Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Bad – 54.3 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 99mins Director: Yimou Zhang Stars: Jet Li, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung
An unknown warrior presents himself before a powerful ruler of ancient China to explain how he rid the paranoid emperor of his three most fearsome enemies. As he recounts his battles with these warriors, a secret motive begins to surface which may or may not be to the ruler’s liking. Although, this film has been lauded by most of the film-going world, this review is largely critical of the film. The few existing criticisms of this film have in the main focused on a theoretical political undertone or indeed a message that justifies the political regime who bankrolled the film. Such criticisms are not the concern of this review which focuses simply on its artistic merit.
Hero is a beautiful looking film full of astonishingly choreographed fight scenes. This much has been said by practically everyone who has seen the film and it is not really up for debate. However, while it may look lovely and involve lots of spectacular choreography, Hero makes some unforgivable movie-making mistakes while getting there. Firstly, it does look lovely, every second of it. That’s the problem. By making every frame of every scene a picture of beauty, Yimou Zhang shows no understanding of the importance of restraint and so he saturates the audience very early on. A Kubrick, a Jackson, or a Malick would tease you here and there and then intermittently knock you for six with great cinematography. One reason why cinematography is a separate profession from directing is cinematographers don’t necessarily know how to sew their lovely shots together into a coherent affecting experience. It’s the discipline of a great director that makes the best use of great cinematographers. Hero is a case of astoundingly good cinematography let down by astoundingly poor directing. In a similar act of indiscipline, on several occasions, Zhang seems to use the plot as nothing more than a tool to present us with as many visual feasts as we can chew on – and then a dozen more. One gets the distinct and frankly inescapable feeling that each of the key scenarios are set up merely as vehicles for furthering the visual spectacle. With such visual saturation and with plot and story coming second to the look of the film, the audience becomes alienated from the characters and Zhang’s directorial failure is almost complete.
And then there are the fight scenes. Great choreography in a fight scene is of course important but it means nothing if the scenes lack the more important visceral factor. One can only assume that Zhang substituted good old fashioned hard hitting thrusts and smacks with the tippy-tappy attacks that these flaccid scenes serve up in an effort to augment the gentle balletic qualities of his movie. Regardless of motive, however, the result is a series of anemic battles that do little to rouse the attention of the viewer. Testament to this of course is how difficult it is to recall any of the actual fighting in Hero. Sure, we can remember the scenery but the battles dissolve into a series of thinly remembered snippets.
But of course, there are some who argue that Hero isn’t about the fighting or even the story. That it’s about a meditative experience it creates. Well, it could be counter-argued that it is here where Zhang’s direction falls the shortest. Hero approximates a meditative vision by shoveling every type of visual technique that is stereotypically associated that sort of film making into a nearly every scene. For example, to slow down the viewing experience, Zhang repeatedly relies on slow motion (!). The problem with this technique is it’s all explicit. It’s obvious. The viewer knows exactly what you are trying to do. The same level of craft typifies a tourist promo: “Visit China because it is beautiful and to prove it we’ll show you beautiful images.” The audience doesn’t take the message at face value because they’re aware that they are being manipulated into that conclusion. Hero works with that same coarse technique. As a perfect counter example, take A Touch of Zen (the film Hero was perhaps trying to convince us it was). That film works largely on a preconscious level because none of its techniques were familiar and they played on an abstract conceptual awareness as opposed to a perceptual one. The audience had to “unpack” the information which duly allowed the film to creep in past our psychological defences and create all sorts of ideas and feelings we weren’t braced for. Hero does the very opposite. (It should be noted that A Touch of Zen also manages to tell a coherent story while doing all this too.)
Unfortunately, therefore, in the final analysis, Hero is a case of all gloss and no substance. This is somewhat a pity because the gloss is pretty spectacular but as it is not embedded in a story of substance (and therefore being a servant to that story instead of vice-versa) it becomes decidedly unsubstantial. Worse still however, is the brutish, unsophisticated, and ultimately cloy feeling that this film is trying to force feed us an experience. A garish sense that the film is attempting to bootstrap its own standing from undisciplined technical piece to profound cinematic contemplation.