Thursday, November 16, 2017

Double trouble - Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and the Assassin

Based on the film by King Hu, Dragon Gate Inn (1966), Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a 2011 film directed by Tsui Hark and was the first Chinese language film to be made in 3D, as well as grossing over $100 million at the box office.
After watching the first film, I can say that the film was… quite different from the original.  Very different, indeed.  Though some of the elements were the same, namely the inn itself, the setting/time period, and part of the title, but those are generally the only things that stay relatively similar.  It took a completely different direction from the very beginning at the film and became exceptionally flashy (gaudy?) in terms of special effects and action sequences, perhaps nearly overdone.  Though, it was so outrageous at times that it was a bit spectacular, but too much of one thing is never a good idea.
Unfortunately, I think that Tsui Hark tried a bit to add too many different parties and characters into the once-simple framework, creating a somewhat rushed narrative with too many (unnecessary) side plots with not too much of an emphasis on any one character, save perhaps Zhao Huai’an and his imposter/love interest but those too felt hastened.  Most of the characters in the film felt as if they had… little significance within the plot, therefore ultimately distracting and deviating far from the original concept.  Many of the characters were killed off relatively quickly with little or no emotional connection being established between them or the audience, so it seemed of little relevance to those who viewed it and failed to wring out any tears or much sadness.  
The use of 3D (or lack of thereof in the viewing that I saw) seemed to be more of a distraction rather than something used to help propel the story in any sort of way or fashion, as it seemed to be used for nothing more than “something in a fight scene will fly at the camera to make the audience recoil just a little bit more.”  It also seemed to be prevalent only near the beginning and the end of the film, and was mostly forgotten during the middle sections from what I could tell.
I was also heavily disappointed at the writing of the pregnant courtesan, as it felt as if there was little (if any) signs or warning that would point at her betrayal, and it seemed as if it was just thrown in there as a feeble attempt to push the plot further to create even more potential action and drama.  That could have been a very emotional and shocking moment if the character had been developed further, but all of her writing up to then portrayed her as little more than a nuisance plot device-y stereotypical clumsy damsel in distress.  
The ending in particular was exceptionally abrupt and brought little, if any closure to the story and felt as if it was shunted in at the last moment as a final attempt to bring the now-convoluted film together, but fell short and seemed too off-the-wall.  It even ignored the original main characters and instead shifted the finale to two of the secondary (or even tertiary) characters in their escapades, but I do not quite see why that had to be done.  
For the sake of it being an important landmark in Chinese cinema, I will recommend this film, but I do not see much other reason to watch it otherwise and would definitely recommend the original over this.  It had a lot of potential, but the film got caught up in trying to capture too many little things rather than focusing on the main, big picture and therefore fell short of its expected quality.

