Zhang Yimou Capsule Reviews
Red Sorghum (1988) — January 14, 2019
“You have red on you.”
Ju Dou (1990) — April 24, 2019
Basically a noir in which two young lovers conspire against the woman’s husband. Except they don’t kill him (though they certainly think about it a few times) they just have sex behind his back and conceive a child. All the inevitable violence is done by the child, a Damien-like agent of destruction, of divine punishment for his elders’ sins. (Though you can’t really blame the poor kid for turning out evil, from what we can see, all these people are absolutely terrible parents.)
As usual with Zhang, the morality here is confused. The patriarch is cartoonishly villainous, beating poor Gong Li mercilessly (he has driven two previous wives to their deaths) and just an all around terrible person. So we root for the young people, uprooting an ancient system of patriarchy simply by being in love. But the fruit of that love, their son, is the cause of their destruction. Is the child wreaking vengeance in the name of the old gods on the impious? Or are an older generation and a younger generation conspiring to doom the ones caught in the middle? I guess you can stretch that allegory out and have the old man be the Qing and the child Mao and the couple the KMT, or at least the idealism of Sun Yat-sen. But that might be taking things too far.
Shanghai Triad (1995) — May 20, 2013
Restricting himself to the (limited) POV of a servant, newly arrived in town from the country, who witnesses the depravity of the Triad lifestyle gives the film a political purpose, siding with the oppressed against the viciousness of gangster capitalism. It allows the film to be seen as politically acceptable by both Western film critics and the Chinese communist elite, who see their revolutionary forefathers in the darting, judgmental eyes of the young man. Zhang walked that line for a long time before he finally fell out of favor with the critics.
House of Flying Daggers (2004) — August 6, 2014
Wife: Why are you watching House of Flying Daggers again?
Me: It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. I’ve watched a lot of martial arts and Hong Kong movies in the last couple of years and I’m curious how it holds up.
Wife: How is it?
Me: Kinda weird. It’s so ornate, rococo in costumes and sets and plot and everything. So pretty, but it feels like there’s something missing. The plot is so ridiculously convoluted and hard to follow: everyone is lying to everyone else all the time, so no one’s motivations are ever really clear and even the ostensible conflict of the film, the fight between the rebellious Flying Daggers movement and their Tang Dynasty rulers, is totally abandoned and left unresolved in favor of the love triangle, which is acted with great slow-motion melodrama but doesn’t ever feel natural.
It’s almost that it looks too good, but that’s not really fair. It isn’t as if the great martial arts directors of the past wouldn’t have made something this elaborately gorgeous if they were given the chance. Shaw Brothers directors like Chor Yuen or Li Han-hsiang and even King Hu would have made films every bit as self-consciously decorous as Zhang Yimou did.
But I think they would have done something else too. Added a layer of depth or perversion or a grasp at transcendence or for God’s sake humor to it all. This is the only martial arts film I can think of that doesn’t even mention religion or spirituality or philosophy or folk custom or anything. It takes place in an ideological no man’s land between actual Chinese cultural and cinematic tradition and some kind of bland international humanist cinema. Zhang’s films, and not just his 21st century wuxia films like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, but all those 90s films with Gong Li that made him an art house superstar in the US have kind of this same problem: they look great, but aren’t particularly filling, they’re either too simplistic or too calculated to be truly moving.
Wife: I like pretty.
Cliff Walkers (2021) — November 8, 2021
Like every other Zhang Yimou movie, the most interesting thing about it is that it looks really cool. The spy thriller stuff is generally pretty good, but mostly it just reminded what a great movie Age of Shadows was.