Monday, April 12, 2010

Hero and House of Flying Daggers

I recently watched two films directed by Zhang Yimou. (Checked out from the local library.)

The first was Hero, which was an interesting Chinese tribute to the Japanese film Rashōmon. Gone were the vagueness and non-linearity. Instead each successive version of the story was slightly more truthful until the full truth became clear--a truth that shone out of the story to effect both the storyteller and his royal audience.

Hero seems to me to be pure spectacle. It had striking use of colors, amazing sets, nice music, careful use of sound, and not much else. The plot and characters were shallow and not engaging, but saying so is as petty as complaining that an oil painting's frame is bland compared to the painting itself.

The fight scenes were nearly all one-on-one duels that failed to grab me: the action moved too quickly for me to easily follow, all but one duel was between nearly evenly matched opponents so I could not appreciate mastery versus "normal" skill, and none featured fun exotic weapons.

The only philosophy discussed is the tension between two definitions of peace. The peace from wholeness and wellness (what I would call shalom) is very different than the peace from societal uniformity (what I would call the pax of Pax Romana). But this tension is barely explored. Only one character achieves personal shalom and even after he does he lives among vengeful and angry friends; a community with shalom is never presented as a viable possibility.

Apparently the film was very successful in trying to do what it attempted. Its spectacle is wondrous, and it earned a lot both in China and elsewhere.

I find that Hero has increasing rewatch appeal. Late at night, after Smiley is in bed, I am often in a mood conducive to pleasant spectacle. But I have not actually watched it again to test if the rewatch-value is real.

YouTube has my two favorite scenes: the duel at the go house and the storming the palace scene (start the latter at 4:28). Do you agree that the use of color, wonderful sets, and music and sound completely overshadow the fight choreography?

The second film was The House of Flying Daggers. It also uses color artfully. But it is a much different and more traditional martial arts film. The focus is not on the sets and spectacle, but the characters and metaphor. The action scenes are more interesting: slower, more varied, more intricate, more intense.

The metaphor behind the plot of The House of Flying Daggers is an standard issue in Chinese philosophy. Honor and duty are valued above passion and in some ways oppose passion, but to create art and beauty some passion is needed: how should duty and passion coexist?

The film's answer is thought provoking. It asserts that duty and passion should not compete to woo beauty. Beauty is too consuming: neither fit to judge between them nor safe to be grasped. When duty and passion cooperate in work they share skill and art; when they compete over beauty both suffer.

Most martial arts films that have a metaphor behind the plot end with most or all of the main characters dying. Notably, The House of Flying Daggers does not. The final scene (here on YouTube) is blatantly metaphorical as the two warriors fight from Autumn until Winter, ignoring their previous emotional bonds and physical wounds, with the duel ending not in a winner's victory but as the warriors stumble apart after a shared loss. Duty and passion do not kill each other, but are weakened as they try to claim beauty until they realize they cannot.

This film was also apparently successful at what it attempted. Many reviewers did not even look for, let alone appreciate, metaphor behind the story. But the other film's strengths were widely appreciated.

So far I have no desire to rewatch The House of Flying Daggers. I probably will later. Eventually I will yearn to revisit the elaborate dance and fight scenes.

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