2010s, Chinese cinema, Experimental, Film Noir, Romance

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Di qiu zui hou de ye wan
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Director/Screenwriter: Bi Gan

By Roderick Heath

Bi Gan was inspired to become a filmmaker after by a college viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) assured him that you could do what you liked with film. His debut as a feature director, Kaili Blues (2015), instantly marked him in both China and abroad as a new talent with startling accomplishment for such a young voice. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his second film, is a statement of artistic ambition rare on the contemporary film scene. A surprisingly big hit at the Chinese box office, in part because of a cunningly obfuscating advertising campaign, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also a film that tries to embrace contemporary frontiers in filmmaking like a bold application of 3D, usually reserved for special effects spectacles, and a unique brand of showmanship to a defiantly unconventional brand of filmmaking. Related to Eugene O’Neill’s great play only by a sense of living in a present inescapably haunted by the past (the Chinese title is equally loose in appropriating a Roberto Bolano book’s title), Bi’s film is neatly bifurcated as a viewing experience, the two halves – the title card doesn’t appear until almost precisely halfway through – corresponding to different states of perception and being.
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Bi’s approach to cinema is certainly original, and his vantage on art film internationalist. Nonetheless he threatens to unify some familiar traits that many other major Chinese-language filmmakers share to varying degrees. The lushly visual and dreamily psychological cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and the painstakingly evocative externalist portraits of Hsiao-hsien Hou meets the gritty reports from directors like Jia Zhangke and Li Yang, and even Johnny To’s bravura genre twists, to make account a deliriously shifting social and emotional landscape. His method, subsuming film noir motifs into a more abstracted and experimental brand of movie, also echoes a long tradition, back to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain-Robbe Grillet. After all, the obsessions of much modernist art, with vagaries of identity and form, knowing and ambiguity, the sense of paranoia and estrangement pervasive in much of modern life, the uneasy relationship of personal agency with blocs of great power and crises of faith and ideology, conjoin very neatly with noir’s basic motifs, where the individual is so often an existential warrior in such a void. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays out a kind of film noir plot in disrupted and spasmodic fashion, used to illustrate a general, ephemeral sense of existence, where one search blends into another and all roads to a nexus of identity, far more ephemeral and romantically charged than such heady forebears.
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The setting fits such a story perfectly, offering a corner of a vast and prosperous nation where nonetheless not many interested eyes seem to be turned and it’s easy to imagine human flotsam slipping through the cracks. As with his first film, Bi’s real subject, or at least the most tangible one, is Kaili itself and surrounds in the southern province of Guizhou, a mountainous, subtropical region that’s plainly missed out on the great millennial economic boom. Bi surveys a backwater vista of decaying, blasted industrial structures, dilapidated enterprise, and drifting, isolated and disorientated people. Bi’s hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is first glimpsed, haggard and grey-haired, after a tryst with a prostitute, on his way back to Kaili after a ten-year absence. Luo seems to have been working at a scrap metal merchant’s as a cutter and welder. Bi’s camera tracks from a view of him driving off in a van and then along rusted metal barrier whilst Luo’s voiceover recounts how his one-time friend Wildcat was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo’s return is prompted by his father’s death: he finds his father has left him his van but left his restaurant to his second wife, a move Luo accepts with weary approval. The second wife takes down a clock his father used to sit and drink in front of and replaces it with a photo of the father. Luo checks the clock and finds why it served such a totemic function for him: he had hidden a photo of his first wife, Luo’s mother, in the mechanism. She vanished when Luo was still very young, and he begins trying to track her down.
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One quest for a woman is conjoined with another. Luo also wants to find his former lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he became involved with years earlier, or who might have been named Kaizhen. She reminded Luo of his mother in some ways, particularly when he first saw her with smudged makeup. At the very start of the film, Luo tells the prostitute he dreamt of a woman, surely Qiwen, who always returns to him in dreams just when he seems at the point of forgetting her. What follows for the rest of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s first half is a near-random-seeming assortment of scenes that start to fit together mosaic-like, recounting Luo’s present-tense attempts to find where his mother went to, as well as pondering his past with Qiwen and seeking her ultimate fate. Qiwen appears like an apparition out of the mess of Luo’s past. Luo recalls how he met her, as Wildcat’s former lover, tracking her down and catching her on a train that became halted by mudslide.
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Luo seems to rough her up, grabbing her hair and pointing a gun at her forehead, much to Qiwen’s detached and world-weary lack of great concern. As if in compensation after deciding she had nothing to do with Wildcat’s death, Luo took her out to dinner and encountered her again walking down a seedy tunnel wearing a green dress and smeared, blood-red lipstick. Luo showed her the same photo of his mother to her he would later rediscover in the clock. Or are his memories and his present bleeding into each-other? The older Luo visits Tai Zhaomei (Yanmin Bi), a woman in prison who was a friend of his mother’s when she was younger, and mailed the photo to his father’s restaurant. Luo learns things about his mother, including that she was a good singer, and was involved with criminal activities like forging identity cards. Mother and son both seem to have shared a fate to remain rootless and outside the law, and Luo and his father are unified by their fate to constantly dream about the woman they lost.
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Bi’s eliding visuals mimic the haziness of Luo’s memories, replete with rainy haze, reflections, unfolding in places that seem sequestered from the hoary everyday. Bi tends to break up longer, relatively coherent scenes with sudden plunges into subliminally connected recollections, a random access memory for vignettes charged with needling relevance. Luo’s voiceover describes Qiwen as someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then return there. His memories of her are often layered and mediated, a face in shadow lit by flame, a solitary figure swathed in green, glimpsed in mirrors and through rain-speckled glass, at once palpable and immaterial. Settings have a similarly conjured intensity, like the tunnel where Luo encounters Qiwen. Or the abandoned building with peeling paint on the walls and water constantly dripping from the ceiling, a place where Luo retreats and apparently once lived in with Qiwen, and which Luo recalls his one-time paramour teaching him a magic spell to set spinning around. Or the grimy railway café where Qiwen makes a fateful statement to Luo, and a cobra is kept in a glass case, rearing up in impotent fury, like an illustration of the lurking danger in their lives.
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Fragments of sublime and languorous romanticism are glimpsed, as when Luo and Qiwen lying kissing by a pond, or talk in the café where the subject is urgent but the mood is distrait, almost surreal. Such flashes of beauty are wound in nonetheless with a threat of violence and deep-seated angst. Luo tells his mother-in-law he’s been managing a casino, a tale that proves to be rooted in an old ambition he and Qiwen had talked about. Another vignette sees Luo promising Qiwen that if they have a son he’ll teach him pingpong. Qiwen wanted to leave Kaili with Luo because a man she knew named Zuo was returning. She recounts to Luo a story of how, when singing karaoke, he told her “I will always find you.” Who Zuo is and his place in the lovers’ life resolves as Bi offers a shot of a man wearing a white hat singing karaoke with Wildcat dangling like a meat carcass, in the bowels of some seedy building, with Qiwen seated but apparently browbeaten by Zuo, who grabs her hair and tries to make her sing with him. Luo recounts having seen Wildcat’s ghost on a train not long after he died, and later there’s a glimpse of his corpse being trundled into the mine shaft that became his last resting place. It seems that Zuo killed Wildcat, and Luo intended retaliation by sitting behind Zuo in a movie theatre and shooting him in the back, but Bi never shows whether he really did the deed.
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Back in the present tense, Luo is handed a handwritten message from Tai Zhaomei by a cop, giving what might be the current name of his mother, Chen Huixian, and an address. Luo visits a hotel, but it’s uncertain whether it’s his mother or Qiwen that he’s tracked there: the jovial but shabby manager tells him about one of his quarries, who used to pay her rent by spinning entertaining stories and stated she was born infertile. Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser who Luo once was an apprentice to. Her account of Zuo’s dealings with her son and Qiwen sound startlingly like what Luo experienced, including being her lover and the deed of shooting a man on her behalf. Did any of this happen at all, or is it Luo’s feverish fantasy, or a blend of conjecture and identification rooted in things that happened to others? Was Qiwen Luo’s fellow survivor and islet of comfort in a harsh world, or a free-floating agent of destruction constantly ensnaring men and driving each to destroy the last? Bi doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions, but continues signalling subliminal connections between people who step in and out of roles in life – villain, victim, lover, parent, child – as time drags them along routes that seem at once utterly happenstance and eternally repetitive and predictable.
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The dichotomous hunt for Qiwen and Luo’s mother conjoins as a search for a kind of cosmic feminine, and often from scene to scene it’s hard to tell exactly which one he’s hunting for in that moment. Lookalikes proliferate. Meanwhile Luo explores a world where casual sights, like a karaoke truck or a boy petting a dog in a train station, will be appropriated and mixed into a fantasy landscape. Consuming fruit becomes an odd motif: Qiwen has a love of pomelos, whilst there’s an extended sequence of Wildcat eating an entire apple, stem and core included, as part of an odd ritual designed to end a feeling of sadness. Bi identifies an entire world of similarly uprooted and estranged people, as his camera notes Luo riding a bus full of itinerant workers sleeping, and a shattered factory populated by singer-prostitutes about to be left without a venue. Much like Jia with films like The World ( 2004) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Bi seems to perceive modern China as a place where the pace and type of change has left everyone’s head spinning, the country fundamentally fractured on the basic levels of community and psyche, the regressive lilt of its backwaters at once dogging the memories of its go-getters but also offering no cheer upon return. But like Wong Kar-Wai, he also sees the way we’re constructed by a mass of ephemeral impressions, always becoming and never more than a sum of the past.
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Throughout Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi works in some blatant nods to some beloved inspirations, including the self-animating glass of Stalker and the cattle skull-bedecked motorcycle of Touki-Bouki (1972). Such quotes certainly show Bi working through his cinematic touchstones, but they also serve a function as something like aesthetic milestones, points of recognition and orientation in the midst of a free flux of style. “The difference between film and memory,” Luo considers at one point, “Is that film is always false.” But memory is much more pernicious, blending together all the meal of being and identity, and our favourite artworks tend to become deeply entwined with impressions of places and times (this might also be the first and last film ever made to hinge in part on Vengaboys nostalgia). Tang’s presence in the film, as an international movie star whose beauty has the right mask-like, hallucinatory quality for Bi’s textures, provides another locus of recognition. Qiwen has an air of scarcely being present in mind even when physically present, of being too life-bruised and exhausted to react with anything like passion to any situation, barely bothered to resist clasping hands as if she’s been manhandled too many times to waste any but the minimum required energy fending such abuses off.
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Qiwen’s allure in the grimy and depressed setting Bi shoots is nonetheless inescapable, like something fallen from the sky. Qiwen shares a name with a cantopop star, a name that seems to distinguish her and signal her alien, too-good-for-this-place aura – this touch is reminiscent of Hsiao-hsien Hou naming the heroine of his equally wistful Three Times (2005) after the movie star Bai Ling, counting on such recognition for an archetypal charge: such names spell our moment and become our vehicles of self-expression and identification. Except that when Luo goes to a karaoke venue set up in an old factory about to be demolished, and thinks Qiwen might now be one of the singing concubines who works there, although the emcee-madame thinks he means an impersonator of the singing star, as her ranks are crammed with girls who specialise in mimicking such stars. To be subsumed to an image is to be erased. The opening with Luo chatting with the prostitute who looks something like Qiwen, signals the way Luo tries to retain a grip on the past’s illusions and his inability to move beyond them. Meanwhile he encounters people persisting in their small bubbles of subsistence – the hotel manager who points an ancient musket at his young employee as a bored practical joke, or Wildcat’s mother who works out to a video dancing game. Everyone and everything feels submerged, as if in a flooded city. After talking with Wildcat’s mother, who plans to dye her hair just as Qiwen once wanted to dye her hair red.
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Such throwaway and ephemeral details return transformed in meaning in the film’s second half. To waste time until the karaoke starts up, Luo goes to watch a movie and dozes off with a pair of 3D glasses on: at last the film’s title is displayed and the movie Luo watches becomes his own story. If the first half is an unmoored and skittish portrait of a man trying to sort out fact from fiction in his memory, the second has the fluid and metamorphosis-riddled aspect of a dream. The central conceit of Bi’s approach is that the dream seems much more lucid and negotiable than the section dominated by process of memory, which is associative and leaps time frames with jarring and bewildering randomness, although slowly it begins to add up to a kind of sense. The radical reorientation of style leaves behind the opaque shuffle of events for a rigorous, apparently single-shot experiential excursion, one that might be a “dream” and yet also seems clearer, more coherent, and more literal than the earlier half, albeit one filled with jolts of magic-realism. This section is replete with motifs anyone might recognise from dreams they’ve had over the years – mysterious journeying, strangely conflated setting and places, people who share multiple identities, anxious blends of public ritual and private angst.
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But Bi’s visualising of this, rendered in what is apparently one, long, sustained shot, inverts usual expectations for portrayals of the real and imagined, and ultimately makes you wonder which is which is his imaginative universe. He follows Luo as he enters an underground mine complex, leaves it on motorcycle and then rides a flying fox, entering a sort of industrial citadel amidst a jagged gorge that proves also to be a compressed pocket of reality where the stations of Luo’s particular life-long crucifixion are all neatly contained. People gather in a frigid plaza to watch and perform karaoke, big, beaty anthems echoing plangently around the locale, at once inviting the roaming outsiders and expelling them from the common run of humanity. Luo’s search becomes a literal trek around this segregated reality. Along the way Luo encounters a young boy living in the mine who also goes by the name Wildcat, and who loves playing ping-pong. He meets a woman who’s the spitting image of Qiwen except with a short red-dyed hairdo, managing a pool hall for her boyfriend. Another looks like the old Wildcat’s mother and has the same hairdo as the Qiwen avatar, who begs the hotel owner to come with her on some journey and confesses to be the one who burned down the building where Luo and Qiwen lived.
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Bi’s ostentatious yet resolutely unhurried formal device depends on a number of seamless transitions from shooting stage to stage – the ceaselessly roaming camera speeds before the motorcycle and then seems to glide through the air in arcs of languorous movement as Luo rides the flying fox and he and Qiwen make used of a ping-pong paddle the boy Wildcat gave him that has the potential to become a mode of flight, surveying the citadel and the human flotsam below as if momentarily granted deistic purview. As in myth, Luo has to pass a challenge to move from one zone to another, in his case winning a ping-pong match with the boy Wildcat. Luo has a potency in this zone that eluded him previously. He’s able to masterfully intimidate two teenagers who harass Qiwen, and fends off the hotel owner with a brandished pistol. In much the same way, the subterranean logic Bi employs throughout this sequence, the conjuring trick that is his cinema, ironically gives all a unity, a sense of completeness, that initially eludes it: the film’s second half is a statement of faith in art as a mode for making sense of experience. Luo is free to make associative connections and realise hidden truths. Resources of magic are available and time inverts.
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Each character realises multiple identities. The boy Wildcat could be the lingering spirit of Luo’s dead friend and also his fondly imagined and wished-for son, a reality in an alternate dimension. The vignette of Wildcat’s mother and the hotel owner could be simply be versions of the people they look like. Or smudged representations of Luo’s own mother and her ambiguous fate. Or Qiwen and her current boyfriend. Or future versions of Qiwen and Liu. They can be all at once in part because Bi has spent the entire movie carefully setting up the array of echoes and doppelgangers, generational examples of the same cyclical problems. Bi even has a certain droll sense of humour about the symbolic meaning of all this, as he has Qiwen comment on the symbolic value of the firework as representation of the transitory. In the truly surreal world, such representations break down, distinctions are lost, and opposites threaten to unify. The greater part of Bi’s game here is less to intrigue with such ponderings, however, than to articulate an oneiric feeling nearly impossible to articulate except with the tools cinema gives him. The sense of being at once present and removed from circumstances, of dreaming but also being aware.
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Luo’s encounters have a vital, salutary quality, helping the women he’s known, and by extension himself, escape frames of identity they’ve become entrapped by. The Qiwen he meets in the hillside town lacks the identifying marks that fixed the old one in his mind but nonetheless becomes the one he searches for, the green dress swapped for a flashy red jacket, just as iconographic but declaring a more worldly and contemporary aspect: classic femme fatale become ‘80s thriller neon goddess. Her fondness for pomelos suddenly gains meaning, as the highest rize on the fruit machine she likes to play, longing for fiscal deliverance. Strange as it all is, so much of Luo’s life clicks together like a jigsaw in these scenes, leading to its dizzyingly romantic climax as Luo and Qiwen kiss in the ruined building and do sit it spinning. His camera then threads an independent path, free of reference to his characters, through the citadel until focusing on the burning sparklers Luo left in Qiwen’s dressing room. Symbols of the transitory indeed, but burning brightly. We are of course watching Bi’s movie and he knows it, using the privilege to rewrite his own reality.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema, Historical

