Saturday, July 18, 2009

On DVD: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", and "Curse of the Golden Flower"

Looking back, the remarkable Stateside success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($128 million gross, making it the highest-grossing foreign film in U.S. box office history), while due primarily to the tremendously high quality of the film itself, may have also benefitted from a bit of precipitous timing. American audiences who were, at that time, mostly in the dark with regards to the advances being made in Eastern cinema (and I would put myself in that group, at least at that time), still had a sense of martial arts cinema as being something akin to porn, at least in terms of the viewing experience: you spent a lot of time fast-forwarding to the “good parts.” The hokey, dubbed dialogue and over-the-top acting of the “chop socky movies” that made their way into our limited field of vision were frequently laughable; we could enjoy the fighting, and laugh smugly at everything else.

But in the mid-to-late 1990s, shafts of light began to make their way into that cultural darkness. Indie film geeks who were enthralled by Tarantino’s early works began to track down the electrifying John Woo and Ringo Lam movies that he readily pinpointed as influences; when Woo came to Hollywood and made Face/Off, he gave the American action film a shot of adrenaline that it sorely needed. Around the same time, New Line (and later Miramax’s Dimension imprint) found unexpected success importing crowd-pleasing Jackie Chan pictures; they were still goofy and badly dubbed, but Chan’s sense of humor and Buster Keaton-inspired acrobatics connected with American audiences, even the snobs at the art house. And then came The Matrix, which knocked moviegoers out with its combination of pseudo-Eastern philosophy, Woo-inspired shoot-outs, and kung-fu choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping.

So in many ways, the pump had been primed for the film’s wide commercial success. Its critical lauding was also well-prepared; period Asian dramas had been a mainstay in art houses since the heyday of Kurosawa; more recent films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern had met with audience approval and Oscar nominations as well. What Crouching Tiger did for Western audiences, for at least the first time in modern film, was to combine the sensitive acting and mature storytelling of an Asian art film with the thrills and excitement of modern martial arts cinema—it brought the Chinese genre of wuxia to our shores with the best possible vehicle.

We know right away that Crouching Tiger is not your average kung-fu film, because there’s no action of any kind until the fifteen-minute mark. Instead, we are introduced to Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a famed warrior who is giving up his sword, the Green Destiny (“Too many men have died at its edge,” he explains) and the life of a swordsman, in spite of the fact that he has not yet avenged the death of his master, who was murdered by Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei). He lays this out, along with his accompanying case of existential doubt, to his friend Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh); the pair are clearly fond of each other, though we soon discover that they have never acted on those feelings. Mu-bai asks Shu-lien to take the powerful sword to his friend Sir Te, but before she even leaves the Te estate, it is stolen.

The thief is soon revealed to be Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a spoiled young aristocrat who lives a double life. She is destined for an arranged marriage, but has secretly fallen for the desert bandit Lo (Chang Chen); Jade Fox, posing as her governess, has trained her in the Wudang techniques. The pursuit of the Green Destiny sword, and the intermingling of these five characters, provides the remainder of the narrative, and the screenplay (by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai) alternates thrilling action sequences with the genuinely involving story of Jen and Shu-lien’s quests for inner peace, Mu-bai’s pursuit of the Jade Fox, and Shu-lien and Mu-bai’s unrequited love.

Director Ang Lee is a hard man to pigeon-hole; his filmography swings wildly from English period pieces (Sense and Sensibility) to emotional American drama (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) to western (Ride with the Devil) to comic-book action (Hulk). His direction here is supremely confident and assured, even when negotiating the narrative oddity of an extended, 19-minute flashback sequence (of Jen and Lo’s curious kidnapping/courtship) in the middle of the film; in a lesser director’s hands, a break that long from the primary narrative could have sent the film right off the rails. But he never loses sight of his story, and the gamble of that sequence pays off beautifully at the film’s conclusion, in which all of the story threads and subplots pay off exponentially.

And for all of the imitations and parodies they inspired, the grace and energy of the wire work-heavy action sequences still pack a punch. The actors leap and glide across rooftops and down stairs and up trees and through space, and it still takes your breath away; these scenes are thrilling, fast fun. The characterizations are also worth mentioning; I’m not sure I can think of a recent action film, from any country, with this many strong women in it. When Shu-lien prepares to face off against Jen by announcing, “Everyone out, shut the doors,” it packs more heat than a film’s worth of tough-guy taunting. Yoeh and Yun-Fat’s chemistry and quiet longing is one of the film’s best qualities—much of the story (including the genuinely moving closing scenes) is dependent on their relationship, and their affection and shared history is palpable. His performance has great beats throughout; watch how he handles Jen during an early fight scene—amused by her gall, he lectures her on her shortcomings and dares her to study with him, all while besting her handily.

