Monday, August 30, 2004


Upon its release two years ago, Hero became a Chinese pop culture phenomenon. With a budget of $30 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made in that county, and it became China’s biggest domestic hit to date. Impressed by all the hype and certain he’d nabbed the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein paid a monumental $20 million for US and other distribution rights. Yet this movie almost didn’t make it into American theaters.

Weinstein kept stalling Hero’s release, apparently fearful that it wouldn’t appeal to American audiences after all. Meanwhile, he chopped about 20 minutes from a version that got a limited European run. But he finally released the US version, uncut, after Quentin Tarantino urged him to – and agreed to let Weinstein advertise it as a Tarantino “presentation.”

That explains why Tarantino’s name appears at the beginning of the credits, but chances are you’d be thinking about him even if it didn’t. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill two-parter, Hero is an art house version of a “grind house” martial arts movie.

Director Zhang Yimou started as a still photographer, and it shows. Like Zhang’s first feature, Red Sorghum (1987) – and like the first part of Tarantino’s double feature, which loaded most of its character development into Volume 2 – Hero is light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, and a Chinese wedding feast for the eyes.

The movie, set over 2,000 years ago, begins as a sword fighter so anonymous his name is Nameless (nicely underplayed by martial arts superstar Jet Li) is ushered in to see the king of Qin, one of seven warring provinces that made up what is now China. It seems that Nameless has killed the three assassins who were trying to kill the king, and now he’s claiming his reward. We see the story play out as Nameless tells the tale of how he killed the killers, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) – and then, challenged by the king, retells it. In the process, we see the fairy-tale romance between the sad-eyed Broken Sword and the defiant Flying Snow come to not one but three tragic ends. We also get an earnest message about giving peace a chance.

Hero has been compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, since it uses that movie’s copiously copied device of telling different versions of the same story. But what’s more impressive is the way its meticulous compositions and painterly use of color echo the Japanese master’s visuals.

Hero borrows one of Kurosawa’s favorite set-ups, shooting long shots with long lenses against spectacular backgrounds to capture the pageantry and power of a platoon of cavalrymen on the gallop or an army of foot soldiers massing at a gate. Those majestic landscapes and expertly choreographed crowd scenes give his sparingly used close-ups that much more impact, as our eyes, coaxed wide open by the sumptuous visuals, search the actors’ faces for signs of the emotions their characters are often trying to hide. His use of color also wakes up the senses as each of the three versions of the story plays out in a different hue.

The fight scenes are magnificent, starting with the contrast between the actors’ lethal-looking moves and the serenity of their flowing hair and clothes. That contrast is magnified by camera tricks like the mix of stop-motion and slow-motion photography moves that were pioneered in Hong Kong martial arts movies and popularized in this country in The Matrix (think water droplets suspended in mid-descent until they’re dispelled by the slow-motion thrust of a sword), and by gravity-defying wire fighting that lets combatants run through the air or literally walk on water. Zhang and director of photography Christopher Doyle film it all against stunning backdrops, orchestrating gorgeous gusts of falling yellow leaves in one scene and sending Nameless and Broken Sword back and forth above the placid surface of a mountain-fringed lake in another.

Japanese kodo drummers and haunting, steel-guitar-like ancient lute give a timeless feel to a soundtrack that features violin music by Itzhak Perlman and a score by Tan Dun, who composed the music for Crouching Tiger.

Zhang, one of the best-known of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers (so called because they were in the fifth graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy), is also one of the most versatile, constantly trying new genres and visual styles. His first few films, which included Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, were historical dramas. His next three were about life in contemporary China. As he told Asia Connections shortly after completing that series: “they all come with different styles. Not One Less is like a documentary. The Road Home is like a poetic essay, while Happy Times is a comedy. So for me, I'm satisfied with this trilogy, but it's time for me to move on. That's why I'm starting to make martial arts films.”

Zhang hit the ground running with his first martial arts movie, creating a story as evanescent but lovely to watch as Nameless and Broken Sword’s duel on the lake.