Dragon Inn (1967)

Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn; aka Dragon Gate Inn

Director/Screenwriter: King Hu

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By Roderick Heath

King Hu was born Hu Jinquan in Beijing in 1932. Scion of a prominent and prosperous family, Hu nonetheless was borne along with a generation displaced by war and political upheaval, and washed up in Hong Kong when still a teenager in 1949. After working for a decade in a variety of odd jobs, Hu started working at Shaw Brothers Studio, where he worked in front of and behind the camera, eventually becoming an assistant to the respected Taiwanese director Li Han-Hsiang, a role that primed him to become a director himself. Hu made his debut with the 1965 war drama Sons of the Good Earth, but it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966), that proved a legendary moment of crystallisation for both his career and the movies in general. Hu melded together the traditions of Chinese historical genre writing, dubbed wuxia, with ideas borrowed from Japanese samurai movies and Hollywood westerns as well as his own feel for character and philosophical ideas, and reinvented it for a movie style that became the mainstay of Chinese-language cinema. One of Hu’s most distinctive and consistent motifs was his fondness for placing interesting action heroines at the centre of his films, giving the genre a new energy and accessibility for a broad audience. Come Drink With Me made a star of Pei-pei Cheng who, decades later, would appear in Ang Lee’s hugely successful tribute to Hu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Although he had laid down a blueprint Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong studios would follow and revise for years to come, the newly emboldened Hu decided to take up an offer to work in Taiwan for his next film, Dragon Inn. By shifting his filmmaking base, Hu left behind the stylised, set-bound approach of the Shaw Brothers production mode, which was exemplified the same year by Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, and embraced a more realistic and expansive sense of landscape, and swapped the lush colour and cheery, musical-inflected naivety of Come Drink With Me for a tighter, sterner approach, albeit still with time for dashes of comedy and character interaction. Dragon Inn proved an instant, colossal hit across the South Asian film market, and became such a touchstone for later wuxia filmmakers that Tsui Hark remade it twice, in 1992 and 2011, whilst filmmakers not known for genre work like Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Tsai Ming-liang all made their tributes: the latter built his 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn around a closing movie theatre screening Hu’s work, a nostalgic tip of the hat to a fading but legendary era of simple dreams and enterprise. As Hu struggled to escape the strictures of genre cinema, he would go on to make his ambitious and heralded epics A Touch of Zen (1971) and Raining on the Mountain (1979), works now regarded as the height of his aesthetic, but which failed commercially in comparison to his early hits. Tsui Hark’s attempts to shepherd him back into the hit-making fold in the early 1990s failed, and Hu died in 1997 just before his work began to be revived by his fans.

Dragon Inn is today regarded as something very like the Stagecoach (1939) of martial arts movies, the moment a genre known for innocent thrills and fun evolved into something more rigorous and mature. Both movies sport far-flung settings, action revolving around a social microcosm, and an outmatched, assailed cast of heroic characters, as well as a directorial eye keenly engaged by the interaction of human fluidity and the landscape’s unyielding stature. The plot, similarly, pits restless motion against immobility, rigidities of social power structures and political oppression tested by personal bravura and fortitude, the space and freedom of the land offering a way out. Hu’s prologue situates his tale in the 1400s when the Imperial Chinese government was strongly influenced by courtier eunuchs, divvying up power through various autocratic departments like the dreaded secret police service called the Eastern Agency. A high-ranking soldier, General Yu, is framed for crimes and executed by his political enemies, chief amongst them the head of the Eastern Agency, the malignant eunuch Zhao Shao Qin (Pai Ying). Yu’s family are sent in exile to a remote border area known as Dragon Gate.

Believing that Yu’s relatives and loyalists will stage an insurrection, Zhao decides to exterminate all of Yu’s family sends out his agents, known as the Fan Zin, commanded by Pi Shao-Ting (Miao Tian). The family are being escorted by a unit of Imperial soldiers, but are hunted all the way by Fan Zi sent out by Zhao. A swordsman, Chi Chu (Hsieh Han), intervenes as the Imperial soldiers try to fight off the killers, and gives them and their charges time to get away. Meanwhile Pi and his second-in-command Mao Zong-Zian (Han Ying-Chieh) arrive at an inn at Dragon Gate, a waystation the Yus will inevitably visit, with another cohort of Fan Zi. Pi rents out the whole inn and forbids accepting any more guests, and has his men pose as travellers in readiness. In order to not give away their presence, however, the Fan Zi are obliged to let the innkeepers keep serving food and drink to passing trade. Pi has a nearby outpost of army soldiers wiped out, as well as the hapless porters who helped bring the Fan Zi gear to the inn. But the Fan Zi don’t know that the Inn is own by Wu Ming (Cho Kin), one of General Yu’s noted subordinates, who, aware of what’s heading his way, has begun taking steps to save the Yus from their fate.

Into their midst comes first the polite but cagey Xiao Shao Zi (Shih Chun), a white-clad traveller who, provoked by the disguised Fan Zi, reveals startling gifts as a martial artist. Deciding to dispose of this potential problem, one assassin poisons Xiao’s wine, but the inn’s waiter (Ko Xiao-Pao) warns the warrior, who chases away his tormentors, leaving one with a bloody x scratched into his cheek. Pi decides not to antagonise Xiao anymore and instead brings him partially into his confidence. Xiao seems satisfied and takes a room at the inn. Next to arrive is Chi Chu and his sister Huei Chu (Polly Shangguan Lingfeng). The siblings contend with an ambush by two gangly men on the road to the inn, Tuo La and his brother (Wan Chung-Shan and Wen Tian). Xiao warns them with a note about the poisoned wine when they arrive at the inn, but they remain distrustful of Xiao, especially as Pi experimentally sets them at odds by having one of his men make it look like Xiao is trying to kill the siblings and vice versa. But Xiao proves to be a mercenary fighter hired by Wu Ming. Wu also meets with the Chu siblings who knew him as children, although they don’t recognise him at first, and the two camps join forces. Eventually, their number is augmented by the Tou brothers, who prove to be Tatars who came south to China to find action but were impressed into Fan Zi service and forcibly castrated for their pains, and very understandably want some payback.

