighting to make her own choice, it’s two men fighting over their claim on her. That’s disappointing but not unexpected. One could argue that all three of them, Mei and the two men, are pawns (Jin even says as much about himself and Mei), but in the end look who fights and who’s bleeding on the sidelines. Look who lives and who dies. And it’s really all because of a dude who can’t take no for an answer. I mean, throw a dagger into the chest of the woman you profess to love? Yeah, that spells romance to me. Totally not controlling or abusive when you tell her she made you do it by not loving you.

I will say this, though: Never once is an assault on a woman portrayed as totally cool. There’s one scene that starts out questionable and then isn’t. And it ends when the woman makes it clear that she’s done. It’s outright stated by the leader of the Flying Daggers that a man should never force a woman against her will. I’m down with that. I just wish the ending had been stronger for said woman. Instead of being an agent of her own destiny she’s an object to be fought over. She got to make her choice, but was punished for it. It’s all very symbolic and tragic, yes, but it’s frustrating. I really liked her character and I really disliked her assailant and I’m not terribly satisfied with the ending.

Still, I can see what was being aimed at. And aside from the specifics of the ending, I think the movie did an excellent job. It’s gorgeous in many different ways and I was thoroughly enthralled by it for the vast majority of its two hours. I can live with quibbling over the ending if I get the rest of the movie prior to that. It’s truly worth it, and not just for Ziyi Zhang’s fight scenes, though I admit? Those do weigh heavily in the movie’s favor.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

House of Flying Daggers

December 8, 2010

House of Flying Daggers

Crouching Tiger led to this. The audacity of an American film-maker to make the iconic big budget Chinese wire-fu movie! It was a call to arms that China as a nation could not ignore. And so they called upon Zang Yimou, himself a national treasure, to reclaim wire-fu as a treasured Chinese art form. This movie, along with the much more blatantly political Hero which came before it, represent the absolute pinnacle of period kung fu as pure art. (At least that is my interpretation of events.)

The story here is simultaneously starkly simple and convoluted. It is more a character study than an action movie – the action drives the characters as they are manipulated by the complex opposing forces that surround them. At the heart of the film are two people: the blind dancer Mei who is an agent of the rebel group known as the Flying Daggers and the dashing government agent Jin who is trying to infiltrate the Flying Daggers by getting into her good graces. Both of them have their loyalties tested to the extreme as the movie progresses. They are torn by their dedication to the opposing sides of a greater conflict and their ill-advised growing affection for each other.

The movie mostly concentrates on Jin, since it isn’t until quite late in the movie that we learn much about Mei and the many deceptions involved in her role. We know that he is a cocky strong-willed lady’s man who uses his charm and his skill in battle to hunt the members of the Flying Daggers. He rescues Mei from jail after she is arrested by his superior officer Leo (himself a conflicted character with more to him than you might at first expect.) They believe that she is the missing blind daughter of the former leader of the Flying Daggers whom they were instrumental in executing. If Jin can convince her that he is on her side perhaps she will lead him to the new head of the rebels. So Jin takes on the persona of a wandering knave calling himself “The Wind.” But he is anguished when he is forced to kill soldiers on the emperor’s side who are sent to hunt him and Mei down. There are plots within plots as the general in command of the mission to eliminate the Flying Daggers takes over Leo’s operation and Jin finds himself not just a double agent but a hunted man. Leo warns him not to fall for Mei, but Jin finds himself falling anyhow. Then things get complicated.

I always love when a director has the faith in his actors to let important plot points be communicated with little or no dialog, and this is a technique used quite well in this film. Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin and Zhang Ziyi as Mei have several scenes where the internal conflict that drives their characters plays out simply through their facial expressions in tight close-up shots. They both deliver stunning performances which draw the viewer into the movie and make you care about these poor characters.

The fight scenes throughout the movie are, of course, absolutely gorgeous. Each one has a different tone and setting from the thrilling battle between Mei and four riders with pikes to the silent, mystical and almost peaceful ambush in the bamboo forest. The choreography and editing are fluid and graceful. The blend of classic wire work and modern CGI special effects is flawless and mesmerizing. Indeed it’s not just the fight scenes – the entire movie is a feast for the eyes. Yimou uses a rich saturated color palette and fills every frame with astonishing beauty. The many gorgeous locations alone are worth watching the movie.

I’m not too certain about the politics of this movie. After watching Hero I was ready for a strong message about the power of the people or faith in the unified government, but this movie is much harder to pin down. Certainly the emperor’s forces are faceless bad-guys. We never even see the general who pulls their strings – we only see the many troops sent to hunt Mei and Jin. And I kind of figured that the Robin Hood like rebels that are the House of Flying Daggers would resonate as a strong populist movement in China, but when we finally meet them they are as manipulative and heartless as the emperor’s agents if not more so. Ultimately, as I said before, the movie is about these characters and the conflict between their beliefs and their feelings. The final climactic battle between the Daggers and the emperor’s assassins is only alluded to, and the climax of the movie is much more personal. They even say themselves that they know they are only pawns in a greater game – nobody cares if they live or die. Except perhaps us, the viewers.

This movie steadfastly refuses to fall into simple categorization. It is art, and needs to be viewed as such. I think what you get out of the movie is deeply personal, since it is so reluctant to provide easy answers. All I know is that it’s astonishingly, heartrendingly beautiful. A major accomplishment, and, yes, I think a better movie than Crouching Tiger.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment