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.
The Banquet (2006) — March 8, 2007
A loose Chinese adaptation of Hamlet, starring Zhang Ziyi as the Queen and Daniel Wu as the upset son. Zhang isn’t Wu’s mother, which eases some of the incestuous tension of the play, and makes the film more of a tragic romance between the two. All the principals and events are there from Shakespeare, in slightly altered form, but the tone of the thing is different. Whereas the play is a brilliant mixture of comedy and tragedy, the film is dark and moody to the point of hysteria. The sets and costumes are elaborate, but the direction and cinematography are rather pedestrian.
The Grandmaster (2013) — February 6, 2018
Zhang Ziyi says “Maybe I’m the Will of Heaven” and I’m pretty sure she is.
I think the movie makes a whole lot more sense if the title is The Grandmasters, plural, rather than singular, because obviously it isn’t just about one person. And if it is about one person, that guy clearly is not Ip Man. The first half hour is about him, mostly. But the second hour is about Zhang and her family, grandmasters all. And the plural title would explain what Chang Chen is even doing in this movie. All those old men (familiar faces Yuen Woo-ping, Bruce Leung, Lo Hoi-pang among them) telling Ip what to do, they’re grandmasters too. Everyone’s a grandmaster. Ip Man just out-lasted and out-promoted them all.
Interesting that the two best fighters in the movie are played by Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung, who despite their basic competence and experience in martial arts films, are far from experts. Also that Zhang’s big showdown is with Zhang Jin, who was once her stunt double (wikipedia says in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, while imdb doesn’t credit him in that film but does in Hero and The Banquet, two films in which Zhang Ziyi also starred and would have had need for a double).
Added April 2, 2019:
Sometimes I forget that Wong Kar-wai made a kung fu movie that’s also a history of China in the 20th century that is as beautiful, weird, sexy, confounding, and expansive as any movie ever made.
The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah, 2018) – February 4, 2018
Zhang Ziyi's best American movie.