2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Saturday, August 28, 2004


Well its finally here. I guess I could have watched the DVD version earlier (a lot earlier as it turned out) like phyrephox (check out his earlier review), since its readily available just about everywhere, but Miramax actually decided to give Zhang Yimou’s film a theatrical release before it was able to reach the top of my Greencine queue. I’m going to leave the DVD of the HK version in my queue so I can see what, if anything, was changed in the Miramax-ed version (I’m going to assume that all the historical, English-language expository titles which bookended the film were added to the American release for an audience ignorant of Chinese history). Hopefully upon a second viewing, I will like the film a bit more.

Its not that Hero is a bad film, far, far from it, but with the combined talents of director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, action director Ching Siu-tung, and stars Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Zhiyi, and Donnie Yen, well I guess I expected more emotional “oomph”. Hero owes a lot more to Wong Kar-wai’s art-house deconstruction of the wuxia pan genre, Ashes of Time, then it does to the international blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the heritage cinema of Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (two of the more obvious points of comparison). But whereas Wong Kar-wai’s abstract narrative was just confusing, Yimou’s is plodding, composed mainly of a a back and forth, investigative conversation between Jet Li’s swordsman, referred throughout the film as “Nameless,” and the King of Qin, later First Emperor of China (Chen Dao-ming), as the two characters hash out the truth behind Nameless’s defeat of three renowned assassins from the neighboring kingdom of Zhao: Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and his lover Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Thus the bulk of the film is taken up with the retelling of the same basic series of events, a series of confrontations, duels, and subterfuge involving the four martial arts masters, as well as Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon (Zhang Zhiyi). As Nameless relates his tale, the astute King of Qin becomes more and more skeptical of his patriotic warrior’s true motives, inevitably leading to tragic bloodshed and a healthy dosage of Chinese nationalism (the final paragraph of J. Hoberman’s review nails the troubling ideological aspects of the film; given the historical nature of the Qin Dynasty, I tend to agree).

I actually think that Hero works better as an example of experimental cinema then it does as a work of narrative, which is how I came up with my comparison to Ashes of Time, and it is in this manner that the film derives a measure of poetry (more cynically, one could refer to Hero simply as a technical exercise). Zhang Yimou is obviously more concerned with the flutter of delicate, colored silk in the windswept deserts of Western China, for example, than he is with telling a classical narrative (which befits the abstract concerns of the narrative, since throughout the film, martial arts are compared to the ineffable arts of music and calligraphy). Befitting a collaboration between former cinematographer Zhang Yimou and ace DP Christopher Doyle, Hero is an extravaganza of color, light, and texture; no, make that a veritable orgy. Each major section of the film is dominated by a particular set of vivid hues, particularly expressed in the costumes (by Japanese designed Emi Wada), massive, symmetrical sets, and picturesque natural backdrops, all of which match the emotional register of the scenes: gray, black, and brown; red and gold; blue and green; white and black (and green again in a flashback), sometimes accentuated by digital effects, as if the filmmakers were actually painting on the screen (particularly noticeable during the red duel between Flying Snow and Moon).

Color may be one of Zhang Yimou’s top concerns, but it is not the only one. For one thing, movement throughout the film is aestheticized and abstracted, and we are not just talking about the wonders of wire-fu: the prevalent usage of slow-motion action; the usage of discontinuous editing which fractures space and disorientates the viewer, atomizing and capturing a single bit of movement, giving it emphasis, before moving on to the next instance (there are so many mismatches during the fight sequences that it could not just be simple sloppiness or lack of coverage); and frequent cutaways tracing the fall of a rain droplet, the radiation of ripples on a placid lake, or how fabric floats in the breeze.

Hero could also be characterized as a study of its actors faces. Tony Leung Chiu-wai has made an entire career out of contemplative looks, and his ability is again used to great effect (whereas Jet Li’s face is expressionless, masking the rage bubbling underneath; the beautiful faces of Maggie Cheung and Zhang Zhiyi are most often used by the filmmakers to convey passion and anger); probably the most common shot in the entire film is a close-up of an actor centered within the widescreen frame, held just long enough for the audience to absorb the actor’s features. The sound design is another facet of the film that I really enjoyed: the clatter of swords; the light splashes of water as Broken Sword and Nameless halfheartedly duel across the waters of a mountain lake; the whistle of thousands of arrows; the booming cry of the advancing Qin Army; echoing cries of anguish; the rustle of leaves; the vengeful entreaties of the eunuchs calling for execution in unison. Chilling, and I did even mention the use of music, by composer Tan Dun, which features Itzhak Perlman on violin, vocals by Faye Wong, and Kodo drumming.

You know, as I write about the film and reflect upon it more, I find that the sound and images continue to linger in my memory, which I usually consider an achievement in and of itself. Whatever faults the film may have narratively, it is an impressive technical achievement and beautiful to experience. Perhaps, I shall have to see the film again sooner than I expected.