Dragon Inn is a film in two defined sections: after introductory scenes that swiftly and essentially set up the plot and moral imperatives, the drama shifts to the Inn itself, a ready-made amphitheatre for Hu’s characters to interact in a succession of charged exchanges with incipient violence in the offing, blended with a skittish comedy of manners. Hu was essentially revising the first part of Come Drink With Me here, refining his use of a far-flung socialising situation, the remote Inn, as a stage to suggest titanic forces slowly building in a gyre under the surface of petty human interaction. The second half heads outdoors for eruptive battles and flight to freedom. Hu’s innate mastery of this kind of narrative is immediately announced as he sets up the entire storyline in a pre-credit sequence, a voiceover explaining the basic plot, identifying the villains, their methods and aims, whilst the visuals depict the execution of General Yu on screen. The clean geometries within Hu’s framings see the precisely ordered columns of regime heavies and the ritualistic act of political homicide unfolding as a succession of cleanly geometric priorities, precursor to a film where the heroes shattered the illusion of order.

The Fan Zi assassins try to provoke and kill the threatening interlopers who come to the Inn, stoking instead various displays of pithy attitude and extraordinary ability, displays that seem to suddenly light up a dingy and depressing corner of the world with the hope of something extraordinary in the offing. Another director might have filmed this segment from the viewpoint of one of the heroes as a mystery, arriving in an ambiguous situation where nothing seems quite right. Hu instead depicts his villains’ arrival and arts of stage management, and instead the thrill of these scenes comes from the disquiet of the Fan Zi as they’re confronted with such evidence of prowess as when Xiao hurls a bowlful of noodles from table to table without spilling it, and dispenses a pocketful of coins into a box, landing in perfectly arranged forms. Hu’s theme becomes, then, not the hidden nature of menace but the unexpected and often clandestine nature of goodness in a time of general corruption. This proves a quandary that vexes the heroes as much as their foes, as Xiao and the Chus, although working towards the same end, trip over each-other’s toes and are almost tricked into clashing.

The film’s first half sees these different camps try to fulfil their digressive missions without entirely giving their games away or violating the rules of the charade. This starts to become nearly as hyperbolic and self-willed as the mirror scene from Duck Soup (1933), particularly as the heroes are obliged to find ways to avoid drinking poison and the waiter is expected to serve it up with a smile. Xiao takes the play-act to a logical conclusion by pretending to drink the poison and scream in pain, only to then spit out the wine in an assassin’s face. Thanks to Xiao’s warning, Huei demands a drink from one of the assassins’ cups under the cover of having spilt her own, starting an argument. The assassin, infuriated, proffers his cup balanced upon the blade of his sword, but Huei keeps his weapon firmly pinched between two shuddering fingers, wicked steel held at bay by raw will and discipline of flesh, before cooly taking up the cup and swigging it down, and continuing to act is if a day’s pleasant luncheon has become unnecessarily offensive. There’s an aspect of character joke to this moment as well as a display of Huei’s startling skill, as she also serves as the canny and careful counterweight to her brother’s bluster and lack of smarts and often has to move quickly to repair his blunders, always keeping raw force at bay with elegantly contrived but concerted arts.

Hu’s story isn’t merely one of determined heroes coming together to fight a common foe, but a drama of reunions and recognition and bonds of family, with the two teams of related heroes setting out to save their victimised fellows, themselves condemned for their ties of blood and loyalty. The Chus recognise Wu under the disguise of time and age and hazy memory as the man they once called Uncle who served in their father’s old unit. Only Xiao remains something of an outsider, a man without apparent identity, but is included as the heroes slowly composite into a small tribe, the only way for them to become strong enough to take on the ultimate villain, Shao, at the climax. This last aspect was an idea soon to become pretty familiar in martial arts movies and even echoes through to contemporary, infinitely more expensive fare like Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but was at the time a risky deflation of familiar heroic modes. Zhao is talked about in anxious murmurs by all, feared not just for running an all-powerful repressive state but for his personal talents as a martial artist, skills he has honed to their height, liberated from all familiar weakness in his forced asexuality, but also impeded by one, specific vulnerability: asthma.

Part of the mystique Hu invested in wuxia cinema through his example lay in the evocation of perpetual exile and nomadic instability, articulated through his characters’ restless and rootless lives and search for the right stage to prove themselves upon. A equivalent to the figure of the knight errant was as common in wuxia as in western courtly romances and their descendants in westerns and superhero tales, but Hu used the concept to for his own ends, as an authentic way to channel the political, geographical, and cultural schisms that opened up for the Chinese community in the late 1940s into the iconography of the genre, pitting talented but freewheeling, displaced protagonists at odds with monolithic power blocs. Where in westerns the heroes usually contribute to the slow knitting together of community and order through their adventures, wuxia heroes very often battle against the abuses of government and law, and find themselves caught between communities. Dragon Inn explicitly invokes exile and separation, individuality versus mass conformity and terrible power, with a setting where the landscape has been colonised by representatives of implacable state terror and entire families must be exterminated to suit the ends of unaccountable potentates. The outsider heroes of Come Drink With Me, the intense and serious heroine Golden Swallow and the happy-go-lucky Smiling Tiger, loaned two different faces to this theme of footloose solitude.

Dragon Inn, whilst hardly humourless, nonetheless signals a new paradigm for both onscreen women and genre cinema at large as Huei calmly allows her back to be stitched up: she is Hu’s perfect hero figure, cool and stoic but driven by a powerful need to reforge moral order and protect people she owes allegiance to. Hu sets up a tension of motivation for his heroes, the Chus driven by family and political loyalty to help the Yus, whilst Xiao is a fighter for pay, which Pi tries to exploit be offering him a better deal. But Xiao’s own ethic – once he commits to a side he sticks to it – proves unshakeable. It’s an interestingly similar note to one Howard Hawks had sounded a year before in El Dorado (1966) in considering the fine line between villain and hero in a situation where both sides have a hired gun. In a touch perhaps slightly influenced by the Japanese cinema hero Zatoichi, whose favoured weapon was hidden in his walking cane, Xiao carries his sword concealed in an umbrella, and does not unsheathe the weapon until he intends lethal violence: he fends off most of the Fan Zi with blade still disguised. Chun amusingly plays his lone wolf hero not as a gruff Eastwood or Mifune type but as a man who acts always with calculated politeness, smiling amicably with just a hint of forced tension around his mouth, eyes locked still in his face as he does so. He contrasts the fiery Huei and reactive, slightly dim but stalwart Chi, as well as the initially timorous Tuo, who nonetheless give an impressive demonstration of their own skills as swordsmen.

We’re in archetype land here, of course, even as some of the archetypes are being invented, and Hu’s singular realisation here is the notion that in an action movie, action is character. Apart from hints in lingering gazes from Huei and Xiao of interest, there’s no sideways distraction by romance, and whilst character relationships are stated, they’re not vitally important. Hu’s paring down the dramatic landscape in this fashion still feels radical to a certain degree even as it’s become a virtual norm in genre film. Hu’s emphasis on his heroes as implacable exponents of their own gifts has a certain similarity to American films of the same period like The Professionals (1967) and Bullitt (1968), as well as the James Bond films, where the heroes are celebrated for their ability to function a little like sharks in deadly and often dirty situations, and professionalism was its own virtue. That’s not to say these heroes are detached from what they’re trying to accomplish, but that they’re dignified by their skill and agency. After the comically flavoured early scenes, the climactic battles are totally free of swashbuckling jauntiness or slapstick humour: the business of fighting evil is a tough, mean business where the outcome is decided by a quicksilver blend of mental and physical agility.

It’s also bound together with Hu’s politically-tinged core theme as he explores a democratic ideal where his heroes, for all their talents, need each-other, and they and the villains are utterly human and vulnerable. As implacable as state power as embodied by Zhao seems to be, it’s still accountable on a human scale and beset by human failings. The protagonists, whilst great fighters alone, still must band together and work in coordination to bring down the monolith. The woman is just as good a fighter as the men because she’s disciplined herself with the same dedication. When the Yus and their escort finally do arrive at the Inn, the Fan Zi assault them, but our heroes intervene in a tag-team campaign to distract, divide, and foil the killers, starting with Chi, and then Huei, who fights Mao and manages to beat away a flock of assassins. Xiao sends her to join her brother in defending the Yus and when Pi and Mao return with their full force, Xiao goes out and takes them on. The heroes chase Pi, who manages to badly gash Huei in the back by throwing his sword at her. The heroes hole up for the night in the Inn, where Wu insists on treating both friendly and enemy wounded. The commander of the local Imperial troops who guard the border arrives at the Inn and learns what’s been happening and that the Fan Zi have murdered some of his men. He confronts the newly-arrived Zhao, only for the eunuch to skewer him with a sword: Zhao has become a law unto himself.

Hu might well have been picking up ideas from Sergio Leone, whose The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was released a year earlier. Hu’s exterior compositions betray a similar sense of design, and his long, comedic yet charged sequences depicting characters testing and revealing each-other’s abilities and probing their motivations also have a Leone-esque flavour. But Hu’s action staging is all his own, and when the film’s action-packed second half arrives, his technique is unleashed. The start of the second half realises Hu’s theme of meeting and unity in coincidence with a new dawn, his heroes setting out with a new sense of understanding and purpose, dispersing from the inn in a crescendo of imagery and swelling music that signals changing gears. Meanwhile the villains arise from their beds on the stony plain, silhouetted against the rising sun. This moment sets the scene rhythmically and visually for what follows, a long battle around the inn, beginning as Huei marches alone across the rocky plain and quickly churns the Fan Zi into confusion, battling Mao in a series of deftly athletic movements.

The early action sequence where Chi intervenes to save the Yus on the road is a potent example of the way Hu situates his actors in relationship to the landscape, in diagonals ranging from large figures to small, humans planted upon the flat stretches of the plains with mountains soaring high above. The final shot of the sequence sees the gang of assassins Chi has just sliced through falling dead like skittles as the Yus and their escort flee across the plain. Hu succeeds in a fine balancing act, framing his shots with the care and precision of classical artists, the essence of rigidity and inflexibility, but then agitating them, turning the film into a quietly dazzling dialogue of motion and stillness. The fight scenes around the Inn see Hu unleashing a a formidable string of delicate yet muscular tracking shots, constantly situating his heroes at the centre of spiralling teams of bad guys, swords brandished, trying to cage their foes but failing, Hu’s camera gliding in and out of the rolling scrums and duels. There’s a rhythm to Hu’s presentation of his heroes and villains within shots: Huei’s initial advance on the Inn sees her as a stark and solitary splash of colour in an otherwise harsh landscape, a lonely hero.

As the number of enemies increases, they surround the heroes, but by the end, in a moment that anticipates The Wild Bunch (1969), Xiao, Chi, and the Tuos advance abreast together as a unified force for the great showdown, and it’s now they who surround the enormously talented but isolated Zhao. The tyranny of space down on the flatlands, experience here and later around the Inn with the stony plain surrounding it, is correlated with the dismal regime the heroes give battle to, and balanced by the sight of soaring mountains in the distance, beckoning with elusive promise. That promise is eventually fulfilled in the climax as the heroes flee for the border and make their great stand against the villains in altitudes where Hu’s visuals are at once rigorous in their shot-for-shot depiction of physical conflict but also, with cloud rolling down mountain flanks, evoking classical scroll paintings where transcendental longings are evoked, tethering Hu’s narrative together on political, character, and spiritual planes at apotheosis.

The beauty of the backdrop nonetheless still fades before the immediate context of the fight on dusty mountain trails, where the rarefied air and dust kicked up by the fights immediately start to impede Zhao. But he’s still strong enough to fend off all his massed opponents, leaving them bloodied and battered, trying to give them the slip and chase down the Yus, with only Huei managing to hold him long enough for her comrades to regather. Defeating Zhao, however, demands a completely selfless dedication, and it’s the Tuos who both die in the act of first skewering the villain with a blade and then lopping his head off. Whereupon Hu simply and tersely brings up The End on screen, spurning all further unnecessary business: the bad guy is dead, the heroes have won. Dragon Inn swiftly became a victim of its own great influence, as Hu’s straightforward, witty dance of skilled characters was endlessly imitated and remixed. But it still wields a stark, architectural authority, like many progenitors, that keeps it both vital and perfectly entertaining.

