Monday, May 6, 2013

My attempt to endear Wu-Xia films

According to Wikipedia, Wu-Xia means Martial hero and is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. These movies usually feature much stylised fights and rely heavily on wire-work. Not all of them do, off course, because I think technically, even The 36th Chamber of Shaolin(1978) and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow(1978) should also count as Wu-Xia films but most of my limited sample set do. I have always had problems with wire work. Since I was a teenager, I’ve loved Jackie Chan’s films for the fact that he does all his stunts on his own; every single one of them. Now I don’t expect everyone to break all the bones in your body but I look for some level of realism even in stylised fights as in Wu-Xia films. Flying at the top of the roofs doesn’t come under my definition of it and this is where my tryst with these films starts. More often than not, it hinders my enjoyment of the movie. However I also must admit that there are very few Wu-Xia films that I have seen from start to finish in one attempt. So it is possible that I have made up my opinion on these movies without giving them a fair chance. Now that is never a good thing for any cinephile and hence I decided to remedy this by choosing three of the most popular and most acclaimed Wu-Xia movies in the last few years to litmus test them. If none of them charm me, I guess I’ll have to accept that it is just ‘not for me’.

First one I went for was director Yimou Zhang’s Hero(2002). After first few minutes of this movie, I realized I had seen this before but as I have mentioned above, there are many I have seen in parts. So I still watched it again just to confirm I have seen all of it. My first impression was, it is beautifully shot but extremely stylized and heavily wired. Very first fight between the mighty warrior and Sky within first 10 minutes of this movie is everything I don’t like about these movies. At one point, two warriors even fight with each other in their minds(WHAT?). Every single fight in the movie plays out in similar fashion but the worst culprit was the fight between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. That was almost like a joke I was supposed to laugh at but didn’t even bother to. It had rather melodramatic story but it still works. It has a great cast – Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi; probably all the traditional Chinese actors I can recognize by their faces and I can’t find anything to fault at their acting either. It is a little bit towards louder side than we are used to see in other western movies but having seen few more Chinese films, I know that is something that comes with the territory. I will even defend it, just like I’ll always defend songs in Indian films.

But it was the execution of it that ruined it for me; too heavy-handed for my test. It reminded me of The Fall(2006) – beautiful to look at, a couple of good performances but heavily flawed in the execution, though Hero at least has a much better story. It takes many dramatic turns in the second half to almost redeem itself and for that I am willing to it give it an extra star in my rating. If you don’t have a problem with wire work, with people flying at each other and walking on water etc., there is a good chance you might even end up liking it. From there, I went to what might be the most well-known Wu-Xia film to the outside world, Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000). Again very first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, though Yeoh doesn’t recognize her yet, is a curious specimen. It features heavy wire-work but when they are not flying on the roof tops or climbing over the walls, their fight shows a great technique, rhythm and pace i.e exactly what I like in these movies and it is shot beautifully. Soon it turned out to be a formula and I loved every bit of their fights when they weren’t flying. I still reserve my judgement on all the wire-work though.

With the help of good choreography and neat editing, one on one fights can have amazing flow and easily become spectacular without any high-flying; another case in point is Yeoh and Ziyi’s fight in Yeoh’s house which to me is any day better than Ziyi fighting in the tea house or Chow and Ziyi atop Bamboo trees. Initially, I wasn’t sure about Ziyi’s background in the film; even the dynamics between Governor Yu and Sir Te wasn’t clear and it was little confusing to follow all the events but slowly everything became clear. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has an incredibly complex and layered story and that probably is the reason it is revered all over. That certainly made it the best of three I saw for this post. At its soul, very much like any Chinese movie I have seen but still like nothing like I have seen before. Almost everyone plays their parts well but Michelle Yeoh was a standout in her very subdued, controlled demeanour. Zhang Ziyi shines equally in her role but it is a flashy role. Ang Lee probably could have cut off the whole Jen and Lo sub plot, or at least their flashback sequence since it didn’t add much to the bigger picture or at least edit it. Flashback let it loosen the grip on me and everything from that point drifted a little; I still haven’t understood the ending properly. 

Third and final stop of this journey was House of Flying Daggers(2004). Exquisite, lavish sets, beautiful costumes and breathtaking cinematography should be the first thing anyone would notice in this movie. Yimou Zhang once again proves that he was a photographer before with his images. But to tell you the truth, there is very little to mention that I haven’t already said besides that. Don’t get me wrong, just let me explain. This is second Yimou Zhang movie I saw in very close proximity, after Hero and my opinion of both the movies is very similar. In both cases, my main problem is egregious fighting sequences, defying all the laws of physics. Otherwise both the movies have great cast, good acting, decent story and stunning cinematography. Just like the former, House of Flying Daggers takes lot of turns in second half, many of which though worthy of a Bollywood masala movie, which help somewhat redeem itself from all the over-the-top action of the first half. It also featured Ziyi’s finest performance of the three.

To go back to why I started this entire circus, did I change my opinion about Wu-Xia films? My main problem with them has to do with wirework and still stand by my judgement. I still don’t like it. I didn’t like flying on the top of the roofs or fighting in each other’s mind or daggers like Jolie’s phantom bullet in Wanted(2008). But after these three films, I will also admit learning that it is not Just high-flying in them, there is much more to these movies beyond that and in some cases, they are even worth it despite all the antics. I am willing to check out few more and we can say that after all, not everything was in vain.

Rating(out of 5):
Hero                                                                                                                                          Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

                                                                            The House of Flying Daggers

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