The Assassin is a film done by Hou Hsiao-hsien in 2015, and was nominated in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where Hsiao-hsien subsequently won the Best Director award.  It is a beautiful film in terms of design and color.
that does not necessarily equate it to being a watchable film by any means.  The film’s plot is… complex, sufficiently so that a summary of the plot is necessary via very slow monologue part ways through the film (which was still unnecessarily slow and drawn out, therefore making the audience more confused in the end).  On top of that, I accidentally ending up falling asleep (at multiple points for a few minute spans at a time), but that can be attributed to my potential lack of sleep from the night before, but most of it was due to the snail-like pace of the nature of the film.  
One could argue that the hyperextended held shots during many points during the film were for the artistic value, so that the audience could really take in the radiance of the beautiful settings and stillness, but sometimes it was so extended that some of the shots seemed to pass the threshold of having an artistic element and instead becomes material for a masturbatory ego-trip for the director.  Perhaps it was not my taste, but if many shots are overtly too long, then it will no longer feel special at all since there will be nothing (short) to contrast it with.  Perhaps I would derive more excitement and enjoyment from a photograph in comparison to some of the scenes from this film.
The film itself also seemed to lose a lot of potential writing opportunities with the main character, Nie Yinniang, as halfway through the film I simply… stopped caring about her and what happened to her.  It stopped being intriguing after the end of the black and white sequence, introduced a love plot (?) and then just got... confusing.  Amazingly, for such a dreadfully slow film, the ending felt rushed and confusing.  I do not know how they managed that, but they did.  I was disappointed to see the end of the film end so abruptly as it almost felt like a huge letdown, especially after sitting through the whole film for a generally unsatisfying ending.  
Though this is a wuxia styled film, there was very minimal scenes in there and them being so… short… it is a wonder to ask why this is even labeled as wuxia in the first place.  The battles were ended short and abruptly, but perhaps that was the beauty of those battles; ones that would be settled at the beginning versus a long a flashy fight sequence.  
That being said, the visuals, color design, and the framing of the film was absolutely magical and dreamlike, as Hsiao-hsien somehow captured the splendor and wonder of these empty and delightfully barren landscapes.  The dark costume of Nie Yinniang contrasting beautifully against the muted and colorful natural and created sets.  Each of these areas were skillfully captured, with each of their settings encapsulating a specific mood and tone that made the visual splendor even more vibrant.  My favorite scene was probably the scene where Yinniang visits her master, Jiaxin, on the cliffside near the end of the film.  Somehow, the clearing of the fog/cloud bank, revealing the landscape behind Jiaxin… I do not know how long it took for him to capture that moment on film, but it definitely is one of the most beautiful shots I have seen in cinema.  I cannot acutely describe my emotions during that scene, but it captured something amazing that I will not forget anytime soon.
Would I watch this again?  Maybe with a good amount of sleep the previous night and with a refreshed mind.  Perhaps subsequent viewings would allow for a greater appreciation of the film and a breakthrough of realizations and ideas missed on the first run.  Or, it would again feel dragged out, or even moreso now that I know the general flow of the film.  It is a very beautiful film in appearance… but that really seems to be the main thing that goes for it.  I am not sure if I would be able to recommend this film to many of my friends in good conscience, other than for the sake of the awe-invoking and beautiful visuals.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Triple Feature episode 2: Flirting Scholar, Swordsman, House of Flying Daggers

Flirting Scholar is a 1993 comedy film directed by Stephen Chow, and the only word that can adequately describe it is absurd.  Completely and totally off the wall, pure, unadulterated insanity, the plot was whimsical and did not take itself seriously whatsoever, yet it was extremely fun to watch and hilarious, even with the language barrier.  That being said, this was probably the most enjoyable film that I have seen in this class as of yet, followed only by Drunken Master.  This film never failed to raise up my expectations for what to come next, then take a comedic turn, going off on an unexpected path and therefore eliciting laughs.  By no means was this film needlessly random with jokes thrown into the fray with no sense of correlation or direction, but it seemed to have a perfectly logical (yet completely insane) flow to the film itself.  Perhaps this is why the film worked so well; it was completely random in terms of humor but not random in terms of execution.  Since this film was so… unique in its style, I do really want to find more of Stephen Chow’s films and see if the absurdity in those will match up to the ones present in Flirting Scholar.

Originally directed by King Hu, Swordsman is a 1990 film based on the one of Louis Cha’s novels.  From what I hear, the source material for this movie was very lengthy, so the fact that they managed to fit it into a two hour epic is somewhat amazing.  Unfortunately, I thought the film was a bit lackluster, though it did have its high points.  Since the source material was so dense, only the most important of parts could be put into the film, leading to a lot of skipping over many parts, allowing things like skips in time, or characters gaining knowledge or experience in very short portions of time and things in that vein.  The intermitterary portions where the characters began to sing the Xiaoao Jianghu was a bit… oddly placed too, and I could not really figure out the significance of the piece, but perhaps this too is due to the editing of the material.
However, the fight scenes were pretty interesting in terms of how the characters fought, especially Linghu Chong after he learns from Feng Qingyang, as instead of simply leaping from place to place, he instead does some of acrobatic spinning which looks really impressive in execution.  I am sad that King Hu did leave in the middle of production, since his meticulous attention to detail could have really pushed this film to a whole different level, I would like to think.