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2000s, Chinese cinema, Film Noir, Romance, Scifi

2046 (2004)

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2046-01
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Director/Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

Wong Kar-Wai was already a major figure on the film scene of the 1990s, but his 2000 film In the Mood for Love made him something close to the cinematic poet laureate of the millennium’s pivot as far as many moviegoers were concerned. Achingly beautiful as a remembrance of things past and a portrait of stymied emotions, In the Mood for Love was both an apotheosis of Wong’s obsessive refrains as a creative force, but also suggested a deliberated about-face from the artistic persona he had built for himself and the style of his oeuvre to that point, rooted as they were in the hyperkinetic climes of his native Hong Kong. Works like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) were concerned with the neon-painted lives of young city dwellers adrift in the tides of modern detachment, the suffocating nature of lives spent in the vortex of too much choice and chance. In the Mood for Love, nominally a portrait of two people drawn together but fatefully unable to connect, was more tone poem than narrative, celebrating evanescent emotions in the midst of such human furore, immersing the viewer in Wong’s nostalgia for the milieu of 1960s Hong Kong with its crumbling, seedy, intimate vibrancy, an attempt to grasp at an image-dream of the past swept away in the hoopla of the late 20th century.
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2046-02
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Wong’s most excitedly accepted works had a habit of dropping in between other projects he was expending more energy and time on. The genesis of In the Mood for Love hardly suggested it would prove Wong’s most popular film, as Wong had conceived and shot it as a respite and recourse whilst another, heftier project called 2046 languished in development hell. Wong spun one project from the material of the other, resulting in two cinematic volumes linked by crucial if rearranged aspects, each narrative and its human figurations haunting the other like ghosts. A third film in the mix is Wong’s debut, Days of Being Wild (1988), suggesting that 2046, when it was finally produced, had evolved into a summative assessment and closing bracket for all his works up to that time. 2046 is a partial antithesis to its immediate predecessor in spite of its shared images, themes, and characters–sexual where the earlier film was chaste, purposefully messy rather than singularly focused, a study in the onrush of history both personal and general rather than a wistfully static zone within it. It’s also the director’s most unusual narrative insofar as it takes place in two different times, or two different realities, splitting the difference between mid-1960s Southeast Asia and the year of the title. 2046 isn’t a sequel in the conventional manner, nor is it a second chapter of the same story. A close literary relative would be D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, which tell the lives of two sisters but can easily be regarded as standalone works or distorting mirrors of each other.
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2046-03
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Much as 2046 recapitulates the plot of In the Mood for Love in a series of increasingly less sentimental and satisfactory echoes, the protagonist of 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), writes one part of this story. Or does he only think he does–is he in fact the memory or myth of someone in 2046? Of course, both stories are being created by Wong Kar-Wai in the early 2000s, projecting both backwards and forwards in extending his poetic metaphors to extremes. Chow is nominally the same man seen in In the Mood for Love, but a revision—sour, cynical, and glib rather than intense and honourably disconsolate. He’s first glimpsed breaking up with a lover, Su Li-zhen (Gong Li), a woman who had the same name as Maggie Cheung’s character from In the Mood for Love but who couldn’t have been more different. This lady is a shady femme fatale and professional gambler who always wears a black glove, a creature suited to the smoky, feverish dens of Singapore, the place where Chow has been hiding out since his life fell apart back in Hong Kong. Chow returns to Hong Kong in the spirit of getting on with that life again, and quickly encounters a woman he once knew by the name of Mimi (Carina Lau), who had appeared in Days of Being Wild and who now calls herself Lulu. She doesn’t remember Chow, but he’s able to tell her own story back to her like a narrator, an act she seems to find beneficent. Soon after, Chow tries to find Lulu in the Orient Hotel, where she lives, only for the hotel owner, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), to tell him she’s left. Chow is struck by the detail that Lulu was living in a room numbered 2046, the same number as the hotel room where he and the first Su Li-Zhen spent time trying to write kung-fu action stories.
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2046-04
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Chow asks Wang if he can rent the room, but Wang puts him off, talking him into accepting the neighbouring room 2047. Chow later learns the grim truth Wang was suppressing: Lulu had been murdered by her jazz drummer boyfriend, and her room is still covered in blood. Chow settles into life in the Orient, encountering Wang’s daughters, the forlorn, fraying Jing-wen (Faye Wong) and her scamp of a younger sister, Jie-wen (Jie Dong), and cabaret dancer Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), who eventually moves into 2046. Jing-wen has a boyfriend, a Japanese businessman (Takuya Kimura) who had stayed at the hotel for a time and has since returned home, and now she spends her quiet time learning Japanese, hoping eventually to make the journey to his arms. But her father’s vehemence against the match seems to doom the romance to perpetual long-distance longing. Jie-wen soon visits a form of karma on their father when she, following in Lulu’s footsteps, runs off with another drummer. Meanwhile Chow begins a mutually aggravating flirtation with Bai Ling, who lives a similarly libertine lifestyle to him, and eventually it flowers into a fiery affair. The hotel is an easy place to romanticise. The balcony under the hotel sign is a flying bridge where the lost folk who inhabit its poky spaces retreat for solitary cigarettes or momentary connections with their fellows. But the opera that resounds from Wang’s apartment signals not a love of surging artistry, but rather an attempt to mask his constant, gruelling arguments with his daughters, and in a similar manner, the more insistent truth that emerges is that the hotel is a crossroads where lost souls graze one another.
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2046-05
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Chow’s adventures in the Orient Hotel provide the seeds for a science fiction story he begins writing with Jing-wen after she has a bout of severe depression and spends time in hospital. Chow has already had a success with one he wrote called 2046; his and Jing-wen’s follow-up is entitled 2047, set in a future in which the world is spanned by a network of trains, one of which makes a journey to the mysterious destination 2046–a year, a place, a state of mind?–where life enters stasis and people remain immersed in their dreams and memories in escape from the real world. The hero of the story, a Japanese man named Tak (Kimura again), is the first person to ever make the return journey from 2046 because he lost his lover even in that dream world. During the trip, in spite of the driver’s warning not to fall in love with the android staff on the train, he becomes fascinated by one android (Wong again), and tries to puzzle out her behaviour, which might signal that she loves someone else or might be slowly suffering mechanical wear-out. Chow’s working relationship with Jing-wen proves successful, as their story forges a name and new profession for Chow but also troublingly echoes his liaison years before with the original Su Li-zhen. As he did then, Chow falls silently in love with his writing partner. Rather than take advantage of his Japanese rival’s absence, however, Chow lets them write to each other using him as intermediary so her father won’t suspect, and finally arranges a Christmastime phone call between the pair, acknowledging with melancholic satisfaction that the especially cold regions of 1224–1225 the trains in his story pass through were named for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the two days when everyone needs extra warmth.
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2046-06
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Wong’s films before In the Mood for Love had been marked by their employment of purposefully arch storytelling techniques, some of them adapted from modernist literature, others suggesting the influence of poetry, fairy tales, even pop songs. Wong foregrounded his stories’ status as just that—stories—with films divided into chapters or mirroring narratives, doppelganger characters, intertwined narrative lines, and totemistic fetishes, like the man who buys canned pineapple cans every day and the girl who obsessively listens to “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. At the same time he tried to demonstrate how all such devices were, to some extent, masks of an underlying obsessive drive to record and describe thoughts and feelings almost beyond words. His customarily eccentric take on the great native fictional genre wu xia, Ashes of Time (1994), had presented a collective of familiar stereotypes from the genre but as lovelorn and life-foiled individuals whose existential crises are only interrupted by occasional life-and-death battles that come on ironically more as escapes into pure action than as great climaxes.
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2046-07
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Chow’s attempt to write wu xia tales in In the Mood for Love suggested an in-joke on Wong’s part, whereas here the bifurcated narrative split into period romance and futuristic metaphor reproduces the same essential idea of convention and cliché utilised to penetrate to the heart of real emotion. The rag-and-bone shop of Wong’s poetic lexicon is constantly evinced throughout 2046, rooted in the detritus of popular cultures of which, he suggests, Hong Kong was a particularly enriched tidewater where the products of both East and West wash ashore, and things remembered from Wong’s childhood, the fervent, crowded, fearsomely lively yet isolating atmosphere of Hong Kong and the open, rich sense of possibility in Southeast Asia at the time, before the horrors of Vietnam, Pol Pot, and the fall of Sukarno. In the Mood for Love’s final shots, filmed in Angkor Wat, suggested both a longing to regain a mystically tinged sense of certitude rooted in a fractured past and a sense of foreboding, knowing that soon monsters will be roaming over this landscape. 2046 stepped into a new realm for Wong, insofar as that it’s about the act of creation itself, offering in part a meditation on the way experience becomes art, the transposition of ideas from immediate reality into the zone of the fantastic, and back again. Chow processes his experiences into an alternate zone of facticity where emotional states shape that world, and, as Wong did with Ashes of Time, removing the traditional motivations of scifi–usually action and adventure–to study the more ephemeral qualities lurking within genre storytelling.
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2046-08
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2046’s attempt to evoke zones of feeling and sexuality beyond the current understanding of such things isolates the underlying mood of scifi like Blade Runner (1982) and makes it the very point of the film’s ponderings. Wong also starts off not with Chow in his ’60s setting, but with the world of his fiction, raising the question as to which era is the dream of the other. Wong’s scifi references cover as much ground as his other cultural influences. Vistas of gleaming CGI neon and surging monorails come straight out of ’70s and ’80s Japanese anime, evoking a common background of such modern mythology in the past-war state of so many Asian cities–Tokyo demolished and Hong Kong turned from colonial outpost to place of refuge and haute-capitalist tide pool, causing both to be rebuilt as carnivals of steel, glass, and neon. The concept of correlating distant future as stage to deliberate on the past is reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Aspects of the story suggest Wong digested an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Lonely,” down to the fateful number in the title, the year the Serling story was set.
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2046-09
