I like to give my weekend viewing a theme, so when I pick up three cheap DVDs of films set in China in the week preceding the Chinese New Year, you don’t need to be a genius to figure out what the latest theme should be, which is probably just as well.
A warlord is trying to unite the seven warring kingdoms of China. Jet Li is the nameless warrior who defeats the three legendary assassins who threaten the warlord’s life, only his victories appear to be part of a conspiracy against the would-be emperor. Except it’s not quite that simple, and as the warrior reveals to the warlord the truth behind his victories a picture emerges of true heroism, of people willing to die for a greater good even though it costs them the love of those they care most for. As the overture to the story states, in any war there are heroes on both sides. But of course this isn’t just a story, but also a magnificent spectacle, as is the case with most Chinese films in this genre. We get some truly spectacular fights, with the combatants sailing through the air, and each scene is carefully constructed, with vibrant colours and a painterly sense for composition, so that what appears on the screen is ravishing to the eye. The larger than life characters are memorable, almost archetypal, and the love affair between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, is heartrending in its potential for tragedy. A beautiful film.
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Hero‘s director Yimou Zhang returns to the themes touched on in the first film. Yun-Fat Chow, the heroic and wholly admirable warrior in Crouching Tiger, Floating Dragon, here plays the autocratic and unforgiving Emperor Ping, returning home after many years’ absence to put his bickering family to rights. But best laid plans go awry, and in a bloodthirsty finale even those he loved are butchered. Matching Chow every step of the way is the magnificent Li Gong as Empress Phoenix, administered medicine that slowly turns her mad by her loving husband, as punishment for an affair with his eldest son. Add on to that some family secrets and a subtext involving incest, and what takes place has all the potential for bloodshed of a Greek or Jacobean tragedy. The final scenes, with Ping outwitting his enemies and then calmly presiding over their execution, are simply masterful, and whereas Hero concentrated on duels here we have mass combat, with ignorant armies clashing by night on an epic scale. In fact ‘the masses’ could almost be taken as a theme of the film, with a conveyor belt feel to much of the action, and the rigidity of court etiquette underlined (each character of royal lineage is ‘announced’ and the hours of the day are shouted by court functionaries). Again, the scenes are beautifully shot, with sumptuous sets and costumes, most impressively in the final battle, where gold armoured warriors trample on a field of chrysanthemums (the golden flower of the title), and yet afterwards all is made new again, as if the lost lives signify nothing. I loved every minute of this film.
The Banquet (2006)
A Chinese film loosely based on Hamlet. The conniving brother murders the emperor and takes his throne. Assassins are sent to dispatch the Crown Prince, in self-imposed exile at an artists’ retreat, but fail. The young empress, who loved the Crown Prince, marries the new Emperor to save his and her own life. Various court intrigues ensue, and at the end, after sundry alarums and excursions, everyone is dead, except the cunning Empress, who has become a somewhat less sympathetic character over the course of the story. And then somebody kills her, but we never know who, and I guess as everybody else of significance is dead we’re meant to think ‘vengeful spirit’. It’s a combination of individual duels and large scale fights (though not on a par with Curse), but with more of an emphasis on bloodshed – in the other films everything appears choreographed, so that the fights are like ballet, with nary a drop of blood spilled, but this is somewhat more earthy, with scenes of blood raining down to the ground and severed heads twisting through the air, albeit still every bit as stylised, simply more graphic and with the suggestion that this too is part of the colour scheme (those reds go so well with the black armour). The emphasis is more on love, with two women competing for the Crown Prince and the lonely boat girl refrain throughout, and power politics, with the plot driven by treachery and megalomania, particularly that of the Empress, her will to power introducing an element of feminism. I didn’t like it as much as the other two films, perhaps because it obviously had less of a budget and also because it was rather slow at times, but the overall story arc was compelling and the acting superb.
I love these films, and others such as House of Flying Daggers, but it’s an affection that gives me concern when I reflect on it, in that they suck all of the horror out of combat, even in scenes such as the massacre at the end of Curse, so that instead of human suffering and genuine pain we are presented with athleticism and grace, a jade riposte to the war is hell epithet. The stories are hero-focused, with the little people simply as crossbow fodder, and all the talk of honour, all the attendant beauty and carefully calculated ceremony, don’t really distract from the stupidity and arrogance of that. The eye falls in love with these films, but the mind interrogates that love and finds much in it that is wanting.
Favourite Chinese movies anyone?