Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I Miss the Old Zhang Yimou

While in Hawai'i, Melissa and I also caught a showing of House of Flying Daggers. A good, but not a great flick; definitely better than Hero, I think. I was glad we saw it in the theater; I've been a fan of the films of mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou for years. When I was an undergraduate, Raise the Red Lantern played at our campus's International Cinema, and it was huge with those of us who had spent some time in Asia. I thought it--as did practically everyone else who saw it--a beautiful, wrenching, powerful film. I didn't become a serious fanatic for Zhang's work, however, until I caught his earlier film Ju Dou--which I think is about as earthy, sexy, and emotionally rough a movie as I've ever seen, while also being gloriously heavy with luscious, vibrant colors and visuals. Since then, I've seen just about every movie of his that has made it to the states, whether on the big screen or video, and that includes his aforementioned recent big splashes. And I'm here to tell you: his earlier stuff was better.

I've no interest in dumping on Hero and House; both are fun movies, and interesting experiments with the wuxia genre, which is a kind of classic martial arts-chivalry storytelling tradition. Zhang's skill in framing his characters, building around them scenes of brilliant light, shadow and sound, remains top-notch, and the wire-work and choreography in both films is spectacular. I don't think that fact that Zhang played around with some scenes for their own sake, rather than fitting them into a larger symbolic cinematic language designed especially for the movie, is necessarily a criticism, as Adam Graham-Silverman alleged in a recent TNR essay; as Albert Gilbert pointed in a letter in response, there's nothing wrong with making a movie "pretty": aesthetic reactions are their own justification. Still, it wouldn't surprise me to find that a great many people go into these movies, lured by critical comparisons to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a truly superlative movie, and come out disappointed. Not because of the violence (or lack thereof--House is the more intense movie, whereas Hero, superficially a much more violent film, blunts the impact of much of the killing by the tight control Zhang maintains over the emotions his actors display), and not because their political or ethical messages are confused (more about which below), but because I just don't think Zhang is able to make these wuxia movies flow. They feel far more pushed by Zhang's determination to make them than anything organic to the plot or the sensibilities of the main characters. In short, they ring artificial, something I never would have said about a Zhang Yimou movie before.

One point which Graham-Silverman gets right in his criticism of Hero and House is that they can be productively compared to musicals. People do not break out into song and dance while going through their everyday lives; the conceit of post-Oklahoma musicals is that, if done right, singing and dancing out a story needn't be reserved for Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedies and fantasies; the music and choreography can actually enhance the "realism" of the tale, putting the excess to use. In wuxia, the fighting is the excess; it is what brings the emotional terrain of the story into gritty, realistic focus by paradoxically making the characters themselves larger than life. Let's stick with Crouching Tiger, since that's a film many are acquainted with. There you saw profoundly different fighting styles, tailored and choreographed to fit into, or conversely be exposed against, disparate tableaux, each in their own way underlining an thematic point: the regal and minimalist combat of Chow Yun-Fat, sweeping through a bamboo forest; the hard-won control of Michelle Yeoh, bit by exhausting bit taking down her adversary on her home territory; the almost hysterical fury of Zhang Ziyi, lashing out with over-the-top moves in a race across a barren desert. Ang Lee direction has never been more fluid; the battle sequences captured the story and carried it forward with an ease that made clear his comfort with a storytelling tradition that he knows by heart. Yes, many were put off by the mystical, obscure ending; but the point is, there was no sense that the characters wouldn't have gotten to that point on their own. Whereas in Zhang Yimou's wuxia movies, I can't help but feel the director moving them forward like chess pieces. The narrative structure of Hero compelling, but also random (why this battle sequence and then that one?); the storyline of House doesn't feel quite as forced, but perhaps that's because Zhang does his best to bury and forget the dynastic struggle which initiates the action in the first place as soon as possible.

Again, Hero and House both make for some great entertainment. But the Zhang Yimou of Ju Dou, Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju or To Live never let anything drop out of place; he directed masterful dramas, whether historical or contemporary, bringing a rich pageant of characters into painful, perplexing contact with one another, without ever giving the sense that he needed to sacrifice one plot point for the sake getting his characters from point A to point B. An abusive husband is made a cuckold; the multiple wives of a distant aristocrat struggle for supremacy; an uneducated peasant woman makes a farcical journey through the communist bureaucracy; a family plagued by tragedy survives the Chinese civil war and the purges which follow it--all this and more was Zhang's meat and drink, and the fact that he could bring such visual style and beauty to such dark and rough material made him, in my view, simply one of the most talented living film directors in the world.

Many Westerners, and not a few Chinese, thought they saw a deep critique of communism and/or China's patriarchal culture lurking in his films, but Zhang has never been a very political director; all the ire which has been directed at Hero for "celebrating authoritarianism" assumes that Zhang ever cared much for the politics of his films in the first place, which simply isn't the case. Zhang's great dramas from the 1980s and 90s often pushed the envelope, and got him censored by the state more than a few times, but it should be clear that his aim was never to agitate against anything, but rather to create extreme situations that he could visually explore and vivify. And he had a vessel for doing so: Gong Li. A stunningly and unconventionally beautiful Chinese actress that Zhang discovered, trained, and promptly fell in love with, she starred in all of his films from Red Sorghum to Shanghai Triad. Alan Stone has written some insightful essays on Zhang Yimou over the years (here, here, and here), and it's his thesis that Zhang's early oeuvre can essentially be reduced to a prolonged meditation on Gong Li "as desire, as beauty, and as subversive inspiration"; when their affair ended and they parted ways professionally, Zhang's muse left him, and he has ever since cast about in vain for a similar actress to focus his artistic vision. (Zhang Ziyi, whom Zhang Yimou has taken under his wing and who appeared in The Road Home as well as Hero and House, may or may not be able to fill that role.) I'm not sure I'd go entirely along with that; not all of his films since he and Gong Li split have been failures, and Zhang does seem to want to experiment with both more fantastic and more documentary styles that perhaps wouldn't have served Gong Li well anyway. But I won't deny that Gong Li is like a Dietrich or a Hepburn, an actress so physically captivating that her visage and performance can used as an emotional palimpsest, upon which a skilled director could write almost any story. There is one moment in To Live, soon after a friend of the family at the center of the film suffers a great tragedy, and speaks as though his life has no meaning. He is plainly is toying with suicide. Years before, a mistake of his had cost this family dear, and Gong Li, the matriarch, had insisted he owned them "a life." As this utterly defeated and hopeless man staggers off into the night Gong Li suddenly bursts from the doorway, denying him the right to kill himself: "You owe us a life! You can't take yours; we claim it; we won't let you have it!" It is a beautiful moment, practically saintly--and yet, as Zhang Yimou filmed it, it flowed naturally, without any of the artificiality and formalism which deadened the self-sacrifice in Hero.

Anyway, if you've liked Zhang's latest films, and you're not opposed to learning more about Chinese cinema outside the wuxia genre, you could do far, far worse than to find a good video store and become familiar with Zhang Yimou's and Gong Li's collaborations. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Russell, I too am a great lover of Zhang Yimou's movies and I was disappointed that "House..." didn't have the emotional catharsis I was hoping for. I really wanted to be emotionally moved and I felt let down by the story. I read no reviews in anticipation of the film, didn't know the story or plot points and I felt let down at the end of it all. The settings and action were beautiful and I really liked Zhang Ziyi--she's getting older and her face is getting more expressive. I didn't enjoy her in Crouching Tiger as much as I enjoyed her in this movie. I also had just watched Chungking Express for the first time and it was fun to see Takeshi Kaneshiro in another movie. 

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