Wednesday, August 8, 2012
THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS - ZHANG YIMOU
Watched The House Of Flying Daggers again tonight with my friends from Georgia visiting for a few days. It's my friends the Carpenters, Lucas and Judy, from Conyers, Georgia, off I-20 east of Atlanta. Daughter Meredith and her husband Greg, here from San Francisco, came with them, and Greg's mother, Ruth, from Chicago. We ate a good meal prepared by Meredith and Greg, PhDs in biology and chemistry, respectively, as good in the kitchen as they are in the laboratory. Meredith is working in a new field involving DNA from ancient teeth, like Leakey's Lucy, that kind of ancient. I'd left about a dozen DVDs there last time Lucas and Judy were here. Greg and Meredith chose The House Of Flying Daggers. I was happy to see it again. Haven't seen it in a few years. Looking at what I love about it, I find it is largely a visual fest of colors and flowing lines. The story is simple and complex. It actually is both. It's very simple. And it's rather complex. Early on, Judy asked of one of the actors, Takeshi Kaneshiro, "Is he a bad guy?" I didn't know what to say. I never think of characters in terms of good guys and bad guys. I just watch and see what happens. I said I didn't know. I've seen the film half a dozen times, but never thought of him as a good or bad guy. Now that it's over, I can't see that either word has meaning for his character. He was both and neither.
It always does me good to see Zhang Ziyi in any film she's in. I believe she had a small, but notable role in Lust-Caution, the film of the underground resistance during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s. She was the ninja girl who stole the sword and flew through the air with it in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. She had a role in The Hero with Jet Li, most memorable in the sword fight among the trees full of falling red leaves blowing around them in the wind, her last scene. I think it's Maggie Chung who defeated her in the scene of swirling reds. Zhang Yimou, the director, makes some gorgeous films, lush with colors, with flow, with feeling. His stories are minimal, yet emotionally complex. In a big gray palace with huge columns, silk draperies of yellow-green suspended from the ceiling made a flowing labyrinth for a sword fight between the king and a would-be assassin. In The House Of The Flying Daggers, the sword fight at the end happens in a landscape of autumn in full color. Snow starts falling as the sword fight goes on. By the time the fight is over, the snow is about 4 inches deep. Another time, I watched the brief documentary, the Making Of, that goes with the film. Zhang Yimou said while they were filming the sword fight the snow started falling and he decided to go ahead and keep on filming as the snow fell. It made a scene that was out of this world and very much of this world.
The visuals in varieties of forest in autumn, vertical dark lines with the pointilist orange and yellow dots of leaves among them, vertical white lines with pointilist yellow leaves. Then there is the bamboo grove of vertical green bamboo poles with leaves growing up high in the canopy. Running through the vertical green lines, soldiers in green uniforms striding through leafy air above, chasing Zhang Ziyi and her partner, Takeshi Kaneshiro the good guy/bad guy. She's in love with him, but the other one, Andy Lau, is in love with her, has waited for her 3 years. They're the ones who sword fought in the end. At the beginning, they were army buddies stationed together, men loyal to the emperor, or so we believed then. Much deception going on, which is uncovered, step by step, by sequence of events, until at the very end all deceptions come clean. Andy Lau played the man in waiting for three years, a member of the House of the Flying Daggers, also a spy inside the Chinese army. In Hong Kong, Andy Lau is a director of some good men-with-guns films, romantic comedies, and he acts in several of his films. He's one of the Chinese actors and directors of note in this time. He makes a good gangster movie. Search his name at netflix and a long list of movies come up.
By now I've seen most of Zhang Yimou's films, all the ones I can find at netflix, each of them several times. They're the kinds of films I watch a second time before returning them. Landscape is important in all his films. This one used the landscape of forest from the inside, then at the end seeing it from a meadow outside the forest. In a forest like the horses were running and walking through, no limbs were on the ground, no low-growing limbs, the ground evenly carpeted in fallen leaves at the same time the trees are full of colored leaves. The entire screen is covered with golden reddish orange of autumn leaves on the ground and in the trees, vertical dark lines of tree trunks, a man in a purple robe riding his horse through the scene, sometimes walking, sometimes running. Zhang Ziyi wears a flowing yellow-green outfit -- can't call it a dress, can't call it a robe -- running through the bamboo forest of vertical green lines just a shade darker than her clothes. He, the Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, wore purple through the scenes of vertical green lines and the scenes of the vertical dark lines with the golden ground below and leaves above.
I hold Zhang Yimou up there with other directors like Ole Bornedal of Denmark, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, Kristof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski of Poland, Andrei Tarkovsky of Russia, several from France, Kurosawa of Japan, Peter Greenaway from England, Lars von Trier of Denmark. I know before I start a film by Zhang Yimou, I will be satisfied all the way through it, every scene. He also made Raise The Red Lantern from a short novel by Su Tong. He enhanced the story visually, made it a fest of colors and shapes, beautifully dressed people moving among the symphonies of both brilliant and dull, warm colors around them that sometimes are cold. His film, Ju Dou, with Gong Li, happens in a place that dyes silk red. Red silk banners hang drying and flowing in the breeze through much of the film. The first time I saw it was without subtitles. Saw it later with subtitles and all I missed was names and relationships, like uncle, cousin, like that. I've seen Raise The Red Lantern several times and read the novel, know the story fairly well. It's time to see it without subtitles. I may want to look at other of his films without subtitles. I find I see the colors and compositions much better without the words to read. I don't mind reading them, but that time I saw Ju Dou without subtitles was memorably beautiful. It taught me I don't need to understand literal meanings. The tone of voice of what the actors are saying often carries the meaning. I like to hear the Chinese language too. I hear it best without subtitles. The House Of The Flying Daggers would be good without subtitles. The visuals tell the story and words fill in the blanks.