But Ziyi’s is the breakthrough performance; her work is fierce, complicated, and terrific. She manages to seem both fragilely porcelain and full of fight, an incongruity best personified by her calm sipping of tea while being challenged at a restaurant. The smashing battle that follows is perhaps the film’s best single scene—it’s exhilarating, energetic, and very funny. Ziyi was next seen in a throwaway role in Rush Hour 2, but took on a full-fledged starring role in director Zhang Yimou’s Hero—a film picked up by Miramax shortly after Crouching Tiger’s successful release, only to gather dust on the notoriously crowded Miramax shelves for two years (and six missed release dates). By the time of its successful American release in 2004, star Ziyi and director Yimou had already re-teamed for his next film, House of Flying Daggers.

Ziyi plays Mei, the blind dancer who may (or may not) be the leader of the titular group, a revolutionary faction in Tang Dynasty China. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes undercover to expose her, but fumbles; his superior, Leo (Andy Lau) ends up capturing her, but Jin rescues her and aids in her escape, and off they go. The early scenes are the picture’s least successful—some streamlining of the exposition wouldn’t have hurt, and there are a couple too many double-reverses and switching allegiances and the film starts to trip over its own cleverness. But the trust and love that develops between Mei and Jin is real, and fascinating; the film’s heart is in these moments, and, of course, in its action.

There are so many terrific fight sequences, in fact, that it's hard to recall all of them (much less pinpoint the highlight). Early on, Mei’s senses are tested when Leo challenges her to “The Echo Game”; the sequence is beautiful, and the subsequent swordfight is brilliantly done. An extended attack in a wildflower field is a beautifully choreographed ballet of movement (the violence is secondary, and takes on an interesting dimension thanks to a subsequent revelation). There’s a remarkable sequence with a battle atop the bamboo trees, which knocks your socks off, and the film’s closing scene, during a snowy downfall, achieves a kind of delicate majesty.

Performances are strong across the board, but Ziyi is again the stand-out; she remains an ideal heroine, tough and beautiful and always believable. Because House of Flying Daggers was released by Sony Pictures Classics, which had done such a skillful job of marketing Crouching Tiger, the comparisons between the two films were numerous—and deserved. Flying Daggers’ story and characters aren’t quite as compelling as Crouching Tiger’s, but Yimou’s film bests Lee’s in its sheer beauty; it is a picture of rich exteriors, flowing costumes, marvelous production design, and full use of the color palate—the first film since Road To Perdition where I wanted to put frames from the film up on my walls.

Incredibly, Yimou's next film was even more sumptuous. Curse of the Golden Flower is a feast for the eyes, a dizzying display of vivid color, astonishing beauty, and shocking bloodshed. The pageantry on display is stunning—the film is immaculately designed and a visual knockout. The really good news is that the film has a narrative to match the visuals; the storytelling is as sharp and fluid as the action sequences. The story is richly textured and thoroughly fascinating, downright Shakespearean in its royal intrigue and deadly double-crosses.

Gong Li (Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha) is a revelation as the Empress Phoenix—unquestionably regal, ridiculously beautiful, and powerfully (but subtly) expressive. The Empress is trapped in a loveless marriage with Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat again, stuffed with self-satisfied wisdom but triggered to fiery impatience and blood-thirsty rage on a second’s notice). The duo spends the bulk of the film attempting, in various ways, to murder each other. These two fiercely charismatic actors are, to say the last, well-matched.

The martial arts sequences aren’t plentiful, but they’re plenty extraordinary. An early scene finds the Emperor in a sword-fight with his crown prince, and the entire sequence has its own unique energy; Yimou has a tendency (in this scene, anyway) to linger on the details, to pause on the half-beat, to frame his close-ups in such a way as to almost push them outside of the frame, and into their own life. The scene cooks along at its own sprung rhythm, and it swirls around in your head for the following hour or so. Late in the second act, an army of assassins descends on a safe house with startling efficiency and ruthless cruelty; the resulting sequence is an absolute stunner. But nothing can quite prepare you for the awe-inspiring battle sequences at the film’s climax; some of the CGI is less than convincing, and the third act’s turns aren’t always clear. But Yimou is never lacking in narrative thrust. You might not be sure exactly where he’s going, but he is, and you’ll most likely turn yourself over to him.

Luckily, just when the spectacle threatens to overtake the narrative (and it comes awfully close to doing just that), the screws are turned on this dysfunctional royal family, and the tragedy veers away from the Shakespearean and closer to the Greeks. Curse of the Golden Flower is a great-looking film; this much is obvious, and almost expected. But its real accomplishment is that Yimou’s visual poetry heightens and compliments the poetry of his storytelling.

Sony’s decision to only release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as part of this three-movie bundle has earned some well-deserved ire from the consumers; it is a bit of a rip-off, particularly since the three films are, strictly speaking, only stylistically connected (Amazon’s labeling of the set as a “trilogy” is entirely inaccurate). However, those who have not yet taken the leap on the other two titles will be well-served to pick up this three-pack (particularly if it maintains its low Amazon price for the near future). The video quality on House of Flying Daggers disappoints, but otherwise, this is a stellar set with three great films well-presented in HD.

All three films are currently available on DVD. "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" are currently available on Blu-ray; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" makes its Blu-ray review in this three-pack on Tuesday, July 28th.

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