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Of course, in one sense 2046 might not be regarded as science fiction at all, given that the futuristic element in the film is presented as something external to or concurrent to its other reality. And yet Wong, uninterested as he is in the nuts-and-bolts methods of technocratic pondering and conceptual fancy with which scifi tends to be preoccupied, engages with another, subtler mode of the genre, a brand that explores how the modern human identity subsists in relation to a vast, strange, implacable universe, and how we coexist with our own mimetic projects and creations. In this regard, 2046 has kinship with major genre works that betray a different sense of science fiction, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), similarly transfixed by memory and simulacra of life, exploring the constant human tendency towards interior travel rather than face up to the universe in all its indifferent grandeur. Ridley Scott’s Replicants would extend the Frankensteinian fear of a creation that refuses to abide and extend the creator’s self, but Wong’s twitchy-limbed fembots, like Stanislaw Lem’s alien planet that gives Tarkovsky’s film its central enigma and motive, only reflect back to the onlooker what they project upon them, embodying but remaining as fundamentally unknowable as the love-object. Chow tries to understand himself through mythic projections of himself and those who torment and fascinate him. A constant visual and thematic refrain is a large speakerlike object on the 2046 train, high-tech equivalent to the hole in the tree where secrets are whispered and stored–a piece of folktale wisdom mentioned in this film and its predecessor. The darkness at the heart of the pit of secrets is the crux of the enigma, the black hole at the galaxy’s centre, the vaginal portal, the id. Nothing that goes there comes back unless changed beyond recognition.
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2046-10
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Wong and Doyle conjure gorgeous scifi images in the sleek confines of the 2046 train and the blank-eyed yet mysteriously emotive robots who stalk the deserted conveyance, Kimura’s perfect manga hero their detached and pensive companion-lover. Nor is scifi the only genre Wong rifles, as he steps into film noir and paperback romance tales. Gong’s gauntleted gambler could have stepped out of his frustrated attempt to film the source novel for Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece The Lady From Shanghai (1946). Glimpses of Chow’s own 2046 story being enacted split the difference between noir and scifi, as a cyberpunk gamine lures a man into bed and murders him whilst her boyfriend hides upstairs and spies on them, his dripping tears caught on the plunge by DP Christopher Doyle’s camera as galactic blotches. The images here hark back to Fallen Angels’ assassin lowlifes inhabiting the underside of contemporary Hong Kong that Wong filmed like an alien world. Chow’s shift of modes from writing martial arts tales to scifi suggests Wong had been paying attention to a general critical consensus that scifi provided a new stage for traditional genres to unfold, with the likes of Star Wars (1977) blending motifs borrowed from both the Western and the martial arts tale.
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2046-11
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The metafictional aspect of Chow’s adventures in writing suggests an imagined alternative life for Wong himself, one where he subsists as a smith of genre fiction. Hong Kong cinema has for so long been buoyed by its reputation for action and comedy films Wong’s constitutional inability to swim with that tide was enabled a level of freedom by his stature but also left him cut off from the mainstream of his own local culture. Wong may well also have been thinking about the creative pillars of wu xia on the printed page, the likes of Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong, pseudonyms used by men who had created many of the defining characters and motifs of the genre writing for newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s–indeed, Ashes of Time had been adapted from Jin Yong’s stories. Much of the landscape of scifi and film noir had similarly been born of such writers, penning stories for magazines. Rather than dismissing such folk as grubby hacks, Wong celebrates them in his way, suggesting the fuel for all forms of creativity is inherently personal. 2046 is also, as some have noted, the year before the promised self-governing period of Hong Kong after the handover to China runs out, giving the number a foreboding quality, a crux of the political as well as personal. Hong Kong’s status as a world caught in the cross-rip of different cultures, hemispheres, and ways of being, perched uneasily on the edge of history, waiting to be pushed off by some fatal pressure. That sense of anxiety, however subliminal, gives Wong’s work an overtone that remains vital to it (for instance, the absence of it in Wong’s Stateside romp My Blueberry Nights, 2006, doomed that film for all its qualities to feel comparatively frivolous).
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2046-12
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2046 unfolds as a series of contrapuntal sequences, stepping backwards and forwards in chronology and between realities. The highly rhythmic yet dislocated structure unfolds is simulated in Wong and Doyle’s shooting. In the Mood for Love’s style was marked by its Matisse-like visual effects, spaces and people alike used as elements in patterns that converge and give way without depth, conveying both the beauty and stasis of the central couple’s affair. 2046’s images flit by at a much faster pace, the dense layers of the period Hong Kong and Singapore scenes, all vertiginously narrowed corridors and universes folding in on themselves, matched to the stripped-back environs of the futuristic train scenes, where the real world moves by in a blank blur. The sense of something urgent underlying 2046 is impossible to ignore even as, essentially, nothing happens. Chow’s voiceover mentions riots convulsing on the waterfront, with the suggestion they’re the first act in an age of disruption that will end the islet time Wong was born in and celebrates. Shigeru Umebayashi’s propulsive main theme for the score underlines this sensation of impetus, contrasting the slower, more yearning, dancing pizzicato of his In the Mood for Love theme and matching the film’s pulse instead to the driving force of the futuristic trains seen dashing through tunnels and neon cities. Wong realises the two periods as polar opposites of atmosphere (if all still painted in the lustrous hues of Doyle’s photography), the clean, sleek, supermoderne environs of the 2046 express where stilted androids cavort and gaze dead-eyed out the windows into digital dreams, and the tangled, bustling, organic furore of period Hong Kong, a world in which Chow and Bai Ling exist bred to it as panthers in the veldt, slipping the cramped hallways, drenched in the hues of red and green and blue that infest the parlours and foyers and streets of the city, at once embracing and isolating.
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2046-13
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The film occasionally switches into black-and-white for an aura faintly reminiscent of high-class advertising, apt for iconographic moments of perfection where, like the doomed Scotty Ferguson of Vertigo (1958), Chow finds himself confronted by reproductions of his idealised love object via fetishized talismanic objects and experiences–sharing a drowsy ride in the back of a taxi, the hand in the black glove–as waystations in a journey that loops eternally. Zhang and Leung make for one of the sexiest screen couples in history, inhabiting characters whose connection of a physical level is foiled by their discursive emotional needs. If In the Mood for Love was transfixed by a love affair based in subliminal accord foiled by scruple and circumstance, 2046 studies one doomed by the incapacity of the two lovers to state their subtler desires out loud and their ingrained attitudes even as they find deep carnal satisfaction: Chow constantly holds off Bai Ling’s shows of feeling by continually relegating her to the status of whore whilst she is constantly frustrated by his detachment whilst casting him as the eternally elusive lover. Their early scenes play out as a dance of attraction and repulsion in which they consciously assume characters, he the drawling roué, she the teasing tart, that ensure they don’t really meet, only the guises they put to survive their respective narratives as soiled romantic and fading beauty. Their quicksilver attraction and sexual compatibility founders, however, on their inability to leave behind such guises, as Bai Ling offends Chow by failing to show up for a dinner he gives when he plans to introduce her as his girlfriend to his friends, and he in turn leaves her increasingly wounded as he fails, deliberately or not, to recognise her very genuine neediness.
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2046-14
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2046 is also a study in acting, both within and without Wong’s narratives. Leung is his eternally reliable worldly conduit, ensuring Chow always conveys a sense of gravitas and covert discomfort even when he’s being a flip shit. Wong’s cabal of actresses, a critical mass of Chinese screen beauty and talent, are all cast in accordance to classic Hollywood’s rules of casting according to type and essence–Gong in her steely, stoic majesty, Zhang in her defiant but covertly brittle intensity, Faye Wong’s bright-eyed yet melancholic romanticism. Wong even goes so far as to name Zhang’s character after one of the few big Hong Kong stars not in the film. The theme is both supernal and vital: roles and lives lived and unlived spin about each other in strange gravity throughout 2046, whether through the constructed safe zones of fiction or the demands of surviving daily existence in a metropolis, and a natural process of life, the people we are in different times. But within this celebration of words and identities worn like husks is an idea Wong constantly, even obsessively tries to dig into is the ambiguity of the self, whether it’s knowable not just to anyone outside of that self but even itself, and indeed the question as to whether that ambivalence is the essence of human authenticity rather than a failure to locate it. Both Chow and the second Su Li-zhen prize their ambivalence and the difficulty others take in trying to understand them–Su fobs Chow off when it comes to learning anything about her by playing high and low with him for such information, and she always wins. “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke,” Bob Dylan once sang, and it’s a fact of life for Chow, who returns to Singapore towards the film’s end in search of her only to find her vanished, perhaps consumed by her perpetual twilight lifestyle, perhaps having returned to Cambodia where she came from, where she’ll probably also die once that epochal nightmare rolls around.
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2046-15
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Chow’s time with the second Li-zhen is described in one of the later chapters although it comes before most of the events depicted in the film, and is bookended by his last encounter with Bai Ling, so we can see tragedy repeating not exactly as farce but surely as ironic inversion. Li-zhen resisted Chow’s entreaty to come with him to Hong Kong just as he refuses to play Bai Ling’s lover again–to be “borrowed” as he put it once before–because he recognises he’s finally found a part he can’t play, an interior reality he can’t ignore for the sake of an external one, and that like himself, she needs to escape the roundelay of simulacrums they take refuge in. Chow’s act here seems cold, as he leaves Bai Ling weeping in her poignant, final loss of illusion, but is actually as kind in its way as his aid to Jing-wen was, for his response here is akin to ripping off a band-aid, a momentary hurt that deflects a deeper and more grievous possible wound, a refusal on Chow’s part to indulge his guises any longer nor to offer Bai Ling the opium that is bogus affection. The concluding images of him are as a sad and solitary figure perhaps resigned to such a state until he can properly lay his ghosts to rest. Unlike his fictional antihero, Chow might not have the will the leave that place where memories surround and immerse, but there is a sign he is reconciled to it, able to coexist in future and past, a gaining of wisdom if not catharsis. The meaning of it all suggests a transposition of the famous last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to a new setting and new context. All our trains rush on, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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2010s, Chinese cinema, Drama, Historical