Written for TimeOff

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Intimate Strangers and Open Water

By Elise Nakhnikian

Practically everyone agrees that there aren’t enough good film scripts these days. But what does that mean, exactly? I’ve been thinking about that since watching Open Water and Intimate Strangers last weekend.

Open Water should have been a stone cold summer chiller. Loosely based on the story of two people who were left behind by their dive boat off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and never found, it takes us into the ocean with our couple as they to see what will get them first: the bloodthirsty sharks circling them or the rescue boats that they’re slowly losing faith in. Yet Intimate Strangers, whose story is far less dramatic, is a more interesting movie.

Intimate Strangers is a variation on a theme seen in countless other movies: A repressed man and an unhappy, perhaps unreliable beauty free one another by falling in love. But inventive touches and deft handling orchestrated by director Patrice LeConte keep things unpredictable and intriguing.

Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) and William (Fabrice Luchini) meet when Anna knocks on the wrong door on her first visit to a psychoanalyst, ending up with the tax analyst next door. William, the tax analyst, listens sympathetically to Anna’s marital woes, taking her for a new client in need of help with a divorce. When he realizes her mistake, he’s too rattled and she’s too rushed to get things straight. The confusion continues for a session or two, and by the time it gets sorted out Anna and William have come to depend on their talks.

They keep meeting, and Anna gains confidence as she sees the effect she is having on William, growing more light-hearted and seductive. William lightens up a bit too, even doing an ecstatic little shimmy one night to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Bonnaire and Luchini make us care about these two and believe in their growing attraction, but there’s more to the movie than the self-effacing charisma of its stars.

A few well-drawn minor characters, including William’s meddlesome secretary, his sad-eyed ex-lover, and the psychoanalyst down the hall, who William consults about how to “treat” Anna, keep popping up, taking on new shadings each time. His interactions with these other people tell us a lot about William – and provide some wry comic relief.

In contrast, Open Water focuses relentlessly on Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis). The only other character who gets more than a few seconds’ screen time is a boorish passenger aboard their dive boat who’s featured in an overlong sequence illustrating the confusion that allowed Susan and Daniel to be left behind.

Ironically, that sequence is more dramatic than most of what happens after Susan and Daniel are abandoned at sea. Except for the occasional outburst, the two seem remarkably nonplussed, alternately bickering and nurturing each other just as they did at home or in their hotel. As they argue over whether to swim for a distant boat, their lack of affect borders on bizarre: It’s the bland leading the bland.

The married couple the movie was based on disappeared sometime after their dive boat departed. (Nobody knows when, since it took a couple of days for anyone to realize they were missing and mount a search, by which time they were nowhere to be found). That lack of knowledge gave director/writer Chris Kentis a blank slate. He chose to fill it by creating banal characters, making them react to the crisis largely as if it weren’t happening, and shooting in aggressively lackluster digital video. His purpose may have been to make us feel like we’re watching a home movie as it unspools (he likes to call the movie “Blair Witch meets Jaws,”), but he succeeded only in draining most of the thrill from an inherently suspenseful subject.

The most interesting thing about Open Water is the fact that the sharks you see circling the actors were all real – and really in the water with Ryan and Travis – but you can’t tell that by watching the movie. With computer-generated special effects as good as they are these days, using real sharks has the feel of a publicity stunt – or a cost-saving measure, since the movie was made for less than half a million.

If Open Water is Blair Witch meets Jaws, then Intimate Strangers is Vertigo meets Sex, Lies and Videotape, with its copious sex talk, fascinating female lead, and besotted leading man. I thought of Vertigo during an unexplained scene in a train station where Anna faints, and during the frequent close-ups of just part of her face or body, which deliver her to us in shards that echo the disjointed stories she tells William about her life.

Open Water favors low-angle shots too, but the reason is more prosaic: surface-level shots of the ocean help us assume Susan and Daniel’s vantage point – which leaves us struggling to see clearly, our line of sight broken up by waves so small they’d be almost invisible if viewed from above.

In movies as in every other kind of storytelling, what ultimately matters most is not what story you choose to tell but how you tell it. And that’s why Intimate Strangers teases while Open Water tanks.