August 10, 2004

Zhang Yimou: A Painter Not A Director

hero.jpgThursday night as a part of the Urban World Film Festival, Cinecultist finally saw one of our most anticipated movies for the last two years, Zhang Yimou's Hero. Released in China in 2002 and owned for US distribution by Miramax, the film has been leaking out into festivals for the last few months and is finally going to see the US theatrical light of day on August 27. We weren't able to catch it at the opening night of Subway Cinema's Asian Film Festival though we did hear Zhang speak about the movie to the Asia Society and his comments about making the movie to film the color black plus a kick ass cast had CC waiting with baited breath for this picture.

If you're familiar with Zhang's earlier work when he was the golden boy of the Chinese Fifth Generation, making Oscar favs like Raise the Red Lantern or Ju Dou, you know that for him plot is just a means to the end of production design with his exotic locales, sumptious colors and practically mathematical shot formations. Where those films used these painterly effects (emphasizing visuals over story) for the purpose of historical drama, Zhang has now taken this technique and applied it to the martial arts movie. And wow, it is a stunning thing to behold.

While the fight scenes are fun, in particular an early sequence where Jet Li fights an assassin in a rainy chess house, they aren't something so spectacular and ground breaking. However the spectacle of all of those colors swirling from the screen, the most shocking reds and cooling blues and vibrant greens, made Cinecultist's jaw drop for nearly the full two hours. The most stunning of all though is indeed Zhang's use of black. According to his research, black was the official color of the Qin court, and the sea of baroque courtiers peering around the black columns in the all black receiving room for the Emperor is something really worth seeing.

However, sensory overload visuals wouldn't be enough to make for a wholly compelling movie. Without the performances delivered by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as lovers/assassins Snow and Broken Sword, as well as Jet Li as the stony Nameless assassin, filling the screen with passion and verve, Hero could have easily fallen flat. As our friend William pointed out after the screening, the best martial arts movies combine high emotions with action and watching Maggie and Tony together on screen is like poetry. The feeling of a shared past seems to emanate from them and as they die tragic deaths a bunch of times (the story is a bit Rashomon-y, it's retold a number of times with different details revealed) each one resonates more.

Cinecultist urges you to disregard the pretentious Quentin Tarantino Presents over the title with the single billing of Jet Li on the American posters (he's good but he's not the whole story) and support this movie when it comes to your town. Art house meets ass kicking and it's a happy union, we are pleased to report.

Posted by karen at August 10, 2004 8:04 AM