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

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By Roderick Heath

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.

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The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.

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The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.

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Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.

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Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.

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This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.

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Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.

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The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.

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Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.

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Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.

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At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.

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Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.

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At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.

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Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.

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Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.

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1940s, Chinese cinema, Drama

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

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Director: Mu Fei

By Roderick Heath

When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
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The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
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The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
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When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
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Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
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Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
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Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
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Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
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The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
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Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
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Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
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The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
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The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
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The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
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Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema

Enter the Dragon (1973)

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Director: Robert Clouse

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

Enter the Dragon provokes one of those questions that can never be answered: if tragedy had not intervened to claim Bruce Lee’s life at just 32 years of age, what kind of career might he have forged? Lee died during the post-production of Enter the Dragon, seemingly on the cusp of enormous stardom. His image and mythology still reverberate like those of James Dean, another movie star to die young with a small body of work just sufficient to achieve icon status. The film and this question came inevitably back to mind after the death of Lee’s Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly a few weeks ago. Kelly, a martial arts champion and the first black film star with such a background, displayed charisma and cool in Enter the Dragon and earned himself a decade-long movie career, albeit in mostly forgettable vehicles. Whether Lee himself could have become a true global film star, and stayed one through the ’70s and into the ’80s, is a fascinating enigma.
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Lee is perhaps the most famous Asian movie actor for international audiences. The son of a Hong Kong opera star, Lee moved to the United States in his teens, where he studied at university and became an actor and martial arts teacher. He evolved into a fascinatingly multifaceted figure, with interests in philosophy and poetry as well as the more physical disciplines that gained him fame. He shattered stereotypes of Asian men in the popular mindset of the West even as he inadvertently created another.
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Enter the Dragon served the function for which it was intended—an icon-forging showcase for Lee’s skills and screen presence. In the process, it became a classic of the movie-going underworld, a genuine, top-shelf cult film—the kind of movie that had its sold-out screenings in fleapit cinemas in shady city districts, and a reason home video was invented, its VHS box swiftly becoming tattered by innumerable rentals. It’s the most successful movie of its type ever made, parlaying a budget of $850,000 into an eventual gross of more than $200 million. I recall when I was a young teen, going to a friend’s house, where his father was watching it on tape recorded off television and pointing out to me all the bits that had been censored, recalling with loving zest the sounds of cracking bone that were supposed to accompany certain moments. It’s still hard to believe that the seemingly robust man on screen would be dead within a few months of shooting so many amazing feats. Lee, like Fred Astaire, had a sense of theatre to his physical craft that contributed to his talent; he acted like the world’s most fearsome fighter, and so he was. His incredible speed and athletic ability were quite genuine, and the camera loved it. The fact that Lee was a canny actor helped. His affectation of taciturn confidence bends and gives way only at appropriate times but leaves you in little doubt he was more than just another good athlete who could look tough and attractive on screen.
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Enter the Dragon represented an attempt, both commercially and aesthetically, to create a pan-Pacific film. Warner Bros. coproduced it with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest studio, and American director Robert Clouse handled the mostly Chinese crew. The film fused aesthetics laid out by the films of King Hu and other wu xia experts in the late ’60s with a flashy plot and tone reminiscent of many a sub-James Bond franchise. Indeed, Enter the Dragon bears far more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice than the film of it did. Like the Steve Reeves Hercules films 15 years earlier, Enter the Dragon accompanied the TV show Kung Fu in helping to kick off a craze for another film culture’s product in the United States, but this time, the gulf breached was broader. Suddenly, cinema and TV screens were filled with the sham-exotic delight of crudely dubbed Shaolin monks and warriors for peace and freedom in the time of the Manchus, worlds far outside the familiar points of reference for Eurocentric cultures. Lee’s prowess became, by proxy, heroic symbol, exacerbated in Enter the Dragon by Kelly’s presence and characterisation, confirming the close link of the growing popularity of the kung fu flick to the Blaxploitation genre’s celebration of personally empowered non-Caucasians—or to put it more concisely, brothers who kick ass.
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Lee’s character, named Lee as if to further the conflation of the hero with the actor, is seen at the outset as a Shaolin disciple, battling another disciple (Sammo Hung), receiving the advice of a sage abbot (Roy Chiao), and becoming a teacher of younger would-be warriors. He’s quickly recruited by British spy boss Braithwaite (one-time-only actor Geoffrey Weeks) to infiltrate the island controlled by Han (Shih Kien), who, Lee learns from the abbot, was himself once a Shaolin disciple but who chose to use his gifts to gain wealth and power through evil. Han now controls a small army of martial arts adherents, and holds an occasional martial arts tournament that entices men seeking fortune and glory to compete. Lee soon learns that he has another, even more immediate reason to take on Han: several of his henchmen, including the senior thug Oharra (Robert Wall), attacked Lee’s sister Su Lin (Angela Mao) and caused her to commit suicide rather than be gang-raped. Lee signs up for the tournament. Clouse offers a neat formal device here as the three main protagonists, Lee, Williams (Kelly), and Roper (John Saxon) join the party embarking by junk for the island, their particular motives for venturing into this viper’s nest revealed in flashbacks as they’re ferried through the floating world of Hong Kong’s harbour. Williams and Roper are Vietnam veterans who fought together: where Roper has skipped from the U.S. ahead of mob loan sharks, Williams has beaten up a couple of racist cops.
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Enter the Dragon’s style is quintessentially early ’70s, from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing, propulsive jazz-funk score similar to his superlative work on Dirty Harry (1971), to Gilbert Hubbs’ zoom-patched cinematography. The New Wave-lite visual flourishes, like those zooms and the expositional flashbacks, help synthesise, on a visual level, the same mood of syncopated flashiness as the music, and this finds perfect accord with the film’s contemporaneous themes and fetishes. Director Clouse had previously made a well-received adaptation of a John D. MacDonald novel, Darker than Amber (1970), which had impressed Lee and co-producer Fred Weintraub. They took visual inspiration from comic books, particularly the popular Terry and the Pirates with its pseudo-oriental colouring to create the film’s specific ambience, which envisions the subsistence of a kind of Chinese warlord-chic into the second half of the 20th century. Williams, the self-empowered black hero, cuts a striking figure on the streets of Hong Kong, picked out on the prowl with energetic zooms in the same manner that John Shaft was in Gordon Parks’ 1971 trendsetter Shaft, evoking a kind of worldly man at once streetwise and fit for his environment but also without a natural harbour, giving potency to his pithy reckoning: “Ghettoes are the same the world over. They stink.”
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Whilst both Roper and Williams were planning to attend the tournament either way, both are on the run from themselves. Williams’ conscientiousness balances the far glibber Roper, a compulsive gambler who tries to live the playboy lifestyle but finds the bill’s always bigger than his resources and is shocked to be confronted with evil of a kind he cannot make peace with. Roper’s the sort of character Burt Lancaster might have played 10 years earlier—a life-loving, appetite-indulging trickster with real skill to back up his braggart zest. The semblance to Lancaster’s characters in films like The Professionals (1966) is particularly keen when Roper claps eyes on Han’s head courtesan Tania (Ahna Capri) and murmurs, “A woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.”
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Clouse’s use of the Hong Kong location is attentive and flavourful, zeroing in on structures that mark the peculiar texture of the city—ultramodern and virtual shanty town, particularly in the harbour’s floating ghetto, coexisting with a peculiar tension that defines the storyline with its many twinning opposites. Michael Allin’s script doubles up motivation for Lee’s vengeance, in haphazard manner, whilst the dramatic development is generally only functional. But the flashback sequence to Su Lin’s death is great stuff, as Mao gives a terrific display of her own kung fu prowess, decimating henchmen left and right, as fate presses in. Su Lin is chased into the recesses of the waterfront until she’s trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by Han’s men as they bash their way in through doors and windows, and the sequence screws inwards towards its climactic point-of-view shot of Su Lin clutching a hunk of broken glass with Oharra glaring down at her, death or dishonour reduced to a singularly powerful picture that resolves with the plunge of the deadly edge of glass towards the camera.
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Oharra and Bolo (Bolo Yeung) are Han’s main henchmen, enforcing tyrannical discipline on their adherents, many of whom have been harvested from a ruthlessly whittled assortment of social rejects and the desperate of Hong Kong. Bolo, in particular, represents the cruel side of Han’s regime, snapping the spines of lesser henchmen who prove inadequate. Han offers his competitors a kind of Playboy-spread macho fantasy, where readiness to engage in primal struggle is countered by a boyish reward of plenty. But Han’s Island becomes a variation on the place in Pinocchio (1940) where the children are indulged with fantastic plenty until they’re turned into donkeys for labour. Han greets his guests with a buffet of easy living and sex, which proves to be a seductive entrée to a process of elimination, weeding out weaklings and dissenters and absorbing talents into his criminal organisation of heroin dealing and forced prostitution.
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Lee’s inevitable battle of retribution with Oharra comes, surprisingly in terms of the film’s structure, half-way through Enter the Dragon, as he comes up against the colossal brute in the course of the tournament and sees the Shaolin master easily and steadily clobbering the heavy. (Wall was another martial arts champion at the time and a pal of Lee’s: their ethos was one of full commitment to the fighting on screen, and a lot of filmed clobbering is undoubtedly and wince-inducingly real, though Lee was occasionally replaced by stuntman Yuen Wah for the more gymnastic shots.) Oharra, infuriated, tries to attack Lee from behind with broken bottles, but he’s still beaten, and Lee jumps on him and breaks his back, cueing the film’s most remarkable shot, a slow-motion close-up of Lee’s face, contorting with warrior rage and grief. This tremendous shot confirms Lee really was an actor, as his façade of stoic intensity melts for a moment, and becomes a fulcrum of the action genre: the immediate moral and psychic impact of killing is apparent on a hero’s face with specificity redolent of the films of Anthony Mann. The audience is aware that Lee, as both a Shaolin adherent and son of pacifists, is painfully violating many codes that are important to him, but won’t let them stand in the way of justice. Enter the Dragon is not built, like many classic Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata [1943], The One-Armed Swordsman [1968], The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [1978], or Clan of the White Lotus [1980]) around the acquiring of gifts in confluence with spiritual and conscientious growth; rather the hero is utilising his gifts for righteousness having long since learned where his sense of that lies, but it’s still a burden for him to wage such intimate war.
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Nonetheless, Lee doesn’t seem too beset by soul-searching otherwise, preferring to give the audience the kind of unabashed good guy that fell out of fashion in Hollywood in the early ’70s. Lee is fun to watch even when he’s not hitting people, which, considering that he’s playing such a clean-cut character, is doubly admirable. There’s wit in Lee’s performance, in his sarcastic eye rolls when listening to Roper’s jive, or his patiently bored expression as he waits for the cobra he’s foisted on a couple of Han’s guards. Most importantly, Lee’s sense of gestural effect, the quality that made him indelible to so many viewers, is easily apparent and unmistakeable: his high, loud screeches before leaping into battle, his habit of widening his eyes and giving a savagely gleeful, tigerlike loll of his jaw after he’s bested an opponent.
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Lee infiltrates Han’s underground operation because he needs to use the only radio on the island, and discovers the depravities within, including women going mad from being pumped full of drugs to make them pliable slaves. When his presence is detected, he rips his way through a small army of henchmen, one of whom is 19-year-old Jackie Chan, in a whirlwind of physical dexterity and badass moves, including kicking two men in the face in one leap. Not the least of Enter the Dragon’s gifts to film posterity was in providing early proving grounds for the talents of Yeung, Hung, and Chan. One clever touch that allows the film to play out as an exercise in pure martial artistry is the fact that Han has banned guns on his island—it’s implied that he lost his hand thanks to one—completely freeing the drama from that usual bugbear of the modern-day martial-arts flick, “Why don’t they just shoot him?”
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Much of Enter the Dragon’s punch is thanks to Clouse’s sense of slick, illustrative style, quoting liberally from various Western film masters as well as mimicking the Hong Kong industry’s templates. Much like Don Sharp’s terrific Fu Manchu films of the mid-’60s, Clouse creates a conversant mix of retro style and sharp modernity in turning pulp-fiction Orientalist tropes into compelling contemporary action fare, with the telling difference that now an Asian could also be the hero and kick Fu Manchu in the face. As with the Bond films, Fritz Lang’s early serials and expressionist thrillers cast a long shadow here. Han has a Rotwang-esque gloved hand that hides the fake he wears, the bones of his real hand mounted in his private sanctuary (“A souvenir!” is how he describes it to Roper). Of course, the fake hand comes off and is replaced by claws and blades in the climactic scenes, a touch that perfectly channels both the traditions of wu xia and the Lang-Bond influence. Clouse belongs in a category with some other American filmmakers to emerge from the matrix of late ’60s industry upheavals, like Tom Gries, Richard C. Sarafian, Hal Needham, and Ted Post, who are always left out of accounts of the decade’s official auteurist sagas, but who made a mark reconfiguring populist filmmaking with an influx of lightly contoured post-New Wave effects and successfully blending the slick, playful expectations of genre cinema with a patina of pseudo-realism. For Clouse, Enter the Dragon proved a problematic success, as he was pigeonholed as a martial arts filmmaker, handling the likes of the infamous Gymkata (1985).
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Lee’s brief oeuvre, which had also included The Big Boss, about a kung fu hero who becomes a unionist warrior, and Lee’s self-directed Way of the Dragon (1973), where he was defending immigrants in Rome from the mob, concentrated on the ideal of accomplished physical champion of the weak, a compulsory aspect of the genre, of course, but also with a level of discomfort and introspection inherent in contemplating a globalising world where exploitation was nascent. Clouse and Allin bypass that anxiety for the most part, aiming rather, in spite of the background notes of racial angst and Vietnam fallout, for a kind of pan-cultural atmosphere. If I’d pick a major weakness of the film, it’s that it could have fleshed out the roles of Capri and Betty Chung, who plays Mei Ling, an undercover agent who has infiltrated Han’s operation. Mei Ling is largely superfluous, used only to set up action scenes. Tania’s peculiar status as Han’s right-hand woman, who nonetheless succumbs quite easily to Roper’s charms, is interesting, but left sadly underdeveloped, particularly in relation to the bittersweet climax. Lee, like a lot of action stars who would follow him, seemed sadly wary of romance on screen, preferring to project a monkish persona in that regard.
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The main characters are well-delineated and enjoyable, however, with Roper and Williams well-used as worldly foils to the fixated brilliance of Lee, in trying to scam Han’s tournament. When Han tries to impress Williams into his operation, the radical resists, of course, prompting Han to murder him. He then tries the same offer with Roper, whose affectation of glib acquiescence to business is shattered finally when he’s confronted with Williams’ mangled, bloody body; in an act of moral decision, he refuses to fight Lee in the ring. Interestingly, only Saxon’s clout as a marketable name resulted in the plot developing this way, as Williams and Roper’s functions were swapped. What the film lost in potential radical clout by having Williams and Lee team up, it gained in entertainment value: Saxon is fun as Roper, with a swaggering, smarmy charm and some surprisingly deft martial arts moves, and his move from comic relief to full-on hero is neatly handled. Roper is forced to battle Bolo after refusing to fight Lee, and bests the hulking henchman at last with a kick in the balls, whereupon all hell breaks loose as the battle lines are drawn between the visitors and prisoners against Han’s army.
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The climactic battle between Lee and Han is a great set-piece, and indeed any showing of Enter the Dragon on TV can arrest me in anticipation of it. Khan, who was cast in spite of his poor English precisely because he could offer Lee a strong foe, slashes our hero repeatedly with his razor-fingered fake hand, leading to one of Lee’s most amusingly tough-guy gestures: licking his own blood from his fingers after touching a wound, before clobbering Han in the face with a flying leap and kick, moves that were Lee signatures.
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Han finally takes refuge in his mirror-lined bathroom, where reflection upon reflection mangles all sense of space and sense. This gives Clouse a chance to work a variation on the climax of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946). As in Welles’ films, this hall of mirrors presents an electrifying visual metaphor for the hero’s destruction of duplicitous images, as Lee recalls the advice of his mentor to smash the illusions his adversary presents and begins breaking the mirrors. Clouse’s visual control in this sequence is genuinely impressive, extracting tremendous visual jazz and excitement from a simple device, with the inevitable pay-off of Han finishing up skewered on one of his own weapons. The final shots of Enter the Dragon find a bloodied and frayed Roper scanning a battlefield of fallen warriors, with Tania amongst them, but still offering a thumbs-up of comradeship to Lee. There’s a rich sense of both the pleasure and cost of victory over evil here, an avoidance of heroic bombast, and a sense of humanity that enriches Enter the Dragon, in spite of its sketchy story, to a point far beyond the usual mercenary reflexes of action films, and marks it as something special.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Chinese cinema