Directed by Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers is a 2004 film, and probably the most visually appealing film in the class as of yet.  The masterful usage of color schemes and art directions are exceptionally uncommon in the films that I have seen, so this was a very welcome change of pace.  The sheer amount of care put into each shot is easily felt and I can thoroughly appreciate that.  The part that stood out the most to me was probably the finale, since the colors and really using the setting as a way to change the mood of the film was phenomenal, in my opinion.  Changing from a forest to a warmly lit forest, to the withering beauty of the fall colors of the open field, and finally to the nearly bone-white and pillar-like birch(?) trees where Captain Jin waits for Mei; such a beautiful use of colors, with their beautiful costumes contrasting nicely against the colors of the backdrop.

My major qualm with this film was the editing though.  Some of the scenes lasted much longer than they needed to, having the unfortunate side effect of sometimes turning serious scenes into ones that were awkwardly humorous.  It was not like a “hold this scene for a long time to make the audience more intimate with the characters” sort of scene, but ones that just felt as if they overstayed their welcome.  That, and the film seemed to take itself too seriously in the romance, which also added an unfortunate humorous element to the film.  Romance in itself is never an unwelcome element in a film based around fighting, but the execution in this was something else entirely. However, if any out there are sticklers for color usage in film, I would highly, highly recommend this film.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Triple Feature: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the Big Boss, and Drunken Master

For this post, I will focus on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), the Big Boss (1971), and the Drunken Master (1978).

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a Shaw Brothers' film, directed by Liu Chia-Liang and starring Gordon Liu.   Following the revenge story of a student who becomes a monk, it is a very masculine film, focusing heavily on shirtless, muscular men with a lack of female roles.  That is not to say that this film is bad in any way, shape, or form, but simply a note about the characters present in the film.  Since some of the film did take place on the Shaw Brothers' studio lot(?), I did notice some recurring places, the teahouse/shop in particular, from previous films such as One-Armed Swordsman, but they did a much better job of capturing a more "natural" feel than its predecessor in terms of lighting and setting up props in those areas.

I especially enjoyed the use of the training montage that showcased the titular character's transformation into a monk over a span of six years, as it followed the development from a run-of-the-mill student into one of the strongest monks at the Shaolin temple.  Since this also showed the blood, sweat, and tears being put into this period of time, it also made me as a viewer more sympathetic and impressed at the character's transformation into a seemingly unstoppable force of nature.  I do feel as though the losing battles between the monastery's Justice Officer was the most exciting part of the film, which was a shame since it was placed in the center of the plot since no one was as strong as him afterwards.Though the final battle was a bit... lackluster, in my opinion, in comparison to the happenings at the Shaolin temple, it was still a somewhat fitting end for the film.

The Big Boss, a Golden Harvest film, directed by Lo Wei.  Probably the most exciting martial arts film I've seen to date, it felt more realistic than any of the films before it, probably due to the case that Bruce Lee and Han Ying-Chieh were actual practitioners of martial arts, and it definitely showed through the fight sequences showcasing their abilities, choreography, and varied cinematic shots.  However, the thing that probably stuck the most out to me was the leitmotif(?) for the charm that Cheng Chao-An (Bruce Lee) held, using it as a sort of reminder to not fight. Whenever it would appear, an unnaturally uplifting and happy theme would play, instantly destroying any of the tension that may have been established in that scene previously.  Though it only appeared a few times through the first half of the film, it seemed to break the immersion that the film had earlier.

