dir: Ang Lee
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This ain't the greatest film of all time. This isn't even one of Ang Lee's best films. This is the best filmed chop socky film to date, but that's only because Ang was given a budget far in excess of what any Hong Kong director has ever been given to make a film of similar ilk look more gorgeous than it ever had any right to be. He isn't even the first "arthouse" (though it is debatable, Sense and Sensibility and the Ice Storm were mainstream fare, and I do consider Ice Storm a masterpiece) director to attempt to make an "intelligent" Hong Kong film, which is virtually what this is.
Make no mistake, though he may hail from Taiwan, and has spent the majority of his life in the States, Lee wanted to make a Hong Kong period piece heroic "epic" which is what he has made, with varying degrees of success.
I mentioned the fact that other directors have tried making "intelligent" martial arts films. Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai (he of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together fame) would know what a dismal failure that is conceptually and in trying to realise it onscreen. It just doesn't work, mostly. It's like getting Arnie to play Iago in a new version of Othello, it's just fucking bonkers, it doesn't work, and audiences just laugh, but not in that "nice" way.
Ang has the advantage here, in that he has the budget to film with quality cameras, with quality film stock and a decent cinematographer, and I can't stress this enough, a competent editor. Add to this a to-the-letter perfect translated set of subtitles, and you've already got the the answer as to why these great people faltered. Someone forgot the cheese.
Chow Yun Fat is no Jet Li, he's no Bruce Lee, hell, he isn't even Brandon Lee in the Foo stakes. He is, and I know some people are going to choke on their morning muffin over this, a superb dramatic actor. Sure, he's done a heap of shite, most of which I've watched (Treasure Hunt, The Seventh Curse, Peace Hotel, The Corruptor et al), but I've also watched him in dramatic roles which didn't require any gunplay or swordplay, and the man can certainly hold his own and anyone else's for that matter. Many may scoff, but you can put a gun in the hand of any actor, and that certainly isn't going to make me give a fuck about them. Alternately, any monkey can be trained to perform these functions, any Kanooie Reeves can be trained to "look" like a bad motherfucker with the aid of CGI and editing, in the same way that many goths can be conditioned to salivate when they hear the open cymbal beats of "Love Removal Machine". Which is wherein lies the winter of my discontent.
Chow does very little in this film. He brings presence to the role, but, in all honestly, he is given too little to actually do or say outside of choreography. Ordinarly it wouldn't be an issue, but I expected more. It's okay, in that the female actors walk away with this film with it firmly clasped under their collective arms, but I expected more from Ang Lee.
This is Michelle Yeoh's (as Shu Lien) and Ziyi Zhang's (as Jen) film. The contemporary feminist overt premise is not lost on me nor did I fail to appreciate it. But they do walk away with the lion's (lioness'?) share of the honours. Both excel, and make the characters *real*. That's the problem, however. You can have all the exposition and character development and Stanislavskian or Alexanderian Method acting you want, but if the action isn't up to it, then it doesn't make a fucking difference.
And it didn't, I'm afraid and mortified to say. There were moments where I was close to Godness or at least rigidness, but it pettered out like an erection left without adequate attention. The wire work (flying, floating etc) had the packed audience I watched the film with laughing, and had me feeling decidely gypped. It just looked silly. I kept wishing that Ang Lee had hired Tsui Hark to do his second unit work, because it looked
crapper than crap to have people flying around in a supremely goofy fashion without a blue Superman costume and a bluescreen behind them.
Plot? Did I hear someone ask about a plot? These films aren't meant to have sensible plots, and when they do it only serves as an impediment to the action. One man laments the life he could have lived had he not taken up the hero's mantle and battled "wrongdoers" for most of his adult life. One woman laments that which she has sacrificed by following the righteous code (family, children) and the adventurer's life. Another younger woman can't fathom being bound by tradition into the roles that she is obligated to follow (wife, mother) and yearns for the adventurer's life. And thus they are brought into conflict. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? More fool me.
These films have *always* had a bizarre feminist subtext, it's nothing new. This film worked on it, but ultimately allowed it to meander into hopelessness, and betrayed its intentions by both allowing it to use a "Thelma and Louise" cop-out ending, and deleting any of the "good" work that that it intended by including an entire fifteen minute sequence that annoyed me in the same way that "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" annoyed me. I don't buy the idea that women respond to that "kidnapped female" despite her ability to kick arse, eventually falling for her captor idea, no matter how "pleasantly" it's formulated.
There are kick arse sequences, as when Jen masquerades as a man in an inn and kicks several shades of fuck out of traditional "stereotypes" stupid enough to take her on, and ends up destroying them and the inn they're in, and the battle where Jen refuses to back down and continues to take on an increasingly disgruntled Shu Lien. But mostly the fight - flying sequences left me cold.
I am picky, and I am fussy when it comes to this stuff. It did look beautiful, the whole way through, which counts for something But those hoping for an introduction into the gentle arts of asian people kicking the shit out of each other need to look elsewhere as well. This is neither the Holy Grail nor The Rapture, despite what you've been led to believe. If you liked it then I feel gratified, but there is so much more that needs to be seen that makes this pale into insignificance. More's the pity this could have been the greatest Foo masterpiece of all time, alas the world will have to wait until I'm given the project and budget I'm aching for :)))
Score: 7 Jade Swords in the belly out of a possible 10
The Bride With White Hair, Fong Sai Yuk, Once Upon a Time in China I & II, The Executioners, Swordsman II, the inimicably silly East is Red, Fist of Legend, Iron Monkey so many others to choose from that it hurts...