The Grandmaster (2013)

Yi dai zong shi

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

Wong Kar-Wai’s return to cinema screens after a lengthy fallow phase carries huge expectations for a man who, alongside John Woo and Zhang Yimou, is arguably the most reputed Chinese-language filmmaker worldwide. Wong gained his stature in international cinema in the 1990s partly for his lushly textured cinematic sensibility and partly because his trove of thematic interests, his simultaneous sense of vibrating modernity and underlying longing for the past, marked him as an artist with a finger on the pulse of the age.
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With the landscape of urban Hong Kong as his hyperkinetic muse, Wong’s visual panache matched, on levels both explicit and sublime, his fascination with the problems of human accord. In films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), he created a version of the modern world where human beings, as compartmentalised as the tiny apartments and hole-in-the-wall eateries they frequented, were floating human islets grazing against possible mates and friends. The simultaneous urges in the density of contemporary life towards isolating, alienating atomisation and compressed, forced communing worked a constant pressure on the psyches of his characters, who then maintained their own peculiar methods for holding the world at bay, like the shopgirl in Chungking Express who blares out “California Dreaming” as a wall of noise against a grubby reality. Wong’s vocabulary of images and ideas, his unique way of filtering them through storytelling conceits that seemed somehow hip and quaint all at once, essayed through one of the most virile, formalistically confident eyes in contemporary film.
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Wong briefly stepped out of his familiar mode with a take on the wu xia genre with the epic Ashes of Time (1995, revised 2007), but that film, which had a troubled production, proved a typically hallucinatory, internalised revision on that style, with Wong distorting it to suit his own mood rather than vice versa. His shift into a semi-historical perspective on his key concerns with In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), presented mesmeric studies in shifting cultural paradigms, his singular men and manifold women living and drowning in seas of neon-lit, corrosive emotions, which clearly continued his favourite themes but now accented them through a love of nostalgic artifice. His most famous characters, the suffering twosome of In the Mood for Love, refused to succumb to amoral pleasures in a quietly upending age, and finished up wounding themselves, but got on with the painful business of living. The general critical failure of Wong’s U.S. excursion My Blueberry Nights (2006) after 2046’s mixed response nonetheless demanded Wong retreat and reorientate. The Grandmaster sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended, The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.
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The grandmaster of the title is Ip Man, a figure with folk-hero lustre in Hong Kong for popularising the Wing Chun kung-fu style and, amongst many students, most famously taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man has already been the subject of films and TV series, including a pair of popular recent films starring Donnie Yen. But in Wong’s hands, Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) proves as much mediating viewpoint, conceptual linchpin, and witness to an era’s passions and tragedies as he is protagonist. Wong’s film ultimately becomes more akin to a heroic epic in the original sense, in that it’s partly about the deaths and births of nations, in this case the severance of modern China from its past, and the creation of modern Hong Kong. Wong tests Ip Man’s folk-hero status less by de-romanticising him than by studying the forces that create such figures and bury others. Thus, Wong turns the stuff of paperback heroism into raw material for one of his elusively poetic meditations on time and fate.
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Whereas Wong’s early, young characters were always nagged by ennui, because of their sense of disconnection from the past, his later, older ones are always haunted by its contradictory loss and simultaneous, unavoidable influence on the present. Ip becomes one of Wong’s dreamer exiles, first glimpsed engaged in spectacular battle with challengers on the streets of his native city of Foshan, possibly in the course of his actual job, which was as a policeman. The opening credits see architectural and decorative patterns and inky credits warp and dissolve in water, introducing the film’s constant motif of water as visual conduit for time, whilst the fight takes place before a set of iron gates that become a recurring image invoking Ip’s life and losses. Ip is glimpsed in a bar pronouncing the essence of Kung Fu: “Two words. Horizontal. Vertical. Make a mistake—horizontal. Stay standing, and you win.”
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This essentialist formula for fighting could make an equally good one for life in general, and Wong proceeds with that very assumption, albeit in a fashion that explores the different ways one can win and lose, fail and fight. Wong immediately depicts the more thrilling version, as he starts his film in the midst of a violent melee. Ip smashes his way through a dozen street toughs, including one fearsome opponent, Tiexieqi (Cung Le), who squares off with him in a one-on-one battle, the duo churning in the tempest like saurian beasts. This scene is an ecstatic deployment of cuts and camera moves, rendered in stark, near-monochrome colours: shots alternate blindingly fast moves and slow-motion close-ups of hands, feet, clothing, raindrops, broken glass, and walloping blows. A rickshaw is hilariously crushed by the simultaneous blows of Ip and his opponent, and the enemy finishes up sprawled on a toppled iron gate, flattened by a fearsome flying kick by Ip, who then strides away tugging the rim of his jaunty white hat like a Chinese version of a Bogart hero, confirmed in his Herculean talents. Other battles like this recur throughout The Grandmaster, but they’re largely untethered to any specific sense of narrative cause and effect. They are, rather, sufficient unto themselves as islets of furious action, displays of the physical genius of Ip and “Razor” Yixiantian (Chang Chen), exiles from the Mainland now surviving in the urban wilderness of mid-century Hong Kong, more depictions of their existential situations than battles for any real end. Wong’s fragmentation of the fights into impressionistic affairs turns the battlers into cosmic forces, working upon beads of water and other objects in the same way history at large works on these people.
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Wong sets up a dialogue between his narrative in shifting between Hong Kong in the mid ’50s, and mainland China in the late ‘30s, when Ip, a citizen of Foshan and then on the cusp of his forties, first gained real fame in the martial arts community when he was chosen to represent the loose confederacy of southern Chinese martial arts schools against a northern fighter. Ip’s voiceover says that at the time, we was in the long spring of his life as a wealthy family man married to the lovely Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo), who watches over her husband with a solicitous, indulgent eye and is described as “a woman of few words, because she knew their power.” But the stability of his life was counterpointed by his accomplishment as a martial artist, having been anointed as a promising figure in his youth by the aged founder of the Wing Chun school, Chan Wah-Shun (illustrious director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping).
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The challenge from the north is brought by a potentate of martial artistry and the values attendant to it, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Gong unified northern schools into a federation and has nominated formidable protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his successor. But he still plans to duel a southerner himself, as he believes Ma San is too aggressive and hungry to make a name for himself. Ip volunteers as a challenger in noting that he’s a comparative nobody, but his challenge is accepted because the battle in the rain has gained him notoriety. His nomination as champion is controversial as he’s still largely unproven as a fighter, and he’s rigorously challenged by fellow southern experts to make sure he can handle the various northern styles. Gong himself has a young daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who’s learned her clan’s famed “64 hands” technique, but whom her father wants to become a doctor and avoid the sometimes brutal world he inhabits.
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The film’s early scenes, taking place in 1937, are set almost entirely within the Republic House, a brothel nicknamed the Gold Pavilion by clientele, which the southern Kung Fu adherents frequent as a kind of clubhouse and occasional field of battle. Wong’s recreation of the vanished world of classy, institutional bawdyhouses and the martial arts fraternity is similar in mood to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s studies of fin-de-siècle moods and aesthetics in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2006). In contrast to Hou’s static panoramas, however, Wong’s rendering is replete with dreamlike, elliptical and obtuse framings that suggest the bustle and intimacy of this world, as well as its claustrophobic, clannish qualities. Wong’s camera is as happy caressing the hems of dresses and shoes of its characters, like noting the tiny bound feet of the Peking Opera artist who gives Ip one of his tests wearing dainty boots that belie her amazing athleticism and skill, as it is recording the fearsome speed and detail of the fighting styles. The ornate atmosphere is violated when fights take place, as when Ma San swats aside several southerners who try to challenge Gong, sending them crashing through walls and down stairwells, or flipping them right around with casual contempt. Ip prizes precision above all things in kung fu, a trait that serves him largely well in fights that take place within the stately confines of the Gold Pavilion, but which later foils him in a telling fashion.
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When the time comes for his fight with Gong, however, Ip finds the master has more than a mere match of physical skill in mind. He poses a problem that demands philosophical rigour as well—to try to break a cake Gong holds and simultaneously ponder the dumpling as a symbol for China itself and the martial arts community’s place in it, as the pressure of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the flailing responses from the Kuomintang seem destined to cause the south to secede. Ip succeeds in snapping the cake and answers the riddle by dismissing its precept, in arguing that their kind can look beyond their own borders and consider the world their field of interest. There’s a clever confluence here, in anticipating the effect Ip’s ideas would have on the international popularity of kung fu, whilst also paying heed to a great genre motif of posing a challenge to the young would-be master that’s as much spiritual and intellectual as physical. Gong warns Ip that his victory will make him famous and a target because everyone will want to fight him. He’s immediately confronted by Gong Er, who is determined to regain her family’s honour. Thus, another great stock figure of wu xia enters the tale, or rather two: the vengeful offspring of a defeated champion and the plucky female warrior wanting to prove herself in the arena.
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Wong assiduously deconstructs these figures, but also elevates Gong Er’s conflation of them to a status of classical tragic heroine. When the old men who patronise her suggest her predicament is the will of heaven, she retorts with razor-sharp contempt, “Maybe I am the will of heaven,” a statement of tremendous pith but also hubris on her part, highlighting the tragic theme most precisely. Unsurprisingly for a director who has tended in the past to luxuriate in his actresses as both performers and imagistic fetishes, particularly the veritable harem of 2046, to a degree scarcely seen since the heady days of Sternberg and Dietrich, Zhang soon becomes the magnetic pole of the film. Gong Er and Ip’s battle in the Gold Pavilion sees martial arts mastery take on cryptic sexual qualities, bringing the equally talented man and woman into the most startling intimacy possible without any actual erotic contact, faces brushing within millimetres of each other as their bodies orbit, gravity made nonsense by their will and skill. Gong Er technically bests Ip by forcing him to land heavily on a step and break it, thus violating his own rule, and the two part seemingly as friendly equals. They are haunted thereafter by recollections of the fight and its dreadful intimacy, and they continue to correspond in planning a return bout for which Ip will head north, even buying his wife a coat for a winter journey. But the outbreak of new war soon sees Ip lose his two daughters, his money and home, his wife, and finally, his country.