I also was not sure how to feel about the portrayal of Chiao Mei (Maria Yi) in the story.  It was a bit uncomfortable to watch at times knowing that they were cousins, but moreover, the fact that Chiao Mei was simply a damsel in distress and nothing more than a plot device was quite disappointing, to say the least.   I hoped that she would have a larger role, but alas, she did not in the end.

Finally, we end with the Drunken Master, a very comedic martial arts film starring Jackie Chan.  Probably out of all the films for far, this was the most enjoyable one yet.  Perhaps it was due to Jackie Chan's unique fighting style, taking advantage of whatever is in the environment around him, or perhaps it was the almost nonsensical and generally whimsical plot (with serious elements mixed in at the right parts), while always maintaining interesting fights and training montages.  From an overconfident boy to an... overconfident boy with a drinking problem, it was an interesting and hilarious character arc to watch, while still retaining the fidelity to the underlying serious plot.  I am glad that Jackie Chan managed to develop himself as a comedic performer, since I really cannot see him in many other roles unlike this. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

One-Armed Swordsman

One-Armed Swordsman is the first of many films in the soon to follow One-Armed Swordsman series.  Released in 1967, directed by Chang Cheh, and starring Jimmy Wang, it features the titular character who loses his arm and proceeds to unleash madness upon those who attempt to stand in his way.
Though this is a Chang Chen film, I did see a some parts taking inspiration from King Hu's Come Drink With Me, one of the more notable scenes being the tea-hut (?) scene drawing parallels to the tavern scene.
This is not to say that Chang Cheh's filmmaking style is like King Hu's; it is anything but.  His heavy emphasis on blood and violence is one of the many traits that make it unique, and truth be told, it was quite amusing at times.  Though, sometimes the characters' thought processes on choosing to repeat the exact same mistakes that would lead to them dying over and over, nearly becoming comedic at the end did make the movie somewhat hilarious.
However, that is not to say that this is not an enjoyable film, but one may need to suspend their beliefs for many a plot point in order to do so.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Final Reflections

Before I began learning about King Hu, I honestly knew nothing about him, nor did I ever hear of him or the films that he made.  If anything, i had no idea how much of an impact that he had on the industry, or even that the wuxia genre was actually a genre of film.  However, as I finish this course, I know a whole lot of everything about King Hu’s life, nearly all of his major productions, and most importantly, his impact on Chinese cinema and cinematography that came after his work.  Honestly speaking, now that I know how large and important of a director that he was, I am exceptionally surprised that his name made it under the radar and is generally unknown to many moviegoers, myself included.  
Out of all of King Hu’s films, I enjoyed A Touch of Zen, the Valiant Ones, and Come Drink with Me.  For A Touch of Zen, it was fast and action-filled, had beautiful cinematography, and had a gorgeous setting.  The Valiant Ones had an interesting plot, tactical warfare, amazing skills for the characters, and the cinematography really emphasized the action.  Come Drink with Me had a gracefully strong lead, interesting characters, and decent cinematography.  For me, I enjoyed these films due to the actors present in the film, the action scenes present, and the cinematography made it all stand out.
However, there were also films that I didn’t really enjoy nearly as much.  Dragon Inn, the Fate of Lee Khan, and Painted Skin are unfortunately on this list.  Dragon Inn had a dull and bare setting, a lack of color, and drolled on without much happening.  The Fate of Lee Khan had a nearly excessive amount of deaths, another colorless setting, and easily interchangeable characters.  Painted Skin’s plot was confusing and had a lot of scenes where nothing too important happened, making it feel long.  My main issue with these films in particular were that they felt as if there was a whole of of nothing going on at times, and that the plots were usually abruptly ended without a fairly satisfying ending.
King Hu’s influence is easily seen in a variety of different mediums, not just limited to the wuixa-style martial arts films, but perhaps even present in other genres as well.  I can’t help but feel that this has also influenced a bit of Japanese tokusatsu, but I am not entirely sure about that.  Some of the scenes and the floaty jumps that traverse long distances seems to stem from King Hu’s special effects, but whether or not that is truly the case, I am not positive whether or not it is true.  The fact stands that his very floaty, moon-like gravity jumping is almost a necessary action present in modern-day martial arts films, and it was popularized by him, originally experimented with in Sons of Good Earth.
On the subject of influence, his martial arts choreography is one that is present in nearly every action film, regardless of region.  King Hu himself invented the position of “martial arts choreographer,” and basically invented the martial arts that are now present on the screen today, as they did not quite exist before his creation.  On top of that, King Hu has also brought varying degrees of fame to now well-known actors and actresses, in particular, Cheng Pei-pei, as seen from the dancing, almost trancelike fight scenes that were present in films, like Come Drink with Me.
However, his influence is definitely seen in other filmmaker’s films, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as seen from the whole bamboo grove fight sequence that was originally present in A Touch of Zen.  I feel as if this sort of scene is now almost a staple in most martial arts films, and has even made its way overseas as well, as I swear that I have seen this sort of scene before.  

Now that I have finished the instruction on the director study of King Hu, I am glad that I had the experience to take the class for it.  I have learned much about the martial arts cinema and the various aspects of the history and the influences for the genres/commonly used elements, and now I hope I can spread the knowledge of King Hu and the wuxia genre of cinematography.  Though it is different than the genres present in the rest of the world, it can be just as beautiful and moving as the films released overseas, and one should respect it for what it is and what it can do.  Ultimately, I hope that more people are exposed to the works of King Hu, as it is incredibly disappointing that a director of his stature is virtually unknown to most of the public, so I hope that I, along with the others who took the class, are able to spread the word.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Painted Skin

Finally, we finish with King Hu’s final film, Painted Skin, released in 1993.  For me, out of all of his films before, Painted Skin in particular felt extremely different and distant from those that came before it, almost reminiscent of older Japanese tokusatsu series, in terms of action, special effects, and sequences as a whole.  Though it was different, it was an interesting approach to storytelling, with elements of horror that were occasionally frightening at times. It was an interesting direction than just the styles that he had experimented with previously.
I really appreciated the contrasts of color in this film, in both scenery and characters.  Everything was fairly easy to distinguish between the “villains” and the “heroes,” so I thought that was pretty interesting.  
The special effects for the film as well, talking about the smoke in particular, was also very well done, in my opinion.  It really added a mysterious, surreal feeling to the film, which really aided in the ambiance of the experience as a whole.  It was creative of him to rewind the smoke effects that were expelled from the actor’s bodies/clothes, giving the impression as if they were being possessed by spirits. That, and the color play with the villain being portrayed as red smoke was also a creative choice.

Though in the end, I feel like King Hu could’ve added more of a conclusion, as it felt pretty abrupt and was quite confusing, the first time around.  Otherwise though, it was a fairly enjoyable experience and I would recommend King Hu fans to see it at least once.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

A change of pace from the normal King Hu films, this time we watched Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,  a film made in 2000.
After watching so many King Hu films, or rather, pre-2000 wuxia style films, seeing extremely choreographed fight scenes combined with state-of-the-art special effects made me really appreciate what the whole wuxia genre has finally become after so many years of experimentation and refining.  On top of having an interesting story and cast, the cinematography was also really beautiful and left me in awe with some of the scenery/sequences.  
With this film too, I realized that I had indadvertedly become a fan of the whole wuxia genre, if not being able to appreciate it a whole lot more.  The fight scenes in here, though some of them really did have like moon-like gravity sequences, were all really well done, and I sat in awe watching the warriors on the screen fight.  It was so well done, I could nearly mistake it to be real.  My favorite scenes were probably the chase in the castle walls and the large fight scene that came before it.  Both were really well done, and I was not able to tear my eyes away from the screen.  None can forget the unforgettable bamboo grove fight scene either, that too was amazing.
If anyone is a fan of a good story with a wuxia twist, or even someone interested into getting into the genre,  I would definitely recommend Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.