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Many of Wong’s films are close to being omnibus works, collections of interlocked short stories in which elements mirror and repeat with algorithmic variations, with characters and situations that comment on each other sometimes in isolated episodes and other times in counterpoint. The Grandmaster is looser in this regard, as his shifts of time zone and focal character are less formally precise, in keeping with a story that works more as a chain of vignettes than a linear account. Although Wong certainly tells a story, he privileges loose ends and fragmentary insights as much as he does the core plot, justified by the nature of his tale and his essential point about Ip Man as an avatar for an age that tore societies to shreds. People are lost to time and memory. Both Ip’s wife and children are ripped away from him by war, and the world he knew disintegrates under the pressure of history, which he describes as going from spring to winter in one moment. Wong’s filmmaking follows suit, as he leaves behind the amber tints and fraternal bosom of the Gold Pavilion for visions of Gong Er standing in snowy vistas and riding steam trains bustling with industrial-age power. Gong Er encounters Razor, a nationalist spy and another superlatively talented warrior who’s been wounded and is trying to hide from Japanese soldiers searching the train that’s taking Gong Er to medical school. Gong Er pretends to be Razor’s sweetheart, and, once the soldiers leave, Razor and Gong Er share a charged moment of tactile communion before he flees.
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Wong employs film references galore throughout The Grandmaster, and this scene particularly recalls Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), except with Gong Er the willing saviour rather than randomly chosen target in fake romantic contact to throw off pursuers; hints of Brief Encounter (1945) percolate as well. Here, as elsewhere in the film, however, Wong employs melodrama tropes only to fracture them and study them like facets of hallucinatory beauty and artifice, creating a romantic dream expostulated in fetishized textures: the ice on the window, the blood dripping from the seat and caking Razor’s hands as he fondles Gong Er’s fur coat, all forming a moment of distilled fantasy-nostalgia. Razor never becomes a major protagonist like Ip and Gong Er in spite of his seeming lode of lethal cool and ability; rather he becomes a contrapuntal figure to both, finding a niche for himself later in Hong Kong as a barber and pacifier who keeps gangsters from taking control of the street. But Razor never gains the kind of status Ip does in spite of his action-hero background. Wong here ventures into territory similar to Quentin Tarantino (a fan and proponent) as he invokes the metatextual nature that often inflects genre storytelling, particularly in wu xia, based in a common pool of mythology, with characters transgressing the boundaries of tales and tellers and gaining some life of their own. Razor, who could be the hero of his own story, becomes a memorable bit player in Gong Er’s, just as she is one in Ip’s legend as Wong tells it. Gong Er’s own fate is bound up with her fervent need to prove herself a worthy vessel for her clan’s legacy.
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When Ma San became a collaborator with the Japanese, Gong disowned him and the two fought, with Ma San killing the old man. Gong Er was aggrieved and further stung by the requests of her father’s clansmen and adherents that she desist from reprisal. Only her bodyguard and clan loyalist Jiang (Tielong Shang), sticks by her. She asked for a sign whilst praying in a temple if her father approved of her desire for vengeance, at the price of giving up all other worldly fulfilments, and received it in the form of a candle burning before a Buddha statue. Wong certainly offers everything one could hope for in the mode of a romantic-action epic. There’s a tale of unrequited love, thunderous fights, a grand revenge saga, a strident bad guy, a determined revenger, a vast scope, and extraordinary vistas portraying an exotic, lost world. Only Wong breaks it all with his conceptual hammer and then pastes it back together as pulp travesty transformed into poetic saga—and yet there’s reality behind even some of the film’s more romantic conceits. Gong Er, for instance, is based on a woman who shot a warlord in the back after 10 frustrating years of seeking revenge against him for killing her father. Such touches confirm the sensation that there’s another element in play here, detectable even without reading interviews with Wong that confirm it: he’s trying to recreate the Hong Kong he grew up in, where men and women with legendary pasts had retreated into hidey-holes in their new home, getting on with the banal business of living. Because of the outlawing of the martial arts schools by the Maoist government in 1949, all of the masters vacated en masse for Hong Kong.
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One might contrast Wong’s investigation of this fecund theme with a far less imaginative film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which could only state, not find dramatic irony in the fact that its irrepressible real-life protagonists finished up running a Brooklyn trucking firm. Wong takes a step further back than In the Mood for Love and 2046, films which achingly recreated the Hong Kong of Wong’s youth in the brief time of pacific grace between the Maoist triumph in China and the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia and looks to the even crueller crucible of the age before, transmuted via legendary characters. Characters like Jiang, who was once an imperial executioner (and the character in The Grandmaster who most clearly looks like a classic wu xia stock figure), and Gong Yutian’s contemporary and fellow in pre-Republic revolutionary assassination Ding Lianshan (Benshan Zhao), harken back even further to the forces that dragged China into the modern age. Crucial to the film’s structure is the disparity as well as the attraction between Ip and Gong Er: whereas Ip obeys the precepts of his Wing Chun creed and keeps moving forward in spite of awful loss, Gong Er renders herself a prisoner to the past. Wong underscores the mirroring in Ip and Razor’s experiences by depicting both in thrilling, visceral battles in the rain, except that where Ip’s fight is bloodless, Razor has to contend with assassins trying to knife him. Shots of blood falling into rainwater and sullying it communicate the essence of a more primal, brutal aspect to Razor’s experiences, as he’s pushed from nationalist patriot to lone-wolf survivor in the Hong Kong street.
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Wong, who spent a year obsessively editing this film, finally turned in a rapturous mural of oneiric images, all carrying the powerful sensatory charge of sights, sounds, even scents recalled from a past just over the horizon: the whole thing could be an opium hallucination breathed in by Gong Er in her declining days, much like one of its evident models, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Grandmaster is feverishly drunk on its own highly romantic, deeply aestheticized take on a lost past. Undoubtedly for wu xia aficionados there are references and genre tropes aplenty here to masticate, but its cinematic language and references are far wider. Its closest relative in recent western filmmaking as a realm of thundering steam trains, stylised elemental extremes, and fervent human feeling, was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), and David Lean seems a point of common reference. But whereas Wright’s film was dancelike and theatrical, Wong’s is at once dense and aerated, musical in texture.
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The opening fight sequence seems to take up the gauntlet thrown down by a great scene in Yimou’s Hero (2002) where action, rain, and music entwined in a synergistic dance. Indeed the stylistic gauntlet Yimou threw down with his deliriously stylised wu xia movies has remained a standing challenge for action filmmakers worldwide since, as Yimou turned his artful eye to aestheticizing genre precepts with Hero and House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with formalistic brilliance and purified, archaic, thematic concerns. Wong’s aims are ultimately different: he doesn’t offer patriotic apologia as Yimou did in Hero, nor create an uncomfortable crossbreed as Yimou did in The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), but rather meditates on the nature of modern peace as a catharsis bought by conspicuously ignoring the horrors of the recent past. Wong confirms his debt to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America by including a music cue from that delirious saga, but the kinship is equally signalled by shared traits and motifs, like railway stations, exile, and opium as both plot devices and style keys. Indeed, if Tsui Hark hadn’t already claimed the title, Once Upon a Time in China might have made a good name for this film.
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Where Leone and Lean were sleek, spacious, classical stylists even when adopting elliptical storytelling devices, however, Wong is situated in some post-Impressionist zone, piecing together his vision in points and patches of colour and light. Wong manages to produce a film that is both intensely thoughtful, replete with sequences of quiet intensity that nonetheless remains in near constant motion, achieving a kind of ecstatic flux that can, like a great kung fu fighter, shift from any stance to another with ease. The beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is both heightened and undercut by Wong’s fast-paced, occasionally enigmatic, eliding approach to cutting. Potentially languorous tracking shots are constantly cut off mid-flow, and early scenes are filled with vertiginous barricades between figures within frames, capturing the hermetic aspects of the time and place, as esoteric soup recipes and ancient creeds have their last moments of exacting consequence. One recurring shot depicts two fighters facing off with one centre-frame, the other circling into the shot closer to the camera, and the cut coming as they block out the opponent, cumulatively creating a tension and amplifying the sense of physical intricacy. Conversely, when he’s shooting fights, Wong becomes fiendishly precise, opposite to most other contemporary filmmakers, often alternating from eye-level shots to high, overhead views in obedience to the lateral-horizontal precepts of Ip’s philosophy.
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Leone’s influence is particularly strong in the nominal climax, in a railway station on New Year’s Eve, 1940, when Gong Er finally ambushed Ma San and taunted him into a duel. Wong partly spoils his own climax with a flash-forward already depicting Gong Er in 1952, a cagey, still-beautiful but frail and haunted woman who resists Ip’s entreaties to teach him the 64 hands technique. Her battle with Ma San, the culmination of her campaign of payback, is an instant classic and indeed perhaps the best individual sequence in any movie of the past 10 years. Similar to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), it commences with a long wait in the railway station as Gong Er studies flames in a brazier whilst Jiang sits on the platform, drifting in a wintry reverie where even the flicker of light bulbs and the swirl of snowflakes seem invested with ineluctable sense of momentous forces gathering: Gong Er strides through steam and smoke like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), anointed as a titanic hero. In her furious bout with Ma San, they badly wound each other. Ma San seems to come out the worse, as he ricochets off a moving train and is left sprawled on the platform, admitting defeat and allowing Gong Er her moment of triumph. But when she returns home, she coughs up blood and faints in a shot of deeply morbid ecstasy.
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Wong provides the pay-off for the grand revenge saga the audience expects, but with a radical tweak that fulfils a note many other action films only suggest. For Gong Er, her defeat of Ma San is the highpoint of her life, a moment after which everything else, thanks to her vows, can only be addendum, anti-climax, and wastage. The Grandmaster‘s concluding passages are a return to classic Wong territory as it reduces its vast tapestry to a portraitist study in frustrated romantic melancholy, as Gong Er and Ip Man encounter each other in Hong Kong. Gong Er confesses her pained and resigned desire for Ip, whilst never releasing herself from the strictures of her vows, and a button, saved from the winter coat Ip bought for his wife for their planned trip north, becomes the orphaned relic of their mutual desire. Ziyi’s face, tearful and yet perfectly composed, becomes at last a pool of wan splendour, calmly studied after the furious onrush of the film preceding this moment. Gong Er dissolves like a dream in a welter of opium and visions of herself as an impossibly perfect girl practising her moves like a dancer in the snow. Ip finds himself stranded in the present tense, taunted by his own emotional imperfection and losses, with his wife dying on the mainland, separated from him by more than water or politics. Nonetheless, he survives, artfully clobbering his way to preeminence in Hong Kong and becoming mentor for a new generation. Undoubtedly, The Grandmaster might prove a frustrating experience for viewers expecting a traditionally structured story that delivers familiarly neat character arcs and studious explication. Indeed, Wong’s original concept was just such a movie. But the finished film is a different, far more adventurous success, a bold, extraordinarily executed fusion of approaches that adds up to a genuinely great cinema experience.

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